Last Sunday a guest speaker at church did a little promo for an upcoming seminar on nouthetic counseling. Since this movement has a following in some Reformed circles, I’ll take the occasion to briefly evaluate nouthetic counseling.
Nouthetic counseling was founded by Jay Adams. Adams is even better known as a world-class skateboarder.
On second thought, that’s a different Jay Adams. Sorry ‘bout that!
Moving along—as soon as you slap a “Reformed” adjective ontp something or another, a number of people in the Reformed community let down their guard. “Well, if it’s ‘Reformed,’ then it must be good!”
But we need to observe a few cautions:
1.The fact that a Calvinist may believe in something doesn’t automatically make his belief a Reformed distinctive or Reformed essential. Let’s not confuse an adventitious association with a logical implication.
For example, Harold Camping made a name for himself as a Calvinist. But this doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that some of his eccentric beliefs are the least bit Calvinistic.
2.Even if something is Reformed, there can sometimes be more than one Reformed viewpoint.
3.And even if something is Reformed, it still needs to acquit itself before the bar of Scripture.
I don’t say any of this in criticism of nouthetic counseling. But just as a reminder that not everything which flies under the banner of Calvinism should go unexamined.
II. The Upside
1.There’s no doubt that modern psychology is chock-full of quackery and irreligious ideology. Indeed, the two often go together. Irreligious ideology promotes quackery, while quacks promote irreligious ideology.
Nouthetic counseling has rightly summed us to be alert to the humanism and charlatanism embedded in so much modern psychology.
2.Apropos (1), it’s often impossible to give sound advice without a sound view of human nature or morality. This Bible is the first place we should turn for such guidance.
Once again, nouthetic counseling has rightly redirected the conversation.
3.Adams has accentuated the importance of behavior modification. Not merely the attempt to break off bad habits, but forming good habits to take the place of bad habits. Up to a point, this is useful advice.
4.Although Adams is best known for nouthetic counseling, he has also written a number of very useful books on preaching. Indeed, I regard his writing in the field of homiletics as preferable to his psychological stuff.
5.Adams has the voice, vernacular, and stage-presence of a natural-born preacher. Some of his taped sermons are good models of manly preaching.
III. The Downside
Adams is a reactionary. As such, he’s distinguished by the strengths and weaknesses of a reactionary.
1.Certainly we should look to the Bible as our primary source of guidance. When, however, we look to the Bible, we also find that the Bible points us to the real world as another source of knowledge.
To the extent that modern psychology can never entirely escape natural revelation or common grace, there is much to be gleaned from a discriminating study of modern psychology.
We can learn from experience. We can learn from case studies. We can learn from abnormal psychology, child psychology, clinical psychology, criminal psychology, empirical psychology, parapsychology, neuropsychology, neuropharmacology, psycholinguistics, psychoendrocrinology, &c.
There’s an anti-scientific bias to nouthetic counseling, but Calvinism has a doctrine of ordinary providence.
2.Apropos (1), we can also learn a thing or two from Christian practioners outside the Reformed stable, such as Paul C. Vitz, Gary Collins, Paul Meier, Norman Wright, and James Dobson.
3.Nouthetic counseling has a problem with mental illness. Ironically, Adams is also influenced by academic fads and secular authors. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a fellow Calvinist, has pointed out:
The third category [of illness] to which your patient, or enquirer, may belong is the psychological. I use that general term, but if you prefer it, it could be “mental illness.” This is at the present time an important consideration because we are now in the midst of one of the latest crazes, or fashions, in the Christian, and even evangelical, world. The concept of “mental illness” has come under attack at the present time, mainly as the result of the writings of Thomas Szasz…Unfortunately, too, he now has a number of followers who are writing up his views in popular books. One of the best known is Jay Adams with his widely selling Competent to Counsel. But he is just a popularizer of Thomas Szasz and he is simply affirming, with Szasz, that there is no such entity as mental illness, that patients are really suffering from sin and need to be dealt with purely in a scriptural manner,” Healing & the Scriptures (T. Nelson 1988), 153,155.
4.Apropos (3), the proudly amateurish quality of nouthetic counseling would potentially endanger a counselee who suffers from mental illness.
For example, nouthetic counseling doesn’t have much use for psychotropic drugs. Indeed, a nouthetic counselor, unlike a psychiatrist, lacks the medical training or certification to administer psychotropic drugs.
Now there’s no doubt that we live in an overmedicated culture. But this doesn’t mean that mental illness is an illusion, or that mental illness can never be treated by psychotropic drugs.
5.Because nouthetic counseling is theologically oriented, it is only as good as the theology feeding into it.
For example, on matters of divorce and remarriage, it is only as good as its exegesis of the pertinent passages of Scripture. And, in that respect, there’s no particular reason why we should first turn to Jay Adams or some disciple of his for the exegesis of Gen 2 or Mt 19 or 1 Cor 7. Begin with the leading commentators.
In my opinion, Adams is not a terribly discerning or reliable exegete.
6.Likewise, Adams is a cessationist. And since nouthetic counseling is theologically-oriented, this has a direct impact on a certain type of counselee.
Adams doesn’t believe in demonic possession during the church age, or other forms of occultic bondage.
But if he’s wrong on that, then nouthetic counseling will be ineffectual at best, and harmful at worst, in dealing with a counselee who is suffering from some form of demonic oppression.
7.Adams has a rather mechanical, push-bottom approach to sanctification, as if by running down a checklist you can outgrow a besetting sin or compulsive behavior.
But our sins and character-traits are often far more entrenched than that lawnmower will successfully uproot.
8.Apropos (7), nouthetic counseling fosters a cookie-cutter attitude towards the counselee. You don’t really listen to them. Or you only listen long enough to locate them in a preexisting slot, then quote Scripture to them.
In my opinion, a number of the Puritans, like William Ames, Richard Sibbes, and Richard Baxter were far better at dealing with cases of conscience than the fairly formulaic and confrontational methods of nouthetic counseling, viz.
The Bruised Reed (Puritan Paperbacks) (Banner of Truth Trust)
by Richard Sibbes
Works of Richard Sibbes. Volume 1 (Banner of Truth 1973)
Conscience: With the Power and Cases Thereof (Still Waters Revival Books, reprint)
by William Ames
Christian Directory (Soli Deo Gloria Ministries; New Ed edition 1997)
by Richard Baxter, J. I. Packer
9.And don’t forget to read commentators like Waltke and Longman on the Book of Proverbs.
10.Finally, Christian bloggers like Jeremy Pierce, Adrian Warnocke, and JollyBlogger have evaluated nouthetic counseling in the past. Check it out.