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