In his Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling, Jay E. Adams provides a stringent critique of the Freudian approach to psychological problems from the perspective of his own interpretation of what a Christian psychology would look like. Crucial to this account is the sense in which the Freudian approach errs in its assessment of the causes for psychological problem, an assessment of causes that then repeats its error in the prescribed treatments for these disorders. Above all, for Adams, this is found in what he terms Freud’s endorsement of an “ethic of non-responsibility.” (p. 17)

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At the center of this ethic is the counselor’s encouragement of the counselee “to place blame on others.” (p. 17) In other words, psychological disorders are always viewed from the perspective of exterior forces, as opposed to the interior life of the autonomous individual. Concepts such as Freud’s Oedpius Complex, one can add to Adams’ interpretation, is therefore a structural framework that attempts to explain various forms of psychological disorders according to the same basic hypothesis: accordingly, the source of the particular psychological disorder in the given individual is, in this example, merely, the effect of a familial structure.

This is what Adams means by non-responsibility: the disorder is simply the result of an invariant structure, which the individuals and those around him or her have not created. The individual, therefore, is essentially reduced to an element in this system and there is no responsibility placed on the individual, since he is merely part of this particular causal relationship that produces the given psychological disorder. This, accordingly, has affects on counseling: as Adams notes, Christian ministers are told that they cannot “help ‘the mentally ill’” (p. 17), because the causes of the disorder are structural, they are merely part of some invariant psychological mechanism, which views the particular disorder from the point of view of this same mechanism.

The contrasting Christian perspective takes a radical approach in Adam’s construal of what a Christian counselling should be: it is a question of responsibility and a question of sin. Adams makes a key conceptual separation between sickness and sin. The former essentially enforces the Freudian world-view. As an analogy, sickness would be the same as catching a cold, even though one takes precautions: it is just a fact of living with others during flu season that allows one to catch the cold. It is not someone’s responsibility that they caught the cold or got an illness. Sin, instead, asks questions to the individual. It places him or her in a relationship of potential control of his or her psychological disorder. On the one hand, this may seem inhumane and even cruel, but the upshot of this account is that by giving responsibility to the individual, the individual also has the potential to overcome the disorder, to ultimately reject it by understanding that its source is internal instead of external and therefore, through responsibility, the counselling relationship can work through the disorder and find resolution.

The accuracy of Adams’ claim ultimately comes down to the point where we understand that the causes for psychological disorders can be reduced to the individual. This seems a certain Western Protestant vision of Christianity, where individualism and sins on the level of the individual are paramount. But this is not the only interpretation of Christianity, for example, the older tradition of Orthodox Christianity relates sin to death, and therefore, sin is more closely tied to our collective experience, belonging to the human race and the children of Adam who become mortal. Adams, in other words, in order to advance his thesis must argue against the Christian tradition itself for an individualistic account of sin so as to make his critique of structural causes of psychological disorders robust.

  • Adams, J.E. (1986). Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. New York: