Is the Doctrine of the Unconscious in the Bible?

Ill-founded Assertions against Crabb

Appeal to the Authorities Begs the Question

Romans 12

Jeremiah 17:9

Muddled Thinking by Jay E. Adams


Ill-founded Assertions against Crabb

The crucial question is, does the Bible teach that there is an unconscious? To answer that question, it is necessary to know what the word unconscious means. The Bobgans begin at last midway through Chapter 11 of Prophets of Psychoheresy I to deal with the biblical evidence as presented by Crabb. However, I believe that – at least in part – they fail to see what Crabb sees in the Scriptures because they insist on reading into the word a thorough-going Freudian interpretation which Crabb himself does not put there.

This part of their discussion begins on page 153, where they say of Crabb,

He declares, “There is an unconscious.” Then instead of supporting his statement with evidence to prove that there is an unconscious that powerfully directs and motivates all behaviour, he makes this general statement about awareness: “We are simply not aware of all that we are doing in our deceitful hearts”.

The words quoted from Crabb are found on page 146 of Understanding People. Four pages earlier, he had said, alluding to Jeremiah 17:9,

My understanding of unconscious elements within the personality is rooted in the biblical teaching that, above all else, our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked.1

Then he went on to refer to Hebrews 3:13, and inferred from it that:

Apparently it is possible, even normal, to be so deceived about our sinfulness that we become stubbornly unaware of internal corruption. 2

Crabb had these Scriptures in mind, then, when he wrote the words which the Bobgans quote, “There is an unconscious.” When the Bobgans give this quotation, though, they give their readers the impression that the statement has come out of the blue. Four pages later (on page 157), they take up the reference to Jeremiah 17:9 and contest it; later yet (page (208), they take issue with Crabb’s understanding of Hebrews 3:13. They therefore were aware of his appeal to those Scriptures, but here (on page 153 of Prophets of Psychoheresy I) they ignore them altogether.

The Bobgans then respond to Crabb’s statement, “We are simply not aware of all that we are doing in our deceitful hearts,” as though it were in itself the pivot of his argument. They say,

…this general observation does not support Crabb’s elaborate psychological theory of the unconscious. 3

However, they have misunderstood where Crabb is coming from and what he is trying to communicate, and so they have completely misconstrued his argument. They do not understand the argument’s purpose, so they do not recognize its structure.

On the next page they turn their attention to Inside Out, saying,

In Inside Out, he uses such terms as inside, underground, and beneath the surface, rather than the word unconscious. The oft-stated notion that real change requires an inside look or looking “beneath the surface” is none other than a veiled reference to the unconscious… When he proclaims the necessity of looking at the “deepest parts of the soul,” or of a deep “inward look,” he is clearly referring to a psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious. 4

What a deceptive man this Crabb is, they seem to think, who makes “veiled references,” and generally attempts to smuggle into Scripture what isn’t there! However, when I read what Crabb says in Understanding People and Inside Out, his words say something quite different. They say to me that he has started with the statements of scripture that our hearts are deceitful; that we are likely to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin; and so on, and has asked himself, “What do these statements mean?” Then he has thought through the full gamut of scriptural revelation – not just the propositional statements, but the Proverbs and the Psalms and the historical narratives – and he has developed a biblical understanding of what the statements mean, and what their practical implications are for the doctrines of sanctification and pastoral counselling. 5

Of course his thinking and questioning en route has been stimulated by his knowledge of secular psychology, but we have already established that that is not in itself pernicious. The important thing is that his thinking has been controlled in its outcome by his biblical presuppositions, not by the presuppositions of humanistic psychology. In effect he has established that the secular doctrine of the unconscious bears some resemblance to the biblical doctrine of the deceitful heart, not the other way round. His use of terms like inside, beneath the surface, the deepest parts of the soul are excellent, not deceitful, precisely because they emphasise that the biblical doctrine is the real thing, and the secular teaching a pale imitation of it.

The Bobgans, however, see a Freudian “red” under every bed. They demand of Crabb biblical justification for a doctrine that he does not hold, and find fault with him when he does not deliver it. In fact, he provides proof in sufficient degree for the doctrine he actually holds.

Appeal to the Authorities Begs the Question

In Effective Biblical Counselling, Crabb suggests that a word study of the Greek word phronema gives support to the idea of the existence of “a part of personality which develops and holds on to deep, reflective assumptions,” something close in concept to “what psychologists call the ‘unconscious mind’.”

Whether Crabb is right or not I do not know (the other Biblical evidence for the unconscious is so strong that the answer is not crucial.), but it is instructive to see the grounds on which the Bobgans reject what he says. They appeal to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and to all other “ancient and modern lexicons and Bible dictionaries.”6 Since those authorities do not agree with Crabb, he must be wrong, they conclude. This procedure is equivalent to a 16th century scholar going to the lexicons of his day to check on Luther’s new suggestion about the meaning of righteousness, and rejecting it because the lexicographers did not mention it. The dictionary-writers might be wrong! To assume they are right is to beg the question.

Romans 12

The next of the Scriptures cited by Crabb to which the Bobgans turn their attention is Romans 12:1-2. First they assert, falsely, that,

Crabb uses this as biblical proof for unconscious beliefs and motives. He uses the phrase “renewing the mind” as a direct parallel to his theory of dealing with the unconscious throughout his books.7

They then go on to “rebut” Crabb’s use of the Romans passage by saying,

Paul is speaking of conscious thinking.8

The Bobgans are showing their usual incomprehension of the meaning of Crabb’s words. Crabb believes on other biblical grounds that there is deceitfulness within our hearts that wilfully hides from our conscious view many of our motives and beliefs. He comes to Romans 12 with that already established. But if our hearts are deceitful, of course the renewal that Paul speaks of must include that hidden level, not just the level of conscious thought. However, change at the conscious level is also included. Crabb says that,

Sin … includes unconscious beliefs and motives.9 (Emphasis mine).

It includes unconscious beliefs and motives, but that does not exclude conscious ones.

There is a kind of logical fallacy that is called “false dichotomy.” If I said to you, “The door is open; therefore the window must be shut,” my sentence would sound like nonsense because I doubt that any of us have ever encountered a building where the door and the window could not be open simultaneously. My sentence is an example of false dichotomy – saying that two things cannot be simultaneously true when in fact there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. The Bobgans are guilty of a subtler form of this error in their handling of Romans 12. They point to evidence within the chapter that shows that Paul is referring to conscious thinking, and therefore conclude that he does not also have the deeper, deceitful levels of the heart in view. But nothing Paul says excludes the idea that he means us to apply what he says at every level of our mind. When he says, “Let love be without hypocrisy,” (verse 9) he is clearly reaching the level of motives, not just of outward actions. Indeed, how are we to truly obey Paul’s injunctions to outward change if we do not seek renewal at every level of thought, since (even though we are redeemed) we are still burdened with hearts that in a measure are prone to be deceitful?

Jeremiah 17:9

Yet again the Bobgans misrepresent Crabb when they say,

…Crabb seeks to equate the word heart with the unconscious… According to God’s revelation the heart is deceitful. However, the deceitfulness of a person’s inner being does not prove or even imply that a person’s heart or being is the unconscious described by Crabb.10

Crabb makes no such equation. What he says is,

My understanding of unconscious elements within the personality is rooted in the biblical teaching that, above all else, our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked.11

His understanding is “rooted in” Jeremiah 17:9. That does not mean that he believes that Jeremiah says that the heart is the unconscious. What Jeremiah says is that our heart has a faculty of deceitfulness to it. There is an aspect of our heart that is able to push truth out of sight of our conscious mind. Crabb concludes that Jeremiah’s words mean that there are likely to be things in our heart that are hidden from us. Not only that, but the deceitful inner mechanism that puts them there out of sight, is also likely to be hidden from us.

Romans 1:18-23, which is referred to in the quotation from Richard Lovelace that Crabb uses, confirms that Crabb is right. Crabb does not otherwise discuss Romans 1:18-23 in his published works, but the doctrine of man’s wilful suppression of the truth because of his commitment to autonomy so permeates Inside Out that there is no doubt that Lovelace’s doctrine is also his own. (See, for instance, pages 15-18 of Inside Out.)

“The unconscious” is a reasonable term to use to describe the part of the heart where this deceptive process occurs. The only worthwhile objection to its use is that secular psychology used it first, and so its use may bring with it a baggage of extra meaning that goes beyond what the Scripture teaches. Crabb does not bring in that extra meaning, but perhaps someone else might. However, this is not the basis of the Bobgan’s argument here against Crabb.

Muddled Thinking by Jay E. Adams

The work of Jay E. Adams brought benefit to the church. It is therefore sad and does him no credit that he should say in his introduction to Part Two of Prophets of Psychoheresy 1, that Richard Palizay and the Bobgans “…explode the claim that [Crabb’s] system is biblical…”12

It should now be plain that Palizay and the Bobgans have done no such thing.


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1 Crabb (1987) p. 142f 2 Crabb (1987) p. 143 3 Bobgan (1989) p. 153
4 Bobgan (1989) p. 154f 5 My wife and I have developed a question and answer Bible Study that follows the same chapter structure and sub-structure as Inside Out. The study shows quite exhaustively, we believe, the scriptural roots of what Crabb teaches.
6 Bobgan (1989) p. 157 7 Bobgan (1989) p. 156 8 Bobgan (1989) p. 157
9 Crabb (1987) p. 130 10 Bobgan (1989) p. 157f 11 Crabb (1987) p. 142f
12 Bobgan (1989) p. 105

© 2009, Matt. All rights reserved.