Have you ever encountered the idea that the discipline of psychiatry can sometimes be helpful for Christians but the discipline of psychology is usually not?
Have you ever heard someone say that focusing too much on the complex background to someone’s sin problems is a distraction and that we need to just ‘cut to the chase’ and keep things simple?
Have you ever heard someone say that the Bible is completely sufficient to meet all our needs?
Have you ever listened to a Christian teacher criticizing counselors who operate according to the basic categories of secular psychology but simply attach Christians phrases to it?
Have you ever run into the idea that even if psychology can help people deal with certain problems, at best this is a case of merely ‘healing the wound lightly’?
Have you ever encountered the notion that to try to contextualize a person’s sin issues by looking at things which happened in their past is ultimately to help the person to evade responsibility?
Have you heard Christian teachers say that because scripture is completely sufficient that it is unnecessary for Christian counselors to avail themselves of any of the discoveries of secular psychotherapy?
Have you ever come across Christians who think that psychotherapy is at best useless and at worst a poor substitute for Biblical counseling and churches that facilitate these approaches are compromised?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then there is a good chance that you may have been exposed to some form of Nouthetic Counseling theory. If any of the above positions describe your own approach to psychology or counseling, then your thinking may already be tinctured by the Nouthetic mindset without realizing it.
In this post I will explain what Nouthetic counseling is and why it is unscriptural. I will argue that Nouthetic counseling ironically compromises with some of the very categories of secular psychology that it claims to repudiate, specifically Behaviourism.
In developing my case, I hope to show that scripture not only supports, but mandates that Christians appropriate the findings of secular psychology and use them within ecclesial settings. My case will rest on the following verses, each of which will be referred to in the course of this post and which are listed below in the order in which I will deal with them:
- Proverbs 2
- Exodus 20:5
- Psalm 37:28
- Romans 1:18-26
- Exodus 11:2-3
- Genesis 1-2
- Genesis 1:28
- Genesis 45
- Matthew 5:45
- Philippians 4:3
- Galatians 6:1
- Luke 15:3–7
- Acts 17:22-31
1. The Story of Secular Psychology
I begin by summarizing a common narrative about psychology that is prevalent among many evangelicals who have been tinctured by the poison of the Nouthetic mindset. It goes something like this:
Modern academic psychology’s perspective on the nature of right and wrong is best described as ‘moral relativism.’
Because of a belief in relativism, together with a belief in the innate goodness of man, modern academic psychology does not hold people responsible for their behavior. In contrast Neuthetic counseling is explicitly rooted in scripture and helps the patient to identify sin issues and to take responsibility. Psychology, on the other hand, is little more than psychobabble and encourages people not to take ownership for their problems.
Often this evasion of responsibility arises out of psychologists teaching people to think of themselves as victims. As Jay Adams put it in ‘The Biblical Perspective on the Mind-Body Problem, Part Two,‘ “Psychologists teach people to build a lifestyle around the abuse: ‘I am an abused person.’ Not ‘I’m a farmer, a mother, a child,’ or anything else. I’m an ‘abused person.’ A whole present lifestyle is built around the past.”
Although Christians psychologists have attempted to mix Christianity with psychology, the task is about as fruitless as trying to combine the Bible with evolution. As John MacArthur has pointed out, in his book Our Sufficiency in Christ, “Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, “Christian psychology” is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency.”
By contrast, once we recognize that scripture is sufficient for all our needs, we do not require the insights of secular psychology. As Martin and Deidre Bobgan put it in their book The End of Christian Psychology, “Most Christians agree that the Bible is the basis for living the Christian life, but very few seem to believe that the Bible is sufficient to deal with all problems of living, which include those nonorganically caused categories of behavior that now carry psychiatric and psychological diagnostic labels….We maintain that God and His Word provide a completely sufficient foundation for living the Christian life, which would include mental-emotional-behavioral health. We further maintain that the Bible contains the healing balm for all nonorganically based problems of living that might be labeled as mental-emotional-behavioral disorders.”
2. Massive Caricature
Is anything wrong with the above picture? Yes. To start with, it is a massive caricature of secular psychology. To the extent that it is a caricature it runs contrary to the premium that Proverbs 2 places on wisdom and knowledge.
In establishing that the above ‘story’ of secular psychology is a caricature, I would draw your attention first to what it says about the alleged role of relativism in psychology. If we take secular psychology at its worst, the problem is more often not a lack of standards of right and wrong (relativism) but the existence of false standards. A psychotherapist will normally always have goals for his patient, goals which at least tacitly acknowledge a framework of right and wrong. But often that framework is based on false standards of right and wrong like, ‘What gives self-fulfillment = good’, etc. More often it will be based on legitimate but incomplete standards of human flourishing. Actual relativism is rare among psychologists for the same reason that aesthetic relativism is almost non-existent among art critics: no one wants to think themselves out of a job. Some framework of right and wrong is about as necessary to professional psychotherapy as the experimental method is to science.
It is also a caricature of modern psychology to imply that the discipline does not encourage people to take responsibility for their problems. This caricature often arises out of the idea that to diagnose problems as being symptoms of childhood trauma or victimization is to relieve the agent of responsibility. However, these two things need not be interconnected and often are not. While I am certainly not an expert on this subject, in my experience undergoing sessions of psychotherapy in England, talking with others who have undergone similar processes, and reading bestselling pop psychologists like Scot Peck, Norman Doidge and others, I have never come across someone urging a patient to identify as a victim in order to stay there and never move on, nor someone encouraging the agent to abrogate responsibility.
Indeed, in everything I have come across, if a psychologist diagnoses someone as having been abused, most often they will not be encouraging them to “build a lifestyle of abuse” around it but to identify the challenges they must work to overcome by taking responsibility of their choices and emotional life. Scot Peck and Norman Doidge have some great case studies about that, as does Marie T. Hoffman in her book Toward Mutual Recognition: Relational Psychoanalysis and the Christian Narrative. While there are doubtless some psychologists who encourage people not to take responsibility, it is problematic to imply that the entire discipline of modern academic psychology is tinged with this brush. That is about as absurd as dismissing all of biology because of evolutionists, or all of theology because of the writings of Arian heretics
There is an even deeper problem to those who dismiss psychoanalysis on the grounds that to diagnose problems as being symptoms of childhood trauma or victimization is to relieve the agent of responsibility. To take this view involves a lot more than merely throwing out secular psychology; in the end it entails that we throw out the Bible itself. This is because scripture frequently diagnoses individual sin as having its origin in circumstances prior to the individual and yet scripture never assumes that such diagnoses involves relieving the agent of responsibility. Passages like Exodus 20:5, Psalm 37:28 and Romans 1:18-26 show that there is a generational and cultural ramifications in communities that worship false gods, and scripture never gives one hint that to identify the larger context in which evil occurs somehow relieves an agent of guilt. Why then should we assume that for a psychologist to contextualize someone’s struggles with reference to events in their past or their childhood is necessarily to relieve the person of guilt? In fact I would go even further and argue that just as scripture gives attention to the complex network of antecedents behind a person’s sin, Christian counseling ought to also do this and to avoid the temptation to move to quickly to merely addressing symptoms.
The caricatures of modern psychology and psychoanalysis have meant that Christians like Jay Adams can claim the high moral ground in not availing themselves of the wealth of material available to Christian counselors from these secular disciplines. Instead of plundering the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2-3) in the way that creationists have done when re-appropriating the latest discoveries of science to fit within a creationist narrative, the Nouthetic approach champions a non-integrationist approach to secular psychology which would only be legitimate if the discipline was inherently wrong. Many within the Nouthetic movement do in fact argue that psychology is inherently wrong and cannot be appropriated by Christians, but their arguments misunderstand the nature of common grace and are based on a completely faulty approach to hermeneutic. That is what I want to address next.
3. Nouthetic Counseling and the Problem of Biblicism
In his article ‘Why shouldn’t Christians use the methods of men like Freud, Rogers, and others?’ Jay Adams argues erroneously that the methods of unbelievers cannot be separated from the worldview of unbelievers. He goes on to point out that
“There are many who will say that their counselling is Christian and biblical, but the test comes in evaluating what they actually do when counseling. The issue is whether or not they incorporate other beliefs and practices or not. Nouthetic Counseling is based entirely upon Scripture.”
As this last sentence suggests, Adams approach is characterized by a highly Biblicist approach.
Christians are called to be Biblical, but they are not called to be Biblicist. This is because being a Biblicist is unbiblical. But what do I mean by these terms? To put it simply, Biblicism is an approach to scripture which emphasizes the Bible’s complete clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning and, above all, its direct applicability of the Bible to every department of human life.
The key here is the word ‘direct.’ Ranald Macaulay once explained Biblical authority like this. He was speaking in a cathedral which didn’t have any electric lights but was lit up by shafts of light coming through the windows. The shafts of light came down in spotlights, directly lighting up certain areas but indirectly lighting up the entire building. He then suggested that Biblical authority is like that. I think that’s a good analogy. The Bible does not address every area of life, just as the shafts of light did not spotlight every inch of the inside of the cathedral. In order to do that the Bible would have to be not only true, but exhaustive. Instead the Bible spotlights certain areas and through them the light of God’s truth difuses to every other area of life. While there is no department of life that the Bible does not address, it only directly addresses some areas. To be a Biblical thinker means that in every area of life, one will seek to see how the Bible applies either directly or indirectly.
The Biblicist, on the other hand, acts as if every department of life is lit up directly by scripture. This faulty approach to the sufficiency of scripture lies at the heart of the Nouthetic model. This is the approach taken by Jay Adams, whose Biblicism entails him to argue that the Bible is a textbook on counseling, a view he defends here. Jay Adams has made clear in a number of places that although modern psychology can lend insights to our understanding of human behavior, in principle all such insights can be inferred directly from scripture. For Adams the Bible is sufficient in the sense that it directly addresses all human problems. Consequently, the Bible could be treated as a textbook for counseling. As he writes here, speaking of the Christian counselor:
“He does not confront him with his own ideas or the ideas of others. He limits his counsel strictly to that which may be found in the Bible, believing that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and useful for teaching, for conviction, for correction and for disciplined training in righteousness in order to fit and fully equip the man from God for every good task.” (2 Timothy 3:16,17) The nouthetic counselor believes that all that is needed to help another person love God and his neighbor as he should, as the verse above indicates, may be found in the Bible.”
No Biblicist is ever entirely consistent since it is impossible to use technology and live in the world without implicitly endorsing disciplines or fields of study not directly addressed in scripture. But the Biblicist tries his hardest to infer everything directly from scripture. Jay Adams did this through frequent word studies and exegesis that theologically conservative Bible scholars often found highly questionable.
Stan Jones pointed out the problem with this in Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal:
“While the Bible provides us with life’s most important and ultimate answers as well as the starting points for knowledge of the human condition, it is not an all-sufficient guide for the discipline of counseling. The Bible is inspired and precious, but it is also a revelation of limited scope, the main concern of which is religious in its presentation of God’s redemptive plan for people and the great doctrines of the faith.”
Make no mistake – in giving us insight into the categories that it does, scripture sheds light on all areas of life. However, since this light is indirect, Christians must work responsibly with other subordinate authorities such as science and empirical observation, using these tools within the Biblical framework. For example, Christians should not be afraid to use with discernment the insights of a man like Freud, since his observations about the human unconscious (much of which is now being verified through advances in neuoroscience) may help to shed light on areas that the Bible only indirectly touches upon. Once we have rejected the unbiblical notion of scripture’s sufficiency, we find a new freedom to use wisdom in mixing Christianity with the categories of secular psychology.
The point is worth repeating because it lies at the heart of the Nouthetic debate: Once we have rejected the unbiblical notion of scripture’s sufficiency, we find a new freedom to use wisdom in mixing Christianity with the categories of secular psychology.
This is no different in principle than Christians appropriating developments in genetics to help understand intelligent design better, or appropriating developments in paleontology to help better understand Noah’s flood. The danger of syncretism on the other side should not short-circuit these necessary endeavors.
Let’s make this practical and see only one of the many ways that attentiveness to the indirect teaching of scripture can help validate psychology. Since the Bible teaches the existence of an objective world that operates according to fixed laws that are knowable (Gen 1-2), it indirectly endorses the entire project of observing how the world works, including observations which assist us in understanding how the human brain and human behavior operate. Such scientific inquiry should rightly be perceived as an extension of the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28. If a biologist observes how biological organisms work so as to assist gardeners, or if a psychologist observes how people operate in order to better help counselors, they are both working under the umbrella of the Genesis creation account.
Those who have been tinged with the Nouthetic mindset will sometimes object to this, pointing out that it is wrong for psychologists to occupy this function because in doing so they are treating the symptoms of sin without ever getting to the root, which is man’s alienation from God and need for salvation. However, since this argument cannot apply to varieties of Christian psychology in which the evangelistic element can be prominent, to use it as an argument against the Christian appropriation of psychology only works if one has begun by assuming one’s conclusion. Furthermore, if the argument proves anything it proves too much, for we would be obliged to dismiss doctors who merely fix legs and arms without helping towards salvation, or automobile mechanics that merely assist someone to be able to drive without assisting with their salvation.
But I digress. Getting back to the issue of Biblicism, the key question that we must always keep coming back to is this: has the Bible really given us all we need to construct a system of counseling, or has it given us the framework in which we can use subordinate sources of knowledge (i.e., science and empirical observation) to construct a system within the overall umbrella of the Biblical worldview?
The same question could, of course, be asked of other disciplines. When we construct automobiles or study the composition of soil, we are working indirectly under the Biblical paradigm, since these are expressions of the dominion mandate. But the Bible doesn’t contain any verses that will tell me how to fix my Dodge. I have to use the subordinate authority (endorsed by scripture) of empirical observation for that.
In order for the extreme claims of someone like Jay Adams to work, we would have to grant that the Bible is not only true, but exhaustive. For Adams the Bible didn’t simply give us a grid by which we can sift the questions of life, but was a counseling cookbook. This led him to de-emphasize the legitimate role that science can play in helping us to understand and even to treat human problems. He wanted to circumscribe psychologists to the domain of science and medicine treating only physical problems while pastors would treat the behavior issues. He once said, “I deplore psychology’s venture into the realms of value, behavior and attitudinal change because it is an intrusion upon the work of the minister…” It is hard to see how these statements do reality to the doctrine of God’s common grace (see Matthew 5:45 and the various places where Saint Paul cites pagan poets approvingly). Defending the turf of the minister was Adams’ way to functionally deny God’s common grace, as seen in the revealing title of one of his more recent books, Is All Truth God’s Truth?
While psychologists could profitably study things like the behavioral effects of sleep loss, Adams suggested, they needed to get out of the business of trying to change people. As he wrote in Competent to Counsel, “Psychologists may make many helpful studies of man (e.g., on the effects of sleep loss). But psychologists – with neither warrant nor standard from God by which to do so – should get out of the business of trying to change persons.”
For this very reason, those who have been sucked into the Nouthetic mindset tend to be okay with psychiatrists treating disorders with medication but not psychologists treating disorders with psychoanalysis. (Recent discoveries in the way that psychoanalysis actually alters the physiological structure of our brains tends to undermine this duality, but that is a different subject.)
In his book The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context Powlison summarized some of the main criticisms of this approach as it manifested itself in the thought of Jay Adam:
“Jay Adams sought to fence psychology in to only one social role: a descriptive science studying human functioning. He similarly sought to fence psychiatry into a strictly medical role, as doctors to the ailments of the body. Neither profession had title to the functional troubles of the soul, which belonged to the pastor by divine right. Adam’s normative sociology – couched in terms of literal, God-ordained, ‘backyard’ turf – neatly reallocated professional responsibilities in a way that many conservative pastors found appealing.”…
Adams misused the Bible in three ways [according to his evangelical critics]:  He treated it as a comprehensive counseling textbook, when the Bible itself never claimed to be such;  he thus denied that the secular psychologies might contribute to counseling wisdom by God’s common grace;  he misused the Bible, by treating it as a collection of proof texts and quoting selectively. His wrong view of the Bible’s purposes led him to invalidate other sources of God’s truth and to use the Bible improperly.”
…Adams had overstated the scope of the Bible’s authoritative guidance by portraying and using it as a ‘textbook’ for counseling. Such an approach was ‘erroneous…narrow and indefensible’ in one of the milder coments; according to the more biting criticisms, Adams had turned the Bible into a ‘celestial problem-solving manual,’ and ‘[It] reminds me that when people used [the Bible] as a textbook of geography, they concluded that the world was flat.’
4. Behaviorist Anthropology
The reductionist epistemology of Biblicism leads those with a Nouthetic mindset into a reductionist anthropology. This can best be appreciated by looking closer to his counseling approach. In his article ‘What is Nouthetic Counseling?’ Jay Adams wrote
“From Biblical times onward, God’s people have counseled nouthetically. The word, used in the New Testament primarily by the apostle Paul, is translated ‘admonish, correct or instruct.’… The three ideas found in the word nouthesia are confrontation, concern, and change. To put it simply, nouthetic counseling consists of lovingly confronting people out of deep concern in order to help them make those changes that God requires.”See Also
Nouthetic Counseling thus reduced everything to issues of behavior that can be confronted nouthetically. As Adams put it here, “when they raise questions about life, pain, meaning, and purpose and the like, though they may not realize it, they are talking about problems with God. Every complaint—and men are full of them—in the final analysis is against God.” All human problems are thus reduced to moral confrontation. Adams even formalized this confrontation. In The Christian Counselor’s Manual he gave a table of Counselor Responses to contradict Counselee’s Remarks. If the counselee said, “I can’t” then the Counselor was urged to respond, “Do you mean can’t or won’t?” If the counselee says “Everything [one] is against me” the counselor is instructed to respond, “No, you are wrong. If you are a Christian the Bible says the opposite: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’” And so forth.
The nuts-and-bolts approach, with its promise of quick results through moral confrontation, has been appealing to busy pastors. Since counseling is really nothing other than private preaching under Adams’ paradigm (see Adams’ comparison of the similarities and differences between preaching and counseling), pastors found they could pick up on it relatively easy without training in psychotherapy. However, many of Adams critics have felt that this approach leads to a reductionistic anthropology which falsely assumes that all human problems can be reduced to issues of behavior and moral sin. Dr. Tim Rice described this view in Homeschool Psych: Preparing Christian Homeschool Students for Psych 101 (though Rice himself does not hold this view) when he wrote, “A Christian worldview emphasizes sin as the primary (if not exclusive) cause of mental and emotional pain; modern psychology attributes it to anything but sin.” The question, of course, is what we mean by sin. If we mean sin in the general sense of the fall and all of its results, then it is true that a Christian is committed to saying that all problems came about because of the fall. But if we mean moral sin committed by specific agents, then it is problematic to suggest that all problems arise from this and leads extreme positions like an article by Dr. Thomas Szasz that Rice references which questions whether mental illness even exists (“My aim in this essay is to raise the question ‘Is there such a thing as mental illness?’ and to argue that there is not…. mental illnesses do not exist”.)
Scripture urges us to attend to the reality of sin in both of the above senses. Because the effects of sin in our world are so pervasive, the problems sin creates for us as people cannot always be reduced to issues of specific behavior. Even when the problems that sin creates are manifested in issues of specific behavior, in order to address these issues it is sometimes necessary to back upstream and consider the broader effects of fallenness in the entire network of a person’s social, relational, emotional and psychological background. These more diffuse issues can sometimes be like pealing off the layers of an onion before you even get to the point of being able to deal with the specific areas of sin and idolatry. But it is on this more complex level that the Nouthetic paradigm is utterly useless. Because of its extreme behaviorist orientation, Nouthetic counseling is useless when it comes to understanding the heart. It wants to look only at specific areas of behavior but not to the idols of the heart that often lie behind and motivate sinful behavior (something that the counselors at CCEF helpfully understand.) In fact, in his article ‘Counseling and the Heart‘, Jay Adams uses his biblicist hermeneutic to specifically repudiate the notion that there are idols of the heart.
It would be interesting—perhaps even very helpful—IF we were told in the Bible that we could look for, and discover, distinct, so-called “idols of the heart,”… the Bible doesn’t speak of “idols of the heart” anyway…. By the way that you continually hear about idols of the heart, you’d think that the Bible required counselors to look for them.
If counselors must ignore idols of the heart, then what must counselors look for according to Jay Adams? With B.J. Skinner the answer is simple: behavior.
I do not say that the Nouthetic focus on only behaviour can never work. In fact, I do believe that in many contexts it can be useful. I can say this because I take an integrationist approach. Precisely because people are so complex and different, we must remain open to a creative application of a variety of approaches and not get locked into just one. But that is precisely what the one-size-fits-all Nouthetic paradigm denies when it rejects the entire discipline of psychology and psychoanalysis. It is the same problem with all the other psychological theories that use a single-factor explanation to explain all of experience. Freudianism has valuable insights into the human unconscious, but where it goes wrong is in using these insights as a single-factor explanation to cover all of experience; behaviorism has valuable insights into the way environment affects human behavior, but where it goes wrong is in using these insights as a single-factor explanation to cover all of experience; Neuthetic counseling has some insights in the therapeutic uses of moral confrontation, but where it goes wrong is in using this as a single-factor explanation to cover every counseling situation; similarly, CCEF has some valuable insights about identifying our heart’s idols, but where this could go wrong is when it is used as a single-purpose explanation for dealing with all problems. An integrationist uses what is best in all these and other approaches and tailors it to the individual, repudiating the one-size-fits-all paradigm.
The Nouthetic model fails to understand people as God actually created them because it fails to attend to the whole of their life experience. It circumscribes the behavioral to being the most important and denies the relevance of issues that may be upstream of behavior in the same way that Bob Newhart does in the video clip below. Given its behaviorist orientation, the Nouthetic model tends to reduce all human neurosis to either organic dysfunction or sin. Emotional, social or psychological problems that do not fall into one of those two categories didn’t seem to exist for within Adams’ schema. Not surprisingly, therefore, sociocultural and interpersonal trauma received scant treatment in Adams’ voluminous writings. By reducing all human problems to issues that can be addressed with either medication or direct moral confrontation, the Nouthetic model ended up excluding vast swabs of the human person from the picture.
Again it is worth repeating that even when the problems that sin creates are manifested in issues of specific behavior, in order to address these issues it is sometimes necessary to back upstream and consider the broader effects of fallenness in the entire network of a person’s social, relational, emotional and psychological background. These more diffuse issues can sometimes be like pealing off the layers of an onion before you even get to the point of being able to deal with the specific areas of sin and idolatry. It is this aspect which Nouthetic counseling functionally denies.“Nouthetic counseling in its fullest sense,” Adams once wrote, “then, is simply an application of the means of sanctification.” Seeing everything in terms of behavior and sanctification led Adams to minimize the sense in which meeting one’s psychological and social needs can also play an important role in a counselor’s goals.
One can be sympathetic of this approach because it aims to forestall what Adams called ‘blameshifting’ and the victim mentality. However, the liability is that it gives insufficient attention to the important contexts and causes of sin and that it leads to a highly pragmatic and behaviorist approach to the human person. In his PhD thesis The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, David Powlison wrote that
Adams’ counseling was oriented towards producing specific action, toward building new skills and habits in his counselees. His counseling was a training program in problem-solving, a ‘how-to’ course in godly living. He exhorted his readers, ‘Problems must be viewed as projects, not topics.’ … He believed that motivated counselees could change relatively rapidly but not instantly. He thought most discrete problems could be significantly remedied in six to twelve weeks if both counselor and counselees stayed on task….Adams’ piety and pastoral counsel were alike rational, pragmatic, disciplined, and hard-working.
Adams push for instant results, his rapid but superficial methodology meant that more complicated cases could fall through the gaps. In an article that Richard Winter wrote titled, ‘Jay Adams – is he really biblical enough?’ Winter said
“I would imagine that those who find it difficult to change rapidly do not stay with Jay Adams in counseling and are seen by him, not as failures in his theory or method, but rather as people who are in deep rebellion or sin. It goes without saying that this may be damaging to such individuals.”
Another liability of Adams reductionist/behaviorist anthropology is that he taught and counseled with the understanding that behavior determines feelings, not the other way round. However, we would do well to question whether this approach, which some critics have legitimately termed a ‘pervasive externalism’, can work as an all-purpose explanation encompassing all the complexities of human experience. John Carter put it like this: “Nouthetic counselors…leave out the ‘insides’ of the behaving person… the most glaring weakness of nouthetic counseling theory is that…no theory of motivation or fundamental dynamic tendency of the person is articulated.’
5. Final Concerns
The emphasis on moral confrontation within the Nouthetic paradigm is not wrong. However, I would suggest that often this has to come at the end of a long process in which the counselor gains the trust of the patient. It can be a slow process of showing respect to the person being helped, a listening ear and developing an environment that feels safe. It often involves applying the wisdom of Proverbs in skilfully navigating around a person’s mental roadblocks, or imitating the example of Paul in Acts 17:22-31 of bridge-building. This cannot be achieved if the person being counseled must endure repeated confrontation from the very beginning. I speak here from my own experience helping people and also talking to others who have undergone therapy. There was one person I tried to help overcome some areas of sin, and I repeatedly confronted the sin over and over again but got nowhere. However, once I backed upstream and tried to understand the issues behind the issues, opening up dialogue about childhood, insecurities, fears, responses to movies, etc., I eventually was able to bring the discussion round to the areas of sin and this time the person was ready to deal with it. My goals were the same as Nouthetic counseling but my method was not.
I imagine that the Nouthetic model would be especially unhelpful if the person being helped has been the victim of sexual abuse in which the role of self-awareness can be a crucial precondition to behavioral change. Victims of sex abuse often hide from themselves as a way of coping with the pain, and thus can have major deficits in self-awareness. I have known people who were victims of unimaginable trauma who had to undergo psychotherapy for years before they got to the point of being able to directly address their problems. Sometimes people enter therapy with problems they think are the real issue, only to discover other issues deeper down that take time and patience to address. All of this takes time, a trusting environment, and a counselor who is willing to avail himself of the enormous resources available within the adademic discipline of psychotherapy. If one falsely believes that everything one needs for this is directly addressed in the Bible, then it is a disaster waiting to happen.
For many people whose problems are complex, simply getting them to the point of being able to talk about their sin issues is 99% of the process, yet Jay Adams explicitly urges counselors not work with anyone who does not want to be helped. This is not surprising, seeing as the Nouthetic model strips the counselor of any tools by which he might be able to work with a person who does not want to be helped at the outset of the process. The Nouthetic model kicks in after the Prodigal son has returned and wants help, but is useless in helping a counselor know how to pursue someone who is in such rebellion that moral confrontation may simply drive the person further away. The Nouthetic model looks at a person in such a situation and puts the onus entirely on him or her to return and seek help, thus denying the numerous times in scripture where the Lord proactively pursues His lost sheep Luke 15:3–7 or in the prophetic corpus where the Lord goes after His wayward people Israel to bring them back.
The Nouthetic model thus sits comfortably with a type of Calvinist mentality which rests confident in the knowledge that since God is going to make sure the elect get saved and the wicked get punished, all we have to do is maintain the integrity of the body by putting sinners out of it, and God will bring the sinner back if he wishes. Since God is in charge, we don’t have to concern ourselves with doing everything we can on our end to help the struggling sinner. The speed with which the Nouthetic model moves to church discipline, its lack of concern for finding creative ways to help a sinner who is unrepentant, and its opposition to trying to help a person who does not explicitly desire such help, all fit comfortably within this hyper-Calvinist framework.
Pastors whose thinking has been tinctured by this paradigm, suddenly find themselves in a win-win situation. If a struggling sinner is put under church discipline or excommunicated, the sinner is either part of the elect or not. If he is not, then the discipline will inevitably drive the sinner further away and the church will be purified (that is, the visible church will be brought more into alignment with the invisible). But if the sinner is not part of the elect, then the discipline will cause him to come back as surely as the prodigal son came back. In both cases, struggling to understand any psychological issues the sinner may be struggling with so as to better help him, is at best irrelevant and at worst a dangerous distraction.
At its worst the Nouthetic model allows counselors to claim the moral high ground in not working with those whose problems are complex and whose troubles evade simple explanations. As such Nouthetic counseling strikes at the very heart of the gospel. It creates a class of spiritual outcasts by denying that help can be offered to those whose problems are so complex that they cannot be addressed simply and briefly. (I forget the timeline Jay Adams gave for helping a person, but it is very brief. If the person can’t be helped by then, then there is nothing the counselor can do.)
Again, I am not saying that Nouthetic counseling can never work, or that there are no situations which call for it. What I dispute is the incredible claim that this is the only legitimate way, and that all people – no matter what their background and no matter how complex their problems – must be squeezed into this narrow mold. It commits the same error as many other ‘systems’ of psychology and philosophy in trying to create an over-arching narrative that applies to all situations and acknowledges no exception. This one-size-fits-all approach is at the heart of Nouthetic counseling as it is defined by its own advocates.
Therefore, when I say that Nouthetic counseling is unbiblical, I mean that the claims it makes and the theoretical apparatus that underpin it is contrary to the truth of scripture. I do not mean that there is never a place for functionally incorporating the strategies it advocates. Indeed, there is a place for selectively integrating the strategies of Nouthetic counseling within a Biblical framework if such strategies are first evacuated from the unbiblical principles behind it, just as there is a place for integrating the insights of Freudianism within a Biblical framework after evacuating those insights of the pagan principles behind it.
There is still the objection that the Bible does not give examples of people undergoing sessions of psychotherapy. Let’s not forget, however, that psychotherapy has only really developed as a formal discipline comparatively recently in redemption history thanks to advances in understanding the unconscious and the human brain. Within a postmillennial framework this should not be a problem for us to acknowledge and the church should look forward to the resources that will be available to our children’s children which are not yet available to us. Before psychotherapy was developed as a separate discipline in the 19th century, it just happened informally in relationships. (I actually think that informal relationships is one of the best ways that therapy occurs.) One example of psychology being done informally to lead to inner healing is the incident with Joseph and his brothers leading up to Genesis 45. Or just think of the way that Samuel used psychology when confronting David about his sin.
There are plenty of examples of scripture urging the church to deal with sin, which psychology has the potential to do within an ecclesial context. When writing to the Philippians, for example, Paul told the people to help Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind. (Philippians 4:3). He doesn’t tell the people how to help these women, he just says to help them. In Galatians 6:1 Paul says that we are to restore a person who is overtaken in any trespass, though he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about how this is to happen. The central question, therefore, is this: given that there is evidence from our observation of people and the world that psychology can help us in situations comparable to those Paul is addressing, why should it be bracketed out as irrelevant in helping a person? One may, of course, dispute that such evidence exists, but then it becomes a question of empirical question rather than a question of principle. However, because the Nouthetic approach is against psychology a priori it can never be moved by additional data about our world. To acknowledge the relevance of that data would be to abandon the first principles on which the Nouthetic mindset is grounded.
Finally, I would like to close by sharing something that a very wise Christian author told me when I was in London last. He said in times past pastors had to work without any of the advantages of modern psychology in counseling their flock, and God was gracious enough to bless their limited, imperfect efforts with disproportionate success. However, he went on to point out that now that the church has been blessed by people like Freud, if we shut our eyes blindly and obstinately against these resources and think that we can continue to go forward with the same measure of success, we should not expect God to bless our efforts. In fact, he said, God will judge the church for her folly.