An Insider’s View of the Birth and Growth of Modern Biblical Counseling
Dr. David Powlison unites the twin themes of biblical counseling and church history in his excellent work The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. Everyone interested in the modern biblical counseling movement will benefit from this well-researched and well-written book. It presents a fair and balanced exploration of one of the most important developments in the Evangelical church over the past generation. Readers will be equipped not only with historical insight, but more importantly, with wisdom for how to speak the truth in love.
The name “Jay Adams” and the method of counseling known as “nouthetic counseling” are familiar to Evangelicals in the biblical/Christian counseling world. As author David Powlison notes, many people hold extreme views toward Adams and nouthetic biblical counseling—either deeply appreciative or sharply critical.
Powlison, while acknowledging his own personal history as one trained within the nouthetic biblical counseling movement, and as a friend of Dr. Adams, still is able to write with a historian’s objectivity. The Biblical Counseling Movement is neither hagiography nor a blistering attack. It is a balanced, nuanced examination, not only of the history, but also of the theology and methodology of Jay Adams and nouthetic biblical counseling.
The core chapters were originally Powlison’s Ph.D. dissertation. The book edition adds a lengthy appendix, containing articles by Powlison. These extend and deepen the history, offering an intriguing analysis of the birth and development of the nouthetic biblical counseling movement and its relationship to Evangelical psychotherapists.
The History and Shaping Factors
Powlison first takes his readers to the historical backdrop that led to the rise of modern nouthetic biblical counseling. As E. Brooks Holifield explained in A History of Pastoral Care in America, so Powlison traces the movement of pastoral ministry from a focus on salvation and progressive growth in Christlikeness to a focus on self and “self-actualization.” In the generation before Jay Adams’ ministry (the 1920s to 1950s), pastoral counseling was strongly influenced by liberal Protestantism and secular psychology.
Powlison tells the riveting story of Adams’ journey as a young pastor facing crisis after crisis among his parishioners and feeling inadequately prepared. Adams’ internship under the secularist O. Hobart Mowrer, of all people, was a culminating experience leading to Adams’ rejection of secular psychology.
In Powlison’s hand, the narrative is never shallow. He describes other influencing factors on Adams’ theory, including his personality, his background as a preacher, his Reformed Presbyterian theology, and his study of Van Til’s pressupositional apologetics, among others. One cannot understand Adam’s nouthetic approach apart from grasping these background elements.
An Afternoon Soap Opera
Once Adams launched the nouthetic biblical counseling movement with his publication of Competent to Counsel, along with the start of the Christian Counseling and Education Center (renamed the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation—CCEF), and later with the start of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), the history begins to sound like an afternoon soap opera. Powlison colorfully depicts the intrigue within and outside the movement.
While Adams spent part of his ministry critiquing secular psychology, he reserved more of his censure for those within the church whom he considered “integrationists” who he believed had sold their birth right for a bowl of pottage by trying to blend and merge biblical truth with psychological theory and practice. Engaging page after engaging page illustrates the important interaction between “nouthetic biblical counseling” and “Christian integrationist psychology.”
Of course, some would not accept being placed in either “camp.” In fact, not everyone today who claims the title “biblical counselor” would equally own the label “nouthetic counselor.” This is the one weakness I find in the title and language of the book—the seamless merging of “nouthetic counseling” and “biblical counseling.” (In this review, I have used the phrase “nouthetic biblical counseling” to indicate the specific model espoused by Adams and explored by Powlison).
Perhaps lesser known to “outsiders” are the historical in-house squabbles between early leaders of the nouthetic biblical counseling movement. In particular, Powlison addresses the differences in personality, theory, and methodology that arose between Adams and his nouthetic biblical counseling peer, John Bettler. If ever there was an antithesis to Adams, it was Bettler. Their eventual drifting apart, despite mutual respect and friendship, almost could have been predicted.
Powlison also tracks the ups and down of the movement in terms of influence (memberships, readership, sister organizations, “competing” organizations, etc.). To see the widespread impact of nouthetic biblical counseling today, it may surprise some to read about the many years when, according to Powlison, it languished.
What Makes Biblical Counseling Truly Biblical?
Powlison’s work is not only historiographical. It also offers readers a thoughtful analysis of the theology and methodology of nouthetic biblical counseling, of Christian psychology, and of Christian counseling. Two lengthy and informative chapters outline the views, accusations, counter-views, and perspectives of most of the leading characters in biblical Christian counseling and psychology from the 1960s to the 1990s.
It would be almost impossible to read Powlison’s summaries without being challenged to reflect seriously about one’s own beliefs about the real meaning, in practice, of the sufficiency of Scripture. Just what does it mean and what does it “look like” to practice truly biblical Christian counseling that is Christ-centered, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed?
Reading The Biblical Counseling Movement is like discovering a time capsule. You un-bury it, read the enclosed note, and say, “Aha! So, that’s why things are the way they are today!” You come away with a greater appreciation for what Jay Adams was attempting to do. You come away with a greater appreciation for those who attempted to say, “Jay, you may have pulled the pendulum too far and done so a little too caustically.” You come away with a better understanding of the ongoing “camps” in the biblical Christian counseling movement(s) that exist to this day.
For a rollickingly good read (yes, I said that about a book that once was a dissertation!), and for vital insight into the shape of pastoral, biblical, Christian counseling and psychology today, The Biblical Counseling Movement is a unique contribution to the field. And, for insight into “the second generation,” Heath Lambert’s The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams is an essential “sequel.”
Join the Conversation
- Do you agree or disagree that pastoral ministry and Christian/biblical counseling has tended to move away from a focus on salvation and growth in Christ and move toward a focus on self and “self-actualization”? What evidence do you see either way? If this is true, what are the dangers?
- How aware have you been of the in-house debates between members of the nouthetic biblical counseling movement? Does this surprise you? Concern you?
- How aware have you been of the debates between nouthetic biblical counselors and Christians who practice “integration” of biblical wisdom and secular psychology? Where are you on the “continuum?
- How would you define “biblical counseling,” and “sufficiency of Scripture”?