Reviewing the Introduction of Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel”

As a sophomore studying theology in 1975, I read the textbook for my Pastoral Counseling class and was shocked. Though at that stage in my life I had taken no psychology courses–that would come several years later–I knew enough about the basic philosophy of psychology to suspect this textbook was not accurate.

Little did I know that book would sell millions of copies and affect the viewpoints on psychology for an entire generation. The book is called “Competent To Counsel” written by Jay Adams. The book, and Adams are the cornerstone of an entire counseling methodology called “Nouthetic” or “Biblical” Counseling.

Though the Nouthetic group (referred to now as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors ) has many other resources they lay claim to, none is more influential than this book.

I do not like this book. I can state that up-front. I also do not agree with its premise: All psychology is humanism and must be rejected.

He teaches that all mental illness and every counseling situation is, at its heart, either a sin problem or a difficulty understanding or living out biblical truth. The answer is always the same: Bring the truth of the Bible to bear on a situation, help the counselee to see that truth, and encourage them to start living it.

The Nouthetic counselor believes if the counselee does this, the mental illness will be cured.

I completely disagree. Mental illness has dozens of causes, many of which we have not yet fully discovered. Here is my difficulty with the premise that the Bible can solve all mental illness: Even the Bible says it is not the answer book for all of life’s problems. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, its primary purpose is to train people in righteous living, theological knowledge, and the understanding of God. It never claimed to be an expert on all other subjects.

Christians have practiced using the Bible as the only authority on all subjects for a number of reasons. A primary reason is to control others through manipulative interpretations of the Bible, causing this Book to say things it doesn’t say about subjects it makes only passing reference to.

Therefore, for Nouthetic Counseling to state that the Bible can solve all mental illness is beyond what the Bible itself lays claim to.

During this next month, I am going to review the book “Competent to Counsel” chapter by chapter. Admittedly, this is a harshly critical review. I do not like anything about Nouthetic Counseling, and I have seen it hurt the lives of many people. I will share some of those testimonies. If the Nouthetic group does not like my analysis, they can do their own.

Here is my take on the Introduction of the Book.

It is important to establish Jay Adams’ credentials to speak on the issues of counseling, psychology and psychiatry. What are his bona fides?

He took a course in Pastoral Counseling in his first undergraduate degree. He took a few more in his Masters degree in Theology. In addition, he spent a summer internship helping out Hobart Mowrer, author of “The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion”. Adams claims to have observed several group therapy sessions with Mowrer in state psychiatric hospitals in Illinois.

This 3-month internship was literally the complete extent of Jay Adam’s professional training in psychology at the time he wrote this book. And he spent it with a man whose work is especially critical of all things  related to psychotherapy. Dr. Mowrer is considered by most psychologists to be an outlier in the field of counseling, with little academic achievements to his credit to establish his theories.

To summarize, Adams has no background in Psychology, Psychiatry, or any related field. He did an internship for 3 months with a man whose work has never been proven by the scientific method.

Those are his credentials for claiming to be able to tell the world how all mental illness can be cured. To be fair, he is proud of not having any background in psychology. Here is how he puts it in the Introduction:

“My conclusions in this book are not based on scientific findings.”


“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 human interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures.”

In other words, Science is only good for stories, better naming of things, and as examples for stupid ideas that conflict with the Bible.

In the Introduction, Adams lays out his primary problem with psychiatry. (Note: He doesn’t understand psychology and lumps psychology and psychiatry together as if they speak with one voice). He contends that all psychiatry is Freudian or Rogerian (Sigmund Freud or Carl Rogers), and as such should be rejected because of their non-Christian belief system.

In the introduction, he rejects Mowrer as well because he is not a Christian and then, startlingly, William Glasser.

Glasser was a very strong Christian and espoused a biblical worldview. I have no idea why Adams would lump him in, except Glasser was not an Evangelical. Actually, that is probably why he felt he was not a Christian.

He took one course in psychology. He learned about Freud’s and Rogers’ theories and concluded:

“I found it ludicrous to nod and grunt acceptingly in detachment without offering biblical directives. I decided I was wasting valuable time.”

Later in the Introduction, he continues,

“I found myself asking, “Is much of what is called mental illness, illness at all?” This question arose primarily from noticing that while the Bible describes homosexuality and drunkenness as sin, most of the mental health literature calls them sicknesses or diseases…could the books be wrong in similarly misclassifying other problems like depression, or neurosis or psychosis as sickness?”

Adams is teaching right up front that there is no such thing as mental illness. All mental illness is really just sin. A person sinned and that is why they’re depressed. A person sins and that is why they hear voices in their head. A person sinned and that is why they stay up for 7 straight days with manic episodes.

Though in this introduction, and indeed in the entire book, Adams gives no real evidentiary proof that his methods work, he claims they are true by virtue of his ability to read the Bible and find counseling advice inside of it. He wonders in several places why everyone has not found this to be true. He attributes the church’s lack of bible use in counseling to its adherence to the demonic secularism attacking the church.

In this introduction, Adams creates an convenient Straw Dog and then tries to tear it down. The Straw Dog is the idea that the “Medical Model” of mental illness is accepted by all of psychology and has been proven by the Bible to be wrong.

First, even in 1970 when he wrote “Competent to Counsel” the majority of psychologists did not believe all mental illness was a disease. Though some certainly did, many more non-psychologists taught it. Take for instance the field of addiction. The idea that alcoholism was a disease comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, not psychology.

Since 1970, the majority of psychologists have a nuanced view of illness as it relates to mental difficulties. Therein lies the strength of the Scientific Method. Science is not always right. But at its core, Science is always re-examining its beliefs and principles, challenging them to see if they can stand up to scrutiny. The hypotheses that cannot stand are discarded for better ideas. Psychology is always doing that. Theology lacks that feature and thus remains relatively static.

But in seeking to tear this Straw Dog down, Adams says that the Bible is the proof that no problems exist apart from sin.  Adams is claiming that all problems can be reduced to just a simple formula–with attending simple solutions. He states it very clearly:

“From my protracted involvement [note: 3 months of internship…that is his protracted involvement] with the inmates of the mental institutions at Kankakee and Galesburg, I was convinced that most of them were there, as I said, not because they were sick, but because they were sinful. In counseling sessions, we discovered with astonishing consistency that the main problems people were having were of their own making.”

If he thinks he came up with that observation, I have to object strenuously. This is one of the biggest contentions of psychiatry and psychology since its inception: All people are responsible for what they believe. It is the cornerstone of all memory re-processing therapies, EMDR, Choice Theory and dozens of other therapies.

Adams shows his complete ignorance of the field of psychology right from the start.

It only gets worse as one goes through the book.

3 thoughts on “Reviewing the Introduction of Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel”

  1. Thanks for the review. My life was destroyed by Jay Adams and Jay Adams “apostles”. There is a danger for this error – we want something to be true, thus we find evidence that it is true. Christians, especially Calvinists, tend to start from the assumption of sins of co-mission as the problem. And the solution is Jesus. Thus, defending the ability to repent, and what comes from it, is to defend the cross of Jesus. See – they can’t think that the death of Jesus is not the fix. However; our problems stem more often than not from the sins done to us. The sins of omission. Jesus understood what heals – a sense of belonging. How many times must I forgive? (and how quickly, and based on what?) Mt 18:21,22. For me, I’ve grown much more as a christian by thinking about Mt 9:36, Galatians 6:2. Compassion and looking for the burdens another carries will take a person much farther than seeing what we think they need to repent of. And of course, having compassion for ourselves. I’ve also left the non-sacramental forms of Christianity. We do need a refreshing of forgiveness, John 6:53-56. A kind of restating for our good the Absolution of sin. How incredibly refreshing and necessary. Again, thank you for the review of Jay Adams. Keep an eye on projection and see wikipedia on “Projective Identification”, add the dangers of that to the dangers of Jay Adams.

  2. Part 2, Point 1 here – note Jay Adams, again, he wants’ his presupposition to be correct, that is the cross. But in a twisted way of thinking that the cross and repentance are the solution. And not in a way that stops to learn how to look for the burdens others carry. (Gal 6:2). At the mental institutions at Kankakee, ok, let’s grant that many there might be or are malingering. Well, what burdens does a person have such that they would malinger to stay in a mental institution? And what role do others play in addressing the fears that cause people to become so desperate that, being in a mental institution, is the solution to their fears? See, if we don’t ask those questions, and we assume the locus of the fault is in the one malingering, we don’t have to do much do we? We can be smug about leaving them in the bed we think they made. Pharisees we become. Point 2 here – those in a mental institute, and this I know from being in the population of a mental institute, often have become wise about those observing them and asking question’s. Lacking power in the equation, they learn to manipulate by telling the one asking questions what they think the interviewer want’s to hear. Adams, saying “you’re just faking it to be hear”, well, if you want out, the answer is to tell Adams what he wanted to hear. Stroking his pride = release. Adams gives no thought to how easily he was manipulated. I consider Adams an enemy. How does Christ tell me to deal with my enemies?

  3. Part 3 (Pardon the typos’) – Is the problem sin and what is the solution? Problem #1 to fix, always, is that the organism, the person, does not feel safe. Think long about that. Most everything everyday throughout our lives is motivated to feel safe. I was dealing with high stress Nuke war fighting stuff, and supporting real-time combate around the whole world 24×7. And trying to care for the needs of four children and a loving wife, and free myself from Jay Adams inspired false fear, shame and guilt. My entire support structure, Christians’, were operating on the premise that depressions was something we can “snap out of” by way of our cognitions. Ha! Not so!. Also, behind that type of thinking is the hidden desire to be able to be in control of my own destiny. That I can get the things in life I want if “I only manage well”, from AA Big Book, Pg. 61. No, I argue that nothing levels a person abjectly more to dependency on Christ than mental illness. Here, salvation, and everything else, by faith and faith alone, here the rubber meets the road. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” 2 Cor 12:8. “My Grace is sufficient for you”. And… Christ is pleased to extended his grace, 24×7, over and over and over again. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Ps 73:25-26. I developed over two years a deep form of major clinical depression, when I broke, my entire Christian support structure was as useful as Job’s friends. Meaning, not, not helpful at all. Turns out, stress can physically change the brain, change the way the person “presents”. Psychotropics are thought to be able to help the brain undo the adverse changes. After watching the YouTube “Stanford’s Sapolsky On Depression in U.S. (Full Lecture)”, and doing some research, I found my way to a psychotropic that has been literally a god send. Grace, Grace by Grace alone, in every moment of his good providence. (This finishes my posts)

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