The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context

May 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

9781935273134On first glance, I imagine many readers would find this book either immediately attractive or immediately repulsive. The reasons for this are either you’re a) interested in biblical counseling so the title grabs you or b) you’ve had a bad experience with someone promoting “nouthetic” counseling and decided you wanted to have nothing to do with the biblical counseling movement (or possibly c, you’re more of a fan of integrating the best of psychology with the best of theology and think biblical counseling is naive approach).

Readers in the former camp might after further examination decide they’re not interested in the book because it’s a history of the movement, not a practical how-to manual. It would probably be hard to coax readers with bad biblical counseling experiences to devote 350 pages of their life to gaining a new perspective, and integrationists might have already decided biblical counseling is not the intellectually respectable way to go. If so, that doesn’t leave many potential readers for David Powlison’s book detailing the formation of the biblical counseling movement.

That would certainly be a shame though, because it is a very valuable read for a number of people (especially the people in groups A-C above). I don’t usually detail who I think the audience of a book is (or should be), but in this case, I’m going to make an exception. Using my aforementioned imagination (see first line), I don’t see this book flying off the shelves to be rabidly consumed by Christian readers. It probably will never come to that, but this book could certainly work its way onto a few more shelves, and beyond groups I’ve mentioned, there are two more types of readers who will find this book a good read.


For starters, I think anyone who is a current or future practitioner of  biblical counseling needs to read this book. While it is a history of biblical counseling, that doesn’t mean the book is just focused on the story of how biblical counseling developed. It does focus on Jay Adams, the founder of nouthetic counseling, and the key figure behind the rise of biblical counseling as a practice. But, in doing so, Powlison gives an overview of Jay Adam’s “system” in chapters 5-7. Not only does this give a thorough exposition of Adam’s thought, but it does so in the context within which it developed. Powlison offers an systematic presentation of Jay Adams that Adams himself doesn’t offer in one place (much like Greg Bahnsen’s or John Frame’s books on Cornelius Van Til do). Chapter 5 details Adam’s understanding of the human condition and the nature of psychological problems, while chapter 6 focuses on the solutions and agenda for change Adams offered. Chapter 7 then turns to show how Adam’s presented this in opposition to modern psychologies. Anyone who engaged in biblical counseling and curious about how it interacts in distinction to the discipline of psychology will find these chapters informative.

Secondly, I think readers interested in cultural apologetics will find Powlison’s study informative. This is especially true for apologists interacting with the sciences. This book was originally a dissertation in the history of science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. As such, it has the underlying research you’d expect from a dissertation (around 100 or so footnotes per chapter), but it is written in a highly readable style. Where people interested in apologetics might find their interest piqued is the details of Adams approach to both the discipline of psychology and Christian appropriations of it.  The issue is not unlike the current one involving Old Testament biblical studies and contemporary biology. One can hardly ask for a more analogous situation, and seeing how Adams interacted with a scientific discipline without being anti-science is highly informative. At root, it was an epistemological battle rather than a scientific one, and one of Adams’ chief concerns was to limit the domain of psychology. He wanted to keep it from interfering with pastoral practice by using its findings to dictate how counseling should be handled. This ought to soundly eerily similar to the recent attempts to revamp how the bible is interpreted in light of what sciences like biology may or may not have proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” Looking at how Adams dealt with integrating psychology and theology can helpfully inform apologists in our time how to handle integrating Old Testament hermeneutics and biology.

There are certainly other readers who will find The Biblical Counseling Movement a stimulating read, but these are two groups who I think will find the most food for thought. Though Powlison certainly follows in Jay Adams’ footsteps to a big extent, he doesn’t gloss over Adams faults and presents his study like a good historian should. Jay Adams is depicted warts and all and there is much we can learn from the presentation. In this updated edition published by New Growth Press there are 4 appendices added, 3 of which give further insight into Powlison’s own position when it comes to biblical counseling. As the book stands then, readers get an introductory overview of Powlison’s study (chapter 1), background details about Adams intellectual formation (chapter 2), the birth and initial development of the biblical counseling movement (chapter 3), and a snapshot of the kind of clients most interested in biblical counseling (chapter 4). There are then the 3 chapters on Adams thought itself that I already mentioned. Lastly, Powlison gives an excellent overview of the critical responses to Adams (chapter 8.) before concluding with an update of how the movement developed into the 80’s and early 90’s (chapter 9).


Overall, I found this a very helpful book and it has pushed me to do some more reading in Jay Adams. Though he was my introduction to counseling and I’ve read several of his books, in reading Powlison’s study I was struck by a couple of new thoughts. The first was how Adams approached writing and publishing and how intensely practical he was in his publication of over 100 books. While I’d personally like to pursue academic publishing, seeing how Adams went about effecting change through pamphlets and lay reader oriented writings is a good reminder that changing the way people think doesn’t always have to trickle down from the academy.

The second thought was how rhetorically abrasive Adams could be, not that I didn’t know this already. Adams is a very polarizing figure and I would imagine (this post has a very active imagination behind it in case you didn’t notice) that he is the #1 reason people both love and hate the biblical counseling movement. Part of me wonders if more people, especially those sold on attempting to integrate key tenets of psychology with pastoral counseling (the theistic evolutionists of the field, if you will) would read Adams a little more closely if he weren’t so inflammatory in his rhetoric toward them.  The other part of me wonders if Adams knew full well what he was up to considering he wrote two dissertations (though only received a Ph.D for one of them), both of which were focused on rhetoric and communication (the first on Paul’s rhetorical tailoring to his audience, the second on the homiletical distinctives of a former mentor of Adams). I can’t help but think biblical counseling might have less opponents if Adams had been more interested in dialogue rather than disciple-making. But on the other hand, sometimes its worth knowing when dialogue would just be a waste of time.


All that to say, I’m glad I was able to read through this book and I found it helpful in several ways. I would count myself as standing in the overlap between the two types of readers I highlighted above. I am interested in promoting biblical counseling and think on the whole, Adams was on to something, and was more or less right about the place of biblical counseling in distinction from what psychologists are up to. I am also interested in apologetics and seeing Adams as an apologist has been informative as well as vexing. I can’t say I’ve come to a firm conclusion about what aspects of Adams to emulate and what to avoid, but it’s surely something that’ll be rolling around in the back of my mind this summer.

And if that’s the case, I’m sure you’ll hear from me once I do come to some kind of conclusion!

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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