A Systematic Theology of Counseling

Part Three in a series

God’s Word comes to us as poetry and narrative, proverbs and prose, metaphors, parables, prophecy, letters, edicts, law, and so much more. Is it not given to us in dictionary form enabling us to look up subjects in an index and learn what God says about a specific subject. Because of this, our forefathers in the faith have labored to organize biblical data in a systematic way. We refer to these efforts as “Systematic Theology” and the study of Systematic Theology has produced hundreds of systems of theology over the millennia since these efforts began.

Most of these systems of theology have been given names. Sometimes these names are descriptive of the conclusions of the system—Unitarian, Postmillennial. Often they are named for the originator or key theologian of the system—Calvinism, Arminian, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pelagian.

Even subdivisions of these systems have identifying names. Under eschatology, we have Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. In Ecclesiology, we have Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal forms of church government. Even the order of salvation has subdivisions—Supralapsarianism, Sublapsarianism, Infralapsarianism, etc.

In the area of counseling, the secular world has been devising and debating systems for more than a century. For many years three main systems held sway—Freudian, Rogerian, and Behaviorism. Each had a plethora of subdivisions and spinoffs. Today, there are hundreds of these systems, including systems that seek to integrate a secular system of counseling with a theological system.

Beginning in the early 1960s, an accomplished theologian, Greek scholar, and Bible exegete launched a personal study of the popular secular systems of counseling and labored to understand how any one of them could integrate with what he believed would be a faithful system of theology. After pouring over scores of psychological textbooks, and spending an entire summer traveling with a former president of the American Psychological Association, he concluded such integration was a hopeless task. Once he came to that conclusion, he was able to free himself from the rubble and clutter of these secular systems and focus on building a thoroughly biblical counseling system. He formed the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation to serve as a kind of laboratory in which he and his students could do counseling and study what the Scriptures taught about the various problems counselees presented to them.

By 1970 he was ready to publish his first book detailing his conclusions, and with Competent to Counsel, began to build a system of counseling that would be constructed only of materials he found in the Bible. Before he could build, however, he had to do for his reader what he had done himself. He had to clear away the ruins of the shoddily constructed systems that had gone before and prepare a level building site. In order to do the work of site preparation, one has to use a bulldozer. Shovels and rakes will not do. In Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams took a bulldozer to the failed secular systems that many Christians were trying to use along with their Bibles.

The results were predictable. Those who were still living in those dilapidated structures railed against Adams and his system. He had pushed their systems aside and warned others not to take shelter under their roofs. Those structures were built with inferior materials and would collapse and injure those who abode there. But countless pastors and other believers rose up and called him blessed for providing a sturdy new system built on a solid foundation.

Competent to Counsel was only the beginning. In it, Adams cleared a building site and poured a solid foundation—he told us what needed to be done. In his next book, The Christian Counselor’s Manual, he showed us how. The Manual was a practical volume that examined methodology, explored specific counseling problems, explained how and why to assign homework, promoted careful data gathering and listening, and led the counselor through the counseling process—explaining what the Scriptures taught about each matter.

But Adams was still not done building his system. His next volume dealt with theology. Adams believed every counseling problem was, at its core, a theological problem. Good counseling could only rise from good theology. More Than Redemption, a Theology of Christian Counseling was his explanation of the theological underpinnings of his counseling system.

One more book rounded out his seminal works explaining Nouthetic Counseling, How to Help People Change. Since change is the goal of every counseling endeavor, it was vital that the Nouthetic counselor understand God’s change process.

Nouthetic counseling is a counseling system. It is not built on one Greek word, but rather, on all the words of the Bible. It is Jay Adams’ attempt to systematize what the Scriptures say about counseling. Listen to Adams’ explanation in 1976:

I prefer the words “biblical” or “Christian” but reluctantly I have used the word “nouthetic” . . . simply as a convenience by which the biblical system of counseling that has been developed in such books as Competent to Counsel and The Christian Counselor’s Manual might be identified most easily.

In the first article of our current series, I demonstrated that using the term “biblical” to describe the kind of counseling we do has become confusing and requires further clarification. By it, many mean simply that they use the Bible somehow, somewhere in the counseling process. I believe the term “Nouthetic” brings clarity to the conversation about counseling. It is a term that has boundaries. The seminal textbooks written by Dr. Adams fence it in. It explains exactly what we believe the Bible says about counseling issues, not just that we believe it is good to use the Bible.

Ah, but for some reason, there are some readers who chafe at the word. You may have heard, read, or learned about nouthetic counseling from someone who lives in one of the structures Adams has demolished. Imagine you had spent your academic career, and many thousands of dollars, learning secular counseling systems. Your financial livelihood rose from your teaching or practice using those systems, and your standing in society or your own sense of “self-esteem” rose from the books you have written or the lectures you had delivered promoting those systems. Then imagine someone comes along and not only challenges the validity of those systems, but insists that the systems you promote inflict harm rather than good on those you seek to help.

How would you be expected to respond? You would be left with few options. You could repent, disavow what you had been teaching and practicing, and instead seek honest work. You could try to refute this person who says such things about your system, but since you are seeking to refute what is biblical you would quickly find yourself trying to refute the irrefutable. Or, you could attack the messenger, seek to discredit him, complain about his tone, his friends, his scholarship, or even his beard.

If you object to Nouthetic counseling but you have not read these four foundational books by Dr. Adams—shame on you! J. Gresham Machen once wrote:

It is usually considered good practice to examine a thing for one’s self before echoing the vulgar ridicule of it.[1]

If you have read these books and you find them objectionable, you should stand ready to explain exactly what Adams writes that is off putting. Do you object to the idea of the sufficiency of the Scriptures? How about the doctrine of progressive sanctification? The authority of the Scriptures? Is Adams wrong about gathering good data, listening carefully to counselees, assigning homework, insisting that counselees obey God’s Word, or that sin must be put off and replaced with God’s solution? Maybe you think Dr. Adams has mishandled the Word in some way. Is his exegesis of a key passage faulty? Which one?

Remember, Nouthetic counseling is a system of counseling. One does not have to agree with everything Jay Adams believes to embrace his counseling system. I certainly don’t. I am still trying to bring him around on the subject of baptism. If you believe Adams has some personal character flaw that disqualifies his system, please email me with the details. I will take any valid concern to him and nouthetically confront him about it.

In an article I cited in the first of this series, Drs. Babler and Johnson wrote:

Recently biblical counseling has been besieged by many voices that minimize or even attempt to redefine [the historical distinctions of biblical counseling].  We suggest it is time to return to basics.

Nouthetic counseling embodies those basics. That is why we, at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, still boldly and unashamedly call ourselves Nouthetic counselors. Perhaps you should too.

[1] Christianity and Liberalism, p.62.

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