‘Taking’ a Triune God Into Our Pastoral Counseling Work

A book that I read about seven years ago, and have flipped back and forth through on occasion in the last few years…I have just recently picked back up again and started re-reading it because of my interest in the integration of theology and psychology, especially pertaining to pastoral counseling in the context of the Christian community. The book is a wonderful book, and one that I recommend for all pastors, counselors, etc…those who are trying to integrate these two disciplines (psychology and theology) into their counseling work.

The book is called Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. In the book Hunsinger applies the theological method of Karl Barth to pastoral counseling, and I think the outcome for the reader is a real deep appreciation of how the disciplines of theology and psychology can so effectively work together in bringing about transformation in people’s lives.

In the opening chapter of the book Hunsinger draws on the work of Shirley C. Guthrie and his article “Pastoral Counseling, Trinitarian Theology, and Christian Anthropology. Hunsinger goes on to say:

Guthrie’s article is perhaps best characterized as an exercise in theological application. Drawing on central insights from Barth’s theological anthropology, Guthrie asks how a (Reformed) Christian doctrine of the human person might inform the pastoral counselor’s work. Guthrie is thus not interested in interpreting Barth so much as in using Barth’s anthropology to make his own constructive contribution. Guthrie’s essay sheds considerable light on our question of what it means to bring a theological perspective to the therapeutic task. Pastoral counseling’s distinctiveness as a profession, he argues, comes precisely from its theological self-understanding. (p. 18)

Guthrie writes:

What makes Christian pastoral counseling unique is that fact that without arrogance but also without apology the work of counselors is based on the attempt to understand both themselves and their counselees in light of the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Life-Giver and thus the answer to questions about the ultimate origin, meaning and goal of life which lie behind all other problems and questions. (p. 18)

What are the implications of this then in our work as pastoral counselors? Hunsinger says:

From the above quotation it is already evident that Guthrie has adopted Barth’s methodological procedure of basing his theological anthropology on the doctrine of the Trinity. Following this method, Guthrie outlines a Christian doctrine of the human person on the basis of a doctrine of the triune God. Human beings are thus understood from a threefold perspective: first, as created in the image of God (derived from knowledge of God the Creator); second, as sinners who fail to live out God’s purposes and who stand in need of redemption (derived from knowledge of Christ, the Redeemer); and third, as people who are promised a new humanity in Christ (derived from knowledge of the Holy Spirit). Guthrie emphasizes the importance of the pastoral counselor’s keeping all three aspects of human reality in a kind of creative tension, so that the created goodness, the sinful fallenness, and the promised new life of human beings are all clearly seen and affirmed as being simultaneously true….Counselors are ministers who may indeed have specialized skills but who, like their counselees, are themselves ‘limited, fallible, sinful human beings who themselves are judge, need reconciliation and salvation, and can only receive the wisdom and power they cannot produce from themselves to help others. (p. 18-19)

Beautiful. I love the idea that we must keep a ‘kind of creative tension’ between those three aspects of the Trinity as we do our work in the context of pastoral counseling.


  1. by Gary Reed on March 17, 2011  9:31 am Reply

    Yes Rhett, good point and focus for counseling those broken, in need of truth for their life. I agree, as a human counselor with humanistic theories, I do not have what clients' ultimately need. Though I have skills and techniques, it is only by the grace of God and His Word can I impart what our clients' need.

    Thanks for turning me on to Hunsingers' book! I'm looking into the "creative tension" you wrote about.

    • by About Terry Sacka on January 8, 2016  2:49 pm Reply

      The heart of your writing whilst sounding agreeable initially, did not really work perfectly with me after some time. Somewhere throughout the paragraphs you actually were able to make me a believer but just for a very short while. I nevertheless have a problem with your jumps in logic and one would do nicely to help fill in all those breaks. If you can accomplish that, I would undoubtedly end up being amazed.

  2. by John Loppnow on March 17, 2011  11:57 pm Reply

    That is a great book. Thanks for the reminder.

    I love holding those three realities of each of us.

  3. by Rick Supplee on March 31, 2011  11:40 am Reply

    This person who suffers from theological anxiety I think is very common. For some reason, most people seem comforted by the controlled, predictable religion where God is kept in a little box. That to me is a great tragedy because the joy of the walk in my view is to share in the surprise and invasion of God into our space.

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