[A current project is to examine the following question in terms of the discipline of biblical counseling. The question arises as follows there is some technique or therapy which works in that it will reliably produce symptom reduction. For instance, some presents with “anxiety.” (I am not questioning the existence of anxiety with the quotation marks, but merely marking off a semi-formal diagnosis.) If there were a technique which reliably resulted in a correction of anxiety, but that technique could not be based in the Scripture, or in Christian theology in application more generally (that is, it is a wholly “secular” technique), should/must a biblical counselor learn and utilize that counsel? Below is merely the draft introduction to the problem.]
There are three potential grounds upon which a biblical counselor could justify the acceptance of some proposition or technique from “secular psychologies.” These are not distinct arguments but rather three versions of the same argument, which each contention emphasizing a somewhat different element of the same basic contention.
First, there is the argument from common grace. This foregrounds the theological proposition that God has provided good to human beings even in their fallen state. Having dealt with this proposition previously, I will consider no more here.
Second, there is the argument from “science”. This is a restatement of the “common grace” argument, but this time the emphasis is upon the means by which one obtains information from the world. An aspect of common grace is the ability to accurately make observations about the world and then to draw conclusions about the nature of reality from these observations.
The work of science is point-of-view neutral, because such observations should be independent of the observer’s personal presuppositions. It ultimately rests upon the self-authenticating function of the senses. While this proposition is subject to a number of critiques, both at the level of the observer’s presuppositions and at the level of the senses; we can broadly agree that the fact that stones fall to the ground and fire is hot are incorrigible aspects of experience.
A difficulty of the science justification is whether a particular proposition can be justified as a matter of “science.” The methods of scientific justification were developed in the arena of “hard sciences”, such as physics and chemistry. Soft science
The related question of mathematical demonstration need not concern for three reasons. First, that while mathematics does provide an extraordinary tool for creating models of reality; the relationship between our mathematical models and reality as empirically observed is very difficult to explain or understand. Second, the means of logical proof used by mathematics is built up by rules of logical inference, not observation. Numbers and functions do not exist anywhere in the tangible world. Third, while mathematical demonstrations do map on the physical world, math does not provide any useful information about why I love my wife or hate my sin.
A third justification used primarily to justify the incorporation of some technique or medication into the practice of biblical counseling is pragmatism. And I mean pragmatism here both in the broad sense of “it works”, but also in the more strictly philosophical manner: not merely that “it works”, but rather that because it works it is true.
The motto, “All Truth is God’s Truth” is trivially true. However, that motto provides no real guidance in this area, because true is the point of debate.
Justification on the ground of “it works” cannot settle the question of whether we as biblical counselors should incorporate a technique into our system. To say it is “true” because it “works” likewise does not answer the question.
In the mid-20th century, one could purchase a watch which could be read in the dark. The technique used to create glow-in-dark numbers was ingenious and more importantly, “it worked.” No one denies that the technique worked and would work today. But you will not be able to purchase this style watch online or at your jeweler’s shop:
During World War II, radium dials and gauges allowed pilots to fly at night without cockpit lights. This helped the pilots avoid being seen by enemy soldiers.
Radium is highly radioactive. It emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. If it is inhaled or swallowed, radium is dangerous because there is no shielding inside the body. If radium is ingested or inhaled, the radiation emitted by the radionuclide can interact with cells and damage them. During the production of radium dials, many workers who painted clock or instrument dials with radium developed cancer. To create fine tips on their paint brushes for small surfaces, many radium dial painters licked the bristles of their paintbrushes. In doing this, they often swallowed some of the radioactive paint. In the body, radium acts similar to calcium, so the radium that workers ingested was deposited into their bones. Many of these workers developed bone cancer, usually in their jaws. Eventually, scientists and medical professionals realized that these workers’ illnesses were being caused by internal contamination from the radium they ingested. By the 1970s, radium was no longer used on watch and clock dials.
Techniques come loaded with presuppositions and with consequences. The argument in favor of incorporating a technique based upon the jejune basis that “it works” cannot satisfy the biblical counselor who understands that the task of the church is to make disciples and our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
As one who has lived long enough to have experienced fear, pain, loss, in myself and to have seen it in others, I cannot justify a “technique” solely on the basis that it would alleviate such fear, pain, or loss. I say this with fear and trembling and compassion. I realize such a bold statement will itself require substantial justification, because there is a self-evident argument that ending pain is a per se good.
I ask only, dear reader, that you grant leave to make my argument before you condemn my conclusion.
 This is obviously an inadequate description of the class of theory and observation at issue. But the phrase will work well-enough for our immediate concerns. By referring to such as a “secular”, I mean nothing more than non-biblical. It should also be noted there is not a uniform biblical psychology. However, to fully develop a taxonomy the various genus and species of psychological theory would overly tax my knowledge and the lengths of this article.
More specifically, it is my conviction that the Holy Spirit distributes certain blessings through secular psychotherapy as an aspect of common grace. Christians may use these blessings in order to help believers with relational, intrapersonal, and even spiritual problems. They may also engage with secular psychotherapy at a scientific and philosophic level in order to find insights that bless humankind.
Lydia Kim-van Daalen , “The Holy Spirit, Common Grace, and Secular Psychotherapy,” Journal of Psychology and Theology Vol. 40, no. 3 (2012): 229–239
 Edward Wilde, “Why Common Grace is Not Enough,” Journal of Biblical Soul Care, Vol. 1, no. 2 (2022): 58-72;
Edward Wilde, “Why Common Grace is Not Enough,” Journal of Biblical Soul Care, Vol. 2, no. 2 (2022): 5-30.
Scientific objectivity is a property of various aspects of science. It expresses the idea that scientific claims, methods, results—and scientists themselves—are not, or should not be, influenced by particular perspectives, value judgments, community bias or personal interests, to name a few relevant factors. Objectivity is often considered to be an ideal for scientific inquiry, a good reason for valuing scientific knowledge, and the basis of the authority of science in society.
Reiss, Julian, and Jan Sprenger. “Scientific Objectivity.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 30 Oct. 2020, plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-objectivity/. As might be expected with anything involving philosophy, the reality of the property is far more complex than the proposition that all scientific knowledge is “objective.”
Below is the introduction for a biblical counseling course I teach at Masters University. I may organize the material into a book:
Where to Start?
To begin, put this down and go read the first chapter of Genesis. The first lesson is biblical counseling is that we must read the Bible. When you finished read the Genesis chapter one, come back…..
In addition to reading the Bible, biblical counseling involves thinking carefully about the Bible. A few things to note. First, who is the chapter about? Who is the main actor in this story? Obviously, that is God. What does God? He creates, everything. Note that little phrase at the end verse 16, “and the stars.” So where do we live? Inside of the creation. And can we ever see or know beyond that? Well, not unless God tells us something.
Look down to verses 26-27. What about human beings? We are creations, also. We have a special status. What two things do you notice about our status? We have dominion over the rest of the creation. We are created in God’s image.
Let us take stock about what we learn from Genesis 1: There is a Creator. Everything else is creation. The planet is all the creation. The stars, however far away they may be, are the creation. We human beings are creatures. In this, we are like trees and stars and oceans. We are something God has made. In this we are also like angels and cherubim and seraphim; we are all creatures.
But unlike these other creatures, we occupy a special place. We have dominion over the rest of the creation. In addition, we are created in something called the “image and likeness” of God.
At this point in our study, we will not be taking too much time to consider these points. However, these elements will become very important when we begin to think about counseling directly. At this point, we are making taking stock of issues which should consider.
We are beginning with Genesis, because this section of the Bible provides a useful layout of the matters we will need to consider when it comes to determine the problems for which people will come for counsel. It also will help us to understand why we must counsel in the way we do—and also, why we must be careful about using observations or techniques gained from other psychologies.
A Brief Note on the Word, “Psychology”
This word and this concept have engendered a great deal of controversy and discussion among Christians who sincerely hope to do good.
A complete discussion of this topic would go wildly beyond our present purposes. However, a few notes are in order.
There is no one who does not a working psychology. Psychology is nothing other than the study of how human beings function. It is an enormously broad concept. Psychology considers the basic functioning of the nervous system and other bodily functions which might bear upon thought, emotion, or behavior. Psychology studies thought, emotion, behavior, whether cognitive or habitual. It does not rule, per se, “mind” or “soul,” although the relationship to such concepts is “complicated.” It studies human interactions. In this way, it enters into history, politics, sociology, education, et cetera.
When you had a conversion with someone else and asked, “Why did she say that?” you have engaged in psychology.
Psychology also entails responses and helps relating to change in another person (or ourselves). If you have tried to break a habit, you have engaged in psychology. If you have given a friend advice, like “don’t worry about.” You have engaged in psychology.
People who have made a career out of psychology may have studied some aspect at length. We might consider a university professor to be an expert psychologist. But for that matter, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are expert psychologists.
There is thus no simple thing which is “psychology.” It entails what we human beings spend most of our time doing, thinking about ourselves and other people, and engaging with others, or thinking about what we are not doing so.
A comprehensive psychology will require an extensive set of conclusions about the nature of human beings. If you start with the assumption that all human psychology is explained by the body and environment, and that human bodies are the result of innumerable mutations acted upon by death, you will understand irrational events as the result of haphazard machinery in a difficult place. You will not conclude that human life or decisions are truly meaningful (even though someone might care about their own decisions or what others do to them).
To be a biblical counselor will entail beginning with a biblical understanding of what we are and how we got here. The information which we gain from the beginning of Genesis will set an agenda for what will start with as our “givens” when it comes to constructing a method of counseling.
For instance, if we are bare machines and our thoughts and emotions are really just epiphenomenon of behavior, then deliberate use of behavioral psychology would be an appropriate decision. Likewise, we would start with Jung or Adler or Rogers or something else if we began with different presuppositions.
The directions we will take from the rest of Scripture on how to counsel are rooted and grounded the soil of creation and Genesis.
Genesis 2 is going to provide us with additional information to fill out our agenda of matters to consider in the future. So, as before, go read Genesis 2.
This time, since you are learning how to counsel, I want you to make a list of observations answer this question: What in this chapter might be use when trying to understand what is going on with a human being alive today? This question is slightly different than “What does this mean?”
You are not going to need to break out a Hebrew Bible (though if you read Hebrew, please feel free to do so). This is not a question about difficult exegetical points.
I will give you one idea to begin with: God creates Adam. We learn it is not good for a human being to be alone. The issue of relationship, marriage, solitude, loneliness, is thus something we will need to consider when we consider the troubles which might beset someone alive today.
The desire for friendship and marriage, the pain of loneliness will be matters which will need to address in counseling.
So read through the chapter pen or pencil or computer or other recording implement in hand. Start making a list of things which might be pertinent to the understanding of human beings.
Now that you have completed your task, let us consider what we have read.
How is Adam created? He is formed and then God breathes into him. How is Eve formed? She is made from Adam’s body. Just preliminary notes, but there might be something important about the breath of life in a body. What about Eve coming from Adam? Well, we all come from Adam and Eve, therefore, there is at least some minimal amount which we all must share together. We are all distant cousins at least. We all have a common human nature. What went on with these people has some effect upon us.
Now, where do we find Adam? In the Garden. What is he doing there? He is there to tend and keep the Garden. When we come to this issue, we will learn that this “tend and keep” language points us toward the question of worship and we might want to consider this garden as having some relationship to the Temple.
But stick with the Garden for a moment longer. What else can we see here: This Garden is quite a bit different than our current life. It does not appear to present any dangers. The animals do what is useful for Adam. There is abundant food. Adam has work. Adam also has direct and apparently free communication with God.
The relationship between Adam and Eve are quite joyous (Adam seems as pleased as any human being has ever been upon receiving the woman). There is this peculiar observation that they did not have clothing.
In short, Genesis 2 tells us about a world of which we have no firsthand experience. It sounds wonderful, but it is not where we live.
This is a little out of order, but now go and read the final two chapters of the Bible. I’ll wait.
I just want you to notice how significantly the end of the story, the New Heavens and the New Earth seem to replicate aspects of Genesis 2. I’ll ask you one more question. When Mary Magdalen first saw Jesus after he had resurrected, who did she think he was?
And yes, there is something about a tree, but we will pick up the tree in Genesis 3.
This is the most important chapter we will consider as make our first data gathering run through the beginning of the Bible. With that having been said, read through Genesis 3 and make a list of matters which you anticipate may have a bearing upon present counseling issues. There is probably no single chapter of the Bible which is more important to laying out the backdrop for what we do as counselors.
For this exercise, you need to do more than just read through the chapter. I want you to also go find some secondary source to help you work through this material. Go find some sermons on the chapter or use a commentary to help you (the notes from your study bible won’t count).
Also, I want you to take the time to prayer for help in understanding this chapter. Since you should not be able to complete this task in one sitting, you must specifically pray for comprehension and insight each time before you begin your study.
Prayer for help understanding the Bible will be something you must always do from here on out.
Where do we find ourselves at the beginning of the chapter? First, who is there? Notice down in verse 6. Who was there? Where were they?
Second, who begins talking?
Think about the conversation for a moment. Look up at chapter 2. When was the command concerning the tree given, before or after Eve’s creation? So how then would Eve know about the commandment?
Now think: Name everyone slandered by the Serpent in this question.
We can put aside the question about touching the tree. Some people make quite a deal of this point; others find it unimportant. We don’t need to decide that question, because there are other things quite clear. Does Eve know the commandment? Does she have some idea of the consequences (remember, “die” may not be a clear concept for her; but she apparently at least knows it is a bad thing)?
Here is another observation which we will consider later: A cognitive knowledge of the commandment is insufficient to guarantee obedience. An extremely common error in biblical counseling is belief that sin is purely the result of a lack of knowledge. If you merely knew that you should not covet, you would not covet. At this point, go read Romans 7 and then come back. Does merely telling someone the commandment mean there will be obedience?
Why then do you think insisting upon a commandment will ever be sufficient to result in obedience? (We will talk about the nature and importance of obedience later.) So here is another issue to flag for later consideration.
I want you to think of some of the absurdities of the Serpent’s approach. For instance, by definition, something said by God is true. Look back at Genesis 1, what happens when God speaks? It is impossible for God to lie. (Heb. 6:18)
What does the Serpent promise Eve? Two things.
We will develop these issues at greater length below; but let us consider why these points might be important. You will be like God. Go back and read Genesis 1:26-27. They are already created in the Image of God. And the second point: you will be given the right to decide what is good or evil. How well has that gone for us?
Read 1 Timothy 2:14. If Adam was not deceived, what is the nature of his sin? Read Romans 5:12: what was the effect of Adam’s sin upon you?
What is the emotional effect, the subjective effect upon eating the fruit? How do Adam and Eve experience the world immediately upon sinning?
Here is another point to hold for later: Shame (and guilt) come in with sin and accompany sin. We will learn that shame is the experience of sin and the experience of being sinned against.
Consider the nature of God’s approach to Adam and Eve. In verse 8, what is God doing? Compare the nature of their relationship with God to our current relationship with God. What are some differences?
When God begins to ask questions, how do Adam and Eve respond in turn? Think a little bit about Adam’s excuse. Who are the persons blamed for his behavior?
In counseling, a very common thing you will encounter is someone explaining how they are not responsible for their own conduct. Someone else has made them the way they are? Is there a difference between causation (gravity causes the apple to fall to the ground), and influence (a strong breeze might move the apple a bit as it falls).
Counseling is an impossible and pointless enterprise if one person can cause another person to do or act. Moreover, sin is impossible if we can be forced to sin by another person’s conduct.
Now, I want you to read through the Genesis 3:14-19. In verses 14-15, we read of a coming conflict. Who will be the participants in this conflict?
Let us consider this matter a little more broadly: let us take the Serpent and Seed as also representatives of certain populations. With whom will human beings have an ongoing conflict. Go read Mark 1:21-27. Now that you have read it, answer the question again. There is admittedly a great deal of dispute concerning this particular issue: to what extent if any should a current day Christian be concerned with host fronted by the Serpent? I am not going solve that issue, but we must put that on the agenda.
Next, look at the result for the woman. We have two sets of troubles for her. What are they?
Finally, look down at the man: what are his troubles going to be.
You may have taken a class at some point where a teacher tried to summarize the sort of plots you might encounter, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and so on. Let’s see if we can make a list of the sort of conflicts we may expect:
Rebellious Spirits vs. human beings. Most particularly in the life of Jesus Christ.
Child birth, which should merely be the beginning of life, is itself a potential time of death.
There will be conflicts between human beings: If the first pair can have conflict, we cannot expect better.
There will be conflict between human beings and the rest of creation. The world will be resistant to proving us food (which is quite the opposite of the state in the Garden).
Next, our work will be painful and difficult. But we will be unable to avoid the necessity of this work.
Finally, our bodies will get sick and then die.
Let’s finish up the chapter: What is the result of story for Adam and Eve?
Is it possible to return to this Garden?
Before we turn our attention to chapter 4, Let’s take stock of our circumstance at the end of chapter 3.
When I was in college, my anthropology professor said the trouble with human beings is that we live in the wrong environment. We evolved to live on the Savanna but we now live in temperature controlled buildings with artificial light. I would agree to a point: we certainly live in the wrong environment. But I would change his evaluation as follows: We were created to live a sinless life in the Garden in immediate fellowship with God.
The world which was created to sustain our lives is not in open rebellion against us. In fact, it’s out to kill us.
Let us consider the effect this Fall upon human nature. You’re going to need to stop again. God Read Romans 1-3.
When I taught these chapters to Junior High and High School students, I asked them to remember the two things sin does to human beings: It makes us stupid and crazy.
Here is an exercise. Try to summarize the state of being a human after the Fall in one paragraph. Close the book and go write.
Here are some of the elements which should be in your summary: Human beings are living in the wrong place. Human beings are stupid and crazy. We live in bodies that are in rebellion against us on a planet which seeks to kill us. In fact, without the miraculous intervention of God, we will suffer death. The normal response to such overwhelming negative odds would be fear or sorrow (if you want to put that into modern “psychological terms” anxiety and depression). To deal with the fear and sorrow, we routinely engage in beliefs and behaviors which might make us somehow feel better for a moment. Moreover, we will routinely not know what to do.
That will lead us to understand the three basic categories of situations we will face in biblical counseling: Wisdom (what to do). Relief (dealing with painful emotional/cognitive relationships to life). Mortification of sin (dealing with sin).
One last section to prepare our agenda. Please read the story of Cain and Abel. I’ll wait.
There are points from this story which I would like you to notice. First, what are Cain and Able both doing? They are engaged in overt acts of worship. This is the first time we see human beings involved in bringing a sacrifice to God. Second, what happens? What is the first thing we learn about human interaction after we have left the Garden? Compare this end point with the very first human interaction recorded in Genesis 2.
Some Notes Toward an Agenda
Having reviewed the introductory chapters to the Bible, make a list of the sort of issues we should expect to consider when engaged in biblical counseling.
We were created to be in relationship with God. We will see this point reiterated in the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, strength. That relationship was eviscerated at the Fall. Were it not for the gracious act of God to restore that relationship, nothing we do could attempt to remedy the loss. We cannot reach up to God, so God had to reach down to us.
We were created to be in relationship with other human beings. Again, we see that point taken up by the law to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even the close relationship between brothers could end in murder.
Of human relationships, those in the family are given particular importance. Immediately with sin, we find the first couple blaming others for their own troubles. We see Adam not driving off the Serpent. And parents, mirroring the act of God in giving counsel to the newly minted Adam, have a duty to give instructions to their children, who, like Adam, are new to this world.
I think we should understand Adam’s gardening work as the predecessor for our work of worship. The first picture we have of human beings after being driven from the Garden is the act of worship between Cain and Abel. Perhaps foreshadowing the sorry wars of religion, one murdered the other.
The defective practice of that most human of actions, worship, marks much of the narrative in the Bible. We have the repeated warnings and discussions of idolatry before the coming of Christ. And we have John’s warning after the resurrection, Keep yourselves from idols.
This aspect of human life is another way to consider the breakdown in the divine/human relationship.
Death and Sin
The twin monster of sin and death relate in some interesting ways. There is the obvious movement of sin to punishment, eternal death. However, there is another movement from death to sin which is mentioned in places such as Hebrews 2:14-15, where fear of death creates the condition for enslavement to sin.
With death and the loss of the Garden, we find ourselves in world subjected to futility. Responding to that futility has been the constant work of civilization. It has also lead to a variety responses ranging from despair to war, from debauchery to asceticism. This axis is similar to the death and sin issue, but focuses more upon the loss of everything around me, in addition to my own death.
The Noetic Effects of Sin
Sin has made us crazy and stupid. Romans 1, any history book, the news, just knowing any other human beings (as well as our own hearts), will prove this point. And even after salvation, we must face the task of renewing minds which have been warped and twisted.
This leads us to any number of sinful responses, as well as a desperate need for wisdom.
Sin follows upon sin. No sooner had primeval pair rebelled by eating, but they turned on one another. Their children would murder. By the time we come to Noah, the world is filled with violence. It takes no effort to learn about sin, because we lie as soon as have the chance. No one has ever needed to teach a child to be self-centered or cruel.
Sin asks as a sort of adaptive response to the post-Fall state of life. Taking, hording, hiding, lying, coveting, slandering, and so on, make a sort of perverted sense. If I am going to die and if all is pointless, explain to me why I should not steal something when I will never receive punishment. Now it might be useful for everyone if no one stole; but imposing the rule upon you and having no rule upon me would be best for me.
We live in the wrong place and always will. We were created for dominion and die from microbes. We were created for direct interaction with God, and find that relationship difficult to maintain. We are in the wrong place, far from home, and will not be where we belong until we no longer live here in this age.
In working through the sentence pronounced by God, we saw that our post-Fall life was one of seeming perpetual conflict with the entire Creation. Surviving and responding to such conflict is an essential aspect of being a human being.
The Image of God
We also must consider that highly debated proposition that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Being renewed in that image is the end which God has set before us. (Col. 3:9-10)
What Shall We Do?
One of the great faults of much which goes by the name of counseling, is the failure to adequately comprehend the nature of the trouble faced by human beings. We can easily attempt to reduce the “solution” to a pat formula. One of the fundamental problems with all psychology which does not begin with the Bible is the failure to have an adequate comprehension of a human being. Freud was right that there is a conflict between our conscience and desire: he just did not have the faintest idea what that means or from whence it came. Skinner was right about behavioral habits. But as important as behavioral habits may be, they do provide a full description human life (although my professor of behavioral psychology at UCLA attempted mightily to persuade me otherwise. She explained to me that did not actually love another; I just enjoyed certain sorts of positive rewards).
A frightful amount of counseling comes off as if the only trouble faced by a counselee was ignorance of some proposition. Insisting on do and do not and incomprehension at the lack of immediate obedience to the dictates delivered is too common for the church’s good.
And so on.
Which leaves us with, what shall we do? Where do we start? And what is our aim? Before we turn to the practice of counseling, let us take a moment to consider the why of counseling.
(I am posting this very rough draft essay for the purpose of soliciting comments, if anyone would be so kind. Please know that even complete disagreement will be welcome. This is an essay in a series which I am working on to make a theological review of psychology as a discipline. (I have posted three prior essays on this topic; which all have been published in the Journal of Biblical Soul Care.) This essay concerns the question of sensory perception (as the first step in a theory of knowledge). It is extremely rough. Transitions are missing, there is some repetition, citations are not in proper format et cetera. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a critique would be appreciated. I will provide a link to the completed version when it is published.)
Teasdale: Your Excellency, I thought you left.
Chicolini: Oh no. I no leave.
Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes.
Chicolini: Well, who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?
Biblical Soul Care (“BSC”) aces the charge it is “unscientific,” as opposed to “psychology” (that notoriously broad term) which is a “science.” While philosophically sophisticated definitions will provide far more nuance, such nuance is not the issue when BSC is said to be “unscientific.” Something which is “scientific” is true. Something “unscientific” might be “nice for you,” but it is certainly a substandard sort of knowledge.
Another thing about “scientific” knowledge (I’m going to stop putting quotation marks around “science” and “scientific”) is that it is neutral knowledge: it information which is true for everyone. The function of gravity is identical in a Buddhist Temple and a university lecture room. .
Unscientific knowledge, like BSC, is a sort of preference, a sort of biased knowledge. But we can expand the problem with BSC to theological claims generally. Theological claims are not “true” in any hard sense of the term. They are just things people believe “without evidence.”
There is no need to belabor this point: it is a commonplace of our culture: it is a given which is simply true. Only a benighted “fundamentalist” would possibly conclude anything different.
What then is the bedrock which gives science such an unassailable claim to truth? First, science is based upon empirical observations. We have access to sense impressions which are self-authenticating and unquestionably true presentations of the world. (In fact, even our conscious awareness of sense impressions is itself an empirical fact, and thus self-authenticating.).
Second, by use of rational inquiry, one can logically understand the world in an objectively true manner.
Those twin claims make science true. Since theology is not merely examining sense impressions by means of rational inquiry it cannot be “true,” like other knowledge is true.
My goal in this essay is to undermine the first prong of this “scientism” claim: that sense impressions are self-authenticating. This does not mean that I wish to conclude the physical world is an illusion–far from it. My concern is with the justification, the warrant for the belief that sense impressions are objectively true.
Sense impressions, as you will learn, result from a remarkable, strange process: a process which in-and-of itself cannot itself justify the content of any sense impression as being “true.” Sense impressions can only be justified as true on the basis of an assertion which cannot be grounded in the sense impressions.
Only a theological presupposition can justify sense impressions as being “true.” And so, rather than theological claims being half-witted step-children of rational inquiry, theological claims are the only thing which makes any rational inquiry possible.
I am going to begin with first asserting the nature of “psychology’s” claim to scientific knowledge about the nature of human knowledge. Having situated that assertion on the basis of sense impression, I will then proceed to demonstrate the manner in which sense impressions bear an arbitrary and unjustified correlation to the “real world.”
In a way, I am going to ask you to believe me, rather than your lying eyes.
Psychology’s Claim to Knowledge About Knowledge
Psychology occupies a unique place among academic disciplines. All disciplines whether science or humanity state a claim to knowledge. Roman history is a claim to knowledge concerning Rome. Physics is a claim to knowledge concerning “matter and energy and the effect that each has on the other.”
Psychology claims to have certain knowledge about the internal “psychological” functioning of human beings. In that respect, psychology is similar to other disciplines. Thus, a psychologist who studies the effectiveness of various teaching techniques would have knowledge about that teaching techniques.
But psychology, or at least certain subdisciplines of psychology claim to possess knowledge about how we know. Such a psychologist would claim to have knowledge about how the physicist can understand matter and energy – not about the experiments or observations of the physicist, but rather how the physicist as a human being can acquire knowledge.
For most of human history, the examination of how we know, epistemology, was the work of philosophers. And as such, the various positions were up for debate. One could hold to Plato or Kant. But something has happened with psychology’s entry into the field. Rather merely positing a philosophy of knowledge, psychology claims to assert a scientific knowledge of knowledge itself.
The Word “Science”
The word “science” has a peculiar place in our rhetoric. By asserting something is “science,” we mean that it is an unassailable truth; it is an objective determination which must be acceded to by all reasonable people.
At this point, I need to take an aside note the difficult of discussing “science” at this moment in time. There is a rational contention well-grounded in Christian thought that the world is there, is comprehensible, and follows regular patterns laid down by God. We would call these “laws of nature.”
Eventually, the predominate position of those who examine such things became since there are laws in nature, there is no need to conclude there is a God of nature. (This is a wholly unwarranted position, but is not my concern at the moment.) That position that there is an objective world which follows laws which can be observed and largely understood is in a general matter a presupposition for science.
This understanding reached its highwater mark when it was enshrined as federal law. In case which considered whether Intelligent Design could be taught as science, the court held that “science” is a field of knowledge which specifically excludes God from consideration:
Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (9:19-22 (Haught); 5:25-29 (Pennock); 1:62 (Miller)). This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. (5:28 (Pennock)). Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth. (9:21-22 (Haught); 1:63 (Miller)). In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. (9:21 (Haught); 1:64, 87 (Miller)). While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).
As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter “NAS”) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. (1:94, 160-61 (Miller); 14:72 (Alters); 37:31 (Minnich)). NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data — the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.” (P-649 at 27).
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (M.D. Pa. 2005) 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 735-36. I say highwater, because shortly after this extreme form of “science” has come under attack from various directions.
From one direction, science is being attacked on racist and oppressive.
A math education professor in New York City claimed that the equation 2+2=4 “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy.”
From another direction, “science” is being asserted as an unassailable truth for political reasons. Such as statement that a man who believes he is a woman is scientifically a woman. Or the assertion that one must “follow the science” as a rhetorical stratagem to deny debate over continuous political issues. We will have reason to consider the nature of “science” in later essays.
For purposes of this essay, I will limit my examination of “science” largely to the definition of Kitzmiller and the “scientism” as explained by J.P. Moreland:
In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. Strong scientism implies that something is true, rationally justified, or known if and only if it is a scientific claim that has been success fully tested and that is being used according to appropriate scientific methodology. There are no truths that can be known apart from appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences.
What this means is that if psychology is making a scientific-claims to understand human knowledge, psychology is in a position to exclude from consideration all things which “psychology” deems unscientific. Holding a position to “scientific” knowledge of knowing is a powerful place. As will be shown below, the claim to a self-authenticating “scientific” knowledge cannot be sustained, because at it most basic level, the matter of sense perception is itself not self-authenticating.
Epistemology as a Subdomain of Psychology
Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the preeminent philosophers of logic in the 20th Century, went so far as to sound as if the entire field of epistemology were merely an aspect of psychology:
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input—certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance—and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology; namely, in order to see how evidence related to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence.
In this sense, psychology has a peculiar relationship to knowledge. But there is more. Again, I wish to emphasis what a profound shift is made by claiming to scientific knowledge as the basis of epistemology.
The great schools of epistemology gathered around Descartes or Plato or Locke or Kant all base their claim on the strength of philosophical inquiry. But the psychologist claims to “science,” a supposed disinterested and objective understanding of the world. A philosopher may have a “belief,” while science has certain objective knowledge.
The Problem Presented for Theological Inquiry
This presents an interesting problem for the theologian looking at psychology. Theology has moved to a subdomain of philosophy (at best) among the broader academic world, and can argue at best for “faith,” a private arena of opinion which may solace one but has no purchase in the “public square.” While “science” is a kind of knowledge which cannot be denied by any reasonable human being. In fact, to merely charge someone as rejecting science is sufficient to end the argument.
And so from a “respectable” position, my undertaking here seems a fools errand, or at something centuries out-of-date.
But I do not believe that it is true. As we will see, there is a fundamental difficulty which lies at the heart of this sure objective knowledge. In fact. it is by examining the peculiar nature of our senses – as our senses are understood by rational scientific inquiry – that makes the entire edifice of self-attesting science suspect.
The rhetorical trick of asserting “science” is in fact that: a rhetorical move, but neither an argument nor evidence.
But as we shall see, psychology’s claim to knowledge is far from simple or certain. Its claim to scientific certain is undercut by that same science which gives rise to its claims. Moreover, the questions of knowledge cannot be resolved with resort to philosophy and theology.
In summary: the work of senses does not give us a reliable basis upon which to be certain about the world. I am not saying there is some defect in our sense. But what I am saying is that sensory apparatus is not self-authenticating. We have no reason to trust our senses if the only ground of that trust is the senses themselves. (And this becomes quite strange when we realize that what we know about our senses comes from our senses).
If we are to ground a belief in the reliability of our senses and the reality of the objective world, we will not find an adequate ground in the production of neurotransmitters (and the production of neurotransmitters is all our senses do.
The Overall Project
While we will begin in this essay with a consideration of our senses and the production of sense impressions, that is not the totality of our knowledge. To fully understand the production of knowledge, we will need to carve up the question of knowledge into a series of issues.
First, there is the initial question of how do we apprehend the environment? Second, there is the organization of that information into cognizable units. Third, we must address the issue of brain and mind. Fourth, we come to the level of meaning. The question of meaning will entail a number of separate questions. We must consider emotion and cognition. We must consider certainty of that knowledge.
Fifth we come to question which lies within psychology subject matter: Rather than just learning about physical objects as is done by a physicist or a chemist, the psychology claims a knowledge of the unobservable psychological state of another human being.
What do we mean by “facts”?
Having said that psychology claims to a certainty of knowledge as a science entails a particular sort of claim. By claiming to be a science, psychology claims to possess facts about the world and also to propose connections and organizing theories concern the world based upon those facts.
The facts are obtained by means of observation. Sense data is obtained and categorized. Through a process of laborious induction (repeated observations), certain patterns are perceived, such as rain only falls when there are clouds in the sky; or, my skin feels warmer when the sun shines on it.
A theory of some sort is proposed which explains “why” rain is tied to clouds or sunlight is tied to heat. That proposal is then tested. If the proposal after testing continues to make sense we have an arrangement of information which we call science.
Without question, psychology, like all science, rests upon an essentially empiricist foundation:
In philosophy generally, empiricism is a theory of knowledge emphasizing the role of experience.
In the philosophy of science, empiricism is a theory of knowledge which emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to experience, especially as formed through deliberate experimental arrangements.
It is a fundamental requirement of scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.
Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.
And while there are variations among particular schools and particular psychologists (for instance, someone like Jung strays rather far afield from the narrower understanding of “science”), unstated givens for the work run along the lines of Locke through Hume. The world is understood on the basis of induction generated from sense data. A conclusion is then confirmed by the “scientific method”.
The rock bottom of this whole process is the certainty that our sensory apparatus provides us a sure access the world. Science is built upon the bedrock of this sense data. Locke, who provides us with the philosophical starting point of empiricism takes the sense data as the given for his analysis:
My purpose, therefore, is to enquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, and also into the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent. I shan’t involve myself with the biological aspects of the mind. For example, I shan’t wrestle with the question of what alterations of our bodies lead to our having sensation through our sense-organs or to our having any ideas in our understandings. Challenging and entertaining as these questions may be, I shall by-pass them because they aren’t relevant to my project. All we need for my purposes is to consider the human ability to think.
Book I, Chapter 1, paragraph 2. David Hume furthers this sentiment as follows:
In short, all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: The mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, to express myself in philosophical language, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.
p. 13 (see below for cite) It is the common accessibility of this sense data to all persons which provides a basis for taking this information as “objective.”
It is at this point of sense data, that the agnostic and the atheist reject the notion of God as at best an inference to explain the relationship between various facts and thus as bad science dismissed as ‘faith’ – a sort of lessor knowledge. It is the inability to gain direct knowledge of God’s person through our senses in the way that I gain knowledge of rabbits and rocks that makes God a disputable proposition. (This argument lies at the heart of the Kitzmiller decision above: since I can’t probe God the way I probe a sea cucumber, God is not “real” or least not objectively knowable.)
And so, at the level of sensory perception we have a claim to certain knowledge and a basis upon which we (humans) reject the existence of God.
Psychology, laying claim to domain expertise at this very point, thus raises some profoundly theological considerations which we pass by at our peril.
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF SENSORY PERCEPTION
Our naïve understanding of sight may run along the lines of manner in which a film camera. Film works because certain substances undergo an effectively permanent chemical response based upon exposure to light:
The imaging layers contain sub-micron sized grains of silver-halide crystals that act as the photon detectors. These crystals are the heart of photographic film. They undergo a photochemical reaction when they are exposed to various forms of electromagnetic radiation — light. In addition to visible light, the silver-halide grains can be sensitized to infrared radiation.
The pattern on the film forms an analog to the pattern of light which strikes the film. Light strikes an object, is bounced from the object to the film and on the film it makes a pattern which corresponds to the pattern and to the color (if color film) of the original. To use a tangible analogy, film works like a seal pressed into wax: one substance repeats the pattern in another substance.
The intuitive understanding of sight, and certainly an earlier understanding of sight, was that the eye simply bears the impress of the world around it.
However, a better analogy to understand sight is that it functions like digital photograph. There is in fact a correspondence between the perception and the world, but that correspondence is by means of a fundamental transformation. Texas Tech University provides a useful description of the functionality of digital photography:
The CCD is a collection of tiny light-sensitive diodes, which convert photons (light) into electrons (electrical charge). These diodes are called photosites. In a nutshell, photons are converted to electron by the photosite and the electron is converted to voltage. Then, these analog forms (voltage) are digitized into pixels within the supporting camera circuitry before downloading to memory.
The importance here is that the original information is transformed from one form into a completely different structure. The pattern of light registered by the diodes is transformed in a collection of numbers: the information is digitized. The pattern created by the original impress of the light is gone having been translated into an entirely new (although correspondent) form of information.
This is essentially the mechanism by which our senses function: information from the environment is registered and then translated.
A detailed discussion of the physiology of sight would exceed our present needs. However, the general outline of the procedure will be of help. And so at the expense of simplifying this intricate process, and with all due apology, I will proceed:
First, there is the matter of bottom-up processing. This is the input of information from the environment. When light has passed through the lens of the eye, it lands on the retina:
The retina is a thin, delicate, transparent sheet of tissue derived from neuroectoderm. It comprises the sensory neurons that begin the visual pathway. The neural retina (neuroretina) is divided into nine layers: layer of inner and outer segments of the photoreceptors (rods and cones), external limiting membrane, outer nuclear layer, outer plexiform layer, inner nuclear layer, inner plexiform layer, ganglion cell layer, nerve fiber layer, and internal limiting membrane….Light must traverse these many layers before initiating signal transduction in the rods and cones.
If we consider this a bit more, we discover: “First is the fact that photons are discrete and are absorbed entirely, at which point they disappear.” (A photon is a “particle” of light.) How exactly does the photon “disappear”?
A single photon can interact with a long photosensitive molecule called retinal and quantum mechanics says that there is a certain quantum amplitude (a complex number whose length squared determines the probability of an event) for the photon to be absorbed, in which case the molecule changes it shape (called “photoisomerization”), which in turn triggers a powerful chemical amplification mechanism that makes the brain eventually aware of the photon being absorbed.
The photosensitive cells are known as “rods” and “cones”:
The retina contains two types of photoreceptors, rods and cones. The rods are more numerous, some 120 million, and are more sensitive than the cones. However, they are not sensitive to color. The 6 to 7 million cones provide the eye’s color sensitivity and they are much more concentrated in the central yellow spot known as the macula. In the center of that region is the ” fovea centralis “, a 0.3 mm diameter rod-free area with very thin, densely packed cones.
These photosensitive rods and cones are neurons. A primary function of a neuron is to receive a message and/or send a message, a signal. When then rod or cones is struck a photon it immediately passes on that information in a manner “just like any other neurons.” Thus, information is transferred by means of neurotransmitters. But the rods and cones are not the only type of cells on the retina. Moreover, there is an interaction among the cells to convey information. While you do not need to fully understand the mechanics, even a glimpse of the complexity at this space may help to understand all that follows:
The dichotomy between ON and OFF responses is a central one in the early stages of vision. About half of the cells in the early visual system respond to light by increasing their rate of firing and half by decreasing it. One may imagine the situation as being a push-pull one. Retinal ganglion cells have fairly restricted rates of firing. Their operating range is from around 0 to around 1,000 Hz. The cells that are inhibited by light (OFF cells) tend to have a higher level of spontaneous activity in the dark. They fire steadily even in the absence of a stimulus. This means that they have a working range at “negative” rates of firing–rates below their resting rate. One interpretation is that the overall range of signaling is thus expanded by having cells that work in two directions.
Another way to think about it is to consider the situation at an edge between a light and a dark zone. What the visual system really cares about is transitions between light and dark. Uniform areas of illumination carry little information; it is the points of change where information if contained. If one has a light-dark edge, is the information contained in the lightness or the darkness? It’s a glass that might be half empty or half full. Information is contained in both lightness and darkness and the visual system respects each equally.
And so the information generated by means of the various combinations of cells on the retina interacting with the light send a series of messages down the optic nerve and to the thalamus, in particular to the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus, commonly referred to as the LGN. From there, information will eventually make its way to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. A visual representation of the processing channel looks like this:
The information processed by the LGN then is sent back to the visual cortex where it is processed as “sight”. Now questions about “who” is seeing this, or how anything is “seen” will wait until a later essay. But this stage in our perception is not as “bottom-up processing.”
“Bottom-up processing” (top down comes next) is the reception of some information from our environment which is observed by our senses by means of some sort of neurological response (a photon hits the retina, a sound wave hits the ear drum, and so one). The thing which is in the environment sets off a neurological cascade. One neuron informs another neuron and so on of the fact that a photon struck a particular place on the retina. The photon is not processed by the brain. The photon is no different than flipping a switch to turn on a light or a fan.
The initial reception of the environment is turned into an electro-chemical message. There is a complete translation of the environment into a format which can be processed by our brain.
And so we have considered a single aspect of our sensory perception: What we know is that the thing itself, but rather a translation of photons into a message conveyed by neurotransmitters. At this point, the question will become more complex – and in a strange way, less “real.”
Now something quite interesting happens at this point. The LGN does not merely receive information from the retina. Information also comes in from other parts of the brain. A schematic of the information appears as follows:
What I want you to see from this slide is that information concerning the object observed does not come solely from the light striking the retina. There is information coming from the visual cortex as well as the brain stem:
The axons of ganglion cells exit the retina to form the optic nerve, which travels to two places: the thalamus (specifically, the lateral geniculate nucleus, or LGN) and the superior colliculus. The LGN is the main relay for visual information from the retina to reach the cortex. Despite this, the retina only makes up about 20% of all inputs to the LGN, with the rest coming from the brainstem and the cortex. So more than simply acting as a basic relay for visual input from retina to cortex, the LGN is actually the first part of our visual pathway that can be modified by mental states.
The creation of the image which is perceived is not simply a matter of taking in data from a photosensor, as in a digital photograph. Yes, there is the analogy to the digital photograph, but there is something more. Your brain does not merely translate photons into an array of neurotransmitters, it also constructs the image in something called “top-down processing.”
Below is a more technical explanation of what takes places in top-down processing. In in the simplest possible terms, our perceptions are not merely an imprint of the world (like film); nor is our perception simply a digital version of the world (like a digital camer). Rather, our perception is partially the result of information from the outside, but it is also the result of a construction imposed by brain based upon information outside the data from our senses: this information could be prior experience (for instance). What you need to understand is that our perception of the world is a matter of construction based upon current and prior experience of the world. Here is the more technical summary:
The functional properties of cortical neurons are not fixed. Rather, they can be thought of as adaptive processors, changing their function according to the behavioral context, and their responses reflect the demands of the perceptual task being performed. Cortical neurons are subject to top-down influences of attention, expectation and perceptual task. “Top-down” refers to cognitive influences and higher order representations that impinge upon earlier steps in information processing. Such influences represent a reversal of the central dogma of sensory information processing, which is based on feedforward connections along a hierarchy of cortical areas representing progressively more complex aspects of the visual scene. But superimposed on the feedforward pathways there are reentrant or feedback pathways that convey higher order information to antecedent cortical areas. The top-down signal carries a rich amount of information that facilitates the interpretation of the visual scene and that enables the visual system to build a stable representation of the objects within it, despite rapid and continuous eye movements. It facilitates our ability to segment the complex arrangement of multiple objects and backgrounds in the visual scene. In addition, the top-down signal plays a role in the encoding and recall of learned information. The resulting feedforward signals carried by neurons convey different meanings about the same visual scene according to the behavioral context. This idea is in stark contrast with the classical notion of a hierarchy of visual cortical areas — where information is conveyed in a feedforward fashion to progressively higher levels in the hierarchy, beginning with the analysis of simple attributes such as contrast and orientation, and leading to more complex functional properties from one stage to the next — and implies that vision is an active process. As we analyze visual scenes we set up countercurrent streams of processing, with the resulting percept reflecting the set of functional states of all the areas in the visual cortical hierarchy. In this review we consider the receptive field properties that are subject to top-down influences, the nature of the information that is conveyed by reentrant pathways, and how the information carried by neurons depends on behavioral context. Over longer time periods receptive fields can change to accommodate alterations in visual experience. These lines of evidence point towards an evolving view of the nature of the receptive field, which includes contextual influences and emphasizes its dynamic nature, with neurons taking on different properties in response to experience and expectation.
What this means is that what we experience as sense perception is not simply looking out at the world and seeing what is there.
Over the course of time, we take in information from the world about us through our sense organs. That information is correlated in various was to build up a useful understanding of the world. This aspect of our understanding was developed most famously by Jean Piaget. It is not necessary to conclude that Piaget’s explanation of the development of objects, space, and causality in the child are correct at all points to find the overall thrust of his understanding to be correct.
In the Introduction to his The Construction of Reality in the Child, that Piaget during the first two years of life, the child
At first directly assimilating the external environment of his own activity, later, in order ot extend this assimilation, forms an increasing number of schemata which are both more mobile and better able to coordinate. [Italics added]
Side by side with this progressive involvement of the assimilatory schemata runs the continuous elaboration of the external universe, in other words, the convergent development of explanatory function.
Jean Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child, trans. Margaret Cook (New York: Basic Books, 1954), p. xi. That is, the child develops mechanisms to understand the world about him. It is not that the child opens up his eyes and sees a world of permanent objects situated in space and time operating upon one-another by means of cause and effect. Instead, those concepts of external objects situated in space and time interacting by means of cause and effect are schemata the child develops and uses to understand the world. The remainder of the book is the detail on how such schemata are developed.
It is perhaps interesting to note that Kant held that the concepts of space and time are impositions of our mind; and that Hume held that causality was also an imposition upon reality by our mind. But a further analysis of the philosophers is beyond our instant concern.
What does matter is that our understanding of the world about us is not simply seeing “what is there.” Instead, while we begin with information from the world about us, we are also constructing that world by means of schemata.
The way in which such schemata function was illustrated by use finding an image from an obscure original:
To illustrate the basic idea of why top-down processing is needed, researchers have created binarized photographs. In such photographs, gray-scale pixels are replaced with white if their brightness value is above a chosen threshold, or replaced with black if it is below this value. Because binarized images are highly degraded, pure bottom-up processes typically cannot organize them correctly into their constituent parts, and often one needs to use previously acquired knowledge about objects to identify the objects in them.
The precise nature of this top-down processing is a matter of current research. The particulars of this procedure are not necessary for our purposes. What must be known is that the images we “see” are both based upon the information currently received from the environment and also the information which is constructed by use of pre-existing information.
A Quick Note on Pre-Existing Information
While the schemata applied to construct the imagery we experience is pre-existing, we should also note that even the basic information obtained from the environment is subject to pre-existing information constraints.
