A wag once introduced Adams as “a man who has never had an unpublished thought.” With over 100 books to his credit, few authors have been as productive as Jay Adams over a lifetime. While many books dealt with counseling issues, other books covered a surprising spectrum of issues including theology, hermeneutics, Christian living, a devotional book, preaching (including a book for laymen on how to listen to a sermon), pastoral ministry, fiction, aging, guidance, eschatology, church conflict, and commentaries.
Jay Adams entered into his eternal rest with his Lord on November 14, 2020. He was 91 years old.
Adams was best known as the founder of the modern Biblical counseling movement, launched with the publication of his groundbreaking book Competent to Counsel in 1970. He was a champion for the cause of biblical sufficiency and against the encroachment of secular psychology into the counseling rooms of pastors and Christian laypersons.
Early life and conversion
Jay Edward Adams was born on January 30, 1929, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a beat cop and his mother a secretary. Neither of his parents attended church, and he received no instruction in spiritual matters as a child.
Adams was a precociously bright youngster and skipped a year of high school to graduate when he was just 15 years old. His first consideration of any spiritual matter occurred when a neighborhood friend complained to him about a book he had been reading by a man who denied the Scriptures. Adams wondered why his friend, a believer, was so exercised about the Bible and decided to investigate. He found the Gideon New Testament his father had been given as a soldier in the Great War and began to read. By the time he finished reading the Gospel of John, God opened his heart and he came to believe what he was reading was true.
His friend invited him to his church where he heard the Scriptures preached by a pastor who was a skilled expositor, and he began to grow. Following graduating from high school, he asked his pastor where he could go to learn the Bible better. His pastor pointed him to the Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia, where an exception had to be made so Adams could enroll as a 15-year-old student with no undergraduate degree.
The next three years were rigorous for Adams, who had no previous familiarity with the Scriptures. He learned quickly and soon developed a love for the study of the Scriptures in the original languages. Upon completion of his graduate coursework, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University and majored in classic languages. Upon graduation in 1952, he was awarded both his undergraduate and graduate degrees on the same day.
During his Seminary and College days, Adams did street preaching and preached at country churches and rescue missions. He served as director of the local Youth for Christ chapter and sang in a men’s quartet. But most importantly, he met and eventually married Betty Jane Whitlock on June 23, 1951.
n 1952 Adams became the pastor of a United Presbyterian church in Eighty-Four, Pennsylvania, and soon became embroiled in denominational conflict. He opposed a proposed merger with a liberal denomination and was chosen to debate the merger’s leading proponent. The debate did not end well for his opponent, who tried to deny the existence of liberalism in his denomination. Adams had done his homework and caught his opponent in a number of lies by quoting back to him his earlier writings.
Adams pastored several other small churches while taking further studies at Temple University, where he studied homiletics under Andrew Blackwood, who impressed Adams deeply and instilled in him a love for preaching.
In 1958 Adams moved to Kirkwood, MO and became the director of Home Missions for the Bible Presbyterian denomination. While traveling, he often had discussions with pastors who asked about his understanding of eschatology. Because he was asked so frequently, he decided to put his view into a small book, which he entitled Realized Millennialism (a term he preferred over “amillennialism”). Most pastors in the denomination were premillennial, however, and his book generated a degree of controversy. Not desiring to be a cause of division, he resigned to focus on his Ph.D. studies at the University of Missouri.
By this time in his academic career, Adams had a mature grasp on his theology and was an accomplished Greek scholar. But his burden for the state of preaching he observed in churches grew, leading him to focus his Ph.D. work on learning to communicate effectively. For three years while he did his Ph.D. work, he preached on weekends, bagged groceries at a local market, read law books onto tape for blind students, and taught classes at the university as an intern.
Learning to Counsel
In 1963 he moved to New Jersey, became the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and was invited to teach homiletics part-time at Westminster Theological Seminary. As the newest instructor, he was assigned a course that none of the other teachers wanted to teach, a course entitled “Poimenics” (more commonly known as pastoral theology). As a part of that course, he was expected to teach something about pastoral counseling.
Adams had no experience teaching counseling and limited counseling experience as a pastor, so he simply taught the notes the previous teacher had given him. He found no theological substance in what he had been handed and determined to study and do better before he would have to teach the course again the next year. As he studied, however, he found nothing to help him. He pored over everything he could find written from a Christian perspective and found only Freudian and Rogerian dogma. He studied secular texts and sought to find useful material for the Christian counselor. “I began to conclude that I was too obtuse to understand what I was reading in those books,” he recalled later. “All the other seminaries were able to integrate these secular, pagan concepts in their curriculum, but I could not see how to do it.”
In 1965, Adams was offered the opportunity to accompany O. Hobart Mowrer for six weeks. Mowrer was a past president of the American Psychological Association and had written a book Adams had found to be provocative. In it, Mowrer, an atheist, asked the question, “Has evangelical Christianity sold its birthright for a mess of psychological pottage?”
Adams watched Mowrer confront his counselees about their actions, urge them to take responsibility, and not hide behind psychological labels. This was an unusual tack for a secular psychologist to take, but Adams watched Mowrer find far more success with it than his contemporaries. Mowrer was an iconoclast who challenged the common conclusions of those in his discipline. While Adams was grateful for the opportunity to observe Mowrer that summer, he stood far off from Mowrer’s behaviorism. “Mowrer was skilled at throwing stones through the psychologists’ windows,” Adams would later say, “but he had nothing to replace the broken glass to keep the bugs out.”
That summer with Mowrer was eye-opening for Adams. The reason he could not make secular psychological concepts integrate with the Scriptures was because they did not integrate! As a result of this epiphany, Adams was able to set aside the current psychological dogmas and focus on what the Scriptures had to say about people and their problems. Mowrer provided the bulldozer Adams needed to clear the site upon which he could build a counseling system from the building materials of the Scriptures. Adams began to schedule more and more counseling and used each session as an impetus to search the Scriptures for specific solutions to the problems that were presented. He invited students to sit in on counseling sessions and then debated with them how best to proceed after each session and how the Scriptures met the need. In 1968 he formed the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) to serve as a kind of laboratory for his studies.