David Powlison’s Gnostic Counseling Paradigm
David Powlison is the major figure representing the counseling wing of Westminster Theological Seminary: the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). Powlison was mentored by Dr. John Miller who was a professor at Westminster. Miller was the father of Sonship Theology which was his own twist on the rediscovery of the doctrine of perpetual justification (Gospel Sanctification) via the Australian Forum think tank formed in 1970.
Powlison took the concept of progressive justification and used it to develop his Dynamics of Biblical Change project which is the foundation of counseling education at Westminster. Two former students of his, Paul David Tripp, and Timothy Lane, wrote a book entitled “How People Change”(HPC) which is a treatise on the “practical application” of Gospel Sanctification (the doctrine of the present-day New Calvinist movement). The title of the book is a lie; as we shall see, New Calvinists do not really believe that people change.
This is most evident when one reads pages 64 and 65 of HPC. Tripp and Lane describe Christians as “powerless,” “enslaved,” and “dead.” They further elaborate by writing, “When you are dead, you can’t do anything” (p. 64, HPC). How do dead Christians change? Obviously, they don’t. Hence, this is why the vast majority of present-day biblical counseling controlled by the CCEF machine is a farce: the counseling is not about change.
So what’s going on? Basically, it starts with Plato and what was later known as Gnosticism. Some refer to Gnosticism as “Platonism for Dummies,” but the basics are easier to explain through fundamental Platonism. Plato believed man was unable to know reality. The following excerpt is a good explanation of Platonism 101:
Plato, the most creative and influential of Socrates’ disciples, wrote dialogues, in which he frequently used the figure of Socrates to espouse his own (Plato’s) full-fledged philosophy. In “The Republic,” Plato sums up his views in an image of ignorant humanity, trapped in the depths and not even aware of its own limited perspective. The rare individual escapes the limitations of that cave and, through a long, tortuous intellectual journey, discovers a higher realm, a true reality, with a final, almost mystical awareness of Goodness as the origin of everything that exists. Such a person is then the best equipped to govern in society, having a knowledge of what is ultimately most worthwhile in life and not just a knowledge of techniques; but that person will frequently be misunderstood by those ordinary folks back in the cave who haven’t shared in the intellectual insight….the Allegory also attacks people who rely upon or are slaves to their senses (Analysis of The Allegory of the Cave by Plato Online source:123helpme.com/view.asp?id=135077).
Because the common man is enslaved to his own senses and can only comprehend what he can sense from the material world which is merely shadows of reality, Plato devised what we now call a cybernetic loop. This is a process that evaluates the outcomes of experience/circumstances/data for the purposes of making adjustments or reaching goals. Since the common man is not enlightened, the next best thing is to devise a system that gives him guidance from the criteria that he can experience with his senses. The enlightened ones, who should lead and govern the common man, develop these cybernetic loops to help guide mankind in their world of dark shadows. Plato believed in a world ruled by philosopher kings. Below are some illustrations of cybernetic loops:
These loops can be complicated and may involve loops that evaluate other loops. Below is another illustration in regard to Plato’s philosophy:
Plato had a vast influence on Augustine who is primarily responsible for the total depravity of the saints tenet found in Reformed theology. This prism had a profound influence in the forming of the gospel of perpetual atonement, or the idea that the effects of Christ’s death on the cross wasn’t a finished work, but was progressive for the purpose of maintaining a righteous standing for the saints. See illustration below:
This is opposed to the gospel that rejects the total depravity of the saints and propagates an enablement through the new birth:
In the second model, the believer has the responsibility to learn and apply the word of God to their lives. But the first model, because it relies mostly on Platonist philosophy, also borrows the cybernetic loop for its “practical application.” Therefore, New Calvinists merge progressive justification into various cybernetic loops for “practical application.” Since the saints are supposedly unable to keep the law because they are still totally depraved, there has to be a way for the saints to continually partake in the same gospel that saved us. In order to come up with a way to do this, the New Calvinists went back to the basics: Plato. The first illustration of this is from CCEF’s The Journal of Biblical Counseling vol. 18, number 1, Fall 1999:
The following are illustrations from HPC and Powlison’s Dynamics of Biblical Change:
In the following excerpt from Dr. Devin Berry’s “How to Listen to a Sermon,” Berry uses a C-loop concept to explain the New Calvinist theory on how the saints receive the word of God. The illustration following the excerpt is mine:
Note this cycle: Paul, from the Word, delivers words. The Bereans, from Paul’s words, go to the Word. The Word cycles from God, through the preacher, to the people, back to the Word, and this, verse 12 tells us, produced belief in the God of the Word. An important thing to note is that this happened daily – suggesting a regular interaction between preaching, personal study, and the Word.
The goal of all of this is not change in the believer which is impossible anyway according to their theology because Christians are still totally depraved. The goal is to make the cross (or, the works of Christ) bigger by a deeper and deeper knowledge of how totally depraved we supposedly are. This is illustrated by the following chart produced by a New Calvinist organization: