Tag Archives: Jay Adams

Jay Adams, Pioneer of Nouthetic Counselling, Dies at 91

Jay Adams died on November 14, 2020.  He was 91 years old.  If his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his association with counselling.  Adams was the pioneer of nouthetic Christian counselling, a theory of counselling based on what the Bible teaches about sin, human nature, and the dynamics of meaningful change.  However, Jay Adams deserves to be remembered for more than just his contributions to Christian counselling.  Let’s briefly survey his life and work.

Training and Ministry

Adams studied theology at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia – he actually began studying there at the age of 15.  He later received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and Masters in Sacred Theology from Temple University.  Completing his academic training, Adams was awarded a Ph.D. in speech from the University of Missouri.

From 1963-1983, he taught pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Prior to that, he pastored a number of Presbyterian churches, including an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.  Over the last decades of his life, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held his ministerial credentials.  He was the founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as well as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies.   

Basic Orientation

I began reading Jay Adams as a university student.  One thing that immediately impressed me was his real commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith.  He always took the Bible seriously.  Whatever topic he was writing on, from Christian living to counselling to preaching, sola Scriptura was his touchstone.  You might not agree with his exegesis or conclusions (I certainly haven’t always), but you have to agree that this is at least the right approach. 

Adams was following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til argued that Reformed principles, drawn from Scripture, must be consistently applied in apologetics.  Jay Adams took that approach and applied it to pastoral theology.  The starting point and governing standard must always be the Word of God. Prior to Adams, this hadn’t been fully recognized in Christian counselling.

Critics

Not everyone was enthusiastic about Adams’ approach, especially as it applied to counselling.  For example, in 1977, an article appeared in Clarion by Dutch theologian Cornelis Trimp.  The article (originally a lecture delivered at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary) expressed some appreciation for Adams, but was overall quite critical.  Trimp’s critique would be influential in the Canadian Reformed Churches for years to come. 

In 1999, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Adams briefly at a conference in Buffalo where he was speaking.  I specifically asked him about Trimp’s critique and what he thought of it.  He said that he thought it was unfair that Trimp based his critique on just one early book, Competent to Counsel.  After Competent to Counsel and before Trimp’s critique was published, Adams wrote several more books where he explained himself further and answered many of the criticisms Trimp offered.                     

Other critics raised questions about Adams’ concept of habituation.  In Adams’ thinking, habitual actions are automatic, second nature, and unconscious.  They can be good or bad, which is to say that they have a moral character.  In 2003, George W. Schwab wrote an important article for the Journal of Biblical Counseling in which he persuasively argued that Adams was more influenced by O. Hobart Mowrer and William Glasser than by Scripture in formulating his views on habituation.

His Abiding Contribution

Keep in mind that Adams wrote well over 100 books.  When you write that much, you can expect that there will be disagreements and critiques – and there were many of them.  Some of the critiques had more to do with Adams’ tone or style, sometimes perceived as too strident or too forceful.  Some of the critiques were unfair or prejudicial, while others were on point and advanced the discussion.  Many of Adams’ successors at CCEF, men like the late David Powlison, used Adams’ basic biblical approach and helped move Christian counselling forward.  They all owe a debt of gratitude to Adams for getting the discussion going.     

My life and ministry have certainly been enriched by Jay Adams.  Perhaps he has something to offer you too.  Let me make some suggestions to finish off:Competent to Counsel was one of Adams’ earliest books, published in 1970.  It is an important book, but it leaves many questions hanging.  If you’re interested in understanding the basics of his nouthetic counselling methodology, a better place to start would be A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.   A good follow-up would be How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  A couple of other books that are more directed to the regular “person in the pew”:  What To Do On Thursday: A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures and The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image.  Preachers and aspiring preachers need to read his Preaching with Purpose and Truth Applied:  Application in Preaching.


‘We’ or ‘You’ in Preaching?

When he’s making his applications, should a preacher use ‘we’ or ‘you’?   There are arguments for and against both.  Using “we” sounds more humble and preachers don’t want to be accused of coming off arrogant and self-righteous.  But using “we” also sounds a bit weak-kneed, as if God’s Word doesn’t speak authoritatively and directly to the congregation from the pulpit.

In one corner is Alec Motyer, a ‘we’ proponent.  In his book Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, he says he’s “not comfortable with the ‘you’ approach to preaching.  We are not like doctors diagnosing and prescribing for someone else’s complaint – in which case ‘you’ is appropriate and necessary.  We who preach are fellow-sufferers from the same disease!” (p.95)

In the other corner of the ring, we find, perhaps not surprisingly, Jay Adams.  In Truth Applied, Adams argues that effective application requires direct language directed to the hearer.  He says that applicatory language is “at once clear, simple, direct, personal, active and concrete” (p.115).  Whether in the introduction or elsewhere, the preacher has to direct his speech to the congregation.  It’s got to have punch.  That means ‘you.’

‘We’ or ‘you’ may appear a vexing question.  But what if the Bible gave us an answer?  What if there was a sermon addressed to a congregation of believers where we might be able to see not only how the early Christians dealt with this, but also discern God’s will?

While the book of Hebrews is often described as a ‘letter’ or ‘epistle,’ a good case can be made that it is actually a sermon from the apostolic church era.  One of the most compelling arguments is the use of the expression ‘a word of exhortation’ to describe the work in Hebrews 13:22.  Exactly the same expression appears in Acts 13:15 to describe preaching in the synagogue.  Moreover, numerous scholars have drawn attention to rhetorical devices used in the work – these devices are usually associated with spoken language rather than written.  While there’s no way to be absolutely certain, it’s quite likely that most of what we call Hebrews was originally a message delivered to one or more churches.

Now if that’s true (I think it is), then we could examine the applicatory language used by the author/preacher of Hebrews.  Does he use ‘we’ or ‘you’?  There’s plenty of applicatory language to be surveyed throughout the book.  I didn’t do a tally of all the uses, but I’m going to guess that it’s about half and half for ‘we’ and ‘you.’  Here are a few select examples of ‘we’:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  (Heb. 2:1)

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”  (Heb. 4:11)

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Heb. 4:14)

Here are just a few examples of ‘you’ (second person plural):

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12)

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” (Heb. 10:35)

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”  (Heb. 13:5)

This variety of applicatory usage is found throughout the book, although it does start to clump up in chapter 13 with its large section of application.

If we take our lead from Hebrews, it seems that both ‘we’ and ‘you’ are equally valid ways of bringing application to bear in sermons.  But it would also seem that one shouldn’t be used to the complete exclusion of the other.  It’s good to be authoritative and direct with the congregation, but at times it’s also good to include yourself as a sinner equally addressed by the exhortations of God’s Word.  Let me give the final word to Bryan Chapell.  He writes in a footnote in Christ-Centered Preaching:

I encourage students to ignore the senseless arguments over whether preachers should exhort with the words we or you.   The arguments some preachers make for the exclusive use of one or the other are specious at best…Obviously, a preacher who never confronts others speaks without the authority Scripture grants, but a pastor who never identifies with sinners preaches with an arrogance even Jesus did not assume. (p. 143)


Top Five Books on Preaching

I try to read at least one book on preaching each year.  So far, I’ve been in the ministry for nearly 20 years and I’ve read at least 25 books.  It looks like I’m keeping on track.  Some of the books have been mediocre, but most of them have had something worthwhile.  Some have really stood out in my mind and continue to.  If asked for my top five must-reads about preaching, this would be my list and in this order:

  1. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Bryan Chapell

A fellow student introduced me to Bryan Chapell’s book while I was in seminary.  I learned so much from this book about how to preach Christ.  I especially appreciate Chapell’s notion of the Fallen Condition Focus of each passage – often when I struggle to formulate a theme for my sermon, I go back to this notion and everything falls into place.  There is a second edition available, but I’ve only read the first.  I’m not sure about the differences between the two.

  1. Expository Preaching With Word Pictures: With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson, Jack Hughes

I’ve always loved Thomas Watson.  He’s the most readable of the Puritans.  He has a style that’s stood the test of time.  Hughes demonstrates why and also how his approach can be appropriated by preachers today.  If you want to preach vividly, like Watson did, this book is priceless.

  1. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People, Joel R. Beeke

This large volume is all about reaching not only the minds of listeners, but also their hearts.  It’s solid on the theology of preaching, as well as on the practice.  It’s grounded in Scripture, however it also works extensively with church history.  If you’re going to read this one, also read the next one – they overlap a little bit, but also complement one another beautifully.

  1. Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship, John Piper

Few people ever think about preaching as an act of worship.  But Piper convincingly argues from Scripture that both the giving and receiving of preaching are worship.  Then he shows how thinking about it that way makes a huge difference.  As with Beeke’s book, this one gets to the heart matters and also stresses the urgency of the preacher’s task.  I’ve read numerous Piper books and this is one of his best.

  1. Truth Applied: Application in Preaching, Jay Adams

I read this back in seminary, over one of my summer breaks.  More than any other book, it impressed upon me the need to have preaching that aims to change hearts and lives.  Even if you disagree with Adams’ approach to counselling, there’s a lot to glean from what he’s written about preaching.


Jay Adams and Colitis

jayadams

I really do appreciate a lot of what Jay Adams has done for Christian counselling.  In fact, in 2010, I featured him in my series “Friends You Should Meet.”  I’ve read quite a number of his books and have gained something from almost all of them.  I especially appreciate his eagerness to have the Word of God as the foundation and guide for Christian counselling.

Over the last while, I was reading his 1972 collection of essays and addresses, The Big Umbrella.  This was published two years after his landmark volume, Competent to Counsel.  In these essays, one finds the same principled approach to the discipline:  “The Scriptures must be the basis for all that is said and done in counselling” (26).  Moreover, as elsewhere, he affirms that there is really such a thing as mental illness.  It can be due to “organic problems, brain damage, chemical damage or malfunction, toxic damage, or other organic causes” (47).  In a footnote later in the book, Adams adds that some mental health issues can be caused by glandular imbalances.  Then he also says this:  “There is also a gray area of problems that are of uncertain etiology” (161).  Etiology refers to the causes of diseases.  Uncertain etiology means that we don’t know what causes it.  Adams usually deals in black and white, but in this footnote he admitted a gray area.

