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

Jay Adams and The Biblcial 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). I had to cut my full summary and critique out since it was very lengthy.

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, 12) in poimenics (the art of pastoral ministry) is an understatement (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 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 verity 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 method- ology 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 sin-rooted problem).

Further- more, 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 confront- ation, 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 is 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 modes 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.


Blogger Stephen Newell said...

Thanks for this, it is well-argued and right on. As one of the last people to graduate with the Pastoral Counseling M.Div., I thought that there is much to be learned from Adams and much raise an eyebrow at as well. I'd be interested in reading the whole critique, if you're willing!

I see you're also reading Dr. Johnson's new book. Isn't it great?

Fri Sep 28, 09:45:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Stephen: Glad you enjoyed and agree with my critique. I'm kinda hopin' that someone who doesn't agree with me will bite on the title and engage my thoughts. I guess I'm a minority here now as far as my counseling views go. I'm not so confident the model for "biblical" counseling now is as "biblical" as Johnson's model. It's a shame the way the debates get carried out ("Biblical" counseling VS. integrationist counseling-----as if one is biblical and one is not). Anyhow...

What I've read so far in Johnson's book seems so much more perceptive than the Biblical Counseling liturature. If I were a counseling major I would have to make reading the whole thing a priority; but I'm not (and don't have the luxury right now with all the other stuff goin' on).

Sat Sep 29, 08:21:00 AM  
Blogger Mary Mc said...

I think your concerns about Jay Adams' paradigm make sense. (This coming from someone who is not an expert in "Biblical" counseling ala Adams nor in "Christian" counseling.) I laud Adams' emphasis on dealing with the sin involved in a person's "psychological" issues, but I think you're right to point out that sin is often not the only problem. Adam took pastoral counseling with Johnson and found it completely biblical. At the same time, Johnson also challenged Adam's (my husband not Jay) presuppositions AGAINST science and demonstrated in a convincing and biblical way the things science can teach us.

Mon Oct 01, 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Thanks for your thoughts Mary. Wow. I sooooo wish I could take Johnson for a class, but it wouldn't make any sense given my area of Ph.D. hopes. I would love to talk to Adam about it. Remind me to talk to him about it next time I come over.

Mon Oct 01, 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

I was one of the first people to take RCT with Dr. Johnson. It was the best experience I ever had! I think it made me a better counselor.

Sat Oct 06, 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Thanks Teresa; I would soooo love to take one of his classes! I've heard they are life-changing (and after all, shouldn't they be?)!

Mon Oct 08, 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Forgive my vanity, but I think the pic of me in a trash bag makes your blog really smashing.

Tue Oct 09, 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Hey Bradley,
I am writing a paper on Ellison's psychospiritual model and using nothetic as a comparison point. I really liked your critique and was wondering if I could use it in my paper.

Thu Nov 29, 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...


By all means; use it. Glad to be of help.


Thu Nov 29, 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Thanks. just in case my professor asks about your expertise,
which college are you/have you attending/attended?

Mon Dec 03, 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Bradley said...

I'm currently working on an M.Div (Masters of Divinity) at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where the "Biblical" counseling movement reigns supreme).

Mon Dec 03, 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Oh, and I got a Bach.of.Science in Religion at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Mon Dec 03, 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous nina said...

i thought that there is much to be learned from Adams and much raise an eyebrow at as well. I'd be interested in reading the whole critique, if you're willing!
"Christian Drug Rehab

Mon Jun 23, 05:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you an Arminian?

Thu Oct 16, 07:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a seven point Calvinist.

Thu Oct 16, 08:00:00 PM  

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