"My family was completely non-religious, so God was essentially irrelevant to me. If someone had told me that I would one day be a professor of marriage and family therapy at an evangelical seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, I would have thought him crazy..."

"My Reformed training argued that all of God's creation, even human minds, are worthy of study, but it was clear that a lot of Christian psychological scholarship was needed to achieve Paul's goal of "bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5)..."

"While some people think we deny Scripture's sufficiency when we use psychological information from outside God's Word to help us apply its teaching, the Scripture itself sees no such tension..."

By Dr. James Hurley

Some people ask why I have devoted a great part of my life to the counseling program at RTS. I haven't devoted my life to this program; rather, God has given me a chance to spend my life doing something I love in a wonderfully supportive setting. Life doesn't get any better than that! I am more like a kid in a candy shop than a professor who has devoted his life to a cause.

How I got here is a study in the providence of God, who shapes us from within and guides us in the fabric of history. My dad was a professor during my childhood and adolescence. My family was completely non-religious, so God was essentially irrelevant to me. If someone had told me that I would one day be a professor of marriage and family therapy at an evangelical seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, I would have thought him crazy. Yet, that does seem to have been God's plan for my life, and I would not want to be anywhere else.

The Apostle Paul talks about the gifts that God gives His people (Rom. 12, Eph. 4, 1 Cor. 13). The gifts of which he speaks in Romans 12 are not the high profile ones, such as tongues or healing, but those which are more built into our personalities and used by God. In my own case, He built in a consuming interest in understanding how things work. My interest is not so much in the details of the pieces of a clock, or how to assemble it, but in how to use the principles which allow us to design time pieces from physical parts. As a youngster, I loved learning about math and science. From them I learned about patterns that allowed me to understand and even to influence my world.

Hurley discusses psychological concepts with students

Alongside the desire to understand has been a desire to use knowledge in a way that would be helpful. I thought about becoming a veterinarian or doctor to help animals or people. A professor's child, I grew up in a world that valued learning. My strategy for life was to use learning (human reason) to understand the world, gut-level kindness as a moral compass, and desire to do good as a motive for change. Without understanding it, I grew up as a child of the enlightenment!


In 1960, I went to observe and to be entertained by the emotional games of a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist preacher who taught near the school where I was studying in Switzerland. His name was Francis Schaeffer, and I became a Christian through his ministry. Schaeffer introduced me to a biblical understanding of the creation and of man's calling to rule over the creation in a way that images and honors God.

The world suddenly looked different. Trees, plants, and even color became my Father's handiwork rather than accidents of an impersonal reality. I remember walking up the mountain from L'Abri to my school feeling overwhelmed by the marvelous patterns of the moss on the rocks and the staggering beauty of the forested Alps. Learning became an act of obedient worship to prepare me to image God as I worked with His world. My pre-Christian love for pattern in the world became a passion to understand patterns of God's Word and of His world.

When I went to Harvard, I became involved in strong Christian fellowships that genuinely wanted to pursue godliness and to share the faith. As I began more serious Bible study and experienced closer Christian fellowship at Park Street Church and Harvard Christian Fellowship, I became more and more aware of the struggle to extend to the rest of my life the change that God had made in the core of my person. Though my heart was committed to God, I came to realize that whole ways of thinking and their outcomes in the patterns of my life were anything but obedient to God. I tried to bring my experience and my understanding of Scripture together:

  • I want to be God's servant, but I also want to do things I know are wrong.
  • Sometimes I struggle and obey God; other times I deliberately go on a moral vacation.
  • God is the one who gives strength; I have asked, but I am not strong.
  • How do I know if my strength to walk obediently is my own or God's?
  • How do I figure out what to do when the Scripture does not speak directly to a situation?

Paul's struggle in Romans 6 and 7 and his instructions in Ephesians 4 became alive to me in a new way: God says my old man was crucified with Christ and I am no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:6). Yet I still choose and give in to things that I also don't want to do (Rom.7:15ff.). If I am a new creature in Christ, why does God tell me to put off the old man and to put on the new man (Eph. 4:21ff.)? I didn't have the theological language to describe the already-but-not-yet dynamic of Paul's letters, union with Christ, or the tension between God's sovereignty and our significance in the sanctification process, but I was engaged with these concepts in a practical way.


At the same time that I began seriously wrestling with these theological questions, I was beginning to learn about psychology. That gave me a whole new look at a lot of my behavior. Built on a research and a speculative basis, psychology was helpful in many ways. In other ways, it raised significant problems. Developmental psychology pointed to learning that we do even before we have words to describe what we are learning. Behavioral psychology showed me a lot about how we build and maintain patterns of life.

But psychological insight had few answers to issues of motive for change or right ways to live. Many, if not most, psychologists were extremely hostile to biblical faith and many Christians were highly mistrustful of psychology, wanting to dismiss it as evil. My Reformed training argued that all of God's creation, even human minds, are worthy of study, but it was clear that a lot of Christian psychological scholarship was needed to achieve Paul's goal of "bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).

Marriage and Family Therapy students talk over course work

I saw that I needed deeper knowledge of the Scripture and of psychology, so I decided to go to seminary and then perhaps to graduate school in psychology. I viewed that decision as Jacob did his famine relief trip to Egypt (Gen. 42ff.): I thought it would be a brief trip to get needed resources. I had no idea it would consume the rest of my life!

At Westminster Seminary I was interested in ethics and sanctification. My studies taught me that ethics has to do with living in a manner that pleases God and images his character. In the area of sanctification I learned that my either/or stance concerning God's sovereignty and man's accountability was a mistake and that looking for God's strength exclusively as an intrusive external power was wrong. Paul provides road maps for sanctification when he writes, "I can do all kinds of things through Christ who strengthens me"(Phil. 4:13) and "Work out [the present meaning of] your own salvation, for God is at work in you to will and to work out his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12,13). The Scripture recognizes both God's sovereignty and my significance, without resolving my finite difficulty in figuring out how an infinite God and a finite person can both be meaningfully involved in an action.

After seminary my wife, Phyllis, and I joined the staff of L'Abri Fellowship. There we worked intimately with believers and unbelievers -- studying, teaching, and counseling. We saw God at work in us and in the people in our chalet. As time went on, however, my work with students and my own studies kept raising questions for me. A lot of them centered around our influence on one another in marriages and families. We finally came to a point where it seemed God's calling to step away from the ministry at L'Abri to pursue further studies.

In 1970, we moved to Cambridge University, where I did a Doctor of Philosophy in New Testament with a focus on man and woman in 1 Corinthians and in the structure of Paul's ethics. After Cambridge, I taught at Covenant College and then for Westminster Seminary at the Florida extension. Teaching and ministry pressed home to me what every pulpit search committee looking for a "wise" pastor knows: it is important to add operational knowledge of God's creation to academic knowledge of His Word. To become "wise" in the Proverbs' sense is to have a working knowledge of how to live in God's world before His face.

While some people think we deny Scripture's sufficiency when we use psychological information from outside God's Word to help us apply its teaching, the Scripture itself sees no such tension. It models careful research in extra-biblical sources about relationships. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote in the social science reporting format of his day (advice of a father to a son). In the same chapter in which he tells us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth (Eccl. 12:1), he reports on how he prepared his work, saying the teacher "pondered, sought out, and arranged many proverbs. The teacher sought to find acceptable words and to write words of truth correctly" (Eccl. 12:9,10).

In other words, he studied and researched many proverbs in preparing his teaching and then carefully wrote up his findings. A quick comparison of the content of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs makes it clear that the proverbs of which he spoke were not those of the canonical book of Proverbs. Here the Bible models bringing studies of God's creation captive to His Word. Obedience to this biblical pattern calls us to engage with, rather than back away from, the field of psychology.

The church has always known that obedience to the Word of the Creator (the Bible, special revelation) calls for study of His creation (general revelation). For example, the Lord directs us to train up children to be faithful to the Covenant in their life context, but He provides no instruction manual (Prov. 22:6; Deut. 6:7ff.). God was not cruel to give us commands without a full set of instructions. He gave us minds and expects us to be like the author of Ecclesiastes, using our minds under the guidance of Scripture to study His creation and then carefully to apply the teachings and principles of the Word to the fabric of life.

Believers in every generation have studied the Word, children, and society as they tried to train up their children. Nomads have taught their children to apply God's Word to life in tribal tents. We teach ours to apply it in computer-dominated cities. Developmental psychology's information about how children learn at different ages helps us design age-specific educational and training materials for families, thus helping us to obey Proverbs 22 and Deuteronomy 6.

Train Up a Child, written by RTS Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy Dr. William Richardson, is a good example of using general revelation under the tutelage of the Word to enhance obedience to it. Some of the best studies in honest interpersonal communication are examples of helping people learn to "speak the truth in a loving manner," thus obeying Ephesians 4:15.

Hurley meets with the Center for MFT staff (l to r) Barb Martin, Clinic Coordinator; Dr. William Richardson; and Alice Fulghum, Administrative Assistant

In God's providence, Westminster's Florida extension closed as I was coming to the conclusion that I needed to join the author of Ecclesiastes in studying "many proverbs" to help me apply a biblical worldview and the text of Scripture to life. With a certain amount of anxiety, my wife Phyllis and I decided that, rather than moving directly to another seminary, I would go back to graduate school and do a second doctoral program, this time in marriage and family therapy.

I talked with a number of seminaries about the possibility of teaching in New Testament or systematics and also setting up a program in marriage and family therapy to train pastors and counselors to help families apply God's truth in their lives. Of the schools, only RTS shared my vision. I was invited to join the faculty when I finished my studies at Florida State.


We moved to Jackson in 1985, and God's provision here has left me breathless. By His grace I have been able to work with an institution which has supported the development of biblically faithful counseling programs at a level unmatched anywhere. RTS/Orlando has a program to prepare licensed mental health counselors (Florida's designation for licensed professional counselors).

At RTS/Jackson we have an accredited program whose graduates are dually licensable as marriage and family therapists and as licensed professional counselors. Our clinical facilities are state of the art with fourteen therapy rooms equipped for video recording and one-way mirror supervision. Most of our graduates go on to be professional counselors and family therapists. Some of them do dual degrees (MA-MFT and M.Div.) and go into ministry. Others go on to doctoral programs in various areas of psychology.

With great excitement, we are now preparing to add a Ph.D. program in counseling psychology at the Jackson campus. Our goal is to produce trained graduates who will be leaders in gaining psychological knowledge and bringing it captive to Christ and His Word. Each resident faculty will have or will acquire a master's degree in biblical studies or systematics, in addition to a Ph.D. in their academic discipline. This will provide us with a faculty that is prepared to explore the relation of general and special revelation at a professional level and to train graduates who will be well qualified to work with both. When the program opens, RTS will be the only Reformed seminary with a doctoral program in psychology and one of a handful of evangelical institutions with such programs.

Most mornings I drive to work with a smile, a heart full of gratitude (and occasionally the slightest sense of guilt) that my place of service in God's kingdom is exactly where I would most like to be. I am a child in a candy shop watching God unfold his wildest dream around him. And I am grateful.

Dr. James Hurley is Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and chairman of the department at RTS/Jackson. He holds Ph.Ds from Cambridge University and Florida State University. When it was published, his first book, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, was designated one of the ten most important evangelical books of the year by Eternity magazine. It has become the touchstone volume regarding role relationships for men and women in the church.

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Last updated 3-10-1999.