The greatest advantage of the Nouthetic approach is that it truly attempts to exalt the sufficiency of Scripture. Further, it rejects mainstream, integrated, and Christian psychology. However, there are some significant disadvantages: Nouthetic is imbalanced, in that all counseling is considered to be admonishment; it is very behavioristic and sin focused; it abandons the discipline of psychology altogether; it is rooted in the B+t of contemporary Reformed or Covenant theology. Each of these concerns is significant enough to warrant discussion here.
Problem #1: Admonishment ≠ All Counseling
In a Venn diagram illustrating this assertion, the two circles would be completely overlapping (Diagram A.), but this doesn’t square with the Biblical data. There are eleven NT instances of νουθετέω/νουθεσία. Five are descriptive.106 Six of these instances are prescriptive,107 and in several of these νουθετέω/νουθεσία is considered with other verbs, so there is no exegetical warrant for asserting that all counseling is simply nouthetic.
Problem #2: The Behavioristic Sin Focus
Notice the emphasis on works as separate from and preceding honoring God: “By change we mean that counseling is done because there is something in another Christian’s life that fails to meet the biblical requirements and that, therefore, keeps him from honoring God.”108 Again, we have an exegetical problem. Note that Job was not guilty of sin, but ignorance.109 Further, we are told to reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned,110 whereas a wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel.111 In other words, it is the wise man who increases in learning, and his increase is not connected to the eradication of sin behaviors, but rather to a process of (transformative) learning.
Problem #3: Abandons the Discipline of Psychology
Psychology is not a worldview, it is a discipline or field of study, and more specifically, it is the study of the mind, soul. While all perspectives on psychology are grounded in worldview, there is one worldview perspective that is correct: who knows the mind and soul better than the Creator? The Bible is the authoritative source for knowledge of the mind and soul, thus the primary textbook for proper psychology (Biblical psychology). There are truths outside of the Bible in many disciplines that we find useful (logic, math, physics, propositional truths, descriptions, etc.). These are extra-biblical, subject to Scripture, and still useful. They are not to be equated (integrated) with, but to be interpreted by the authority of Scripture. Adams understands the challenge:
In my understanding, attempted integration of the Scriptures with worldly counseling beliefs, methods, and/or techniques inevitably means that in order to make them agree, the Scriptures are bent to fit the non-scriptural material that the counselor attempts to integrate with it. I believe the task is impossible without ending in a non-scriptural method.112
However, by throwing out the entire discipline of psychology, the consequence is that Christians have abandoned the study of the mind and the soul to those who deny the Creator. Christians have doomed an entire field of study to be populated by falsehood.
Problem #4: Built on a Covenant Platform
This problem is discernible in three specific ways. First, the B+t approach is evident in the methodology of Reformed/Covenant theology: begin with theology and exegete in light of that (incidentally, that is eerily similar to the RCC hermeneutic). DeYoung teaches that “Your theological system should tell you how to exegete.”113 Adams is transparent about how theological pre-commitments impact his interpretation:
If a matter has been settled by the church, it is wrong to stir up the thinking of the general population of Christians about any change in such long-settled theology unless it is clearly an exegetically-supported change that can be demonstrated to be a genuine advance in thought that improves upon accepted Reformation doctrine.114
A second problematic aspect of the Nouthetic counseling approach is that the limited atonement view (which Adams asserts is central to the theology that undergirds Nouthetic counseling) makes it impossible to counsel an unbeliever that Jesus died for them.115 Adams remarks,
As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died.116
A third problem is the mixed message on sanctification, that godliness comes through self-discipline, and sanctification by works of the Law. Adams illustrates this tension, saying,
Discipline is the secret of godliness…You must learn to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness… discipline means work; it means sustained daily effort….An athlete becomes an expert only by years of hard practice…[Taking up the cross] means putting to death the old life patterns of the old man….This is what it means to discipline oneself for godliness. It means to continue to say ‘no’ to self and to say ‘yes’ to Christ every day until one by one all of the old habitual ways are replaced by new ones. It means that by daily endeavor to follow God’s Son, one finds at length that doing so is more ‘natural’ than not doing so…If you practice what God tells you to do, the obedient life will become a part of you. There is no simple, quick, easy way to instant godliness.117
Paul seems to take a different tack in several passages in his Letter to the Galatians:
This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you being perfected by the flesh?118
But now that faith has come we are no longer under a tutor.119
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.120
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?121
But I say walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh…But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.122
Adams is to be commended for seeking a return to Biblical authority and sufficiency. He made great strides in drawing people to the Scriptures to find their solutions. However, as is the case in any reformation, there often remains the residue of the old and faulty, even as there is an attempt to refine. The intention here is not to castigate Adams, but rather to challenge us to refine, understanding the work Adams has done, deconstruct our understanding of psychology and counseling, and rebuild it not on B+t, but on B+Ø.
