It may surprise some that the brief history of biblical counseling is a complex one considering its fairly straightforward premise that the Bible is the sufficient foundation and guiding authority of counseling. But biblical counseling is itself, in fact, a complex practice shaped by diverse influences – hermeneutics, psychology, ecclesiology, apologetics, and even epistemology. The interplay of these various disciplines naturally leads to different emphases and practices by biblical counselors.
Heath Lambert has performed a great service in providing a succinct well organized summary of the biblical counseling movement as it has developed after Jay Adams. It is a book I recommend for those who want an overview of the biblical counseling movement but aren’t ready to tackle David Powlison’s hefty 352 page, The Biblical Counseling Movement, a book I recommend for those who want to dig deeper. One of the prominent characteristics of Lambert’s book is that it is not simply a history of the movement, but an invitation to participate in it; to know not only what the movement is, but where it has been; and to play a part in where it is going. In fact, the foreword itself, written by David Powlison, outlines six stages of development to help the reader know his or her role in the movement and Lambert himself makes his own suggestions about where the movement needs development in Chapter 6, “An Area Still in Need of Advancement.”
Summary and Highlights
Chapter one sets biblical counseling in its historical and cultural contexts. Lambert reminds us that biblical counseling, understood broadly as personal pastoral ministry, is not new and describes the Puritans’ diligent application of scripture to the challenges of Christian living. He then traces the gradual decline of pastoral counseling through the following centuries highlighting the flaws of revivalism, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and the psychological revolution, to name a few. In 1970, Adams inaugurated the modern movement with his groundbreaking work, Competent to Counsel. It is here that Lambert provides a very helpful summary of key ideas set forth in this and Adams’ other early works. Undoubtedly, many readers will already be familiar with Adams’ central tenets, but Lambert’s summary is useful, considering Adams has penned over one hundred books.
In brief, Lambert explains that Adams understood all counseling to be inherently theological requiring explicit or assumed beliefs about the goals and purposes of life and how one ought to live specifically addressing attitudes, values, and relationships. Adams rightly recognized these as fundamentally theological questions that psychology could only properly address within a theological framework. But, given that by the 1970’s, the humanistic assumptions of secular psychology had thoroughly infiltrated pastoral counseling, Adams understood his mission as both destructive and constructive. Secular psychological assumptions had to be directly refuted and pastoral care established on a biblical basis.
Lambert describes three of Adams’ first bold strokes: First, Adams denied the reality of inorganic mental illness and replaced it with the biblical doctrine of sin. Second, he declared psychiatrists to be illegitimate counselors and instead called pastors to take up their responsibility as God’s ordained counseling professionals. Third, he argued all of this on the basis of the Bible as God’s authoritative word. As Adams unfolded the implications of these, an approach to counseling emerged in which sin is the fundamental problem counselors address as they assist others to put off sinful behaviors and replace them with the fruits of Christ’s redemption.
Lambert then introduces David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as the “second generation” leader exerting the most influence in biblical counseling after Adams. Powlison, as editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, along with Paul Tripp, Ed Welch, and other colleagues at CCEF, have provided theological reflection that has led to critical developments in biblical counseling. The following four chapters describe advances in biblical counseling in the way counselors think about counseling, do counseling, talk about counseling, and think about the Bible.
For those who have been critical of biblical counseling as described by Adams, two developments will likely stand out. First, second generation counselors have been concerned to understand counselees not only as sinners, but sufferers. While Lambert points out that Adams does acknowledge suffering at points and that all problems are not those of personal sin, he explains that Adams does little to develop that understanding other than to acknowledge the ways Christians may grow through suffering. Powlison and others have developed a biblical understanding of suffering as something to which all are subject, of which there are diverse causes, and which counselors must speak to with compassion.
Second, Adams tended to emphasize the authoritative role of the pastor as counselor advocating a “take-charge” and “business-like” approach, even suggesting that pastors counsel at a desk (p.87). But second generation biblical counselors have emphasized the qualities of family, affection, and being person-oriented. Lambert quotes Powlison, “Real understanding – accurate, concerned, merciful, probing, gentle, communicated – matters a great deal in counseling. When a counselee, a friend, a spouse, a child knows, ‘This person cares about me, this person knows me, and this person knows my world,’ good things tend to happen” (p.91). And quoting Paul Tripp, “I am deeply persuaded that the foundation for people transforming ministry is not sound theology; it is love. Without love our theology is a boat without oars” (p.92). The emphasis for second generation counselors is not so much identifying and confronting sin, but the relational activity of humble, gracious, engagement in which the love of Christ is both the self-conscious method and context of addressing problems.
