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Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm

Jay Adams and The Biblical Counseling Movement

The so-called “Biblical Counseling” model has replaced the “old” model of integrative counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where I am currently working on my masters degree. This replacement is representative on a large scale of the most conservative (some would say “fundamental”) agenda in the evangelical church. As the story goes, because the church in general was highly influenced by secular models, the seminary eventually embodied a compromised approach. Secular psychology tended to undermine responsibility, replace biblical doctrine with Freudian nonsense, and replace instruction with alternative “therapy,” practices which never dealt with sin seriously. Eventually, some rugged evangelicals in the church stepped forward to call for a holy war against much of the so-called “Christian Counseling” that had virtually surrendered the biblical worldview by embracing secular counseling models, and had become an unhealthy alternative to real discipleship.The chief on the front lines in this reform was Jay Adams. His book Competent to Counsel (1970) was intended to be somewhat of a bombshell on the playground of the so-called “Christian” Counseling scene. Below, I have cut and pasted excerpts from my review of his book. It includes only a summary of his introduction, and then a brief critique of the books key idea(s).
Adams, Jay E. Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970. 287pp. $13.99.
Note: “Nouthetic” comes from the Greek word noutheo mostly translated “admonish.”
Several principles are defended hot and heavy in Adams’ attempt to introduce us to nouthetic counseling. Our author makes it easy on us to see where he is coming from by showing all his cards up front (i.e. in the introduction). Nouthetic counseling demands the counselor to recognize that the counselee’s ultimate and all-pervading problem is not mental illness but sin (xi). To say that Adams is suspicious about “the common practice” of referral (or “bifurcation,” of duties) in poimenics (the art of pastoral ministry) is an understatement (12, xii). He believes that the secular methods of counselors, psychiatrists and mental institutions are in fierce competition with a biblical approach to counseling. They seek to remove guilt from the counselee by “misclassifying” sin problems (xiv). Freud goes beyond science to teach “the art of living,” and secular modes have long become an alternative religion for a world that finds itself “in a mess” (xxii, 1). Adams seems to have been inspired by O. Hobard Mowrer’s Moral Model of responsibility to stand against the anti-responsibility models (xvi-xvii). Psychotherapy has become little more than a search through one’s past for someone else to blame (xvii).
Though Adams has been inspired by Mowrer, he is not satisfied with Mowrer’s Model, for Mowrer cannot ground morality objectively (xix). It is presuppositionally deficient (xviii). Our author is burdened by “the same old eclecticism with a Christian coating,” which, for Adams, amounts to nothing more than “accommodation” (xx). Perhaps the most revealing statement in the whole book, which typifies the nouthetic approach, is in the following unabashed confession: “The conclusions in this book are not based upon scientific findings. My method is presuppositional” (xxi). Although Adams does not wish to “disregard” science, he demands that scientific input only be accepted inasmuch as it illustrates and clarifies the biblical teaching (xxi). Even when science is used to illustrate or clarify the scriptures, it must not be thought of as somehow confirming or verifying the biblical teaching (xxi). “God’s Word does not need human support” (xxi).
A Brief, Suggestive Critique
Adams’ dogmatic presuppositional approach is both his greatest asset as well as his greatest limitation. On the one hand, his VanTillian approach brings a heightened awareness of holistic comparisons between different counseling philosophies and this in turn brings a greater discerning ability of what “fits” with the biblical teaching and what does not (and why). On the other hand, Eric L. Johnson points out that the VanTillian approach tends to undermine science as a knowledge-constructive practice (see footnote 1). Although Adams would agree that truth can be found in non-biblical systems (see footnote 2), his statements do not seem to allow for it. For example, he says: “Because non-biblical systems rest upon non-biblical presuppositions, it is impossible to reject the presuppositions and adopt the techniques which grow out of and are appropriate to those presuppositions” (102, emphasis mine). This statement not only oversimplifies the situation (many atheistic scientists have discovered marvelous aspects of God’s creation fully in accord