A petition began yesterday to protest the “wrongful firing” of Eric L. Johnson, longtime professor of counseling at Southern Seminary. Though I hold Johnson in high esteem, I hesitated to sign the document for a few reasons. First, I want to give Albert Mohler the benefit of the doubt. I went to Boyce College (Southern’s undergraduate school) largely because of Dr. Mohler. In the few opportunities I had to watch him up close, I saw a warm, compassionate, faithful follower of Jesus. I honestly don’t think there is a finer Christian statesman alive today.
While I was disappointed to hear of Dr. Johnson’s firing, it’s easy to think of reasons such a move may have been warranted, however sad it may be. Southern is known as a “Biblical Counseling” school. Perhaps students who would like to study Christian Psychology are simply going to other seminaries, like Covenant, TEDS, or RTS. Maybe Dr. Johnson’s classes weren’t full enough to merit his salary. Or perhaps Dr. Mohler wanted continuity in the department. While that move isn’t wise in my estimation, it’s his to make and, frankly, understandable. Or maybe there’s some other reason to which I’m simply not privy.
Then I watched the video linked in the petition. The video is of Heath Lambert, Executive Director at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, publically condemning Eric Johnson. He quotes a section from Johnson’s Foundations for Soul Care, leaving out key sentences and paragraphs. He says Johnson’s words are “a total and utter mockery of God’s Word.” He paraphrases Johnson’s thesis as,
“There’s all this stuff in there [the Bible] about anxiety, but it’s general and can’t really help you. The Bible has this general level of sophistication. The Bible – translation – can’t even help you with the spiritual items it brings up.”
He then says, “I think that’s slander. Honest, I do.”
He says of Johnson:
“The reason that he is wrong, the reason that his counseling advice is bad is because he has not been faithful to the teaching. He has not been faithful to the Word. He is a horrible theologian.”
Most stunningly, Lambert seems to question Johnson’s salvation:
“…you know when I was reading this some [9 years ago] when the book came out, and I was deeply troubled by it, and I was angry about it, and I was frustrated about it ,and then I realized something about this man. This isn’t just a demonstration of faithless teaching. It is a demonstration, is it not, of 1 Tim 4:16 of faithless living? It broke my heart when I realized that. This is a man, who denigrates Psalm 94 because he’s never experienced the consolations of Psalm 94. He can’t teach Psalm 94 because Psalm 94 never got into his bloodstream. He is a bad theologian because he doesn’t understand the teaching and the teaching never changed his life, and so he is a very bad counselor…. If we refuse to allow the Word of God to take root in our heart and change us then the overflow of that unchanged heart to broken people will be just as corrupt as [Johnson].”
After listening to this sermon, I signed the petition. Lambert’s treatment of Johnson’s words were horrendous on two fronts. As a Christian, he should have interpreted Johnson with more generosity, and as a counselor, Lambert should have interpreted Johnson with more honesty. How can a man who gets paid to listen have been so deaf to another’s words? At no point in the sermon did Lambert present Johnson’s position in a way in which Johnson would recognize. Thus, he never actually engaged with the rival position. He built a straw man and condemned that straw man to unemployment, if not hell.
The petition claims that Lambert was behind Johnson’s firing. While I don’t know that his pushing of Johnson was the only, or even main, cause of Johnson’s termination, after watching the video Lambert’s intentions are clear even if Mohler’s are not. Lambert implicitly accused Dr. Mohler of hiring, aiding, and abetting a wolf in the sheep pen. Lambert’s disgust—and I don’t think that’s too strong a word—for Johnson was palpable. Lambert put Dr. Mohler in an untenable situation. One of them had to leave, and Lambert knew his side (the Biblical Counseling side) had the institutional advantage.
Almost 15 years ago, John Frame wrote a prophetic essay entitled Machen’s Warrior Children. The essay argued that John Gresham Machen faced a serious and dangerous enemy: namely, liberalism. Facing a bonafide enemy of the faith, he fought. Those after him, argued Frame, adopted the posture Machen took toward liberalism in each and every battle going forward. Their side was the “Christian” one and the other side was the “faithless” one, no matter how trivial the dispute. For these people, everything was a fight to the death.
I respect and have learned from many in the Biblical Counseling camp. Their perspective is laudable and needed. But even if one thinks Dr. Johnson’s approach to counseling is anemic or flawed, he’s no enemy of the faith. His newest book (which I’m excited to read!) is endorsed by Kevin Vanhoozer, Jeremy Lelek, Michael Allen, Kelly Kapic, and Richard Winter. My goodness, Dr. Johnson’s theology is about as orthodox and mainstream as it gets in Evangelicalism. At least in this particular sermon, Heath Lambert embodies the sort of immature, pugnacious attitude against which Frame so eloquently rails. Lambert was busy winning a war when he should have been having an honest conversation.
Whatever institution Dr. Johnson ends up teaching at will no doubt be blessed to have him. Through his writing, speaking, and counseling ministry he’s ministered the gospel of Christ to thousands. That such a father in the faith has been treated this way is a disgrace and, frankly, an embarrassment to a school which I love and treasure.
Featured image taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexandermason