Competent to Counsel?
The History of a Conservative Protestant Anti-Psychiatry Movement

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 06/10/2009 by Bob Kellemen.

Recommended. A unique historical perspective on the birth and development of Jay Adam’s nouthetic counseling movement, written with historical objectivity by one close to the movement.

This book review is technically not a book review, but rather a dissertation review. Don’t run away, this dissertation (Competent to Counsel?: The History of a Conservative Protestant Anti-Psychiatry Movement) is neither boring nor irrelevant to life and ministry.

The name “Jay Adams” and the group “Nouthetic Counseling” are familiar to Evangelicals in the biblical/Christian counseling world. As author David Powlison notes, most people either love or hate Adams and nouthetic counseling.

Powlison, while acknowledging his own personal history as one trained within the nouthetic counseling movement and as a friend of Dr. Adams, is still able to write with a historian’s objectivity. Competent to Counsel? is neither hagiography nor a blistering attack. It is a balanced, nuanced examination, not only of the history, but of the theology and methodology of Jay Adams and nouthetic counseling.

Powlison takes his readers first to the historical backdrop that led to the rise of nouthetic counseling. As E. Brooks Holifield explains in A History of Pastoral Care in America, so Powlison traces the movement of pastoral ministry from a focus on salvation to a focus on self. In the generation before Jay Adams’ ministry (the 1920s to 1950s), pastoral counseling was strongly influenced by liberal Protestantism and secular psychology.

He tells the riveting story of Adams’ journey as a young pastor, facing crisis after crisis among his parishioners and feeling inadequately prepared. Adams’ internship under the secularist O. Hobart Mowrer, of all people, was a culminating experience leading to Adams’ rejection of secular psychology.

In Powlison’s hand, the narrative is never shallow. He describes other influencing factors on Adams’ theory, including his personality, his background as a preacher, his Reformed Presbyterian theology, his study of Van Til’s pressupositional apologetics, among others.

Once Adams launched the nouthetic counseling movement with his publication of Competent to Counsel, with the start of the Christian Counseling and Education Center (later to be renamed the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation—CCEF), and later with the start of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), the history begins to sound like an afternoon soap opera. Powlison colorfully depicts the intrigue within and without the movement.

While Adams spent part of his ministry critiquing secular psychology, he reserved more of his bombast for those within the church whom he considered “integrationists” who he believed had sold their birth right for a bowl of pottage by trying to blend and merge biblical truth with psychological theory and practice. Engaging page after engaging page illustrates the important interaction between “nouthetic biblical counseling” and “Christian integrationist psychology” (though, in my opinion, many would not accept being placed in either “camp”).

Equally interesting, and perhaps much lesser known to “outsiders,” are the historical in-house squabbles between early leaders of the nouthetic counseling movement. In particular, Powlison addresses the differences in personality, theory, and methodology that arose between Adams and his nouthetic counseling peer, John Bettler. If ever there was an antithesis to Adams, it was Bettler, and eventually drifting apart, despite mutual respect and friendship, almost could have been predicted.

Powlison also tracks the ups and down of the movement in terms of influence (memberships, readership, sister organizations, “competing” organizations, etc.). To see the widespread impact of nouthetic counseling today, it may surprise some to read about the many years when, according to Powlison, it languished.

Powlison’s work is not only historiographical. It also offers readers thoughtful analysis of the theology and methodology of nouthetic biblical counseling, of Christian psychology, and of Christian counseling. Two lengthy and informative chapters outline the views, accusations, counter-views, and perspectives of most of the leading characters in biblical Christian counseling and psychology from the 1960s to the 1990s. It would be almost impossible to read Powlison’s summaries without being challenged to reflect seriously about one’s own beliefs about the real meaning, in practice, of the sufficiency of Scripture. Just what does it mean and what does it “look like” to practice truly biblical Christian counseling that is Christ-centered, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed?

Reading Competent to Counsel? is like discovering a time capsule. You un-bury it, read the enclosed note, and say, “Aha! So, that’s why things are the way they are today!” You come away with a greater appreciation for what Jay Adams was attempting to do. You come away with a greater appreciation for those who attempted to say, “Jay, you may have pulled the pendulum too far and done so a little too caustically.” You come away with a better understanding of the ongoing “camps” in the biblical Christian counseling movement(s) that exist to this day.

For a rollickingly good read (yes, I said that about a dissertation!), and for vital insight into the shape of pastoral, biblical, Christian counseling and psychology today, Competent to Counsel? is a unique contribution to the field.

Competent to Counsel? can be purchased online from Reformation Heritage Books or New Growth Press, CCEF's primary publisher.