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Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling (Excerpt)

October 20, 2011

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(NOTE: The following is an excerpt of a longer article by Dr. David Powlison. You can read the whole resource by visiting Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling on CCEF's website.)

This is the third in a series of articles about the history of CCEF and the development of the biblical counseling model. It was written in 1988 by David Powlison, CCEF faculty member and long-time apologist and spokesperson about these things. In this piece, he lays out six crucial issues facing the biblical counseling movement at that time. The first issue he identifies is the need to reaffirm the model’s biblical foundations, and the next five issues define areas to be addressed for the model’s future development. This article has now been included as an appendix to David’s book The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, published by New Growth Press.

The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 1988. CCEF’s anniversary is a symbolic anniversary for the entire nouthetic-biblical counseling movement. An anniversary is a time to take stock. Where have we come from? Where are we? What issues that now face us will determine our future?

I have identified six crucial issues facing contemporary biblical counseling. These six are not the only issues. They are, however, the issues I believe merit the adjective “crucial.” If we address them, we will grow in wisdom. If we neglect them, we will stagnate or even distort the counsel of God. I have attempted to look at contemporary biblical counseling (both our articulated theory and our run-of-the-mill practice) in the light of Scripture. Each issue is an issue both of theory and of practice. How do we think about people biblically? How do we counsel them biblically?

1. The “same old issues” still face us

The first issue is an old one. The problems that animated biblical counseling at its start remain live problems today. Counseling in the Christian church continues to be significantly compromised by the secular assumptions and practices of our culture’s reigning psychologies and psychiatries. Biblical-nouthetic counseling was initiated to provide two things: a cogent critique of secularism and a distinctly biblical alternative. The traditional insights, strengths, and commitments of nouthetic counseling must be maintained. Biblical counseling operates within the worldview of the Bible, with the Bible in hand. It is centered on God even (especially!) when it thinks about man. It is centered on Jesus Christ, who became a man in order to save us. It is centered in the midst of Christ’s people, who are called to pray for one another and to counsel one another in love.

Secular psychologies remain major competitors with the church. We face a zoo of systems united by only one thing. At best, “god” is a comforting auxiliary to the human psychic drama. At worst, he/she/it is a delusion. Lacking God, the human problem (and the power to understand and to solve that problem) is perceived to lie somewhere within or between human beings. Christ died for nothing.

The enemy was not only out there somewhere. “We have met the enemy . . . and they are us,” Pogo once remarked. Secular psychological modes of thinking continue to inhabit the church of the living God. Witness the rampant self-esteem and need psychologies that bypass the man-God relationship in order to make the human psyche the place “where the action is.” The living God is shriveled into an actor within an all-important psychic drama. Witness the church hiring essentially secular psychologists, referring to and deferring to their “wisdom” for solving “personal problems” and “relationship and lifestyle issues.” Witness an ongoing intellectual confusion and eclecticism that pursues truth in some blend of secular psychology and biblical Christianity. We must continue to provide a distinct alternative in both the content and practice of counseling.

Biblical counseling must reaffirm and finely tune its distinctive intellectual content. We must continue to think biblically, letting biblical categories lead our understanding. We must continue to reject secular categories from a self-consciously presuppositional standpoint. The climate of scholarly opinion has not changed drastically. The same old pattern of rehashing ideas and practices of secular psychology continues in the books, journals, schools, seminaries, and professional organizations of the Christian counseling world.

Biblical counseling must also continue to reaffirm and develop its counseling methods. We must continue to develop counseling as Christian ministry—intended to produce conviction of sin, the joyous reception of Jesus Christ, and renewal of life. Biblical counseling must continue to repudiate the notion of a “counseling profession” disconnected both structurally and intellectually from the nurture, instruction, love, discipline, authority, and friendship of the body of Christ. The patterns of professional practice have not changed drastically. Christian clones of secular methods continue to dominate the practice, no less than the literature, of the Christian counseling world.

Does this mean that nothing has changed in twenty years? I do not think so. In a number of ways 1988 is more opportune than 1968 for a message of presuppositionally consistent counseling to be heard. The intellectual climate has changed. Thomas Kuhn and other secular philosophers of science have made presuppositional modes of thought common intellectual currency among Christians and non-Christians alike. The ground has been cut away that makes psychology and psychiatry seem like neutral, objective scientific truth. Under the “all truth is God’s truth” slogan, with its notion that both Science and the Bible were revelational, cartloads of undiluted secularism were hauled into the church. But now the sciences have lost much of their pretense to objectivity. Christians of various stripes also have made presuppositional styles of thinking common. Francis Schaeffer introduced the evangelical reading public to a generally presuppositional mode of thought. C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Harry Blamires expounded in charming fashion the idea that we should “think Christianly.” Paul Vitz and William Kirk Kilpatrick have been widely read and applauded for their crisp analyses of secular psychology’s covert religious character. None of the above has articulated the biblical counseling alternatives as clearly as he has diagnosed or hinted at the failings of secularism. But all the above have plowed the ground. The message of biblical counseling, restated for contemporary hearers, may well fall on more receptive ears.

It is not redundant to call Christians to be radically biblical. Many ears still attend to the persuasive voice of secular psychology. It is not redundant to call Christians to be exegetically biblical. The Bible abounds in riches yet to be mined and applied to counseling. It is not redundant to call Christians to be biblical in practice as well as in thinking. Biblical counseling is an expression of church life. The equipping and overseeing work of the pastors and the one-anothering of the rest of the body of Christ are intrinsically counseling activities.

This first crucial issue restates where we have stood for the past twenty years. The five crucial issues that follow are newer issues. These are areas where our grasp of what it means to be biblical must be significantly extended. Issue 1: hold fast to the foundation. Issues 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 build on that foundation.

We have had twenty years to show our strengths—and our weaknesses. An honest self-assessment reveals a number of questions, shortcomings, or growing pains we need to face as a movement. But the implications of this first crucial issue must be felt throughout the discussion that follows. Whatever changes and development need to occur within the biblical counseling movement must occur only on the foundation already laid: biblical categories of thought generating biblical methods of ministry.

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