Critique of David Powlison’s Essay
"Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)"
Part One

by Martin & Deidre Bobgan


David Powlison has written an insightful and revealing essay titled "Cure of Souls (and the Modern psychotherapies),"1 part of which is a lead article in Westminster Today.2 Powlison confesses, "This essay is no attempt at dispassionate history. My commitments and convictions will be obvious in what follows." In order to understand Powlison’s "commitments and convictions," one needs to understand his commitment to the modern-day biblical counseling movement (BCM) and also his convictions about what the Bible teaches regarding counseling conversations and other matters. Unfortunately a great weakness of Powlison’s essay is that, though he provides some footnoting, he provides none for some of his significant and most important points, so that one is left with his say-so, which is not a trustworthy way of writing.

A "Counseling Revolution"

Powlison’s essay explores the source and development of what he calls "comprehensive models of counseling" in the Protestant church. He begins his section on "The Counseling Revolution" with these words:

We live in the epoch of a great revolution. Consider that in 1955, believing Protestants had no comprehensive models of counseling. Theological conservatives had no educational programs to train pastors or other Christian workers in the face-to-face cure of souls. Christian bookstores contained no books on the problems of everyday life and the processes of change. No evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, or reformed leaders were known for their skill in probing, changing, and reconciling troubled and troublesome people (italics his, bold added).

Indeed the Protestants did not have "comprehensive models of counseling" that glaringly reflected the world. They were generally devoted to Sola Scriptura, though some were enticed to embrace the ways of the world, such as those like Samuel Wilberforce and other nineteenth-century divines who thought that Mesmerism might be useful in soul care.3 In other words, there have always been temptations for pastors and others to look outside Scripture to find ways of helping troubled people.

Powlison indicates that prior to the mid-twentieth century there was a lack of "skill in probing, changing, and reconciling troubled and troublesome people." And, indeed, the form of counseling that Powlison promotes was absent from the church for nearly 2000 years and did not come into the church until after the psychological counseling revolution took place shortly after World War II. The kind of counseling Powlison is talking about consists of a troubled individual meeting with a counselor especially trained to probe into the soul and transform the person through weeks and months of conversation about the feelings, thoughts, circumstances, and relationships. In the process the person is allowed and even encouraged to speak evil about others.

These "comprehensive models" of problem-centered counseling that include confessing the sins of others, in which the counselor or therapist attempts to the change a person’s soul (psyche) through techniques gleaned from or similar to secular psychotherapy, were never before used among those who had been given new life in Jesus. While there are some similarities with the way Puritan divines ministered soul care, there was nothing like the kind of counseling that exists today. Powlison writes as if something essential has been missing all these years. With all the good in the church he asks:

But what was the quality of corporate wisdom in comprehending the dynamics of the human heart? How rich was the human self-understanding? How well did the church analyze the destructive and practice the constructive in human relationships? What does change look like, think like, feel like, act like, talk like? How does change proceed? What sustains sufferers and converts sinners? (Bold added.)

Powlison makes it sound as if without these new ways of "comprehending the dynamics of the human heart" and "human self-understanding" one cannot even realize what change is like or how it proceeds. However, Jeremiah 17:9 and numerous other Scriptures that speak of the "human heart" indicate the impossibility of even knowing one’s own heart; so where does this "corporate wisdom" come from? The self-deception involved in thinking one can formulate "comprehensive models of counseling" whereby a counselor can have insight into another person’s soul so as to analyze the other person’s heart and help the person gain "self-understanding" comes from the world. It is part of the wisdom of men that comes from the theories and therapies of psychological counseling.

Powlison’s question "What does change look like" makes one wonder what anyone can possibly know about change without some sort of "comprehensive models of counseling." However, Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that when real change occurs in the soul, it is not seen (John 3:8). While change may be felt and people may think about it, every individual is different. Do we all have the same testimony of how God has worked in our life? True change in the soul is wrought by the Holy Spirit, not some form of counseling methodology devised by men who have formed a "comprehensive model," particularly when it involves sinful activities, such as speaking ill of others, as is done in "biblical" counseling and in psychotherapy. In fact, God’s creativity in molding individuals into the image of His Son cannot be replicated nor reduced to a system.

Powlison’s question "What sustains sufferers and converts sinners?" indicates that these activities must be part and parcel of a "comprehensive model of counseling." In other words, what "sustains sufferers and converts sinners" must be systematized into a counseling methodology to be truly effective. However, the various methods and techniques of counseling are not solely Sola Scriptura. Powlison thus indicates his faith in what psychological counseling attempts to do through its problem-centered conversations and gives strong evidence that the church lacked the kind of counseling he thinks believers need. While he shows some concern about some of the secular aspects of these psychological counseling theories and therapies, he has taken what seemed best to him to formulate his "idols-of-the-heart" "comprehensive counseling" model.

