Book Review

The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams
by Heath Lambert
Wheaton: Crossway, 2011
Reviewed by Donn R Arms

Most biblical counselors would dismiss the term schizophrenia as an unhelpful and confusing label. Heath Lambert has demonstrated, however, that the term has validity as a literary genre. The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams is a number of contradictory things. It is a respectful recounting of the contributions of Jay Adams and a collection of harsh and unkind epithets about the man and his followers. It is both a carefully researched Ph. D. thesis and grievous academic malpractice. It identifies important issues within the biblical counseling movement and embraces as authoritative shoddily constructed straw men. Lambert praises concepts he himself finds questionable, and confuses movement with maturity, differences with development, and provocation with progress. Upon a careful reading of this book, biblical counselors who are familiar with the issues reported here will be made both thankful and appalled.

Lambert has a genuine respect and appreciation for Jay Adams. It is evident in his first chapter in which he surveys Adams’ early writings and places them in the context of the times they were written. It is a careful and complete survey and serves as a great introduction to the man and his writings. In his conclusion, Lambert correctly points out that Adams has always welcomed a careful examination of what he has written and invited others to build on what Adams himself admitted was preliminary (although not tentative). Lambert does just that. He seeks to identify specific areas where, in his view, Adams’ work was deficient—even erroneous—and marshals support for his conclusions by quoting as authoritative those who do not share his deep respect for Adams—many of whom have misrepresented Adams, and questioned his integrity, character, and scholarship.

As a credible scholarly work The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams was doomed from the beginning. It began as a Ph.D. project at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville where Lambert teaches. His purpose was to chronicle what he perceived to be the “development” of the biblical counseling movement in its “second generation” iteration. In Lambert’s mind, it was to be a continuation—a volume two—of a dissertation written by David Powlison in 1996 and later published in book form in 2009.[1] Powlison figures prominently in Lambert’s thesis as a molder and promoter of counseling theory in this “second generation” and is a focus of Lambert’s analysis—it is more a book about David Powlison and his friends at CCEF than it is about Adams. Because the only person Southern Seminary had on faculty with the academic credentials to supervise Lambert’s Ph. D. project was an avowed integrationist the powers that be at the Seminary sought out and hired an outside authority to oversee Lambert’s Ph.D. project—David Powlison! According to Lambert, Powlison

. . . has walked with me every step of the way through this project. Without his wisdom and care, this project would never have been written. Without his living example of Christlikeness, I would be much less that what I am. One of the greatest honors of my life was doing my doctoral work under his leadership. I am repeatedly thankful for his friendship, wisdom, and input (page 20).

So, to clear the academic hurdles for his Ph. D. Lambert was writing a paper that was largely about the man whose approval he had to have to earn his degree! Academically, this is incestuous and the powers that be at Southern Seminary should be ashamed. As a result, while Lambert is willing to critique, criticize, and at times condemn Adams and his “first generation” writings, there is only praise and commendation for Powlison and his “second generation” colleagues. In most of the book, Adams serves as a foil, a warden from whom the “second generation” has been able to free the movement. Lambert quotes some outrageous things these “second generation” men have written about Adams and his followers as though they are authoritative and gives them a pass.

Lambert divides his critiques into three basic categories, how his “second generation” of counselors think about counseling, how they do counseling, and how they talk about counseling. In each area Lambert identifies specific issues on which his “second generation” subjects differ from Adams. Difference does not necessarily mean progress, however. While Lambert believes these differences are the result of growth and maturity in the movement, a careful examination of Lambert’s evidence often reveals a departure from what is biblical and helpful and is a retreat back to the mindset of the pre-nouthetic Rogerian practices of our forefathers which Adams inveighed against over 40 years ago.

How Counselors Think About Counseling

Here Lambert identifies two areas where he believed Adams was deficient and lauds the “second generation” for correcting them. First is the issue of suffering. While Lambert admits that Adams did indeed address the issue in his early writings he concludes Adams did not say enough. This is a most curious criticism. While I have read countless articles from those critical of what Adams has said or written, this is the first case I can recall of someone criticizing Adams for what he did not say—complaining that Adams should have said more!

Lambert then instructs Adams that “the problems and struggles of people are not limited to sin alone” (page 57) as though this is what Adams taught. He quotes Ed Welch who makes a false dichotomy between those who are “pain counselors” and those who are “sin counselors.” Adams, according to Lambert, is one such “sin counselor” (page 60) whose perspective necessitated this correction from Welch:

Those who lean in the direction of minimizing pain, or calling for a stoic acceptance of it, are often more precise in their theological formations. But they may be guilty of ignoring important biblical themes and thus do not offer the full counsel of God to those who suffer.

So for Welch, “more precise theological formations” often hinders the counselor’s ability to “offer the full counsel of God.”

Adams, of course, believed no such thing. For Adams, every counseling problem is, at its core, a theological problem. For this reason, he included a lengthy discussion of the issue of misery, pain, and suffering in his book on Theology (More Than Redemption, pp.152-159). Adams also published a host of small books and pamphlets to use as handouts to counselee’s who were suffering (How to Handle Trouble, How to Overcome Evil, What to do When . . . series, Christ and Your Problems). He also produced a brief homiletical commentary on the book of 1 Peter (Trust and Obey) designed to help the Pastor teach his people about suffering.

Lambert quotes Lane and Tripp and commends their “effort to understand carefully the context in which the counselee exists” (page 62) as though Adams had been silent about such things. Adams’ lengthy sections about data gathering in his Manual do just that.

“It is wrong to approach a struggling brother or sister with a condemning, self-righteous spirit,” chides Paul Tripp (page 63). Jesus rebukes “the problem of ignoring suffering” scolds Ed Welch (page 63). “We do not want to communicate truths in ways that are cheap and platitudinous” (Tripp again). Over and over again these straw men about Jay Adams and his followers are served up and Lambert cites them as authoritative. He questions none of it. Instead, their observations are cited as “progress” within the biblical counseling movement rather than condemned as the slander that they are.

The second issue Lambert cites is that of motivation and he begins the discussion with the claim that “Adams’ view of the dynamics of sin is unusual.” In fact, he claims “it is a theological innovation” (page 67). Lambert cites two articles that were published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling about ten years ago in which Ed Welch challenged Adams’ view of the “flesh” and sought to put forward an “alternative” view, an alternative view that was even more “unusual” and “innovative” than Adams’! Adams responded to the article in a letter to the editor in which he refuted Welch point by point. David Powlison, the editor of the Journal, refused to publish most of Adams’ response opting to run only a quarter of it and leaving out entirely each of Adams’ point by point arguments. On the page following the heavily redacted letter from Adams, the Journal ran an article which accused Adams of being a closet behaviorist and of himself deriving his model from secular psychologists—and Lambert agrees!

So then Schwab and Welch each agree that Adams’ model of habituation is unbiblical. In addition to this, Schwab establishes that the origins of Adams’ thinking were found in secular psychological theories, not in specific texts of Scripture. In other words, Schwab shows that the problem—cited by Welch—of Adams’ understanding of the term “flesh” was imposed by Adams on the biblical text and actually derived from the influence of unbelieving people (page 72).

This “second generation” view of motivation is hardly progress. It is a view of the heart that Adams has been criticizing and opposing for the last 20 years. This is not building on Adams’ work, it is a rejection of it.

Lambert continues this section by citing Powlison’s “Idols of the Heart” construct as a further “development” or maturation in the area of motivation only to challenge Powlison’s understanding later in chapter six.[3]

How Biblical Counselors Do Counseling

Here Lambert seeks to make the case that “second generation” counselors have advanced in their methodology by rejecting Adams’ tendency “to obscure the importance of building loving relationships with counselees” (page 88). Here again Lambert quotes as authoritative those who paint Adams as a harsh, uncaring, authoritarian counselor.

Our service must not have an “I stand above you as one who as arrived” character (Tripp, page 96).

Tripp is also quoted as advocating “sacrificial” counseling.

Tripp goes so far as to say that people who do not invest sacrificially in those to whom they minister are ‘selfish’ and ‘thieves’ (page 93).

Lambert misses entirely the irony of a lecture about sacrifice from someone who charged $85 per session for such “sacrificial” counseling when he worked at CCEF while scolding others who have never charged a dime for counseling.

Lambert correctly points out that “Adams believed that his counseling approach was fundamentally loving. He believed it was loving to confront people with their sin and give them resources to change” (page 92). Still, Lambert concludes the chapter by comparing Adams to Job’s counselors

. . . who had a monolithic view of Job as a sinner. They ministered to Job in a static and ultimately unhelpful way. Their counsel failed because they did not identify with Job as a sufferer or seek to minister to him accordingly.

Lambert has demonstrated here that there is a stark difference between Adams and the CCEF orb. The difference isn’t one of development or maturity as Lambert postulates. The “second generation” approach is a retreat, a throwback to pre-nouthetic times when relationship trumped truth and commiseration with a counselee was called “counseling.” Adams often likened the difference to encountering a friend who was working under the hood of his car. Someone comes along and upon sizing up the situation leans on the fender and tells the shade tree mechanic he understands how difficult his task is. Indeed, he once had a starter motor go bad and understands the frustration. He tells the mechanic how sad he is about the motor, affirms him in his efforts, and tells him he will check on him again next week. The nouthetic guy, however, takes off his coat, rolls up his sleeves, crawls under the car, and helps guide the socket onto the nut while the mechanic turns the wrench.

