Does 2 Peter 1:3-4 Teach That the Only Source for Counseling Truth Is Scripture? And Why I Think Nouthetic Counseling Misses the Mark
by Ed Vasicek
In this paper, I intend to demonstrate that 2 Peter 1:3-4 does not limit truth-- or truth usable for counseling-- to the Scriptures. In my opinion, the Nouthetic interpretation (that Biblical truth is sufficient for counseling philosophy and direction, or, as Jay Adams says, God has given us "everything," The Christian Counselor's Manual, p. 83) is forced and contrived; I will argue that it runs contrary to Peter's intent. I recognize that this passage is not the only one used by Nouthetic counselors to support their viewpoint, but this passage is usually cited first and thus foundational.
I write as one committed to the Scriptures as the infallible, inerrant Word of God. But I recognize the Scriptures as the canon: the measuring stick of truth. Some "outside" proposed truths are affirmed by Scripture, others proposed truths are contradicted by Scripture (and thus false), while the Scripture gives us no ruling for countless other proposed truths. Nouthetic counselors (in actual practice) often do not recognize this third category: possible truth apart from Scripture. I will admit this: we can be sure of Scriptural truth, whereas our levels of certainty vary for other proposed truths. I will admit that the Bible is the only source of infallible truth, but I believe there are other fallible sources of truth, some of which can be extremely insightful (as can life experiences). I am for a system of counseling that is held accountable to the Word of God, but not one limited to the contents of the Word of God. All Scripture is true, but many true things are not found in Scripture.
2 Peter 1:3-4 reads, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires."
First of all, let's look at the term, "everything." The Greek word is literally, "all," and the idea of "things" is rightly supplied. But "all things" can easily mean "all sorts of things." But this text does not force us to the point of saying "everything we need in life is provided by the Scriptures, and no other significant additions can be made." Indeed, whenever we teach the word, something else (namely, "we teachers,") has been added! So should we eliminate all teachers of the Word as unnecessary and merely read it aloud? Even an explanation of Scripture or an exposition of Scripture IS something in addition to the Scripture.
When we understand God as the Savior of all men, for example, we understand this to mean that He has provided salvation for all (but nonetheless all mankind is NOT saved), or that He has saved all types of men, or that He has saved all the men He has chosen. But we do not abuse the text to teach universalism because we recognize that "all" does not always mean everyone without exception or without an additional condition. We need to apply the same standard to the 2 Peter passage. (Also see John 18:20 or Colossians 4:12 where "always" means regularly or frequently, not "always" in the sense of night and day 24/7).
Secondly, this "everything" is said to come from God's divine power, not necessarily by the Word of God (or the Word alone). Although the Word is powerful, God's power is sometimes manifested apart from His written Word. In his introduction to 2 Peter, John Gill understands this to mean, "everything necessary to a spiritual and godly life had been given them in the effectual calling." Gill sees the focus of this grant (what His power has given) to refer to God's effectual calling, which results in regeneration and salvation. This calling, then, becomes the foundation for all spiritual progress.
Calvin understood this passage as follows: "According as his divine power. He refers to the infinite goodness of God which they had, already experienced, that they might more fully understand it for the future." So Calvin understands this to refer to the blessings given by God's good grace. No doubt providing the Word as one of those things, but the text does not limit it thusly.
Third, let's look at the phrase, "pertaining to life and godliness." Calvin comments:
"That pertain to life and godliness, or, as to life and godliness. Some think that the present life is meant here, as godliness follows as the more excellent gift; as though by those two words Peter intended to prove how beneficent and bountiful God is towards the faithful, that he brought them to light, that he supplies them with all things necessary for the preservation of an earthly life, and that he has also renewed them to a spiritual life by adorning them with godliness. But this distinction is foreign to the mind of Peter, for as soon as he mentioned life, he immediately added godliness, which is as it were its soul; for God then truly gives us life, when he renews us unto the obedience of righteousness. So Peter does not speak here of the natural gifts of God, but only mentions those things which he confers peculiarly on his own elect above the common order of nature.
Calvin rightly makes a distinction between what the believer has and what the unbeliever does not have. Whatever Peter says God has given us, He has not given to the unsaved.
Peter could very well have meant, "God has granted to us everything necessary for salvation, eternal life, and its evidence, godliness." At least, Calvin seemed to take it this way. If such is the case, then the "all things" refer to "all things necessary for salvation." This would then connect to the concept of an effectual call, "who called us by his own glory and goodness" (1:3b).
