(Editor’s Note: The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals recently said, “…the Alliance’s mission [is] to provide biblical teaching and promote reformed theology,” which is Paul Tripp’s theology. The Alliance Council consists of individuals that are distinguished enough to be recognized by most evangelicals. After examining Paul Tripp’s “biblical teaching,” the alliance says they will “no longer promote or suggest Dr. Tripp’s teaching.” The Alliance has carried books by Tripp, but has discontinued doing so.1 Tripp is a prolific writer and popular speaker. Paul Tripp Ministries was founded in 2007 and by 2009 it brought in nearly one-half million dollars in annual gross receipts, which reflects his rapid rise in popularity. Our current and past articles are an effort to warn Christians of Tripp’s subtle and deceptive teachings.)
Diagnosing Blind Hearts
In Part One we described Paul Tripp’s syncretistic, analytical, insight-oriented counseling in which he seeks to diagnose sinful hearts. We turned to Jeremiah 17:9-10 to show that only God can see into another person’s heart. Nevertheless Tripp is convinced that it is possible to know another person’s heart (inner being) and know what idols are in control. He says, “You know how the person thinks, what he wants, what makes him happy or sad. You can predict what he is feeling at any given moment.”2 Actually, we get to know a person by his words, expressions, actions, and pattern of these over time. Based on past experience we may be able to predict certain general desires, feelings and responses of the person. However, we cannot know another person’s inner heart, the hidden reaches of his soul. Only God can know that! We can only observe external things and then make surmises and guesses, some of which may be correct, many of which may be dead wrong. And to think that a limited observance of external things about a person can reveal more about that other person’s inner life than he can see himself is going beyond reason. Worse yet, it goes against Scripture. Nevertheless, Tripp declares, “Sin is deceitful, causing us to see others with a greater clarity than we see ourselves” (IRH, 164-165,bold added). Even if this happens, only the external sin is seen, not the inner man.
Tripp is convinced that people are so blind to themselves that they need a wise person to reveal their hearts to them. He quotes Hebrews 3:12-13, which refers to an “evil heart of unbelief” and says, “The Hebrews passage clearly teachings that personal insight is the product of community. I need you in order to really see and know myself” (IRH, 54). However, the Hebrews passage is not talking about believers gaining insight about themselves from one another, but rather about guarding their own hearts and encouraging, exhorting and comforting one another. John Gill, in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, gives the following commentary on this passage:
The phrase [“exhort one another”] is sometimes rendered, “comfort one another,” or, “yourselves together,” as in 1 Thes. 5:11, which the saints may do, by discoursing together about divine things; by praying together; by instructing one another in the doctrines of the Gospel; by putting one another in mind of the covenant of grace, and its promises; and by observing the near approach of everlasting happiness with Christ. And though the business of exhortation greatly belongs to ministers of the word, yet it ought not to be neglected by private believers; who ought, when it becomes necessary, to exhort one another to prayer; to an attendance on the word and ordinances; to a regard to their conversations; to a close adherence to their profession; and to a believing view and consideration of Christ.
This is not trying to look inside of each other, but rather simple, on-going, daily exhorting and encouraging one another to walk by faith. It is encouragement in the faith rather than insight into the self that is called for here, but Tripp’s default is generally set at idols-of-the-heart insight therapy, which is why he misinterprets passages.
Momentarily placing himself in the position of the one in need of another person’s insight into his heart, Tripp says, “My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. If I am going to see myself clearly, I need you to hold the mirror of God’s Word in front of me” (IRH, 54). What exactly is “self-perception here”? The extent of self-perception that is necessary is only to see if we are in the faith and whether we are walking by faith or by sight. The mirror of the Word does not necessarily need to be filtered through a fellow believer, who is bound to have his own misperceptions, especially when thinking he can see right through another person into the hidden recesses of the heart to discern what idols might be there. We do need preaching, teaching, and sharing God’s Word with one another, but it is truly the Holy Spirit who convicts with the Word.
What Hebrews is encouraging is turning to the Lord, looking unto Jesus, and walking by faith. Therefore the exhortation is to turn to Him by faith, not to gain insight into oneself other than to see that there has been a turning away from Jesus and back to self. Rather than having some kind of psychological insight into the whys and wherefores of how our flesh developed sinful patterns, we need to put off the old flesh and walk by faith in Christ. It can sometimes be useful to notice what those patterns are, but only to alert us as to when we are walking according to the flesh and needing to turn back to His life in us.
People are not called to or capable of diagnosing and treating another person’s inner man directly. The Holy Spirit does that. Therefore when there is teaching and preaching of the Word, the inner man may be nourished, convinced, convicted, encouraged and established by grace through faith. One may minister indirectly to the inner man through exhorting one another to obedience and comforting one another in affliction. While there may be external encouragement and teaching, the Holy Spirit uses the means given in Scripture to minister to the inner man. However, to diagnose someone else’s heart as to what idols must be demolished is to resort to much gossipy information gathering, slanted interpretation, subjective surmising, and just plain guessing.
Gathering Data & Evil Speaking.
In one of his articles Tripp advises, “Remember that certain questions reveal certain kinds of information.” He says, “There are essentially five classes of questions.” He gives an example beginning with “What did you do.” The man answers, “I talked to my wife.” Next question is, “How did you talk to her?” Answer: “I yelled at her for fifteen minutes.” Tripp then asks, “Why did you yell for so long?” The man answers, “I wanted her to know how angry I was at what she had done.” The next question is, “Where did this happen?” and the final is a “when” item: “Tell me exactly when you began to yell during supper.”3 This problem-centered questioning is characteristic, will generally bring more complete answers regarding what others have done, and can certainly make matters worse.
In his section titled “Christ the Data Gatherer” (IRH, 165), Tripp attempts to justify his data gathering by teaching that Jesus did this. In reference to Heb. 4:14-16 he says, “For thirty-three years, he lived among us, gathering data about the nature of our experience” (IRH, 167). However, there is no mention of data gathering in this passage, because Christ knows the heart of every human. He does not have to gather data or make assumptions. This is why people should go directly to Him and His Word, because He knows the heart and will expose what is necessary through the Holy Spirit if people are willing. While Jesus experienced the full range of temptation so that He could identify with us and bear our sins and then sympathize with us, He was yet without sin. Moreover, He is living in believers through the Holy Spirit and calls them to deny the old self and put on the new life and walk according to His indwelling Spirit.
Regarding knowing another person biblically, the apostle Paul said, “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Nevertheless, Paul Tripp’s “good questions” seek information about the flesh and therefore generally lead to evil speaking about others. He is evidently hoping that, by knowing his counselees according to the flesh, he might be able to direct them to walk after the Spirit. However, so much attention given to the flesh increases its strength. This is why Tripp has counseled people over extended periods of time. He appears to be trying to give life to the new man by feeding and fixing the old.
We do not see Jesus asking the kinds of questions that would elicit evil speaking about other people. Data gathering that depends on and elicits evil speaking about others feeds the flesh and comes from the world of psychotherapy, group therapy, media talk shows, and a wide range of so-called biblical counseling, such as promoted by Tripp and others. Nevertheless, Tripp declares:
Asking good questions is doing the work of change. Through them, we give sight to blind eyes and understanding to dull minds, we soften hardened hearts, encourage flagging souls, and stir hunger that can only be filled by the truth This not only builds a platform for the work the Messiah does through us—it is that work? (IRH, 173, italics his.)
In other words, Tripp is convinced that he is doing the Messiah’s work through asking such questions. Not only is he convinced that this kind of counseling is the Messiah’s work, but he very often talks about how a counselor is called to “incarnate Christ” (IRH, 97, 126, 128, 207, 269). Yet Christ would never encourage evil speaking by His questioning.
In describing what he has learned about a woman he calls Celia, Tripp takes a one-up position over Celia to the point of judging her through and through (IRH, 279-287). For example, Tripp says:
Celia’s life did not bear the fruit of repentance. First, she was not becoming a self-starter. She continued in sinful and destructive behaviors though we talked about them on numerous occasions. She would grudgingly admit wrong when confronted, but her confessions seldom resulted in new ways of responding. Second, Celia remained defensive. She continued to have a hard time receiving my biblical evaluation of her. She accused me of not understanding her, of not believing her, or of taking another’s side. Third, Celia did not have a teachable spirit (IRH, 286, bold added).
Notice that this continued “on numerous occasions” and that she “remained defensive” through many counseling sessions and that she was still resistant to what he thought he could see that she could not. And, typical of the response of many counselors, if things do not go well it is the counselee’s fault.
One can see a drastic contrast between how Tripp views himself and his “lowly counselee.” He says:
I will ask questions they would never ask and probe in places they would not know to probe. My questioning will flow out of biblical perspectives on people and their problems. Here I image the Messiah as I seek to end the groping in darkness. I am … helping blind eyes to see, with biblical clarity and depth, the heart’s thoughts and motives (IRH, 278, bold added).
Wow! This sounds like the Pharisee praising God for the contrast between himself and the wretched publican.
What Tripp is describing throughout this section of the book is the corruption of Celia’s flesh, which is similar to the corruption of all flesh, including his and ours. Because of the pervasive influence of insight therapy, Tripp believes he must expose Celia to herself so that she can change. But what he is attempting to expose is her flesh, which in essence neither he nor she can fully know and which simply needs to be put off rather than analyzed and dissected into idols.
Rather than weeks of counseling to expose her inner intentions and motives, one could help Celia see the difference between walking after the Spirit and walking according to the flesh. Rather than focusing on her corruption, the counselor could teach her about the new life in Christ. Teaching the truths of the new life would give opportunity to strengthen her in the new life without delving into the unseen realm of the flesh, which is accurately described in Scripture. Then, with the understanding that this is the struggle of every believer, Celia could be encouraged to desire to walk according to the Spirit and begin to seek the Lord herself. It would be better to help her see the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit through the powerful, living Word so that, when she is thinking or doing something, she herself can compare that with Scripture.
Believers need to learn to recognize when they are reverting to the flesh and to follow the wonderful plan laid out in Scripture by following 1 John 1:9 and Ephesians 4:22-24. In this way the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God with or without fellow believers coming alongside to encourage them in the faith. Like all of us, Celia is still learning to walk by faith, but to read the excoriating analysis Tripp has set up for her makes it sound as if she is a pharisaical unbeliever who resists at every turn. Indeed there are some who are truly not saved and who will resist the truth, and in such instances the Gospel needs to be preached and explained, not in reference to every jot and tittle of the flesh, but in the way the Gospel is presented throughout Scripture, with the understanding that as people hear the Gospel the Holy Spirit will be working. For some the ministry will be life unto life and to others it will be death unto death (2 Cor. 2:16).
Another problem with Tripp’s counseling Celia is that he is a man counseling a woman. She needs a woman to come alongside her, not a man in a one-up position analyzing, condemning, and taking authority over her in areas that belong to the Holy Spirit alone. For him to come up with his analysis he certainly had to ask his “good questions,” many of which would draw out lots of unbiblical evil speaking. He draws it out and then he condemns her for resisting his efforts. Biblical ministry should not resort to encouraging people to sin in order to find out more about their corrupt flesh. Much of what he calls “biblical” is not only unbiblical but it is actually sinful.4
Throughout his article “Wisdom in Counseling,” Tripp refers to the counselee as the “fool” because “Sin reduces us to fools.”5 As one can see from the title of his article, wisdom flows from the counselor, who is the wise one in contrast to the foolish counselees. Not only does Tripp elevate his method of counseling and the importance of the counselor; he actually demeans counselees, who apparently cannot see themselves without a counselor revealing their hearts.
According to Tripp, in establishing the “ministry agenda,” the counselor needs to know “what specific changes God is calling this person to make in this situation.” He declares, “We cannot leave people to themselves or advise them from a distance” (IRH, 245). Tripp sounds as if these people would not be able to see or do anything without his guidance. Where is the Holy Spirit in this? And, how would Tripp know what God is calling another person to do unless it is extremely obvious. Even then, God may not have the obvious specific need for change high in His priority. The Lord may purpose to change something else first. Because of his own deceptive heart, Tripp may glom onto the wrong so-called idol and help someone see something superficial without recognizing that the person’s heart is quite different from what he sees and that, if his agenda is followed, far less will probably be accomplished than by a fellow believer who has not learned Tripp’s arm-of-the-flesh, insight-oriented methodology.
The idea that “we cannot leave people to themselves or advise them from a distance” is another one-upmanship of the counselor over the counselee. Tripp says, “We fail to recognize that, on their own, people often have a hard time applying biblical truths to their lives” (IRH, 245). While people may “have a hard time” doing this, the Holy Spirit is in them to help them without Tripp’s fleshly counseling methodology. In fact, the early church and true believers throughout the ages progressed in sanctification without the counseling rage that has recently overtaken the world and the church. Biblical ministry, free from the influence of psychological counseling theories and methodologies, no doubt did a better job. At least they did not depend on evil speaking and inordinate introspection.
(In Part three we will be looking at how Tripp imposes his methodology on people’s lives, how he actually discourages fellow believers from ministering to one another, and why Christians do not need his prescribed methodology.)
1 Personal correspondence from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, January 25, 2011.
2 Paul David Tripp. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002, pp. 59-60. Hereafter references will be indicated with IRH and page number in parentheses.
3 Paul David Tripp, “Identity and Story: A Counseling Transcript,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2004, pp. 178-179.
4 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2011, pp. 79-87.
5 Paul Tripp, “Wisdom in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter 2001, p. 5.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2011, Vol. 19, No. 3)