Suffering counselees do not need a new friend, nor do they need a hug. They need someone who will offer them solid help in dealing with their situation. Commiserating is not counseling.

How Biblical Counselors Talk about Counseling

In this chapter Lambert seeks to make the case that Adams drew the wrong conclusions from his failed attempts to interact with secular counselors and integrationists. He recounts several events in Adams’ life when Adams did interact with his critics and rightly points out that Adams concluded it was a waste of time. It was not Adams’ tone nor his demeanor that alienated the integrationist, however, it was his message! For Lambert “the biblical counseling movement has a responsibility to engage an atheistic society and the surrounding culture” though he does not explain why. For Adams, the believer has a responsibility to evangelize, not engage—proclaim, not dialog. The theologian has nothing to learn from a Mormon. An astronomer has nothing to gain from the astrologer. Biblical counselors can hope to find no help from the secular psychologist. Those who seek to influence their integrationist friends find they become influenced instead.

It should be noted, however, that Adams did seek to understand secular psychology and during the middle ‘60s devoured the psychological literature of the day—genuinely hoping to find some help. He found none. We have those books in our library here at the Institute for Nouthetic Studies and Adams’ careful interaction with them can be seen in the copious notes and arguments found in the margins. Still, his heart was inclined toward winning the integrationist, not condemning him.

In 1972 Adams reviewed a book written by an integrationist by the name of James Hamilton in which he tried to show how pastors could incorporate the conclusions of psychology into ministry. That book has descended into well-deserved obscurity but the final paragraph of Adams’ review is classic.

Sad, sad it is to read a book like this—Hamilton is so close, yet so far. If the basic problem stems from the fact that he is yet in transition, let us pray that it will not be long before the waters part and he crosses over to the promised land. Dr. Hamilton, please believe me, the crossing is neither wet nor muddy, and the grapes on the other side are sweet.

Several observations about Lambert’s book are in order. First, this is not a book about “the biblical counseling movement after Adams” at all. It is a book about CCEF. For Lambert, the “second generation” of biblical counselors consists solely of those who travel in the CCEF orb. The only counselor quoted outside that orb (though, like Adams, he once served on the CCEF board) is Wayne Mack—who should more accurately be categorized as a “first generation” counselor. There is nothing here but passing references to NANC, the Master’s College, Faith Baptist Church, Adams’ own Institute for Nouthetic Studies, or any number of other biblical counseling institutions. Other authors and teachers including George Scipione, Lou Priolo, Stuart Scott, Martha Peace, Mark Shaw, Jim Berg, and the Journal of Modern Ministry do not seem to be a part of Lambert’s “second generation.”

Second, the post-Adams era has not yet begun! Jay Adams did not die in 1988. During this time frame Adams has continued to write, often opposing the same “developments” or “progress” Lambert cites as positive.

Third, where is the scholarly examination of CCEF and the important issues related to their counseling paradigm? Wouldn’t the reasons for Adams’ and his nouthetic co-workers’ wholesale resignation from the CCEF board in the ‘90s be an important topic for examination? What about the rejection of Adams’ view of progressive sanctification, the embrace of Jack Miller’s Sonship theology, and the resultant sub-orthodox view of sanctification? There is no evaluation of the impact of CCEF’s embrace of an Historical/Redemptive hermeneutic on their counseling model. How about the influence secular training in psychology has had and the perceived need for counselors to understand all that the psychological world has to offer? The last CCEF annual conference was devoted to exegeting the DSM-IV, not the Scriptures. For Lambert, “second generation” CCEF has had only a salutatory impact on the biblical counseling movement.

Forth, Lambert has, probably unwittingly, demonstrated the distain many in the CCEF orb have for their founder. In one place or another in his book Lambert quotes them referring to Adams and his nouthetic model as “stoic,” “bombastic,” “indifferent to suffering,” “insensitive,” “harsh,” “ignores clear themes of Scripture,” “approaches counselees with a condemning, self-righteous spirit,” “cheap and platitudinous,” “unbalanced,” “legalistic,” “moralistic,” “behavioristic,” “immature,” “sees counselees in a monolithic way as sinners,” has a “stand above you as one who has arrived” character, and is “less than biblical.”

