Today we are going to look at a controversy that has been playing out at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary over the past couple of weeks. A Christianity Today article entitled “Has Christian Psychology Lost Its Place at Southern Seminary?” reports on the firing (very thinly disguised as an early retirement) of Dr. Eric Johnson, a longtime professor of counseling at SBTS. The Wartburg Watch has a summary which you can read here and here. Dustin Messner at Kuyperian Commentary gives his commentary here.
Here is the TL:DR version: Johnson was fired essentially because his vision of what Christian psychology ought to be is substantially different from that of Al Mohler and SBTS. Some observers blame the firing on Heath Lambert, another professor of counseling at SBTS and the executive director of an organization called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. There is belief that Lambert leveraged his organization, the ACBC, against SBTS, threatening to steer students away from SBTS if Johnson remained. (SBTS is one of five Reformed seminaries among the ACBC’s certified training centers.) There is a video clip on Youtube in which Lambert reads from Johnson’s work and calls his approach to counseling “dangerous”, “slander”, “corrupt”, and “a mockery of God’s word”. Mohler denies all of this, and Lambert has since apologized to Johnson. Mohler and SBTS are not offering anything at this time in the way of clarification or explanation for Johnson’s departure.
Now I am a blogger, and as such it is part and parcel of my life’s vocation and calling to offer my unsolicited opinion on subjects about which I know nothing and am unqualified to speak. But it is not my intention today to opine on internal politics and hiring/firing decisions at SBTS. Instead I will comment on a couple of larger themes that I believe are in play here with this story.
The first is what I believe to be one of conservative evangelicalism’s worst tendencies: to take the approach that we are the faithful side, the Christian side and the other side is the faithless, godless side and every issue is a fight to the death between the forces of light (us) and the forces of darkness. There is a lengthy essay by John Frame entitled “Machen’s Warrior Children” in which Frame argues that conservative Reformed evangelicals have continued the fighting spirit shown by J. Gresham Machen in resisting the incursions of liberal theology in his day, taking it into every political/cultural/theological dispute thereafter, no matter how trivial. The most recent presidential election cycle is an example of this par excellence.
The second is a view of biblical inspiration which is pervasive in evangelicalism and, I believe, far more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything even remotely resembling biblical Christianity. This is at the heart of the issue as to why Johnson was forced out at SBTS. Johnson believes that the wisdom of Scripture combined with insights from the science of psychology ought to form the basis of one’s approach to counseling. Mohler, Lambert, and the rest of SBTS believe that the science of psychology has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of counseling, that the Bible is the only tool in the toolbox and to believe otherwise is to denigrate the sufficiency of Scripture.
As Christians we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. But sufficient for what? To lead us into a growing and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ? Okay. Much of evangelicalism is unwilling to stop there and, instead, insists on making the Bible into the final authoritative word on subjects about which the ancient writers knew absolutely nothing. Such a view turns the Bible into a “magic book” and is squarely in line with the idea of the Koran dictated to Mohammed by an angel while he was in a trance, or the Book of Mormon inscribed on golden tablets brought to Joseph Smith by an angel.
Such a view, when applied to the discipline of counseling, leads to the idea that there is no behavioral/psychological problem so severe that it cannot be solved by just throwing some Bible verses at it. You and I both know that is simply not the case. Insisting on the Bible as the only tool in the toolbox and closing one’s ears to anything whatsoever that secular science might have to say does people a grave disservice.