Tuesday, March 22, 2005

David Powlison

One frustration I have with contemporary evangelicalism is its easy dismissal of “biblical counseling.” Ours is a rather therapeutic age, and evangelicals have tended to Christianize secular psychology to build counseling systems which are administered by professional counselors.

“Biblical counseling” is most often associated with the prolific though polarizing Presbyterian pastor/professor Jay Adams, who launched a broadside against evangelicalism on this issue with his 1970 publication of Competent to Counsel. With it, he launched the anti-psychiatry movement, “Nouthetic Counseling.”

But few people have heard of Adams’ successor as the de facto spokesman for biblical counseling: David Powlison, and many are unaware of the direction he has taken the movement.

His Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania was in the area of the History and Sociology of Science. His dissertation, still unpublished, was entitled, “Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Anti-Psychiatry Movement” (1996). It traced the historical, intellectual, and social dimensions of the movement, and provided critiques and corrections for the system as developed by Adams.

Since 1977 Powlison has been a counselor and teacher at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation). Since 1992, he has been the editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling (formerly called the Journal of Pastoral Practice). He also is an adjunct lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Regarding a recommendation of Powlison’s ministry and writing, I could not agree more with John Piper, who writes:

Among living authors who think deeply about the Word of God and the workings of the human soul, I know of no one who writes more perceptively or ministers more deeply to me than David Powlison. As I write this, for example (August, 2000), I am reading his article in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, titled “‘Peace Be Still’: Learning Psalm 131 By Heart.” I am finding myself naked before the Word of God, as if David Powlison were living inside of me and exposing the anxieties and obsessions of my heart. I am convicted and made to cry out for deeper, far deeper, freedom from pride and fear of man. There are many today who specialize in soul-care or deep, faithful grasp of Biblical theology; but there are few who do both. David Powlison does both.

In Powlison’s article, “Do You See?” he asks his readers what they see when they look at the Bible:

What do you see when you look at your Bible? Do you see a book crammed with relevance? Do you see a book out of which God bursts as He speaks to what matters in daily life? Is your Bible packed with application to the real problems of real people in the real world: inexhaustible, immediate, diverse, flexible? Or is the Bible relatively thin when it comes to addressing human struggles?

Powlison then explains the two kinds of contemporary Bible‑believing, evangelical Protestants that he sees.

One sort has a Bible crammed with relevance to human life. The other sort has a Bible of modest utility. This difference in seeing underlies many of the conflicts and misunderstandings within Christian counseling.

He first discusses those Bible-believers whose Bible is only a moderately useful resource.

They may honor the Bible with noble‑sounding descriptions. God’s Word provides a framework of ultimate meaning. It is a “resource” for comfort in trials or for “spiritual” strengthening. Scripture maps out the way of ultimate salvation. It is useful for “theology,” for theoretical truths about God, heaven and hell, life and death, the kingdom, “the Christian view of…” It is an honored authority for reflecting on the “large” questions of life.

What is wrong with that paragraph?

On the surface, nothing, except that all is rather vague and highflying. Even theological liberals have uttered similar sentiments. The divide comes when you ask whether the Bible is truly useful in the trenches of daily life. Here this sort of Bible‑believer turns to other sources for insight and guidance. Some turn to new and personalized revelations, prophecies, leadings and intuitions. Others turn to the secular psychologies for understanding and guidance. In either case, the Bible doesn’t say enough about what really matters in daily life.

Powlison identifies these people, with their relatively thin Bible, as having a vision defect.

Their Bible is seen as a child’s eight‑key, tin toy piano. Those eight white keys may be of central importance in music theory: the key of C‑major, beginning with middle‑C, sounds the basic do‑re‑mi after all. They’ll do for the Sunday School songs. But you can’t play much of depth and interest. No sonatas. No fugues. No concertos. You can’t sound the nuances, the variations, the minor keys of life. And no mature pianist would bother plunking around on an eight‑key tin piano. There are more interesting and flexible instruments around.

He then goes on to describe the other type of Bible-believer:

But for the other sort of Bible‑believer the Bible is a grand piano. In fact it’s a grand piano, plus the rest of the orchestra, plus the great composers, plus the great pianists, plus the great conductors. It sounds all the notes, all the tones, all the rhythms, all the keys, all the special effects, all the nuances. That’s the vision biblical counselors have of the Bible. It’s crammed. The Composer, Conductor and Musician is active.

When people with thin Bibles hear people with crammed Bibles talk about the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, they hear, “Something thin and incomplete is sufficient for a very complex job.” That sounds ridiculous. Biblical counseling sounds absurd, doctrinaire, obscurantist, the rantings of small‑minded know‑nothings who glory in their ignorance.

But when people with crammed Bibles speak of Scripture’s sufficiency they mean—or ought to mean— “Something living and active, inexhaustibly rich, comprehensive and relevant, is sufficient for a very complex job.” That sounds reasonable. And when in the trenches of face‑to‑face ministry the Lord Himself speaks to people, that profession of vision is vindicated.

At this point, though, Powlison pauses to suggest that vision defects aren’t the only kind of defects. There are also skill defects.

We biblical counselors, as individuals and even as a movement, don’t always do the best job of playing the music. We all have skill defects. Someone who sees the grand piano—no vision defect—may only know how to play “Chopsticks.” A novice on a violin squawks; a novice on a trumpet blasts; on the drums he thumps monotonously. Such failings may make it hard for bystanders to catch the vision, but they do not invalidate the vision. There is a full orchestra; let’s grow up out of our failings and learn how to play.

Skill defects are easier to overcome than vision defects, but God will overcome both to the praise of His glory. Is your Bible crammed but your skills limited? A seeing child may stumble at first, but eventually he or she will run and skip under the Father’s care. Or is your Bible relatively thin? A blind child can never even walk without halting. But the Father can open eyes too.

How, then, does all of this apply to Scripture and to the task of “counseling”?

Those who see that the Bible is crammed with the mind of Christ regarding all of human life know that Scripture is very much at home with the issues we associate with “problems in living” and “counseling.” In fact, Scripture is so wise about these matters that it even redefines what a “problem” is. Scripture has as much to say about the problems of the self‑satisfied and successful who never seek counseling as it does about those who evidently struggle in their misery, failure, and sin. A consistent biblical counseling ministry will both “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It does not merely address the troubled and troublesome; it addresses everyone.

Powlison continues with an exploration of what the “sufficiency of Scripture” does and does not mean, and ends by arguing for the need for “systematic biblical counseling”:

Unless God has lied to us, we do have what we need to develop systematic biblical counseling. Any such system must provide four things:

1) a penetrating and comprehensive analysis of the human condition,

2) an effective solution, equally penetrating and comprehensive,

3) a wise pastoral methodology that helps us deal with the variety of persons and problems appropriately, and

4) a standpoint from which to discern unbiblical elements in other systems of counseling.

Scripture is crammed with just these things. Do you see?

I know this has been a long post, but if I could encourage you to absorb the thought of one living author, David Powlison would be very high on the list. Below are some resources by him.

Free Articles and Audio

Human Defensiveness: The Third Way

Making All Things New—Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken (audio)

Human Defensiveness: The Third Way (article)

What Is Wrong With the Therapeutic Approach to Counseling? (article)


The Journal of Biblical Counseling


Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture

Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare


“A Biblical Counseling View,” in Psychology & Christianity: Four Views ed. Johnson and Jones

Questions at the Crossroads: The Care of Souls & Modern Psychotherapies,” in Care for the Soul ed. McMinn and Phillips

Making All Things New—Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken,” in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, ed. Piper and Taylor


Anger: Escaping the Maze

Domestic Abuse: How to Help

God's Love: Better Than Unconditional

Pre-Engagement: Five Questions to Ask Yourself

Pornography: Slaying the Dragon

Stress: Peace and Pressure

Why Me: Comfort for the Victimized

Worry: Pursuing a Better Path to Peace


Dynamics of Biblical Change (22 CDs from Powlison’s class at Westminster Seminary)