A Critique by Carol K. Tharp, M.D.
The Heart of Man and the Mental Disorders1 purports to be giving “a biblical answer for specifically how the Word of God is sufficient to diagnose and treat the root cause of even the most extreme immaterially generated… mental disorders and common counseling problems of man” (xxiii, emphasis his). The author, Rich Thomson, “is pastor of Grace Bible Church…and is the lead instructor in the Bachelor of Science in Biblical Counseling degree at the College of Biblical Studies—Houston.” The book is the author’s personal “theology of Biblical Counseling” (iii), written as “the outflow of a lifetime…of pastorally counseling individuals with both common and severe mental disorders” (xiii).
The frontispiece contains three recommendations. Two are from Thomson’s fellow faculty members in Houston. The third is from Dr. John MacArthur, who recommends this book as a “great reference…to protect God’s flock from the lies and falsehoods… [present in] the mental health world.” Hopefully, MacArthur will reconsider his recommendation.
Diagnosing the Heart
This text takes 1005 pages to teach the reader “how” to diagnose the “root cause” of the problems in the heart of the troubled counselee. Thomson’s methods are in accordance with the diagnostic categories of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association.2 Scripture claims that our knowledge of the Word is sufficient for life and godliness (II Peter 1:3), but it never claims to show man how to diagnose the “root cause” of specific problems. Thomson says that God “has chosen to reveal through His Word all man needs to know in order to understand his inner being” (xiv), but Scripture does not claim to give psychotherapeutic insight. Thomson rightly uses Proverbs 3:5, 6 as a warning “not to embrace the wisdom of men” (xvi), but he then uses the DSM-IV to organize his own claims regarding diagnosis of the heart.
Thomson sees his “Biblical Framework” for diagnosis and treatment as his most significant contribution to counseling. He claims that the use of this Framework will provide “an adequate knowledge of the inner workings of the human heart” (19). This contradicts the clear statements in I Kings 8:39 and II Chronicles 6:30 that God alone knows the heart. He ignores Jeremiah 17:9,10 which states that the heart is deceitful and that God (not man) searches the heart and examines the mind. Thomson believes that his Framework is “indispensable to correct…diagnosis” (19).
Like most Christian/biblical counselors and all insight-oriented psychotherapists, he ignores the Scriptural interdiction and attempts to delve into the content of the heart/soul/spirit (unconscious mind, in secular terminology). These counselors insist that they can and must probe the heart to find the idols, the secret sins, the past traumatic experiences, and the “root cause” of the client’s problem. This is the means by which the therapist-counselor thinks that he is bringing the so-called deep problems to light, as well as bringing the counselee to understand and then master his own problems.
Discovering the root cause supposedly achieves for the counselee “peace for one’s mind” (xxi), “optimism” (xxii), and “fulfillment in and meaning for one’s everyday life” (xxiii). Today’s counseled generation, as well as their counselors, rarely admit that the results of counseling are often anything but the ease and tranquility sought in the sessions. Thomson describes the counselee who “loses his peace soon after he confesses his sin”: “In such cases, he has in all likelihood confessed one sin…but is ignoring another—often an unloving attitude which he is carrying around in his heart” (76). In this, Thomson echoes the typical secular explanation for psychotherapy failure: The client obviously has deeper problems and needs more therapy; there is more work to do to get to the bottom of the trouble. Thomson goes so far as to say, “This is why some of the great men of God have had struggles with depression or other mental disorders” (82). The book is filled with cause-effect legalism and judgments of the heart in opposition to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Since knowledge of the heart is God’s prerogative alone, everything that Thomson’s “astute counselor” finds there is speculation at best; often, it is later shown to have been utter fabrication. By knowing what Scripture says about the heart of man, it should not be surprising that the personal narratives brought out by such methods usually conclude that the cause of the problem is someone or something outside the counselee’s responsibility. Thomson sounds biblical in blaming the counselee’s failure to love God and others properly. However, underlying that failure he supplies environmental determinants to explain why the counselee is unable to love ( 757-763).