with scripture), but it also breeds an overly pessimistic approach to science (and thus perfectly fits the fundamentalist stereotype). A biblical coherence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of worldview coherence—is different from a correspondence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of what corresponds to reality, regardless of what presuppositional context the truth is discovered in. Just because non-Christian worldviews abuse and misinterpret much of the scientific data does not mean the data in its purest form cannot be accepted just because it is not presented within a coherent Christian worldview. Only if Christians take the responsibility of empirical investigation seriously will the Christian counseling community be “increasingly comprehensive and sophisticated.”
In addition to Adams’ overly pessemistic attitude towards science and the reductionism of his theory of truth, Adams is also guilty of a methodological reductionism. By this, I do not mean that Adams does not have many methods. Rather, Adams unfortunately reduces all methods for counseling down to nouthetics. Biblical Counseling = Nouthetic Counseling. In fact, he oversimplifies the nature of real-life counseling by reducing it down to “problem solving,” and then speaking of the “problem” only in terms of sin. However, to be faithful to the biblical sources, one must include a variety of problems as well as a variety of methods. We must “admonish [noutheteite] the unruly,” but we also must “encourage [parameutheisthe] the fainthearted” (1 Thess 5:14). Adams could have just as easily reduced all counseling down to paramouthetics and walked us through a thousand methods for paramouthetic engagement. With Adams’ reductionistic approach, it does not surprise the reader that he never mentions the biblically revealed methods of admonishing with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs sung in thankfulness to God (Col 3:16). Such a method seems out of place with Adams’ narrow, cognitively-oriented categories of problem solving.
His failure to redeem much of the secular methodology and put it in its proper place seems also to be a result of this impractical, unbiblical, and oversimplified reductionism. For example, Adams appears to associate ventilation of one’s pent-up feelings with Freudian ideology of resocialization (11), but “venting” one’s feelings—so long as it does not involve hostile transfer of sinful feelings—is sometimes just what one needs to do, and in fact, should do. We like to say it this way—”I just needed someone to talk to about it.” Sometimes, we just need to talk to someone about our frustrations in life or our disappointments. In those times, we need someone to simply “be there” for us and sympathize with our situation (which may or may not be a sin-rooted problem).  Weep with those who weep.
Furthermore, since not all troubles are sin problems, not all methods include nouthetics. Most counseling relationships might inevitably involve a need for varying degrees of nouthetic confrontation (as do most real friendships). However, sometimes I have the “problem” of indecisiveness in an important decision. I get counsel from my mentor all the time because he is older than me and sometimes provides a different, more informed perspective on life which enables me to make a better decision. When I go to him for counsel on life’s big decisions, he does not probe my life looking to confront me for some sin (although if he did, he might surely find I am a sinner). Rather, he simply offers his advice, encouragement, prayer, and support. This is right and biblical.
Although Biblical Counseling would have a friendly place for nouthetic confrontation, to be true to the biblical text and to real life situations, we must admit that counseling is more than identifying and confronting sin. Adam’s narrow approach simply does not do justice to the full range of human “problems” and situations the way scripture does. Unfortunately, his book sparked a reform which has used his teaching as the basic approach to counseling to this day (the “Biblical Counseling” movement). Of course, I would rather have a narrow approach of nouthetics than a compromised approach which undermines a biblical worldview—if you forced me to choose. But with people who seem to have done a great job in integrating the best of the sciences with the rock-solid biblical worldview (e.g. Johnson), why should we choose Adams’ overly narrow approach which pontificates so many false antithesis and ranks of an unhelpful “psychology is the devil” sort of mentality? While Adams’ work is a breath of fresh air to many evangelicals who have been burdened by the influence of secular models which undermine biblical truth, and although he has swung the pendulum in the right direction, I (and several other evangelicals) am afraid that he has swung the pendulum a bit too far.


