Nouthetic Counseling, Fundamentalism, and Moldy Bread

Jay Adams is a rather polarizing figure. A lot of people love him, and some, like me, not that much. He is the pioneer in the nouthetic counseling movement and has contributed a lot to the rise in biblical counseling.

According to the Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling, “the aim of Nouthetic Counseling is to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.” Sounds good so far. I would sign up for that. But he had to keep talking. He says “the hope for the depressed person, as elsewhere, lies in this: that depression is the result of the couselee’s sin.”

Here is a certified nouthetic counselor describing mental health issues:

“Following is what I have learned from my studies over the past several years…The DSM-IV is what psychiatrists and psychologists use to diagnose “disorders” and to bill your medical insurance. Schizophrenia and all other “disorders” listed in the DSM-IV are based solely on behavior…I have placed “disorder” in quotation marks because while psychiatrists and psychologists call it that, Christians call these behaviors “sin.” That might sound callous or even mean to you. Which is more callous or mean? (1) Telling someone they have a disorder for which there is no cure. (2) Telling them they are in sin along with the joyful news that Jesus has forgiveness, and peace of mind, and contentment, and a joyful life for them if they will repent and obey Him! I chose (1) as mean and (2) as kind and true. Find a nouthetic counselor, and let him or her teach you about your sin and about the complete and holy solution for that sin that Jesus offers.”

Schizophrenia is a sin? I don’t really have anything to say about that except that this kind of theology sounds like what lead to the witch hunts. I can understand how someone may see that depression or anxiety could be sinful (though I disagree), due to Biblical commands for joy and not to worry, but schizophrenia ?  That is complete nonsense.

This naive and scientifically ignorant approach to the issue of mental health is disastrous and dangerous, but where does it come from? After much thought and investigation I think I have found the root of the problem: anti-science fundamentalism.

If you haven’t noticed yet, American evangelicals are skeptical of anything science. Old earth, climate change, you name it. Add psychology and psychiatry to that list. Due to bad biblical scholarship we insist that the world is young. Due to I don’t really know what, we insist that climate change is a hoax, and if scientists are the ones telling us that the world is old and getting warmer then we can’t trust what they say about the brain either.

Nouthetic counseling says we cannot trust secular psychology or psychiatry because of their false worldview that does not account for sin and spirituality. Everything is a spiritual issue and a sin issue, which is true. Just like my bread wouldn’t get moldy if it wasn’t for sin, I wouldn’t be depressed if it wasn’t for sin. Just think about it, for centuries food scientists have been looking under microscopes studying mold and all they had to do was open up their bibles to Genesis 3 and see “oh, sin, that’s why bread gets moldy.” There was no moldy bread before the fall. This also begs the important question, if McDonald’s hamburger buns don’t get moldy for like 5 years, does that mean their bread is more sanctified? Maybe we should use McDonald’s hamburger buns for communion.

Okay, in all seriousness now, yes it is important to note that there would be no depression or mental illness without sin in the world, but that does not mean each case of depression is a result of a specific sin. It is also important to note that our spiritual and physical lives are interwoven. Secular psychology does not account for that.

Cheating on your wife or having an abortion can cause depression I am sure. I have never done either but I’m sure they can. Sin can cause feelings of guilt and depression, but the brain is also a physical organ that can cause depression and other mental health issues.

We would be wise to listen to what modern psychology says about the brain. I am not talking about Freudian stuff that turns everything into sex, but respected psychologists and psychiatrists. John Calvin basically called people who ignore all general revelation like this idiots. As John Piper says “to be obedient in the sciences we need to read science.” What a profound statement. What if Christians studied psychology to learn psychology? I know it sounds preposterous. Now I am all about using scripture to help counsel and I wouldn’t want to go to a counselor that wasn’t Christian and doesn’t use their bible, but this does not negate the importance of the study of psychology. I am afraid that we as good Reformed Christians who love our five solas have turned “sola” scriptura into “solo” scriptura. Scripture is the only special revelation that we need, hence why we don’t need the apocrypha, but this special revelation does not negate the validity of general revelation including psychology. The medieval Catholic Church thought the bible was all we needed to know about the location of the Sun so they started locking people in closets and stuff. Then we had a reformation for such abuses. The thing is that stakes are actually much higher with mental health than the location of the Sun. Locking Galileo in the Pope’s basement or wherever the put him was bad and all, but telling the approximately 121 million people worldwide who suffer with depression that it is a sin is disgusting, especially considering that suicide accounts for nearly HALF of all violent deaths. Maybe the bible is not all we need to learn about the brain.


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