Biblical Theology and Counseling

Article
08.20.2014

What is the connection between biblical theology and counseling in the local church? Perhaps at first glance you might say, not much!

Why? When you hear “biblical theology,” you tend to think of overarching categories such as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. You think in terms of major biblical themes such as sin, suffering, exodus, sacrifice, law, kingdom, and exile, and how they develop in Scripture over the course of redemptive history. When you hear “counseling,” what comes to mind are topics such as interpersonal ministry, conversation, discipleship, personal struggles, and crisis. You see specific names and faces.

Biblical theology, as edifying and important as it is, can seem a bit abstract compared to the concrete, flesh-and-blood realities of life on the street this side of glory. But I would argue the two are intimately related. Their interrelationship provides the foundation to carry out a truthful, wise, and contextually relevant counseling ministry in the church.

The great biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos said, “All that God disclosed of Himself has come in response to the practical religious needs of His people as these emerged in the course of history.”[1] This means the Scriptures come to us jam-packed with relevance for problems in living. The Bible not only gives us biblical theology, but is in fact, practical theology.[2] Scripture and life are intertwined!

What is the best way to highlight their interconnection in one-on-one ministry situations?

I find the concept of narrative or story particularly useful. This is true whether we are reading Scripture or “reading” (listening to and seeking to understand) people. We must read the Bible as one true story centering on the coming of Jesus Christ and his renewing rule. All bits and pieces of Scripture fit into that larger narrative.[3] But to apply Scripture to our contemporary lives we must also discern how the bits and pieces of the stories of people’s lives cohere, or don’t cohere, with the biblical drama.

A way to speak of the storied quality of human life is to affirm that all people ask and answer four foundational questions about the nature of life, whether consciously or not:

  1. Where are we? What is the nature of the world in which we live?
  2. Who are we? What is the essential nature of human beings?
  3. What’s wrong? Why is the world—and my life—in such a mess?
  4. What’s the remedy? How can these problems be solved?[4]

These questions—and how we answer them—form the narrative backbone of our lives. They shape the way we interpret life events, from the mundane to the horrific. They shape our view of ourselves and others. They shape our vision of what constitutes a meaningful life, even a meaningful moment. They shape our beliefs, emotions, and decisions every day. Everybody has an overarching story he or she lives moment by moment. Everybody is a meaning maker with categories for making sense of life. The question is this: what story, what narrative, will we use to see our world and interpret our lives?

And this is where biblical theology hits the street! The unfolding biblical narrative given to us in Genesis to Revelation answers the preceding questions and orients us toward true reality if we have ears to hear.

Where are we? In God’s good world. (Gen. 1-2).

Who are we? God’s image-bearers, created to bear his likeness, bringing his good and wise rule to the ends of the earth (Gen. 1:26-27).

What’s wrong? We have chosen to live autonomously, by story lines of our own creation. We have exchanged the worship of the Creator for worship of created things (Gen. 3; Rom. 1:25).

What’s the remedy? Redemption, initiated in Israel’s history and completed by Jesus Christ, who “comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”

Every time you yell at your kids, or assume the worst about someone, or cut someone off in traffic in your rush to the office, or escape to internet pornography you show what you’re living for in that moment. You show the self-absorbed story lines that have captured you.

Counseling ministry helps others recognize the aberrant plot lines by which they are living and seeks to reconnect them, by the Spirit’s enablement, to the life-giving story of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus helped the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus understand how the details of the Old Testament pointed to him, we help others understand where the details of their lives point. We celebrate when they are in line with the gospel story. We gently correct and restore when they are out of line with the gospel story.

The Bible is not meant to be studied apart from its application to life, and counseling is not meant to be practiced apart from its foundation in the story of Scripture. In this way biblical theology and counseling are inexorably linked.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet (New Growth Press, 2009) with the kind permission of the publisher.

[1] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 9.

[2] David Powlison, “Counsel Ephesians,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17:2 (1999).

[3] See how Jesus sums up the focus of the Hebrew Scriptures in Luke 24:44-47.

[4] Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 35.

By:
Michael Emlet

Michael Emlet is a faculty member and counselor at CCEF, and a member of City Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.