Critique of David Powlison’s Essay
by Martin & Deidre Bobgan
In Part Two of this article1
we digressed to include material from Heath Lambert’s PhD
The Biblical Counseling
Movement After Adams.2
We continue this digression because it sheds light on both
Powlison’s work and the overall emphases of the biblical counseling
movement regarding the cure of souls. Lambert places Jay Adams in
what he refers to as the "first generation" of biblical counselors
and David Powlison as the leader of what he calls "the second
generation" of biblical counselors. Powlison’s theory of biblical
counseling is centered in his idols-of-the-heart (IOTH) metaphor.
Lambert contends that it is characterized by the following six ways:
is familial, demonstrates affection, is sacrificial, is person
oriented, sees the counselor as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and
addresses suffering before sin. However, as we reveal in Part Two of
this series, the IOTH counseling is not biblical and the Christian
Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), the epicenter and
purveyor of the IOTH approach, cannot be characterized as practicing
the six way that are supposed to be characteristic of Lambert’s
second generation counselors because of the organizational and
methodological violations of Scripture.
In Chapter 6 Lambert discusses "An Area Still in Need of
Advancement." Throughout his PhD dissertation-turned-book, Lambert
exalts Powlison’s leadership of the second generation of biblical
counselors and defends him against other people’s views. In this
particular chapter Lambert says, "Despite all the benefits of the
idols of the heart language, there are also certain shortcomings."
3 Lambert summarizes the content of the chapter at its
beginning by saying: In the pages that follow, we will
examine the biblical context of idolatry, showing how it
functions to advance sinful self-interest in people’s hearts.
Understood in this sense, idolatry is a secondary problem
flowing out of the primary problem, which is the sinful,
self-exalting heart.4 Lambert repeats this theme throughout
the chapter, at the same time being careful to compliment and defend
Powlison, who served as the supervisor of his doctoral committee and
wrote the Foreword to his book. Lambert emphasizes "the worship of
self," "indulgence in one’s own desire," "an unwarranted desire to
exalt oneself above all other considerations (God or people)," and
"lust of the self-exalting heart"5 as needed
understandings from what he identifies as a "third generation" of
biblical counseling by saying: The main problem sinful people have
is not idols of the heart per se…. The heart problem is
self-exaltation, and idols are two or three steps removed. A
self-exalting heart that grasps after autonomy is the Grand
Unifying Theory (GUT) that unites all the idols.6 As a clarion call to building onto the
second generation of biblical counselors, Lambert says: As the counseling movement moves
into a third generation, it is necessary to look at the idols
and ask, clearly and with specificity, why. The answer is that
humans long for the glory that is due to God.7 Lambert little realizes that his
trumpeting of a third generation of biblical counseling is actually
revealing naiveté on his part. He begins with a discussion about the
sinful heart being the primary motivation of sin and in doing so
reveals that God had an answer for the sinful heart long before the
advent of the kind of counseling that is practiced today both in the
world and in the church, which is problem-centered and thereby
dependent on sinful communication. Then, instead of abandoning the
entire present-day counseling mentality, Lambert seeks to build his
third generation on a faulty base, because what he describes
continues to be an analytic theory of motivation
In Chapter 6 Lambert discusses "An Area Still in Need of Advancement." Throughout his PhD dissertation-turned-book, Lambert exalts Powlison’s leadership of the second generation of biblical counselors and defends him against other people’s views. In this particular chapter Lambert says, "Despite all the benefits of the idols of the heart language, there are also certain shortcomings." 3 Lambert summarizes the content of the chapter at its beginning by saying:
In the pages that follow, we will examine the biblical context of idolatry, showing how it functions to advance sinful self-interest in people’s hearts. Understood in this sense, idolatry is a secondary problem flowing out of the primary problem, which is the sinful, self-exalting heart.4
Lambert repeats this theme throughout the chapter, at the same time being careful to compliment and defend Powlison, who served as the supervisor of his doctoral committee and wrote the Foreword to his book. Lambert emphasizes "the worship of self," "indulgence in one’s own desire," "an unwarranted desire to exalt oneself above all other considerations (God or people)," and "lust of the self-exalting heart"5 as needed understandings from what he identifies as a "third generation" of biblical counseling by saying:
The main problem sinful people have is not idols of the heart per se…. The heart problem is self-exaltation, and idols are two or three steps removed. A self-exalting heart that grasps after autonomy is the Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) that unites all the idols.6
As a clarion call to building onto the second generation of biblical counselors, Lambert says:
As the counseling movement moves into a third generation, it is necessary to look at the idols and ask, clearly and with specificity, why. The answer is that humans long for the glory that is due to God.7
Lambert little realizes that his trumpeting of a third generation of biblical counseling is actually revealing naiveté on his part. He begins with a discussion about the sinful heart being the primary motivation of sin and in doing so reveals that God had an answer for the sinful heart long before the advent of the kind of counseling that is practiced today both in the world and in the church, which is problem-centered and thereby dependent on sinful communication. Then, instead of abandoning the entire present-day counseling mentality, Lambert seeks to build his third generation on a faulty base, because what he describes continues to be an analytic theory of motivationwith the subset of idols still in place and the practice of problem-centered counseling. Until the first, second, and "third generation" jettison the practice of problem-centered conversations, which include evil speaking, talking about others behind their backs, dishonoring parents and spouse, and ongoing complaining about people who are not present, they are simply emulating the world rather than following Christ by ministering the pure Word of God and trusting the Holy Spirit to do the inner work.