The chapter “Is Society Sick?” includes a note about “Sickness in the Scriptures.”  This note mentions Adams’ idea of hamartiagenic illnesses.  Hamartiagenic illnesses are those that are brought on by sin.  A classic example would be how sexual promiscuity results in sexually transmitted diseases.  You would not have caught that disease if you had not been sexually immoral.  As a category per se, I don’t think there is any reason to object to this notion.

However, later in that note, Adams mentions colitis as a hamartiagenic illness.  (What is colitis?  Click here.) The underlying cause of colitis, says Adams, is resentment.  I looked to see if Adams discusses this anywhere else.  I found mention of it in The Christian Counselor’s Manual (1973).  There Adams is discussing a hypothetical marriage breakdown involving Bill and Jane.  Adams says to Jane, “Your colitis is not the result of Bill’s wrongs toward you, but evidently has been occasioned by the sinful way in which you have handled these wrongs.  After all, Jesus did not have a colitis attack on the cross” (268).  Adams bases this view on a 1963 book by Dr. S. I. McMillan, None of These Diseases (since republished many times, also in a revised edition).  McMillan cited research supposedly showing that “96 per cent of colitis patients admitted to one hospital were dominantly resentful persons” (Adams, The Big Umbrella, 61).  Bitterness and resentment cause colitis, and colitis is therefore a hamartiagenic illness — according to Adams in 1972/73.

I read this and went a little squinty-eyed.  I’ve been a pastor for a few years now and I’ve known several parishioners who suffer with colitis and its cousin, Crohn’s disease.  I don’t recall these parishioners being particularly resentful or bitter people.  Maybe they were and just hid it well — that can happen.  But what Adams was saying just does not seem to fit with what I have observed.  Could Adams have been wrong on this?  Notice that his case was not made on the basis of what Scripture says, but on the basis of a medical study done some years earlier.

I did some further research.  I asked friends on Facebook — a very scientific way to start, I know.  Of those who responded, some were colitis sufferers and said that emotional stress can definitely make the symptoms of their colitis worse.  However, can emotional stress (including intense bitterness, anger, resentment) cause colitis? According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the cause of colitis is still unknown.  However, as also mentioned anecdotally by my Facebook friends, stress of all kinds can aggravate symptoms.  Interestingly, the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website adds that the reverse is also true:  colitis can cause stress and emotional upset.  People might get angry, bitter, resentful because of their colitis.  Research done at the University of Calgary also suggests other possibilities.   But to categorically claim that colitis is a sin-engendered illness — that really seems to be a stretch in 2016.

Perhaps it was credible in the nouthetic counselling world in 1972, but today Adams’ claim is not only rather questionable, but also potentially dangerous.  I could imagine someone reading The Big Umbrella, not doing their own research into the state of the question today, encountering someone with colitis, and concluding that they must be bitter and resentful.   Addressing them on that basis could do a lot of harm, not only to the individual being suspected of sin, but especially to the relationship between the pastor/counsellor and the colitis sufferer.  At best, when it comes to the cause of colitis, one should fall back to “uncertain etiology.”  We don’t know what causes it.  That being true, pastors and other counsellors should focus their attention on helping people cope with their colitis in a biblical, God-honouring fashion.


Top Ten Influential Books

There’s this thing on Facebook where people are invited to share the top ten influential books in their lives.  A while back I was tagged for this too.  It didn’t take much thought — I had my top ten in ten minutes.  For my own future reference, and perhaps to point you in the direction of some good books too, I thought I would post it over here as well.

1. The Word of God — a light for my path, wisdom from above, good news for a great sinner.
2. The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition), by Cornelius Van Til. This book and its biblical approach has been foundational for everything, not just apologetics.
3. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J. I. Packer. Combined with the next volume, this set me to learn from the Puritans.
4. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken. This busted all kinds of preconceived notions of the Puritans.
5. All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson. This is the first Puritan book I read. It’s powerful!
6. Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, by Jack Hughes. This one unfolds the method behind Watson’s genius and applies it to preaching today.
7. Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell. The book my seminary preaching prof dissed, but which many of us loved and learned lots from.
8. The Christian Soldier, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This helped to bridge the gap between my military ambitions and the desire to serve in a different army.
9. Competent to Counsel, by Jay Adams. How do you apply Van Til’s presuppositionalism to counselling? Adams made a good initial effort to show us.
10. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, by Carlos M. N. Eire. Was the Regulative Principle of Worship invented by the Puritans? No, Eire demonstrates that its pedigree goes back to at least Geneva.

There are lots of other books, but I’d say that those 10 were definitely some of the biggest ones in my life so far.