From Nouthetic Counselling to Biblical Counselling

Part two of a three-part review of David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, New Growth Press, 1996 by guest blogger, Jonny Woodrow, contributes a three-part review. Jonny is an NTI tutor and has a PhD in social psychology.

In the first part Jonny looked at the strengths of Jay Adam’s nouthetic counselling. Here he outlines the critique and refinements by Powlison and others within the biblical counselling movement.

Adams’ movement found traction among conservative evangelicals because it started out from a Protestant, Reformed creedal perceptive. It was therefore confined to a particular constituency. The battle with evangelical psychotherapists also happened within this constituency. Powlison details their critique. On each of Adam’s six points, the evangelical psychotherapists (EPs) agreed with him in part, but found his thinking narrow, superficial and underdeveloped.

First, the EPs agreed that the Bible needed to be the filter for all psychological knowledge and therapy. However, they critiqued Adams on two points. They argued that his own use of the Bible was biblicist rather than biblical. Adams’ approach to the Bible relied on proof-texting, concordances and word studies. He took verses out of context and pressed them into his agenda, pulling whole diagnoses and counselling methodologies from a collection of verses. They also suggested that he was inconsistent in his understanding of God’s common grace revelation through science and how it related to the Bible. Adams was happy to incorporate physiological insights from science, but not happy with the application of psychological theory and research.

Second, the EPs agreed that sin was the core of the human problem. But they critiqued Adams for being too behaviouristic in his understanding of sin. He saw sin in terms of behavioural patterns diverging from God’s law. Much of his prescription for change involved ‘putting off’ old behaviours and ‘putting on’ new godly behaviour patterns. The EPs argued that he missed out the internal dynamics of the heart. For Adams, behaviour directed feelings. For the EPs Adams lacked a clear understanding of motivational factors, like desires, values and beliefs that drive behaviour. They argued that Adams had a thin view of sin and an over-emphasis on the strength of conscience and will power. Adams emphasised change and the relief of guilt feelings through behaviour change. The result was Reformed Calvinistic theology that turned into a new form of Pelagianism in practice.

Third, the EPs agreed that social and physiological factors did not cause sin, but critiqued Adams for neglecting the shaping influences of social, economic, political and biological factors. These themes were underdeveloped in Adams leaving the impression that sin happens in a historical vacuum with no context shaping it. The important element he missed was that counselees are often sinners who are also sinned against. This required a more nuanced approach than the confrontational and over-simplistic approach of Adams’ nouthetic counselling which underplayed these dynamics.

Fourth, although Adams commended the gospel for change, in practice his critics said that he commended relief from guilt by a combination forgiveness and behavioural change. Behaviour was given a role in the change process that denied grace. Instead the EPs insisted on free grace that changes the identity of the sinner, making them guilt free. Behaviour change would come from this new identity rather than functioning as a causal component. They accused him of a counselling model led by law and will power rather than led by grace and identity.

Fifth, to the EPs Adams insistence on the pastor as an authoritative counsellor was problematic. They agreed that the church had been ineffective in pastoral care and pastors needed training. The problem was that Adams’ primary mode of counselling was confrontation. He missed out other forms of speaking: encouraging, compassion, bearing with each other. The full range of biblical methodology was ignored by Adams. This also stood as a further example of his proof-texting approach to Scripture and his tendency to hang too much of his model on a few verses. The emphasis on the confrontational mode also meant scant attention was given to the relational dynamics of the counselling relationship.

Sixth, the EPs enjoyed some of Adams’ critique the kind of Christian counselling that amounted to no more than secular counselling with a sprinkle of Bible verses. However, they criticized Adams’ failure to engage properly with psychology in his polemical writings. He was accused of not reading original sources, setting up straw men and misrepresenting secular psychologists. Some of these criticisms came from John Bettler, Adams’ own disciple and recently retired head of CCEF. In particular EPs thought Adams could learn from the Rogerian counselling approach that he lambasted so much. Rogers may have counselled without a biblical understanding of the human, but he had at least developed an approach that took relationship seriously in the counselling process – something Adams’ critics said he had not done.
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2 thoughts on “From Nouthetic Counselling to Biblical Counselling

  1. Pingback: The Biblical Counselling Movement « Tim Chester

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