Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I Prefer to Refer

The January 23, 2007 issue of Christian Century has an interesting article about the seminary I attended, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I spent seven years, 1979-1986, as a student in those hallowed halls of learning.

It was a natural decision for me to attend Southern. Several of my professors in the Christianity Department at Mercer University had at least one degree from there. My mentor, Dr. Howard Giddens, had earned two degrees there, including a Th.D. in Biblical Theology. I don’t remember any of my teachers telling me that I should go to Southern, but I think that they steered me there by example. They were smart. I wanted to be smart. Then as now, the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored six seminaries. Southern was the original one; it was founded in Greenville, South Carolina in 1859 and moved to Louisville following the War Between the States. The other ones that had some age on them were Southwestern and New Orleans. A saying was going around among the preacher boys at Mercer that went something like this: “If you love to preach, go to New Orleans; if you love the Lord, go to Southwestern; if you love to learn, go to Southern.” Well, I loved to preach and I certainly loved the Lord, but I wanted to attend the Southern Baptist seminary with the greatest academic reputation. So I went to Southern.

I learned a lot there. I do confess, though, that some things seem odd to me when I look in the rearview mirror. While I know that in a three year Master of Divinity program one can only take so many classes, it still seems strange to me that I was required to take only one course in preaching, only one in church administration, only one in evangelism, only one in missions, and only one in pastoral care. Now, that suited me fine at the time, because I was mainly interested in biblical studies and church history and I was able to spend a lot of time and energy on those areas. Still, as a pastor, I wish that I had done more work in those “practical” areas. I’ve learned a lot since through reading and through experience, but more guidance early in my career would have been helpful.

The article in the Century, written by David Winfrey, is entitled “Biblical Therapy: Southern Baptists Reject ‘Pastoral Counseling.’” The article discusses the 2005 decision of Southern to replace its longstanding “pastoral counseling” model with a “biblical counseling” model. Winfrey writes that Southern officials said that the biblical counseling approach is “built upon the view that scripture is sufficient to answer comprehensively the deepest needs of the human heart” (p. 24). He also notes that Southern has ceased participation in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). That’s another gap in my education; I wish that I had done at least one unit of CPE. I may yet get around to it.

The pastoral care program at Southern was dominated for years by Wayne Oates and by his legacy. Professor Oates taught at Southern from 1948 to 1974; after that he taught at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. I thus missed Dr. Oates by five years. Dr. Oates, who was a giant in his field, died in 1999. He is considered to be the father of the pastoral counseling movement. His significant contribution was the attempt to combine the best of biblical and theological understanding with the best of modern psychological science in the treatment of people with mental and emotional disorders; that is the hallmark of pastoral counseling.

The perspective of the practitioners of the biblical counseling movement, as I understand it from Winfrey’s article, can be summarized as follows. First, the Bible contains the answers to every human problem. Second, modern psychology cannot be utilized because there are too many competing views that exist under that umbrella. Third, modern psychology is humanistic in its viewpoint, failing to take into account the reality of human sin and adopting the stance that human beings have the answers to their personal dilemmas within themselves.

I think that honesty should compel us to admit that the Bible, while it is God’s Holy Word, while it is inspired and tells us everything we need to know to be saved, and while it certainly contains the principles that we need to know to live life in God’s way, does not provide a magic bullet that will cure every emotional or mental ill. Think of it this way: I certainly believe in the healing power of Almighty God. I know that the Bible will steer me in the directions that are most healthy for me. I even believe that God can and does spontaneously work miracles of healing in people’s lives. But I’ll tell you this right now: if my wife or one of my children is diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, while I’m going to read my Bible and pray to my God and ask for his healing, I’m also going to go straight to the best oncologist there is in Augusta, Georgia and anywhere else that I have to go. In that situation, I want the best biblical and spiritual help we can get but I also want the best medical help that modern science can supply. In the best case scenario, I’d love for us to have an oncologist who is a strong Christian and who will thus combine prayer with sound medical practice. But if the best oncologist available is an atheist, I’ll still be glad to take advantage of the best that science has taught him.

It seems to me that what’s happening at Southern and at other places may be part of the ongoing battle between “faith” and a “biblical worldview” on the one hand and “science” and a “scientific worldview” on the other. While I acknowledge that there are real and legitimate areas of conflict between those worldviews, I nonetheless stand by what I said above. I feel the same way about mental or emotional issues. If I or someone I love develops such struggles, I want help from both arenas. And if we can get that from one person, a person who, because of her training in pastoral counseling, can deal with us on from a solid foundation in biblical spirituality and behavioral science, that’s great. With pastoral counselors, it seems to me, that’s what you get.

I say this as someone whose own counseling model is probably closer to biblical counseling. The Bible is what I know. As I said, I never had CPE and I took only one pastoral care course in seminary (it was a good one, though: “Pastoral Care in Human Crises” with Dr. Andy Lester, whose book It Hurts So Bad, Lord, is still the best book on grief I’ve ever read; it’s unfortunately out of print). When people come to me with deep psychological or emotional difficulties, I listen, I try to lead them into the presence of the Lord, I pray with them, and I share some biblical teachings with them. Then I spend a few moments kicking myself for not knowing more about how to help. And then I find someone better trained than I am to deal with the psychological issues.

I get out of my depth very quickly. That’s why I prefer to refer.

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