Grand Unifying Theory
Lambert borrows and slightly renames a scientific theory referred to as GUT ("grand unified theory") to form his Grand Unifying Theory of motivation, which he says is the third generation of biblical counseling. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definesgrand unified theory as "any of several theories that seek to unite in a single mathematical framework the electromagnetic and weak forces with the strong force or with the strong force and gravity—also called grand unification theory."8 It appears that Lambert’s first five chapters are just a prelude to his next-to-the-last chapter in which he elevates his GUT as the third generation of biblical counseling.
Lambert discusses the first generation based on the work of Adams and the second generation based on the work of Powlison and then what he considers to be a superior third generation, for which Lambert takes the credit. With little fanfare in this last chapter before the conclusion, he is more than implying that there was the Adams first generation, improved upon by the Powlison second generation, and now—ta-da! — comes the Lambert third generation of biblical counseling.
However, before the trumpets blow and the drum roll begins welcoming this new GUT of biblical counseling, it is necessary to respond to three facets of it. First, there is no need for Lambert’s version of GUT. However it serves as a clever contrivance on which to hang the idols by which the second generation counselors sought to gain and give insight regarding their counselees’ inner motivation, with the idea that through such insight their counselees might gain some control over their idols and therefore over their behavior.
Second, Lambert is in error when he presents "self-exaltation" as the core of his third generation GUT biblical counseling as if there is a single motivating force with the primary heart problem being "self-exaltation."Lambert’s "self-exaltation" is a part, but not the whole. While self exaltation is certainly one characteristic of the sinful heart, it does not explain the motivation any better than Scripture, which clearly says, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof" (Rom. 6:12). Indeed, the problem is sin itself which lives and exerts its force from the sinful heart, which is the residence and source of sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Jesus declared, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19).
The Bible does not indicate that self exaltation or pride unites all other sins. It is one of many that flow from the heart of what the Bible refers to as the "old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts" (Eph. 4:22). Proverbs lists seven: "A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren" (6:16-19).Rather than focusing on the sinful heart in all its motivations and manifestations, Christians are instructed to walk according to their new life in Christ.
Third, the cure of souls ministry dates back to Pentecost and has had a long history.The sinful heart of man has always been one focus of the cure of souls, which includes but is not singularly promoting "self-exaltation" as the core of the cure of souls, as Lambert does. According to E. Brooks Holifield in his book A History of Pastoral Care in America, the Puritans of the Reformed tradition centered on the essence of sin as breaking the First Commandment to love God and identified this with idolatry.9 One can see the influence of the Puritans on Powlison’s theory of counseling. However, prior to the rise of secular psychological counseling, the cure of souls was not fixated on such multiple problem-centered, sinful, self-centered conversations that are now basic to both secular and "biblical" counseling.
The Puritan divines did not meet week after week to discuss a person’s complaints about their problems. Instead, their conversations were to discover the substance of a believer’s faith and to cure the idolatrous heart. The attention was on one’s own heart rather than on the person’s circumstances or the sins and shortcomings of others. However, just as IOTH counselors analyze and speculate, many of the Puritan divines indulged in too much speculation as they "analyzed motives, evaluated feelings, sought to discern hidden intentions and to direct inward consent,"10 Holifield says that, in seeking to reveal the idolatrous heart, "Puritan pastors became masters of introspection, cartographers of the inner life, adept at recognizing the signs of salvation."11 Such introspection and speculation, however, are a serious danger even when the purpose is spiritual growth. In fact, Calvin "intended to direct the believer’s attention away from introspective self-concern and toward Jesus Christ; to provide no occasion for constant spiritual pulse-taking."12
The Idolatrous Heart
The self-focus of introspection that comes with counseling that stresses insight into one’s idolatrous heart can actually strengthen the flesh as it becomes self-centered rather than Christ-centered.An emphasis on the idolatrous heart also poses a danger of too much self-centered introspection, which can lead to despair on the one hand and prideful self-righteousness on the other.
One may become stuck in trying to fix the flesh, which must be put off. Therefore the idolatrous heart shouldnot be the primary emphasis in the spiritual ministry of soul care. Any attention given to the idolatrous heart is only useful as a means of teaching the doctrine of human depravity and identifying when one is living according to the old nature. But one can come to the same conclusion by reading the Word and then paying attention to one’s thoughts and behavior in relation to what God has said. When the Bible calls for self-examination, the purpose is to discover whether one is in the faith and walking according to the new life in Christ (1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5). Spiritual growth comes by focusing on Christ, His very Person, His life, and all He has accomplished for the believer and continues to accomplish at the right hand of the Father.
While many in the BCM may indeed intend to "present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:28), because of their problem-centeredness, they grievously fall into another form of idolatry: sinful conversations as a means to a better marriage, a better life, and a more satisfied self. Lambert’s hope to build a third generation of biblical counselors onto this faulty IOTH foundation, but with a greater emphasis on the idolatrous heart itself than its idols, will only prolong the error of problem-centered counseling. Such counseling would continue to cater to the idolatrous heart through all the attention given to it along with all the sinful problem-centered communication.
If the gossip, slander, back-biting, blame casting, biased descriptions of circumstances, and other evil speaking that occur during "data gathering" and counseling were happening outside the counseling room, such verbalization would be considered sinful. In fact the kinds of statements made during the data collecting and subsequent counseling originate from a sinful heart. Is that the idea, to let the sinful heart express itself so that sin can be identified by a counselor? Do the means justify the end?
Why Christians who have been born again by the Holy Spirit, given new life in Christ, and have the very Word of God at their finger tips subject themselves to such sin-centered activity escapes reason. However, one possible reason is that they are walking according to the flesh and attempting to have their lives fixed by someone else instead of through following the Lord Jesus Himself. Counseling that employs a sinful process is like idolatry—a sinful process to get what one desires.
Moving further back in history we find that Paul emphasized Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and all the provisions for living according to the new life in Christ. When operating biblically, the cure of souls emphasized Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the believer’s power over sin, and the Father’s provisions of dealing a death blow to the idolatrous heart and all its manifestations through enabling the believer to daily, moment by moment put off the flesh and walk by faith according to the Spirit. One does not need to seek the specific motivation for every sin, but recognize that whenever one sins one is walking according to the flesh with its deceitful heart. This involves recognition of sin (not analysis), repentance (1 John 1:9), and walking again according to the indwelling Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), which involves trusting and obeying Christ. Throughout the ages the Holy Spirit used the Word of God directly and through sound preaching and teaching to convict the sinner and the sinning saint, to show the way of life, and to enable the believer to live by that new life. The Christian life is one of grace and hope because all is given by God, including the ability to trust and obey.
If what Lambert says is true about needing a third generation of biblical counseling, then it must divorce itself from the fatal flaws of the previous two generations. Rather than building on the foundation of the first and second generations of biblical counseling, as Lambert proposes, we contend that the BCM has come to a point at which it must unload all its problem-centered baggage, degrees, licenses, fees, filthy conversations, and all other means of catering to the flesh and return to the simplicity of believers ministering spiritual care to one another for the purpose of pleasing God rather than self. If BCM counselors were to abandon their sinful problem-centered methodology and engage in personal teaching and true discipleship (i.e., without the sinful conversation of contemporary counseling), then there would be some hope for the Biblical Counseling Movement. But the garbage of problem-centered conversations must be dumped before moving on.