A receptor neuron fires on my retina, that information is then passed back to my optic nerve. Some bit of data is processed, a “color”, a “shape”. The colors and shapes which could be constructed must already be existing there in the optic nerve (wherever the actual processing takes places for color and shape). The color is not in the light, the color is in my processing of the light. The blue I see in the sky as I sit in my backyard and write is a construction of my brain. That blue must pre-exist the response of a cone on my retina. The firing of the cone merely says, process “blue.” But that “blue” is not out in nature.
This may sound overly “philosophic” or even untrue at present. But by the time we conclude our understanding of sensory perception, you will see the utter strangeness of this problem.
Proof of our observations being construction
If you want proof of the extent to which this imposition upon the world is a manufacture of our sensory system, consider the nature of optical illusions.
I will start with a basic example: Seeing small things as being at a distance is a construction. My anthropology teacher at UCLA had done his field work with pygmies in an African rain forest. He said that when a pygmy was taken from the forest to the edge of the plain, the man would see buffalo at a great distance. Only the pygmy who had spent his entire life never seeing further than say 30 feet away did not see distance: he saw size. The buffalo were not small because they were far away; they were small because they were small.
The distance is not in what we see but in what we know about what see. We have a schemata for distance; the pygmy had none and could not see that distance. It was not a failure of intelligence; it was a failure prior experience.
It has been discovered that the following illusion (among others) is the product of one’s prior experience. Let us consider the Müller-Lyer illusion:
For those reading this essay, the lines on the left (with the flared fins, like the tail of an arrow) will appear longer than the lines on the right (with the pointed fins which appear like an arrowhead). And now to the research:
For decades, vision researchers assumed that the illusion told us something fundamental about human vision. When they showed the illusion to people with normal vision, they were convinced that the line with the inward-pointing arrows would seem longer than the line with outward-pointing arrows. That assumption wasn’t really tested before the 1960s, because until then almost everyone who had seen the illusion was WEIRD—an acronym that cultural psychologists have coined for people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. In the early 1960s, three researchers remedied that oversight when they showed the illusion to two thousand people from fifteen different cultural groups. The illusion deceived the first few groups. Adults living in Evanston, Illinois, perceived Line B to be on average 20 percent longer than Line A, while students at nearby Northwestern University and white adults in South Africa similarly believed that Line B was between 13 percent and 15 percent longer than Line A. Then the researchers journeyed farther afield, testing people from several African tribes. Bushmen from southern Africa failed to show the illusion at all, perceiving the lines as almost identical in length. Small samples of Suku tribespeople from northern Angola and Bete tribespeople from the Ivory Coast also failed to show the illusion, or saw Line B as only very slightly longer than Line A. Müller-Lyer’s eponymous illusion had deceived thousands of people from WEIRD societies for decades, but it wasn’t universal.
Yet, later research offered a contradictory reading of the evidence. A researcher at Macquarie University when using a computer designed to mimic the human eye was also tricked by the illusion. This may mean (1) the computer programmer being WEIRD found his bias in the program he created, or (2) people from different places have different physiological functions, or (3) some other process has led to this illusion. While I tend toward answer (1), the fact remains that the illusion has been caused by top-down processing creating the illusion.
Before we leave this matter of top-down processing, I wish for you to be clear on the extent to which our basic perception of the world is a matter of construction: Our brain does not passively record the world, it actively constructs the world as we experience it.
There are a number of experiments which have shown that the way food and drink tastes can depend upon a number of factors beyond the food itself. An article in Wired magazine cites to these studies (you can find the references linked in the article) which then concludes with this statement:
And this is why the ambience of a restaurant matters. All those rituals of the table are not mere routines. Instead, they help us make sense of the incomplete information coming from the tongue. For instance, when we eat a meal in a fancy place, full of elaborate place settings, fine porcelain and waiters wearing tuxedos, the food is going to taste different than if we ate the same food in a cheap diner. (This helps explain why people spend more money when restaurants play classical music instead of pop tunes.) Because the music matters, but so does everything else. The tongue is easy to dupe.
I wish to stand back and defend the tongue. The tongue has not been tricked in the least: it has done exactly what it was supposed to do. But the tongue is not the last word on taste. The tongue provides some of the information we process as the “taste” of food; but just like our sight, the taste is a construction which uses a limited amount of raw materials from the environment.
Here is the bottom line: The world we experience is not exactly the world as it exists. First, a photon, a movement of air, a chemical wafted to our nose, a food on our tongue, triggers a response in a nerve. That nerve then responds to the environment and sends a message to our brain. Our brain takes that information as well as other information which was not present in that particular response and creates some information which we experience as a sight or sound or taste or tactical quality or scent. That thing we experience is not what is out in the world. What we experience is representation built by our brain.
But we are not nearly done with the problems of our perception of the world.
In 1938, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman began experimenting with a chemical isolated in fungus which grew on rye and was known to cause strange effects on people eating contaminated rye. This fungus is known as ergot. The chemical which affected the circulatory system was isolated. Thereafter, Hoffman developed a means of synthetically producing this chemical, known as “lysergic acid.” Hoffman then began to experiment:
Using this method, he recreated ergot’s active ingredients as well as novel but similar compounds that, based on the potency of the ergot compounds, could reasonably be expected to have medical uses.
In a sense Hofmann was playing God, combining lysergic acid with various other organic molecules just to see what happened. He created 24 of these lysergic acid combinations. Then he created the 25th, reacting lysergic acid with diethylamine, a derivative of ammonia. The compound was abbreviated as LSD-25 for the purposes of laboratory testing.
Apparently Useless’: The Accidental Discovery of LSD, Tom Shroder, September 9, 2014
In a self-experiment, Hoffman ingested the chemical he created:
Hofmann didn’t discover the drug’s hallucinogenic effects until 1943 when he accidentally ingested a small amount and perceived “extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Three days later, on April 19, 1943, he took a larger dose of the drug. As Hofmann rode home from work on his bicycle—World War II restrictions made automobile travel off-limits—he experienced the world’s first intentional acid trip.
In his first person account of what happened, My Problem Child, Hoffman recounts the effects of this self-experiment as follows:
By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the
altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I
had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who
was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no
automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On
the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my
field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I
also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my
assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived
at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion
to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.
In spite of my delirious, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear
and effective thinking – and chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for
The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could
no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings
had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room
spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed
grotesque, threatening forrns. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if
driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely
recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than
two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious
witch with a colored mask.
Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the
alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of
my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world
and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded
me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed,
trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on
the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished
me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will. I was seized by
the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another
place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless,
strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to
be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the
While LSD-25 is perhaps the most “famous” of all psychedelic drugs, having been famous by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, it is certainly not the only psychedelic known to human beings. Various psychedelic drugs have been known to produce “mystical” experiences. The English writer Aldus Huxley, having experimented with psychedelics (which were perfectly legal through much of the 20th century), wrote a provocative book entitled, The Doors of Perception. He took the title from a epigram of English poet William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). Huxley’s thesis was that the effect of psychedelic drugs lay behind all “religious” or “mystic experience”:
Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born – the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language.
I know Huxley’s belief that psychedelic drugs stands behind the “experience” of something divine seems a little afield from the thesis of this essay, which is that sensory experience is insufficient to be self-authenticating. But there is a second-thesis in this essay, namely, that the thesis of sense experience being self-authenticating is a basis upon which we can deny God: I don’t see God in the same way I see a rock, therefore, a rock is more real than God. My goal in this essay to bring you to understand that sense-experience can only be justified on the thesis of a guarantee of God.
Huxley in a strange way is supportive of my thesis. The belief that God must be justified as a certain type of sense-experience arose in a particular historical context and was justified on the basis of certain presuppositions of that historical context. The Enlightenment understanding (to take the idea in a broad fashion), argues that we can merely “subtract” God from our understanding and we can see the world as it actually is. We can see things in motion, we can see things behaving in a regular manner (“laws of nature”). Since things act regularly, and since the only thing which is true is something I can see, God is an unnecessary thesis: (1) I don’t need an agent constantly tinkering; and (2) I don’t see that agent anyway.
But this is actually a philosophy which contains various presuppositions. It is not actually “the way things are.” James K.A. Smith summarizes an argument from Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) on this point, nicely:
(1) What pretends to be a “discovery” of the ways things are, the “obvious” unveiling of realith once we remove (subtract) myth and enchantment, is in fact a construction, a creation; in short, this wasn’t just a subtraction project. (2) Baseline moral commitments stand behind CWS [“closed world structures”: ideas which exclude the divine], specifically the coming-of-age metaphor of adulthood, having the courage to resist the comforting enchantments of childhood. In short to just “see” the closedness of the immanent frame is to be grown-up.
How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2014, p. 99 Taylor explains this “move” as follows:
[W]hat is being claimed is that some move is being passed off as simple discovery, which in fact is much more like a new construction; a change that involves also a new sense of our identity and our place in the world, with its implicit values, rather than simply registering observable reality.
What Huxley’s proves is that the secure sensation of a stable “Enlightenment” world is easily capable of being destabilized by merely a modification of top-down processing (which the psychedelic drug causes). Those effects include:
Perceptual effects occur along a dose-dependent range from subtle to drastic. The range of different perceptual effects includes perceptual intensification, distortion, illusion, mental imagery, elementary hallucination, and complex hallucination (Klüver, 1928; Kometer and Vollenweider, 2016; Preller and Vollenweider, 2016). Intensifications of color saturation, texture definition, contours, light intensity, sound intensity, timbre variation, and other perceptual characteristics are common (Kometer and Vollenweider, 2016; Kaelen et al., 2018). The external world is experienced as if in higher resolution, seemingly more crisp and detailed, often accompanied by a distinct sense of ‘clarity’ or ‘freshness’ in the environment (Hofmann, 1980; Huxley, 1991; Díaz, 2010; Kometer and Vollenweider, 2016). Sense of meaning in percepts is altered, e.g., ‘Things around me had a new strange meaning for me’ or ‘Objects around me engaged me emotionally much more than usual’ (Studerus et al., 2010).
Perceptual distortions and illusions are extremely common, e.g., ‘Things looked strange’ or ‘My sense of size and space was distorted’ or ‘Edges appeared warped’ or ‘I saw movement in things that weren’t actually moving’ (Dittrich, 1998; Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). Textures undulate in rhythmic movements, object boundaries warp and pulsate, and the apparent sizes and shapes of objects can shift rapidly (Kometer and Vollenweider, 2016). Controlled psychophysical studies have measured various alterations in motion perception (Carter et al., 2004), object completion (Kometer et al., 2011), and binocular rivalry (Frecska et al., 2004; Carter et al., 2007).
It is not necessary to detail precisely all that psychedelic-drugs do: that is a matter of current research. Briefly, psychedelic drugs alter the mechanics of top-down processing (citations to resources which discuss this are found in this footnote).
This must be understood: From the perspective of the person experiencing a hallucination, the sensory data being subjectively understood is completely real. When I was a boy, my doctor treated my asthma with a drug named “Marax.” An uncommon, but quite real, side effect of Marax is visual hallucination. I can tell you for a certainty, that the enormous flying ant with bright white wings terrified me. In no sense was that insect not present on the in the doorway to my bedroom. I can still vividly recall the sight of that “nonexistent” insect. The only evidence I had of it being untrue is my father calmly telling me there was no such thing there.
Before we move to the next topic of sensory perception, I want to consider what we have determined: (1) the common “objective” experience of us all is the result of not of naïve seeing “what is there,” but rather the result of a complex process in the brain involving both information from the outside and a deliberate construction of that information into a form. (2) Those forms are affected by our prior history, including cultural exposure. (3) Those forms can create things which cannot actually exist. This is proven by (a) optical illusions, and (b) psychedelic drugs.
No one sees “what is there.” We only see that which our brain constructs in response to neurotransmitters released as a response our neurons on a retina being exposed to photons and having those messages integrated and constructed on the basis of brain structure (which function can be fundamentally altered by drugs) and prior experience.
I wish to further “problematize” the question of our sensory perception by means a further proof of the strangely arbitrary nature of our understand: what happens when you “see sound.”
When I turned 13, I very much wanted to play the piano. My parents were good enough to purchase a piano for me which they could barely afford. I spent entire days doing nothing by banging on the piano our den. What I didn’t know was that the keys on the piano changing colors which waves of colored sound moving up and down the keyboard was an unusual experience. I will tell you that I saw colors moving through the keyboard as I played. Those colors were “there” every bit as much as the black and white of the keys.
And yet, you likely would not have seen any of these colors. Now, if I saw them, and if they were produced by the act of sound waves striking my ear drum and then being processed by brain, how are they not “real.” In what sense can you say that hearing a “sound” as the result of moving ear striking my eardrum is “real”, but seeing a “color” is not “real.”
Your sense organs are merely mechanisms to produce some combination of neurotransmitters. A photon here produces this combination, a sound wave there produces a different neurotransmitter combination, and messages are sent hither-and-yon to received and processed.
But to this point, we intuitively think there is a reasonableness, a necessity in our perception. We assume that we “see” light, because it is the nature of light to be seen. We hear sound, because it is appropriate for movements of air to be “heard.” Sounds are what air does; and color is what light does.
If you will recall, above, I said that color does not exist in the light but rather it exists in my brain. Color is something my brain does with a certain signal received by the optic nerve. Color is not in the light; it’s in your brain.
An analogy will help here: If you have ever had the misfortune of installing a combination ceiling fan overhead light, you have my sympathy. It is a miserable task. But it is also a good analogy for what we need to understand about the senses.
Near the door to the room, somewhere between 4 & 5 feet from the floor is a toggle switch which regulates the flow of electricity to the room. If the switch is “on” electricity will flow past the switch and to whatever device is attached to the wire(s).
When it comes to the overhead fan/light the electricity is distributed separately to the light and to the fan motor. Often additional switches are used to regulate electricity to the light and the motor, separately. If the main switch is “on” and the light switch is “on”, the light will shine. If the motor switch is “on,” the motor will turn the fan. If you turn off the light and leave on the motor, the fan will move and no light will be generated. If you turn off the motor and turn on the light, you will have light and no fan.
The electricity is the same for both the light and the motor. The difference is not in the electricity but what the end of the wire is attached to. Just to drive this point home, because you will want it to be unstuck in a moment, I will mention a television commercial which asks the question, “How sure are you of your wiring job?” A woman comes into the kitchen and flips the light switch. Her husband has his hand in the garbage disposal. Will the light come on, or will he lose his hand? Same electricity, different result.
Your senses work the same way. The message sent from a rod on your retina does not by necessity need to have the message processed by your optic nerve. Those neurotransmitters could send a message to your olfactory nerve and you could “smell” with your eyes.
Nonsense you say.
But what if were to tell you this actually does happen—usually not retina to olfactory—but it does happen:
Basically, when people experience synesthesia, they can hear colors, smell sounds, and even taste music. And, to add to the complexity, almost every combination of sensory information is possible with synesthesia.1 Here a few of its most common manifestations.
Grapheme-Color Synesthesia – Letters and numbers appear with specific colors.
Auditory-Tactile Synesthesia – Hearing a sound causes a bodily sensation.
Chromesthesia – Certain sounds cause a person to see colors.
Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia – Hearing certain words triggers specific tastes.
Mirror-Touch Synesthesia – A person feels (tactile) what another is experiencing.
Interestingly, synesthesia can happen with or without taking drugs.
Since what we perceive is actually the construction of our brain, and since that construction is on the basis of electro-chemical messages, any sense neuron could be paired (theoretically) with any portion of the brain which processes the input of sense neurons.
Here is the bottom-line: there is no inherent correlation between photons and color or shape, between sound waves and sound. That color and light, those sounds, are constructions of the brain.
PERHAPS IT IS ALL A SIMULATION
In 2003 philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper in The Philosophical Quarterly entitled, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” which article has generated an enormous secondary literature. And while The Matrix reference can be understood readily enough, I wish to underscore a point which follows from the nature of empiricism as complete understanding of consciousness (the “scientism” thesis).
If the nature of consciousness is nothing more processing electrochemical information, then consciousness is replicable in a computer:
A common assumption in the philosophy of mind is that of substrate- independence. The idea is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors in a computer could in principle do the trick too.
244. Nothing in scientism can defeat such a thesis. Indeed, as argued by Fouad Khan in Scientific American in 2021, consciousness itself is evidence that we are living in a simulation:
Pretty much since the dawn of philosophy we have been asking the question: Why do we need consciousness? What purpose does it serve? Well, the purpose is easy to extrapolate once we concede the simulation hypothesis. Consciousness is an integrated (combining five senses) subjective interface between the self and the rest of the universe. The only reasonable explanation for its existence is that it is there to be an “experience.” That’s its primary raison d’être. Parts of it may or may not provide any kind of evolutionary advantage or other utility. But the sum total of it exists as an experience and hence must have the primary function of being an experience. An experience by itself as a whole is too energy-expensive and information-restrictive to have evolved as an evolutionary advantage. The simplest explanation for the existence of an experience or qualia is that it exists for the purpose of being an experience.
And thus, not only does empiricism not rule-out computer simulated consciousness, it is arguably even the most likely explanation for such. While the matter will be raised at further length below, it is evident that such an argument is theological. It answers a question well beyond the scope of anything which can seen or heard. It is an answer of ultimate meaning.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT SENSORY PERCEPTION COMES FROM SENSORY PERCEPTION
There is a peculiar which appears at this point: We have been speaking quite confidentially about the way in which our senses function. We have simultaneously argued (1) there is an arbitrary relationship between light and sight, between moving air and sound; and (2) the perception of which we are conscious is a construction.
Let’s consider some implications of these propositions. First, the nature of shapes and colors does not come from world outside us. The colors and shapes must precede the perception of such shapes and colors. The message sent from our retina merely triggers such colors. The photon cannot create a new color; it can only signal production of a pre-existing color.
Our interaction with the physical world can only result in the production of (new) combinations information which existed prior to the interaction with the environment.
This means we are hardwired (if you will) with a limitation on what we can understand about the world. This raises the interesting question: What is the source of this information? The sensory system is not built to acquire new information. There is no mechanism to acquire new information.
Second, what we know about sensory perception only comes from the sensory system itself. We can acquire no empirical knowledge around our senses. If our sense are arbitrary and contain such limitations, then how can we know that what we know about sensory system is “true” or complete?
THE LIMITATIONS ON SENSORY PERCEPTION
There is just one further aspect of sensory perception which we must consider: We don’t know what we don’t know. Until recently, we were unaware that the same waves which deliver visible light deliver infrared and ultraviolet “light.” Beyond these lie x-rays and radio waves. Bats hear sounds we cannot hear. Bloodhounds track scents we cannot smell. And so, there lies a world beyond our senses.
We have overcome such limitations by developing technology to extend our senses. We track these colors and sounds and the translate the information into some sense which makes sense to us. An infrared photograph of the sun is translated into a visible (false color) photograph. Such a translation provides us some, albeit incomplete, knowledge of that world.
But there is a greater problem. Since our senses are developed to only respond to a narrow range of potential attributes of the “real world” (whatever that might be), there could any number of things which are attributes of that world; attributes which are unknown and unknowable:
It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us, in the only manner, by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.
This leads to the very real possibility that the world is mostly unknown and unknowable:
The world is mostly unknown. This statement immediately emphasizes the point that we are not conscious of most of the environmental events that occur around us. The world consists of stimuli of which we may or may not be aware. These stimuli are pressure variations, chemicals, electromagnetic radiation, temperature, and even gravity.
EMPRICISM IS A TRICKY FOUNDATION
The prestige of “modern, modern science” (to use Schaffer’s apt phrase) lies in the self-authenticating claim of empiricism. But as we can see, empiricism does not provide self-authentication. It provides an arbitrary construction which is limited in ways we cannot even imagine. Indeed, empiricism may lead to the conclusion that what we perceive has been programmed by another. There is no “real world” to which have access.
Empiricism left to itself creates an epistemological trap from which we cannot escape. It cannot justify what we “know.” While we can be certain (at least in a sense used by Descartes) that we know what we know, we do not know what it is that we know. Empiricism leaves us trapped in our brain with no way out.
Indeed, it is difficult to know how empiricism can justify something beyond solipsism (which is merely a correlative of the computer simulation theory). It seems that if we are left with empiricism alone the best we can do is either (1) just ignore the problem, or (2) resign ourselves to an extreme form of skepticism such as belief that all life is illusory.
I am not saying that an atheist scientist who denies anything beyond the functioning of his brain and insists, without justification, that this sensation is self-authenticating knows nothing of the real world. Common grace is sufficient to provide a basis for some knowledge even without an adequate justification for the belief in the truthfulness of such knowledge.
But problem with meaning remains. This will be examined more in the next essay which will begin to address the question of “reason” when it comes to knowledge based upon sense perception (recall the thumbnail definition of science as empiricism and reason).
To set up that further consideration, I hope for you to understand the following: A fact “means” something based upon its relationship to some larger matrix of knowledge. If you are holding a baseball and start to throw it but stop, you have committed a “balk” if you are playing a game of baseball: that is what you stopped motion “means”. If you are in a park with your dog, the stopped motion “means” something quite different. If you are alone in your backyard, it has a third “meaning.” The word “gift” means poison in Germany and a pleasant surprise in Germantown, Pennsylvania.
What these sense perceptions “mean” depends upon the context in which we understand them to take place. I have attempted to outline the nature of our sensory apparatus based upon our observations of that sensory apparatus. If we understand these sensations developed in our brain as a matter of accumulated solutions to survival problems arrived at over millions of years, they have a particular meaning. If we understand these same sensations as the product of an apparatus designed by a loving Creator who intends for us to understand something of the Creator, the sensations have a different meaning.
The nature of the “meaning” when applied to sensations can be largely overlooked if one is a chemist, say. But when it comes to psychology, the question meaning is critical. As noted above, psychology holds a unique place as a “science” which claims to tell us how we know. The full implications of that claim will be developed as we continue our examination. But that question of meaning begins here when the photon sets off a series of electrical and chemical responses.
And it is to this point which I have aimed from the beginning. The greater claim of “psychology” is that it is scientific and based upon self-authenticating empiricism and reason. We have not considered reason, but we have seen that empiricism won’t answer to the demand made upon it.
To put a theological point on the problem, seeking to rely upon such an understanding of “science” is idolatry:
To justify our knowledge we must presuppose that (1) there is an appropriate correlation between light and sight (sense and perception); (2) the pre-existing information used to develop perceptions is appropriate; (3) what we have access to is sufficient; (4) what we know is “true.”
Someone with sufficient power and moral goodness outside us and before us alone can guarantee such knowledge. This is not a sufficient argument to contend that such a God must exist. But what this argument does require is that one cannot assert any nonsense that knowledge of the world or others can be had without such a God.
The manner in which understand basic sensation, the meaning we assign to such sensation will frame the remainder of analysis of psychology. As you can see, I propose that understanding sensation as an arbitrary process of our brain (which must be the conclusion of one how seeks to authenticate sensation on the basis of sensation) creates a level of incoherence in our understanding of human beings; and certainly creates a trouble at the most basic level of our science.
Since we all must begin with some presuppositions with themselves are not subject to analysis, I will begin the basic Christian propositions that our understanding must be informed by our text.
THE HEAVENS DECLARE
The dead end of empiricism certainly must be rejected on any Christian reading. Paul, in Romans 1, contends that we are held morally and eternally accountable to what we perceive:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Romans 1:18–25 (ESV) Paul here is laying an extraordinary burden upon our perception of the physical world. What is disclosed in the physical world and which is then realized through our senses is the basis upon which God will impose eternal judgment. Look at those words which end verse 21, “So they are without excuse.” That is a dumbfounding sentence.
As we have seen, the senses, on their own terms, are a mechanism which transform interactions with the environment (whatever it is) into some “perception” fixed in our brain (I am leaving the issue of mind to the side). The relationship between the initial contact with the environment and the realized sensation is a construction (top-down processing), arbitrary (as demonstrated by synthesia), and incomplete in some unknowable manner. It cannot authenticate the source of its own knowledge. And yet God will hold us eternally accountable for the same.
One corollary of this proposition, is that we must understand our sensory apparatus to be more than adequate: it provides us exactly as much information as God deems it minimally necessary. It must be “true” knowledge in a critical sense, because God will judge us on this knowledge. In short, Christianity provides a guarantee, a justification for believing the content of our sense perception. Calvin’s comment here is interesting for our purposes:
By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself.
Consider those words, “Man was created to be a spectator of this formed world.” Our capacity to perceive the world is in part a reason for which we were created. Our sensory apparatus is not merely adequate, it is necessary for our purpose in existing. At this point, I want you to consider the argument, above, made in connection with computer simulation: our conscious, having no survival purpose, can best be explained on the basis of living in a simulation. Calvin, relying upon Paul, says, our sensation and conscious awareness of that sensation is best explained on the basis that we were created to be spectators in the theater of God’s glory.
The knowledge we obtain in this theater should lead to a theological understaning of the world:
But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to “understand” something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19–20).
You can begin to understand the importance of putting our sensory perception into a theological framework. We are not just observing this and that for the purpose of not dying. We are observing for the purpose of coming to know God. This is the reason why the Psalmist says the world is declaring God:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Psalm 19:1–6 (ESV) The world, to use Calvin’s language, is a theater in which we are to observe the glory of God:
Therefore, because God has put us in this world as in a theatre, to contemplate his glory, let us acknowledge him to be such as he declares himself to us, and because he gives us the second instruction which is even more familiar in his word, let us be more confident and stirred with a burning zeal to aspire unto him until we reach that goal, and let us be aware that this world was created for that purpose and that our Lord has placed us here and has favored us with living here and enjoying all the things he has created.
Now, the sun was not made for itself and is even a creature without feeling. The trees, the each, which produces food for us — all of that works for man. The animals, although they move and have some feeling, do not do for all that have this high capacity to understand what belongs to God, for they do not discriminate between good and evil. We also see that their life and death are for men’s use and service.
This means that we should understand epistemology, a theory for knowing what we know and why, as doxological. An understanding of knowledge which does not lead to a deeper understanding of the glory of God is faulty at its core.
This presents an interesting problem: we cannot justify the content of sense experience on the basis of that sense experience; and simultaneously, we make ultimate claims which are grounded (at least in part) in sense experience. This leaves us with a theological problem.
 I am well aware that “psychology” is in practice an almost undefinable term. There are so many different schools of thought and such a wide array of fields, that the term is close to meaningless. For purposes of my examination, I am limiting my concerns in this essay to the sort of “scientific” work which is conducted at a university involving experiments and observations and theories which more or less match the procedures of a hard science. This particular essay which will focus primarily upon sensory perception will consider matter more in the line of physiology than Freud.
It is evident, that all reasonings from causes or effects terminate in conclusions, concerning matter of fact; that is, concerning the existence of objects or of their qualities. It is also evident, that the idea, of existence is nothing different from the idea of any object, and that when after the simple conception of any thing we would conceive it as existent, we in reality make no addition to or alteration on our first idea. Thus when we affirm, that God is existent, we simply form the idea of such a being, as he is represented to us; nor is the existence, which we attribute to him, conceived by a particular idea, which we join to the idea of his other qualities, and can again separate and distinguish from them. But
A Treatise of Human Nature (p. 69). Kindle Edition. Part I, sect. VII
The notion that hallucinogenic drugs played a significant part in the development of religion has been extensively discussed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century. Various ideas of this type have been collected into what has become known as the entheogen theory. The word entheogen is a neologism coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists (those that study the relationship between people and plants). The literal meaning of entheogen is “that which causes God to be within an individual” and might be considered as a more accurate and academic term for popular terms such as hallucinogen or psychedelic drug. By the term entheogen we understand the use of psychoactive substances for religious or spiritual reasons rather than for purely recreational purposes.
 David R Soderquist. Sensory Processes. SAGE Publications, Inc, 2002.
Thousand Oaks, California
 The early scientists believed in the uniformity of natural causes. What they did not believe in was the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. That little phrase makes all the difference in the world. It makes the difference between natural science and a science that is rooted in naturalistic philosophy. It makes all the difference between what I would call modern science and what I would call modern modern science. It is important to notice that this is not a failing of science as science, but rather that the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system has become the dominant philosophy among scientists.
Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 229–230.
There is an implicit claim here that symbols function as a mechanism by which a culture gains ascent over the various individuals in the culture: the means by which the superego functions. A curious question which is left unanswered is “Why symbols?”
We could argue that symbols point to the transcendent, but a proposition of Freud must be that there is no real transcendent. Why then any sort of desire or inclination in that direction? That is left unanswered. We simply learn that Freud provides us a mechanism to strip out the symbols.
We then learn that essentially Western Culture developed by means of suppressing sexual desire. (40) The control over sexual desire was the high water mark of character.
Since there is no objective morality, only pragmatics, there is no particular need for such suppression except in and so far as it is functional for the culture.
On an aside, I have noticed that the treatment for “sexual addiction” is distinction amoral in this regard. The problem is not whatever inclination, but rather whether there are negative consequences for following such an inclination.
There is an unstated morality which is present in this: Desires are inherently good. That is a moral equation in the guise of amorality. But if it were truly amoral there would be nothing better about indulging or refraining. Moreover, personal happiness could not be relevant, because anyone else’s concern for your well-being is also irrelevant. In short, the moral question is really not as absent as some pretend. It is always there; the difference is where does not draw a line?
But back to Freud: The “analytic attitude”, the aim of “therapy” is always at the distinct individual. There is no reason to “cure” any sort of desire; because what makes Mr. X happy is necessarily good. “Well-being is a delicate personal achievement”. (41)
This is taken as an ethical demand upon “therapy”. We start with the idiosyncratic evaluation of the patient and seek to assist in achieving that end.
That is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian demand. In Matthew 28, Christ places a solitary command upon the Church: “make disciples”. The process of disciple making is “teach the to observe all that I have commanded.”
Now one can reject the proposition that Christ spoke or that Christ spoke these words. That is an honest position, and the position of Freud, for instance. But for one to claim to be a “Christian” and also take a position that Freud has a contribution on this issue is perplexing.
The position of the Scripture is not terribly confusing. Yes, there can be knotty issues, but those are not the main. The center of the road is abundantly clear.
What is confusing is when someone proposes that there is any sort of integration possible at this key point. No one is contesting the ability of anyone to make observations about the relative frequency of X behavior. But when it comes to this question of the fundamental presuppositions, What is a human being, What is the purpose of a human being, What is necessary for human beings to change: those issues are beyond compromise or “integration”. When we get to presuppositions, those are questions of grammar.
In the English and German language, the sound “gift” has a fundamentally different meaning. In English you get one at Christmas. In German, it is “poison”.
Discipleship and therapy are similar in that both involve words and directions and people who know something is wrong. “Gift” sounds the same in English and German. But O the difference!
As a final note, if you are at all curious about the matter of the importance of “presupposition”, I must direct you to my brothers at:
(These are notes for the final session of a Biblical Counseling conference which will be held in August in Chile. The previous posts for this conference are found here and here).
At this point, I you want to think more broadly about a biblical counseling ministry. Up until this point, we have been discussing biblical counseling as a response to a crisis. The person who comes to biblical counseling is someone who is suffering a significant trouble; whether a significant circumstance like a difficult marriage; or a significant sin which has led to trouble. This leads us to think that biblical counseling is unique in life of the church; it is somehow detached from the normal functioning of the church.
All that we have done so far and all that we will do next week may seem to support that idea: here you are going through serious sustained training on some very difficult subjects. I just spent a session telling you to be very careful whom you choose to be a counselor in your church.
At this point I want to adjust your thinking slightly. Biblical counseling is specialized, and it is part of the core function of a church.
Matthew 28 records the resurrection of our Lord. That chapter ends with the Lord’s instruction to the Church:
Matthew 28:18–20 (NASB95)
18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The main verb in that sentence is to “make disciples”. We will do this as we go out into the world. We will baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded. That is the job of the church. We are given no other commission, beyond making disciples of Christ.
So let’s turn the question around: We need to ask if Biblical Counseling fits into that job description for the Church. Is Biblical Counseling the work of making disciples? If the answer is “no”, then it has no place in the church. Yes, it might be a good work, like caring for the poor or bringing blankets to the cold.
On the other hand, if biblical counseling is included within the scope of making disciples, then it is a necessary function of the church.
So let’s consider what it means to give Biblical counsel. It simply means to tell someone what the Bible says about their circumstance. It means to teach someone what Christ has said. Moreover, as Jay Adams noted it includes giving instruction. Biblical Counseling is precisely the act of teaching one to obey all that Christ has said.
When the street evangelist speaks to someone on the corner about Christ tells them of sin and repentance, they are giving counsel from the Bible. When parent tells a child the importance of not lying or working diligently as onto the Lord, the parent is giving biblical counsel. When a pastor opens the Bible on Sunday morning and explains the text and applies the text, the pastor is giving biblical counsel.
In an essay in from Scripture and Counseling, Kevin DeYoung and Pat Quinn write:
The ministry of the preacher and the ministry of the counselor are not different kinds of ministry but rather the same ministry given in different settings.
When a pastor sits with dear saint who is on her death bed, and the pastor sets her gaze upon Christ; the pastor is giving biblical counsel.
What you need to understand is that front to back, beginning to end, the duty of the Church is to give biblical counsel. That counsel starts with evangelism, leads them to baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, to knowledge of how to renounce ungodliness, to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present evil age and to live in earnest expectation of the Lord’s return. That is all biblical counsel.
We fit the counsel to the person and the circumstance. The street evangelist does not debate the details of difficult doctrine involving last things or the order of the decrees of God. His message is fit to the circumstance: sin and repentance. We do not teach four-year-olds like we teach college students.
Some questions are very difficult. We refer tricky theology questions to the pastor. We send young mothers to older mothers to learn from their experience.
Already in all of your churches, you have made some divisions in the way in which discipleship instruction is taking place.
When we bring in biblical counseling to the congregation, we are doing nothing new. Rather, we are doing what we should always be doing: teaching people to observe all that Christ has commanded.
We are merely saying that we have too often restricted Christ’s counsel. We have said that Scripture has something to say about repentance, but nothing to say about depression, anxiety, sorrow, loneliness, shame, conflict, laborious work, fear. We are saying that Scripture has nothing to say about all the troubles which came into the world with sin; well, nothing other than you need to leave the world.
When we restrict the scope of the Scripture’s counsel, the people in our congregation are going to get counsel. However, they are going to get it from someone other than the Lord.
I want you to imagine that your congregation has many well-trained counselors who know how to speak of difficult marriage problems. They can speak with sympathy and wisdom from the Scripture and give hope to trouble marriages.
I want you to imagine that your church once a week gives free marriage counseling to people in your area: unbelievers who are desperate for something that will work. Your counselor sits down with this frightened desperate couple and explains that their troubles with communication and selfishness and anger all have a cause: human beings don’t work correctly because we are estranged from the source of the one who speaks with perfect clarity, the God who loves and gives from an endless fountain of grace, that the love of the perfect God drives out fear and calls us in as children.
I want you to imagine that you have unbelievers who come to your church to hear the hope of the Gospel because the pain of sin has become too great to bear. When unbelievers hear sin, they often think you simply don’t like them. But when their pain is great and you explain that sin is not your dislike of them, but rather the cause of their sorrow; that sin is irrationality that ruins human life; and that there is an answer to that sin: an answer which will relieve of us the guilt and power of sin and that we can learn to live differently; when you can say that in a way that the one who is now lost can understand: you are putting the Gospel to work.
As Dr. Baker said, If unbeliever think you can help them with their marriage, they will line up to hear the Gospel.
And so these people who had “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), are brought into the Church. They are baptized. They entered into membership; and now comes the task of teaching them to observe all that Christ as commanded.
Teach them to Observe
Imagine a brand-new Christian who comes to your church. While this person is in true faith, they are far from mature. They need to be taught and admonished so that they may be presented complete in Christ. Col. 1:28. Certainly the normal work of the Church, preaching, teaching, singing, praying, receiving the Lord’s Supper in the assembly of believers will have a real and profound affect of people.
But two hours on Sunday when weighed against the entire pressure of the world for all of the other hours of the day and week will hamper our growth. Moreover, it is a truncated understanding of Christianity. There is an entire aspect of the life of a Christian which goes beyond Sunday.
Please do not hear that I am in any manner making light of Sunday worship: it is the apex of our week. But if try to box our Christian life into just that time, we fail to honor the life of the Church:
Colossians 3:16 (NASB95)
16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms andhymns andspiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
The work of teaching and admonishing is a work of everyone to everyone. The Christian life is public worship but is also life together. In Acts 2 it describes the life of the very earliest Church:
Acts 2:42–47 (NASB95)
42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.
44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;
45 and they beganselling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,
47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Without going through the elements of that passage, you can see that there was substantial life together.
Now let’s think again about discipleship: to be discipled is to be trained to a manner of life. Everything in your life and everyone with whom you interact is busy discipling you. You are discipling others.
There is a meaning which takes place when you try to limit one’s Christian life to merely Sunday morning. That Sunday-only Christianity means something different than a Christianity which entails one’s entire life.
One of the reasons that we have so much “crisis counseling” in the Christian church is due to the fact that we are not doing a better job discipling the people within the church.
Here is an example: When a couple comes in for marriage counseling, you will work them through what the Scripture teaches about marriage. A faithful pastor in the pulpit who is working through the Scripture will preach through the Gospel of Mark and have maybe a sermon or two which even touches on marriage.
The failure there is not because the pastor has failed, it is because the congregation has failed:
Titus 2:3–5 (NASB95)
3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good,
4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children,
5 to besensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.
Did you hear that? The Holy Spirit has delegated to the older women in the congregation the task of teaching the younger women the work of being a wife and mother. How many marriages would be in better shape today in our churches if the older women were continuously teaching the younger women godliness in marriage and motherhood?
But instead, we wait until there is a crisis and the wreck of a marriage shows up in need of help.
Imagine a young husband who comes to you because he has hurt his wife by not loving and caring for her? What if there had been a man in your congregation who had been weekly meeting with this man, asking him questions about his marriage (and other things)? What if the questions had revealed two years ago that the marriage was suffering? How much easier would it have been to help this family two years ago, when the problems were less, when the pain was less, when the bad habits were not so firmly put into place?
What I want you to see is that giving counsel from the Bible is something which needs to be built into the fabric of our church, so that the work of discipleship is done.
Where then is the pastor in this process?
Ephesians 4:11–16 (NASB95)
11 And He gave some asapostles, and some asprophets, and some asevangelists, and some aspastors and teachers,
12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspectsinto Him who is the head, evenChrist,
16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Look at verse 12: the head teachers in the church have the job of equipping others for ministry. Those who have the most knowledge are to pass on that knowledge to others in the church.
Those others, under the direction of their pastors, are busy equipping still others: the work of the ministry is spread out through the church.
There are people in the church who are masters at caring physically for others. Those people must know how needs help and how to give that help. Some are especially gifted at hospitality. Others at teaching. Some at preaching. Some are more proficient at evangelism. Some people are quite good at answering questions. There are mothers and fathers to help give wisdom. There are employers who can help employees learn how to work well; and employees who can help employers learn to be not abusive or unfairly demanding.
And now I want to return to our question of training counselors. Not every person in the congregation needs to be a preacher; not every person needs to be fully trained to handle depression and severe anxiety. Some people need to know how to ask questions, give encouragement, and provide basic instruction about the daily life of a Christian.
Think of the entire church as all having a role in the work of discipleship. You can think of the training you give in giving biblical counsel as something which moves from the most general and basic to the most particular and difficult.
If you have small groups, you train the small group leaders in a level of counseling so that they can give accurate instruction on daily life, know how ask questions and also know when they come across a marriage which needs substantial help.
When I oversaw a counseling ministry in a church, I learned that there were people who were especially fit for various tasks. Some people needed a great deal of intense structure. Some young men needed very direct rebuke and unquestioning follow-through. Others were discouraged and needed help and encouragement and support. I had people in the congregation who were fit for all sorts of tasks.
Think of your congregation as an army and the battle being, the World, the Flesh and Devil. The Holy Spirit has given you many, many weapons in this fight: all of the people in your congregation. And now think of how few weapons we use. Do we really deploy our congregations to serve in building up the body of Christ?
In most congregations, very few people do most of the work. And since the needs are great, we do not always use people to the best of their gifts. Imagine you have a tremendous evangelist whom you are using to keep the church clean. There is nothing wrong with cleaning the church; it must be done. The way we use the misuse the people in our church is sort of like using a racecar to pull a plow across a field. It might work, but it is not the best way to use the racecar.
Counseling training is more than just training a counselor who looks exactly like you. Your congregation has been called to be a counseling center: a place where people are taught to observe all that Christ has commanded.
And when the entire congregation is busy in this work, it frees up those who have been fully trained to be able to help unbelievers and believers at other churches. You create capacity for everyone to work at their full potential.
This model also takes enormous burdens off of the church leaders so that they can do their work. Too often we expect the pastors to do all of the visiting and preaching and counseling and caring and evangelism. When we do this, we crush our pastors under enormous burdens.
Now this is only introducing you to this idea: it is not a full-fledged plan with all of the details.
(I have been preparing to give a conference on how to start a biblical counseling ministry at a local church. So I’ve spent the last week writing this. Here is the first draft of one section of that conference):
DEVELOPING A BIBLICAL COUNSELING MINISTRY
Our plan will begin with you as an individual member of your local church. And since there is only one of you, it makes little sense to start our instruction with the ways to organize a fifty-member team at a 10,000-person church (although I know someone who is doing that now). We will move from you as an individual and go to describe a counseling ministry which will involve many members of your local church, no matter the size of your congregation. A ministry which will permit you to not only respond to crisis, but develop Christians who are deeply involved in one-another’s life. I want to give you a vision of what a church can be; and what a church should be. I am not going to ask you to change your doctrines, or reorganize your leadership structure. No one is going to take authority away from the pastors in your congregation.
I want you to understand how to utilize the resources you already have inside your own churches.
Imagine you had some money in your pocket. But also imagine that you have a box of rocks at home; rocks you picked up here and there when you were out hiking. You’re having a hard time paying your bills; you are careful with you money; you work hard at your job; but money is always tight. And then one day a friend comes by and you show him your rocks. Your friend, you has different training from you explains that it is not a box of rocks, but it is a box of gem stones: you have sapphires and rubies. You didn’t realize it, but you had great wealth.
That is how I hope to bring you to understand your congregation.
When the question of counseling does come-up, there are two basic deflections or objections to the proposal of a counseling ministry. First, there is the argument of psychological professionalism. Second, there is an argument of preaching.
Psychological professionalism: This argument says that counseling issues, beyond simple issues of be nice to your wife, or “spiritual” issues, about the doctrine of repentance, are simply not properly matters for the Church. I will not deny that there is a great deal of bad and even harmful counsel that comes from well-meaning Christians. Training is a must. Moreover, the question of “psychology” and psychiatry involve a great many things. A full answer to this objection lies well-beyond the scope of this seminar.
The training over the next week will respond to much of this criticism. However, there are some additional issues concerning psychology which I have dealt with a pair of journal articles which we have made available to you.
Preaching: A second argument is that the only counseling which a church needs comes from the pulpit. Some pastors think a counseling ministry is either unnecessary or an attack upon their pulpit. A good example of this is found in J.C. Ryle’s book on Christian leaders in 18th Century England. There was a fine and useful preacher name William Romaine. Of this man, Ryle writes, ““It was not uncommon for him to tell those who came to him with Cases of conscience [a counseling issue] and questions of spiritual concern, that he said all he had to say in the pulpit.” And while Romaine may have eventually said something which answered to that particular person’s concern, I can’t say that Romaine’s decision was correct.
The Apostle Paul in Acts 20 explains that he taught publicly and from house to house. Paul wrote letters of personal encouragement to Philemon, Titus, and Timothy. Paul answered specific questions of the Corinthian church. James 5:16 instructs us to confess our sins to one-another. Colossians 3:16 says that we are to admonish one-another.
It has been the considered counsel of the best pastors to engage in private counsel. Richard Baxter in his work on pastoral ministry, The Reformed Pastor writes:
“We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience; especially the great case which the Jews put to Peter, and the gaoler to Paul and Silas, ‘What must we do to be saved?’ A minister is not to be merely a public preacher, but to be known as a counsellor for their souls, as the physician is for their bodies, and the lawyer for their estates: so that each man who is in doubts and straits, may bring his case to him for resolution; as Nicodemus came to Christ, and as it was usual with the people of old to go to the priest, ‘whose lips must keep knowledge, and at whose mouth they must ask the law, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.’ But as the people have become unacquainted with this office of the ministry, and with their own duty and necessity in this respect, it belongeth to us to acquaint them with it, and publicly to press them to come to us for advice about the great concerns of their souls. We must not only be willing to take the trouble, but should draw[…]”
I could say far more, but at this point leave it with: private counsel is a necessary element of ministry. There is an element of ministry which cannot be met by means of public preaching –as essential as preaching is. But private and public go together. I have learned that the better the preaching, the greater the need for private counsel. The best preaching cuts the heart, stirs the conscience, creates desire for a knowledge of God and a greater knowledge of God. The Word of God rightly preached stirs up the questions which need answer.
1. Know the Bible
Some counseling will be merely Bible Questions, such as why does God permit Satan to trouble Job. And at this point I give you my first instruction: Know the Bible. I will have a list of instructions below, but this is a point which cannot be overstated: Know the Bible.
The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to create and form the People of God. If you want a brief defense of Biblical Counseling, here it is:
Galatians 5:22–23 (NASB95)
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
And the argument is as follows: I want you to imagine any counseling trouble. I then want you to image the outflowing of the Fruit of the Spirit in one’s life. What trouble is left?
2. Work With Church Leadership
You will need the cooperation and support of the church leadership. If you are lay member of the congregation do not start a ministry within your church without the knowledge and support of the leadership. You need gain the understanding and confidence of the leadership. First, the counseling ministry exists to help with the overall work of the church. Second, we do not want anyone to think of biblical counseling as a scourge upon the Church. It must be a blessing and support.
But the support must be more than a shrug and go ahead and see what you can do. You will want the full-hearted support of the leadership when trouble arises. And, unfortunately, counseling ministry attract trouble.
Counseling concerns the people in the congregation who are suffering the greatest degree of trouble, of sorrow, and need. When you are dealing with people under enormous stress, with terrible problems, often with financial and legal complications, it is very difficult to avoid trouble. The counselees may respond, with threats, slander, legal action, personal destruction.
If there is any dissension between you and the leadership, you will be hurt when trouble comes. The damage you suffer can be far worse than you can imagine. The congregation may be torn apart. But if the leadership understands your work and has confidence in you and supports the work, you and the congregation can withstand the attacks.
I do know that other counselors are of the opinion that you can begin as long as you have the support of just the pastor (or the senior most pastor) and that you can bring the others along as they see you ministry.
