In addressing the history of counseling we want to divide the subject into two sections, secular and Christian.
Secular. The history of counseling had its origins, first in religion, later in philosophy, and later still in medicine. Religion and philosophy asked many of the same questions: “Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here?” Medicine on the other hand tends to ask the question “Are you covered by insurance?” From time to time, the members of a community would suffer from the vicissitudes of life. At such times, they would seek help from their priest, wise man, or witch doctor. Often all three were offices were found in one person. Generally the problems they faced were of two kinds; grief over the loss of a loved one, or guilt related to the problem of wrong behavior, sometimes called sin.
There were other problems of course, ranging from love sickness, to anxiety, to madness. Such extraordinary problems called for extraordinary solutions. Love sickness had its potions, and anxiety its elixirs and counsel, while madmen were often considered to be touched by the gods, and if not honored they were at worse driven from their community. Hannibal, Alexander, and Caesar with their bouts of epilepsy are examples of the former, whereas King David (I Samuel 21:10-15) and the maniac of Gadara (Luke 8:26-39) are examples of the later.
Such was the order of things for millennia. However, as populations grew and religions changed, madness began to be looked upon with less tolerance. In time, “mad houses” came into existence to deal with the impatience and fear of society with such people.
It was about this time that psychiatry and psychology began to make their presence known. Both had their origins in 19th century Europe. However, of the two, psychology was far more a product of science than was psychiatry. However, both were founded in the secular humanism of a Europe turned cold to the gospel of Christ and thereby far outside the pale of orthodox Christianity.
Christian. Christian counseling has been a part of the work of ministry from the origin of the Church. “Every since apostolic times, counseling has occurred in the Church as a natural function of corporate spiritual life.” Paul made it clear that he considered the family of God competent to counsel one another when the need arose. He said, “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct (counsel) one another” (Romans 15:14 NIV).
Like the helping mission of the pagans around them, Christianity also addressed the problems of grief and sin, although with considerably different counsel on how to deal with these problems.
The Reformation, and later the Puritan movement in England and American saw a significant return by Christianity to the authority of the bible as the only source of “life and godliness.” What characterized the Puritans in particular was a practical application of the Word to the problems of life. In this sense, Christian counseling began to take on new significance. Several works stand out as exceptional representatives of this flow of valuable counsel to the Church. They are, Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, Thomas Brooks’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Jonathan Edwards’s A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and Ichabod Spencer’s A Pastor’s Sketches. Much of these writings are what we might call “case study” in style.
Nevertheless, in time, the message of the church grew dim, and the void created by a Church with few answers, was address by creative minds with humanistic convictions. Foremost among this crowd was Sigmund Freud a physician from Vienna, Austria. Operating not simply from unchristian, but actually anti-Christian premises, Freud postulated a humanity without sin, helpless victims of their parents’ failures. For a world struggling to free itself from a theological bondage of Reformed theology which made mankind totally responsible for their moral failures, the blame shifting of the new psychologists and psychiatrists did not prove to be resistible. Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries begin to flock to the answers of the questions of the dilemmas of life posited by these men.
In time, Christian ministers began to be aware that they were no longer looked to for answers on problems of living, as they once were. Indeed, the unspoken consensus was that Christianity did not have answers for these new problems. Not only did the humanists believe this; Christians themselves came to hold the same position. The liberals in the Church addressed these serious problems of living by Christians, either by “deferring and referring” to “those properly trained to deal with ‘real’ problems,” (psychologists or psychiatrist) or by obtaining the psychological training that would equip them to this task. The conservatives saw the problem as a lack of commitment, bible study, prayer, and faithful attendance of all the church services. In other words, they denied its existence.
In the ’60’s a new breed of evangelical, represented by Bruce Narramore, presented an alternative to the capitulation of liberalism on the one hand, and the denial of fundamentalism on the other. Their answer was the “Christianization” of psychiatry and psychology. Their rallying cry was “all truth is God’s truth.” With this banner held high, they boldly attacked the gates of neurosis, snatching brands from the mass of the depressed. Orthodox Christians flocked to read the new books harmonizing orthodox Christianity and the humanism of psychology and psychiatry.
This solution captured the imagination of the Church; it continues to do so to this day. However, in the early 70’s a new approach was pioneered by a professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Jay E. Adams. In response to the responsibilities given him to teach counseling to the students at Westminster, he developed a counseling method, which he dubbed nouthetic counseling. Essentially, he asserted that in scripture the Christian has everything he needs for “life and Godliness.” The problem with the Church, he stated, was that it had not made the scripture useful by means of proper exegesis, and functionally relevant with useful applications to the problems of life.
His writings started a quiet, slow growing, revolution in many conservative/orthodox churches. It is this return to the bible that has brought Christianity full circle in its application of scripture to the practical and difficult problems of life.