Those familiar with my church, Providence Bible Fellowship, have either heard about or experienced for themselves the helpfulness of biblical counseling. But thirty or forty years ago such counseling would be hard to come by. What changed? While God always has his seven thousand, the indisputable father of biblical counseling is Jay Adams (1929–2020). Since his recent passing into the glory of his Savior, it’s a good time to pause and recognize the debt we owe to him.
The Need for Biblical Counseling
Sigmund Freud is seen as the father of modern psychology. Though many psychologists would discredit several of his ideas today, they nonetheless recognize his importance in beginning the movement. Freud was not a friend of the church. But, ironically, it was the church that gave Freud his ideas for psychology.
In his day, Freud saw what the church was doing through pastoral counseling. He observed the tremendous help it provided people as they struggled through their problems. The pastoral care of the church worked. But Freud cared nothing for the church of its Christ; in fact, he opposed them. Thus, he wanted to create a group of trained “secular pastoral workers.” In other words, he wanted the benefits of Christian counseling without the Christian beliefs that lay behind it.1 Freud sought to establish a practice whereby analysis and counsel was not done by doctors or priests.
This drive to separate Christian pastoral care from Christian theology led to the creation of modern psychology. Sadly, as time went on, many in the church became convinced this “science” had more to offer than the timeless truths of God’s Word. The robust and practice of pastoral care fell by the wayside as God’s people were sent to the psychologist’s couch.
The Recovery of Biblical Counseling
Enter Jay Adams. He keenly saw the failure of psychology to help people and the need to recover good, wise pastoral care. Based on the New Testament word noutheteo, which means “correct, counsel, or instruct,” Adams began developing the practice of Nouthetic Counseling.2 He wanted to recover the biblical pattern and command of “lovingly confronting people out of deep concern in order to help them make those changes that God requires” and to teach others to do the same.3 In essence, Adams strived to recover the very practices of the church that first inspired Freud.
In 1968, Adams established the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) where he could work out the practice of his nouthetic counseling with students. However, it was Adams’ book, Competent to Counsel that served as the shot across the bow of secular ideas about counseling in the church. It brought freedom to many pastors who felt like the Bible had something better to offer their members but also felt inept to deal with difficult problems. Several books followed over the years, which worked out the practice of nouthetic counseling. Eventually, the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors was created to formalize the training process and allow for networking and support for those engaged in counseling.4
The Legacy of Biblical Counseling
Though the founder and engine of nouthetic counseling for years, the movement outgrew Adams. Eventually rebranded biblical counseling, the basic commitments of nouthetic counseling remain the same: seeing our problems, their solutions, and any secular tools through the lens of Scripture, recognized as the supreme authority as God’s Word.
At the same time, important growth has also taken place. People like Wayne Mack and David Powlison have helped emphasize what seemed to be lacking in Adam’s methodology—a genuine affection for the counselee. Likewise, there has been an increased recognition that people with problems may be sufferers as much as they are sinners. This softened edge to the authority of the counselor has helped many accept and practice biblical counseling.
Nevertheless, these helpful clarifications and shifts in emphasis should not take away from the importance of Adams. All who practice biblical counseling owe a great debt to him. Through the grace of God, he was used to liberate the church from the worldview of secular psychology and return confidence to God and his Word to empower us for life and godliness in the present age (2 Pet 1:3).
Note: This article was cross-posted at the Providence Bible Fellowship blog.
1 Sarah Winter, Freud and the Institution of Psychoanalytic Knowledge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 173.
2 See verses like Rom 15:14 and 1 Thess 5:14.
3 Jay E. Adams, “What Is ‘Nouthetic’ Counseling,” accessed online at http://www.nouthetic.org/about-ins/what-is-nouthetic-counseling.
4 This organization is now called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.