Jay E Adams and nouthetic counselling

I mentioned in recent posts that I’ve been looking at Jay E Adams’ The Christian Counsellor’s Casebook. Adams is considered the founding father of the Biblical Counselling movement.  So, it is worth saying at this stage three things.

  1. I’m in favour of Biblical counselling in that I believe pastors are able to offer counsel and care to people and that the source of this counsel should be Scripture.
  2. That the Biblical Counselling Movement encompasses a range of views and has developed significantly since Jay Adams day.
  3. That Adams needs to be understood in context. He was reacting to particularly cultural and philosophical concerns of his time. I have some sympathy with his concerns.

Having said that I do have issues with Adam’s approach which he refers to as “nouthetic counselling”- the term I’ve used here to distinguish it from other approaches to Biblical and Christian counselling. In terms of Adam’s own approach we might describe it as follows

  1. A particular suspicion of any forms of therapy outside of strictly Biblical counsel or medical treatment for clearly identifiable organic causes.
  2. An approach that was confrontational in tone. The aim was to confront the counselee with Scripture in order to bring about change
  3. A belief that the cause of a person’s problems including (in his view wrongly labelled) mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia etc was their sin. 

Note that Adams recognised that a person might be sinned against but their own mental suffering was a result not of the sin against them but rather of their own sinful responses to those who had wronged them. For example, this might include a failure to forgive. So, the methodology is fairly simple.

  1. Identify the root cause sin
  2.  Repent of the root cause sin
  3. Change your behaviour (assisted by home-work exercises)

My problem with Adams’ approach therefore is threefold.

  1. I think he fails to acknowledge the complexities of human nature post fall  so that we are both fallen and frail.  This combined with a scepticism about general revelation and common grace means that his understanding of illness and health is very narrowly defined.
  2. His approach seems to exclude the possibility that the cause of a person’s suffering may be the harm done by others or the circumstances in which they are in. This means he always looks for that person’s own sin. This is not in line with Scripture and indeed suggests a mechanistic approach more akin to prosperity thinking
  3. The mechanical approach described above doesn’t allow for much in terms of deep reflection and risks shallow analysis and behaviourist responses.

The net result of all of this is that we end up with an approach that often comes across as harsh and legalistic.  I do not doubt that there will have been people helped by a form of tough love and that the Holy Spirit can use the imperfect efforts of those seeking to serve him and love others.  Indeed, whilst of necessity, Adams comes across as brutal and matter of fact in his books, that is not to say that there wasn’t warmth and compassion in his actual pastoral dealings with people who came to him or that the same qualities might be present in those who followed him. 

However, the concerns I raise above do mean that there are serious risks and dangers with the approach associated with Adams and for that reason I would be wary of following his methodology.

%d bloggers like this: