A critique of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling Part Three
posted by Rebecca
This critique of nouthetic counseling comes in the form of a book review of the booklet Godliness through Discipline, by Jay Adams, the founder of nouthetic counseling. Because the booklet, available online in full, not only outlines the basics of nouthetic counseling, but also makes for very quick reading, it serves as a useful vehicle for a critique of the system as a whole. This review was first written in 2008, before I was aware of the ramifications of nouthetic counseling in cases of trauma. I posted it as a book review on Amazon in 2013. The review is being posted in three parts on three days: Part One: Godliness Through the Development of Habits? Part Two: Misrepresentation of Scripture; Part Three: Minimization of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Faith / A False Dichotomy.
MINIMIZATION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, PRAYER, FAITH
The primary problem with Adams’ perspective on the Christian life—and by extension, his nouthetic counseling method—seems to be his lack of acknowledgment of the importance of the spiritual realm, of true faith, desperately dependent prayer, and the power of the Resurrection through the Holy Spirit in the spiritual battles that we face.
However, to be fair, in this booklet he does mention faith once, prayer twice, and the Holy Spirit a few times. At one point he says, “The Holy Spirit has oriented you [at the beginning of your salvation] toward God and His holiness, putting a new focus on all of life. . . .” What he means here is that the Holy Spirit changed your direction, but now, he explains throughout the book, the work of transformation is up to you. He says, “Now the work of the Spirit is not mystical. . . . He says in the Scriptures that He ordinarily works through the Scriptures.” Once again I wonder what Scripture Adams is referring to when he says “He says in the Scriptures.” It simply isn’t there.
I also wonder what he means when he says that the work of the Spirit is “not mystical.” Would he say that that work of salvation ordinarily called justification is “mystical”? It is a mysterious work of transformation in the life of a person that cannot be fully explained. Paul said that he prayed that the Ephesians would “know” (experientially) the love of Christ, which passeth “knowledge” (intellectually). This is mysticism in its truest sense–a spiritual truth that cannot be explained on an intellectual level. The Holy Spirit is in the business of doing this kind of work all the time.
“[T]here is no easier path to godliness than the prayerful study and obedient practice of the Word of God.” I too believe that the Scriptures are exceedingly important, but it’s not because they give us guidelines by which we can practice our disciplines for godliness. It is because through the power of the Holy Spirit they show us our inability and point us to Jesus Christ, in whom is all Power (John 5:39).
Adams says, “Do you think that after going to all that trouble [of writing the Bible] He now zaps instant holiness into us apart from the Bible? . . .” Once again I’m astonished and dismayed. Whether or not you believe that the Holy Spirit ever “zaps instant holiness,” you have to acknowledge that “after going to all the trouble of writing the Bible” he still zaps instant salvation into people. Isn’t this foundational to our faith? And though the Scriptures are hugely instrumental in understanding, and I thank God for them, it is still true that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.
“The Holy Spirit gives help when His people read His Word and then step out by faith to do as He says. He does not promise to strengthen us unless we do so; the power often comes in the doing.” Amazingly enough, this is the first (and only) time Adams has mentioned faith as having any role in living the Christian life. And the faith he describes is still a faith in self-effort. Instead of looking to Him for all my righteousness, all my salvation, all my holiness, all my consecration, all my victory over sin, I’m looking to my self-effort and expecting Him to help me.
Here’s another critical point. From the context of the booklet, I know that the “doing” Adams is talking about above is a List (which he must expect us to keep fairly short, lest we be overwhelmed with discouragement). But in the book of Hebrews, the “stepping out by faith” to do as God says were not List things. In fact, they were often pretty strange! By faith Abraham offered Isaac. By faith Rahab hid the spies. By faith Noah built an ark. By faith the priests put their feet in the rushing river. Why is this important? Because the life of faith, the walk of faith, will look different for different believers. In each case, though, we are all focusing all our hope for righteousness not on what we do, but on Whom we trust.
