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Book Review: Seeing With New Eyes by David Powlison

Since I posted a book review on Jay Adams’ book Competent to Counsel entitled Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm, it has been the most viewed post here at  T h e o • p h i l g u e.  On the one hand, I think the Biblical Counseling Movement has great potential and certainly beats compromised approaches to counseling that do not take the Christian Worldview seriously enough.  On the other hand, I also think that many who associate themselves with the BCM are plagued with a spirit of anti-science, and that sometimes those who are not a part of their movement interpret and apply the Bible in a way that is more biblically informed and scientifically aware.  Although not associated closely with BCM or the integrationist approach, Eric Johnson has presented by far the most balanced and sophisticated approach that anchors itself in a biblical worldview without bashing science and psychology.  I have learned, however, after reading more literature from the BCM, that not everybody thinks as dogmatically as Jay Adams (who endorses very negative and unfair critiques of Eric Johnson’s work).  Case in point: David Powlison and Paul David Tripp.  Although closely associated with the Biblical Counseling Movement, these authors are much more helpful in their application of biblical truth and much less polemic in their tone.  Below is a book review of David Powlison’s book Seeing With New Eyes.  I offer praise as well as critique.    

Powlison, David.  Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.  Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003.  274 pp.  $10.49.

Seeing with New Eyes


Positive Summary

One of Powlison’s greatest advantages in his approach to biblical counseling is his desire to be somewhat systematic and comprehensive as opposed to merely pragmatic (3).  This project includes presuppositional candor and consistency.  He rightly perceives all counseling models as virtual pastoral care that ultimately seeks to diagnose and cure (3).  Because of this paradigmatic sensitivity and cultural familiarity, our author cleverly understands that although secular counseling models may have great insights into human nature and provide half decent advice, ultimately, because they fail to put God in the equation at all (much less at the center) they are paradigmatically hostile to the Christian worldview (4).  Such epistemic alertness has been the strength of the biblical counseling movement and is the foundational insight of this book. 

More important than systematic attempts to understand accurately is the author’s more ultimate goal of feeling appropriately.  Powlison is jealous not to sound “overly cognitive,” but emphasizes that the end goal is to “feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires” (10).  It is made very clear that our author’s rigorous method for dealing with the concepts of counseling is rigorous only because “seeing clearly, we can love well” (12).  The principle of getting “personal” in the application of biblical truth is part of the very fabric of every chapter (11, 37). 

Powlison’s motivational theory influences how he addresses every problem in counseling scenarios.  This applies not only to his belief that “we can be fundamentally rewired” but also his supreme insight into the biblical picture of human nature (147).  We all worship something because God designed us for worship; thus, every ethical problem is rooted somehow in our failure to have God-centered desires (147, 149).  The author also operates under the assumption that desires for good things such as family, friends and human love become sinful snares of idolatry when they are not subordinate to our desire to please God (151).        


Negative Critique

Our author has a “Christifying” modus operandi hermeneutical scheme worth noting, which scheme I am inclined to be skeptical about (26, 28).  He believes that the New Testament “alters” the Old Testament for pragmatic purposes (23, 25).  Paul uses the Old Testament pragmatically, not exegetically.  Even passages which do not originally have messianic overtones should now be understood primarily in terms of what they say about Christ (23-24).  I am skeptical concerning this hermeneutical approach because it seems to violate the theory of authorial intent, and so far, I have not seen a more comprehensive and sophisticated theory of inspiration than the Chicago Statement which works through the implications of authorial intent for the doctrine of inspiration.  I am afraid that Powlison, as something of a neo-Adams, has not developed a robust and clear hermeneutic for the BCM that does justice to the issues that inevitably arise in a uniquely Christian discipline of practical theology.  If Scripture is the foundation for counseling, consistency in hermeneutical precision is indispensible, yet Powlison’s theory of hermeneutics seems to betray the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy at the point of authorial intent.

Another question Powlison’s admonitions raise is this: “Is the style of Scripture inspired as well as the meaning which the style embodies?”  This question should be raised since Powlison asserts that not only “may” we communicate biblical truth in the way Paul did, but we “must do so” (29).  I would agree that we might take some cues from some of the various styles of communication found in the biblical authors, but Powlison seems to define fidelity to the meaning of the biblical text with fidelity the genre or style of the biblical authors.  Although Powlison attempts to state his understanding more modestly in his disclaiming section, his more modest summary of the argument does not live up to the bold claims which precede it (30). 

