Puritan Counseling / Origins of the Psych-Psych Industry

Puritanism is the source of the American obsession with “fixing human behavior” that flourishes today. Liberalism is in fact Puritanism. Psychology and the ‘self-help’ movement are the secular successors of Puritan concepts of sin: aberrant behavior and social pathologies are the focus of the psych-psych industry. Note that in Southern Evangelical-type religions, there is no “reformist” notion – Jesus purifies your badass soul!


Ah! That familiar love of endless hierarchical lists of symptoms and diagnosis! Let no aspect of behavior remain personal and private.  The psychotherapeutic industry  has not traveled far from its “Old Testament” roots – and seems rather less empathetic and compassionate – “Puritanism Lite” for modern times, but just as damaging to human health and happiness….

Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling, By: Tim Keller Topics: Biblical Counseling, Apologetics



The Bible was the main authority for the Puritans in helping souls in distress. We need to take very little time to establish this point. They considered the Scripture more than comprehensive enough to deal with every basic human condition or problem. John Owen was happy to glean from pastoral experience and the variety of “casebooks” of that era, but he added a warning that nothing was a substitute for a diligent study of the Scriptures, meditation thereon, fervent prayer, experience of spiritual things, and temptations in their own souls, with a prudent observation made to the work of his grace in them. Without these things, all pretences unto this ability and duty of the pastoral office are vain.3

Clearly, the Puritans rested their counseling approach on Scripture.

In many ways the Puritans are an excellent ‘laboratory’ for studying biblical counseling, because they are not influenced by any secular models of psychology. Many of those today claiming to be strictly biblical in their counseling approach still evidence the heavy influence of Maslow or Rogers or Skinner or Ellis. But the Puritans had the field of the “cure of souls” virtually to themselves; they had no secular competition in the area of counseling. Thus we need to consider very seriously their counseling models.


The Puritans had sophisticated diagnostic casebooks containing scores and even hundreds of different personal problems and spiritual conditions. John Owen was representative when he taught that every pastor must understand all the various cases of depression, fear, discouragement, and conflict that are found in the souls of men. This is necessary to apply “fit medicines and remedies unto every sore distemper.”4 Puritans were true physicians of the soul. Their study of the Scripture and the heart led them to make fine distinctions between conditions and to classify many types and sub-types of problems that required different treatments.

Discerning Conditions

Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices and Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory are two classic Puritan case-manuals. Brooks discusses twelve types of temptation, eight varieties of discouragement, eight kinds of depression, and four classes of spiritual pride!

Brooks’ “temptation” sections are addressed to anyone struggling with besetting patterns of sin, particularly to those fighting addictions. As a pastor, I often have turned to this manual to help confused people who have fallen into an old temptation after years of freedom. Invariably I discovered that, while they had become fortified against a couple of temptation approaches, they were still defenseless against others named in the casebook.

The “discouragement” section applies to persons who suffer from ‘burnout’ as well as anxiety, grief, and disappointment. Brooks distinguishes between discouragement caused by covetousness,5 by false expectations,6 by a manpleasing spirit,7 by self-righteousness,8 by doctrinal distortion,9 or by simple lack of selfdiscipline.10

The “depression” section largely deals with persons whose despair arises from guilt and from a “low self-image.” The Puritans called this condition “accusation,” in which the conscience and the devil attack the person over his failures and sins. Brooks recognizes several types of pathologies of the conscience: a numb conscience,11 a wounded conscience,12 a seared conscience,13 and an over-scrupulous conscience.14

Finally, the section on “pride” deals with several forms of this great sin. It brings out cases of materialism, of power-lust, of intellectual arrogance, of love of ignorance and crudeness, of bitterness, and of jealousy.15

Richard Baxter’s Directory is staggering in its scope and comprehensiveness. It fills 900 pages of tiny, two-columned type. A broad outline of its contents follows.