“When we read about [the requirements of the Scriptures],” Adams says toward the end, “we must then ask God by his grace to help us live accordingly.” This is the first time he has mentioned prayer. And yet, who do we think we are to think that we will accomplish anything in this Christian life without a daily, moment by moment, even desperate dependence on God? It is only by His power that we live the Christ-life. Why does Adams take so long to get to something so crucial? How important, really, does he think it is?
“Here then, is your answer: regularly read the Scriptures, prayerfully do as they say, according to schedule, regardless of how you feel.” Notice that if you don’t feel like reading the Scripture, he doesn’t mention the concept of crying out to God for deliverance from your coldness of heart. No, just plod ahead and expect your behaviorism to take effect eventually, making you godly–at least outwardly.
Somewhere in the middle Adams takes a brief about-face to contradict himself. “All of the stress that the Bible puts on human effort must not be misunderstood; we are talking about grace-motivated effort, not the work of the flesh.” First of all, the stress that the Bible puts is on the finished work of Christ—not human effort—and the divine inflow-outflow that results from that finished work. Second, how is he defining the “work of the flesh”? The work of the flesh appears to be what he has been emphasizing in all the rest of the book. And what does “grace-motivated” mean? He doesn’t explain, but I wonder if it’s the common thinking, “God did so much for me that I need to do as much as I can for Him”? Instead, I would say “grace-empowered.” God does the work. We have the privilege of participating in the results.
A FALSE DICHOTOMY
But that talk of “motivation” is telling, because it comes up again, in a very different way. At another point in the book, Adams says, “There are only two kinds of life, the feeling-motivated life of sin oriented toward self, and the commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented toward godliness.” To think that Jay Adams presents us with this artificial, unScriptural dichotomy of choices!
Yes, we can move toward self-centeredness or toward God-centeredness, but where in the Bible does the Lord tell us that these two options are the pathways–that feelings lead to sin and commandments lead to holiness? For one thing, “feelings” can motivate a person to “feel” the emptiness that he has within, and to cry out to God to relieve this emptiness. George Whitefield was saved by crying out, “I thirst!” Wasn’t his thirst a “feeling”? The Christian world has been guilty of belittling “feelings” to the point that they are ignored as a barometer of a person’s spiritual life, when in fact they can be crucial. After all, Paul said he wanted the Ephesians to know (to “experience” in their senses and their feelings) the love of Christ that passes knowledge (academically and intellectually). The reason a person would even be reading Jay Adams’ little book is that he “feels” that he is short of the godliness he desires. May the extreme reliance on feelings shown by some groups not cause us to disparage feelings altogether!
And again in that same quotation is his theme of the entire booklet: “the commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented toward godliness.” I shudder. The letter [law] kills, but the Spirit gives life! (II Cor 3:6) If a person believes that he must keep the commandments in order to be headed toward godliness, then he will either deceive himself in foolishly thinking he can do it, as the Pharisees did, or he’ll be driven to despair, because he cannot. Motivated by the commandments! Isn’t this what Paul spent much of his letter to the Galatians castigating them for? Isn’t this what the whole New Testament decries?
If I were to write a booklet for unsaved people called “Salvation through Bible Reading,” you might say, oh, but salvation doesn’t come through Bible reading, however good and helpful that might be. Salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone. This is what I say about sanctification/holiness/godliness. The so-called “Christian disciplines” of prayer, Bible reading, etc, are excellent and important things. But they are not the path to holiness any more than are the disciplines of physical exercise. All salvation—including the salvation from daily temptations to sin and daily reliance on God that is called “holiness”—is through faith alone in Christ alone. This is where all the Scriptures point us. This is the gospel, and it’s truly Good News. Grace—the divine inflow-outflow of God—comes through faith in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is freedom. This is joy.
Rebecca Davis is the author of Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. She is also the collaborating author of Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church and Tear Down this Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches.