By In Politics

Adams’ Warrior Children: On the Firing of Eric L. Johnson

Update: Dr. Lambert has issued an apology here and I wrote a follow-up here. I also removed a line which I thought was too definitive in retrospect.

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

18 Responses to Adams’ Warrior Children: On the Firing of Eric L. Johnson

  1. Frank White says:

    Dustin, while you give mohler benefit of the doubt, the seminary’s silence is inexcusable. As a Baptist church deacon, I expect an explanation as to why a 17-year professor was suddenly terminated. I can’t find any statement from the seminary about Eric’s termination. Mahler is a first-class imagemeister. A elementary rule of public relations is to state your position rather than allow the opposition to frame your position. Mahler would not fail to do that. Consequently, I view silence from the administration as intentional. And, as one who contributes to the funding of the seminary, I am offended.

  2. Whitney Hancock says:

    Well said.

    A further note, if Johnson is not getting enough students in his classes, it is because both students and certain faculty alike are biasing the students’ opinions before they even get to take a Johnson class. I experienced this myself in my first semester – warnings and gossip about Johnson from fellow students, not because they’ve taken his classes but because they’ve had profs like Lambert who go out of their way in classes and conferences to attack him. (e.g. I knew nothing about Lambert, but I made a mistake of attending a NANC conference… completely unrelated to the topic at hand, Lambert asked David Powlison his opinion of Christian Psychology. To Lambert’s chagrin, he was gracious to Johnson.)

    All that to say, low class count might be a valid reason if the well wasn’t already poisoned against him.

  3. Lance Roberts says:

    I’m glad somebody stood up and questioned bad theology. We too often have a “nice guy”, milquetoast approach instead of a Godly, spiritual warrior attitude. We must recognize bad theology and not be silent about it. Anyone who would say that the Bible isn’t sufficient is beyond the pale.

    • Eric Jones says:

      Although Eric Johnson is a nice guy, he is anything but a bad theologian. I also wonder what you mean by “spiritual warrior attitude”. It sounds like what makes those outside and inside the church cringe – attacking people absent loving them. Direct and even confrontational academic discussions can be healthy for us all given the proper attitudes of all involved. However, I believe we are to first, and above all, love others. Where’s the love?

    • Bad theology-like drawing out of the Bible things that aren’t actually there for the sake of calling counseling “Biblical”? For the puffed up pride of saying others aren’t taking the Bible seriously enough? If you truly believe the integrationists find the Bible insufficient on the whole, you have not understood the position. There are specific topics the Bible doesn’t address. How is that intellectual honesty a cheapening of the Scripture?

  4. Clayton Wood says:

    As someone who has been involved in terminating employees and serving on boards where I knew reasons that were not shared publically, I am always very hesitant to speak out about firings where I do not have all the info.

    Sometimes wishing someone the best and covering their nakedness as it were is not only legally wise, it is honoring to God.

    I am not saying I know more to this story and that the termination is justified, I am saying given that we do not know the whole story, a video and a petition is insufficient information for me. Having and asking questions is legitimate. Demanding answers or pretending we have answers we do not is dangerous and uncharitable and seems foolish to me.

    I will also say if you have seen Jungian integrationist “christian counseling” lead to divorce after divorce and despair and navel gazing dysfunction in case after case, it is something to be passionate about. ObGYNs who prescribe thalidomide cannot work with those who know it is intended to help but causes birth defects. At this point for many in the biblical counseling camp, the problem with the other side is not intent, it is results.

    • Many people have been harmed by “Biblical Counseling” too, like, let’s take a woman devastated by rape and talk only about HER sin.

      Marriage problems are appropriate for BC. Surely there are other appropriate areas. However, I’ve heard and read many tales of horrific BC experiences. There is an appropriate place for each method.

  5. Kyle B says:

    I can’t find anything to suggest that he’s actually been fired. He’s still listed as faculty on the SBTS website…

  6. Bronson Simmons says:

    This petition doesn’t seem to have any actual evidence and is based on speculation. Of course if this is the way things happened that is unfortunate, but we have no proof here, only an effort by some to fill in gaps with their imagination. This petition is harmful and not helpful. Dr johnson was not mentioned in that sermon. Heath had been outspoken about his disagreements for a while, even while working on campus with him. It is very unlikely that a criticism of a book Dr Johnson released 10 YEARS AGO is the cause.

  7. Nathan C says:

    I hope this post from Heath Lambert brings more light than heat to the situation. Proverbs 18:13,15,17. https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/09/clarifying-and-confessing/

  8. JD says:

    There were only 3 people who would have actually known the facts based on the allegations: Albert Mohler, Eric Johnson, and Heath Lambert. Rather than jumping on a bandwagon started by someone as brave as “Anonymous A”, it would have been more sensible to wait until one of those 3 people involved spoke into it. Such as Heath Lambert:

    https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/09/clarifying-and-confessing/

    Silence is more often a sign that those involved are determining the right way to respond, not an admittance of guilt. Patience is tough, but wiser.

  9. Amos Peck says:

    Lambert has written a public statement concerning this controversy which absolutely must be read. I cannot imagine a more humble response. It needs to be said that the gospel demands all who have engaged in the slander, assumptions, and accusations of Lambert over this controversy should repent quickly. Furthermore, those who did so publicly, such as on the iPetition and this article by Dustin Messer, should repent publicly.

    Link for Lambert’s statement is https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/09/clarifying-and-confessing/

    • Hi, Amos! I wrote a response to Lambert’s response, which you may not have seen. I don’t think I slandered. I didn’t speculate, I only commented on the facts at hand. It seems to me that sermon was Lambert leveraging his position to professionally harm Johnson. Of course, I don’t know if that’s the only, or even main, reason he was fired. But Lambert’s words hurt Johnson professionally, I don’t see how there is debate about that. Can you point to something in the article that was untrue?

  10. Raina Clark says:

    https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/09/clarifying-and-confessing/
    This is Heath Lambert’s response and contains correction as well as repentance. Let’s try to pray for all involved and not jump to conclusions. We have known Dr. Mohler for over 20 years and he would not make a decision that involves image bearers lightly.

  11. Mylifeandbooks says:

    Hi Dustin,

    I think it is unfair and wrong that you did not include Dr Lambert response to these accusations on your blog post.

    The guy said sorry!

  12. […] Today we are going to look at a controversy that has been playing out at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary over the past couple of weeks.  A Christianity Today article entitled “Has Christian Psychology Lost Its Place at Southern Seminary?” reports on the firing (very thinly disguised as an early retirement) of Dr. Eric Johnson, a longtime professor of counseling at SBTS.  The Wartburg Watch has a summary which you can read here and here.  Dustin Messner at Kuyperian Commentary gives his commentary here. […]

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