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Postmodernism And Pastoral Counselling

Truth, text and therapy: some observations on postmodernism and pastoral counselling

by Rod Benson,

(c) 2002 Rod Benson.


This paper discusses aspects of the apparent impact of postmodernity on Christian counselling theory and practice. It explores the nature of postmodernity in order to understand its present strengths and weaknesses. It summarises selected evangelical assessments of postmodern thought in order to demonstrate the widely differing Christian responses to the phenomenon and the fruitful insights that arises from informed evangelical engagement with sophisticated cultural theory. The paper argues that what sets apart “Christian” counselling from other counselling is its confident underlying affirmation of the Christian metanarrative, and considers the implications of such a framework for counselling theory, counsellor training and clinical intervention. The paper also discusses pastoral theology and Scripture, and briefly examines recent evangelical scholarship that seeks to relate theology and postmodern theory to counselling.


The notion of postmodernity (the term I will use for the emerging intellectual and cultural milieu) labours under a number of misapprehensions. For example, it represents both the continuation of modernity and its transcendence. Although often promoted as a new era or worldview, postmodernism (the term I will use for the theoretical assumptions undergirding postmodernity) appears to be essentially a reaction against the strengths of modernism. In A Passion for Truth, Alister McGrath, himself inescapably modernist, views postmodernism as “a conscious and deliberate reaction against the totalization of the Enlightenment.”

Moreover, postmodernism is the intellectual equivalent of velcro: everything seems to stick to it, rendering it a shifting, complex and confusing object of study. There is a great difference between sincerely living as a postmodernist and arrogantly asserting that the world has become postmodern. As Steve Bruce observes in his recent book, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, one basic error that postmoderns make is to apply the critiques of modernism to all but themselves. A second error is to claim colonisation of a new authoritative metanarrative after having deconstructed the old ones. It takes uncommon courage and humility for a person immersed in postmodernity to evaluate the universal claims of postmodernism, since to do so requires one to step back into modernist ways of thinking.

Christian interventions in the conversation created by the rise of postmodernism are both philosophical and cultural. Theologians tend to focus on the former, missiologists on the latter. Counselling theorists tend to ignore the phenomenon or mention it very briefly (but they are not immune to its influence at either the level of theory or praxis).

For example, only one counselling handbook to which I had access made more than a fleeting reference to issues relating to postmodernism. In Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods (5th edition), Nichols and Schwartz posit postmodernism as a questioning of authority resulting in greater self-awareness on the part of counsellors and a concern with how clients generate meaning. They link postmodernism with constructivism – “the crowbar that pried family therapy away from its belief in objectivity. Yet it appears that these authors understand postmodernism as one of a number of features of the contemporary culture rather than an incipient metanarrative seeking to reinterpret reality itself.

What then is postmodernism? It reflects “a sustained and multivalent challenge to various founding assumptions of western European culture since at least the fifteenth century . about structure and identity, about transcendence and particularity, about the nature of time and space” (E.D. Ermath). Thus postmodernism encompasses the broadest scope; James Sire speaks of its “panoramic sweep.” However, Ermarth highlights two key assumptions: “that there is no common denominator – in ‘nature’ or ‘truth’ or God’ or ‘the future’ – that guarantees either the Oneness of the world or the possibility of neutral or objective thought . [and] that all human systems operate like language, being self-reflexive rather than referential systems – systems of differential function which are powerful but finite, and which construct and maintain meaning and value.”

Seven specific features of postmodernism may be identified. First, all knowledge is subjective; postmodernists do not regard positivistic, rationalistic and instrumental criteria as the sole or exclusive standard of knowledge. In addition, knowledge is conditioned by its situation and can oppress rather than emancipate: knowledge is not neutral.

Second, the erosion of faith in rationalism and the demise of foundationalism render knowledge uncertain. There are no longer any universal intellectual tools such as logic, and there are no indubitable first principles from which to make sense of ideas or experience.