Fourth, we can understand "through these" to refer to His glory and goodness. So in His glory and goodness, He gave us his "very great and precious promises." The promises of God are not the same as "the Word of God." Only a small portion of the Bible contains actual promises. Additionally, these promises are only valid to the true believer. Whereas many unregenerate people have improved their lives and behavior by Bible study, etc., what Peter is speaking of here is limited to those whose "calling and election is sure."
So if Nouthetic counselors believe that the only appropriate source for counseling philosophy is the Bible, they must argue the case (and argue it well) that the promises of God refer to all of Scripture. This would be particularly difficult to do, since not all the Scriptures were yet completed before 2 Peter was written. Peter speaks of God already having given us "everything necessary" by the time 2 Peter was written, so 2 Peter itself could not be included, nor would Revelation, John's Gospel, Jude, or John's epistles (all generally thought to be written later than 2 Peter by conservatives). No, the most natural rendering is that Peter is referring to promises relating to salvation and its resultant effect on our lives.
Fifth, the promises of God help us to participate in the Divine Nature. They are nowhere said to be the solution for all of life's ills. The focus here is a particular aspect of the believer's life, not life in its comprehensive -- or even in its inter-personal relational sense. Although participating in the Divine Nature could and should have tangible, practical implications, Peter is limiting himself.
To participate in the Divine Nature is not the same as becoming part of the Divine Nature. Our new nature, our new relationship to God under the New Covenant, and our sanctifying walk with God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is probably what Peter had in mind. Participating in the Divine Nature is the opposite of being corrupted by the world via our fleshly nature. So we do see here the concept of a sort of general sanctification in the life of the believer, but nowhere are we told that this sanctification between God and the individual (itself) will conquer depression or untangle our relationships. If such were the case, for example, there would be no need for the ministry of the church. So the promises alone don't cut it.
Is Every Issue A Purely Spiritual One?
Is the believer's life to be segmented? If not, then all aspects of our being should be covered here. So if God has granted me everything pertaining to life and godliness, and if "everything" means literally "everything without exception," then why should I seek a doctor when I am ill? Or is my physical life not part of "everything?" Are all aspects of my wellbeing in mind here? There is nothing in 2 Peter about an appendix surgery, something that might have a great impact on my life, my ministry, my family, and, for that matter, how long I live! So everything cannot mean "everything" in this life, as Calvin rightly concluded (see above). It means, rather, "everything pertaining to eternal life."
The argument that there is no justification for dividing the spiritual from the relational or psychological cannot be simply shrugged off. But to make simplistic statements that all relational or behavioral problems (for example) are necessarily spiritual ones is to assume an awful lot. It ignores what we may not know. When we do not know, we are at a disadvantage; but when we do not know that we do not know, we are in deep trouble.
Imagine this scenario: Let's suppose Nouthetic counseling made its debut in 1850. A man we now describe as bipolar comes in for help. In our day and age, Jay Adams (founder of Nouthetic counseling) recognizes that (at least some) bipolar individuals have an organic problem, a lack of lithium; we recognize that they cannot always help their problem without medication.
But would Nouthetic counselors have known that in 1850? Or would the counselor have lectured the counselee about being conformed to the image of Christ, given him some Bible verses, set up an accountability system, and advocated "godliness through discipline?" When counseling failed, the counselor would merely write it off as another case of an excuse maker not taking responsibility for himself. A scene like that could have happened in 1850. But people in 1850 knew there were a lot of mysteries involving the human brain and body, so they left room for the unknown and did the best they could. And this humility is what modern Nouthetic counseling lacks.
How do we know that a similar situation is not happening today? Perhaps a man is depressed, and that depression is caused by body and brain chemistry we do not yet understand. True, many depressed people are indeed depressed because of sinful patterns, but are they all? Adams leaves plenty of room for women experiencing PMS (because we can document hormone and chemical causes), but what about room for chemistry we have yet to discover? How do we really know what is organic (or genetic) and what is not?
All women are people. Are all people, therefore, women? Just because many counseling issues are sin-related, that does not mean there can be no other factors. In the sin-cursed world around us, there is not necessarily a correlation between a specific sin and tragedy, for example. All our problems can be traced to the Fall (and the curse), but not necessarily to a particular sin on our part.
Nouthetic counseling downplays the graduation of responsibility. Fear, for example, can sometimes be described as a lack of trust in God. But a woman, who, as a girl, was molested every time it stormed, is going to have more of a problem being afraid during a storm than someone who has not had such a traumatic background.