B+Ø Applied to Psychology and Counseling
Paul challenges the Colossians to be sure that no one takes them “captive through the philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”123 It is important to note that this is not a blanket condemnation of philosophy, but rather an indictment of the philosophy that is according to things other than Christ. It is that kind of philosophy that captures and enslaves. On the other hand, Paul is desiring that the Colossians would have a correct philosophy—one that is according to Christ. That philosophy is rooted in a proper mindset,124 and based on the doctrinal and practical elements discussed in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, it could be described as a mental posture that effects the spirit, engages the will, and is manifested in conduct. In other words, Paul is advocating the right kind of philosophy, which we could say is the product of transformative learning, and we could add that Biblical counseling could play a significant role in that process, because of the content Paul provides to help us understand what Biblical counseling would look like.
But Biblical counseling is a practical outworking—a prescriptive activity—based on descriptions found in the Bible. In a worldview context, the prescriptive requires a descriptive—there ought to be an is upon which the ought relies. That descriptive is can be understood as the Biblical teaching on metaphysics (the nature of reality) as it pertains to what a person is, what a person needs, and how a person can get what they need. This is within a subset of metaphysics called anthropology, and is a subset of anthropology, that we could call psychology—the study of the human soul or mind. It is that Biblical teaching on these aspects of personhood that should govern our prescriptions toward transformative teaching and learning.
Now, some perceive psychology as a humanistic system of teaching that denies the Creator and operates from the vantage point that humanity is merely matter and energy. But that is not psychology. That would be a secular humanistic psychology. Psychology is itself a discipline—nothing more than a field of study. It is not a worldview. But in our times the discipline of psychology has been so overrun by the worldview of secular humanism, that it seems impossible to extricate the discipline from the philosophies that are not according to Christ. Our job is to understand where the content for an accurate psychology is derived. How we answer that question will determine the kind of counseling we will be doing, and from what vantage point. Psychology is not an extra-biblical resource. Psychology is simply the component within metaphysics that provides the is to ground the ought. The bases for the worldview (epistemology as well as other aspects of metaphysics) will ultimately predetermine the tenets of the psychology. Psychology is a discipline that is populated by the foundational principles of the worldview. Thus, while psychology is not a worldview, it is inextricable from the worldview that defines it. It is therefore incumbent upon counselors who seek to be Biblical to have a thoroughgoing Biblical psychology.
From a B+Ø perspective, the tool needed for this type of transformative teaching/learning is clearly and simply Scripture. Paul is clear about the sufficiency of Scripture for the equipping of believers,125 and for the enlightening of unbelievers.126 Undoubtedly, there is no need for extra-biblical resources in either of these process, however, there is also no prohibition, and considering the examples experience, resources for sustenance, and helps employed beyond Scripture, we can see some advantage to the proper utilization of extra-biblical tools. Experiences (in the form of illustration and remembrance, for example), tools of sustenance (including medical aids where needed), and helps beyond Scripture (potentially including models, and methods—including scientific—that are observed through the lens of Scripture) may be employed.