Christian Ethics

  1. For the unconverted
    1. 20 directions for the unconverted
    2. 30 hindrances that keep men from Christ
    3. 10 ways non-converted men are deceived into believing they are converted
  2. For weak Christians 20 directions on how to grow in grace
  3. General Directions for Walking with God
  4. For dealing with “the Great Sins most directly contrary to Godliness” [These are ‘root’ motivated drives underlying more obvious sins of behavior.]
    1. Unbelief
    2. Hardness of heart
    3. Hypocrisy
    4. Man-pleasing; the idolatry of approval
    5. Pride; the idolatry of power/influence
    6. Materialism and worry; the idolatry of possessions
    7. Sensuality; the idolatry of physical pleasure
  5. Dealing with the results of ‘root’ sins (more obvious behavioral sins)
    1. Control of time (the sin of time-wasting)
    2. Control of the thoughts
      1. Idle thoughts
      2. Meditation vs. introspection
      3. Depressed thoughts
    3. Control of the passions
      1. Over-attachment (“sinful love”) of things or persons
      2. Discontentment
      3. Sinful Humor
      4. Anger and bitterness
      5. Fear
      6. Grief and distress
      7. Despair and doubt
    4. Control of the senses
      1. Gluttony
      2. Addiction to drink
      3. Fornication and sexual immorality
      4. Lust
      5. Regulating sleep
    5. Control of the tongue
      1. Swearing/profanity
      2. Lying and deception
      3. Rambling/babbling
      4. Scorning/mocking
      5. 30 other sins of the tongue
    6. Control of the body
      1. Work and idleness
      2. Sport and recreation
      3. Fashion and apparel

This was just the first section of the Directory; three more followed! “Christian Economics” treated the Christian’s relationships: of husband and wife, of employer and employee, of parents and children. In addition, Baxter here discusses a Christian’s relationship with God, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, the sacraments, and problems of assurance and backsliding. In the third and fourth sections he deals with Christians in the life of the church and, finally, “Christian Politics,” in which he outlines a Christian’s social responsibilities. At this point Baxter shows more maturity of thought than most Puritans (and most biblical counselors today!) who were individualistic and often pietistic in their approach to discipleship. On the contrary, Baxter outlines in detail the public discipleship duties of Christians who were poor and who were rich, who were rulers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and military personnel.

(Comment: Puritans established the American Social hierarchy. It’s easy to see why the Puritans have lost out in popularity to the fantastical sects of Evangelicals, which indulge in emotional hysteria and provide sensual entertainment and magical redemption. Puritanism is hard work! However, the Puritan desire to define and control “original-sinful” human behavior, in the context of a rigid social hierarchy, passed readily into supposedly “secular and scientific” theory and practice, which is in truth, the same old prescription for social conformity and behavioral control presented today by the “helping, caring, fixing” industry.)

Discerning Causes

In addition, the Puritans were able to make fine distinctions in diagnosing the root causes of the problems. Baxter’s sermon, “What are the Best Preservatives against Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow?” discerns four causes of depression (sin, physiology, temperment, and demonic activity) which can exist in a variety of interrelationships. Baxter lists a number of sins which feed depression. He first notes the underlying sinful inclinations which are the ground for depression: impatience, discontent, too much love of the material world, selfishness, a distrust of God, and a lack of real submission to the sovereign will of God.16 He concludes that any guilt over willful sin (i.e., a bad conscience) is a cause of depression.17 But Baxter carefully distinguishes between physical and spiritual causes of a problem:

With very many there is a great part of the cause in distemper, weakness, and diseasedness of the body; and by it the soul is greatly disabled to any comfortable sense. But the more it ariseth from such natural necessity, the less sinful and less dangerous to the soul; but never the less troublesome, but the more.18Baxter then notes some of the specific physical causes of “overmuch sorrow” or depression. He includes “violent pain as natural strength is unable to bear,” a weakening of the rational abilities (such as mental decay in very elderly persons), and “when the brain and imagination are crazed” through other physiological causes.19

This shows a remarkable balance. Baxter recognizes that some depression is not caused by sin or a failure to handle life God’s way. But on the other hand, he recognizes a very complex relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Note that he says, the more the sorrow arises from physical causes, the “less sinful and dangerous to the soul.” There are some degrees of sinfulness and of responsibility. In some cases a person’s pain is mild, and his sorrow is partially due to a refusal to trust God. But if the pain is violent and unbearable, a person’s hysteria might have very little sin involved in it.

This is highly instructive for modern counselors. Modern research is finding physiological bases for everything from addiction to schizophrenia to selfishness. On the one hand there is a danger that biblical counselors will ignore this information and still insist that virtually all problems are caused completely by deliberate sin. But on the other hand we must resist the growing trend in the world to label nearly every problem a ‘disease’ over which the patient has no control and in which he has no responsibility.

But Baxter is not done; he also posits two other roots of depression, “this complicate disease of souls. ” “Temperment” is a factor. Some people have a “natural temper” which is “timorous and passionate”20 and which, while not the first cause of depression, can be an inclination which causes some people to be more cast down by trials than others. It aggravates “overmuch sorrow” and makes certain people far more prone to it throughout their lifetime.

Besides temperment, Baxter devotes attention to satanic activity as a cause of depression. “I must tell the melancholy person that is sincere, that the knowledge of the devil’s agency in his case may be more to his comfort than to his despair.”21 While stating that Satan “possesseth only the souls of the ungodly,” nevertheless he “maketh too frequent motions to the faithful.”22 These “motions” can include bodily diseases (he notes the book of Job as an example), but Satan also causes temptations and can inject streams of sinful and blasphemous thoughts and doubts into the mind.23 Baxter carefully states that Satan “cannot do what he will with us, but what we give him advantage to do. He cannot break open our doors, but he can enter if we leave them open. He can easily tempt a … phlegmatic body to sloth … a choleric person to anger … a sanguine man to lust …”24

It is important to note that Baxter does not seek to work pastorally on Satan directly, authoritatively addressing him directly and commanding him in the method of some today. Instead, he seeks to get us to “close the doors” that we have left open for Satan. “Most evil motions on the soul have Satan for their father, and our own hearts as the mothers.”25 Baxter deals with satanic activity by telling the troubled person not to feel guilty for the blasphemous imaginations and thoughts (which come from Satan), as long as he does not act on them.

But I add, God will not impute [Satan’s] mere temptations to you, but to [Satan], be they ever so bad, as long as you receive them not by the will, but hate them. Nor will he condemn you for these ill effects which are unavoidable from the power of bodily disease, any more than he will condemn a man for raving thoughts or words in a fever, frenzy, or utter madness. But so far as reason yet hath power, and the will can govern the passions, it is your fault if you use not the power, though the difficulty make the fault the less.26

Baxter’s balance here is intriguing. He does not believe satanic activity should be ignored in diagnosis or treatment. He comforts the afflicted person by showing him Satan’s hand in his troubles. He confronts demonic activity through bold prayer and encourages the believer to use the authority he has for spiritual conflict. He shows the believer how to eliminate the “footholds” that he has given Satan (such as bitterness, Ephesian 4:27; II Corinthians 2:10, 11). Yet Baxter does not see “demon possession” as the major cause of any Christian’s problem. Lovelace draws on the Puritan approach when he says, “the ordinary remedy may not be exorcism but counseling into the fullness of Christ, including an understanding of our authority against demonic agents and a stance of resistance against them in contested areas of personality.”27

The Puritans’ balanced understanding of the roots of personal problems is not mirrored in the pastoral practice of modem evangelicals. Most counselors tend to ‘major’ in one of the factors mentioned by Baxter. Some will see personal sin as the cause of nearly all problems. Others have built a counseling methodology mainly upon an analysis of “transformed temperments.” Still others have developed “deliverance” ministries which see personal problems largely in terms of demonic activity. And of course, some evangelicals have adopted the whole ‘medical model’ of mental illness, removing all ‘moral blame’ from the patient, who needs not repentance but the treatment of a physician. But Baxter not only shows an objective openness to discovering any of these factors in diagnosis, he also expects usually to find all of them present. Any of the factors may be the main factor which must be dealt with first in order to deal with the others.

So we see sophistication of the Puritans as physicians of the soul. If anything, the Puritans sometimes made distinctions unnecessarily. (Anyone reading a Puritan’s fourteen-point sermon can see how it could have been reduced better to three or four headings!) But biblical counselors today, who sometimes are rightfully charged with being simplistic, could learn from the careful diagnostic method of these fathers in the faith.


We just have seen how balanced the Puritans were in their diagnosis of the causes of personal problems. We should not be surprised to discover that they were just as balanced in their prescriptions and treatments. Many Christian counselors tend to mirror secular approaches that either focus their treatment largely on the feelings (such as the client-centered approach of Rogers), on the actions (such as the behaviorist approach of Skinner and his kin), or on the ‘thinking’ (such as the rational-emotive therapies of Ellis and Beck). But the Puritans do not fit into any of these modern categories.

Consider Thomas Brooks’ classic discussion of temptation in Precious Remedies. He writes that some temptations have straightforward doctrinal roots. Brooks sees roots of temptation in false views of repentance, an inadequate understanding of God’s holiness, and a shallow understanding of indwelling sin.28 Many other temptations have social roots, namely wicked company, a man- pleasing idolatry, or the disillusionment caused by inconsistent Christian leaders.29 And many temptations come from distorted thinking about what will really satisfy. We “rationalize sin as virtue.”30

To each case Brooks attaches from three to four ‘remedies’ or counseling approaches. Some of the remedies are behavioral ‘homework,’ such as shunning wicked company.31 Many other remedies are pure comfort, as for the person who repeatedly is relapsing into the same sin. Instead of simply charging the person to repent, Brooks tenderly encourages. He points out “that the most renowned and now crowned saints have, in the days of their being on earth, relapsed into one and the same sin. A sheep may slip into a slough, as well as a swine.”32 He also gently reminds the discouraged believer that no experience of the conviction of sin or even the love of God can “forever fence and secure the soul from relapsing into the same sin.”33 Even people like Peter, who saw Jesus in his glory on the mount, later denied him. Such counseling is indeed aimed at comforting, at bringing peace to a person in emotional pain.

Yet many of Brooks’ remedies look very similar to ‘cognitive’ therapy. Brooks sees problems as being largely due to doctrinal distortions, to unbelief, and lies that we believe about God and ourselves. Therefore, many of Brooks’ remedies are passionate scriptural arguments to be thrust forcibly and constantly into the consciousness against the lies which are dominating the heart. He constantly urges the reader to “dwell more upon” particular truths. For example, Brooks recognizes that many persons are tempted to presume on grace. The person has come to believe that “the work of repentance is an easy work, and that therefore the soul need not make such a matter of sin.” “ ‘Why! Suppose you do sin,’ saith Satan, ‘it is no such difficult thing to return, and confess, and be sorrowful, and beg pardon.’ ”34 Brooks tells the tempted person, under the power of this distortion, to remember continually that Satan is a liar. Before you sin, he will tell you repentance is easy, but after you sin, he will tell you repentance is too hard! Both are lies. “Ah, souls! he that now tempts you to sin, by suggesting to you the easiness of repentance, will at last work you to despair, and present repentance as the hardest work of all in the world, and a work as far above man as heaven is above hell, as light is above darknes. Oh that you were wise to break off your sins by timely repentance! Repentance is a work that must be timely done, or utterly undone forever.”35

In another example, Brooks explores the problem of the prosperity of the wicked. Many Christians are lead into self-pity and thus into sin because they see that the unholy often live comfortable lives. Brooks helps the tempted person to “dwell upon that strict account that vain men must make for all that good that they do enjoy.”36 He quotes Phillip III of Spain on his deathbed, who cried out: “what doth all my glory profit me, but that I have so much the more torment in my death?” Brooks tells the tempted person to dwell upon and see life from the perspective of God’s judgement. Therefore, he also tells the person, tempted through self-pity, to tell himself “that there is no greater misery in this life, than not to be in misery-no greater affliction, than not to be afflicted. Woe, woe to that soul that God will not spend the rod on! . . . Hos. 4:7: ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ ”37 These are powerful arguments that the believer is told to “solemnly consider.”

Throughout the book Brooks continuously urges the believer to argue with his soul, “to dwell, till your hearts are affected,” to “receive the truth affectionately, and let it dwell in your souls plenteously.”38

By modern standards this is remarkably balanced! We see that many of Brooks’ remedies appear similar to ‘cognitive’ therapy, seeking to change the thinking in order to relieve anxiety, fear, depression. Yet he also can appear to be a ‘behaviorist’ at times, calling people to change their pattern of living immediately. Brooks is not afraid to plumb deep for underlying motives and desires. He comforts. He takes emotional states very seriously.

Then is Brooks a behaviorist, a cognitive therapist, or a Rogerian counselor? Of course the answer is: “none of the above.” His balance comes from the fact that he is not controlled by either a ‘cognitive’ personality model or a ‘behaviorist’ personality model. He does not consider either ‘thinking’ or ‘behavior’ or ‘emotion’ to be the more basic part of personality. Neither does he appear to have his own personality theory in which he inter-relates these components in a neat pattern of cause and effect. Instead, he concentrates on the heart (a word Brooks uses interchangeably with the word soul). The “motions” of the heart are thoughts, feelings, and actions. Problems develop when the heart operates in unbelief. Problems are solved when the truth of the Word is “presented” (Brooks’ terminology) to the heart, and that means to the thoughts as well as the will and emotions. Brooks will tell a person to obey a truth instantly and at the same time to reflect and dwell on it until the principle changes his thinking and feelings as well.


The Puritan View of Sin

The Puritans, with just a few exceptions, were staunchly Reformed in their theology. They believed, therefore, in the radical depravity of man’s heart and in the continued presence of indwelling sin in the believer.

(Comment: The Psych-Psych Industry is moving toward this totality, that every person is “diagnosable” with some form of mental illness. Just keep inventing pathologies and disorders and add to the DSM.)

Modern evangelicals on the whole do not reflect this realism due to a shallow understanding of sin. The tendency in some circles is to see all deeply ingrained, compulsive behavior as demon possession or else to deny that real believers have such problems. Other evangelicals are ready to adopt the ‘disease model’ for any addiction.39 That view absolves the patient of responsibility; he is the victim of biological conditions or of some deep emotional traumas from childhood.

All of these approaches presume a non-Augustinian view of sin as willful, voluntary actions. On the basis of such a theological view any sin which does not yield immediately to repentance and efforts at self-discipline is considered to be demonic or physical (or impossible!). But the Puritans, because of their understanding of remaining, indwelling sin (the flesh), recognized that deep problems are caused by sin and that change may be only gradual-the result of the ‘penetration of truth.’

To observe the modern, overly optimistic evangelical understanding of the Christian life, one need only peruse the headings of our most popular discipleship materials. The Navigators’ Design for Discipleship is a case in point. It is a six- book, 29-topic course of instruction in the Christian walk. It is used as part of a two-year course called the “2:7 Series.” Yet, in that two-year program only three chapters deal with trials and conflict with sin.40

Contrast this with the Puritan “design for discipleship,” Baxter’s Directory. Baxter spends a great deal of time on backsliding and a loss of assurance (a sense of being “far away from God”) (or the social norm). He provides a specific inventory of the “great sins” (including materialism and pride, not just sensuality), helps with temptation, the “benefits of affliction,” and wonderful instructions on facing death. And while Design for Discipleship assumes a safe, middle-class existence, Baxter treats the particular troubles of the poor, the rich, the oppressed, as well as the professional. (Comment: Got to confirm and continue the social hierarchy!)

By no means does Baxter stand alone in this ‘realism.’ Two other classic Puritan texts on depression are Thomas Goodwin’s A Child of Light Walking in Darkness and William Bridge’s A Lifting Up for the Downcast. Both authors assume that genuine Christians with ‘true peace’ will go through periods of ‘desertion’-times when the light of God’s countenance is hidden. Bridge lists the causes of the loss of peace:

  1. “great sins” [gross, sinful behavior];
  2. “weak grace” [the growth of pride and underlying idolatrous desires];
  3. “miscarriage of duties” [neglect of basic disciplines of the means of grace];
  4. “lack of assurance” [demonic accusation of the conscience];
  5. “temptation”;
  6. “desertion” [God’s deliberate removal of His nearness for the purpose of discipline];
  7. “affliction”;
  8. “unserviceableness” [failure to use gifts in ministry];
  9. “discouragements drawn from the condition itself’ [being depressed that you are depressed!];41




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