Critique of David Powlison’s Essay
by Martin & Deidre Bobgan
Integration by Reframing & Recycling
Powlison’s essay "Cure of souls (and the Modern psychotherapies),"1 not only sets forth his expertise at "recycling" problem-centered psychological counseling theories and therapies, but also reveals the fulfillment of his desire for CCEF to be "the ones who successfully will ‘integrate’ secular psychology," as stated years earlier in one of his articles inThe Journal of Pastoral Practice:
One of the ironies (whether it is bitter, humorous or sublime I am unsure!) attending the contemporary Christian counseling world is that
Powlison saw problems with the way other people had been integrating psychology with the Bible. However, as we have demonstrated elsewhere, he fails to see that he is also too impressed with psychotherapeutic ideas, to the degree that he uses psychological teachings and techniques that encourage believers to sin against one another during counseling.3 His plan to "reframe everything that psychologists see and hold dear into biblical categories" has allowed him to simply organize and arrange those theories and techniques that he believes to be useful into a biblical framework. But, in doing so, the disguised theories are more deceptive than they were in a secular framework. It is similar to the ways that people attempt to put evolutionism into a creationist framework. Either way, the Bible is compromised and people are deceived. Nevertheless, Powlison had dreams of winning those who didn’t integrate biblically enough to his point of view:
At minimum there are thousands of Christians, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, college psychology majors, counselees drinking from a different well
Here Powlison revealed his plan to appeal to other integrationists through reframing what "enamors them about psychology." But, what enamors people about psychology is its appeal to the flesh! Isn’t Powlison appealing to a fleshly desire? Should not love for and commitment to psychological theories and therapies be called an "idol of the heart"? And, by the way, Powlison’s attempt has backfired, because now there are many more Christians and Christian organizations moving towards using psychology today than ever before.
In his article "Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’" Powlison reveals that he is continuing his quest to influence professional, psychologically trained Christians in the "helping professions." In the article he asks:
"How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and
Though he refers to the "observational riches of the behavioral sciences," he never mentions even one of these so-called "observational riches" in his entire lengthy article and we have never seen one in his writings.
Throughout his article Powlison shows how he connects idolatry, which he says is "the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures," to "the myriad significant factors that shape anddetermine human behavior," which are found in the psychological literature (bold added).6 We have written a review of Powlison’s case study of Wally to reveal how idols-of-the-heart (IOTH) counseling is recycled from problem-centered, insight-oriented psychotherapy and is nowhere in the Bible.7
"No comprehensive models of counseling"?
As we said earlier, Powlison begins his essay "Cure of Souls…" by saying, "Consider that in 1955, believing Protestants hadno comprehensive models of counseling" (italics his). He also says, "The last significant counseling work from a believing theological standpoint predated the Civil War." In contrast to this alleged lack, he makes a case for the contemporary biblical counseling movement having "comprehensive models of counseling" in the church. In contrast to the past absence of "comprehensive models of counseling" in the church, he paints a glowing picture of "knowledge and skill to conduct patient, probing, remedial conversation" in "the province of secularists and liberals."
Powlison sums up well what he refers to in the first two sections of his essay by blatantly stating, "Here is the inescapable fact that we have in common: throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the Bible-believing church has been woefully weak in the cure and care of souls." "Inescapable fact"?! "The Bible-believing church has been woefully weak in the cure and care of souls"?! Wow! This is a dramatic and significant accusation by Powlison that demands proof! Powlison does have a footnote for this, which reads:
"Cure of souls" refers to the transformation of individual lives and communal life into the image of Jesus Christ. "Care of souls" refers to the pastoral processes aiming to bring about such changes in others. The former is the goal; the latter is the method. As is always so in the dynamic of the gospel, those being cured learn how to care.
Please note there is nothing in Powlison’s footnote that supports his extreme accusation and demeaning remark about "the Bible-believing church," which he calls an "inescapable fact" proving that "the Bible-believing church has been woefully weak in the cure and care of souls"!Absent evidence this extreme statement must be regarded as false! Unfortunately Powlison equates the absence before 1955 of "comprehensive models of counseling" to the absence of a significant care of souls, apparently not realizing the biblical implications of what he is saying.
In addition, his footnote needs a footnote to support his definition of the "cure of souls" and "care of souls." We would say his definitions would not be supported by John T. McNeill’s classic book,A History of the Cure of Souls,8 which Powlison footnotes earlier in his article, but may not have read.
The Word of God, work of the Holy Spirit, and believers caring for one another biblically form the most complete and comprehensive way of change that mankind needs! From Pentecost onward the Scriptures have been sufficient regarding the issues of life faced by believers.The church does not need and is worse off because of these Johnny-come-lately psychological and biblical counseling movements. If one follows Powlison’s reasoning, the church, with few exceptions, was deficient in the cure of souls until it was saved from this ignominy by the latter-day, problem-centered, "comprehensive models of counseling" like those in the world.
