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The Hole in Our Soul Care: Searching for a Road Forward for Pastoral Care

April 12th, 2021 | 11 min read

By Alex R. Wendel

Early in his book The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology, Matthew LaPine comments that, unfortunately, “there is a path out of the church that runs through the counselor’s office” (p. 36). As a Christian and a counselor I can confirm that I have seen this to be true and that I wish that it were not that case. One of the reasons for this departure from church and into a counselor’s office has to do with some Christian counselors’ incomplete and underdeveloped theological anthropology. When discussing the differences between “Biblical” or “Nouthetic” counseling and “Integrative” approaches to Christian counseling, the discussion is generally framed as being about hermeneutics and less about anthropological differences. LaPine’s book helps to not only highlight some of these differences but also provide a better way forward for those seeking to understand humanity more holistically.

Christians engaged in “soul care” and counseling need an anthropology that regards people as more than just their soul. Soul care is underdeveloped when it is regarded as just involving the soul. We need care for the whole person, body included, because the body qualifies emotion and agency. Soul care without the body has a gaping hole in it.

Concluding a section outlining a tragic story that starts with parental neglect and ends with the murder and subsequent rape of two other teenage girls, LaPine states:

What is clear from this example is that the neglect of Leon at a prelinguistic time of his life had significant moral consequences for the rest of his life. My point is this: we tend to think that moral governance happens only through the explicit use of language. However, we need a theological anthropology that sees a mother rocking her baby as a deeply spiritual act that knits shalom into the brain and nervous system of the child. (p. 307)

When we neglect the importance of the body in our view of humanity we miss the formative power of habit which, yes, can lead to vice, but it also enables virtue. Sanctification is only possible if neuroplasticity is possible. As God’s creatures we are created with a capacity for contingency and change.

The path that leads out of the church and into a counselor’s office may be due to the combination of (1) some Christian counselors’, specifically those in the Reformed tradition who carry forward Calvin’s theological psychology, neglect of the influence of the body on spiritual and emotional change and (2) the “emotional voluntarism” LaPine argues is common amongst many theologians. This combination leaves people offering advice that is akin to “think differently and you will stop sinning and feel better.”

At the risk of being polemical, I mention Christian counselors in the Reformed tradition in particular because many of these counselors fall into the camp of Biblical or Nouthetic Counseling which owes much of its practical and intellectual heritage to Jay Adams who draws heavily from the Reformed tradition. Adams is largely influenced by Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional approach to apologetics and integrated this intellectualist approach into counseling. LaPine’s work in The Logic of The Body provides a means by which Reformed theologians can acknowledge and retrieve what was lost in Reformed theology in an effort to affirm the importance of the whole person and not just a soul-as-person anthropology.

An Exercise in Theological Reduction

To show how we arrive at some of our anthropological doctrines and assumptions, LaPine examines the theological psychology of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, with several other key players between and after them, in order to propose a vision of humanity that is holistic and ultimately takes into fundamental consideration our embodied existence from creation to consummation. LaPine is primarily concerned with how different theologians, Aquinas and Calvin in particular, are able or unable to account for “how the body qualifies emotion” (p. 4). LaPine’s argument is that “any approach to psychology that does not account for how the body qualifies human emotion is inadequate” because psychologists and theologians both need to “account for how thought is accomplished by and qualified by neuropathways and for how emotion is not merely instinctual but rational” (p. 6).

LaPine’s concern for a holistic account of humanity in Reformed theology is two fold. Theologically, he is concerned that Reformed theology in particular has an underdeveloped psychology which leads to difficulty in integrating discoveries of contemporary neuroscience and psychology. Practically and pastorally, LaPine is concerned with how an anthropology that does not take into fundamental consideration our embodiment contributes to the “path out of the church that runs through the counselor’s office” (p. 36).

In the introduction, LaPine provides a contextual statement for this work and says that he is contributing to “transdisciplinary scholarship” that is a “reduction of the arts and sciences into theology” where to reduce means “to lead or bring back home” (p. 8). LaPine’s transdisciplinary approach is framed and supported by the Book of Scripture which takes priority over the Book of Nature. Both books need to be read and understood and LaPine uses both in a way that equips theologians, ministers, and counselors to better account for and help people who are hurting and in need of help.

This book, while philosophically and theologically dense in many parts, will hopefully continue interdisciplinary discussions that inevitably serve and grow the Church. As someone who primarily works in the field of mental health, I have greatly benefited from the theological training that was included in my MA program. In addition to being exposed to and learning from leading theologians, being in classes with people not primarily studying the same thing as me helped me grow as a new clinician as well as a Christian. Throughout the book, LaPine masterfully weaves together theological and scientific sources in an effort to truly explain what it means to be embodied beings.

Aquinas as Medieval Neuropsychologist

As the subtitle of the book indicates, LaPine’s contribution is largely an exercise in retrieval. In his examination of Aquinas’s contributions to theological psychology, LaPine demonstrates that Thomism is better equipped to, and in many ways actually anticipates, findings from contemporary neuroscience that show how the body and brain qualify thought and emotion. In a hylomorphic account of human embodiment, plasticity is able to be accounted for because it provides the foundation for habit formation and moral virtue. This is an important component in psychology because it allows for changes in both thought and emotion to take place, although not automatically. Change takes human effort and is both enabled by and empowered by divine grace. Neuroplasticity is a gift of God woven into the fabric of our being.

