Review: The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology, by Matthew A. LaPine
“What is man?” (Ps 8:4). The psalmist’s question is not after a definition, much less a metaphysical description of human beings.
His question expresses wonder at humankind’s place in the cosmos. Made “a little lower than the angels,” as the Septuagint has it (cf. Heb 2:7), yet enthroned over the animals, the creature made and remade in God’s image occupies a humble yet dignified estate in God’s kingdom. Neither angel nor animal, human beings nevertheless exhibit features common to both. Like angels, human beings are endowed with intellect and will, capable of pondering the majesty of God’s name and the glory of God’s handiwork. Like animals, human beings are endowed with bodies by which they engage the world through sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound and in which they move by means of appetites for nourishment, reproduction, security, and so forth. The task of a theology of human emotions, according to Matthew A. LaPine, is to honor these two features of human existence within a holistic account of human agency. In his book, The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology, LaPine argues that a “Thomistic-like” model of human emotions best fulfills this task.
As its subtitle indicates, this book is an exercise in retrieval. As such, its argument rests on a twofold judgment. The first judgment involves a negative assessment of the contemporary situation in theological anthropology. LaPine believes contemporary Reformed and evangelical pastoral theology suffers from an impoverished theological anthropology that yields an impoverished account of human emotions, which he calls “emotional voluntarism.” According to this account, emotions are primarily an intellectual affair. Emotions function as smoke in relation to the intellect’s fire and negative emotions, such as anxiety, often signal the underlying presence of unbelief. Moreover, as the cause of negative emotions is fundamentally intellectual according to this account, so is the treatment it recommends. Emotional voluntarism counsels us to rid ourselves of negative feelings by reforming our beliefs. Think more. Relish more. Expel those negative emotions. The second judgment involves a constructive proposal about how resources of classical Christian teaching might facilitate the renewal of theological anthropology in the present. LaPine believes Reformed and evangelical theological anthropology, along with its account of human emotions, might recover from its impoverished state by retrieving resources drawn from the theological anthropology of Thomas Aquinas. The Logic of the Body is an essay in Reformed ressourcement Thomism.
Drawing upon the theological anthropology of Thomas Aquinas, the author commends a “holistic” understanding of the body-soul relation and a “tiered” understanding of the relation between the human being’s rational powers (i.e., intellect, will) and sensitive powers (i.e., sense perceptions, emotions). Though body and soul are distinguishable in principle in this account, by divine design they constitute one unified being and contribute to one unified agency. For this reason, the intellect cannot by itself fully explain our emotions. We must take the body, especially its capacity for habituation (what LaPine calls “plasticity”), into consideration. Furthermore, because the human being’s rational and sensitive powers are distinct, conflict between them remains a possibility, especially in a world devastated by Adam’s sin. Thanks be to God, the devastation brought upon human beings by Adam’s sin does not have the last word when it comes to human emotions. Because grace reigns in and through the Last Adam Jesus Christ, the pleasures that war within us can be more and more subdued and the seed of virtue implanted within us by the Holy Spirit can be more and more cultivated. Under God’s reign of grace in Christ by the Spirit, the rational power does not command the sensitive appetite as a despot (contra “emotional voluntarism”); the mind may nevertheless shepherd the emotions as a king. Our capacity for habituation thus holds promise for cultivating emotional wellbeing, even as we suffer the ongoing effects of sin in our bodies and souls while we await Christ’s return.
The author elaborates his argument, which I have only briefly summarized, with great learning and sophistication. He offers careful historical description of the views of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, along with a host of other medieval and modern theologians. He engages the findings of contemporary neuroscience and psychology with discrimination and judgment. Amid his extensive and detailed analysis of myriad thinkers, issues, and claims, the author never loses sight of his overarching argument but patiently builds a constructive biblical, dogmatic, and pastoral theological case for his proposal. LaPine’s book, the published fruit of his doctoral research under Kevin Vanhoozer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is among the most learned dissertation monographs I have read over the past two and a half decades. In addition to that, I find its argument convincing. LaPine’s argument reflects the fullness of divine teaching on human emotions in the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, ever honoring the status of the latter as ruler and judge of the former. The Logic of the Body is theological anthropology at its best and pastoral theology at its wisest.
My only real question—truly more a question than a criticism—concerns the role of John Calvin in LaPine’s argument. Calvin certainly provides a notable contrast to Thomas when it comes to the place and function of emotions in the creature made and remade by the triune God. But it’s not clear to me what Calvin’s relationship is to the present malaise in Reformed and evangelical theological anthropology. Other theologians, such as Thomas Chalmers or Jonathan Edwards, seem to have a more direct influence on contemporary Reformed and evangelical thinking about human emotions or “affections” (as they tend to be described in this train of thought). Furthermore, Calvin’s own Reformed tradition frequently did not follow his lead when it came to theological anthropology in general and human emotions in particular. And it is precisely in places where the Reformed tradition diverged from Calvin that LaPine might have found other Reformed Thomistic cobelligerents for his project of retrieval.
This question aside, The Logic of the Body leads me to conclude that the renewal of systematic theology in the English-speaking world, now several decades in the making, continues to make good progress, that Reformed ressourcement Thomism continues to be one of the most promising signs of that renewal, and that Matthew LaPine is among the most promising young theologians to write under that banner. If you are a student of theological anthropology, or if you are involved in the teaching and practice of pastoral counseling, then you need to know Matthew LaPine and you need to read this book.
This book review originally appeared in the 2020 Fall Special Issue of Didaktikos. Read more about this publication at DidaktikosJournal.com.