Thomson’s Biblical Framework, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, insists that the symptoms (termed “defining features” by Thomson) of DSM IV-defined mental disorders reveal the “root cause” of the problem. Like Freud, he advises the analysis of dreams, hallucinations, visions, and “defense mechanisms” in order to reveal the “deep diagnosis” (541ff, 673ff, 985). He sees all of these items as “expressions” of what he terms four Framework Elements working inside the mind of every man. Thomson lists 260 “defining features” (987-995) using the terminology of the DSM-IV. He then claims all of them to be expressions of some combination of his four Framework Elements:
1) Unloving attitude/action
3) Fear of God’s judgment
4) Flight from God’s judgment (987)
His Biblical Framework treatment rests on “making the connection” between the “defining feature” (via the responsible Element or combination of Elements) and the root cause in the heart. For example, Thomson says that arrogance is an expression of Framework Element #1: Unloving Attitude/Action (987). In over fifty-three pages, he lists “some possible ways” for the counselee to “openly express God’s love” and thereby remedy this Element and thus alleviate the discomfort of the defining feature (411-464).
In an attempt to demonstrate the utility of his Biblical Framework, Thomson applies it to each diagnostic entity in the DSM IV and re-names the diagnostic criteria as “defining features.” He then identifies which of the four Framework Elements are supposedly expressing these features. For example, he claims that the cognitive and motor symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia are the expressions of Framework Element #3 (Fear of God’s judgment) and/or Element #4 (Flight from God’s judgment) (880). With that insight, the Framework counselor can then “make the connection” (999) between the “defining features” and the “root cause” of almost all “common counseling problems” (995 and xxiii). He can then prescribe various “practical applications” with which the counselee can attack the problem, remedy the Framework Element, and thus cure the root cause. The highly mechanistic, systematized nature of his Framework resembles a cook-book in which elaborate dishes are shown to be made of a small number of ingredients waiting to be discovered by the “astute counselor.”
Thomson, with a reductionism equaled only by Freud himself, sees the root cause of all common counselee problems as being a lack of agape love for God and/or man (71). He sees treatment of this defective root as essential to “mental soundness” (381). He offers eleven examples of what he terms “open expressions” of agape love for God in the heart followed by a list of “practical applications” and homework assignments. He advises the counselee to work on these tasks in order to achieve agape love for God and man (383-464). Although Thomson states that a man can manifest righteousness only when he yields to the indwelling Holy Spirit, the overwhelming preponderance of his text addresses “treatment” (therapeutic) tasks to be accomplished by the counselee.
Jesus would surely say, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:3, 4). The truth that “will set you free” does not involve the endless tasks set forth in Thomson’s text. Martin Luther wrote five hundred years ago against those who assigned this type of labor: “They thrust God from His seat and put themselves in His place” (Luther, 40, I, p. 363, 22). “For when they contain the false appendage and perverse opinion that we are going to become godly and blessed through the works, then they are not good, but entirely damnable” (Luther, 7, p. 33, 29). 3
Some Specific Concerns
Thomson’s conception of a counselor is much like that of the secular world. He advises the counselor to show compassion; to comfort and bear the burdens; to draw out what is happening, has happened, or may happen; to draw out the grief, sorrows, and hurts; and to give an encouraging word. The counselor is to “look for the counselee’s reactions,” to question the counselee regarding the “inner reactions,” and to “draw out the unloving attitudes” (949-960). According to Thomson, the astute counselor will “pick up on carefully covered unloving attitudes,” which he must discover since these are the source of nearly all emotional, behavioral problems and mental disorders. He avows that the “perceptive, observant, insightful” Biblical Framework counselor will often be able to “break open very quickly the problem with which the counselee is struggling” (957). This is the same promise implied throughout the nearly 500 secular counseling systems, as well as within the numerous systems of so-called biblical counseling. All seem to say, “I’ve solved the puzzle. Here is the key!”
Thomson’s theology of biblical counseling is rife with diagrams, flow-charts, and tables. He thus categorizes and explains the various thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of mankind. Examples of this are: Emotions originate from three “stations” (179). There are four kinds of love (217) and four kinds of human relationships (393). Sin is either first or second level (525). Personal responsibility exists on three levels (526). There are three kinds of fear (551). Dreams and hallucinations are either supernatural or natural (676) and can be divided into four sub-categories (856). Sorrow occurs in three categories (895). Somehow these labels will lead to the key!
Thomson advocates “proper self-love,” which he describes as the best of “four kinds of self-love unfolded in the pages of Scripture” (724). He acknowledges uncritically the need for self-esteem or a good self-image. Christians with a proper self-love, according to Thomson, “like and approve of themselves” and “have a positive outlook about his life” (729). This causes them to “expect good things to happen” and to have a “sense of adequacy.” To achieve this “proper self-esteem,” one must have “consistent confession of sin to God and continued growth in the Lord Jesus Christ” (736). Thomson then adds to the counselee the burden of making “life choices that are generally acceptable to his conscience” so that he “experiences a measure of self esteem” (736). If the counselee will only learn to love God and others properly, he will be able to love self properly and thereby feel good about doing so. Thomson ignores the fact that Scripture assumes the “descriptive obvious” that fallen man loves himself naturally and gives the “prescriptive” command to deny the self. Thomson’s teachings on self-love are reflective of secular conclusions on the subject. Any system elevating the natural self-love of mankind should not be called biblical.
When discussing the DSM-IV, “Disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood, or adolescence,” Thomson promotes the concept of “double responsibility.” Concerning sinful behavior in these periods of life, he says that “as long as a child is being raised in the home, whether a toddler or a teenager, the behavior for which God holds him responsible can also be laid at the feet of the parents, especially his father” (759, bold added). Justifying this from qualifications for elders and deacons, Thomson uses Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 (“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger.”), concluding that “it is the father who is the primarily responsible agent” (760), because if the child is not receiving God’s love “from yielding to the Holy Spirit” then his “main resource for that steady unconditional love is his parents” (763). Thomson attempts to use Scripture to bolster his double-responsibility theory, but his conclusions are the same as the secular counselors in that the problem for the counselee exists outside of himself (e.g. in the family). He therefore searches the past in order to find the ultimate underlying cause of the failure to achieve agape love and fails to include any explanation of the term “unconditional love” (present nowhere in Scripture since it originated with secular humanists). Scripture denies that the problem is the absence of environmental love. God commanded Israel to cease blaming the parents (Ezekiel 18:4). Thomson ignores Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” He fails to mention Deuteronomy 24:16, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”
According to Thomson, there are four types of human relationships. He states that the “highest and only commendable human relationship” is what he terms “open and loving” (407) with the worst being “closed and unloving” (407). He equates the highest type with agape love, which he says is “required of the believer in all his interactions” (394). Insisting that this can be achieved and because of “vast ramifications of the believer’s open love…upon his mental soundness” (381), he devotes 101 pages to “practical applications” and “some possible ways” that agape love can be expressed to others (377-478). He joins the psychological movement in assuming that it is lack of environmental love rather than man’s fallen nature that makes the counselee unable to express love to God and neighbor. Thomson often appears confused about the distinction between the old life in Adam and the new life in Christ. He shows no understanding of the following from Anders Nygren: “When love is God’s love revealed in Christ, given to us without reference to our merits, then love to neighbor is inevitable; it is the outflow of the Divine love man has received. We need not, indeed cannot, point to anything else but God’s love as the reason for our love to our neighbor. Love to one’s neighbor springs by inner necessity out of the experience of Divine love. Otherwise, it is not true love to neighbor, since any other motivation introduces an ulterior purpose.”4
Early in the book, Thomson writes that “excessive fears” (anxiety) are always due to “fearing God’s judgment due to the sin he is presently entertaining in his heart.” He is sure this inexplicable fear is actually “fear of [the Creator’s] judgment stimulated by a self-condemning heart” (40) and goes on to say that fear and fleeing are “deep within one’s heart…even before [God] moves in wrath against sin in one’s life” (48). Ignoring the basic teaching of the Bible that God’s wrath is removed at the time of justification by faith, Thomson appears to give saints the same counsel as the unredeemed.
The goal of Thomson’s counsel appears to be symptom alleviation (the achievement of the feeling of pleasure) which does not differ from the goal of any psychotherapy. There is no view in his text of sanctification as described in Hebrews 12:7 where the believer is told to “endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” Thomson shows no understanding of the Christian life as described in Acts 14:22, “…we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” He fails to acknowledge the struggle of mortal flesh in a fallen world as depicted in Psalm 73:16,17, where Asaph says that “it was too painful for me until I went into the sanctuary of God.” Asaph turned to the source of all comfort and healing, instead of the exhaustive therapeutic tasks advised by Thomson. A Scriptural understanding of suffering is absent in this book with verses taken out of context and laborious rules laid down for the purpose of simply eliminating feelings of discomfort.
In the Introduction, Thomson claims that “the principles from which I write do not originate in human observation, human tradition or human theory. They instead issue from the inerrant, infallible Word of God (xiv). The title page gives “A Distinctly Christian Approach” as a subtitle. Thomson’s book is not distinctively Christian since he accepts and includes in his Framework the concepts, categories, and methods, not only of modern psychiatry, but of psychodynamic theory and practices as well (e.g., defense mechanisms, unconscious conflicts, insight, suppression, even analysis of counter-transference) (944).
This book offers that which has become typical of the current Christian/biblical counseling scene: the integration of secular concepts and practices, focus on the problem identified by the counselee, the necessity of insight into the unconscious/heart/attitudes/motivations, and the need for a counselor to recognize the signs of the “deeper problem.” Thomson offers a guide to mental health diagnosis and a brand of insight-oriented psychotherapy which differs little from the secular form in spite of the Christian vocabulary. His unabashed reliance upon the development of insight into the content of the heart (the unconscious) is similar to that of psychoanalysis in form if not in content.
Thomson is like most “Biblical Counselors” in believing that a counselor can gain the ability to diagnose the heart (Insight), in equating “mental soundness” with good feelings (the Pleasure Principle), and in relying on methods and techniques for the achievement of this pleasure (Self-Cure). Substitute the terms “unconscious conflict” for “root cause,” defense mechanisms for “framework elements,” and neurotic symptoms for “defining features,” and you have the same notion of psychic structure and function as that held by Sigmund Freud obvious in Thomson’s Framework. His treatment goal is the elimination of the experience of mental discomfort and the achievement of a state of blissful, self-loving, self-affirming pleasure (“mental soundness”). He ignores Scriptural truth related to the meaning, purpose, and value of suffering and replaces it with the Freudian Pleasure Principle (all suffering is alien and should be eliminated). This is the same goal of other secular and Christian psychotherapists.
He charts a new and ominous course, however, in reducing all “common counseling problems” to “lack of agape love for God and man” and in asserting that man can (with counselor-guided self-effort) remedy this lack and thereby achieve “mental soundness.” According to Thomson, the ultimate root of all “common counseling problems” is a “lack of agape love for God and/or for others” (64 et al). He says this lack is the “basic unrighteousness” (65). This love deficiency is always expressed via the four Elements as “defining features,” and he declares: “…there are no exceptions” (65, bold added). This claim may be new in current forms of “biblical counseling,” but it is ancient in the history of ideas.
The Eros Heresy
The most fundamental aspect of Thomson’s flawed theology is his belief that agape love for God and man can be achieved. While he correctly says, “The Christian is not asked to manufacture a love in his heart” (57), his methodology calls for self-effort. Again and again, there is a behavioristic method to be followed in the flesh with a reward in view. The reward will come, according to Thomson, if only one achieves the right attitude or action.
In contrast, the Apostle Paul stressed that only Christ loves with perfect agape love. Agape is the love God gives and is not a work required of man. Paul did not see himself as having achieved agape love when he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me”(II Corinthians 12:9). Believers, as they mature may, indeed, walk more according to the Spirit than the flesh, but we do not achieve agape love through any methodology of counseling or via any other labor. Agape comes from God and is channeled through the believer. Perhaps Paul said it best in Philippians 3:12, 13: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended.”
Thomson finds support for his view in a man-centered misinterpretation of the Greek word “teleioo” (translated “perfect”) in I John 4:17. The word in Greek means to cause something to be no longer incomplete and imperfect. It does not mean, however, complete or perfect in the common English sense of the words. When “teleioo” is translated as “perfect,” it introduces “ideas of moral perfection into the exegesis of the passage”5 and into the mind of the reader unfamiliar with the more complex meaning of the original Greek. Earlier in the same Epistle, John writes that “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” He is here speaking of “what manner of [Agape] love the Father hath bestowed upon us” and of how “when he shall appear, we shall be like Him” (3:1-2). John says that God’s [Agape] love is “bestowed upon us” (3:1) “of God” (4:7) because “He first loved us” (4:19). As we abide in Him and He in us, “His love is perfected [made less imperfect] in us.” (4:12) Thus, exegesis of John’s entire Epistle, when done carefully, will offer no support for Agape love being generated through a series of tasks or made perfect or complete in this life.
Thomson’s emphasis is continually on the benefits enjoyed by the believer upon the acquisition of agape love. This motivation in itself directly opposes agape. When personal benefit is the goal, agape is not present. To again quote Anders Nygren in Agape and Eros: “Love regarded as achievement is no longer agape. The center of gravity has changed; love is no longer God’s Way to man, but man’s Way to God” (Nygren, 259). “Knowledge [gnosis, directed toward self] puffeth up, but charity [agape] edifieth” (I Corinthians 8:1). For Thomson, the attainment of agape removes “uncaused fear” and replaces it with “peace and confidence” (52). Via these tasks, an ability is supposedly gained “to approach the judgment seat of Christ without any shame” and with no need to “be alarmed at the prospect of meeting Him.” Thomson claims the counselee will have “boldness.”
This behavioristic methodology, constrained by cause and effect, can only engender self-effort. It is an attempt to love God with the motivation of reward. Although at times, Thomson seems to see that agape love cannot be self-generated, his methods become a deceptive form of self-love with a reward (“mental soundness”) in view. “If the thought of God’s love recedes into the background and the Commandment of Love comes to the fore, then Agape’s fate is sealed. Love to neighbor is no longer a love born of God, but it is the highest possible human achievement” (Nygren, 264).
Paul says in Romans 5:1-5 that when God removes His wrath due to Christ’s blood and righteousness, the believer will then rejoice in suffering and move through perseverance to a hope that will not disappoint. Thomson says that when agape love is achieved a believer will “glorify God, will change his character, and will move in the direction of greater mental soundness and stability” (383). In this, he echoes ancient Greek philosophical descriptions of Eros, an ideal love that offered fellowship with the Divine as the reward for successful effort. In this paganism, man climbs a ladder of virtues to divinity.
Scripture says that God in His perfect holiness descends in agape love to sinful man dead in his trespasses and sins. The concept of holiness has been replaced today with worldly concepts of “peace,””self-acceptance,” or “mental soundness” so common in the parlance of counselors. However, the promise of a tangible spiritual reward for therapeutic self-effort remains today the same dark lie it has always been. God, in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son, grants us His agape as a free and unearned gift. This truth will set us free rather than burden us with endless tasks. Living by faith does not produce an attempt to achieve a higher level of perfection. We are as close to God at the time of justification as we will ever be. Consider Paul’s admonition to the Colossians to walk by faith in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way they had received Him (by faith). “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Colossians 2:6). Our confidence is in Christ and what He has done, is doing, and will do (justified, sanctified, and glorified).
When Thomson defines agape love as self-motivated toward a goal (mental soundness) and as a product of effort, he is describing the pagan Hellenistic (Greek) concept of love. Agape is a spontaneous love and is not acquired by human effort of any kind. Only this love of God for us can produce love for God and neighbor. This is not a love motivated by reward. Deeds produced by it, flawed though they may be, will count for eternity. The reality of this type of love is illustrated in Matthew 25:31-40 in response to Jesus commendation to those who had ministered to Him; the truly righteous will sincerely ask, “When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in?” There were no therapeutic tasks in it. This is the spontaneous love only God can give and is obviously characteristic only of the redeemed. All others have a list of their achievements.
Christians experience the effects of Agape love coming from God and ultimately serve as channels of its expression to their fellow man (I John 4:21). Luther described Christian love this way: “In relation to God and his neighbor, the Christian can be likened to a tube, which by faith is open upwards, and by love downwards. All that a Christian possesses he has received from God, from the Divine love; and all that he possesses he passes on in love to his neighbor. He has nothing of his own to give. He is merely the tube, the channel, through which God’s love flows” (Luther, 10,1,1, p.100, 9). The Christian does not list nor even remember his loving deeds. At the end, he will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He will not hear, “You climbed the love ladder and achieved mental soundness!” Those who think they have done so are in danger of hearing, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23).
In his masterful work Agape and Eros,6 Anders Nygren documents from Scripture and church history that Thomson’s conception of agape love is neither biblical nor new. Nygren shows that the “Eros motif” (as defined in ancient Greek philosophy) has been a challenge to orthodox Christianity from the earliest days of the church and is as futile today as it was for those laboring in the medieval church. Eros love has been historically characterized as “acquisitive” and “egocentric” (Nygren, 177-179). In like manner, Thomson’s methodology of achieving agape love is “acquisitive” and “egocentric” (motivated by reward).
Thomson’s heretical conception of agape love is actually in the “continuous line of Eros-tradition running from Neo-Platonism and Alexandrian theology…to German idealism and the post-Kantian speculative systems” (Nygren 221). The contrast between the Eros and the Agape motifs is the difference between works of human achievement and works coming as the fruit of the Spirit by grace through faith. Nygren contrasts Eros vs. Agape in the following ways:
Man’s effort moving up to God God’s grace coming down to man
The will to get and possess Freedom in giving
Recognizes value in its object, Loves,
And loves that object And creates value in its object
When the Council of Orange met in AD529 to correct the false doctrine of the heretic monk Pelagius, they wrote CANON 25 as follows: “Concerning the love with which we love God; it is wholly a gift of God to love God. We are loved, even when we displease Him.” This was seemingly forgotten by the fifteenth century when Luther labored under the false teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. He had been taught that he could achieve love for God by his own efforts. The harder he tried, the more hopeless he saw the task to be. He rightly came to see it as an impossible task and carried it as the heaviest of burdens (Nygren, 694).
The suffering of Martin Luther during his early monastic years was once well-known by the Protestant church. However, it has not been so well-known that Luther lived at that time in accordance with a concept of love which was predominantly in the Eros Motif. In studying the writings of the Apostle Paul, Luther discovered that man is not justified by ascending to God via self-effort (the earning of merits) but solely by receiving in faith that Agape which descended to us from God in Christ’s death on the cross. Thomson and an increasing number of Protestants may not realize that their teachings actually encourage the idea that man can achieve, via his own efforts, true agape love for God and his fellow man. For Roman Catholics, this is accomplished via an infusion of grace; for errant Protestants today, it is achieved via good works and counseling.
Luther grappled long and hard with this issue, and he became certain from Scripture that the effort was truly futile. He wrote, “For such a love is not a natural art nor grown in our garden” (Nygren 733). “Christian love is not produced by us, but it has come to us from heaven” (Nygren 733). From Scripture, Luther came describe the essence of Christianity as being “these two things, faith and love, or the receiving of kindness from God and the showing of kindness to our neighbor” (Nygren 734). After great spiritual agony and searching of Scripture, Luther came to realize that agape love is an extension of God’s love to man rather than being a product of man’s effort. He came to understand that believers do not create in themselves agape love for God or man; instead, they live “as the object of God’s love and as a channel of that love to [their] brothers.”7
John Calvin explained what Thomson seems to miss:
But if, freed from this severe requirement of the law, or rather from the entire rigor of the law, they hear themselves called with fatherly gentleness by God, they will cheerfully and with great eagerness answer, and follow his leading. Those bound by the yoke of the law are like servants assigned certain tasks for each day by their masters. These servants think they have accomplished nothing and dare not appear before their masters unless they have fulfilled the exact measure of their tasks. …Children ought we to be, firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be…And we need this assurance in no slight degree, for without it we attempt everything in vain.8
Counselors following Thomson’s teachings run the risk of the same judgment from God that threatened Job’s counselors (Job 42:8). The advocacy of self-cure methods and diagnosing the heart, blaming the environment (e.g., fathers), reliance upon an astute therapist, and following a recipe with good feelings as the goal are all in opposition to Scripture. His use of agape, which functions like the heretical Eros Motif (for self benefit), is the most fundamental aspect of his cumbersome text. If his understanding of Christian love were the ultimate solution to all “common counseling problems” and if counselees employing Thomson’s methods could attain “fellowship with God” and “mental soundness” (the beatific vision), what need would there be for God to descend in human flesh and shed His blood for my sin? Scripture reveals that God descended in true agape love and saved me by “the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3). Neither Agape nor God’s righteousness originated or developed from me; it is all of God.