Furthermore, a similar mistake seems to be made when Powlison admonishes his readers to reinterpret their experiences in biblical categories.  In context, he really has in mind that we should think and speak of the human experience primarily in biblical language (152), yet he seems to violate his own principle by calling desires for things which are inherently good “lusts” (151).  We might ask, “When Paul uses the phrase ‘lusts of the flesh,’ does he have in mind things which are inherently good?”  Perhaps such a case could be made, but Powlison makes no such case.  Rather, he seems to be unconsciously taking the liberty to bend the language of the biblical text to better communicate a mature biblical category of idolatry (150).  Does fidelity to biblical meaning and truth necessarily entail using the exact biblical language, or is the meaning capable of being spoken in different words than those in our English Bible translations?  Since Powlison’s call to think in biblical categories winds up including the use of biblical language, although inconsistently, he seems confused about the nature of this distinction, which is an important one for defining “fidelity” to the Christian worldview.  How one understands the answer to these questions will have a major effect on whether one’s counseling model seeks to synthesize the insights of secular sciences with the lenses of biblical categories of meaning or reject these insights as “unbiblical” just because they do not go by the biblical labels.



I was challenged to appreciate the BCM more through reading Powlison’s views.  His views are more mature than those of Jay Adams.  Therefore, my sympathy with the movement has grown as a result of reading this book.  Although, in the footsteps of Adams, Powlison multiplies false dichotomy upon false dichotomy, his false dichotomies are less frequent and less dramatic.  Moreover, they are attended with a deeper level of insight that is more faithful to the biblical teachings than Adams’ analysis.                   

Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm

Jay Adams and The Biblical Counseling Movement

The so-called “Biblical Counseling” model has replaced the “old” model of integrative counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where I am currently working on my masters degree. This replacement is representative on a large scale of the most conservative (some would say “fundamental”) agenda in the evangelical church. As the story goes, because the church in general was highly influenced by secular models, the seminary eventually embodied a compromised approach. Secular psychology tended to undermine responsibility, replace biblical doctrine with Freudian nonsense, and replace instruction with alternative “therapy,” practices which never dealt with sin seriously. Eventually, some rugged evangelicals in the church stepped forward to call for a holy war against much of the so-called “Christian Counseling” that had virtually surrendered the biblical worldview by embracing secular counseling models, and had become an unhealthy alternative to real discipleship.The chief on the front lines in this reform was Jay Adams. His book Competent to Counsel (1970) was intended to be somewhat of a bombshell on the playground of the so-called “Christian” Counseling scene. Below, I have cut and pasted excerpts from my review of his book. It includes only a summary of his introduction, and then a brief critique of the books key idea(s).
Adams, Jay E. Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970. 287pp. $13.99.
Note: “Nouthetic” comes from the Greek word noutheo mostly translated “admonish.”
Several principles are defended hot and heavy in Adams’ attempt to introduce us to nouthetic counseling. Our author makes it easy on us to see where he is coming from by showing all his cards up front (i.e. in the introduction). Nouthetic counseling demands the counselor to recognize that the counselee’s ultimate and all-pervading problem is not mental illness but sin (xi). To say that Adams is suspicious about “the common practice” of referral (or “bifurcation,” of duties) in poimenics (the art of pastoral ministry) is an understatement (12, xii). He believes that the secular methods of counselors, psychiatrists and mental institutions are in fierce competition with a biblical approach to counseling. They seek to remove guilt from the counselee by “misclassifying” sin problems (xiv). Freud goes beyond science to teach “the art of living,” and secular modes have long become an alternative religion for a world that finds itself “in a mess” (xxii, 1). Adams seems to have been inspired by O. Hobard Mowrer’s Moral Model of responsibility to stand against the anti-responsibility models (xvi-xvii). Psychotherapy has become little more than a search through one’s past for someone else to blame (xvii).
Though Adams has been inspired by Mowrer, he is not satisfied with Mowrer’s Model, for Mowrer cannot ground morality objectively (xix). It is presuppositionally deficient (xviii). Our author is burdened by “the same old eclecticism with a Christian coating,” which, for Adams, amounts to nothing more than “accommodation” (xx). Perhaps the most revealing statement in the whole book, which typifies the nouthetic approach, is in the following unabashed confession: “The conclusions in this book are not based upon scientific findings. My method is presuppositional” (xxi). Although Adams does not wish to “disregard” science, he demands that scientific input only be accepted inasmuch as it illustrates and clarifies the biblical teaching (xxi). Even when science is used to illustrate or clarify the scriptures, it must not be thought of as somehow confirming or verifying the biblical teaching (xxi). “God’s Word does not need human support” (xxi).
A Brief, Suggestive Critique
Adams’ dogmatic presuppositional approach is both his greatest asset as well as his greatest limitation. On the one hand, his VanTillian approach brings a heightened awareness of holistic comparisons between different counseling philosophies and this in turn brings a greater discerning ability of what “fits” with the biblical teaching and what does not (and why). On the other hand, Eric L. Johnson points out that the VanTillian approach tends to undermine science as a knowledge-constructive practice (see footnote 1). Although Adams would agree that truth can be found in non-biblical systems (see footnote 2), his statements do not seem to allow for it. For example, he says: “Because non-biblical systems rest upon non-biblical presuppositions, it is impossible to reject the presuppositions and adopt the techniques which grow out of and are appropriate to those presuppositions” (102, emphasis mine). This statement not only oversimplifies the situation (many atheistic scientists have discovered marvelous aspects of God’s creation fully in accord with scripture), but it also breeds an overly pessimistic approach to science (and thus perfectly fits the fundamentalist stereotype). A biblical coherence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of worldview coherence—is different from a correspondence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of what corresponds to reality, regardless of what presuppositional context the truth is discovered in. Just because non-Christian worldviews abuse and misinterpret much of the scientific data does not mean the data in its purest form cannot be accepted just because it is not presented within a coherent Christian worldview. Only if Christians take the responsibility of empirical investigation seriously will the Christian counseling community be “increasingly comprehensive and sophisticated.”
In addition to Adams’ overly pessemistic attitude towards science and the reductionism of his theory of truth, Adams is also guilty of a methodological reductionism. By this, I do not mean that Adams does not have many methods. Rather, Adams unfortunately reduces all methods for counseling down to nouthetics. Biblical Counseling = Nouthetic Counseling. In fact, he oversimplifies the nature of real-life counseling by reducing it down to “problem solving,” and then speaking of the “problem” only in terms of sin. However, to be faithful to the biblical sources, one must include a variety of problems as well as a variety of methods. We must “admonish [noutheteite] the unruly,” but we also must “encourage [parameutheisthe] the fainthearted” (1 Thess 5:14). Adams could have just as easily reduced all counseling down to paramouthetics and walked us through a thousand methods for paramouthetic engagement. With Adams’ reductionistic approach, it does not surprise the reader that he never mentions the biblically revealed methods of admonishing with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs sung in thankfulness to God (Col 3:16). Such a method seems out of place with Adams’ narrow, cognitively-oriented categories of problem solving.
His failure to redeem much of the secular methodology and put it in its proper place seems also to be a result of this impractical, unbiblical, and oversimplified reductionism. For example, Adams appears to associate ventilation of one’s pent-up feelings with Freudian ideology of resocialization (11), but “venting” one’s feelings—so long as it does not involve hostile transfer of sinful feelings—is sometimes just what one needs to do, and in fact, should do. We like to say it this way—”I just needed someone to talk to about it.” Sometimes, we just need to talk to someone about our frustrations in life or our disappointments. In those times, we need someone to simply “be there” for us and sympathize with our situation (which may or may not be a sin-rooted problem).  Weep with those who weep.
Furthermore, since not all troubles are sin problems, not all methods include nouthetics. Most counseling relationships might inevitably involve a need for varying degrees of nouthetic confrontation (as do most real friendships). However, sometimes I have the “problem” of indecisiveness in an important decision. I get counsel from my mentor all the time because he is older than me and sometimes provides a different, more informed perspective on life which enables me to make a better decision. When I go to him for counsel on life’s big decisions, he does not probe my life looking to confront me for some sin (although if he did, he might surely find I am a sinner). Rather, he simply offers his advice, encouragement, prayer, and support. This is right and biblical.
Although Biblical Counseling would have a friendly place for nouthetic confrontation, to be true to the biblical text and to real life situations, we must admit that counseling is more than identifying and confronting sin. Adam’s narrow approach simply does not do justice to the full range of human “problems” and situations the way scripture does. Unfortunately, his book sparked a reform which has used his teaching as the basic approach to counseling to this day (the “Biblical Counseling” movement). Of course, I would rather have a narrow approach of nouthetics than a compromised approach which undermines a biblical worldview—if you forced me to choose. But with people who seem to have done a great job in integrating the best of the sciences with the rock-solid biblical worldview (e.g. Johnson), why should we choose Adams’ overly narrow approach which pontificates so many false antithesis and ranks of an unhelpful “psychology is the devil” sort of mentality? While Adams’ work is a breath of fresh air to many evangelicals who have been burdened by the influence of secular models which undermine biblical truth, and although he has swung the pendulum in the right direction, I (and several other evangelicals) am afraid that he has swung the pendulum a bit too far.


Footnote # 1: Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 614. This seems to be the reason why Adams is always trying to ground everything he says—even when he is giving extra-biblical wisdom—in some verse or biblical doctrine (even when it is not in the text).

Footnote # 2: Ibid., 615.

Footnote #3: “This approach to secular and other non-Christian thought is best explained by his adherence to a biblical coherence theory of truth [as opposed to a correspondence theory of truth], just like VanTil’s.” Ibid.

Footnote #4: Ibid, 616.

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