What We Believe

Reflections on Biblical Counseling: A Review Article

Andrew H. Selle

Developments in Biblical Counseling, by J. Cameron Fraser. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2015, 144 pages, $12.00, paper.

A Personal Backdrop

In 1973, as a naïve young Christian fresh out of college, I landed my first real job—a live-in counselor in a half-way house for troubled teens. Their parents were either independently wealthy, in the military, or from Massachusetts (presumably the only state willing to pay the big money for treatment). This was a seriously high-end clinical treatment facility, well-regarded in professional circles. I was shocked by what went on there. Psychologists (in crisp fifty-minute sessions) recommended all manner of immorality as therapeutic. Psychiatrists experimented with various drugs (legal and otherwise) to treat their “mentally ill” patients. Practical consequences for behavior (either good or bad) seemed non-existent. After three months I either quit or got fired—and I’m a bit vague about which. In God’s providence, about that time a landmark book by Jay Adams (JA) landed in my hands. Competent to Counsel[1] lobbed hard-hitting criticism at the whole institution of secular counseling.[2] His desire to reclaim the counseling field for Christ and his high view of the church resonated deeply with me. Two years later I sat in JA’s classes at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).

Read the Book

Cameron Fraser was one of my classmates there, so I was delighted to read his superbly distilled book about the modern biblical counseling movement. He is knowledgeable and fair in assessing the various actors, sympathetic with their concerns while identifying weaknesses, and remarkably comprehensive in observing the multiple strands of the movement since JA. His quotations and bibliography alone would be a rich source for further study. Fraser, who grew up in the Scottish Highlands, brings an important contribution by citing sources, including European ones, unfamiliar to most North Americans. He also uncovers the deeper historical roots of true Christian counseling in a provocative final chapter, “Biblical and Puritan Counseling.” My only criticism is the omission of one important figure, who is mentioned below—C. John Miller. This review will complement Fraser’s work, at some points overlapping with his observations, but mainly adding my own reflections—with the goal of affirming the good work that has been accomplished and encouraging us toward that which is yet to be done. Regarding terminology: instead of repeating the term “biblical counseling” or “biblical counseling movement” I will use “Private Ministry of the Word,” abbreviated “PMW” throughout.[3]

Foundational Consensus

Fundamentally, JA charged that the “psychotherapeutic professions were a false pastorate, interlopers on tasks that properly belonged to pastors,”[4] and he wanted to train ministers to use the Word of God with authority, both publically through preaching and privately through counseling. The context of the two is different, but the content identical. That message of PMW resonated not only among conservative Presbyterians but across a broad swath of Evangelicalism, creating a curious ecumenism between groups of believers who did not share JA’s Reformed convictions.[5] Yet the founders and developers of the movement were confessionally Reformed and primarily Presbyterian.

Before delving into differences that arose between biblical counseling proponents, we consider the areas of agreement among them.

1. Biblical Inerrancy and Authority: Plenary inspiration means that although God progressively revealed his Word over millennia, and it bears the stamp of multiple cultural contexts, yet the whole of it is “breathed out” by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is, therefore, as trustworthy and authoritative as God himself, our final rule for faith and practice. We do not need to update it to adapt its teachings to enlightened modern or post-modern sensibilities. Quite true, this immutable Word speaks to vastly different people who live in fluid and ever-changing situations; good counselors seek to know both the persons and their situations when they are mucking through life’s morasses with no solid path out. At those times we are to walk by faith not by sight, knowing (sometimes just hoping) that bedrock is somewhere beneath us. God is there. His Word is true. He controls our every situation. Jesus loves us. This we know.

2. Biblical Sufficiency: “Scripture contains all the divine words needed for any aspect of human life.”[6] Our standards declare,

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added. (WCF 1.6)

We must state clearly what this means and does not mean for PMW.

Obviously, Scripture does not provide exhaustive information about everything; for instance, it does not tell you how to get rid of cancer. It does, however, tell us everything we need when we face cancer.[7] We trust him in our trials, and learn holiness through them. God created our bodies, and therefore he wants us to take care of them with appropriate medical treatment. We are not alone because God placed us in the church family, so we humbly receive the prayers and assistance of others. He loves us and hears the cry of the needy, so we pour out our hearts to him when we are at our lowest. He answers prayer and heals the sick, so we earnestly ask him for life. He redeemed our bodies and someday will raise them up again to live forever, and therefore, we do not fret death. The Bible is sufficient in the sense that “there is no situation in which we ... are placed, no demand that arises for which Scripture as the deposit of the manifold wisdom of God is not adequate and sufficient.”[8]

JA correctly grasped the profound implications of this doctrine for PMW. The “integrationist”[9] approach at its best uses Scripture as a filter that sifts out the bad stuff so Christians can “plunder the Egyptians” of all their wonderful psychological insights. We concede (thankfully) that many who are in that camp are dedicated and wise believers who do, in fact, attempt to re-interpret secular approaches in biblical ways. At its worst, however, the failure to appreciate biblical sufficiency sanitizes Word ministry right out of the counseling field. We might leave room for pastoral labors within narrow areas, but then insist that to really understand people and help them we must employ the methods practiced by mental health care professionals, trained psychologists, and psychiatrists. Thus we capitulate to a cadre of secular prophets and high priests whose unspoken declaration is, “This work is waaay too complicated for you preacher-boys to grasp, so you should leave it to us pros and mind your own business. Just talk about spiritual things, and say nice things to people to make them feel better. We’ll do the real psychotherapy.” (Forgive me if my sarcasm is too sharp. I’ve been rehearsing it since 1973.)

3. Presuppositional Apologetics: Certainly, JA and the major figures of the movement—John Bettler, Wayne Mack, Edward Welch,[10] Paul Tripp, David Powlison, and other counselors and authors at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) all drank from the same streams at WTS where Cornelius Van Til’s portrait still hangs prominently in Machen Hall. One’s worldview, Christian or non-Christian, becomes the crucible into which all perceptions are poured, and out of which flows all of life—including counseling. Correctly understood, presuppositionalism is “evidential” in the highest sense. Everything in creation proclaims the glory of God. The problem is with sinners who have no eyes to comprehend it. Only by God’s prevenient grace do we see; “by faith we understand.” On this solid foundation we have tremendous freedom to use the tools of science without wringing our hands about the faith (or lack thereof) of the scientist. We only must remember that all information gathered by “common grace” must be radically re-cast into a biblical, Christ-centered worldview that informs all counseling theory and praxis.

Needless Tensions Develop

Given the remarkable consensus in these very specific doctrinal commitments, we might wonder what is left to fight about. Fraser’s careful study demonstrates an essential unity, yet some significant tensions arose after JA left CCEF. His sharp-edged polemic was understandable and perhaps necessary at the time, in view of the church’s abdication of its pastoral responsibilities. However, if he agreed at all with the essentially-positive Reformed view of science and culture, it was not well-expressed in his writings. As David Powlison (DP) stated, “The relationship of presuppositionally consistent Christianity to secular culture is not simply one of rejection.”[11] It would take a great mind like DP’s to expand the horizons of PMW and pay attention to the nuances and complexities of the field. One important implication of that complexity: we must admit the advantage of specialized training, sometimes in quite narrow sub-areas of PMW and related fields.[12]

The most significant area of tension within the movement arose from the growing interest in the role of motivation in human problems and counseling.[13] John Bettler, JA’s protégé and the second director of CCEF, led the way, and DP’s penetrating writings grounded our understanding of the inner life upon sound biblical exposition. Their work was needed. JA had emphasized the replacement principle—putting off the works of the “old man” and putting on the “new man” in concrete and measurable ways.[14] Not surprisingly, JA’s detractors criticized him as merely offering a behavioristic approach with a Christian veneer. That assessment is too severe, yet it is fair to say JA’s attention to the inner aspects of PMW was undeniably weak. At this point DP picked up the challenge and developed a comprehensive anthropology and a praxis for PMW that encompasses both the inner (“heart,” “root”) and the outer (“walk,” “fruit”) perspectives. The data for both is replete in Scripture, and any biblical counseling worthy of the name must address both. We want to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it—and especially which God (or gods) you are serving.

Meanwhile, during all this ferment at CCEF, outside its ivy-covered walls a reinvigorated integrationist movement grew. It attacked JA’s “nouthetic counseling”[15] as little more than a poor man’s cognitive-behavioral therapy, sprinkled with holy water, but without the academic rigor of solid research and the professionalism of mental health care experts. Some regarded him as a “crypto-disciple”[16] of his secular mentor, O. Hobart Mowrer. It’s hard to imagine a more devastating critique of JA and his work.

JA paid scant attention to those critics, but he most certainly cared about the direction of CCEF and respected those who served there. He feared that all this talk about “heart” issues would lead to morbid navel-gazing—or worse, intense witch hunts by counselors desperately trying to expose all those hellish motives that must be lurking under even the most godly-looking behavior. “Don’t you know, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things.’ We need to expose the hypocrisy of the flesh so you can really repent.” As a result, that strong and clear put-off/put-on dynamic of sanctification would be undermined by a pietistic obsession with the inner life. Fraser’s view, and mine, is that extreme criticisms from both sides are simply unfair and do not do justice to the whole system taught by their opponents. No doubt we have different emphases and plenty of blind spots, but in this case we really are climbing the same mountain.

Puritans Old and New

Fraser’s last chapter recognizes that CCEF’s emphasis on motivation finds deep roots in the old Puritans—men such as Richard Baxter,[17] Thomas Brookes, John Bunyan, John Flavel, and the late American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards. They cared much about the “affections of the heart.” As Timothy Keller put it, “The Puritans looked not just at behavior but at underlying root motives and desires. Man is a worshipper; all problems grow out of ‘sinful imagination’ or idol manufacturing.”[18] Making a similar point, DP comments about a common Evangelical catchphrase.

Usually “trust in the Lord” is vague and ineffectual because it is tossed like some season-all into the stew of a person’s life. Counselees in effect trust the Lord to give them their ruling desires, without ever repenting in depth of those desires. But “trust the Lord instead of trusting in ...” does work because it is biblical. It has the concrete two-sidedness of biblical repentance and mind renewal.[19]

To conclude this review, it is important to highlight a significant figure Fraser neglected to mention. C. John (“Jack”) Miller founded and pastored New Life Presbyterian Church in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania,[20] and spearheaded a revival movement with a far-reaching legacy that remains to this day.<[21] He also taught practical theology at WTS—at the same time as Jay Adams![22] But unlike JA, who was not enthralled with the Puritans, Miller closely identified with the New Light side of the Great Awakening, particularly Jonathan Edwards. Gospel-centered Christian living means daily repentance from heart-level idols, daily returning to our foundation in justification and adoption,[23] daily trusting in a fresh empowering of the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is always “faith working by love.”[24] Miller had a low view of externalism and never hesitated to preach the gospel even to professing Christians. More than one seminary student was known to publicly declare his recent conversion. That raised some eyebrows. It also led to suspicion, even opposition from some quarters, including from JA. Meanwhile, both DP and Edward Welch served as elders at New Life—while they evolved the new CCEF, and PMW, in a distinctly Puritan direction.


Today’s CCEF affirms the strengths of JA’s work while balancing and correcting its deficiencies—and avoiding those pitfalls he feared. A steady stream of outstanding counselors, pastors, authors, and professionals from a wide-range of fields are developing a robust PMW with a level of excellence and practicality never seen before.[25] DP still serves as the movement’s premier theologian and editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. In the end, we have to be impressed not only with the women and men behind this true revival of biblical counseling over several decades, but with the Lord of the church who continually drives us all back to his Word and opens the eyes of our hearts (Eph. 1:18). We always build on the work of those who went before us, others taught by God. We can thank Cameron Fraser for his fine research, thoroughly yet succinctly presented. May it give us a long view of the Holy Spirit’s work of illuminating the Word of God to the people of God over the course of many human lifetimes.


[1] Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970).

[2] With adversarial chapter titles such as “Freud: An Enemy, not a Friend” and “Mental Illness: A Misnomer,” we can understand the controversies that ensued.

[3] “Private” in contrast to public ministry through preaching and teaching—“publicly and house to house” (Acts 20:20).

[4] This description is by David Powlison in The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 1970), xvii. This volume, a recast of his doctoral dissertation, is the most thorough treatment of PMW and an important source for Fraser’s book. The glaring weakness of Powlison’s work is the omission of his own absolutely crucial role—which is typical of David’s humility. If Adams was the Luther of the movement, swinging ax to root, Powlison is a Calvin, skillfully using a surgeon’s tools with care and precision. He is brilliant and thorough and without peer as a theologian of PMW. Another recent critique from within the movement came from Powlison’s student: Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

[5] I don’t know if this is typical of other practices, but the pastors who most enthusiastically refer people to me often are Reformed Baptists, independent fundamentalists, and mainstream charismatics. They typically are leaders with a deep love for God and his Word and appreciative of a Reformed worldview.

[6] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 618.

[7] See http://www.ccef.org/dont-waste-your-cancer for a moving personal testimony by John Piper and David Powlison.

[8] John Murray, Collected Writings, 3:261, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 64, commenting upon 1 Timothy 3:15–17.

[9] I think JA invented this term of disdain, meaning the mixing of both worldly and biblical ideas in counseling theory or praxis.

[10] Of these figures, only Ed Welch does not have a degree from WTS. He studied at Biblical Theological Seminary and the University of Utah, and is professor of practical theology at WTS. He has become a prolific and gifted author for PMW in many areas.

[11] Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement, 255.

[12] JA’s contention that counseling is the responsibility of elders is based on the premise that it is Word ministry for the conversion of sinners and sanctification of the church. Yet even if we grant that narrow definition, we should not exclude other gifted and trained counselors, both men and women, from serving with their gifts. This takes us into ecclesiology and church polity, well beyond the scope of this review.

[13] Some of this tension could be felt between CCEF and the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC). NANC more recently changed its name to The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, and the former tensions appear absent.

[14] JA gives an example, which I’ve repeated many times since: if a kleptomaniac stops stealing but is still not working and giving, he has not really changed (Eph 4:28). He is just an “off-duty thief.”

[15] Adams chose this term from the Greek word and its cognates, meaning “change through confrontation out of concern,” from Ready to Restore: The Layman’s Guide to Christian Counseling (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1981), 9; also cited by Fraser. The clear implication of this definition: biblical counseling in the narrow sense can only be given to believers, since its goal is sanctification. I disagree with Adams at this point on the grounds of common grace, by which we certainly may offer a “cup of cold water in Jesus’s name” and give practical biblical counsel to anyone. “If you conduct your marriage in this way, you will have a great marriage. It won’t save you, but you’ll have a great marriage.”

[16] Fraser’s apt description of their charge, 51; Mowrer was a psychologist with whom JA briefly studied.

[17] Fraser did much research on Baxter’s work under the supervision of J. I. Packer, whose 1954 doctoral dissertation was about Baxter’s approach to redemption and restoration.

[18] Timothy J. Keller, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling,” Journal of Pastoral Practice 9, no. 3 (1988). Fraser quotes extensively from this article.

[19] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, 246.

[20] An OPC (now PCA) church plant that began with an evangelism class Miller taught at WTS and then burgeoned into a thriving network with an impact far beyond confessional Presbyterian circles. He was pastor there from 1974 to 1990. World Harvest Mission™ (now Serge™) traces its origins to the short-term missions of this one congregation on three continents.

[21] Timothy Keller and John Frame both acknowledge Jack Miller as a major influence upon them. Regarding Keller, I have vivid memories of visiting his first church in Virginia for a week-long ministry lead by Miller. This is before Keller’s stint at WTS and his move to NYC to plant the Redeemer Presbyterian Church network. Frame (who I regard as the finest systematic theologian alive today) taught at WTS Philadelphia until 1982, and claims that Miller influenced him profoundly. Tongue in cheek, he writes, “I suppose that Jack’s greatest influence on me was to make me willing to endure the scorn of traditionalists in the church” (“Backgrounds to my Thought” at http://frame-poythress.org/about/john-frame-full-bio/). After moving to Westminster Seminary in California, Frame, who was the associate pastor, became the elder in charge of worship at New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, CA.

[22] Edmund P. Clowney was the third practical theology professor. What an honor to sit under the teaching of these three men of God, so vastly different yet so influential in the worldwide church.

[23] His “Sonship” discipleship program began with a handful of seminary students meeting in his garage, was packaged and well-organized by his son, Paul, and still used by Serge (née World Harvest Mission).

[24] Gal. 5:6. On-going faith is the “man-ward” side of our union with Christ. This is no charismatic innovation, but simply the doctrine of vital union with Christ, which Miller wanted the church to reclaim as an overwhelming and experiential mindset. Of course, vital union comes together with a personal grasp of our federal union with Christ, and justification/adoption not as a doctrinal appendage but the very ground we stand on. Miller loved the introduction to Luther’s commentary on Galatians.

[25] Among many others, besides David Powlison and Edward Welch, we could include Paul Tripp, Tim Lane, Diane Langberg, and Wayne Mack.

Andrew H. Selle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a biblical counselor and conciliator and is also a Teacher at Covenant OPC, Barre, Vermont. Ordained Servant Online, May 2016.

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Ordained Servant: May 2016

Fishers of Men

Also in this issue

Exposing the Darkness: A Call for Presuppositional Elenctics, Part 1

Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Toward a Union of Spirit, Wisdom, and Word

How Vosian Is Van Til? A Review Article

I Will Lift My Eyes unto the Hills by Walter Kaiser Jr.

Lest We Remember


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