As Luther came to understand from Scripture that he could never enter into fellowship with God by making himself holy, he came to understand the very effort as a satanic temptation purposed to lead him away from God. When the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s eyes and applied the Word to his heart, he knew that he was as close to God at the moment of salvation as he would ever be. The freedom of “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) could not be taken away from Luther as he lived the everyday life of sanctification by faith alone.
It is not likely that God will give to anyone seeking self-cure and self-satisfaction any of the wisdom He gave so plentifully to the saints throughout the years. This lack of wisdom is reflected in recent Christian publications with editorials likening the widely reported anguish of Mother Theresa (discovered in investigations regarding her official status as to Roman Catholic sainthood) to the post-conversion tribulations of Luther. This is surely because Protestant Churches today have the same understanding of love, fellowship, and works as did the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.9 Surely, this is why our Christian bookstores are filled with endless self-help methods “beating dead horses” in the name of Jesus. “We are faced here with an ‘Either-Or’: either immortal life as something which belongs to the natural constitution [works] of man, or eternal life as a gift of God, founded upon His work of grace and power, which calls into existence that which does not yet exist and summons the dead to life” (Nygren 287).
Those who labor to the end under the Eros motif could never have written as did Luther in 1523:
Therefore, my trust is in the Lord,
And not in mine own merit;
On Him, my soul shall rest, His Word
Upholds my fainting spirit.
His promised mercy is my fort,
My comfort and my sweet support;
I wait for it with patience.10
There can be no despair darker than the endless attempt to become a saint via a false manmade holiness. “They rob God of glory and attribute it to themselves, so that they were never more dishonorable and base than when they shone in their highest virtues…a thief of the Divine glory and a pretender to the Majesty. Everything turns for him upon the achievement of his own happiness and his own perfection; in short, upon himself” (Luther, 18, p.742, 36).
Thomson thinks like Freud because of “a religious synthesis in which Christianity is joined to an alien religious outlook. The work of reformation is to attack an existing synthesis in order to remove an obstacle to the apprehension of the proper nature of Christianity” (Nygren, 241). Luther recognized such a synthesis, attacked it vigorously, and suffered greatly for his efforts. As long as the church views all critiques as “harsh, negative, divisive, disturbing the unity,” there will be no reformation and only continued religious syntheses.
In his latest book on modern American religion, David F. Wells contrasts what he calls “two families of spirituality in life.”11 He considers the most important distinction between them to be that “one begins above and moves down whereas the other begins below and tries to move up…to reach above to make connections in the divine” (Wells, 176). Wells states biblical truth when he says that “Christianity is not about sinners lifting themselves up to God but about God coming down in condescension and grace to them” (Wells, 177).
Like Nygren, Wells sees these two ways as “stark alternatives to each other…one moral in its fabric and the other psychological…one results in holiness, the other looks for wholeness” (Wells, 177) (for Thomson, mental soundness). Whether it is termed the Eros Motif or Spirituality from Below, we must conclude with Wells that however “plausible, compelling, innocent, or even commendable” it may sound, “let us make no mistake about it; it is lethal to biblical Christianity” (Wells, 178).
1 Rich Thomson. The Heart Of Man And The Mental Disorders. Alief, TX: Biblical Counseling Ministries, 2004 (pages supplied in parentheses).
2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
3 Martin Luther. Martin Luther’s Werke, Weimar, Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1883-1997 (pages supplied in parentheses).
4 Anders Nygren. Agape and Eros, Philip S. Watson, trans. New York: Harper Torchbooks, (1931-1933) 1969, p. 260 (other pages supplied in parentheses).
5 Kenneth Grayston. The Johannine Epistles in the New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984, p. 65.
6 Nygren, op. cit.
7 Howard I. Marshall. The Epistles of John in the New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
8 John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.19.5.
9 “Dr. Luther’s Tribulation,” Christianity Today, November, 2007, p.23.
10 From “Depths of Woe,” Trinity Hymnal, Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1961, p. 461.
11 David F. Wells. The Courage To Be Protestant. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008