Thomistic anthropology is complicated because humanity is complicated. LaPine does, however, offer comprehensive, evaluative summaries following each subsection that significantly aid in understanding complex topics (sections for which I am quite grateful). The foundation of Thomistic anthropology and psychology is the hylomorphic insistence that human beings are a composite of body and soul, but with a single intention. Because humanity is holistic, emotions, thoughts, the soul, and the mind all run through the circuitry of the body both shaping and being shaped by it. It is because of this embodiment that humans are able to be plastic (in the sense that they can change, not be like Barbies). Thomistic anthropology is both tiered with lower and higher faculties interacting with one another and embodied in a way that the human is neither body or soul but simultaneously body and soul. From these foundations LaPine offers this summary of Thomistic anthropology (p. 92):

  1. Humankind is a holistic composite featuring plasticity, especially in the lower faculties (these being appetite and apprehension [see chart p. 45]).
  2. Humankind possesses a tiered psychology involving higher and lower appetites and the possibility of cooperation or conflict between the two levels.
  3. The higher powers govern the lower powers politically.
  4. Humankind can possess imperfect virtue (civic virtue) apart from special grace but requires it for true virtue.

Thomism, as LaPine demonstrates in his own constructive account of theological anthropology later in the book, anticipates contemporary neuroscience and integrates these psychological findings quite well especially when compared to other more dualistic accounts of humanity that are common in Reformed thought.

What Was Lost in the Reformation

LaPine argues that many Reformed theologians in particular are “emotional voluntarists” in that they argue 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 overcodme by applying the Gospel through voluntary mental work” (p. 25). In short, if you want to feel better and less sinful, you need to think differently. For emotional voluntarists, there is also no path towards understanding and changing emotion that detours through the body. This comes about because of some significant theological changes that took place from the time of Aquinas to and through the work of Calvin and other Reformed theologians.

Calvin’s theological anthropology is centered around the idea that “soul and its powers is the ‘primary seat of the divine image’” (p. 139). As such, “Calvin tends to align the soul with the imago Dei and connect it with spiritual concerns” in a way that regards the body as being of only secondary importance to reflecting God’s Image (p.141). Calvin’s anthropology tends to “assume that the soul has to do with sin and the body with sickness” but by “denying the body’s role in sin, Calvin also minimizes its role in restoration. This division of realms between body and soul shows how little Calvin saw the person as a holistic composite” (p. 151).

For Calvin, the “image of God must be separate from the flesh, otherwise it cannot be immortal and cannot properly reflect the image and likeness of God” (p. 153). Unlike Aquinas who viewed humanity as having three souls that make up the whole (vegetative, sensitive, and rational), Calvin viewed the soul as being one unified intellective soul that is instrumentally related to the body (p. 158). Because of this instrumental relationship, Calvin’s “faculty psychology is very simple, involving the intellect and the will. This is first a consequence of Calvin’s view of the imago [because] Calvin viewed our intellectual faculties as the chief seat of the image of God and not related to, and therefore qualified, by the body (p. 159).

As LaPine continues to trace out the psychology of Calvin he offers a summative critique saying that, in limiting the faculties to being purely soulish faculties, “Calvin so far raises the bar for humanity that it reaches the point where we aspire to live as if we did not have body” (168). This ascendency of the will, because of its exclusive link to the soul in virtue of the Image of God, leaves out any chance for plasticity or interaction between the body and soul. This causes issues in many ways but one of the most poignant is in instances of trauma wherein the “body keeps the score” (to reference the book by Bessel van der Kolk that LaPine draws from extensively) and makes changes on the body’s physiology (as demonstrated in thinking patterns or automatic bodily reaction to name a couple).

The Road Forward

With an underdeveloped theological psychology and anthropology, it is easy to fall into the trap of emotional voluntarism which leads to people inevitably feeling not just trapped in their emotions but guilty because of them as well. If we understand humanity as embodied beings with the capacity for upward causation of emotion coming from the body, we can better help people understand how to utilize the plasticity that God has created us with to work with our emotions rather than always against them. Yes, our emotions sometimes lead us astray but this may because we have neglected what they are trying to tell us for so long that they have no other recourse but to scream at us to get our attention.

If Christians in general and Christian counselors in particular embrace a holistic theological anthropology they may be able to close the gap and dichotomy of the church and the counselor’s office. I read this book as a call for theologians to become more psychologically informed and for counselors to become more theologically informed. This appears to be LaPine’s goal as well when he says that “I am not trying to replace the moral view with the medical view, but merely to modulate the moral view by how the body qualifies agency. If emotion is moral, then it cannot be studied simply from a biological perspective; physiology needs psychology and psychology needs theology” (p. 319).

Recalling the dichotomy of the church and the counseling office, churches can close this gap by encouraging people to take up the vocations of psychology and counseling and to do so from a perspective that is informed by the Gospel and Christian theology. The Church will benefit from having more people learning and doing counseling from a Christian perspective that takes into account the full picture of the human constitution and condition.

I will close by offering LaPine’s “Six Theses on Therapy and Embodiment” as both an invitation to and a call for Christians to think more deeply about the totality that God created us as and how this informs our emotional and mental life (pp.350-355):

The saving grace of God is the beginning, middle, and end of Christian therapy.

Because we are embodied beings, physicality always qualifies our agency.

Our physicality puts limits on our change, but God renews us.

God grants us the capacity to think, choose, see, and deel in order that we receive new life in Christ.

Our bodies are burdened by spiritual and bodily failings, weakness, and trials.

Habits are a grace, corrupted by the curse, renewed by the Spirit.

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