Books That Merit Re-Reading: Competent to Counsel

James R. Newheiser, Jr
Associate Professor of Christian Counseling and Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Jay Adams’ groundbreaking book, Competent to Counsel[1], which has sold about 400,000 copies and has been translated into many languages. In September 2020, Dr. Adams was presented a Festschrift honoring his unique contributions to biblical soul care over a half-century.[2] Two months later, he went to be with the Lord.

I first heard about Competent to Counsel in 1975 from a fellow student who was a psychology major at Baylor University. He said that someone had written a book challenging the unbiblical foundations of modern psychology while claiming that we should counsel people’s spiritual problems from the Bible, within the church. I found the idea appealing and thought that I would like to read this book someday.

That day came in 1982 when I was serving as a very young “tent-making” pastor of an underground church in Saudi Arabia whose members included hundreds of expatriates from dozens of nations. Suddenly, I had people coming to me with big problems—depression, anger, fear, marital conflict, sexual sin, etc. I devoured Competent to Counsel, which presented the basic theory of biblical (or nouthetic) counseling. I then studied Adams’ The Christian Counselor’s Manual, which took the next step of setting forth principles for the practice of biblical counseling along with approaches to common issues in soul care. As troubled people came to me seeking wisdom, I was able to open God’s Word and saw its power to revive the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, and enlighten the eyes (Psalm 19:7–8). I also sought to equip my fellow church leaders to offer wise advice from God’s Word.

When we were deported from Saudi Arabia in 1987, I attended Westminster Seminary California, where I studied biblical counseling under George Scipione, one of Adams’ early mentees at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation) was affiliated with Westminster Seminary in Pennsylvania. I also had the privilege of studying under Adams as I completed my Doctor of Ministry at Westminster California. Over the past thirty years I have been involved in biblical counseling and training with The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD—originally CCEF West), and then for the past five years as a professor at RTS Charlotte. In that time, I have seen the impact Adams has made in the counseling world.

To be sure, Adams has been a controversial figure. Some, especially those who are vocationally trained in psychology, have sharply disagreed with him. Many have misunderstood him. Some of the harshest things said against Adams have come from people who have not carefully read his works or heard him teach.

On the other hand, many in the biblical counseling movement regard Adams as a Luther-like figure, who brought reformation to soul care. It may be said that Competent to Counsel served as his ninety-five theses, and the similarities between Luther and Adams are worth considering.

Both men based their conclusions on the Bible alone—Sola Scriptura. Luther famously declared, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in counsels alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.”[3] Jay Adams, as he began the new movement of biblical (or nouthetic) counseling, wrote, “The conclusions in this book are not based upon scientific findings. My method is presuppositional. I avowedly accept the inerrant Bible as the standard of all faith and practice. The Scriptures, therefore, are the basis and contain the criteria by which I have sought to make every judgment.”[4]

Each was engaged in academic studies for the purpose of training future leaders when he, in a sense, stumbled upon his challenge to the status quo. Luther was a professor in Wittenberg, while Adams was teaching homiletics at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. The opportunity (or obligation) to teach a counseling class was thrust upon him. Once he began to research the popular Christian counseling methodologies of his day, he had major concerns and began to develop his alternate approach.

Neither initially had any idea what he was starting, nor did he anticipate turning the world upside down by starting a new movement. Neither saw himself as an innovator beginning something new, but rather believed that he was recovering something old which had been lost. Luther sought to restore the biblical truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Adams was seeking to restore a faithful heritage of soul care which has been expressed throughout church history, with the Puritans and many of the Church Fathers as prime examples. As John Frame has written, “Sola Scriptura has historically been a powerful housecleaning tool.”[5]

Both had sympathizers who urged them to tone down their rhetoric, and both ignored such advice. Each was gifted with a personality that did not mind standing alone against the crowd.

Both upset the existing establishment which initially tried to dialogue with them, and then separated from and maligned them. Luther participated in several disputations with representatives of the Roman Catholic establishment before being excommunicated as a “wild boar” in the Lord’s vineyard.[6] Adams had some significant public and private discussions with Christian psychologists before being dismissed by the great majority who were offended by his critique.

Both were sharpened by debates with their critics. Luther’s initial challenge to ecclesiastical errors concerning indulgences led him to question church authority in many other areas, leading to a clear understanding of biblical authority and the gospel of free grace. Adams’ views were refined through debates with those who wanted to integrate psychology with Scripture.

