The Biblical Counseling Movement

The name “Jay Adams” and the method of counseling known as “nouthetic counseling” are familiar to Evangelicals in the biblical/Christian counseling world. As author David Powlison notes, most people either love or hate Adams and nouthetic biblical counseling.

Powlison, while acknowledging his own personal history as one trained within the nouthetic biblical counseling movement, and as a friend of Dr. Adams, is still able to write with a historian’s objectivity. The Biblical Counseling Movement is neither hagiography nor a blistering attack. It is a balanced, nuanced examination, not only of the history, but also of the theology and methodology of Jay Adams and nouthetic biblical counseling. The core chapters were originally Powlison’s Ph.D. dissertation.

The book edition adds a lengthy appendix, containing articles by Powlison. These extend and deepen the history, offering an intriguing analysis of the birth and development of the nouthetic biblical counseling movement and its relationship to Evangelical psychotherapists.

The History and Shaping Factors

Powlison first takes his readers to the historical backdrop that led to the rise of modern nouthetic biblical counseling. As E. Brooks Holifield explained in A History of Pastoral Care in America, so Powlison traces the movement of pastoral ministry from a focus on salvation to a focus on self. In the generation before Jay Adams’s ministry (the 1920s to 1950s), pastoral counseling was strongly influenced by liberal Protestantism and secular psychology.

Powlison tells the riveting story of Adams’s journey as a young pastor facing crisis after crisis among his parishioners and feeling inadequately prepared. Adams’s internship under the secularist O. Hobart Mowrer, of all people, was a culminating experience leading to Adams’s rejection of secular psychology.

In Powlison’s hand, the narrative is never shallow. He describes other influencing factors on Adams’s theory, including his personality, his background as a preacher, his Reformed Presbyterian theology, and his study of Van Til’s pressupositional apologetics, among others. One cannot understand Adams’s nouthetic approach apart from grasping these background elements.

An Afternoon Soap Opera

Once Adams launched the nouthetic biblical counseling movement with his publication of Competent to Counsel, along with the start of the Christian Counseling and Education Center (later to be renamed the Christian Counseling and Education FoundationCCEF), and later with the start of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), the history begins to sound like an afternoon soap opera. Powlison colorfully depicts the intrigue within and without the movement.

While Adams spent part of his ministry critiquing secular psychology, he reserved more of his bombast for those within the church whom he considered “integrationists” who he believed had sold their birth right for a bowl of pottage by trying to blend and merge biblical truth with psychological theory and practice. Engaging page after engaging page illustrates the important interaction between “nouthetic biblical counseling” and “Christian integrationist psychology.”

Of course, many would not accept being placed in either “camp.” In fact, not everyone today who claims the title “biblical counselor” would equally own the label “nouthetic counselor.” This is the one weakness I find in the title and language of the bookthe seamless merging of “nouthetic counseling” and “biblical counseling.” (In this review, I have used the phrase “nouthetic biblical counseling” to indicate the specific model espoused by Adams and explored by Powlison).

Perhaps much lesser known to “outsiders” are the historical in-house squabbles between early leaders of the nouthetic biblical counseling movement. In particular, Powlison addresses the differences in personality, theory, and methodology that arose between Adams and his nouthetic biblical counseling peer, John Bettler. If ever there was an antithesis to Adams, it was Bettler. Their eventual drifting apart, despite mutual respect and friendship, almost could have been predicted.

Powlison also tracks the ups and down of the movement in terms of influence (memberships, readership, sister organizations, “competing” organizations, etc.). To see the widespread impact of nouthetic biblical counseling today, it may surprise some to read about the many years when, according to Powlison, it languished.

What Makes Biblical Counseling Truly Biblical?

Powlison’s work is not only historiographical. It also offers readers a thoughtful analysis of the theology and methodology of nouthetic biblical counseling, of Christian psychology, and of Christian counseling. Two lengthy and informative chapters outline the views, accusations, counter-views, and perspectives of most of the leading characters in biblical Christian counseling and psychology from the 1960s to the 1990s.

It would be almost impossible to read Powlison’s summaries without being challenged to reflect seriously about one’s own beliefs about the real meaning, in practice, of the sufficiency of Scripture. Just what does it mean and what does it “look like” to practice truly biblical Christian counseling that is Christ-centered, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed?

Reading The Biblical Counseling Movement is like discovering a time capsule. You un-bury it, read the enclosed note, and say, “Aha! So, that’s why things are the way they are today!” You come away with a greater appreciation for what Jay Adams was attempting to do. You come away with a greater appreciation for those who attempted to say, “Jay, you may have pulled the pendulum too far and done so a little too caustically.” You come away with a better understanding of the ongoing “camps” in the biblical Christian counseling movement(s) that exist to this day.

For a rollickingly good read (yes, I said that about a book that once was a dissertation!), and for vital insight into the shape of pastoral, biblical, Christian counseling and psychology today, The Biblical Counseling Movement is a unique contribution to the field.

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