2nd Generation Biblical Counselors
We digress to reveal that, according to Heath Lambert in his PhD dissertation-turned-into-a-book, Powlison majored in psychology at Harvard and had been working for several years in private psychiatric hospitals."9 Lambert refers to a "second generation of biblical counselors" with "the new blood of men such as Ed Welch and Paul Tripp but theclear leader was David Powlison."10 (Bold added.) We agree that Powlison was not only the "clear leader," but he was also the trend setter for all who counseled at CCEF and others world-wide who followed.
Lambert rightly says:
It would be difficult to overstate the influence Powlison’s contribution has had on biblical counselors.
Just as Dr. Jay Adams’ nouthetic counseling is a reflection of his relationship with Dr. O. Hobart Mowrer, a behaviorist, so also Powlison’s "idols of the heart" (IOTH) counseling is a reflection of his psychological education at Harvard and his work at psychiatric hospitals. In contrast to Adams’ "behavioristic" nouthetic counseling, Powlison’s IOTH counseling is "psychoanalytic." We putpsychoanalytic in quotes because his IOTH counseling includes two important central concepts that are reflective of the Freudian unconscious and insight.
Though Freud was not the first in history to speak of the unconscious, he was the first to popularize and describe his personal understanding about how it works. The mind in Freudian psychology is like an iceberg with the tip of the iceberg above the water representing the conscious mind and the huge mass below the water line representing the unconscious mind. It is said that in this theory, "the unconscious refers to the mental processes of which the individuals make themselves unaware."
In order to assist clients, the Freudian analyst has them "free associate," whereby the client says everything that comes to mind without withholding any thought. Primarily through this form of free association the Freudian analyst leads or influences the client in such a way that material is supposedly brought up from the unconscious and then interpreted by the analyst. Thereby the analyst enables the client to gaininsight for resolution of the problems. A Dictionary of Psychology defines insight in psychotherapy as "the illumination, or bringing to awareness, of motives, relationships, feelings, impulses, etc., which previously had been poorly understood or of which the subject was totally unaware."12 Both insight and the unconscious are of utmost importance in Freudian psychoanalysis.
In IOTH counselingthe "heart" functions like the Freudian unconscious as a repository of "idols" of which the counselee is not consciously aware. It is the IOTH counselor’s task to permit the counselees to speak whatever comes to mind about their problem situations. While not asked to say whatever comes to mind without restraint as in free association, the counselee in IOTH counseling is free to bring up whatever comes to mind. Through this, the IOTH counselor leads or influences the counselee so that the idols are brought up from the heart, which are then analyzed and interpreted by the counselor so that the counselee can gain insight for resolution of the problems. It is this insight that is of utmost importance as it theoretically can lead to resolution of the problems. We give excellent examples of this in our books.13
"Six Specific Areas of Development"
Lambert lists "six specific areas of development" in "understanding and appreciating the relationship between counselor and counselee" in the after-Adams, second-generation era.14 The six areas are counseling that is familial, demonstrates affection, is sacrificial, is person-oriented, sees the counselor as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and addresses suffering before sin.
While these six areas are admirable as goals, they are unattainable goals by Powlison and those at CCEF. In order to see whether these "six specific areas of development" are attainable and not mere bywords, one must look beyond what is said and claimed to what is done in practice and sustained during counseling. Powlison and those at CCEF, including Ed Welch and Paul Tripp (who now has his own ministry), violate the most basic admonitions of Scripture as they pursue the psychotherapeutic standard of problem-centered counseling, which includes talebearing, violating the one-flesh marriage principle, blaming the past, dishonoring mother and father, charging for biblical counseling, operating separated-from-the church counseling centers, and conducting cross-gender counseling.15 Besides these violations, because of its Freudian-unconscious-like heart and its psychoanalytic-like use of insight, the Powlison/CCEF IOTH counseling is more of a psychological curse than a biblical cure.
CCEF reports: "Last fiscal year (’09-’10) Counseling Services experienced a 14% growth averaging 460 hours of counseling per month. In September 2010, CCEF had 540 hours of counseling…our biggest month to date."16 (Ellipsis in original.) This is now 2012 and we estimate that the on-site counseling is averaging over 500 hours of counseling per month. Let us examine CCEF to see if it meets the "six specific areas of development" in counseling. If each person is counseled four times per month, which is not likely with dropouts and missed appointments, that would mean 125 individuals are seen.