Both were followed by consolidators with complementary gifts which God used to shape the ongoing movement. Phillip Melanchthon came after Luther and consolidated Lutheran theology and ecclesiology throughout much of Europe. Men like David Powlison and Ed Welch have followed Adams and have helpfully built upon the foundation he laid by taking a gentler approach, by placing greater emphasis on certain key themes (such as better understanding our counselees’ suffering in addition to their sin), and by expanding resources and opportunities for church leaders to be trained as biblical counselors.

Both were committed to the involvement of lay people in the church. Luther emphasized the priesthood of all believers and translated the Bible into the common language of the people. Adams taught that all believers are to be involved in soul care. He used Romans 15:14 as the theme verse for Competent to Counsel: “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish each other.”

Understanding Adams

Adams has been widely misunderstood, and a reread of this book may clarify his aims and intentions. To begin, it is important to see that his view of counseling flowed out of his epistemology. In both the preface and the conclusion of Competent to Counsel he refers to Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apological approach as foundational to his approach.[7] “I am not interested in debate which moves off non-Christian suppositions or debate based upon supposedly neutral, objective empirical data. All such evidence, in the end, is interpreted evidence.”[8] Proponents of biblical counseling in our day still tend to embrace the epistemological approach of Van Til and his successor, John Frame.

Adams was not against science, medicine, psychology, and psychiatry. He welcomed medical interventions for physical problems. Powlison points out, “Medical doctors contributed about one-fifth of the articles in the Journal of Pastoral Practice,”[9] which Adams edited in the early days of the biblical counseling movement. Adams also acknowledged that the findings of science may drive the biblical counselor back to Scripture to reexamine whether his interpretation is accurate. He wrote, “I do not wish to disregard science, but rather I welcome it as a useful adjunct for the purposes of illustrating, filling in generalizations with specifics, and challenging wrong interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures.”[10]

His chief complaint against psychology and psychiatry was that they intruded into the sphere of the pastor and the church. Adams recognized that Freud and other early practitioners of psychotherapy viewed their work as supplanting religious pastoral or priestly roles, so he vigorously defended the work of the pastor in the church.[11] In his 1975 inaugural address at Westminster Seminary, Adams posed the questions that critics directed to him:

Are you saying that psychology and psychiatry are illegitimate disciplines? Do you think that they have no place at all? No, you misunderstand me. Remember, I said clearly that they live next door to the pastor. My problem is that they refuse to stay on their own property. I have been trying to get the pastor to mow his lawn to the very borders of his plot. Psychology should be a legitimate and very useful neighbor to the pastor. Psychologists may make many helpful studies of man (e.g., on the effects of sleep loss). But psychologists—with neither warrant nor standard from God by which to do so—should get out of the business of trying to change persons. It can tell us many things about what man does, but not about what he should do. . . . If he were to use his medical training to find medical solutions to the true organic difficulties that affect attitudes and behavior, the pastor would be excited about his work. But the difficulty arises as the psychiatrist—under the guise of medicine—attempts to change values and beliefs.[12]

Adams believed that it was important to critically examine the pronouncements of science against Scripture. Following Van Til, Adams recognized that pronouncements of science involve interpretations of data which are influenced and potentially distorted by the worldview of the person making the pronouncements. Here he is echoing Van Til’s famous expression, “There is no such thing as brute fact.” He elaborates: “Data are collected and related and presented by men, all of whom are sinners and subject to the noetic effects of their sin. In God’s world all men are related to him as covenant breakers or covenant keepers (in Christ). The judgments of unbelievers, therefore, are arrived at and presented from a point of view which attempts to divorce itself from God.”[13]

Adams’ approach to both the public and private ministry of the Word was Christocentric and redemptive. His emphasis upon obedience (whether you feel like it or not) and habituation led some of his critics to say that his counseling approach was merely behavioristic or moralistic. Closer examination shows, however, that this charge is untrue. He rejected counseling (or preaching) which tried to change people’s behavior without being distinctively redemptive and Christian. He writes, “Jesus Christ is at the center of all truly Christian counseling,”[14] and “It is important to realize that salvation is what makes Christian counseling possible; it is the foundation (or basis) for all counseling.”[15] David Powlison, who led CCEF after Adams, likewise declares “God’s story is not about finding refuge and resources in yourself or in other people or in psychopharmacology. It’s about finding Christ in real times and places, the only Savior able to deliver you from what is really wrong within you and your world.”[16]

Adams insisted that his was not the last word about counseling. Rather, he saw his work as offering a starting place to those who share his faith in the sufficiency of Scripture. He anticipated further developments of biblical counseling. He also welcomed correction to his initial writings, so long as they are based upon Scripture. “I am aware that my interpretations and applications of Scripture are not infallible.”[17] “I am aware of the sweeping implications of the changes that I advocate. I am willing to refine my position if I have gone too far. I want to alter any or all of what I have written provided that I can be shown to be wrong biblically. . . . I would welcome enthusiastically the kind of critique which would point out how nouthetic counseling could become more biblical in theory or technique.”[18] Later he declares, “My foundation surely has planks that are rotten and some that are missing. . . . But in order to get them nailed all the way across, other Christians must also lay hold of the hammers and nails and help.”[19]

Adams encountered a great deal of resistance from evangelical psychologists. David Powlison identifies three primary concerns expressed by Christian integrationists with Adams’ view of Scripture:

  1. He treated the Bible as a comprehensive counseling textbook when the Bible itself never claimed to be such.
  2. He denied that the secular psychologies might contribute to counseling wisdom by God’s common grace.
  3. He misused the Bible by treating it as a collection of proof texts and quoting selectively.[20]

Powlison also points out that other criticisms of Adams include the claim that he had a superficial and constructed view of human nature,[21] that he ignores the effects of interpersonal suffering,[22] and that he promotes a legalistic, ungracious approach to counseling.[23]

Adams’ critics often lacked grace and gentleness. One reviewer for the Journal of Psychology and Christianity wrote of one of Adams’ books, “Irresponsible and vilifying garbage, like most of the rest of his stuff. Iconoclastic, superficial, biblicistic.”[24] Powlison reports among integrationist counselors Adams was “regularly disparaged in an iconic manner, rather than discussed with scholarly dispassion.”[25]

Adams’ work has been appreciated by many from outside of the biblical/nouthetic counseling world. While many integrationist counselors have been extremely critical of Adams’ nouthetic counseling, many, including Gary Collins and Mark McMinn, have also expressed appreciation for Adams’ contribution to the recovery of using the Bible in Christian counseling. David Powlison recounts an occasion when Adams was invited to receive an award as a pioneer in Christian counseling before a gathering of several thousand evangelical psychotherapists.[26]

Adams had some rough edges. OK, you probably already knew this. Powlison also recalls that when Adams spoke to the psychotherapists who were honoring him, he called them to repentance saying, “With all that is within me I urge you to give up the fruitless task to which I alluded: the attempt to integrate pagan thought and biblical truth. . . . I invite you to abandon this useless endeavor. Instead, come join the growing number of those who are discovering the way to construct a truly Christian counseling system is to begin with biblical blueprints, use biblical bricks and mortar, and find Christian workmen to construct it from the ground up.”[27] But perhaps it took someone with a very strong personality and no fear of man (Prov. 29:25; Gal. 1:11) who could, like Athanasius and Luther, stand against the world for what he believed to be biblical truth.

Advancing Beyond Competent to Counsel

Adams never updated or revised Competent to Counsel.[28] Decades later he wrote, “You will find no radical departures, no recantations, and no deep regrets. If those are the things that you are looking for, you will be disappointed. . . . No, I have not greatly modified the positions that I took during those early years. Instead, I have become all the more certain of them.”[29] Adams did continue to amplify and sharpen his approach to counseling through two other major works: The Christian Counselor’s Manual and A Theology of Christian Counseling. He also wrote dozens of shorter works addressing various aspects of counseling theory and practice. And in 1977, Adams started what is now The Journal of Biblical Counseling, which continues to be an important resource for Christian counselors.

The generation of biblical counselors who followed Jay Adams built on his foundation and made some amplifications and corrections. Heath Lambert, in his book The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, identifies significant areas of advancement in how biblical counselors think about counseling, do their counseling, and talk about counseling. Some of these developments address the criticisms made by Christian psychologists:

  1. A more comprehensive understanding of the counselee’s suffering (“heat”) in addition to their sin.
  2. Going more deeply into understanding human motivation for behavior (“heart idols”).
  3. Building caring relationships with counselees, rather than relying primarily on pastoral authority.
  4. Graciously interacting with, and learning from, those who promote other counseling models.[30]

Lambert and others have sought to show from Adams’ writing that these developments were changes in emphasis, more than changes in kind. For example, Adams does address the issue of suffering,[31] but later writers deal with this topic more comprehensively and sympathetically.

These differences in emphases may have various causes: Lambert points out, “There is something autobiographical about every counseling model ever proposed.”[32] The time I have spent with Adams observing his personality, including determination to exert extraordinary effort to fulfill his duty, seems to confirm this observation.[33]

Another reason for the different emphases is the times in which one writes. Competent to Counsel emerged during an era when many counselors were non-directive Rogerian listeners, and Freudian psychotherapists who blamed what the Bible would call sinful behavior on factors outside of the counselee’s control (nature and nurture). Fifty years later, many psychologists, such as some of those who practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), are more directive in their counseling and thus require a more nuanced response.[34]

The Way Forward

The biblical counseling movement has grown more diverse over the past fifty years. CCEF, which is the institution Adams started a half-century ago, has shown more openness to dialoguing with and learning from psychologists. The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC—formerly NANC) probably follows most closely in Adams’ footsteps, but they too have evolved in the ways Lambert describes. The Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC) seeks to bring together a spectrum of leaders (academics and practitioners), who identify as biblical counselors, to address crucial issues such as trauma and abuse from a biblical perspective.

Students of biblical counseling today study books by the second generation of biblical counselors such as David Powlison (Seeing with New Eyes),[35] Ed Welch (When People are Big and God is Small),[36] and Paul Tripp (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands)[37] which build on Adams’ foundation and refine his approach. Yet biblical counselors still read and benefit from Competent to Counsel and Adams’ other works.

It may be out of fashion, even among biblical counselors, to speak favorably about Jay Adams. Some are embarrassed by what they perceive to be his shortcomings and would like to think that we have moved beyond Adams. I still have my students read Competent to Counsel in their first counseling class. Many are surprised to discover how biblically balanced and insightful Adams is, especially given that he was starting something very new. While most of us cannot affirm everything Martin Luther ever said or did, we thank God for Martin Luther and how he was used five hundred years ago to recover the great solas of our faith. In the same way, Jay Adams was not a perfect man or a perfect scholar, but I thank God for how Adams has been used to lay a foundation of soul care which is based upon God’s all-sufficient and powerful Word, and is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of us continue to build upon that foundation.

[1] Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970).

[2] Donn R. Arms and Dave Swavely, Whole Counsel: The Public and Private Ministries of the Word: Essays in Honor of Jay E. Adams (Cordova, TN: Institute for Nouthetic Studies Publishing, 2020).

[3] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 461.

[4] Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), xxi.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 573.

[6] Brecht, Martin Luther, 391.

[7] Adams, Competent to Counsel, xxi.

[8] Adams, Competent to Counsel, 269.

[9] David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2010), 10.

[10] Adams, Competent to Counsel, xxi.

[11] Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 32.

[12] Jay Adams, Counseling and the Sovereignty of God, (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1975), 12-13..

[13] Adams, Competent to Counsel, 269.

[14] Adams, Competent to Counsel, 269.

[15] Jay E. Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 177.

[16] David Powlison, Speaking the Truth in Love (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2005), 180.

[17] Adams, Competent to Counsel, xxi.

[18] Adams, Competent to Counsel, 269.

[19] Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 92.

[20] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 170.

[21] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 172.

[22] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 175.

[23] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 176.

[24] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 187.

[25] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 198.

[26] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 145.

[27] Powlison, Biblical Counseling Movement, 145­–46.

[28] Adams did give extensive thought to creating an updated version of Competent to Counsel. The reasons he chose not to do so are provided in his Festschrift: See Arms and Swavely, Whole Counsel, 5-6, 19-23.

[29] Arms and Swavely,Whole Counsel, 20.

[30] Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

[31] Adams wrote, “People we counsel are afflicted, distressed, worried, sick, friendless, uncomfortable, crushed, suffering, sorrowful, sad, heartbroken, small, petty, contemptible, mean, venal, covetous, and the like–and they are all in need of compassion.” Jay Adams, Compassionate Counseling, (Simpsonville, SC: Institute for Nouthetic Studies Publishing, 2007), 7.

[32] Lambert, Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, 15.

[33] For example, I personally observed that when Adams was in his late 80s he lost most of the strength in his lower body. For a time, he was dependent upon others, but then he built up the strength in his upper body so that he could get around with his walker. I remember being surprised when he answered the door during one of my visits.

[34] For an example, see the critique of CBT by my colleague, Dr. Nate Brooks, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Is the Mind Central to Change?” conference message, Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, February 3, 2021, Adams himself claimed that the allegedly fresh counseling theories which came in the decades after Competent to Counsel were upon close examination variations on the theorists whom he critiqued in 1970. Arms and Swavely, Whole Counsel, 22.

[35] David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003).

[36] Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997).

[37] Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002).