Competent to Counsel (Publication)
By Lauren York
Dr. Jay Adams is widely respected as the Father of the Biblical Counseling Movement. Beginning his work as pastor, professor, and church planter, he has experience behind the pulpit as well as the desk. After studying counseling thoroughly both individually as well as under the supervision of a highly respected psychologist of the 20th century, Adams felt led to write about his findings. In the seventies when this book was written, counseling for the Christian looked too much like counseling for the non-Christian. Did God’s Word have a role in the specific lives of troubled believers? Or were they doomed to temporary solutions and stick-on bandages for soul-deep wounds? In his finest work, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling, Jay Adams explores the sufficiency of Scripture for all areas of life. He reevaluates traditional, secular approaches and instead teaches believers how they can become qualified to help others in the counseling setting through effectively wielding the Scriptures.
In the preface of Competent to Counsel, Adams discusses his background in ministry. Despite being prepared to lead in the church, he had a feeling of inadequacy when it came to the bigger problems of life—the areas psychologists were supposed to deal with. One day after and evening service, a man from his church approached him, burdened by some struggle. He grasped for words, but finally sent the man home with a still heavy heart. Less than a month later, the man died. Adams felt like a failure. After this tragedy, he saw a deficiency in his qualifications and devoted himself to the study of counseling. However, as he borrowed from secular textbooks and listened to recommendations from Christian counselors, he eventually found his way to one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century: O. Hobart Mowrer.
A noted research psychologist, Mowrer was honored with the Presidency of the American Psychological Association for his radical perspective on learning theory. He challenged mainstream beliefs, questioned institutionalized psychiatry, and even ventured to declare current psychiatric dogmas to be false. By the late 1950s, Mowrer had abandoned psychology as a theory as well as practice. Instead of adopting and accepting the common Medical Model for understanding human behavior, he proposed the Moral Model. In Mowrer’s Moral Model, he showed how the assumption of personal responsibility usurped any ideas claiming mental illness as the culprit for deviant behavior. Having worked closely with the OSS, community groups, students, the severely troubled in mental institutions and many other control groups, Mowrer was exposed to the most “diseased” of society. He supposedly was plagued by severe mental illness as well. Yet, he held to his convictions that people are not sick in the head—they are behaviorally immoral.
In the summer of 1965, Jay Adams was privileged to work alongside of Mowrer in a sort of internship setup. Adams refers to this time as “an unforgettable experience.” Adams was pricked by Mowrer’s theory of personal responsibility in the face of guilt or clinical insanity. He began to feel challenged by this viewpoint which claimed the problem stems from within the man, not outside. Adams explains that it was this radical belief system which drove him to ask, “What do the Scriptures say about such people and the solution to their problems?” As a Christian minister, he stood in stark contrast to Mowrer. While their deep distaste for psychology was a connection, Adams’ adherence to Scripture as the ultimate source of truth set him apart from his superior. He was so stirred by his time studying under Mowrer that he launched his own counseling and education center the following year, and in 1970—within just five years of his “unforgettable experience”—Adams had written and published his first edition of Competent to Counsel.
The publication of this book was the subject of heated debate and broad controversy among churches. Since “widespread conservative and religious distrust of psychology persisted even into the 1960s,” Adams’ theories were not quickly adopted by the church. However, Adams’ early exposure to a Mowrer “go against the grain” type of approach stuck with him and made an impact on the Christian community as a whole. Whereas he largely lost interprofessional acceptance, he gained followers among pastors and their parishioners overtime. Psychology had previously taken a transcendent role in the job of soul care, but now, the task was redelivered to the hands of ministers of the soul. The Father of the Biblical Counseling Movement essentially replaced the Father of American Psychology. In an interview with Tabletalk Magazine, Jay Adams quotes, “I never say that Christians are competent. I say that they ought to become competent. That’s why I have taught counseling both in writing and in classes for so many years.” No longer is the realm of counseling set aside for trained psychiatrists; it is set aside for those who have answers for the soul. Through the comprehensive usage of Scripture to effect lasting change, he shows in this book just how intimate the counselor’s understanding of the Word must be in order to directly apply it to the counselee’s life.
After his revelatory experience working under Mowrer, Jay Adams’ sole goal was to take the truths he had gleaned about man’s need for responsibility and pair that with the Word of God. Thus, Competent to Counsel became a text dedicated to helping people learn how to be qualified for the task of instructing. In the book, Adams writes that he is not only fully aware of the problem of “old eclecticism with a Christian coating,” but that he attempts to reject it. This statement directly addresses the controversy about the medical versus the biblical that arose as a result of his publication. People were wary of Adams’ approach to the Scriptures and his claims about becoming “competent” to counsel. The role of the Pastor and Christian is to talk about religion, not mind or life problems, the culture claims. But his early exposure to Mowrer’s sharply contrasted belief system with that of the day prepared Adams for the unwavering stance of the Biblical Counselor. He credits his former teacher with driving him to the conclusion that the “mentally ill” can be helped with the Word of God.
Psychology is so engrained in the mind of the culture that it is hard to escape, but he thoroughly combats the assumption that sin issues are strictly mental issues. The very idea of integrationism in counseling is appalling to him. The denouncement of these forms of instruction such as Christian Counseling helped to form a clear distinction between the truly biblical and unbiblical. His method of counseling focused on instruction, which is why he gave it the title of nouthetic counseling (nouthetic means to “admonish, correct, or instruct”). As believers began to grasp the relevance of the Bible for life and the need for it in the counseling setting, the line was being drawn. There is no mistake now about the focus as well as the effects of Biblical Counseling which elevate it from any other type of “soul-care.” Adam’s derives his methodologies and instruction directly from the Word of God, and this is certain to have a deep impact.
Aside from Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams has authored over 100 books. Some of his most prominent works are as follows:
- The Christian Counselor’s Manual
- Theology You Can Really Understand
- Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible
- Shepherding God’s Flock: A Handbook on Pastor Ministry, Counseling, and Leadership
Adams, Jay Edward. Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ. House, 2002.
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“Competent to Counsel: An Interview with Jay Adams by Jay Adams.” Ligonier Ministries. Accessed May 5, 2020. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/competent-counsel-interview-jay-adams/.
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Powlison, David Arthur, “Competent to Counsel? The history of a conservative Protestant anti-psychiatry movement” (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9712988.
Page, C. (2017). Preserving guilt in the “age of psychology”: The curious career of O. Hobart Mowrer. History of Psychology, 20(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1037/hop0000045.
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