There is no chapter and verse which answers this question: there is only wisdom. If you have authority to go ahead, but there is a conflict in the leadership, be prepared: you very well may find yourself in a very difficult place. I can tell you that conflict within the church can be sinful and nasty in ways that exceed conflict in secular situations. A conflict within a congregation can become like a conflict within a family.
This is not the place to go on about Church conflict. That is a topic to itself. But understand that anything which you can to avoid conflict must be considered.
3. Remain under the authority of your local church
Make sure your counseling ministry is under the authority of your local church. You are not stand-alone independent resources, like a paid clinical psychologist. If counseling is an integral ministry of the Church, then it must operate under the authority of the church.
Counseling, when do correctly, is expositional: it is like a sermon. You take the Word of God, explain the Word of God, apply the Word of God. It is similar to a sermon, only the audience size is smaller. You are seeking to create thought, affections and conduct which flows from and aligns with the Word of God. You are seeking to create Bible-shaped people.
Since this is a teaching ministry, you are delivering doctrine. A teaching ministry must be conducted in accordance with the teaching positions of your church. We have people from different backgrounds here: there are Presbyterians and Baptists here. While we will agree on the matters which we are addressing here as to counseling, there will be other issues which may arise in counseling over which we may differ.
For instance, Jay Adams was an Amillennialist; I am a Pre-millennialist. Adams makes a counseling argument on an issue about the Devil’s work based upon his millennial position. While I agree with much of his argument, I disagree with him on the manner in which he supports that argument. You need to understand these issues and teach in accordance with the doctrinal distinctives of your congregation. If you teach counter to your church’s doctrinal positions, you will at the least create confusion in your counselees.
In addition, the confidence your leadership will have in your work will depend upon your integrity and transparency in counseling.
Your leaders are given to watch over the congregation as a whole. Even though you are in a position to help with that oversight, you must not usurp that oversight.
Finally, you need the oversight. Even if you are the head pastor of your congregation, you need someone who knows what you are doing in your counseling session. While some privacy is necessary; absolutely privacy is dangerous.
4. Training, Mentors, Colleagues
Training: Conference training is good, but it is not enough. The minimal training for an ACBC certification is the bare minimum; but it is not nearly enough to make you proficient in all that you will be called upon to do.
Much of the most difficult counseling I have had to undertake has involved counseling someone who has received poor counseling from another well-meaning Christian. At times, the poor counseling has come from a pastor – who was trained to preach, but did not know how to counsel. The reason, I think, comes from preachers often not understanding how application works. When you counsel, you have to watch how your application works and whether it profits. So, being a counselor makes you a better preacher.
The degree of your training depends upon the nature of your ministry. If your counseling ministry will be you alone with mentors and colleagues. You will need one level of training. If you plain on becoming a counseling center which provides training and development of other counselors, you will need significantly more training. We will discuss that, below.
You will need a mentors and colleagues. There will always be counseling matters which exceed your knowledge and experience. I have often had to work through counseling matters with other men and women who have had more or different experience than me.
Many of you will find yourself as the sole counselor, or perhaps one of two, in your congregation. That means you are going to need to have relationships with counselors who attend other congregations. Take time to meet others; make relationships.
5. Have a Time-Management Plan
There are two time-management issues: (1) Creating a Triage Plan. (2) Creating a plan to limit the time you counsel.
If you have ever been around an emergency room, you know that the hospital staff have a plan on who treat. One comes in with a broken arm, another comes in with a fever, a third comes in with a bleeding wound. If the staff takes the broken arm before the heart attack, someone will die. This is called a triage plan.
While not as time sensitive as an emergency room, your time as a counselor is limited. You will more requests upon your time than you will have time to counsel.
Someone here may be thinking, we have no demand for counseling at all in our congregation. I can’t imagine that we will have more demands for counseling than we can fulfill. Here is my answer: you have an unending demand for counsel.
We human beings need and give counsel to one-another every day. Someone is providing counsel to the members of your congregation. They may very well not be providing and receiving counsel from the Bible or even consistent with the Bible.
Christians do want to live in accordance with the Word of God. Christians want to know God’s will for their lives. But often they do not know what God requires or where to find that will in the Word of God. If they are not told how to use the Bible correctly, they will seek it from problematic sources.
In addition, the Word of God creates a desire for the Word of God. When people in your congregation learn counsel is available, your time will be full.
So who gets your time? Members of your congregation or people from outside your church? Do you give time to from those outside your church if the problem is sufficiently serious? And know, that seeing people who attend other congregations has its own complications.
You are finite being. You cannot do everything. God does not need your help. The Church survived the death of the Apostles. The Church survived the death of Athanasius and Augustine, Calvin and Luther; the Church will survive you not over-working yourself.
Create limitations on your time before you find someone seeking more time than you can give. You need to decide how much time you will spend a week on counseling.
While a Biblical Counseling session may entail an hour of actual meeting, that hour is not the whole of your counseling. Done properly, you will need to prepare for the counseling studying and praying. You will often have interaction outside of the particular counseling session.
There will also be time need after the counseling for prayer and reflection.
While professional psychological counseling depends upon a “clinical” distance, biblical counseling is very different. The commands which apply to one-another interactions within the church apply to you as a counselor.
You must prefer one-another in love, you must bear one-another’s burdens, contribute to the needs of the saints, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. You must love the people with whom you are meeting – not merely provide information.
This work is enormously taxing.
It is not merely the time spent in counseling, but the time to process the counseling.
Ten hours of intensively counseling over the course of the week can be enormously taxing; and at times emotionally draining, because you cannot keep a “clinical” distance from the person with whom you are counseling.
In the United States, I am a lawyer. When I give counsel as a lawyer, my involvement begins and ends with providing information. If my client accepts my counsel or does not accept my counsel is up to him. If he does something and suffers or it, I am not supposed to care. If I become emotionally involve, I lose the ability to be objective. You cannot be detached if you are a biblical counselor.
When you initially create rules for your time begin cautiously. Talk with other counselors; consult your experience as to what you can reasonably do (in light of your other time obligations and your ability to bear burdens without burn out).
6. Have an intake system.
Have a clear procedure for how someone in your congregation begins a counseling relationship. If there is a woman in your congregation who is severely depressed and wants to receive biblical counsel, what should she do? Where should she go? Does she come to you, directly? Does she call the office? If there three people at once who seek counsel, who decides who is counseled and who waits?
I know people who had a system and then ignored it for this one particular situation. Ignoring the system resulted in trouble.
You create procedures to protect and sustain the ministry. Ignoring the system results in trouble. Create a system and stick to the system.
7. Use Forms – Have Procedures
We have provided you with two forms and a written policy. The first form is a counseling intake form. There may be cultural aspects of this form which do not translate well into a Chilean context. You may need to adopt it. From what I have seen, Chile and California are not all that different. But there be subtle things about how a question is phrased or how people answer. Feel free to adjust the form as need be.
The purpose of this form is for you to understand the person who is coming in to see you.
[At this point, walk through the form and make observations.]
A bit of practical advice: not everyone tells the whole story when they first enter into counseling. Sometimes the counselee is trying to hide information out of fear or shame. Sometimes the counselee simply does not know the truth.
For the counselee who deliberately keeps back some information, the best way to overcome the problem is to develop a relationship of trust and respect. Someone is giving you very painful, private information. They must know that you can be trusted to use that information to help not hurt. Be someone they can trust and someone they can respect.
The person who does not know the truth present a different problem. Here is an illustration from a friend which I think will help. I want you to imagine a house with a leaking roof. There is a small hole in the roof and the rain finds its way into the structure. But we usually have a structure beneath the roof which holds up the roof. Underneath that structure of crossing beams is a ceiling. So that we look up we see the ceiling and not the cross-beams or the roof to the outside.
When the water comes inside the house it hits the crossbeams and travels along until it seeps out through the ceiling. When you go to discover the hole in the roof, you cannot look straight up from the place you see the water on your ceiling. The water may have traveled several feet from the hole in the roof until it seeps out through the ceiling.
Counseling problems will often be like that. Someone will come for one issue and you will discover that their “real” problem is something else. Someone may come in because of a conflict with a family member and you’ll discover that they have another more fundamental problem which is leading to their conflict.
So use these a form to gain some initial information from you counselee, but do not think it tells the whole story.
Second, use a form to explain the counseling process to the counselee. Conflict happens when one’s expectation conflicts with reality. Let us say that tomorrow you go to a restaurant. The waiter brings you a piece of cake. There is nothing wrong with cake, you might often want to receive cake. But you didn’t order cake; you ordered eggs. You are unhappy because what you received contradicted what you ordered. You expected one thing and got another.
Someone comes into counseling. They are expecting you to be a psychologist who was trained in the manner of Rogers. Rogers would say that human beings are good and the counselor needs to bring that goodness out of the patient. But you start telling the counselee about sin and repentance. You read them from Romans that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You will have a conflict.
At the very outset we need to make plain what we do, what we will not do, and why we will do so. You need to explain that we are not priests who keep secrets no matter what. I do not know the law here, but in California if counselee tells you that they intend to hurt themselves or someone else, you must tell the authorities.
[walk through the counseling consent form – remove the section on waiver of jury trial, because it irrelevant. Keep the section on waiver of bringing legal action. Even if it is not enforceable in Chile, it is the proper way to resolve disputes according to the Scripture]
8. Have a policy on maintaining records
When you counsel with someone, you will keep some sort of record of your work. You will keep records of what you observed, what homework you gave, et cetera. These notes will often include very private information about someone else. The potential for misusing this information is great.
Because the information is so important, there may be others who want to use the information. I have been involved in situations where someone in a legal action, such as a divorce action, wanted to get copies of the counselor’s notes to use against the counselee.
I do not know how privacy laws work in Chile. In California, a pastor’s notes are not private. In Florida, a pastor’s notes are private. You will need to find out the answer to that question under Chilean law. Then you will need to have a policy about what you will do with notes.
When I oversaw a counseling ministry in a church, we kept the counseling consent form on file in the church office. The counselors kept their own notes. They were kept separate from the church records. I kept very few notes on a counselee and would not keep the notes after the counseling relationship was over, because I knew that I could not maintain privacy for the information if something came up in the future.
But there may be a reason to keep notes after the relationship is over.
So have a policy; make sure your policy is good for both the counselor and the counselee. In addition, make sure that you have exceptions to your general rule.
This a matter of wisdom; be prepared to change your rules as learn more.
9. Have a policy for dealing with allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
We have provided you with a draft of a policy I have worked on. It is based upon both biblical principles and seeks to comport with general law in the United States. You may need to make certain adjustments to this policy to comport with Chilean law.
There are two basic principles which must be in place. First, you must have policies which protect those who are being hurt from further injury. You cannot protect those who are hurting people in your church, because you want to protect a leader in the church or someone who is a friend. We cannot tolerate sin to continue. This is especially true when someone is hurting children.
You have seen the worldwide revulsion against the Roman Catholic church when it was discovered that bishops were protecting priests who were hurting children. It is certainly not confined to Roman Catholics. There was a major story about Baptists churches protecting abusers.
Second, you must have a policy in place to protect against false allegations. There are wildly varying estimates as to the percentage of false allegations. But whether it is 10 percent or 40 percent really does not matter. A false allegation can destroy someone’s life and will tear apart a church.
[walk through the plan]
10. Have a place to counsel
If need be you can be creative. But as a general rule, you should have a regular place to counsel which provides privacy for your counselees. The privacy will be what they have said. But you also want to provide privacy as to the counseling relationship.
Let us say that you are meeting with a married couple. They probably do not want everyone in the congregation knowing that they are coming in for marital counsel.
So you have two levels of privacy: the fact of the counseling relationship and the information conveyed in the counseling.
This means that you probably should not be counseling in a public place. Opening a Bible, discussing deeply personal matters, praying openly: these are things that are often not possible in a coffee shop.
Now if these were the only things to consider, you would pick some place absolutely private. But that can cause a problem.
You need accountability: both to protect you from sin, but also to protect you from accusations of sin.
Let me explain. Let us say a pastor is meeting with a woman in his congregation who is married to a cruel husband. The pastor is kind and understanding; he is everything she wished her husband would be. I know of more than one pastor who ended up in an adulterous relationship with someone in his congregation.
And even if the pastor does nothing wrong, there is the potential for gossip or false allegations. People become angry and lie. Someone learns of the counseling relationship and starts a rumor.
The best circumstance is to have the same sex counseling relationships: women counseling women; men counseling men. If a pastor simply does not have a woman counselor available, then have a woman with you when you counsel.
But same sex counseling relationship will not solve every problem. You have circumstances where you are counseling someone whose besetting sin is same sex relationships. You again need protection from gossip and sin.
And sexual problems are not the only forms of potential accusation or sin. There is the problem of using your authority to hurt someone; I don’t know what it is called here, but in the States people use the phrase “spiritual abuse”. They mean someone in ministry using their ministry position to hurt people.
This is a grave sin. You may be tempted to sin in this manner. You may be accused of sinning in this manner. And again, the best way to protect against this is to not have a perfect seal of privacy.
One of the very best ways to maintain privacy and accountability is to always have someone with you who is training to be a counselor. We will discuss training new counselors a bit later. But for now, now that training new counselors is a fine way to maintain privacy and accountability.
11. This is not everything
This is not a complete list of things you need to know practically to maintain a counseling ministry. But these are likely the most pressing matters you will face.
EXPANDING THE MINISTRY
We are going to look at two levels of counseling ministry expansion. First, we are going to look at the way in which you will add new counselors who will be doing the work you do: deliberate, intensive counseling. Second, we are going to look at expanding the concept of counseling as a matter of Christian discipleship and how the entire congregation has a role to play.
TRAINING NEW “FORMAL” COUNSELORS
Brooks takes as his starting text, 2 Corinthians 2:11, “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”
He then makes a series of observations about the text. The overall context is the restoration of a man who had been under church discipline. Although there is some debate as to the person of whom Paul writes, it is commonly taken (as is here by Brooks), that the man put out of the congregation had been the man in the mentioned in 1 Corinthians who been an illicit relationship with his father’s wife.
Sorrowing for the Sin of Others
Brooks begins with a reference to the effect of the sin of others upon a believer:
Gracious souls use to mourn for other men’s sins as well as their own, and for their souls and sins who make a mock of sin, and a jest of damning their own souls. Guilt or grief is all that gracious souls get by communion with vain souls, Ps. 119:136, 158.
This leads to a question: if this is true, and if I am not experiencing sorrow over sin of others, then I must be experiencing some guilt, some contagion. Brooks will use the image of sin as an infectious plague in reference to the first device, below. If sin is indeed an infectious disease, one transmitted from person to person with great ease; then the only defense to the infection is sorrow for the presence of sin in others.
There are four points to consider:
First, how should I sorrow for another’s sin:
Psalm 119:136 (ESV)
136 My eyes shed streams of tears,
because people do not keep your law.
The Psalmist has the honor of God as his primary reference: This person in unrepentant sin dishonors the Lord. This one who dishonors the Lord is a danger to me and an enemy to God.
Second, sorrow for the sins of others (particularly when they are seen as in rebellion against God) disarms the temptation which is inherent in being near sin.
Third, sorrow for the sin of others protects me from a haughty attitude toward others: we cannot feel sorrow and pride at once. Sorrow creates pity.
Fourth, how little I sorrow for the sin of others. This then implies that I am being infected with their sin. If sorrow is the antitode, then a lack of sorrow is a grave danger.
And fifth – Brooks will make another observation about the importance of sorrowing for another’s sin, below.
The Sorrow of Repentance
Having made general observations on the text, Brooks moves to the nature of sorrow for repentance:
It was a sweet saying of one, ‘Let a man grieve for his sin, and then joy for his grief.’ That sorrow for sin that keeps the soul from looking towards the mercy-seat, and that keeps Christ and the soul asunder, or that shall render the soul unfit for the communion of saints, is a sinful sorrow.