Finally, to demonstrate how heavily the influence of David Powlison weighs on this book, note the tone Powlison sets in his Foreword. Referring to the biblical counseling scene today Powlison claims that

We should be good at counseling—caring, skillful, thoughtful . . . But more often than not, we have been poor and foolish, rigid or inept. The pat answer, snap judgment, brisk answer and quick fix are too often characteristic. Where is the patient kindness? Where is the probing concern and hard thought? Where is the luminous, pertinent truthfulness? Where is the flexibility of well-tailored wisdom? Where is the unfolding process? Where is the humanity of Jesus enfleshed in humane, humble, sensible people (page 13)?

This is a breathtaking perspective. After 40 years of teaching, writing, and counseling this is the view from the CCEF tower of the biblical counseling world today. Unskilled, inept, uncaring counselors populate the landscape. What is the antecedent of his pronoun “we?” Is it simply a literary device? Hyperbole? If this is an honest assessment of his own counseling should he really be teaching others? Does Powlison really have this kind of condescending view of the majority of counselors today? Is it any surprise then, that Lambert would pick up and embrace his mentor’s jaundiced view in this book?

Twenty years ago one could read and hear countless secular and eclectic counselors scorch Adams for his views and the caricatured portraits they painted of him. One does not hear so much of it from that camp today. Today, they have been replaced by Adams’ “friends.”

Hear then, Lambert’s conclusion to the whole matter. Comparing Adams and his “first generation” counselors to the CCEF “second generation” Lambert concludes that

The movement is more thoughtful; it is more caring; it is learning to speak more wisely and loving to outsiders—the movement is more biblical (page 159).

Does any of this really sound wise, or caring, or more loving? Indeed, is this more biblical than Jay Adams?

Heath Lambert is a promising young man whom I count as a friend. I like him. I don’t like his book. His seminary failed him in this project by placing him under, requiring him to have the approval of, and permitting him to function far too close to an influential figure whose close proximity to the project has obscured Lambert’s view of the entire landscape. I expect, that as more years and further experience gives him better perspective, we will see some helpful things from his pen. I will be looking forward to reviewing them.

My advice to the reader? Buy this book and see for yourself. Just be careful not to read it too close to an open flame. Straw men are easily combustible.

[1] See my review in the Journal of Modern Ministry, Volume 7, Issue 2.

[3] A chapter which I have to admit I was too obtuse to follow. Does he believe Powlison is right or wrong? I couldn’t tell.

4 thoughts on “Book Review

  1. In the 1990’s when I first read Tripp and Powlison, I thought “It took only one generation before there arose a generation that knew not Adams.” Only a couple times in the intervening years did I read anything that suggested others might have reached the same conclusion. Powlison’s writings about nouthetic counseling give hints of the historical progression. But I had not known until Arm’s review above of the exodus from CCEF, nor how deep the CCEF departure from the sufficiency of scripture actually was.

    Central lesson of church history repeated: A little leaven goes a long way, such that only by grace do any stand.

  2. Dr. Arms,

    I bought that book, but may not read it now unless I need it in my counseling course work. I am a huge Jay Adams fan.

    Jay Younts, from ABC, had a great review of it at Note he credits Jay Adams. He writes: “Some new work has been done; more needs to be done; many things need to be rethought. I believe Lambert’s book would be stronger if he focused more on the work that still needs to be accomplished rather than emphasizing where Jay Adams’ work is lacking.”

    What needs to be done, gentlemen? I for one am writing on being an Alzheimer’s caregiver. I would also like to see more on home schooling; Dr. Adams wrote on what he wanted to see in Christian schools in BACK TO THE BLACKBOARD and the research he thought was needed to improve Christian schools–all of which I think has pointed to the need for homeschooling or for a subsequent BACK TO THE BLACKBOARD TWO book.

    Dr. Adams, what needs to be done in your opinion and thanks for all you have done.

    Carol from Plant City, Florida

  3. Thank God for His care for us. I think He showed it in blessing Jay Adams with all the wisdom he has. I personally found Tripp’s book hard to read/follow. All the books I have read/am reading by Adams: Competent to Counsel, What to do on Thursday and Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image have been very biblical. While Powlinson’s book quotes scripture, it just doesn’t stick in my mind and is very boring. I needed a book that I could sink my teeth into.

    When you said Adams wrote over 100 books, I was blown away. I don’t see how someone can have the audacity to criticize him the way they did in this book. It just makes me think that they, like you said, are trying to make themselves seem more credible by falsely representing Jay. It’s sad.

  4. I found this review very informative. I read it because of a link posted on Facebook. But I have a suggestion. I am familiar with Jay Adams, and I own some of his books. I am sure I had heard of the CCEF, but I could not remember what the letters stood for. I had to resort to Google to find out. It would be helpful if the review identified the organization at the first occurrence of CCEF.