Third, attempts to construct metanarratives (all-inclusive systems of explanation or truth) are impossible and should be abandoned.

Fourth, communitarianism transcends individualism and knowledge is created and accessed not by sovereign individuals but in community.

Fifth, scientific method, and even the fundamental basis if science itself, is questioned or abandoned; truth is encountered emotionally and intuitively as well as rationally.

Sixth, postmodernism evidences a willingness to combine symbols from disparate codes or frameworks of meaning, even at the cost of disjunctions and eclecticism.

Seventh, postmodernism celebrates spontaneity, fragmentation, superficiality, irony and playfulness. What is true of postmodernism is also true for postmodernity.

[These seven observations represent a synthesis of what I view as the most important issues noted in Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernising the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism and James A. Beckford, “Religion, modernity and postmodernity,” in B.R. Wilson (ed.), Religion: Contemporary Issues.]

In addition, Millard Erickson makes a helpful distinction between “soft” and “hard” postmodernism:

Soft postmodernism rejects those extremes of modernism found in hard modernism: the dogmatic naturalism and antisupernaturalism; the reductionistic view of reason, which reduces psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. It rejects the limitation of knowledge to sense experience, and the meaningful use of language to those statements for which we can identify sense perceptions that would verify or falsify them. It rejects the restriction of the understanding of human personality as a set of stimulus-response reactions. It rejects the type of naive objectivity that denies the effect of historical and cultural situations. In other words, it rejects logical positivism, behaviorism, and all other artificially scientistic approaches to reality.

Hard postmodernism, best represented by deconstruction, goes beyond this to reject the idea of any sort of objectivity and rationality. It maintains that all theories are simply worked out to justify and empower those who hold them, rather than being based on facts. It not only rejects the limitation of meaning of language to empirical reference; it rejects the idea that language has any sort of objective or extralinguistic reference at all. It moves from relativism to pluralism in truth. Not only is all knowing and all speaking done from a particular perspective, but each perspective is equally true or valuable.


What are the general implications of postmodernity for Christians? If the advent of postmodernity in the culture and the flourishing of postmodernism in the academy have spurred a publishing bonanza, evangelical scholars and popular writers have not been far behind. I will limit my observations on evangelical assessments of postmodernity to three representative writers: Stanley Grenz, James Sire and Millard Erickson.

In A Primer on Postmodernism, one of the earliest sustained evangelical responses to the rise of postmodernism, Grenz notes that “evangelicals have often uncritically accepted the modern [i.e. modernist] view of knowledge despite the fact that at certain points the postmodern critique is more in keeping with Christian theological understandings.” Following an insightful survey of various forms of postmodernism, Grenz urges Christians to embody the gospel in a manner that is post-individualistic (emphasising community and the individual-in-relationship), post-rationalistic (recognising that persons are more than cognitive beings, and that doctrinal presuppositions are not the central content of Christian faith but serve to bring us toward encounter with God in Christ), post-dualistic (affirming a holistic conception of personhood against earlier mind/body dualism, and affirming that persons are deeply integrated with their social and physical environment), and post-noeticentric (expressing the notion that the goal of personal existence encompasses more than the accumulation of correct doctrine or new knowledge; knowledge is intended to serve the attainment of wisdom).

In The Universe Next Door (third edition), James Sire makes six summary observations about postmodernism. Positively, like Grenz, he acknowledges that postmodernism’s critique of optimistic naturalism is largely valid; he regards as apt its recognition that language is closely associated with power; and he observes that “attention to the social conditions under which we understand the world can alert us to our limited perspective as finite human beings.” Negatively, Sire notes that the rejection of all metanarratives is itself a metanarrative; that the idea that we have no access to reality, but that we can tell stories about it, is self-referentially incorrect; and that postmodernism’s critique of the autonomy and sufficiency of human reason rests on the autonomy and sufficiency of human reason. Incidentally, in this classic work on worldviews, first published in 1976, postmodernism features only in the third edition published in 1997, where it is given its own chapter.

Milard Erickson offers the most sophisticated and incisive published evangelical responses to postmodernism. Two books are worth noting. In Postmodernising the Faith, he surveys representative evangelical responses to postmodernism. In his conclusion, Erickson notes five possible alternative approaches for apologetics in a postmodern culture that may be effortlessly related to the context of Christian counselling.

First, we must accept that postmodernity is here to stay and postmoderns must be evangelised within a cultural context of postmodernity. Truth must be transformed; the message must be altered to communicate to a new and different paradigm.

Second, postmoderns do not need a transformed message but the methodology with which we go about our apologetics must be postmodern.

Third, truth and technique require no alteration because the subjects are not really postmodern although they may be convinced they are. This assumes that postmodernity is a myth.

Fourth, we must first deconstruct people influenced by postmodernism before we can evangelise them. It is not possible to live authentically for a sustained period as a postmodern.

Finally, thoroughly postmodern people cannot be evangelised, and the Christian’s duty is to prevent others from falling into the trap of believing and living according to the values of ‘hard’ modernism. Apologetics, in this case, is exclusively a defensive weapon.

Erickson actually lists only four points; my fifth point above is part of his treatment of point four. I see them as two quite separate options. Erickson advocates use of a combination of points two and four.

Erickson’s second book on the subject, Truth or Consequences, mounts a substantial critique of postmodernism and its most celebrated theorists. He regards postmodernism as dangerous, but he does not revert uncritically to a modernist position. Erickson believes that logic transcends worldview and that postmoderns must be driven to explore the full implications of their claims and convictions, until they reach a point where defection to what he terms “postpostmodernism” is the only intellectually credible option.

However, Erickson acknowledges that postmodernism reveals certain truths that non-postmodernists do well to carefully consider. These observations have direct relevance to Christian counsellors who often uncritically appropriate the theoretical presuppositions of counselling theories, or reject certain approaches to counselling theory and practice on the grounds of fundamentalist (i.e. modernist) dogma. Erickson agrees that humans are not purely rational in behaviour; that intuitive personal knowledge cannot necessarily be analysed in logical categories; that imagination and creativity are important in communication; that helping people first to feel the emotional impact of a consideration before exploring rationally what they (and we) know to be true is crucial; and that there is great value in subtlety, indirectness and story – such as Jesus used in his parabolic teaching.

In Truth or Consequences Erickson also offers a general positive evaluation of postmodernism. He highlights insights offered by postmodernism such as the socially conditioned nature of knowledge; the presuppositional differences that are often masked or unrecognised in modernist discourse; the limitations of foundationalism; the need for tentativeness, not dogma, in theory; the realisation that power creates and manipulates knowledge; the necessity of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” – i.e. a critical assessment of statements, especially regarding possible vested interests that underlie actions or beliefs; and the value of the postmodern emphasis on community versus individualism. Each of these insights may be applied to counselling theory and practice, as Christian counsellors wrestle with the personal and professional challenges of postmodernity, clinical theories strongly influenced by postmodernism, and clients whose worldviews and lifestyles differ significantly from those of their counsellors. Truth or Consequences deserves to be read in entirety to appreciate the full scope and depth of the author’s engagement with the issues.


Given the deep postmodern distrust of metanarrative, what place does theology have in Christian counselling under the conditions of postmodernity? Some Christian counselling takes place in a virtual theological vacuum. This may be due to dependence on the non-religious or anti-religious underpinnings of particular counselling theories used by a counsellor; or to an illogical and unhelpful distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ elements of existence in counselling praxis; or to a counsellor’s personal unfamiliarity with (or distrust of) Christian theology and its practical implications. Certain counselling theories and practices are informed by particular non-religious philosophical and cultural perspectives. It seems to be equally appropriate, then, for counselling theories and practices that are Christian to be overtly influenced by Christian theology and spirituality. Pastoral counselling and psychotherapy within the Christian tradition in the twentieth century have too often hidden their light under the bushels of academic respectability and deference to pluralism to the detriment of clients and the impoverishment of theory.

At other times counselling is done with vague or superficial reference to pastoral theology. For example, a counsellor may possess assumptions about the character of God, the nature of humans, the place of Scripture, and the possibility of hope and healing. These assumptions may influence and enrich their counselling practice. But it is also possible that a counsellor may, even unconsciously, separate such assumptions from their work on the grounds that personal values and beliefs should not influence the counselling relationship, or on the ground that counselling does not intersect with psychospiritual reality, or for some other reason. I contend that it is not possible for a counsellor to separate their values from their praxis.

There are other counsellors, however, whose professional skills and theological perspectives actively interact and inform one another. There are also theoreticians who, through biblical and theological reflection, offer interpretive contexts through which counsellors may in turn inform and interpret their clinical practice. It is therefore important for a counsellor to seek to be aware of his/her personal worldview, and for Christian counsellors to gain familiarity with general theology and especially pastoral theology.

Theology, the study of God, helps us to apprehend truths about God, and to know God. To know God in relationship, as God gives himself to be known, is profoundly more significant than to possess propositional knowledge of God. Yet propositional and personal revelation of God are complementary ways in which God can be known. Their separation leads to intellectual and psychospiritual impoverishment, and emphasising one at the expense of the other results in a distorted view of God and therefore of lived experience. Pastoral theology enables a community of faith to practice what it preaches. This is essential to authentic and effective counselling praxis in a Christian framework. It is worth reflecting on an article in Christianity Today (7:2, 1999) by Robertson McQuilkin, where the author offers a frank personal reflection of the interface between theology and suffering.

An evangelical theology will probably place a high value on religious conversion, devotion to Scripture, and the centrality of the cross as the locus of salvation. Evangelical theology has as its foundation and essence the revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of Christ, and the transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit. Further, as Alister McGrath asserts, “[i]t remains axiomatic for evangelicals that both revelation and doctrine have cognitive or informative aspects.” On these issues see especially David Bebbington, “Preaching the gospel: The nature of evangelical religion” in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) 1-19; Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (second edition; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996) 49-88; and John R.W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Plea for Unity (Leicester: IVP, 1999) 15-39.

Pastoral theology describes the intersection between the social and intellectual context in which theology is lived out, and the practice of pastoral ministry in the church and world. Good pastoral theology results from reflection and dialogue. Orthodoxy promotes, and is enriched by, orthopraxy. An evangelical pastoral theology will acknowledge the influence of human sin in contributing to dis-ease and the absence of personal wholeness. It will incorporate spiritual resources such as Bible reading, meditation, prayer, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the care of the faith community. It will enrich counselling interventions with an informed understanding of the multi-faceted self-revelation of God in Christ. It will pursue these activities with the interests and rights of the client pre-eminent, and with sensitivity to the worldview and expectations of the client. It is also important to recognise that all theological systems and systematics owe as much to cultural specificity as they owe to biblical orthodoxy.

Biblically-based pastoral theology may deliver significant positive outcomes for counselling. There are at least four substantial reasons for this. First, effective Christian counselling is directly informed by a clear theoretical/theological framework. There are important and essential relationships between doctrine and experience. The gospel is a valid and relevant metanarrative, and Scripture has demonstrable power to transform lives and lifestyles. Second, effective Christian counselling harnesses the wisdom of tradition, including cultural and historical critique (such as the undue influence of modernism on contemporary biblical counselling. Also, it is important to acknowledge that pastoral care and counselling are inauthentic unless informed by theology and engaged with culture. Third, effective Christian counselling employs the best insights of clinical practice, and maintains a commitment to growth and change as new knowledge, skills and challenges emerge.

Christian counselling has enormous opportunities for positive intervention in a culture where people experience savage autonomy, rootlessness and fragmentation, but where simultaneously they are aware of and open to spiritual realities. The growing awareness of the richness of employing story and spiritual direction in counselling is also encouraging. It is important also to recognise the nexus between theology, counselling and spirituality, and to recast ‘Christian’ counselling and psychotherapy as psychospiritual.


A prominent Canadian missiologists remarked to me recently that Enlightenment evangelicalism is “modernism gone mad.” A classic example of this provocative statement appears in the final paragraph of an article by David McLeod expounding the Christology of 1 Timothy 3:16, where he asserts, “The doctrinal truths relating to Jesus Christ are the reasons for the church’s existence” (Bibliotheca Sacra 159, July-September, 2002). McLeod may have meant that Christology shapes or undergirds the church’s reason for existence, but that is not what he wrote. What is its reason for existence? How can counsellors who are Christian work towards that end?

Arguably, the end of the church is to commend relationship with God through Christ, and to facilitate relational wholeness in Christ and in the context of an authentic faith community. Within that community, Scripture will have a high place. In Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, Richard Lovelace argues that “Scripture . is not an encyclopedia, but a tool for making encyclopedias.” That in itself is a modernist statement. It may be better to perceive Scripture as a compass pointing faith-seekers, truth-seekers and God-seekers to Christ. This is certainly the paradigm in which missional thinker Leonard Sweet feels most at home. See, for example, his Aqua Church, awash with rich aquatic metaphors for the church and its ministry in the twenty-first century. Always willing to provoke his readers, Sweet declares with perhaps a hint of postmodern neo-orthodoxy, “I am a fundamentalist, not of the word but of the image: I am a fundamentalist about the image of God in Jesus the Christ.”

Scripture is also a primary means of grace and therefore a key to wholeness. In Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel, David Benner urges the church to return to the classical notion of “soul care,” advocating a holistic, integrationist approach to pastoral care and counselling in the Christian tradition. Benner notes that Christian spirituality is nurtured by the means of grace, and argues that “the primary means of grace is Scripture . Engagement with Scripture is, therefore, essential if we are to know God, ourselves, and his will for us.” Such an approach has rich potential for Christian counselling theory and practice, as is being discovered by Benner and his colleagues in North America.

One of the many tragedies of the long twentieth century is that Scripture suffered under modernity. It appears that in some evangelical circles, for example, valiant attempts to defend the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture tacitly replaced faith in Christ by faith in the Bible. For historical evangelicalism, however, Christ is the object of faith and Scripture serves to authoritatively interpret Christ to the faith community and to the world. In the wake of the demise of foundationalism, debates about the nature and authority of Scripture have tended to move from critical textual issues to focus on hermeneutics and epistemology.

On hermeneutics in a Christian context see especially Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark) 1994; Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998); and Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout and Anthony C. Thisteleton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). On epistemology in general see Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1998). On epistemology from a Christian perspective see W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998); and Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth: A Creative Proposal for a Postmodern Age (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), especially 140-197.

These debates have a delayed bearing on how the text of Scripture is perceived and applied, in much the same way as biblical criticism previously influenced Christian culture. Evangelicals are understandably concerned by developments such as the pulling out of the foundationalist rug from under them, and by fundamental denials of the possibility of speaking in meaningful language under postmodernity, but these challenges foster careful reflection and action. In their encouraging and engaging book, The Promise of Hermeneutics, Roger Lundin et al suggest that contemporary hermeneutics must focus attention on questions of trustworthy fidelity rather than absolute certainty. Further, as Stephen Fowl notes, “Christians will find that interpretations of scripture have already shaped convictions, practices, and dispositions which have, in turn, shaped the ways in which scripture is interpreted.” Scholars increasingly recognise that the Bible is not a modernist text but a premodern text which is increasingly encountered in postmodern ways. Herein lies fruitful potential for evangelicals and evangelical counsellors.

But what of specifically therapeutic uses of Scripture? While cognitive therapies remain popular among pastoral and clinical counsellors, many also place a high value on experience or emotion in counselling. On this issue see especially the extensive literature on Gestalt therapy, transactional analysis and emotionally focused therapy, and my online critique of EFT listed in the references below. At times this shift from an emphasis on cognition restores balance to clinical practice; at other times such emphasis probably introduces new imbalances. Eclectic and integrative perspectives seek to draw out the best or most useful principles and techniques, often resulting in a creative combination of behavioural and experiential therapies to help people move toward wholeness or wellbeing. All of this raises the important question, for Christian counsellors, of what to do with the Bible in counselling. Should Scripture be used chiefly to support a basic theological framework that in turn informs practice? Should Scripture be used as a personal resource by the counsellor who might, for example, utilise a biblical aphorism, narrative or principle without drawing overtly on its spiritual origin or meaning? Or is there a place for direct use of Scripture for various clinical interventions?

Counsellors use sacred texts in various ways. Beyond personal use, the Bible may be used in counselling as literature to inspire, enlighten and counsel clients (especially as “homework”); note the distinctions made by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his Divine Discourse. The Bible may be used mystically for contemplation and spiritual growth, although this use is more appropriate to spiritual direction. This is a growing edge of practical theology; see, for example, Martin Thornton, Spiritual Direction: A Practical Introduction (London: SPCK, 1984) 54; Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (revised edition; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989) 33-35; Evan B. Howard, Praying the Scriptures: A Field Guide for Your Spiritual Journey (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999).

The Bible may also be used rationally to discern what God has said or is saying by way of the text. A comprehensive Australian exposition of this way of encountering Scripture is Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (Leicester: IVP, 1996) 13-56. However, given the significance of Scripture within evangelicalism, it is extraordinary that so little has been written on the relations between Scripture and counselling. The best contemporary treatment is Using Scripture in Pastoral Counseling by Edward Wimberley, who advocates use of Scripture in pastoral counselling as a means of articulating personal experience, especially for clients familiar with a storytelling tradition. On the use of story in counselling see Wimberley, especially pp. 17-32, see also Charles Gerkin, Widening the Horizons: Pastoral Responses to a Fragmented Society (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986); Charles Gerkin, An Introduction to Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997) 97-114; Roger Hurding, Pathways to Wholeness: Pastoral Care in a Postmodern Age (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998) 49-64.

Wimberley’s approach may not work effectively with clients who possessed no accessible or residual knowledge of the narratives of the Old Testament and the Gospels, especially the parables of Jesus. Having said that, there is much to commend in Wimberley. He outlines seven steps that he calls “a biblical narrative model for counselling”: (1) attending to the presenting problem; (2) attending to the mythology, whether personal, marital or family; (3) identifying the nature of the mythology; (4) mapping the influence of the mythology; (5) attending to the preferred story; (6)

setting goals; and (7) reauthoring the mythology. The term “mythology” refers to convictions, beliefs and themes carried by the client. Wimberley’s goal is life change: “authoritative uses of Scripture aim to appropriate those dimensions of Scripture that support the empowering of humans to become full and responsible participants in life.”

Evangelical scholars say rather more about how not to use Scripture in counselling. For example, Paul Goodliff, in Care in a Confused Climate: Pastoral Care and Postmodern Culture, cautions pastoral counsellors not to use Scripture as a quarry from which to extract instant answers to difficult situations; or as a prop to bolster personal prejudices or disguise blind spots; or as “an interesting, but optional, postmodern text, essentially unrelated to reality.” Further, as C.B. Johnson cautions, Christian patients may be overfamiliar with biblical passages to the point of unresponsiveness; those encountering problems with biblical authority may be highly resistant to the use of Scripture; and na


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