I was recently surprised by a book. There are some books I read for research purposes, that either scratch or do not scratch a very specific itch. There are other books I read for personal edification, which I pick up specifically to feed my soul. And there are other books still that I read out of mere curiosity. But seldom does a book in this last category connect dots to the first two. In The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology, Matthew LaPine scratches an itch I did not know I had, and he edifies and feeds my soul where I did not know I was hungry.

This is a first-order transdisciplinary book—philosophical, theological, neuroscientific, psychological, historical, and biblical. LaPine retrieves a theological psychology from the past to bring it into conversation with neuroscientific, theological, and therapeutic conversations in the present. In doing this, he helped make sense of a tension I was feeling at a personal, subterranean level. On the one hand, I have found myself in deep sympathies with the Biblical Counseling (BC) movement and its criticism of secular psychology. I have listened to the talks, read the papers, had the conversations, and in my estimation, their critique of the DSM-5 is devastating. I agree with BC that this “bible of psychology” is a pseudo-scientific tome predicated on bad methodology geared to support a very specific ideology, whose philosophical presuppositions are incommensurate with Christianity. Of this much, I have been well-convinced. However, the Biblical Counseling movement’s alternative account for psychology has always struck me as far too reductionistic, and has lacked explanatory power for a lot of considerations. I have not been able to put my finger on where these shortcomings are exactly, but it has always struck me as coming short.

And in the mist of these two considerations (i.e., BC’s insightful criticism of secular psychology and its seeming reductionistic alternative), the tension has been made worse by the fact that I have found myself drawn more and more to trends in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is not for convictional or theoretical reasons. In fact, when I hear proponents of CBT get into metaphysics and philosophy, all I do is disagree with them—they rely on a Darwinian, naturalistic metaphysic that I reject entirely, root and branch. Instead, my growing appreciation for CBT has been wholly, and uncomfortably, pragmatic—I go there not because its proponents tell the truth about the meaning of mankind, but because it works. So, the question at the bottom of this tension is this: is there a theological framework for psychology that allows me to reject so many of the axiomatic assumptions of the secular psychologists, but nevertheless make sense of the effectiveness of CBT?

LaPine’s answer to this question is something like, “Possibly. Not if you go back several hundred years of Church history. But perhaps if you go as far back as Aquinas.” LaPine retrieves a taxonomy of the soul—within the larger taxonomy of the human person—from Thomas Aquinas. He also situates the current conversational climate in its historical setting, tracing the conversation on theological psychology from Aquinas to Calvin, and from Calvin to us. In doing so, LaPine is able to account for two crucial components of psychology, which are all too often lacking in contemporary Reformed evangelical accounts: (1) a tiered psychology, where lower faculties and higher faculties of a person qualify one another, and (2) the concept of plasticity, which accounts for the help or hindrance of habit. According to Aquinas (and LaPine) the relationship between the higher faculties of the intellect and will and the lower faculties of the body and subconscious do not interact with one another in terms of a one-way street, with the higher ones calling all of the shots. Rather, they mutually qualify and impact one another. The higher faculties are still in charge, but their authority is not automatic or mechanistic (i.e., new heart, then new will, then new actions in a direct, conscious sequence), rather, their authority is political. We are stewards of our bodies and our lower faculties, and we can redirect them and re-educate them, indirectly and over time.

This does not happen in a volunteeristic way. Virtue is habitually formed via the body and mind’s plasticity. What LaPine means by “plasticity” is the ability of the body and mind to form habits that hold their shape. While our lower faculties may impact, inform, qualify our higher faculties, our higher faculties can nevertheless change our lower faculties such that they hold an eventual new form. Like melting plastic in one shape down and putting it a different mold, this is the possibility of gracious habitus (and it lends explanatory power to the effectiveness of CBT). The body qualifies agency. This is how it is possible for there to be conflict between higher and lower faculties. Imagine a Christian man addicted to pornography. Because of his plasticity, his body has been weaponized against him and his default mode in certain situations is to seek out the well-worn path of sinful indulgence. That is habituated vice, and it conflicts with the higher faculties of his regenerated will and intellect. This creates a situation wherein the believer is at war with himself. But the same plasticity that makes it possible to render his body his soul’s enemy may be applied to help him as well. He can habituate virtue.

This Thomistic dualism, which distinguishes between the body and soul, is holistic in the best way. It does not force us between offering devastating critiques of secular psychologists—with their hostile metaphysical assumptions—and recognizing the valid effectiveness of CBT. The higher and lower faculties qualify one another. This is so not because we were evolved to be a certain way, as if the higher and lower faculties’ communications are a result of blind mechanistic adaptation. Humans are more than matter in motion; CBT has stumbled into the way the world works. Granted, its account for why the world works the way it does–why human beings operate the way they do–is way off base. But our worldview and theological framework can fill that in and explain CBT’s insights with more precision than CBT itself. Why would we not plunder the Egyptians? This is our Father’s world, after all. We do not have to pretend like conflicts between the higher and lower faculties are purely moral, nor that they are purely medical. It is true that these conflicts are psychological, but they are psychological in the old sense of the word. They are soulish.

I highly recommend this book, and I believe it will be a nonnegotiable for the BC movement to reckon with. As it stands, it seems that while Reformed evangelical counselors today are well-situated in their basic theological commitments, their arsenal is about half the size that it could be if they were self-consciously working with what Aquinas gave (and subsequent generations of theologians lost). As an appreciative observer of the BC movement, I believe it finds itself at a crossroads. It has brought some much needed calibration to the unfortunate trend of the past couple hundred years, wherein pastors outsourced their soul-care work to “professionals” who work within a metaphysical paradigm that is hostile to the Christian faith. This effort to “make counseling pastoral again” is much welcomed. But I worry that having made the necessary criticisms of a metaphysically materialistic approach, the BC movement finds itself at a loss for a positive contribution. Its impulse to provide a distinctly Christian, theological account for the soul and its care is good and necessary. But what is the feeding ground of that kind of positive contribution? Does being distinctly Christian necessitate adopting a fundamentalist-like crude biblicism? Must it require a reinvention of the wheel with nothing but the biblical data? Or may we be distinctly Christian by retrieving from the entire great tradition, gleaning from generations of theological contemplation? I fear that often “being uniquely Christian” is often taken to mean “rejecting everything that lacks a proof text.”

I do not mean to be harsh. After reading LaPine’s historical work, it was hard to stay mad at Calvin or any other Reformed theologian who has been working with a stripped-down theology of the soul in relation to the body. While Calvin made some necessary and helpful correctives of Aquinas on the issue of the noetic effects of the fall, Aquinas’s overall framework is much more sophisticated and well-suited for a mature theological psychology, but this is not all Calvin’s fault. The conversation had radically shifted by the time he arrived, to say nothing of how dominant volunteerism has been for the Reformed world since then. But now we have no excuse. LaPine has given us an opportunity to reconsider. The BC movement could only benefit from a retrieval project like this, and the sooner it can detach itself from a crude Biblicism and grow up into a theologically mature and robust system—rooted strongly in the Great Christian tradition’s metaphysics and anthropology, and not just a tiny segment of it—the better.