Footnote # 1: Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 614. This seems to be the reason why Adams is always trying to ground everything he says—even when he is giving extra-biblical wisdom—in some verse or biblical doctrine (even when it is not in the text).

Footnote # 2: Ibid., 615.

Footnote #3: “This approach to secular and other non-Christian thought is best explained by his adherence to a biblical coherence theory of truth [as opposed to a correspondence theory of truth], just like VanTil’s.” Ibid.

Footnote #4: Ibid, 616.


Providence: Affirmations and Denials…

1. I affirm that a biblical under- standing of divine providence is sufficiently accounted for in the following propositions: 1) All creation is absolutely dependant for its existence at every moment on the existence of God (Neh 9.6, 2 Pt 3.7, Heb 1.3, Col 1.17, Acts 17.28, Job 34.14-15; cf. Ps 104.29). 2) God’s eternal decree extends to all things (Eph 1:11) and has been [since creation], is [now], and will be [evermore] continually executed in the created order through a) natural laws (causes and effects set in motion at the creation of the universe) and b) supernatural creation of and intervention in the created order.

2. I deny that anything which has come to pass concerning the universe and its origin or that will come to pass concerning the universe and its future falls outside of the scope of God’s providence. This includes the heavens, the earth, and all its past, present, and future inhabitants, as well as the eternal destiny of the human race and all created contingencies contained therein (such as the new heavens and new earth)—nature (Ps 148.8, Job 37.6-13, cf. 38.22-30, Ps 104.4, 135.7, Ps 104:14, Mt 5.45), animals (Ps 104.27-29, cf. Job 38.39-41, Mt 6:26), seemingly random chance events (Prov 16.33), all the nations of the earth (Ps 22.28, Acts 17.26, cf. 14.16, Job 12.23, Lk 1.52, Prov 21.1 [cf. Ezr 1.1], 6.22, Dan 4:34-35), the daily needs and obedience of Christians (Mt 6.11, Phil 4.19, Phil 2.13, cf. Ps 33.14-15), the course of every life down to the very detail (Ps 139.16, Job 14.5, Gal 1.15, Jer 1.15, Ps 33.14-15, Acts 17.28, Ps 75.6-7), and all good things (Ps 139.16, Job 14.5, Gal 1.15, Jer 1.15, Ps 33.14-15, Acts 17.28, Ps 75.6-7).
3. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which fail to distinguish between God’s direct and indirect causation in the execution of his divine decree. Such a failure would enable the theologian to conceive of God’s causing human beings to sin in the same way he causes Christians to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

4. I deny that responsible interpreters need not postulate some supernatural intervention or especial power which God continually exercises at every moment a blade of grass is growing or every time it rains on the grounds that the biblical authors attribute such phenomenon to him. Rather, we ought to think of all natural events as caused by God through the continuation of the natural order set in motion from the creation of the universe (secondary causation). Since the Bible speaks of God’s secondary/indirect causation in the same terms as his direct causation (God causes the grass to grow, and he causes the Red Sea to part) we cannot assume that the language of causation everywhere necessitates that supernatural/direct causation is involved in the nature of such causation. Rather, unless we have some reason from the text to believe a supernatural intervention must be involved for God to bring something about (such as the parting of the Red Sea), the hermeneutical default for interpreting the language of causation ought to be one which understands the nature of that causation as secondary/indirect.
5. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which fail to attribute all events of history—including all moral and natural evil—to God’s causation in some way. Examples of moral evil’s caused by God are abundant (Ex 4:21, 7:3 [cf. Rom 9:17], Josh 11:20 [cf. Judg 3:12, 9:23, Judg 14:4], I Sam 2:25, 1 Sam 16:14, 2 Sam 12:11-12 [cf. 16:22], 2 Sam 12:15-18, 2 Sam 16:11, 2 Sam 24:1 [cf.24:1, 10-17, 1 Chr 21:1, 1 Kgs 11:14, 23]). The scriptural affirmation of God’s control of nature is coupled with biblical affirmations of his causation in natural calamities (Amos 3:6, 4:6-12, Job 1:21-22).
6. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which falsely dichotomize human responsibility and free will against such causation, for the scriptural interpretation of historical events allows for God to draw straight with crooked lines and determine the outcome of history through the acts of unconstrained creatures (e.g. the story of Joseph and his culpable brothers [Gen 37:4, 5, 8, 11, 20, 24, 28, cf. 45:5, 50:20], the story of Jesus and the culprits of his violent death [Acts 2:23, cf. various translations of dieceirivsasqe in Acts 5:30]).

7. I deny that we live in a closed universe in which God does not directly and passionately intervene in the affairs of the human race or that the universe could exist one millisecond apart from God.
8. I affirm that the most important aspect to the unfolding of history is a divine intervention—God’s redemptive work of reconciling fallen creatures to himself through the divine incarnation, substitutionary death, burial, bodily resurrection, and eternal reign of his Son and appointed Judge and King of the universe, Jesus Christ.

9. I affirm that the reconciling of man’s sinful heart toward God is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who directly intervenes against the natural course of the sinner’s heart so that all conversions are the execution of God’s eternal decree through direct/supernatural intervention.

10. I deny the legitimacy of categorizing as “Christian” any person, group, church, ministry, institution, or organization that would fail to affirm God’s direct and supernatural intervention on behalf of the human race as articulated in affirmation eight.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Picture Captions: The first picture is from the Switchfoot concert. The last one is where I got upset a few months ago and kicked down a huge tree. I almost got sued by the owners (jk). All those in between should be obvious to those chill in The Ville.
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