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A Case for the Re-Introduction of Puritan Theology in a Post Modern World: Pastoral Counselling

Part 4: Pastoral Counselling and the Puritans


Abstract: In this paper I will examine the current state of pastoral counselling and argue for the reintroduction of a far more biblical approach within Reformed theology which is based on Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura as well as the sovereignty of God. The Puritans were deeply impacted and theologically shaped by Reformed theology.


1.1        Pastoral Care at the Crossroads


It must be noted that there has been a radical shift from the historical model to the contemporary model in pastoral theology. This shift has resulted in a reduction of pastoral care to psychotherapeutic counselling. Clebsch and Jaekle (1987:12-13) commenting on this postmodern phenomena write, “During recent years, counselling has been the chief locus of concern for pastoral theology…counselling has become the gate through which new intellectual formulations of pastoring have entered and claimed attention.”[1] Pattison (1993:26) concludes that “the gospel of counselling is gradually leaving pastoral practice even at the level of general and subconscious assumptions.”[2]

This radical shift within pastoral care can be seen by the following comparison and characteristics between the historical model and the contemporary model. Bridger and Atkinson (1998:37-38) point out the characteristics and differences between these two models.

a.         The contemporary model


  • The one-to-one relationship as the primary context for pastoral care.
  • The importance of therapeutic expertise to the healing process.
  • The expectation that the counsellor should conform to a psychotherapeutic role model.
  • The adoption of psychoanalytic methods and assumptions.
  • The ‘translation’ of traditional theological concepts such as sin, guilt, atonement and redemption into psychoanalytic categories such as failure, self-awareness, resolution and self-acceptance.

b.         The historical model

In contrast, the historical method emphasizes:

  • Pastoral care as the ministry of the whole community of faith.
    • The representative role of the pastor in acting on behalf of both God and his people.
    • The centrality of a distinctively theological understanding of human beings and their needs.
    • That pastoral practice and assumptions should never be regarded as morally neutral but as incorporating values which need to be recognized and ‘owned’ by the counsellor/pastor. Only then can she evaluate the motives and actions of herself and her counsellee.
    • The crucial significance of theological categories such as sin, guilt, grace, atonement and redemption.
    • The grounding of personal growth in Christian spirituality based upon the historic resources of the life of faith: Bible, sacraments, fellowship, worship and prayer.

The characteristics and comparison between these two models illustrate just how radically pastoral care has shifted from its historical moorings to embracing a psychotherapeutic model of care and counselling.

As I have argued in my previous papers I am not anti-psychology. In fact, I argue for an integration of pastoral counselling models with psychological models.  However, I am vehemently opposed to the practice of psychology being elevated above Scripture and the Scriptural approach to counselling. Pastoral theology must never be reduced to psychotherapy.


 1.2        Reasons why the Church needs to return to the Praxis of Biblical Counselling


The Puritans were deeply impacted and theologically shaped by Reformed theology. Reformed theology is based on Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura as well as the sovereignty of God.

Pastoral theology and here I am incorporating a Scriptural focused counselling epistemology, which is based upon the following dynamics outlined by Louw (1998:190):[3]

  • The theocentric focal point of Reformed theology is based on the theological presupposition of predestination. This implies a life before God: a person lives by the grace of God, and grace is perceived as a relational concept.
  • In Reformed theology the truth is revealed through Scripture as its point of departure. This has the practical implication of the demand for continual reformation. One of the main goals of pastoral counselling is to help the counsellee through the Word and the Spirit to be reformed into Biblical truth and Biblical actions.

When pastoral counselling takes as its point of departure from Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura the following dynamics occur within the counsellee:

  • Faith is enhanced to help the counsellee to make radical decisions based on Scripture to make fundamental changes in his or her life, which in the first place brought them into the counselling situation.
  • Scriptural counselling links the counsellee to the faithfulness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and the acceptance of God.
  • Scripture provides the counsellee with the Biblical concept of hope thus re-orienting him or her to a positive future.
  • The counsellee is exposed to the healing presence of God.

1.3        The Various Modes of Effective Biblical Counselling (Louw 1998:382-388)

At the heart of effective biblical counselling is to link the counsellee to the presence of God and the history of salvation. The following structure designed by Louw will explain the various modes of effective Biblical counselling.

Mode Goal Outcome
Admonition Pastoral counselling cannot avoid confrontation as a variant of constructive challenging. Admonition deals with the issue of transgression, sin and conscience. Confrontation and admonition are frequently used in pastoral care when guilt is being addressed. Scripture unmasks human behavior and frequently generates change – conversion. 2 Timothy 3:16 says specially that Scripture is inspired by God. Hebrews 4:12 declares that the Word ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ Confrontation strives to change sinful behavior accompanied by an attitude of love.
Teaching and instruction This has to do with what has been termed the pedagogic of pastoral counselling (2 Tim 3:16). Scripture is used to provide instruction to bring about necessary change. A bible study assignment is a useful method to heighten the effectiveness of this mode of teaching and imparting information. Parishioners’ own activity and insights are applied in their own discovery of the scriptural truth. The pastor’s role is to sustain and to help them to understand and to apply the information which they themselves have discovered. Teaching pastoral care as a metaphor of wisdom strives to enhance practical knowledge and true discernment regarding God’s will.
Recalling Christians suffering from terminal illness or a stroke, or another form of debilitating pain, find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time during teaching and instruction. Therefore, Scriptural passages which are familiar with the patient can be used to strengthen his/her association with God. Scriptural passages could be employed to encourage people to reflect on their situation in the presence of the Lord (Ps 1:1-2). Reflection on the Word stimulates the believer’s God-talk. The believer is encouraged to talk to God and to mention his Name in his thoughts. Repetition of scriptural passages intensifies the intimate communication with the Lord. The purpose of recalling is to penetrate human thoughts effectively (2 Cor 10:5). Reflection on Scripture promotes the focus of thoughts on positive thinking, which, in turn, has a positive influence on the person’s emotions and behavior – being positive.
Comfort and consolation Scripture is used to articulate a particular emotion, condition, or feeling. The fact that Scripture understands a certain condition enables people to realize that they can use Scripture to interpret and communicate their most profound needs accurately before God. For example, in the light of Psalm 42:11 the person could discover that the psalmist was also subjected to tremendous emotional pressure; he too experienced doubts, psychic instability and depression. This experience generated the psalmist’s advice to: ‘Put your hope in God.’ In this way, the parishioner’s’ needs and emotional disruption have been articulated, and the person’s faith has been nurtured. Scripture thus comforts and allows this to take effect organically at all levels of human existence.
Transformation Behavior is restructured by changing the value system, priorities in life and ethical codes of behavior. Scripture could be used to design a new life style. ‘Mirroring’ is an effective method of transforming people’s lifestyles and value systems. A person’s previous behavior, problematic coping mechanism and its destructive effect are analysed, categorized and written down under the headings” ‘present problem; previous actions; effect on relation with God; effect on the person him-/herself; effect on fellow-human beings and environment.’ The parishioner is then asked to formulate his/her view of life (philosophy). Appropriate scriptural passages are employed when discussing the meaning and reliability of his/her philosophy and the ways in which this is expressed in behavior. Other actions are then discussed and written down: ‘new philosophy, present and future actions, possible positive effects.’Paul often makes use of ‘mirroring’ in terms of contrasts. In Ephesians 2:1-2 he addresses believers concerning their previous lifestyle and the scheme of the sinful world. He now contrasts this previous lifestyle with his ‘but now’ proclamations, in which he points out God’s compassion and character of the new life which is expressed in terms of grace (Eph 2:4-5). He points out their previous condition (Eph 2:12) and then contrasts it with Ephesians 2:13. This method of mirroring by using contrast, aims to encourage believers to break with sinful practices which have a destructive influence on relations (Eph 4:17-19). The new life should have a transforming influence on thoughts (Eph 4:23). Behavior should also change radically (Gal 5:25).
Representation Pastors often have to sustain and encourage people. Within the representative mode, it is not only texts that are used to communicate God’s comfort. The pastor or parishioners’ own comforting stories are employed to strengthen believes. People, as living human documents, are used to illustrate the existential significance of words of comfort. The experience of sharing in another’s comforting story consoles and fosters hope (2 Cor 1:4; 4:8-11; 12:7-9).
The Narrative Approach and Story-telling In some cases bible stories should be told in order to make the person aware of God’s concrete, active presence in our human history. The narrative mode was frequently used in the Old Testament. Psalm 78 is a good example of how the liberation stories were used in the Old Testament in order to spur people on to faith.
Doxology When doxology is used as a mode of biblical counselling, its aim is to encourage the person to praise, worship and thank God (Ps 22:25; 145:21; 146:1-2). Doxology is used when a person experiences gratitude and discovers that God’s grace is a gift, that life is a gracious gift. The pastor encourages the parishioner to find reasons for thanking God, encouraging the person to say: ‘I thank God for this…’ (reasons). Ephesians 5:20 is a good example. The pastor should try to ensure that these thanksgiving formulas are not superficial by linking them to a concrete event or a reason.Gratitude is not based on emotions, but is based on the experience of grace in the midst of suffering.

I have argued thus far that pastoral theology and the church must return to Biblical counselling.  We will now turn out attention to a brief overview of the Puritan’s Biblical methodology of counselling.

1.4        The Puritan’s Biblical Methodology of Counselling


The following discussion on the Puritan’s methodology of counselling will reveal a definitive correlation with reformed evangelical theologians such as Louw.

Hemming (2000:31) writes that the Puritans realized that the child of God does not walk in a state of unbroken joy: there come times when clouds intervene and the Christian loses the sense of God’s favour.[4] The Puritan pastor encouraged his people to come to him and disclose the state of their hearts so that counsel and advice could be given.

In this section we will examine how the Puritan pastor worked along the following well defined lines in pastoral care.

a.      The Puritan pastor considered the possibility that the person coming to him may not be truly be converted


In our postmodern church world or our therapeutically embodied pastoral care methodology this would be an unthinkable approach to adopt. We would consider such an approach unprofessional and judgmental.[5] However the Puritans were concerned with looking for the fruit of conversion as evidence that a work of grace had taken place in the person’s heart. This was their starting point for helping people deal with spiritual or psychological problems.[6] In other words, they would point the troubled parishioner to the all-sufficiency of Christ to help the person work through their problems.

The Puritan pastor also wanted to ascertain the troubled person’s genuine love for God. Puritan pastor Perkins sees five characteristics of saving faith:

  • The person who has it will know what it is ‘to feel his extreme need of Christ and His merits;
  • to hunger and thirst after him as after food;
  • to be nothing in himself/herself;
  • to be able to say that he/she does not live, but Christ lives in us by faith;
  • to loathe his/her own sin with a vehement hatred;
  • and to prize and value Christ.

When the Puritan pastor was satisfied that the troubled person was indeed saved he would then proceed to the next step.

b.      He considered the possibility that the person’s distress might be due to non-spiritual causes


The Puritans recognized that a person might be deeply distressed through what we call psychological problems. In such cases they would encourage the person to fellowship with joyous and positive Christians to help them come through their depression.

Although we do not have a great scope of material of how the Puritans dealt with psychological problems, nevertheless, we do have ample evidence that troubled people were brought into the reality of God’s presence; his sustaining love; his faithfulness and the power of Scripture to help them be strengthened by the power of the Spirit.

c.      Genuine spiritual distress


The Puritans understood that there are seasons in the Christian life when believers loose the sense of God’s realized presence or closeness. When dealing with this problem they would begin with the sovereignty of God. They counseled people to realize that God does not withdraw his love from us, but in times when we cannot feel his realized presence he is still with us, and that once we come through this ordeal we would have a stronger faith.

The Puritans realized that this withdrawing of the realized presence of God could arise from a number of causes:

  • Sin unrealized or unconfessed.
  • Direct attack of Satan.
  • The work of the Holy Spirit. The Puritans taught that at times God himself brings about this experience of desertion. They quoted and expounded Isaiah 50:10-11. They encouraged the Christian to wait upon God and await the gracious return of the Lord’s known presence.

1.5        Conclusion


The Puritans ministered in a very different world to us and no doubt a lot less psychologically complicated. Our world today is indeed complicated and the severity of psychological ailments is overwhelming. But the Puritans do leave us with the value of Scripture being a healing balm to the sea of wounded humanity pastors and counselors face daily. Without denying the enormous value that psychology adds to the process of bringing people to a place of self-discovery and healing in the counselling process; the Word of God, the love of the Father, the Presence of the risen Christ and the power of the Spirit is what brings about optimal healing. Let us strive never to deviate from this truth!

[1] Clebsch, W.A and Jaekle, C.R. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, New Jersey: Prentice Hall (1964) pp.4-10, 79-82; reprinted in Jacobs, Michael (ed.) Faith or Fear? A Reader in Pastoral Care and Counselling, London: Darton, Longman & Todd (1987) pp.12-13.

[2] Pattison, Stephen, A Critique of Pastoral Care, London: SCM Press (1993)

[3] Louw, Daniel, 1998. A Pastoral Hermeneutics of Care and Encounter. Western Cape: Lux Verbi.

[4] Packer, J. I and Godfrey, W. R (ed) 2000. Puritan Papers Volume One 1956-1959. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[5] Please see my first paper for a discussion on how the church has moved away from calling sin, sin and replacing sin issues with psychological problems.

[6] Today we would accuse the Puritans of viewing human beings as primarily sinful, and therefore, having an overarching theology of hamartia. But I don’t believe that this was their theological epistemology. In my opinion the Puritans primarily viewed human beings as created in the image of God and yet due to the fall of humanity, human beings were born into sin. Sin therefore cannot be dealt primarily with psychological schools of thought. For the Puritan much of the psychological problems (troubled souls) were due either to sin issues or other psychological reasons. They did not exclude psychological problems being the reason for a person’s troubled soul. But their understanding of the power of sin to destroy and harm a person’s life and psyche forced them to start with the authenticity of a person’s conversion experience and sin issues.

I believe this to be a lesson for us today in pastoral ministry. We have been trained to begin with a person’s psychological problem, thus isolating the person from their relationship with God, and the distinct possibility that their sin issues are indeed the result of their residing psychological problems. Taking such an approach leads to the transcendence of psychology over theology, which is slowing eroding the place of pastoral counselling and care within the church.