Expanding on my Critique of Powlison

A few friends have asked me to expand on my critique of Powlison’s Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, as well as what I’ve said about the basic thinking around idols, repentance, and belief.  Before doing that, I’ll say that I agree with much of what I read from Powlison, and appreciate deeply the work of CCEF, the Sonship movement, Tim Keller, and others that hover in the same ‘psychic’ space.  I resonate with 90% of what I read, but where I differ is (I think) fairly significant.  This post will be too short to some of these things justice, but feel free to write back and ask me to expand where I’m too brief.  So, let’s talk.

First, I take as a starting point that human beings are relational, made in and for love, created in the image of a Trinitarian God.  Much of what I’ve seen from CCEF treats people as individuals, “repenting of their idols and believing in the Gospel” for the sake of growth and maturity.  I don’t disagree.  But, relationally there is so much more going on.  Consider Luke 15 and the ‘Prodigal God’ story.  The story is much less about the prodigal son’s repentance, which most commentators think was half-hearted and self-serving, and much more about God’s pursuing, impassioned, relational love.  It’s only in the context of being seen and loved that deeply that we can begin to relax and surrender, embracing the depth of our brokenness and entering into relationship in more loving ways. It says a lot about relational dynamics, the human need for love and belonging.  This is why I cannot read Keller’s Prodigal God apart from Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son.  The two need one another for an adequate psychology and theology.

Second, I find Powlison’s work to be highly individualistic.  The dynamics he talks of are inner dynamics, and the work of change is perhaps prompted by a good counselor but doesn’t require one.

Third, this shortcoming in Powlison’s theology is directly tied, I think, to a typically modern hyper-intellectualism which over-emphasizes cognitive change.  Interestingly, Powlison claims to depart from the nouthetic counseling of Jay Adams, rightly critiquing its behaviorism and failure to take the human heart seriously.  Yet, Powlison doesn’t go far enough.  I do not think his theological anthropology is complex enough.  Identifying idols and repenting of them is just one part of a larger project of taking sin and redemption seriously.  Consider this thought in his article:

“People do not have needs.  We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.”

On this alone, we could spend much more time reflecting on how theologically and psychologically unfounded this statement is.  Powlison expands on this, saying, “I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.” In saying this, I believe Powlison steps into many problems in both theology and psychology, driving a wedge between hunger/need for love and God that need not be there.

– He effectively dismisses the relational core of human beings in the image-of-God, which is shattered but not destroyed.

– He does with humans what others do with culture, forgetting original goodness, manifesting in a God-ordained relational structure capable of longing and hungering in holy ways.

– By effectively dismissing human need, he misses the beauty of a Trinitarian theology applied to relationships, manifesting in periochoresis – the dance of interdependence, of loving and being loved, and belonging, of believing, of sacrificing, of receiving.

– By dismissing human neediness, I think he undermines an opportunity to see the good desires that lay beneath our mis-directed desires.

– Powlison and others will say that you can’t find good desires beneath everything.  Consider murder, or rape, or child abuse.  I’d argue that a sufficient theology of relational love would actually bring these things to greater clarity.  As a therapist, I’m astounded by what people really long for, and the twisted ways in which they go about getting it.

– To get at these desires beneath, you need an adequate relational theology which sees beneath behaviors, and even our “repenting and believing” to deeper longings for love.  This makes therapy all the more complex, of course.  But it gets at the heart of who we are and how we change.

– Even more, the best psychology today sees love and attachment as core to human identity.  And in doing so, it convinces me that our idols run far deeper than Powlison can identify.  Sin is a systemic and relationally intertwined phenomenon.  It is a neuro-psychological phenomenon.  It is a biological phenomenon.  And more.

All of this said, I think Powlison/Keller rely way too heavily on Puritan psychology, missing a much more expansive theology/psychology of love that can be found in the Cappadocian Fathers, the Desert Fathers, the Catholic mystics (Bernard of Clarivaux, Julian of Norwich St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), the Reformed mystics (Teellinck, the a’Brackel’s, Witsius, even Samuel Rutherford), Augustine, Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis.  In other words, while I think a case can be made for bad psychology in Powlison, I find his greatest weakness to be theological/biblical on this issue.

Humans are made in and for love.  Our hearts are restless, as Augustine says, until we find our rest in God.  We’re hungry and thirsty, Eucharistic beings who look for love in all the wrong places.  But we can trace our deepest longings beneath the “books and music,” as Lewis says, following that scent, that echo to our heart’s greatest need.

In response to my post about C.S. Lewis and masturbation last night, one friend said, “Is it really about love and longing?  Don’t dudes just want to ejaculate?”  On the one hand, you can say that a guy is looking to get his needs met apart from God, trusting his idol (masturbation) more than God.  So, it’s a simple remedy – repent and believe the Gospel.  Maybe the biblical counselor would take it a step further, identifying an idol of control, or false satisfaction, or a need to be loved.  But even that, I’ve said, misses the point.  Of course we need to be loved!

I’d argue, however, that masturbation is a complex phenomenon which can be understood only as we see our deep hunger for relationship.  So much of it has to do with relational fear, a longing to be loved but a fear of moving toward another in relationship.  Some of it is neuro-psychological, as chemicals are released that create a feeling that human beings are made for, but which is intended for a bond of intimacy.  The conversation must go beyond identifying the idol and repenting of it.  It’s got to look at how we love, what we feel, the ways in which we connect to others, what we fear.  In other words, beneath it all we’ll find that we’re longing for love.  And what we’ll find, as we open ourselves to the love we need most deeply, is that God moves toward us with more intimacy and an even greater experience of ecstasy which will make masturbation pale in comparison.  He wants us to experience an even deeper security, belonging, and love.  For me, St. John of the Cross has been most helpful on this.

Counseling, in this context, is all-the-more complex, to be sure, but richly enhanced as it invites a deeper conversation about relationship, and even about the relational interactions between client and counselor.  I am not against “biblical counseling,” to be sure, as some good friends practice it.  I do think its better thought of as short-term pastoral counseling, and that the further work of therapy requires a more expansive theology and psychology.

These are some preliminary thoughts.  Feel free to push back.  I’ll write more if I think of more…

15 comments

  1. By all means disagree, but at least do your homework and read Powlison in the full context within which he understands a counseling ministry. This post is at best ignorant and uneducated, and at worst west-coast anthropological arrogance.

    1. Ben, I’d love to hear more than “do your homework” and “read Powlison in the full context.” I’m agreeing with 90% of what I see in Powlison. I’ve assigned his books in courses I’ve taught at RTS. Give me a bit more than a dig on West Coast anthropological arrogance. I was inviting a dialogue…

    2. Ben, I’d love to hear more than “do your homework” and “read Powlison in the full context.” I’m agreeing with 90% of what I read in Powlison. I’ve assigned his books in courses I’ve taught at RTS, including Seeing with New Eyes. Give me a bit more than a dig on “West Coast anthropological arrogance.” I think these things are worth talking and even debating about, and was inviting a dialogue…

    1. Tyreed, thanks for the question. There are probably a few, all from slightly different perspectives. Transforming Spirituality by Shults and Sandage is excellent. The Healing Path by Allender is great. How People Change by Tripp and Lane is also very good.

  2. …object relations theory – cobwebbed back in my memory somewhere is Guntrip and Winnicott and Fairbarn and Kernberg. My first dissertation was based on object relations theory. Good stuff as far as it goes…and can go with its a-theism. I don’t mean that pejoratively…just literally.

    Read this critique of Powlison…not impressed. Following are some comments in response to some of the statements and allegedly more biblical and theological anthropology.

    “The conversation must go beyond identifying the idol and repenting of it.”
    Of course, and it does. Powlison has expressedhis disappointment about the way his work on idols has been lionized and petrified and promoted. At the same time, false worship (cf the first commandment of the decalogue and the great commandment, for a start) and turning away from anything that competes with God is a central (maybe the central?) theme in the Bible.

    “It’s got to look at how we love, what we feel, the ways in which we connect to others, what we fear.”

    Amen. I have the privilege of many conversations with Powlison, and not just that but reading his book entitled Speaking the Truth in Love, and would say that De Groat’s statement would describe one of Powlison’s key emphases. See also Powlison’s article on Psalm 119, the central theme of which is that this “psalm about the law”, is even more about a personal relationship with our Personal God.

    “In other words, beneath it all we’ll find that we’re longing for love.”

    So, at the bottom of every human heart is simply a longing for love? Wow…that is a bold claim – where is the empirical or biblical evidence for this? This sounds more like Hallmark or Carl Rogers than the Bible.
    Surely the desire for love and relationship are at the bottom of some personal psychodynamics, but this is simply not true for everybody. This is a presupposition that is difficult to buy…in some people what is at the bottom of their heart is a desire for safety, for others power and control, for others pleasure (that would be me), for others attention, etc. It seems to me that a biblical anthropology (and an augustinian one as well) would assert that what defines and determines our lives is what we worship or love or want or desire above all else. And for some people that is love or relationship, but that simply does not describe everybody everywhere.

    For a much better anthropology I would suggest J. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom.

    1. Sam, Thanks much. I am a big fan of Jamie Smith…he’s a good friend…and I think that what we’re saying is very much the same. It’s an expression of Augustine’s theology of love/desire which, in my estimation, is tweaked by Powlison in a more negative direction b/of of his Puritan influences (what many call “wormology.” I am fine talking idolatry as twisted desire, but want to see something that is not so rooted in the not-yet, so rooted in the Fall and not in original creational goodness. In other words, I find Powlison more pessimistic. I don’t at all think that a longing for love/intimacy/connection is Hallmark or Rogerian, but very much rooted in the imago dei in its Trinitarian character. It’s a more relational perspective. But I’m also not a humanist who believes that love ain’t twisted and misdirected. I’ve not read every last thing Powlison has written on the subject, so I’ll check out what you’ve suggested and appreciate your contribution to the dialogue.

  3. Dr Degroat,

    What Scriptures do you have to back up your critique? How do you interact with Romans 12:1-12 and the mind and change? 

    Judd Rumley
    Eagle, CO

    1. Great question, Judd. This comes up a lot. The “change of mind” Paul talks about is not simply a cognitive act. Paul was not a Platonist. He saw mind/body/spirit as integral. Thus, for him to say “present your bodies as living sacrifices” is not to eliminate the mind from sacrificial living, but to get at the whole person.

      Now, the bigger problem is that you can’t proof text out a counseling model. It’s got to take the whole narrative sweep of Scripture seriously. That’s where I think the Exodus story offers a compelling posture toward growth, freedom, and maturity.

  4. Chuck, 

    I saw this link this evening on Twitter.  It looks as if  the article was written just over a year ago.For a long time I was in the thick of these polemics–Biblical Counseling degree under Crabb and Allenderin 1992–I was never seen as “Biblical enough” by those who identified as Biblical Counselors from other programs and models.  As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never been quite comfortable with much of what is called Biblical Counseling.  Like you, I don’t especially disagree with the tenets, or scriptural foundations. Thee is something else, something subtle, that I’ve not been able to articulate or understand until reading this tonight.Though I’ve not read Powlison’s work, the Puritan psychology/theology that undergirds much of what is known as Biblical Counseling today seems to stand on several implicit assumptions that are in my judgement, ultimately unhelpful in Spirit-driven transformation.1.   Obedience is more important than relationship.2.   Behavioral change is equal to transformation.3.   Suspicion, (if not condemnation) of desire, longing, yearning.4.   Understanding depravity and the sinful nature in isolation of wounding (being sinned against),       weakness (vulnerabilities, limitations), and warfare (lies and accusations becoming strongholds       undergirding a false identity, as opposed to strictly seeing warfare as temptation).5.   Preoccupation with “chapter and verse” Biblical truth, and not the larger narrative of God, including       Trinitarian relational implications.6.   Understanding sin as a “value judgement” on personhood which intensifies shame. 7.   Little or no understanding of the New Covenant as it relates to our good/redeemed heart.8.   Speaking of the heart (kardia) as equal or synonymous to the flesh/sinful nature.I could spend a few hours writing more about each of these, but mostly wanted to say thanks for opening a window of insight for me through your article.I hope someday we get to meet.  We know so many of the same folks and I’ve heard so much about you.I’m eager to hear your thoughts and feedback about my book, which I think I saw your sign-up.Blessings,Michael Cusick

  5. Somehow I missed this when it was originally posted. Thanks for engaging this dialogue.
    I find your thoughts helpful and informative for my own journey and ministry.

    One of the questions I ponder is about our use of the word ‘change’. It seems like we (I) 
    make ‘change’ the goal.

    Do u think ‘change’ is too much the goal? Do you see a tension in how we use the word ‘change’?

  6.   Chuck I completely agree when you say, “I do not think his theological anthropology is complex
     enough.” This is the HEART of the issue and it needs to be addressed at philosophical, theological
     and with a Psycho-Spiritual Healing Modality that can help us bridge the aching gap between
    Justification and Sanctification. I spent 5 years at RTS investigating the interplay between
    epistemology, Reformed Theology and the Internal Family Systems model. I am putting the final
    touches on this research and would love to be in dialogue with you as we seem to have a similar
    line of thinking on this matter.

  7. have you read his article on the “five love languages”? would love to hear your thoughts on that.
    google it.

    A lot of his critique of “hunger/need for love” is in response to people like Larry Crabb and Gary Chapman (who themselves haven’t seem to thought very theologically about some of these issues).

    One of his concerns is that people like Gary Chapman (in his book) will go so far with the “need for love” that when a husband cheats on his wife sexually, he’ll counsel the wife that she needs to meet his physical needs – AS IF THATS the main issue!

    so, in some ways, Powlison’s theology is in defense of women who’ve been blamed for their husband’s adultery (even Mark Driscoll has made statements leaning in this direction).

    i think he needs to be read against that backdrop. In his class, he has us read Crabb and Chapman critically.

  8. also – powlison actually has an entire lecture where he clearly lays out his “motivation theory” and his view of desires.

    he would actually 100% agree with you that there are good desires in everything.

    his emphasis is that in sin, we take good desires, of our imago-dei nature, and ELEVATE them, obsess over them, place them in GODS place  (take a ‘good’ thing and make it a ‘God’ thing).

    and he would say a huge part of his ministry is helping people see not that desires don’t all have GOOD versions, or GOOD desires underneath, but that all sin is at root DESIRE gone OUT OF CONTROL .

    romans 1 – we know the infinite God, but we have EXCHANGED him and worshiped and serve CREATED things. GOOD things.
    GIFTS of God – we take the GIFTS, the GOOD things of God – that he GAVE us to enjoy, 
    and instead of enjoying them to the max to the GLORY of GOd,
    we enjoy them to the MAX to the GLORY of the THING itself.

    and good desires gone out of control are bad desires. that’s the core of his theology.

    good desires gone out of control are bad desires.

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