Foundations for Christian Counseling: Van Til on Self-Realization

Introduction

Most of what we know from the world of psychotherapy and counseling is grounded in humanistic presuppositions. Having studied and worked as a professional counselor, I used to believe that it was possible to integrate various counseling theories with Christian beliefs and a position that holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. I’ve gravitated from that belief, finding that it is more and more difficult to integrate my Christian beliefs with the philosophy and theoretical foundations of counseling and psychotherapeutic theories. Somewhere along the line a Christian has to conclude that the presuppositions of Christianity are diametrically opposed to humanistic philosophies. Various counseling theories were developed purposely in opposition to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Indeed although one may draw from certain theories to work with his or her clients, at rock bottom, Christianity and the humanism that undergirds theories of psychotherapy are irreconcilable in terms of worldview. What does this mean for the practitioner who wants his or her practice to stand solidly on Christian foundations? One response to such a question is obviously to make sure the theories one holds and the work he or she undertakes is Biblically sound. I believe the presuppositional approach of Reformed theologians can provide a solid basis, not only for counseling practice, but for all spheres of endeavor that Christians hope to take captive to Christ. Along those lines, I want to discuss Cornelius Van Til’s ideal for self-realization.

Cornelius Van Til & Presuppositional Apologetics

Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) was a Dutch-American Reformed theologian, known primarily for his presuppositional approach to apologetics. His family moved from the Netherlands to Midwest America, Indiana, when he was about ten. He studied under the systematic theologian, Louis Berkhof at Calvin College before transferring to Princeton Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and began teaching at Princeton Seminary. Not long after he began working at the Seminary, it underwent a split, so Van Til shifted with the conservative group and taught for forty-three years at Westminster Theological Seminary. Van Til developed his presuppositional approach to apologetics, not only as a method to apologetics, but also as an undergirding epistemology to all of Christianity. He rejected traditional methods of apologetics and systematic theology that held that there is a common ground between believers and non-believers regarding the Christian faith. Hence, he was opposed to what he viewed as an Enlightenment rationalistic approach to apologetics and systematic theology. Unfortunately, his approach is labeled, even by some evangelical Christians, as irrational. Although he is not opposed to the use of reason – after all, we are to worship God with all our mind – he did not believe that apologetics could be used to rationally prove the truth of Scripture. All individuals believe and act on a set of presuppositions, whether or not they are aware of the presuppositions they hold. Likewise, Van Til’s position has been labeled fideistic. However he believed that believers could offer a rational defense of the faith, but that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to use arguments for the faith to convict the unbeliever of the truth of Scripture and the Person and Work of Christ. [Obviously, this paragraph is a short and truncated presentation of Van Til’s approach. Such a discussion would entail one or several blog articles, not to mention many books and articles that have been written regarding Van Til’s systematic theology. The best advice is to read Van Til for one’s own education].

Self-Realization, Self-Actualization, Etc.

The first thing to realize is that with such concepts as self-realization, self-actualization, self-awareness, self-consciousness, self-efficacy, and more, within the field of psychotherapy and counseling, these terms are replete with humanistic underpinnings. Take for example, self-realization. Self-realization as a concept has its origins in Western thought taken from psychoanalysis. Freud purposely developed his approach to psychoanalysis as antithetical to religion as a whole, and the Judeo-Christian worldview in particular. Self-realization was also incorporated in Western esotericism, where self-realization is held to be the ultimate goal of life, e.g. New Age approaches. Additionally, self-realization was incorporated in Eastern thought, e.g. Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism among others. All of these approaches are humanistic at base, regardless of their particular differences and disagreements. Other approaches to counseling are based on rationalistic premises, stemming from the Enlightenment, such as Rational-Emotive-Behavior-Therapy or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Hence, one will come across the concept self-efficacy. Although I find these approaches to be more easily integrative with my beliefs, the caution is that a concept like self-efficacy emerging from these counseling approaches is grounded in the humanistic presupposition of autonomous reason. The question that continues to emerge, as posed by R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen, is by what standard do we understand these approaches to be true or even pragmatically helpful? Cornelius Van Til, as a Reformed theologian who takes a presuppositional approach to theology and apologetics proffers an ideal viewpoint of self-realization. Although ideal, I believe it can be helpful to Christian counselors who want to remain true to Biblical inerrancy and the fundamental truths of Christianity.

Van Til on Self-Realization

Self-realization, as pointed out, is a concept loaded with various presuppositions, depending on to whom one talks or whom one reads. Van Til’s explication of this concept, I believe, can provide a good solid Biblical viewpoint for those counselors who seek to shape their practice from a Reformed and evangelical position. He delineates his approach to self-realization in his work, Christian Theistic Ethics. In chapter five of this work, he poses the questions: what then, in more detail, is involved in the goal of self-realization that man must set for himself (p. 45). First, it is important to realize that Van Til is discussing theology, not counseling, and he builds his discussion on an ideal type that would have existed prior to the Fall. He opens chapter five with his presupposition that he sees as in alignment with Reformed theology. The chapter, more than a discussion of self-realization, seeks to explore what forms man’s ultimate good, summum bonum. He states, The ethical ideal that man, as originally created, naturally had to set for himself was the ideal that God wanted him to set for himself. This is involved in the fact that man is a creature made in the image of God. God himself is naturally the end of all of man’s activity. Man’s whole personality was to be a manifestation and revelation on a finite scale of the personality of God . . . man especially was created to glorify God . . . God is man’s summum bonum (p. 41). Ideally then, all of man’s activity is directed toward God. However, the space-time Fall occurred, and to approach the ideal summum bonum set for man, requires grace from God, which comes only by being in Christ. What does this mean for one’s self-realization?

There are three core elements that Van Til delineates if the Christian is to engage self-realization. First, man must learn to will the will of God. Man must work out his own will, that is, he must develop his own will first of all. Man’s will must become increasingly spontaneous in its reactivity. Man was created so that he spontaneously served God. For this reason he must grow in spontaneity. Whatever God has placed within man by way of activity must also be regarded by him as a capacity to be developed . . . In his heart there was the inmost desire to serve God . . . God wants men to develop this will (p. 45). Obviously, from a Reformed Christian perspective, man cannot do this on his own. Following the Fall, every human creature requires grace to live as God wants him or her to live.

The second core principle is that man’s will needs to become increasingly fixed in its self-determination . . . man must needs develop the backbone of his will . . . Man was created as a self . . the creature of an absolute self . . . for this very reason again man has to develop his self-determination . . . God is absolutely self-determinate; [man can only be] self-determinate under God (pp. 45-46). As a Reformed theologian with a postmillennial outlook, Van Til believes that as Christians develop their self-determination under God, they are by God’s grace accomplishing His plans for His Kingdom on earth. God accomplishes his plans through self-determined creatures (p. 46).

The third core principle is that man’s will must increase in momentum. . . As man approaches his ideal, the realization of the kingdom of God, the area of his activity naturally enlarges itself (p. 46). This principle addresses Van Til’s postmillennial position regarding the Kingdom of God. Like any Reformed theologian, Van Til does not see the Kingdom as coming through man’s effort apart from God. It comes as the result of man’s sanctification by grace. Christians are to take captive every sphere of life to the obedience of Christ.

Self-Realization in Counseling Practice

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Van Til’s presuppositional approach to theology and apologetics, or his postmillennial view on the Kingdom, I believe Van Til, as a Reformed theologian, offers an important contribution to Christian counselors and those pastors who take on the counseling role in the church through his discussion of the ideal type of self-realization. As to the first core principle, Christian counselors can work with other believers to help them develop their spontaneity through their development of the capacities God has placed in them. In general, this means encouraging other believers to understand that they were created to serve God in some fashion. More specifically, this means working with believers to support them in discovering and developing their Spiritual gifts. I’ve talked with believers over the years who question what their Spiritual gifts might be, and they seemed at a loss as to how to be certain about what God is leading them to do. While searching out such areas for our Christian lives entails diligence, this should not be an area that leaves Christians open to constant doubt.