Additionally, B+Ø provides modeling for assessment of when extra-biblical can be most helpfully engaged to complement Biblical content. Paul’s Acts 17 evangelistic episode in Athens records one such model. First, in 17:22-23 Paul shows familiarity with Greek culture and an ability to dialogue from within that framework. He appeals to a specific point of cultural ignorance in which to inject gospel truth. Then in 17:28 he invokes a line from Aratus’ Phaenomena, a popular Greek poem. Paul engages with popular culture to meet the Athenians where they are with the truth of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In other contexts Paul reminds his readers that “all things are permissible, but not all things edify.”127 He challenges them to think on things that are worthy,128 and to speak only those things that are effective for meeting the need of the moment and for building up the house.129 The writer of Hebrews encourages believers to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.”130 These are transformative teaching and learning activities, and they don’t involve integrating a Biblical approach with extra-biblical concepts, but rather undergirding our entire worldview on the words of Scripture.
(Reformed) Biblical counselor, Jeff Forrey summarizes well the distinctiveness of this approach versus the integrative approach:
Perhaps…we could say there is a need for reinterpretation as Christians consider the claims made by mainstream psychologists. And these two processes are different. “Integration” assumes a continuity between secular and biblical worldview presuppositions that cannot be assumed to exist. “Reinterpretation” assumes a discontinuity between the two worldviews that requires a different way of understanding concepts or theories in relationship to what the Bible teaches.131
I would describe this as infusion versus refraction. Infusion (think of the process of brewing coffee) can be passive and distortive. One ingredient is received by another, resulting in a third product. Biblical thinking can be infused with secular psychology, integrated psychology, even Christian psychology, or Nouthetic psychology. But what we are after is refraction. Refraction can be active and corrective, allowing the observer to observe accurately. The Bible is the refractive lens through which to interpret and reinterpret all knowledge of the mind/soul. And before we can counsel Biblically, we must have an understanding of the Biblical psychology.
This approach has the advantage of seeking to view all knowledge through the lens of Scripture, and to subject all knowledge to the authority of Scripture. It encourages science and research within the field of psychology. It offers a Biblical balance of description and prescription. Of course, if the Bible is unreliable, then the refractive power of Scripture is distortive rather than corrective, but the epistemological premise of the B+Ø approach is that God’s word is authoritative and sufficient for our understanding, for our equipping, and for our practice. There are many extra-biblical resources that we can employ, but in seeking out how and when to do that, we mustn’t lose sight of the one reliable constant that God has provided for us—the Bible.
106 Acts 20:31-32 (admonish and commend), Romans 15:14, 1 Corinthians 4:14, 10:11, and 2 Thessalonians 3:15.
107 Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 1:28, 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 5:14, and Titus 3:10.
108 Adams, “What is “Nouthetic” Counseling?”
109 Job 1:22, 2:10, 40:3-5, 42:1-6.
110 Titus 3:10-11.
111 Proverbs 1:5.
112 Jay Adams, “Competent to Counsel: An Interview With Jay Adams,” Ligonier Ministries, Feb 1, 2014, viewed at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/competent-counsel-interview-jay-adams/.
113 DeYoung ”Your Theological System Should Tell You How to Exegete.”
115 Christopher Cone, “Culinary Calvinism: Considering Jay Adams’ Tulipburger,” August 7, 2017, viewed at http://www.drcone.com/2017/08/07/culinary-calvinism-considering-jay-adams-tulipburger/.
116 Jay Adams, “Evangelism and Counseling,” Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling, EPub Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
117 Jay Adams, Godliness Through Discipline (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1983), 2,3,5-6.
118 Galatians 3:2-3.
120 Gal. 5:1.
121 Gal. 5:7.
122 Gal. 5:16-18.
123 Colossians 2:8.
124 Gal. 3:1-4.
125 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
126 2 Timothy 3:15.
127 1 Corinthians 10:23.
128 Philippians 4:8.
129 Ephesians 4:29.
130 Hebrews 10:24.
131 Jeff Forrey, “A Response to “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer,” Biblical Counseling Coalition, October 27, 2014, viewed at http://biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2014/10/27/a-response-to-the-integration-of-christianity-and-psychology-a-guest-post-by-sarah-rainer/.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.