Where is the movement going?
In “An Area Still in Need of Advancement,” Lambert makes his own contribution by explaining that he believes the area of motivation needs to be further developed. In chapter two, Lambert described how Powlison advanced biblical counseling’s understanding of motivation beyond Adams’ general disinterest to understanding worship as a fundamental category of motivation and idolatry as the root of sinful behavior. Lambert argues, however, that the prideful self-exalting nature of idolatry is too often left unexplored and unstated by biblical counselors. Instead, counselors tend to engage in “idol hunts” satisfied to categorize and analyze the types of heart idols they find. In my experience, this is too often the case.
However, it seems to me that the self-serving nature of idolatry has been thoroughly explored and described, and many counselors do help counselees see its self-serving nature. But I wonder if advancement lies in another direction. If the caricature of biblical counseling is that it reduces all problems of living to idolatry and sin, then perhaps we should be thinking more broadly about the all of the ways that Christ redeems. The human condition isn’t just one of high-handed sin, but ignorance, shame, weakness, and suffering, none of which necessarily involve idolatry or the need to rebuke at all. It seems to me that advancement isn’t so much a matter of further clarifying the sinful core of idolatry but of exploring the many ways that the Bible asks us to understand our brokenness and need for redemption.
Another area Lambert might have explored in this chapter would be clarifying the relationship between biblical counseling and psychology. Lambert does touch on this in other chapters, but it seems a critical area deserving more focus. One consistent theme from Adams to the present is the affirmation that psychology does indeed have a role to play in biblical counseling. While asserting the “sufficiency of scripture,” most biblical counselors, along with Adams, agree that psychology can be a “useful adjunct for the purposes of illustrating, filling in generalizations with specifics, and challenging wrong human interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures” (p.39). In the same way that Adams mentioned suffering without elaboration, biblical counseling often mentions psychology with similar effect. What is claimed in theory but not borne out in practice means very little. For biblical counseling to advance there must be clarity on exactly what is meant by “sufficiency of scripture” in the arena of counseling and precisely how the concepts of “antithesis” and “common grace” provide direction in interacting with psychology. To my knowledge there is no clear method for interacting with secular theories or the practice of Christian psychology and few examples within the accepted circles of biblical counseling. Like Adams’ thoughts about compassion, it is permitted by writ, but relatively unexplored in practice, at least as measured by what has been published.
Advances in how counselors talk about Adams
Biblical counseling shares the challenge of many movements who owe their foundation to a particular person. How are we to honor that person’s contributions, while recognizing the need to develop and even critique his or her ideas and approach? I believe that Lambert does this extremely well – perhaps in a way not done before. He is careful to give an honest assessment of Adam’s strengths and weaknesses while appreciating the groundbreaking nature of his work. And, yet, at times Lambert seems a bit reluctant to translate observations into criticisms.
For instance, Lambert is right to remind us that the biblical counseling movement began with bold strokes. Adams’ emphasis on being “nouthetic” or confrontational was, in part, a response to the non-directive humanistic therapy dominant at the time. We also learn that Adams’ polemic style was intentional, designed to wake the church up to its slide into psychological error and the untapped riches of God’s counsel.
But it was Adams’ very boldness and brash style that ended the development for many. TO this day, some find the very serious claims of biblical counseling easy to dismiss because of the manner in which they were delivered. In fact, Lambert reports several lost opportunities for engagement with the broader Christian counseling movement along the way because of Adams’ “vociferous,” and what some at the time described as, “irascible and sectarian” tone (p.104). However, Lambert goes on to contrast Adams’ combative tone with Christian integrationists with the more irenic approach taken when interacting with secular psychologists. Lambert explains, “Why the harshness with integrationists and the patience with secularists? The obvious answer is that, as a Reformed evangelical, Adams did not expect unregenerate persons to believe the Bible’s teaching on how to counsel in a gospel-centered way. On the other hand, he had very little time for Christians who should know better . . .” (p.110). But perhaps we need to move beyond framing Adams’ harshness as a strategy, even a poor one, and call it a mistake. After all, as biblical counselors don’t we all, Adams included, need to remember that “pleasant words promote instruction” (Prov.16:21)?
Lambert has taken up a task for which we should be very grateful. He models what Jay Adams himself charged us to do – to critique and build on his work rather than treating it as a finished work. He shows us that biblical counseling has taken that charge seriously, developing increasingly rich and nuanced understandings of how the Bible teaches us to counsel. And he reminds us that all Christians have a role to play in the future of this movement.