The second core principle regards one of those concepts that is so easily misunderstood, reading into it all sorts of humanistic underpinnings. No doubt, self-determination is a loaded concept right along with self-realization. Again, let’s look at the basic premise off which Van Til works here. As creatures, we are imbued with the Imago Dei, the image of God. Whatever capacities God has instilled in us, we develop them in terms of who we are as God created us. From a counseling perspective this can mean we support believers to discover all their capacities with which they have been created, to develop those capacities, and in doing so develop their self-determination, pursuing the life God has called them to pursue. In developing his self-determination, man is fulfilling not only God’s plan for himself, but who he is in relation to all other Christians so as to fulfill God’s plan for the church, and according to Van Til, God’s plan for His Kingdom on earth. I believe as a Christian counselor who works with other believers, we can help our brothers and sisters in Christ fill out who they are in Christ, whether or not we hold to a postmillennial position. Such work enables believers to fill out what God’s plan is for the church because we are all members of one Body.

The third core principle that Van Til discusses regarding self-realization is momentum. An an individual develops in spontaneity and self-determination, he will naturally develop his momentum. For one thing, this means, everything we do and pursue in life, we do it in pursuit of God and in the desire to be in His will in everything. As an individual grows in momentum, his activity will enlarge itself. This pertains, most importantly I believe, in the goal of taking every sphere of life captive to the name of Christ. Too many Christians believe that their specific Spiritual gift should be used in one way or in one field of endeavor. I’ve seen this work itself out among Christians who unfortunately believe that if they are not pursuing full time Christian work, e.g. pastoral work or some other full-time Christian work situation, they see themselves as secondary citizens in the church. We are supposed to be in full-time Christian pursuit, but that has nothing to do with the specific job title we work under. Taking captive all spheres of life in the name of Christ IS a full-time endeavor. And while that can be accomplished as a pastor, Seminary professor, or Christian counselor, it can be done as a businessman, a scientist, or an artist as well – and all the other pursuits that human beings engage. Even more importantly, it can be engaged beyond just our field of endeavor in which we work. Taking all spheres of life captive to Christ is accomplished by the way families work, how we engage friendships, and how we act in all our day-to-day interactions with others.

Conclusion

As Christians, how are we to engage the world? We are to engage every sphere of life in the name of Christ. As a counselor who is a Christian, I firmly believe that Christians can help, support, and encourage other believers to fill out who they are in Christ. Only via grace can the counselor and the individuals with whom he or she works come close to accomplishing that task. I believe Van Til’s explication of self-realization gives us a blueprint by which to accomplish that task. Importantly, Van Til has places the concept of self-realization upon a solid Reformed theological foundation, stripping it of any humanistic underpinnings. David in Psalm 16, speaking to God said, Apart from you, my goodness is nothing. Apart from God and His grace, we cannot even begin the work that Van Til challenges us to do, and as Reformed theologian, he knew that.

What I have written here pertains to Christian counselors working with other believers. As a Christian, I believe that is the optimal way to work as a counselor. Although I have worked with unbelievers, there is a strong absence of common ground on which to work. As a retired counselor, the one thing I would change, looking back on my life, is my clientele. Moving forward, I hope this short exploration of Van Til’s discussion of self-realization can help and support counselors work from a solid Biblical and Reformed theological base. The field of counseling is otherwise seeking to stay afloat over the abyss of humanistic philosophies, all of which ultimately default to man’s autonomous reasoning or nihilism. For those evangelical and Reformed Christians who have not read Van Til, I highly encourage you to read and study his work.

Reference: Van Til, C. (1980). In Defense of the Faith, Volume 3: Christian Theistic Ethics. [Originally published in 1970]. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.

John V Jones, Jr, Ph.D./August 14th, 2022

CHRISTIAN THOUGHT/PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING