The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology

Matthew A. LaPine, The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology. Bellingham: Lexham, 2019. Xxiii+416 pp. $29.99, cloth.

Has the Reformed community erred by following the theological psychology of John Calvin as opposed to the theological psychology of Thomas Aquinas? This important question drives Matthew A. LaPine’s new The Logic of the Body, a scholarly title in Lexham Press’ Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology Series.

LaPine’s work is driven by a concern for people in the church who struggle with anxiety, OCD, and a host of other emotionally-laden troubles. He suggests that the broad stream of modern Reformed theology has overlooked the importance of the body in spiritual formation by relying on an oversimplified picture how we operate as human beings. Rather than viewing human beings holistically, Reformed theology has improperly embraced a dualism where body and soul are only tenuously connected. LaPine’s project of theological retrieval seeks to remedy this by reaching back into medieval theology’s more complex anthropology, as “medieval theologians accounted for how the body qualifies agency better than many modern theologians have” (39).

The Logic of the Body begins by questioning “emotional voluntarism,” the teaching that “we are responsible for emotions as intrusive mental states that show what we truly believe. Moreover, the illicit desire or false belief may be overcome by applying the gospel through voluntary mental work” (24-25). The suggested problem with emotional voluntarism is that it creates too much space between body and soul, leaving the body as inconsequential to personal trouble and growth. Tiered psychology offers a more robust and true-to-life model of human functioning by taking into account the body as a factor in human change. After all, “thinking itself takes place within physical constraints” (38).

For those steeped in the Reformed tradition, Aquinas’ psychology is joltingly complex compared to that of Calvin and his ideological descendants. LaPine does a masterful job of surveying and explaining Aquinas’ dense, and often alien, theological psychology. Particularly helpful is his analysis of Aquinas’ entanglement with Galenism (or humoral theory). Although Aquinas’ understanding of human functioning leans on a theory long consigned to the dustbin of history, his tiered psychology integrates well with modern concepts such as plasticity. Aquinas is “better positioned to integrate the discoveries of contemporary neuroscience than contemporary Reformed theology” because he “integrated the body into his psychology, however the body’s actual workings may be described” (42).

Aquinas’ theological psychology is based on the human person being a composite (a hylomorph) rather than two independent substances (dualism). The soul is the form of the body, and the soul has powers as its accidents. The relationship between the powers of the body and the powers of the soul are quite complex, with the “higher powers” of the soul (such as intellect) ruling over the “lower powers” of body (such as passions). The lower powers are more “conjoined to the body,” while higher powers are more independent. They body thus significantly impacts our functioning as human persons, as its separate powers create categories for personal weakness and internal conflict.

The theological psychology of Calvin stands in marked contrast to that of Aquinas. Calvin primarily connected the imago dei with the soul and, by doing so “assum[ed] that the body plays little to no role in Christian formation” (190). Rather than intrapersonal conflict arising from quarrels between the lower and higher powers, Calvin saw conflict being a product of the “contrary movements of sin” or a conflict between one’s intellect and will (190-191). By charting a course towards emotional voluntarism, Calvin overlooked the significance of habit for virtue formation. Modern Reformed theologians largely followed Calvin’s simplified approach, with certain Puritans and Bavinck being mild exceptions to the rule.

The remainder of LaPine’s work surveys important topics related to an embrace of a Thomistic tiered psychology: questions of body and soul, biblical testimony on the body, commanded emotions, and the interaction of emotion and intellect in Romans 6-8.

The Logic of the Body is impressive in its depth and scholarship. LaPine presents a compelling argument for a psychological system that has long been left unconsidered within Reformed theology. LaPine’s modern update of Aquinas’ tiered psychology takes seriously the role of the body in human functioning, which is a welcome corrective to wholly voluntarist approaches to spiritual development. Those who find Aquinas’ theological psychology as more faithful to Scripture and reality will find LaPine’s work a go-to resource. Even those who may disagree with LaPine’s overall thesis will benefit from this works’ careful scholarship and helpful analysis.

The centrality of faculty psychology to explain inner conflict raises one important question for LaPine’s work. Thomist theological psychology is dependent upon the soul being comprised of “compartments,” as internal conflict is largely a product of friction between the lower and higher faculties. Reformed theology has progressively moved away from a strong faculty psychology since the Reformation, highlighted by the work of James Pettigru Boyce, Anthony Hoekema, John Frame, and Jeremy Pierre.

Much of the disagreement between LaPine and these theologians centers around the use of the term “heart” (לֵב, καρδία) in the Scriptures. LaPine notes the wide semantic range for these terms and concludes that the “term does not neatly map on any traditional categories of faculty psychology” (358). Those who deny the concept that the heart/soul is composed of different compartments would certainly agree, as they would see this failure to cleanly map onto the categories of faculty psychology as proof that faculty psychology is an unbiblical notion. For LePine, “heart” is not an equivalent of “soul,” but rather stands for the whole human person, which includes the body. Hoekema and Pierre’s doctoral dissertations explore at length linguistic and theological evidence in favor of restricting “heart” to the immaterial aspect of man.

In LaPine’s view, faculty psychology is necessary to explain inner conflict: “[I]f there are no separate compartments (functions) within the human psyche, then internal conflict is impossible” (216). This dilemma can be resolved through acknowledging that human beings are not monolithic in their thoughts, desires, and choices, but rather can hold more than one in their hearts at a time. While these two points do not automatically disqualify LaPine’s embrace of Aquinas’ theological psychology, they do demonstrate that modern Reformed theology has within itself the resources to explain internal conflict without a tiered psychology.

Regardless of whether one follows of LaPine’s retrieval project or the historic Reformed view, The Logic of the Body is a welcome discussion partner in the field of theological psychology. LaPine’s presentation of complex theology is excellent, and his handling of historical sources exemplary. The Logic of the Body is an academic read, but will reward those who devote the time to grasping its argument and its implications.

Nate Brooks
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte