The Biblical Counselling Movement

Part three of a three-part review of David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, New Growth Press, 1996 by guest blogger, Jonny Woodrow, contributes a three-part review. Jonny is an NTI tutor and has a PhD in social psychology.

In the first two parts of this review Jonny outlined the strengths of Jay Adam’s nouthetic counselling before detailing the critique and refinements by Powlison and others. He continues by summarizing subsequent developments before concluding.

During the 80s the evangelical psychotherapists made ground on the nouthetic movement. An integrationist approach in conversation with psychology took off in seminaries and universities in the United States. The nouthetic movement never had appeal for people outside Reformed Protestantism. In contrast the Reformed evangelical psychotherapists found a wider appeal among broader evangelicals through their non-polemical stance on psychology and psychiatry.

In the 1990s CCEF saw a revival of interest. But Powlison, Paul Tripp, Timothy Lane and other CCEF writers have clearly departed from Adams in important ways and all to the good. They are more thoroughly biblical and, although there are moments of proof-texting, they develop practice from verses in context. This is evidenced in two ways. CCEF writers have developed a biblical understanding of sin, the motivations of the heart and methods of counselling from all over the Bible and form the Bible story. Powlison, for example, in Seeing with New Eyes shows how Paul brought the story of Scripture into interaction with his pastoral context.

Adams’ view, ironically, owed more to behavioural psychology than to biblical anthropology. CCEF authors are also keen to commended the full range of verbal behaviours for counselling (encouraging, warning, teaching) and to place counselling in the context of relationship (see for instance Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands). Their emphasis on the heart and its inner dynamics has also meant the way is clear for meaningful interaction with psychology. CCEF is not integrationist, but does engage with psychology and has developed a counselling model that factors in motivation and social context. Powlison says psychology is useful at the descriptive level rather than the diagnostic level. It is interesting to note how these controversies and developments are summarized on the CCEF website.

As CCEF entered the 1980s and 90s, it was apparent that the second and third generation of leaders benefited from the strengths of their predecessors as well as learned from their weaknesses. They moved CCEF in a direction of increased sensitivity to human suffering, to the dynamics of motivation, to the centrality of the gospel in the daily life of the believer, the importance of the body of Christ and to a more articulate engagement with secular culture.

There are so many ingredients in Adams’ that are refreshing and that provide the foundations for CCEF as it now stands. He calls us to take responsibility for sin rather than wearing it like a psychological wound to be endlessly analysed, but never repented of. He redefines psychological disorders in biblical categories giving mental health back to pastoral care and pastoral care back to the church.

The temptation with biblical counselling is that we make church communities therapeutic and inward-looking rather than missional and outward-looking in focus. Adams’ shorter, no-nonsense approach seems like a solution. But it can end up undermining identity in Christ, grace, the coherence of the Bible, love and relationships. Competent to Counsel? is a reminder to me to love the people I pastor, be patient, listening for their hearts, understanding their context and calling them to repentance at the heart level.
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