What Larry Crabb Really Teaches About the Unconscious

Van Til on the Role of the Subconscious

The Bobgans’ Case against Crabb

Refutation of the Case

Similarity Does not Eliminate Difference

Praise Does Not Mean Capitulation: Witness Adams’ praise of Mowrer

Crabb Tarred with a Doctrine he does not Believe

Without Scriptural Warrant?

Misrepresentation of Crabb’s Meaning


Van Til on the Role of the Subconscious

We are now in a position to discuss the Bobgans’ objections to Crabb’s doctrine of the unconscious. We have already seen that Van Til believed that the Bible supports the doctrine that there is an unconscious aspect of human character. (Van Til uses the expressions "unconscious" and "subconscious" interchangeably). Van Til even believes that the existence of a subconscious follows necessarily from man’s state as a created image-bearer:

…Man was created to be, as nearly as that was possible for a creature, a replica of the being of God… [but God] is perfectly self-conscious. A temporal being, on the other hand, cannot be entirely self-conscious.1

He also suggests that,

…before the fall man’s will controlled his conscious life while after the fall man’s subconscious life controlled his will.2

Now, someone may want to challenge Van Til’s reasoning, but nevertheless his words should alert us that the whole issue is more complex than the Bobgans imagine.

The Bobgans’ Case against Crabb

Chapter 9 of Prophets of Psychoheresy I is where the Bobgans first try to demonstrate that Crabb’s doctrine of the unconscious is Freudian-based, and not founded on the teaching of Scripture. Their argument has five elements. First they point out similarities between the definitions of the word unconscious as given in the secular Dictionary of Psychology, and the use Crabb makes of the idea of unconscious forces within the personality.3 Secondly, the Bobgans find fault with Crabb for finding anything of value in Freud.4 Thirdly, they quote a particular aspect of Freud’s doctrine of the unconscious that is indeed biblically objectionable, but they leave the reader unaware until four pages later that Crabb explicitly rejects Freud at that point. Fourthly, they assert that Crabb teaches what he does "without Scriptural warrant;" "without providing a biblical definition of the unconscious;" and without providing "biblical verification of his view."5 And, fifthly, they quote Crabb in several places, but misrepresent to the reader what Crabb’s words mean. I will comment on each of these points in turn.

Refutation of the Case

(1) Similarity Does not Eliminate Difference

There are indeed likenesses between Crabb’s doctrine of the unconscious and the doctrines of secular psychology. There are also similarities between the Bobgans’ doctrine of the scientific method and Karl Popper’s. However, if the Bobgans had thought through their doctrine biblically (and I believe that they haven’t) they would realize that, necessarily, there are vast differences. Recognition of the similarities does not make the differences of no account.

(2) Praise Does Not Mean Capitulation: Witness Adams’ praise of Mowrer

In the same way, too, a Christian can praise a non-Christian for what is valuable in his thinking without becoming allied with his ethical rebellion against God, just as the Bobgans praise Popper as a "world-renowned scholar and philosopher of science."6 A Christian’s thinking can be stimulated and helped forward by what the non-Christian has to say, just as Jay E. Adams was encouraged by what he read in the secular psychologist O. Hobart Mowrer. (Adams wrote the preface to the section of Prophets of Psychoheresy I that discusses Crabb. His views on counselling are similar to those of the Bobgans themselves).

Here are some of the things Adams has to say about Mowrer:7

Mowrer’s emphasis upon responsibility was central.

Reading Mowrer’s book … was an earth shattering experience.

Mowrer rightly maintained that the Medical Model took away the sense of personal responsibility.

Mowrer … said that … the "patient" … suffers from real guilt, not guilt feelings… Problems may be solved … by confession of sin.

However, Adams also says:

I am not a disciple of Mowrer or William Glasser… I stand far off from them. Their systems begin and end with man… Their presuppositional stance must be rejected totally. Christians may thank God that in his providence he has used Mowrer and others to awaken us to the fact that the "mentally ill" can be helped. But Christians must turn to the Scriptures to discover how God (not Mowrer) says to do it.

…neither Mowrer nor Glasser has solved the problem of responsibility. The responsibility they advocate is a relative, changing human responsibility; it is a non-Christian responsibility that must be rejected as fully as the irresponsibility of Freud and Rogers.

This stimulation of Christian insight by the work of non-Christian, humanistic thinkers is an example of exactly what Van Til teaches us we should expect and welcome.

Now, let us consider some statements from Crabb which provide some interesting parallels to what Adams has said:

I believe that psychodynamic theory is both provocative and valuable in recognising elements in the human personality that many theologians have failed to see.8

I think Freud was correct on at least three counts. [1] He was right when he told us that we should look beneath surface problems to hidden eternal causes… [2] in order to deal effectively and thoroughly with people, one must have a rather clear understanding of how human nature functions on the inside… [3] one necessary means of understanding other people’s dynamics is first to understand your own.


…the error of Freud and other dynamic theorists … is a refusal to study and accept a biblical view of man. Because they have not accepted the guide-lines of biblical data, their theorising led them into an incomplete, unbalanced, and in some areas utterly immoral understanding of who man is and how he functions.9

Mowrer has cogently pointed out that accepting the "is" and dismissing the "ought" leads to self-directed behaviour without the check of moral restraint, a condition which psychologists call sociopathy… Ultimately, Freudian therapy moves its patients toward sociopathy. Christians must completely reject the basic Freudian solution as amoral and anti-biblical.10

The usual psychoanalytic idea is that these processes somehow control me. I become a victim of forces within me which are not me… But I do not believe that we are victims of our unconscious… [The images and beliefs that we develop in the context of our environment represent our chosen efforts to make sense of our worlds in a way that maintains our independence.11

The Medical Model … does not see the real problem as sin whose cure is repentance… The Medical Model therefore denies responsibility and looks at psychodynamics apart from the question of what we are doing with God.12

He also says that one of the core realities denied by secular therapists who use the psychodynamic (i.e., "medical") model

…is the awful fact of sin. Beneath every nonorganic problem is clear movement away from God and toward self-sufficiency, a direction chosen by the person and instrumental in creating and sustaining all his troubles.13

Responsibility for sin must be placed squarely on the sinner. It must never be shifted to one’s circumstances, no matter how difficult they may be.14

Thus, Crabb rejects Freud’s denial of human responsibility just as vehemently as do Mowrer and Adams. The difference is that Crabb believes that, nevertheless, there are other useful insights to be found in Freud whereas Mowrer and Adams reject Freud entirely. I think that Crabb is right. I think that Mowrer and Adams, having rightly rejected Freud at one point, have rejected him at all points without stopping to consider seriously whether there was anything of value there that should have been retained.

Be that as it may, we see once more that the Bobgans can only legitimately argue with Crabb over the detail of what he believes is valuable in Sigmund Freud; they cannot impugn him (as they relentlessly do) for being willing to learn from Freud. Crabb’s openness to Freud is no different in principle to Adams’ openness to Mowrer.

(3) Crabb Tarred with a Doctrine he does not Believe

The Bobgans are correct when they say:

Freud stated that the unconscious is a place where all kinds of powerful drives and mysterious motivations cause people to do what they do, whether they want to or not.15 (Emphasis mine).

Four and five pages later they enlighten their readers that:

. . . Crabb is careful to say that he does not believe in unconscious determinism or its complement of early determinants of behaviour.16 …Crabb promotes a combination of unconscious motivation and personal responsibility and insists that a person be held responsible for wrong attitudes and actions which originate from wrong assumptions in the unconscious.17

However, throughout the intervening pages of criticism of Crabb, the Bobgans have allowed their readers to believe that Crabb’s doctrine is identical with Freud’s, as they describe it there, in its entirety  a doctrine whose denial of personal responsibility is repugnant to every Christian. Every statement of criticism the Bobgans make of Crabb in those pages therefore carries with it a negative emotional force that is likely to grip an unsuspecting reader and persuade him or her to accept the Bobgans’ criticisms as factual, without careful analysis.

The Bobgans believe that their words do not bear what I have asserted here, because they have previously said:

Crabb does not agree with all that Freud taught and even see errors in his theories, but he insists that "the error of Freud and other dynamic theorists is not an insistence that we pay close attention to unconscious forces in the personality."18

However, that sentence of the Bobgans’ only intensifies the reader’s expectation that the aspects of Freud’s theory that they summarize on pages 126-130 are therefore exactly those with which Crabb agrees  if not, why spend time elaborating them? (I do not believe that the Bobgans deliberately structured the chapter to mislead in this way  only that that is indeed the effect of what they have written).

Moreover, their attempted summary of Crabb’s position is not in itself accurate. They are right in recognizing the emphasis Crabb puts on personal responsibility. However, Crabb would hold that we are wilfully responsible for the "wrong assumptions in the unconscious" themselves, not merely for the wrong attitudes and actions that originate from them.

(4) Without Scriptural Warrant?

When their specific criticisms in this section of Prophets of Psychoheresy I are analyzed, they too are found to be empty, none more so than when they say:

Thus without Scriptural warrant, Crabb teaches that the unconscious is a crucial factor in sanctification.19

On the previous page, they have asserted:

…the idea of the unconscious as a hidden region of the mind with powerful needs and motivational energy is not supported by the Bible or science.20

Quoting Psalm 139:23-24, they then say what is undeniably true:

…the Lord Himself knows and understands exactly what lies hidden beneath the surface of every person. He knows and He brings cleansing to those inner parts that we may never understand.21

Apparently, the Bobgans think that this reference to Psalm 139 proves them right in saying that the idea of the unconscious is unbiblical, for they provide no other justification before leaping into their accusation, in bold type, that Crabb teaches what he does "without Scriptural warrant." However, the wonderful fact of God’s grace, that "He knows and He brings cleansing to those inner parts that we may never understand," does not mean (1) that those parts do not exist; (2) that it is inherently impossible for us to learn to understand them; or (3) that we ought never to try to understand them.

In a similar vein the Bobgans carry on to say:

Without providing a biblical definition of the unconscious (aside from a misinterpretation of the biblical use of the word heart), Crabb makes it a central element of his counselling system.22

Two chapters later the Bobgans will give some detailed arguments against the evidence that Crabb believes he finds in the Scriptures in favour of the existence of the unconscious. As I will show, those arguments also fail. However, at this point in their book (chapter 9) they have not even provided those arguments. They simply tell their readers, falsely that there is only one plank to Crabb’s argument, and that one a false one, and they carry on from there as though the matter were settled. They are like a Jehovah’s Witness who says "John 1:1 doesn’t mean what the orthodox church says it does. Therefore there is no Trinity. End of matter." The reader who uncritically accepts what the Bobgans have said up to this point has been set up to view Crabb with a very jaundiced eye indeed, and to give even less critical thought to the remaining charges.

(5) Misrepresentation of Crabb’s Meaning

When the Bobgans quote Crabb’s words,

Many pastors preach an "iceberg view" of sin. All they worry about is what is visible above the water-line.23

they give their readers their own interpretation of what he means, saying,

Crabb levels the blame for the spread of this "error" on church leaders who have ignored this Freudian notion… Crabb is talking about ignoring the Freudian unconscious.24

However, Crabb’s words follow an extended quotation that he has given from a passage by Richard Lovelace.25 In this passage, Lovelace asserts that during the past two centuries the church has declined in its understanding of the depth of sin, and, in particular, of "the deforming presence of original sin, the compulsive force operating behind individual acts of transgression," whose effect is that "the human heart is now a reservoir of unconscious, disordered motivation and response, of which unrenewed persons are unaware if left to themselves."26

After giving this quotation, Crabb says,

Perhaps the major error of evangelical churches today involves a deficient and shallow understanding of sin such as Lovelace describes. Many pastors preach an "iceberg view" of sin. All they worry about is what is visible above the water line.27

Now, you may wish to argue with Lovelace and Crabb over the content of what they are saying, but when you read the full context of his words you cannot deny that when Crabb finds fault with pastors who preach an "iceberg" view of sin, he does so because he believes they have failed to read the Scriptures with the same depth of understanding as their forefathers of earlier centuries, not because they have not listened to Freud.

So the Bobgans proceed. At every point with half-truths, untruths and foolish statements that they themselves firmly believe, they poison the uncritical reader’s mind against Crabb.


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1 Van Til (1971) p. 48f 2 Van Til (1971) p. 49 3 Bobgan (1989) p. 124f
4 Bobgan (1989) p. 126 5 Bobgan (1989) p. 127 6 Bobgan (1989) p. 151
7 Adams (1972) p. xiv-xix 8 Crabb (1987) p. 215f 9 Crabb (1987) p. 61
10 Crabb (1987) p. 145
12 This quote is from notes taken by a student in a lecture given by Dr Crabb at Grace Theological Seminary.
13 Crabb (1987) p. 210 14 Crabb (1975) p. 38 15 Bobgan (1989) p. 126
16 Bobgan (1989) p. 130 17 Bobgan (1989) p. 131 18 Bobgan (1989) p. 125
19 Bobgan (1989) p. 127 20 Bobgan (1989) p. 126 21 Bobgan (1989) p. 126
22 Bobgan (1989) p. 127 23 Crabb (1987) p. 129 24 Bobgan (1989) p. 127f
25 Richard Lovelace is the author of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. The Bobgans say that Crabb quotes Lovelace because what Lovelace says fits his purposes so well. Now, Dynamics of Spiritual Life is a thorough study, supported with copious footnotes, of the views of spirituality that have existed in the church over the centuries. Could it be that Crabb quotes Lovelace because Lovelace has proved his case?
26 Crabb (1987) p. 127f 27 Crabb (1987) p. 129

© 2009, Matt. All rights reserved.