Are You Receiving Biblical or Biblicist Counseling?

Photo by  Patrick Fore  on  Unsplash

One of the most common critiques I hear (or read) of the biblical counseling movement concerns the manner in which some unidentified biblical counselor has dealt with some unidentified counselee's problem.

Typically, the criticism sounds something like this: I was suffering from (X) emotional problem (i.e., depression/anxiety), and the only thing they did for me was 1) tell me I'm a sinner, 2) call me to repent, 3) direct me to memorize a verse of Scripture, and 4) pray.

Other criticisms involve scenarios where abused wives have been counseled to remain in abusive marriages because, as the story goes, "God hates divorce" and because Christian women live in "submission" to their husbands "as unto the Lord."

Sometimes, these stories of alleged incompetence are hard to believe. You don't need an MDiv or a PhD to avoid these gross, negligent errors. Yet, they are said to occur, and I must believe that somewhere "out there" a counselor operates with an immature, truncated, even dangerous understanding of what it means to counsel "biblically."

If I have a hard time believing these stories of incompetence, it's not because I necessarily disbelieve the teller, but because the telling in no way represents my training, education, or practice of biblical soul care as a counselor.

Is your counselor biblical or biblicist?

My assessment of these terrible experiences some have endured is that what they encountered in essence was not biblical counseling, but what I think would be better described as "biblicist counseling."

To understand "biblicist counseling," we have to understand that approach to theology and Scripture known as "biblicism." Theologian R. Scott Clark has written that biblicism is

The attempt to understand Scripture by one’s self and by itself, i.e., in isolation from the history of the church and in isolation from the communion of the saints. In biblicism the interpreter, not Scripture, becomes sovereign.

It is important to understand that biblicists, consumed by rationalism, believe they know "a priori" what Scripture must say about a given topic. In counseling, this may express itself as "God hates divorce" when a wife is necessarily fleeing an abusive husband.

In biblicism the interpreter, not Scripture, becomes sovereign.

The biblicist counselor isolates a verse of Scripture that appears to speak to the issue at hand and then applies it wrongly to the counselee, in part because the counselor is not reading Scripture with the church, its confessions, or its most trusted theologians and scholars. Instead, they isolate Scripture from Scripture (a most important hermeneutical key) as well as themselves, paving the way for potentially harmful conclusions.

One of the great ironies of "biblicist" counseling is that counselors may well insist that they hold a high view of Scripture, including affirming the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Yet, they don’t understand what is meant by "Scripture alone."

In practice, they have embraced "nuda scriptura," effectively cutting themselves and their counselee off from what should be the basis of biblical counseling—that is, from the safety of theological conclusions informed by church history. This would include, for example, the helpful nuancing of their approach to soul care by a reading of either the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBC). For example, we read the following in paragraph 1.6 of the WCF:

We acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF 1.6)

Are we adhering to “sola scriptura” or “nuda scriptura”?

Translated into the counseling room, we learn to consider, by these two historic confessions of faith, that some things may be considered variously according to the "light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word.”

The biblical counselor (hopefully) understands that while their Bible represents their source for care, that same Bible, rightly understood and applied, informs them that they are at liberty to glean helpful insight from the created world, provided the data is in keeping with biblical truth (not at odds with it). The biblicist denies this truth, and actually does violence to what is meant by sola scripturaand the sufficiency of Scripture.

Concerning WCF 1.6, theologian Chad Van Dixhoorn writes,

The sufficiency of Scripture for life does not deny that we need constant and extensive information and supplies from the created world in order to live. Of course we do. Scripture is sufficient in the sense that no further special revelation from God is needed to guide us through life other than the revelation graciously available to us in the Bible. (Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 17)

How then shall we counsel, or select a biblical counselor, or evaluate the care we've received?

Armed with an understanding of what is called "biblicism," we can better inspect our approach to counseling and listen carefully to what our potential counselor has to say about their approach to soul care in a first session. From this position, counselor and counselee alike can ask questions, such as:

  • Are we isolating ourselves from church history at the counseling table?

  • Am I sitting in front of a counselor who considers that they know "a priori" what Scripture has to say about the dynamics of my situation without need for consulting what the church has confessed more broadly about my circumstances?

  • Is my potential counselor averse to considering what God has provided by "the light of nature," or even reasonable "Christian prudence" as they consider a plan for my care?

We're better together.

As a general rule of thumb, consider that the more insular counselors become in their approach to soul care by moving away from the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (what it actually meant—not as it has been erroneously applied at times), the more likely they are to stray from biblical counseling and into the realm of biblicist counseling.

I am thankful for what God has given us in his divinely inspired, inerrant word for the work of counseling. And, I'm thankful that I need not lean on my own understanding in applying this living word (Heb. 4:12), but have the luxury of turning to church history, creeds and confessions, the work of great scholars and theologians, and even the created order in helping me to help others.

Related Articles:


Joshua Waulk is the founding executive director at Baylight Counseling, Inc., a clinically informed biblical counseling ministry for the church in the Tampa Bay area (FL).

This article is adapted from “Is Your Counselor Biblical or Biblicist?” at baylightcounseling.com.

This page may contain affiliate links through which Beautiful Christian Life may receive a commission to help cover its operating costs.