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.”

and

“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.