The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context by David Powlison. New Growth Press, 2010. Paperback, 331 pages.
For those interested in the care of souls within the context of the church, it is difficult, if not impossible to overestimate the importance of this book by David Powlison. The Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) has garnered much attention in Reformed and Presbyterian circles and beyond. Its supporters have been many but so has its critics. Jay Adams, the father of BCM has been, as Powlison puts it, both “canonized and demonized” (pg. 229). In this book he hopes to subvert both versions of Adams. Two things in particular stand out as commending this book to pastors and counselors.
First, it is evident that the book is well-researched. Powlison’s knowledge of BCM and its history shines. Working almost exclusively from primary sources, Powlison provides us with a detailed picture of BCM. From Adams’ encounter with O. H. Mowrer, a secular psychologist who inspired his anti-psychiatry sentiments, to the intramural debates within BCM, Powlison shows his mastery of the material.
Of particular interest is Powlison’s contention that BCM must be understood as a conflict over professional jurisdiction. Because secular psychology had so dominated the evangelical counseling landscape, Adams was determined to retake such ground and restore it to its rightful owners: the pastors of Christ’s church. Adams claimed that psychotherapeutic professionals were “a false pastorate, interlopers on tasks that properly belonged to pastors” (p. xvii). Understanding this helps the reader make sense of the belligerency displayed by Adams toward psychiatry, psychology, and even evangelical psychotherapy. Such belligerency would prove to be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the movement, leading to rapid success early on and then to decline in the 1980s with fractures evident within the movement itself.
The reader will also find in this well-researched book a thorough analysis of Adam’s intellectual system, his interactions (or lack thereof) with evangelical psychotherapists, and the counter-attacks launched by the evangelical psychotherapy community. All of these elements provide the reader with a robust and fulsome understanding of many of the nuances of BCM. They also serve to correct some of the caricatures of Adams and the movement.
Second, not only is the book well-researched it is well-written. Powlison’s style is clear and methodical. But it is more than that. He draws the reader into the drama of the movement. By consistently quoting from some of the edgiest portions of Adams, Powlison impresses upon the reader the magnitude of Adam’s task and the radical changes he was pressing for in the church.
The book ends with events occurring in the middle of the 1990’s, and with Powlison confessing that more of the story needs to unfold before he can write about it. He leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next in this unfolding drama much like the end of a movie leaves one eagerly awaiting the sequel. This task is not easily accomplished in a book palpably historical in nature, yet Powlison accomplishes it masterfully. Both critics and cohorts of BCM will find this book edifying, enlightening, and engaging and should make it a part of their library.