Athens, Jerusalem, and Biblical Counseling

 

It has become one of the more famous outbursts from a church father. In my mind, it is the ancient theological equivalent of Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” If you peruse the particular passage of the quotation there can be little doubt by the reader that Tertullian is building in frustration, and that frustration is going to find its target. Like a dad who has come home from a long day at work only to find that someone has touched the thermostat. One way or another that situation ends with an outburst.

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Repulsed by the amorphous blob of beliefs that he was finding among Christians, Tertullian flatly condemned the incompatible alliance of philosophy (Athens) and theology (Jerusalem). These two ways of thinking were not harmonious in his mind and the force-fed merger was yielding monstrous results. In the immediately preceding context he catalogues the growing tide of heresy and laid the blame for these intellectual monsters at the unholy union of Greek thought and the Christian faith. A match made in purgatory.

The irony of Tertullian having a philosophical background and his refusal to admit that his schooling had any bearing on his Christian thinking, was apparently lost on him. One writer noted this irony at its fullest in that Tertullian’s most famous theological contribution—the first person to use the word “trinity” to describe God—was rooted in terminology from his background in Stoic philosophy. Apparently, Jerusalem has some to do with Athens.

In defense of Tertullian, he lived in a different time and the rising tide of heresy was a far more formidable foe in the 2nd century without thousands of years of Christian precedent to fall back on. I would guess that today he would have a more nuanced approach to the relationship between Christian thought and non-Christian thought.

But, personal suspicions about ancient persons applied to modern context aside, Tertullian’s frustration has periodically been resurrected and given new life as Christians continue to wrestle through the relationship between faith and scholarship.

In modern day evangelicalism one particular point of conflict for this discussion is found in the world of biblical counseling. A generic description of the biblical counseling position is that Christians should not turn to non-Christian schools of thought to help sort through problems but rather should counsel people who need help by using the Bible.

To apply Tertullian’s framework: what does a psychologist have to do with a pastor?

The foundational consideration for the biblical counseling position is rooted—quite appropriately—in II Peter 1:3.

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” -II Peter 1:3

The biblical counseling position flows from the understanding of “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” If God has granted us all things, then we do not need to turn to man’s bedraggled intellectual attempts to sort through our problems but should instead look to the Bible.

Now it is important for me to make one thing very clear: I agree with the central premise of biblical counseling. Christians/pastors have given over far too much ground to “professionals.” I can join the vast majority of commentators who have suggested that our country is incredibly over-medicated and then probably diverge from many of those commentators by suggesting that most of our over-medicated country needs more biblical counseling and less prescriptions.

I unequivocally believe in the power of the Bible and have and will continue to counsel people primarily through the pages of Scripture.

My concern with biblical counseling is more derived from a possible misinterpretation and less with its central motivation.

The Bible speaks authoritatively on everything on which the Bible speaks. The hopefully obvious point of omission is found in the truth that the Bible does not speak on everything and when we try to twist the biblical text to definitively address some issue that the Bible only tangentially passes by, we open ourselves to all kinds of poor thinking.

As far as I know, no one in the biblical counseling world wants to build an intellectual wall between Christians and academic study; however, it is possible when listening to some of the rhetoric from biblical counselors that people could come away with a rejection of all thought that is not from the Bible. If it’s not from Jerusalem it is given no consideration.

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I have read the books and attended the conferences—again, agreeing with the central premise—and have been concerned that the biblical counselors get dangerously close to saying you should never use Google unless it is to look up Bible passages. God gave us everything we need to know, why would you ever need anything else?

They would not come right out and take that position, but the tacit implication can frequently be found lurking in the shadows.

To that possible interpretation, I would whole heartedly disagree.

There is an old Hebrew saying, “God’s signature is truth.”

Academic inquiry, as far as it elucidates truth, should be celebrated by Christians. Yes, God’s self-revelation is the bedrock of Christian thinking and the Bible is the second most important—losing out on first place to the incarnate person of Christ—version of that revelation; but that does not mean that the finger prints of God are not found outside of the pages of the Bible. There has been an ongoing undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the American Church that makes Christians weaker, our pursuit of God anemic, and our witness to the world prosaic.

This does not mean we should uncritically accept “academic” findings merely because they are derived from the academy. There are MANY problems in the worlds of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and every other discipline for that matter, because they are all driven by sinful people. We can and should be critical; we should not be immediately dismissive simply because the argument presented did not originate in the hallowed halls of a seminary.

We cannot separate Christian thought from academic thought in the same way that academics cannot remove the Judeo-Christian foundation that guides western academia. To try and expel all disciplines and all thinking that is not overtly biblical narrows acceptable Christian discourse in such a way that it makes the Church toothless.

Christian doctrine has benefited from academic pursuit and we should think carefully before we reject all intellectual passports that have an origin in Athens.

Unless we are willing to dispatch of terms like logos and trinity; unless we feel good about disregarding good research; unless we can reject entire fields that are not found in the pages of Scripture (tech, engineering, most of the hard sciences, etc.), then the precarious relationship between the ivory tower of academia and the bell tower of the cathedral must persist—full disclosure: it took an extraordinary amount of will power to not title this “Two Towers” and I am giving myself a pat on the back for shoving the obvious Tolkien reference to the bottom of the blog.

When done right, Athens and Jerusalem spur us on towards truth and when truth’s door is knocked on, the heavenly Father answers.

 

 

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