"A Counseling Vacuum"?

Powlison’s description of secular psychology makes it sound as if the world had more to offer than what Christians had been experiencing. In fact, until this marvel of present-day counseling came along, he contends that the following was the sad state of Christians:

We humans were not made and sustained; our diverse sufferings did not exist in a context of meaningfulness; we were not accountable, observed, and evaluated; we were not condemned; we were not pursued and redeemed. "God" was an objectively weightless concept with respect to the human psyche; the weighty things in our souls had to do with other things.

Christians were made and sustained by God through His Word and the Holy Spirit prior to any comprehensive system such as proposed by Powlison. Christians found meaning in their suffering through the Scriptures without the aid of these newly formed "comprehensive models of counseling." Jesus said much about suffering, and so did Paul and Job. Powlison is right, however, in saying that Christians were not "observed and evaluated" according to these new psychological methods until psychology came along. What genuine Christian has not been pursued by God and redeemed by Christ? And how was God ignored regarding the human psyche when the Holy Spirit Himself indwells believers and the Word nourishes their souls? Indeed, if "the weighty things in our souls had to do with other things," we ask, have believers lost their first love and reverted to the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil? Too many believers are turning to the world’s system of counseling or crying out for a Christianized version of it.

Powlison further contends that, since the church did not have something like the world’s system of counseling, the leaders and pastors "were not doing more than a rudimentary job in offering an alternate analysis and cure." Powlison has therefore devoted his life work to give the church: "Knowledge and skill to conduct patient, probing, remedial conversation [which had become] the province of secularists and liberals" (bold added). If such "patient, probing, remedial conversation" has been "the province of secularists and liberals," shouldn’t we be concerned about its source? Powlison admits:

No systematic analysis of care for the soul grappled with the particulars of how souls needed curing and might find it. In 1955 the churches that took God at his word had little to say about "counseling."

Because there was nothing like this kind of counseling in the church until the middle of the twentieth century, should we not wonder why God had withheld this marvel of "patient, probing, remedial conversation" from His people for all these years? Powlison, in an endnote, does give credit to "grassroots wisdom of godly people" and "Plain folks without a whisper of counseling training" for their "discernment" and "instinct" to minister absent "a well-systematized biblical counseling model."

It is unfortunate that this admission on his part is in an endnote instead of in the body of the article since few people bother to read endnotes. Of particular importance is Powlison’s last sentence in the endnote: "A well-systematized biblical counseling model will not transcend grassroots wisdom but will express, encourage, and defend such wisdom." The truth is that the "well-systematized biblical counseling model [s]," including Powlison’s, do not "express, encourage, and defend such wisdom"! In fact, many believers are intimidated by these systems and discouraged from ministering mutual care unless they are trained by Powlison and/or others in the BCM.

Powlison speaks of a "counseling vacuum among evangelicals" and says, regarding "modern forms of self-knowledge," that "the God of the Bible was insignificant for objectively explaining and addressing the human condition." He concludes this section by saying:

Evangelicals might object to the secularity of the modern and modernist worldview, but they were not doing more than a rudimentary job in offering an alternate analysis and cure. (Bold added.)

How does Powlison know that and what is his proof?

A Counseling Mind-Set

Powlison’s jaundiced view of what the church had to offer prior to the rise of the contemporary "comprehensive models of counseling" is predicated upon his commitment to a modern-day biblical counseling mind set, which blinds him to almost two millennia of a far greater work done in the absence of such models simply by the Word of God with the work of the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of the saints.

Powlison refers to "two parties within this counseling revolution":

One group has developed in the footsteps of Clyde Narramore and along the lines of Fuller Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology…. The other group has developed in the footsteps of Jay Adams and along the lines of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation’s [CCEF] pastoral training at Westminster Seminary.

However, both groups have actually been a detriment to the cure of souls because both reflect the psychological counseling movement’s problem-centeredness. As we have demonstrated in our writings about Powlison and others, "Problem-centered counseling inevitably leads to sinful communication."4 To expose this issue to those in the biblical counseling movement (BCM), we presented the following challenge:

With the thousands of individuals claiming to do biblical counseling and the Bible colleges and seminaries that teach it, one should be able to find a biblical counseling session (or a series of sessions) in writing or on audio or video that is truly biblical and therefore having no evil speaking. We challenge biblical counselors to provide a word-for-word counseling session or a detailed description of one to demonstrate that they are truly biblical.

To date no one in the BCM, including Powlison and Adams, have answered that challenge, probably because they cannot. Also, our biblical analysis of the counseling of both Adams and Powlison indicates that neither one is truly biblical in their counseling.5

The Beginnings

How did Powlison and those in the BCM arrive at these "comprehensive models of counseling" that they regard so highly? It all began with Jay Adams. Adams studied under O. Hobart Mowrer, a psychologist and professor of psychology who was known for his research in behavior therapy.6 Adams was also familiar with the work of William Glasser, the psychiatrist who authored Reality Therapy. Both Mowrer and Glasser were problem-centered in their counseling approaches and even though Adams repudiated their man-centered approaches,7 he nonetheless followed their problem-centeredness in his newly created nouthetic counseling. Adams adopted the problem-centered approach from the psychological counselors, and those who came after him in the BCM, including those at CCEF, merely followed along.

Problem-Centered Counseling

We have demonstrated over and over again that the "comprehensive models of counseling" to which Powlison refers are truly unbiblical and that includes NANC, CCEF, and all other BCM approaches that we are aware of.

Randy Patten, who is the executive director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) describes how those in the BCM function. Patten says that he "always starts out with Proverbs 18:13." ("He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.") Patten says that he needs to "understand completely what’s going on in your life" before giving any advice so that he won’t be "a fool in God’s eyes" or give them "lousy advice."8 However, in order to honestly and accurately hear the matter, all parties involved should really be heard and that includes those not present, such as spouses, parents, in-laws, other family members, friends, coworkers, etc. Also, to "understand completely," Patten and all counselors would need to hear from all the people their counselees talk about behind their backs. Counselors do not check out the details of the stories they have been told. It is impractical and almost impossible to do so.

Therefore counseling is rife with kangaroo court proceedings. Counselors believe their counselees, even though research demonstrates that counselees lie to their counselors and will obviously distort the truth to their own advantage.9 Just four verses later in Proverbs, the Bible advises getting the facts before believing tales: "He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him" (Prov. 18:17). Patten and other biblical counselors probably never discuss this verse with their counselees in reference to what they say about others.

Powlison and those at CCEF, while having "developed in the footsteps of Jay Adams," have a diametrically different approach to biblical counseling and yet are more psychologically problem-centered. While NANC counselors are primarily behaviorally oriented, Powlison and CCEF counselors are "psychoanalytically" oriented. Simply stated, NANC counselors have an "outer counseling" approach (behavioristic) while CCEF counselors have an "inner counseling" approach ("psychoanalytic"), which they promote as the idols-of-the-heart counseling.

Powlison provides a case study of Wally to exemplify this approach in an article titled "Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair.’"10 In his article, Powlison teaches the idols-of-the-heart counseling approach, which is problem-centered and "psychoanalytically" dependent, where the heart, like the Freudian unconscious, is the repository for the person’s issues of life. A major fault of that approach is that the counselor, whose own heart is "deceitful and desperately wicked," must see into another person’s "deceitful and desperately wicked" heart to deal with the problems of living, in spite of the Lord Himself declaring that He is the One who searches the heart (Jer. 17:9). As we demonstrate in Person to Person Ministry, there is no biblical basis for searching for the idols-of-the-heart as done by Powlison and others at CCEF.11

In the case study, Wally, the counselee, dishonors his parents and is encouraged to do so by Powlison. In addition, Powlison does not divert Wally from his sinful tale-bearing, discrediting of his wife, blaming the past, playing the victim, or his dishonoring his parents. Instead, Powlison participates in these sins and even amplifies them. We give the details of how NANC, CCEF, and other BCM counseling models are unbiblical because of the results of their problem-centeredness in our books Person to Person Ministry and Stop Counseling! Start Ministering!

To be continued in the next issue.

Endnotes

1 David Powlison, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)," www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies.

2 David Powlison, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)," Westminster Today, Vol. 4, Issue 1, pp. 6-9.

3 Alison Winter. Mesmerized: Powers of the Mind in Great Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1998, pp 246-257.

4 Martin & Deidre Bobgan. Person to Person Ministry: Soul Care in the Body of Christ. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2009, p. 22.

5 Ibid., Part Two.

6 O. Hobart Mowrer. The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1961.

7 Jay Adams. Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, p. xviii.

8 "Biblical Counseling Observations," Faith Biblical Counseling, Faith Baptist Church, Lafayette, Indiana, Session One.

9 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2011, Chapter 2.

10 David Powlison, "Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair.’" The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 1995, pp. 35-50.

11 Bobgan, Person to Person Ministry, op. cit., Part Two.

(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, January-February 2012, Vol. 20, No. 1)


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