Sorrow should drive us to Christ.
Before I go along, we must note Brooks’ facility with language:
That sorrow for sin
that keeps the soul from looking towards the mercy-seat,
and that keeps Christ and the soul asunder,
or that shall render the soul unfit for the communion of saints,
is a sinful sorrow.
First, he makes good use of alliteration: there is a conflict between the hard “c/k” and the soft “s”.
Second, there is the repetition of the sorrow & sin at the beginning and end of the sentence: “sorrow for sin” becomes “sinful sorrow”, thus inverting both the words and the concept.
Third, there are three criteria given to define sinful sorrow. The clauses themselves are easily spoken and have the feel of a line of poetry.
Sorrowing for the Sin of Others
Brooks notes an interesting movement in Paul’s thought: We must be show sorrow and pity upon the repentant sinner. Why so? I would think the rationale would be the need for kindness to the broken man. But Paul draws a different relationship: our failure to show pity is a danger to us:
In the 11th verse, he lays down another reason to work them to shew pity and mercy to the penitent sinner, that was mourning and groaning under his sin and misery; i. e.lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.
The necessary sorrow for sin is to protect the others from a scheme of the Devil.
This leads to Brooks’ general theme: Satan has many devices to destroy Christians.
He begins with a general observation on the words. First, advantage:
Lest Satan should get an advantageof us; lest Satan over-reach us. The Greek word πλεονεχτηθῶμεν, signifieth to have more than belongs to one. The comparison is taken from the greedy merchant, that seeketh and taketh all opportunities to beguile and deceive others. Satan is that wily merchant, that devoureth, not widows houses, but most men’s souls.
We will not care about Satan’s efforts, if we are not convinced of Satan’s danger.
Next the concept of a scheme or device:
‘We are not ignorant of Satan’s devices,’ or plots, or machinations, or stratagems, Νοήματα. He is but a titular Christian that hath not personal experience of Satan’s stratagems, his set and composed machinations, his artificially moulded methods, his plots, darts, depths, whereby he outwitted our first parents, and fits us a pennyworth still, as he sees reason.
This leads to the basic doctrine for the rest of the book:
Doct. That Satan hath his several devices to deceive, entangle, and undo the souls of men.
These devices are more dangerous than persecution. “So doth Satan more hurt in his sheep’s skin than by roaring like a lion.”
He gives two examples to prove this point: 2 Timothy 2:26 & Revelation 2:24.
This again leads to some questions:
First, is it true that temptation is more dangerous than persecution?
What examples from Scripture can see?
What are examples from history?
Second, do we really see Satan as an active danger?
Do we think of Satan as an actual person, or as a figure of speech?
Do we think of Satan and his minions actually doing things?
Do we see this as a real danger to us?
Third, before we begin to read Brooks’ list: what devices do we see used to ensnare souls?
Brooks list is not exhaustive.
Fourth, why are we so unaware of Satan’s devices? Paul says “we are not unaware”, but is that true?
Fifth, to the extent we are unaware of Satan and his devices, why is this so?
This section of the work contains Thomas Brooks Directions for Reading. He begins with the proposition drawn from the Proverbs, that one must obtain truth. Thus, Brooks is not speaking of all reading, but of reading that which is profitable.
DEAR FRIEND!—Solomon bids us buy the truth (Prov. 23:23), but doth not tell us what it must cost, because we must get it though it be never so dear.
The Puritans were quite careful to distinguish between buying truth and buying anything else. Christian, at Vanity Fair, was only there to be “buy truth”. And Bunyan in the Heavenly Footman advises:
Take heed that you have not an ear open to every one that calleth after you as you are in your journey. Men that run, you know, if any do call after them, saying, I would speak with you, or go not too fast, and you shall have my company with you, if they run for some great matter, they use to say, Alas, I cannot stay, I am in haste, pray talk not to me now; neither can I stay for you, I am running for a wager: if I win I am made, if I lose I am undone, and therefore hinder me not. Thus wise are men when they run for corruptible things, and thus should thou do, and thou hast more cause to do so than they, forasmuch as they run but for things that last not, but thou for an incorruptible glory. I give thee notice of this betimes, knowing that thou shalt have enough call after thee, even the devil, sin, this world, vain company, pleasures, profits, esteem among men, ease, pomp, pride, together with an innumerable company of such companions; one crying, Stay for me; the other saying, Do not leave me behind; a third saying, And take me along with you. What, will you go, saith the devil, without your sins, pleasures, and profits? Are you so hasty? Can you not stay and take these along with you? Will you leave your friends and companions behind you? Can you not do as your neighbours do, carry the world, sin, lust, pleasure, profit, esteem among men, along with you? Have a care thou do not let thine ear now be open to the tempting, enticing, alluring, and soul- entangling flatteries of such sink-soulsf13 as these are. ‘My son,’ saith Solomon, ‘if sinners entice thee, consent thou not’ (Pro. 1:10).
Brooks’ directions are to bring information into one’s heart so that it transforms both conduct and affections. Therefore, these directions for reading are not appropriate for all things which we read. As Paul Baynes writes in Brief Directions for a Godly Life, “That all filthy, lewd and wanton books, yea, needless and unprofitable books be avoided.”
Remember, it is not hasty reading, but serious meditating upon holy and heavenly truths, that makes them prove sweet and profitable to the soul.
Meditation is a constant element of Puritan spirituality. Thomas Watson writes,
It is better to meditate on one sermon than to hear five. If an angel were to come down from heaven and preach to men; yea, if Jesus himself were the preacher, none would profit without meditation. The bee sucks the flower, and then works it in the hive, and it becomes honey. We must not only suck the flower of the Word, but work it in the hive of the heart.
Thomas Watson, Puritan Gems; Or, Wise and Holy Sayings of the Rev. Thomas Watson, A.M., ed. John Adey, Second Thousand. (London: J. Snow, and Ward and Co.; Nisbet and Co.; E. F. Gooch, 1850), 96–97. And:
Meditate upon what you read. Psalm 119:15: “I will meditate in thy precepts.” The Hebrew word to meditate, signifies to be intense in the mind. In meditation there must be a fixing of the thoughts upon the object. Luke 2:19: “Mary pondered those things.” Meditation is the concoction of Scripture; reading brings a truth into our head, meditation brings it into our heart; reading and meditation, like Castor and Pollux, must appear together. Meditation without reading is erroneous; reading without meditation is barren. The bee sucks the flower, and then works it into the hive, and so turns it into honey; by reading we suck the flower of the word, by meditation we work it into the hive of our mind, and so it turns to profit. Meditation is the bellows of the affection. Psalm 39:3: “While I was musing the fire burned.” The reason we come away so cold from reading the word, is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.
Thomas Watson, “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit,” in The Bible and the Closet: Or How We May Read the Scriptures with the Most Spiritual Profit; and Secret Prayer Successfully Managed, ed. John Overton Choules (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1842), 24–25.
In his sermon, A Discourse of the Right Way of Obtaining and Maintaining Communion with God, Matthew Barker writes:
We should, with David, “set the Lord always before” our face; (Psalm 16:8;) and not as he that he speaks of, of whom it is said, “God is not in all his thoughts.” (Psalm 10:4.) This is rather to live “without God in the world,” than to live in communion with him. And these thoughts of God should not be slight and transient, but fixed and serious; especially at some times, which we should more peculiarly devote to solemn meditation. Meditation brings the object nearer to the soul, and the soul nearer to it, though locally distant; unites the soul to it; mixeth itself with it; whereby it doth possess it, or is possessed of it.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 48. Meditation is a deliberate focus and pondering of the proposition; it is the exact opposite of a transitory reading.
Brooks is not merely asking for one to read his book, but to wrestle with the book. A serious book which discloses the truth of God deserves our serious consideration. Much of our trouble comes from not considering what we read.
The purpose of God’s truth is never for bare knowledge; this is an academic prize. I was once asked by a fellow Christian why I should take the time to know and understand, “After all”, he said, “when we’re heaven we’ll know it all any way.” But we are given truth for the end of godliness, faith working through love; never bare knowledge. Thus,
Thirdly, Know that it is not the knowing, nor the talking, nor the reading man, but the doing man, that at last will be found the happiest man.
As Thomas Watson wrote:
Learn to apply Scripture; take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: God means my sins; when it presseth any duty, God intends me in this. Many put off Scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves. A medicine will do no good unless it be applied. The saints of old took the word as if it had been spoken to them by name. When king Josiah heard the threatening which was written in the book of God, he applied it to himself; he “rent his clothes and humbled his soul before the Lord.” 2 Kings 22:11.
Thomas Watson, “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit,” in The Bible and the Closet: Or How We May Read the Scriptures with the Most Spiritual Profit; and Secret Prayer Successfully Managed, ed. John Overton Choules (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1842), 33–34. The application is to be complete:
We must be careful to apply that which we read wisely to ourselves; persuading ourselves that all duties are commanded us and all sins forbidden us all and all promises to be believed by us. Likewise, we must look that all exhortations and admonitions quicken us; all reprehensions check us; and all threats cause us to fear.
Paul Baynes, Brief Directions.
Christianity is not a matter of bare knowledge, it is a comprehensive manner of life. And, we cannot know as we ought when we refuse to live as we ought:
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Hebrews 5:14 (ESV). There is a necessary preparation and transformation of the human heart which makes it fit to receive the truth.
Brooks drives this home with an illustration:
Reader, If it be not strong upon thy heart to practise what thou readest, to what end dost thou read? To increase thy own condemnation? If thy light and knowledge be not turned into practice, the more knowing man thou art, the more miserable man thou wilt be in the day of recompense; thy light and knowledge will more torment thee than all the devils in hell. Thy knowledge will be that rod that will eternally lash thee, and that scorpion that will for ever bite thee, and that worm that will everlastingly gnaw thee; therefore read, and labour to know, that thou mayest do, or else thou art undone for ever.
The fact that knowledge increases condemnation is taught in the Scripture:
20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV). They had seen and heard and rejected. The Word of God is a dangerous thing, it will either transform or harden. In Nehemiah 8, the returned exiles are taught the people the Law of God; and when they heard it, they wept. But Herod, who heard the condemnation of John the Baptist, put John in prison. To hear the word of God, and to not listen and comply with the reproof is to be destroyed:
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
Proverbs 29:1 (ESV)
Application of this to Counseling:
These directions for reading are likely the most common reason that Biblical Counseling fails. The Counselor conveys information and permits to be bare information. The counselee hears something, consents, even admits to its importance. But, after leaving the counseling time, the poor Christian proceeds into the world with more information but the information is inert.
Even the homework given typically does little good because it most often information conveyance. While information is insufficient: Information is a necessary but a sufficient cause for change: the information must drive down into the heart and transform affections and conduct.
Brooks is here underlying the primary elements of turning information into transformation: Meditation – which transforms the thought and affections; and obedience. Conduct and sustained thought do much to drive knowledge into the bones and blood.
I have attached a rough draft copy of an essay on common grace, biblical counseling and psychology here. If anyone is interested and willing, I would appreciate the comments, critiques, et cetera. It is 11,457 words, with 42 footnotes, so it is not a breezy read. In its final version, it will be in the Journal of Biblical Soul Care
Again, this is far from finished: any and everything in it is subject to revision. It (probably) has typos, incomplete citations, and gaps in the argument. But fortunately I have a couple of months before publication.
(The following is a draft of a tool for analyzing the common grace elements of psychology. It will be for the second half of an article on the usefulness and limitations of common grace for counseling in a manner which is consistent with the claims of Scripture).
As will be set forth at length below, I propose the following rubric for utilizing the results of “common grace” in social sciences, particularly psychology as an academic discipline; and a means for rejecting certain other ideas as incompatible with a consistently biblical position for soul care. This position is begins with both a scriptural understanding of common grace, and an understanding of the biblical of the nature and end of human beings before God. This position recognizes both the extent to which common grace can provide insight into the natural world; and the fundamental limitations of common grace when it comes to human problems.
A fundamental problem which takes place concerns what is meant by the word “psychology”. The range of meaning assigned to this word has exacerbated the disagreements between Biblical Counselors and those who hold one of the various positions commonly labeled as “integrationist” (and yes, there are a variety of labels which are utilized here; and often there is a rejection of label by Christian counselors, but the word will work well-enough for present uses).
I propose three categories of information which move from information most accessible to common grace to information which cannot be known by common grace.
Category One: Observations The physical environment; including the human body. This includes study of the nervous system, functioning of the senses, et cetera.
Information from this level is often leveraged as an attack upon the Biblical Counseling position as unscientific for “refusing” information learned here.
Common Grace is most effective here.
Common grace does permit one to see the environment, the understanding is limited by the failure to take God’s creation and providence into account. However, due to the ability of unbelievers to ‘borrow’ from Christian presuppositions, reasonably accurate observations.
Thus, human physiology can be observed and reported. This area of “psychology” (neuropsychology, the operation of senses, et cetera) can be utilized with the normal sort of skepticism necessary for review of any scientific work
Special Revelation: Informs us of the fundamental nature and existence of the physical environment, but does not provide much detail. We know that it is the creation of God and maintained by providence, but the mechanics of the operation are not treated in detail. This is the place where Special Revelation offers the least information and common grace the most.
Social science observations. With a markedly lesser degree of reliability, social scientists can make observations of patterns in human behavior and internal psychological states. Thus, we can see that people under certain circumstances, and/or with certain physiological conditions, will have a tendency to display certain behaviors and/or expressions.
Common grace makes it possible to make observations patterns. However, there are serious limitations on the usefulness of such information.
These observations are fundamentally limited by (1) the inability to observe the internal workings of the human heart (observations of neurology and one’s self reported subjected experience are of some value, but cannot correlate to the depth of the human heart); (2) these observations are fundamentally limited that they cannot include the effects of the Godward relationship of the human being (observations which are commonly accounted as “the psychology of religion” are limited to objective observations and cannot provide information about the working of God); (3) these observations cannot take into account the effects of the “flesh” and the Spirit (this is related but not perfectly coextensive with point (2)).
Special revelation is critical at this stage, particularly in any attempt to “make sense” of social science observations. Understanding the deceitfulness of sin, for instance, may help to make an observation understandable.
The biblical counselor can use such observations as data points: for example, a study may suggest a line of inquiry; knowing that there is not a determinative relationship between one environmental circumstance and a future manner of life — even if there is a positive tendency toward a certain outcome.
This category consists of what most people mean when they say “psychology”. Here we find theories which concern the matters are both (1) inaccessible to common grace and (2) are explicitly theological anthropology, teleology and methodology for change (ATM). These are the aspects of human life which are most directly affected by the breach between God and man.
While this category may make reference to elements of category 1 & 2, it goes further and assigns values. This aspect specifically concerns “spiritual” concerns: matters of sin and sanctification, the action of God (and even evil spirits) upon human beings: these are precisely the matters which the Scripture claims as for its authority.
When biblical counselors reject “psychology”, they are referring primarily to information from this category.
Common grace is least valuable at this stage. Common grace was not given to heal this aspect of the Fall.
Special Revalation is needed for work here
First, this concerns anthropology: What constitutes a human being: this is beyond observations concerning the human body and human behavior. It is consists of the “manishness of man” to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase. This concerns the human heart: the spiritual aspects of humanity and in particular human interaction with God.
Second, this category concerns teleology: what is the purpose of being human. For instance when a psychologist speaks of what is “healthy” for human sexuality, the psychologist is speaking to what is the purpose of a human being. The purpose of a human being cannot be known by observations, since, as Jay Adams notes: we are living in an abnormal environment under abnormal conditions (being on this side of the Fall).
Third, this concerns methodology: those things which are necessary to change the direction of the human heart.