Keep in mind that CCEF is a separated-from-the-church community counseling center with some counselees traveling great distances to be counseled. The counselees would generally not be in the same church as the counselors. Therefore the only relationship between the counselor and counselee is during that allotted time slot, which is probably one hour maximum, one day per week, following the standard set by psychotherapists, with one counselee after another waiting to be counseled. CCEF charges a monetary fee for biblical counseling with the payment required to bepaid in advance. The CCEF web site says, "All counseling charges are due before each appointment." For those who want their insurance to pay for the sessions, the web site says that "you will be expected to make full payment at the time of your session and have your insurance company reimburse you." In spite of CCEF’s substantial income, counselees are informed that "CCEF is unable to offer financial assistance to counselees." 17 How "familial" is that?
Since there is likely no contact between the counselor and counselee outside the community counseling center office with a typical one-day-per-week appointment with payment in advance; with each counselor having multiple appointments, how is it possible for each counselor to be familial, demonstrate affection and be sacrificial, see the counselor as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and address suffering before sin inside a fee-for-service hour maximum?
How can a paid relationship be "familial" "demonstrate affection" and be "sacrificial" in such a commercial, contrived setting? Even if a counselor shows concern and acts in a caring manner, the structure itself belies a familial relationship and true affection. How can such counseling be "sacrificial," unless it is the counselee, rather than the counselor, who is the one who is making a sacrifice? Working to help counselees regard the counselor as a fellow sinner and sufferer and addressing their suffering before sin will be only cosmetic, because of all the obstacles already mentioned and the great gulf between the professional (paid) and the "lowly" counselee.
Lambert’s six-point description of the counselor/counselee relationship cannot fully happen at CCEF or any other community counseling center. While it is more likely to happen in a church setting, it often does not occur there under the banner of biblical counseling. The truth is that most counselors are not known by most counselees prior to their appearance in the counseling office at CCEF and each counselee knows that when they stop paying, CCEF stops counseling and the relationship is over and done with.
Adams was the editor of theJournal of Pastoral Practice, but later, after becoming the new editor, Powlison renamed it the Journal of Biblical Counseling. The change in the journal title was a reflection of Powlison’s interest in biblical counseling over Adams’ interest in pastoral practice. Adams apparently looked at counseling from a pastoral point of view, while Powlison looked at counseling from a recycled psychological point of view—thus the carry-over of the Freudian unconscious and insight.
It was from the CCEF/Journal of Biblical Counseling base that Lambert says, "Powlison was able to exert massive influence in directing the discussions that biblical counselors were having."18 Biblical counseling was the core of CCEF and the IOTH counseling god-fathered by Powlison and is becoming the new "gold standard" for biblical counseling, but it is merely an attempted alchemy that has failed.
The IOTH boiler plate has been either outrightly adopted by many others, as Lambert shows in his book,19 or it has been blended into the nouthetic and other approaches. CCEF and Powlison, flying under the banner of biblical counseling with its IOTH approach, have dramatically increased their total revenue in 2009 to $2,421,326. With the recent sales promotion of CCEF for more support since 2009, it is no doubt considerably higher.
Lambert admits that David Powlison was the supervisor of his doctoral committee. The numerous compliments Lambert paid both directly and indirectly to Powlison throughout his PhD dissertation, later turned into a book, make it sound like a paean of high praise and even a puff piece. Lambert probably has no idea that his book, when contrasted with Powlison’s IOTH counseling approach and the reality of CCEF, is really the death knell for the IOTH/CCEF approach, which, like many latter-day "revelations" in the contemporary church, needs to be put to bed and not awakened.
We have read and studied both the nouthetic approach to counseling and the IOTH approach to counseling. While we are opposed to both approaches because both are problem-centered,we conclude, in contrast to Lambert’s belief in the supremacy and relevancy of the IOTH approach, that nouthetic counseling is more biblical than IOTH psychoanalytic-like counseling.
To be continued in the next issue.
1 David Powlison, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)," www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies.
2 David Powlison, "Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling."Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, p. 76.
3 Bobgan,Person to Person Ministry. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2009, Part Two.
4 David Powlison, "Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling,"op. cit., p. 77.
5 David Powlison, "Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’" op. cit., p.35.
7 Bobgan,Person to Person Ministry, op. cit., pp. 151-156.
8 John T. McNeill.A History of the Cure of Souls. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1951.
9 Heath Lambert.The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 44.
10Ibid., p. 47.
11Ibid., p. 76.
12 J.P. Chaplin.Dictionary of Psychology, Revised Edition. New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1975, p. 261.
13 Martin and Deidre Bobgan.Person to Person Ministry, Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2009, Chapters 4 and 40; Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! 2011, Chapter 3.
14 Lambert,op. cit., p. 90.
15 Bobgan and Bobgan,Person to Person Ministry, op. cit., Part Two; Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! op. cit., Chapter 3; "Paul Tripp & Syncretism," Parts One, Two, and Three, www.psychoheresy-aware.org.
18 Lambert,op. cit., p. 44.
19Ibid., Chapter 2.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, March-April 2012, Vol. 20, No. 2)
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