So if this woman learns to be less afraid during a storm (but still afraid), is she less godly than the woman who has never feared a storm? Not necessarily. When bottom line behavior becomes the main issue, we lose sight of where a person is coming from and how far he and she have come.
Let us postulate this story further. Let us suppose this traumatized woman has come to know Christ, repented of obvious sin, and is memorizing Scripture, praying, and serving in all sorts of ways. Let us introduce a second woman does not know Christ. The first woman is partaking of the Divine Nature while the second is not. The first woman is finding the courage to go on because she clings to the promises of God, but storms still bring out fear. Her problems are not all solved; they may never be; but she has put 2 Peter 1:3-4 to work. Yet the second woman never fears a storm. Is this lost second woman therefore more spiritually mature?
So is there a difference between the spiritual and what we might call the psychological? I think so. The spiritual undoubtedly affects the psychological. But I believe it is possible to excel spiritually while still not being completely "normal" psychologically. And it is very possible -- no, I might say common --to be "normal" psychologically (or behaviorally) while being unsaved and thus dead spiritually.
If the way to address all psychological problems was to put the Word of God to practice, then we should expect those who ignore the Word to be much more psychologically messed up than those who are into the Word. And the way to measure this is by Christian standards (as demonstrated in 1 Timothy 3): the husband of one wife, rearing children well, not given to argument, etc. We soon discover that we have more divorces (and, in my opinion, more messed up people) with evangelicalism (where the Word is somewhat emphasized-- admittedly not enough) than we do without. What this implies is monumental: the Word is not enough to make some messed up people normal, and the lack of God's Word does not necessarily make normal people messed up (except in the spiritual realm, a realm which could be defined as that difference between a decent lost person and a decent dedicated godly person).
So here we have a hazy division between the spiritual and the psychological. If we take a godly normal Christian and subtract a morally decent non-Christian, what is left is the spiritual. Where the two converge is the psychological. The psychological can alter the spiritual and the spiritual can alter the psychological, so there is plenty of overlap.
Maturity, A Key Issue
Additionally, we have confused spiritual maturity with maturity. Most church conflicts, for example, are caused because people are not relationally or personally mature as many decent lost people, though they may be more spiritually mature (in a sense, even newly saved people are more spiritually mature than any lost person). Therefore there must be something more involved in maturity than JUST spiritual maturity. These other elements of maturity can be best discovered by observation and study. Some Christians are power mongers or touchy, while some lost people are reasonable and humble.
So we must understand that the Scriptures, applied by God's Spirit, can get us to a higher level in some ways, and certainly in the Spiritual realm. But oftentimes we are working with Christians trying to bring them to the same level as decent lost people! So we need to pay attention to the way that lost people avoid having these problems in the first place. To avoid using the language of psychology (mentally healthy) we might use terms like, "mature and balanced." Observing human behavior in general is an important source of counseling information! Biblical principles should determine how we interpret human behavior, thus making a distinction between counseling that is at least not contradictory to Scripture from that which is based on humanistic (or other) paradigms.
Biblical counselors should become familiar with brain studies. The difference between the male and female brain, how the brain changes, etc., are important considerations. Richard Restak's book, The New Brain is fascinating and insightful.
Genetic studies of identical twins raised apart are fascinating. Do genes argue for diminished levels of responsibility? Is there a difference between what is possibly and what is more likely for some than others? Can a man beget a fool, as the book of Proverbs seems to imply? What about autism?
Even secular sources like Dean Hammer will confess that our genes may predispose us to certain behaviors, but they do not predetermine our behavior. If you agree with that, then individuals are still responsible for their behavior, but some find it more difficult to resist certain sins than others.
Native Americans are biologically wired so that they easily fall into alcoholism. There seem to be clear-cut genetic factors in matters of weight, alcoholism, anxiety, etc. The playing field is not level, and it is important to understand how and why this is so.
We do have inherited personalities, and we often have to work within the parameters of who we are. Whether we categorize personalities (as Tim LaHaye does) or not, we must take this into account. I agree with Tim LaHaye, namely, that no man is destined to become a homosexual, but that men who have the "melancholic" temperament, when coupled with environmental factors, will find it easier to choose this sinful lifestyle, whereas the rest of us are not even tempted.
Like the apostles, Nouthetic counselors are too quick to ask, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" Some counselors are worse: they will not even ask if the parents sinned!
Rather than close our eyes, we must learn to open them, to "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If I only stick to the Word of God, what things would there be for me to test?