"Psychology Bashers" & "Psychoheretics"
We return here to Powlison’s essay, "Cure of souls (and the Modern psychotherapies)."13 In describing "so-called psychology bashers and so-called psychoheretics," Powlison muddies the waters, as so many do, by not distinguishing counseling psychology from the generic termpsychology. We have university psychology professors on our mailing list who support our work. They are not in clinical psychology, out of which come psychological counseling theories and therapies. Powlison needs to wake up to the fact that we and others are not psychology bashers; we are clinical psychology and psychotherapy bashers for good biblical, academic, and practical reasons, as we have demonstrated in our writings.14
Powlison once more emphasizes the importance of the "comprehensive models of counseling" by saying, "That Scripture is ‘sufficient’ to transform us never means that the Bible is ‘exhaustive.’" By this Powlison leaves the door open for the use of the psychotherapies and the contemporary "comprehensive models of counseling." An important question: Has anyone ever demonstrated that the sufficiency of Scripture for the issues of life has been improved upon by either psychotherapy or the "comprehensive models of counseling"? If so, the burden of proof is on Powlison for these latter-day "comprehensive models of counseling" and on those Christians who practice psychotherapy.So far no one has proven that the two millennia of biblical care through preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and fellowshipping need to be augmented or replaced by either psychotherapy or by the recently devised "comprehensive models of counseling"! We merely have Powlison’s say-so absent proof.
Powlison’s next statement is: "It does not mean that the Bible’s message for us is accessed and communicated only through proof-texts." This is both an outrageous statement and false accusation, because we know of no one who believes that, and we have been around long enough to know whether that is true or just a not-too-subtle straw man logical fallacy Powlison uses to support his argument for the extra-biblical "comprehensive models of counseling."
Another statement by Powlison that begs proof is that "the Bible itself mandates looking and learning from outside." In the context of his argument, he evidently means looking and learning from various "outside" counseling theories and therapies. This is one more outrageous statement that, lacking justification, rests on Powlison’s say-so. It is one more rationalization without justification for the use of these problem-centered, loaded-with-evil-speaking "comprehensive models of counseling."
Though he does so positively, Powlison is judging the hearts of Christian psychologists when he says, "Many work to critique the secularity of the modern psychologies and to screen out what seems to fail the test of Scripture." Excuse our use of his term, but how does Powlison know whether or not their love of "psychology" (psychotherapy) is not related to their "idols of the heart"?
The Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) is an organization of psychologists of various kinds, many of whom practice psychotherapy and are committed to an integrationist view. The following was admitted at one of their meetings:
We are often asked if we are "Christian psychologists" and find it difficult to answer since we don’t know what the question implies. We are Christians who are psychologists but at the present time there is
Some years back we conducted a survey of CAPS, which revealed how eclectic the members are and, at the same time, different from one another. As a result of our survey of CAPS members, as well as information from numerous other psychologists, we state categorically that all of these psychologists (every one of them) would claim to use "sound psychological principles" and would claim they are completely biblical or at least do not violate Scripture, even though they use a variety of the almost 500 available psychological approaches and thousands of techniques, many of which contradict one another.
Powlison asks and then answers the following question:
Why do they become psychologists? Glaring defects in the church’s current understanding and practice are the main reason they expend time and effort to do hard study of human beings."
Powlison criticizes the church as a reason to justify Christians becoming psychologists instead of criticizing the psychologists for undermining what the church has already been given.This same rationalization for Christians becoming psychological counselors applies to the use of various more or less psychological "comprehensive models of counseling." Powlison is generous to a fault to Christians who become psychological counselors or use "comprehensive models of counseling" but needs to be doubly faulted for his gross misrepresentation of the history of the church and the cure of souls.
The difference between Powlison and the two of us is that we have a high view of Scripture to minister to the issues of life and he has a high view of the latter-day "comprehensive models of counseling."
If Powlison truly believed in the sufficiency of Scripture for the cure of souls, why the need for these recently minted "comprehensive models of counseling"? As we demonstrate inPerson to Person Ministry, Powlison’s comprehensive idols-of-the-heart counseling is not biblical, but a construct of a distorted understanding of Scripture and a Freudian-like unconscious and insight.16
Powlison is in denial of the past history of the cure of souls in the church and has certainly distorted its use and effectiveness.Unless he can prove that, prior to their recent arrival on the scene, these numerous, often- conflicting "comprehensive models of counseling" are more effective than the faithful use of Scripture, he needs to repent of promoting them.
Let the Debates Begin!
We have documented that idols-of-the-heart (IOTH) counseling is unbiblical in many respects and that IOTH counseling and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) represent a modern-day contradiction to the cure of souls ministry. In fact, CCEF and its popular IOTH offered cure of souls counseling is a modern-day reflection of the psychological counseling clinics that one can find in every major city.
George Scipioni, who served on the CCEF board once said, "CCEF can say it’s not a mental health center, but if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, maybe it’s a duck."17 We would say that the proper title for this CCEF/IOTH counseling center should be CCEF Counseling Clinic. In addition, their use of the wordcounselee for those who receive counseling is a euphemism. A euphemism is "the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt." Thus counselee is a euphemism for the word client. A counselee is one who is being counseled, but a client is a person who uses the professional (paid) services of a counselor. CCEF needs a label for what it is: a counseling clinic that counsels clients for a fee. Moreover, if what is called "counseling" were truly a biblical ministry in the body of Christ, the designation could be "brother," "sister," or "fellow believer," but certainly not "counselee." We have long ago repented from calling fellow believers to whom we minister "counselees."
In concluding this part of his essay, Powlison says ofpsychologists and biblical counselors:
I believe that the
Powlison overlooks a third vision, which challenges and contradicts biblically and scientifically the two visions of psychologists and biblical counselors. The third vision that trumps the two visions actually existed before both the psychological and biblical counseling visions and confronts both of those visions with a challenge and complaints that have not yet been answered. We repeat the challenge: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.
Powlison says in summary to his forward to Lambert’s book:
Here’s one way I weigh whether a counselor is good: would I entrust my mother, my daughter, or my wife into your care? Would you handle their honest struggles well and wisely? Would I entrust the fine china of my own life into your care? Would you prove truly helpful? And do I give you reason to trust me with the hardest things in your life?18
We would answer "No" to Powlison’s question in regard to the BCM generally and CCEF specifically for all the reasons we have said in this series of articles and in our books. The wonderfully erudite writings of Powlison and others in the BCM are temptations to follow, but if you ignore what issaid by Powlison and others and know what they DO, the truth will be evident.
We have openly stated our position on being anti-psychotherapy and anti-contemporary biblical-counseling. The two visions spoken of by Powlison may be incompatible with one another, but both are certainly incompatible with Scripture. We have challenged the biblical counselors as we indicated earlier; let us have the debates. Let the debates start with the following issues,but let all of them be tested by Sola Scriptura!
1. Problem-centered counseling.
2. Charging for biblical counseling.
3. Separated-from-the-church biblical counseling centers.
4. Cross-gender counseling (women counseling men and men counseling women).
5. State licensed counselors who also refer to themselves as Christian counselors or biblical counselors.
6. Membership of biblical counselors in integrationist organizations.
Let the debates begin!
Endnotes for Critique of Powlison’s Essay "Cure of Souls...," Part 3
1. Martin & Deidre Bobgan, Critique of David Powlison’s Essay ‘Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)’," Part Two,PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, Vol. 20, No. 2.
2. Heath Lambert.The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
3.Ibid., p. 139.
5.Ibid, pp 143, 145, 147, 148.
6.Ibid, p. 148.
7.Ibid., p. 151.
8. Merriam-Webster, I.Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh ed. Springfield, MA.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
9. E. Brooks Holifield.A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1983, p. 22.
10.Ibid., p. 23.
11.Ibid., p. 27.
12.Ibid., p. 24.
13. David Powlison, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)," www.ccef.org/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies.
14. Martin and Deidre Bobgan.The End of "Christian Psychology." Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1997.
15. P. Sutherland and P. Poelstra, "Aspects of Integration," paper presented at the meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Santa Barbara, CA, June 1976.
16. Bobgan,Person to Person Ministry, op. cit., Part Two.
17. George Scipioni quoted by David A. Powlison inCompetent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Anti-Psychiatry Movement. University of Pennsylvania, 1996, p. 394.
18. David Powlison, "Foreword,"The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, op. cit., p. 18.
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