The New Fundamentalism

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Eric Johnson, an endowed professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, came to a gathering organized to celebrate the release of his 716-page InterVarsity Press book on “soul care” and used the occasion to announce his early retirement from the seminary.  Some say seminary president Albert Mohler fired his endowed professor because Johnson believes that the findings of modern psychology can be used by Christians in counseling and other forms of psychotherapy.

One of Johnson’s strongest critics is a Heath Lambert, an advocate of something called “biblical counseling.”  Lambert is the president of an organization called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.  He believes that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is a “sufficient and an authoritative guide to counseling.”  He also rejects the use of drugs to treat depression and anxiety.

Lambert’s view of Johnson’s work is summed-up in this video.  He spends close to twenty minutes criticizing Johnson. Lambert calls Johnson’s work, among other things, a “total and utter mockery of God’s word.”

Now here’s the kicker:  Lambert also teaches counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I don’t fully understand everything Lambert is talking about in this video, but I am struck by the language he uses to describe one of his colleagues.  First, there is the potential awkwardness of it all.  I have never been to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but I am assuming that it is a tight-knit community.  I assume that every now and then Lambert would have to pass Johnson in the hallway and attend a meeting where they are in the same room together. Second, I think it is safe to assume that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a tight-knit Christian community.  I have heard of faculty at large research universities saying nasty things in public about other faculty at the same university, but for some reason I thought faculty at an evangelical theological seminary might be held to a higher standard. All faculty disagree, but few do so in such a harsh and public way.

I am not a theologian or a Christian counselor, but I did take a few courses on these subjects in college and divinity school.  I remember learning about something called “nouthetic counseling.”  It was an approach, popularized by the Christian counselor Jay Adams through his 1970 book Competent to Counsel, that argued psychology and psychiatry were secular ideas that were radically opposed to the teachings of the Bible and thus could not be used in the practice of Christian counseling.  In other words, only the Bible could be used to help people overcome mental illness.  I think this view is akin to what Lambert and his organization call “biblical counseling.”  (Warren Throckmorton, are you out there?  I hope I am getting this right!)

During my education in evangelical institutions, my professors rejected nouthetic or biblical counseling.  My wife, who holds a masters degree in Christian counseling from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was taught to integrate faith with psychology in her work. Frankly, I thought this whole debate over the use of psychology in Christian counseling was over a long time ago,  I guess I was wrong.

According to Bob Allen’s reporting at Baptist News Global, Mohler appears to support Lambert. In 2005, he moved the seminary toward a biblical counseling approach.  At that time Mohler wrote, “In this psycho-therapeutic age, it is really important that we think as Christians…that we employ authentically Christian thinking, biblical thinking, to human life, and that we do this in a way that, without apology, confronts and critiques the wisdom of the age and seeks the wisdom that can come only from God and God’s word.”

According to Allen’s article, it is unclear what role Mohler or Lambert played in Johnson leaving Southern Seminary, but hundreds of Johnson defenders signed a petition protesting his sudden departure  The signers believe that Mohler and Lambert had something to do with it.

I also wonder if something larger is going on here. Mohler and Lambert both signed the Nashville Statement on human sexuality.  (I did not see Johnson’s name on the statement, but I could have missed it).  This statement has been criticized by conservative evangelicals less for its content and more for its strident tone. Writing at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed, an evangelical pastor chided the statement for its failure to portray “God-generated, Christ-displayed, and Bible-defined love.” McKnight himself argued that the statement did not reflect the pastoral heart of Jesus. It is hard not to see connections between Johnson’s new book on “soul care,” his departure from the seminary, and the criticisms of the Nashville Statement.

The folks at Southern and other conservative institutions in the Southern Baptist Convention have been pretty dogmatic of late.  They have been drawing lines in the sand and suggesting that anyone who crosses these lines should no longer be considered orthodox Christians.  If you want more evidence of this, go back and read my posts about Mohler back in September 2015 when Pope Francis visited the United States.  I realize that Mohler and the Catholic Church do not see eye-to-eye on most things, but I was struck by the fact that he made very little, if any, attempt to find common ground.

In this video, Mohler is drawing the line on biblical inerrancy.  And here he leads a panel on the subject with John MacArthur and others. One of the panelists–I think it’s Mark Dever (also a signer of the Nashville Statement)–suggests that it is Satan who occasionally draws the church away from inerrancy.  Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, California, also takes some hits on this issue.

Recently, one of these Southern Baptist defenders of the faith even compared himself to John the Baptist. (It reminded me of that time when Billy Sunday compared himself to John the Baptist or when J. Frank Norris once preached: “I tell you the spirit we need in this compromising, milk-and-cider, neither-hot-nor-cold–you want to know the kind of spirit we need?  We need the spirit of old John the Baptist when he told that Sanhedrin, ‘You are a generation of snakes.'”).

Would Mohler, Lambert (who, by the way, holds a Ph.D in counseling from Southern Seminary), and others academics in the Southern Baptist Convention say that the Christian counselor forfeits the right to be called an orthodox Christian when he starts drawing from the insights of modern psychology ?  I hope not, but I am not sure.

Whatever the case, the academic wing of the Southern Baptist Convention seems to believe that they are living in a moment when Christianity is under attack and must be defended. As Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in response to a colleague who pressured him to sign the Nashville Statement, “the urgency of the hour demands it.” Anderson added: “the impulse to close ranks and reassert evangelicalism’s identity publicly and the eagerness to indulge in the rhetorical excess of the statement’s importance have the same roots in the despair that governs our politics.”

Lambert’s video attacking Johnson, the apparent firing of Johnson, the tone and spirit of the Nashville Statement, Mohler’s attacks on Francis, and the use of inerrancy as a means of dividing evangelicals (I am sure I could find other examples as well) leads me to wonder if we are seeing a new manifestation of Protestant fundamentalism.  (I am sure some believe that this happened a long time ago in SBC circles). I have seen this kind of thing before.  I started my career writing about it.  Fundamentalists believe that the culture is under attack and orthodox doctrine is in jeopardy from outside forces.  They call their followers to circle the wagons, draw lines in the sand, and close ranks. Who is on the Lord’s side?  Who will be the true defenders of the faith in the sea of cultural, intellectual, and social change?  Who will take a stand?

Perhaps this is the kind of thing the church needs right now.  I am not convinced of it, but maybe I am wrong.  I do, however, find it ironic that many of the same Southern Baptists who seem to be adamant about drawing clear and decisive boundaries also seem to value the legacy of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” of the mid-20th century. the men who tried to bring conservative Protestantism out of its fundamentalist past.  They name their schools and centers after Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry and they admire  John Harold Ockenga, one of the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals. They adhere to the conservative theology of these giants of modern American evangelicalism, but do not seem to exemplify the irenic spirit of these men when they speak into public life.  Instead, they sound more like J. Gresham Machen, Curtis Lee Laws, Frank Norris, and William Bell Riley.

I don’t know Eric Johnson, but I hope he lands on his feet.

11 thoughts on “The New Fundamentalism

  1. Though it is not said out loud, watching carefully in the last few years it appears a mutual divorce took place between Jay Adams – who now offers certification in Nouthetic Counseling on his own and ACBC which appears to have decided that Biblical counseling was more than just confrontation of sin.

    Many people believed that Jay’s therapeutic creation was a Christian take on Glasser’s Rational Emotive Therapy which was highly confrontational. But that was a long time ago.

    I think ACBC has adopted a more nuanced view of helping people work through their problems. I think it is less cut and dried than perhaps 10 or 20 years ago. But their emphasis on Scripture remains strong as the source of wisdom remains strong.

    Finally I believe counseling is a spiritual gift; capable of being honed through training but not given to everyone who desires it. I’m not sure ACBC believes that since their attitude appears to be, “Come one come all.”
    _______

    Of note: Doctoral cohorts in psych appear to be running 7 women for every 3 men.
    I have no idea about ACBC’s ratio of graduates.

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  2. John,
    Since the 1980s takeover of the SBC and SBTS by fundamentalists, the narrrowing definition of ministry and gender at SBTS is a common occurrence. By the mid 1990s, the seminary ended any theological justification for women in preaching by condemning the ordination of women for pastoral ministry. By 1997, SBTS closed one of its historic jewels in the Carver School of Social Work to condemn social work as ministry and to cut-off the Carver school as a conduit for women in church ministry. (For over a century The Carver school was historically tied to the SBC’s Women’s Missionary Union). Now you have an attack on a method of counseling that does not pass scrutiny with Southern’s fundamentalism. As a college professor, I only have to look at the continual growth of psychology and counseling departments because of the addition of female students to these programs in the last few decades. I wonder if the use of secular psychology was recruiting too many women to the program and that biblical counseling narrows counseling to a males only club.

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    • Your eye-opening response reveals an aspect which never occurred to me, and yours is more than likely the correct assessment. There will always be a need for women counselors, since men aren’t supposed to be alone with women, but the bulk of counselors will probably be men eventually, and the women counselors will more than likely have to abide by rigid CMBW gender-roled counseling in order to be certified.

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  3. Perhaps it was part of the plan to combat this sort of thing that Fuller Seminary started the School of Psychology. When you think you can do any difficult human task based on the Bible alone, you deceive yourself. We need to be more self-aware of what we bring to the Bible if we are truly to hear God speak.

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    • As a practicing biblical counselor I’d disagree here. All nouthetic counseling is biblical counseling. Not all biblical counseling is nouthetic. Biblical counseling is the broader umbrella and nouthetic is a particular variety.

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      • Kristin,
        This is a unique perspective for me. The Nouthetic Counselors made a deliberate name change in the mid 90s to Biblical Counselors. (The ACBC was formerly the NANC, for example.) there have always been slight variations within the movement, but I’ve always known them to be synonymous.

        Can you elaborate on what you mean? In particular, I’m interested in biblical counseling that would *not* be considered nouthetic.

        Thanks!

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    • Aaron – Glad for the dialogue. Noutthetic, from the Greek noutheteo – to admonish, has as its core an emphasis on confrontation and admonition, and thus on sin. Some of those changes you’re referring to reflect a broadening of the movement to encompass encouragement and not only admonition (I Thess 5:12). In other words, certain strains of biblical counseling have worked to fill out how we counsel suffering and not only focus on sin. So biblical counseling roughly might be defined as a method and trajectory derived from Scripture. Nouthetic has a bunch of other connotations with it that not all biblical counselors would identify with. For me personally I wouldn’t be comfortable having my counseling referred to as nouthetic because admonishing sin isn’t its defining feature. It would be taking something that has to happen occasionally in my counseling and making it central.

      Hope that’s helpful

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      • That’s very helpful. Thank you. When I speak of nouthetic/biblical counseling (as I do often with my students), I use the terms synonymously. But I also recognize the distinction you have made: Some focused more on sin and behaviors and others willing to address issues of the heart, suffering, and acknowledge the importance of the therapeutic alliance. The first group I have called the traditional nouthetic/biblical counselors, the second I have called the progressive ones – or sometimes “the nice ones” 🙂

        But this is helpful to me, because I want to represent the movement accurately even if I don’t count myself included in it. I am glad for the discussion. And I will tell my students that there are some biblical counselors who are uncomfortable with the label “nouthetic” because it carries with it the baggage of an overemphasis on admonishing sin.

        Biblical counselors of all stripes still insist that the Scriptures are sufficient for all the needs a counselor and counselee have, though, right?

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      • Aaron – Yes and No. That is something biblical counselors say but it’s very important to understand what that means in a theological context. Theologians will describe Scripture as “Sufficient” but what that means is sufficient unto life and godliness. In other words, Scripture contains the necessary information for living faithfully before the Lord. It doesn’t mean that Scripture holds all the information you need for everything in life. There may be somebody out there who would say that Scripture is all you need for life period, but most of us will acknowledge that Scripture doesn’t help us build structurally sound bridges. From a theological standpoint calling Scripture sufficient has room for, but doesn’t demand, interaction with what we’d call common grace wisdom. So here you see how there are varied opinions within the biblical counseling world on what this looks like. There are some people who would say it like you’re phrasing it but there are many who have a broader perspective on what sufficient means. For me, the sufficiency of Scripture in counseling might be phrased this way: Scripture speaks meaningfully to all things human, to all struggles in the human heart, to aspects of this life. But it doesn’t mean that Scripture is the only thing that brings understanding to those things. My own conviction is that Scripture speaks to every struggle and that what it says is a critical part of understanding how to navigate whatever you’re struggling before the Lord. It is the place we start, it defines the major components of the struggle and sets the trajectory, but calling Scripture sufficient doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the common grace wisdom of other fields.

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  4. John, Heath Lambert apologizes for, and clarifies, his remarks at https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/09/clarifying-and-confessing/ The datestamp is 9-11-2017.

    As to your comments re: “closing ranks,” etc. I think that the Nashville Statement shares the truth in a loving way. I remember many years ago when I was backslidden. If anyone tried to show Jesus’ Word to me, I got offended. I didn’t perceive their words as loving. I will go a step further and say that I WOULDNT have seen their Biblically grounded words as loving, because I had a lot of self-justification going on. I thank God for His mercy to me through Jesus Christ. He caught me in my (readers may fill in the blank here) sinfulness but loved me and forgave me.

    Today we live in a world where marriage is no longer between a man and a woman, but between two males or two females, and, as “bi” is culturally accepted, with two men AND two women, or any variation thereof, coming down the proverbial pike, I’m sure. We live in a world where the great sin is in reminding a watching world that the Bible calls homosexuality and lesbianism sinful, rather than the practicing of the homosexuality itself. I believe the lines are being clearly drawn in counseling because if they are not, then Christian counselors admitting they believe this is what Scripture teaches who then abide by their consciences will have their practices upended and/or get sued. It is a very good thing to forthrightly say, “I believe this, and if you have a problem with this, I am not the counselor for you.”

    Finally a footnote: I think counselors who draw on the Bible as well as secular sources, and counselors using the Bible under Jay Adams’ model, are both important.

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