At some point, most of us will be faced with negative emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, or despair. Then we will ask ourselves why we feel the way we do and whether we ought to feel this way. To answer these questions, we can adopt two culturally available but very different explanatory stories about these unwanted emotions—one from contemporary psychology and the other from Christian theology.
Often, to adopt a theological perspective is to adopt a set of moral assumptions about our emotions. These assumptions emphasize responsibility for emotions as judgments about the world. Emotions may run contrary to God’s will. For example, we could be sinfully anxious about tomorrow. To adopt a psychological perspective is to adopt a very different set of assumptions that might seem to be at odds with the theological ones. For example, it may seem impossible not to be anxious about tomorrow.
As a brief caricature, the theological story goes something like this. Emotion is important for true religion. As Jonathan Edwards writes, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” These affections are produced spontaneously by the Holy Spirit, except in people who persist in unbelief. Thus, a negative emotion can betray the deep unbelief of the person who feels it. Negative emotions like fear are especially suspect since they function like a language, telling us something about our distrust of God (2 Tim 1:7). In this way, emotions may be a barometer of personal sinfulness. The theological story tends to be cognitive, emphasizing emotions as judgments, and volitional, emphasizing personal responsibility for emotions.
The psychological story, by contrast, is roughly that emotions are feelings of bodily changes. This summarizes the oft-cited definition of emotion from William James, “our feeling of the same [bodily] changes as they occur is the emotion.” From a neuroscientific point of view, Joseph LeDoux writes, “I view emotions as biological functions of the nervous system.” So, emotion has to do with how our brains and bodies respond to our experiences. As a result, emotion is more about health than morality. Emotions may evidence dysfunction, imbalance, or even unhealthy social contexts, but insofar as they are less voluntary, they are less moral. As Joseph LeDoux further writes, “emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur.” The psychological story approaches emotions far more passively than the theological story.
These two stories are reconcilable. However, it is heartbreaking that a sufferer is often forced to choose between these stories in a desperate attempt to cope. Sufferers must know why they are suffering to do something about it. Our explanations give us hope that we have identified the problem and can address it. But these two stories force a dilemma on us: Negative emotion comes from a moral problem in me or a non-moral problem with my environment or my body. Too often people who experience psychological pain can lose hope in the theological story and find it in the psychological one; thereby the psychological story eclipses the theological.
Because as a theologian I am concerned not to allow the theological story to be eclipsed, I am suggesting that we consider the ways we speak about emotion within current theological discourse. One reason why the psychological story seems to be true rather than the theological one is a lack of psychological nuance in contemporary Reformed evangelical theology. Eric Johnson writes, “In contrast to Catholics and liberal Protestants, there is not much evidence that conservative Protestants thought much about psychology in the early twentieth century.” Reformed theologians could have more to say about psychology that draws from the Christian tradition. It may be time to retrieve a more comprehensive Protestant theological psychology.
The Path Forward
But is it obvious that theological psychology needs to be recovered? After all, when was psychology a concern of theology? It is important to remember that psychology as the “study of the soul” has a very long history. For example, psychological theorizing was a key subcategory of philosophy as a subset of ethics or natural philosophy from Plato until at least the eighteenth century. Platonic and Aristotelian psychology (theories of the soul and its powers) have been foundational to philosophical and theological thought. It is easy to miss the fact that categories of virtue ethics like “virtue” or “vice” are psychological categories, having to do with the habits of the soul’s powers. It was the rise of empirical methods of psychological investigation that initiated the disciplinary split between psychology and theology.
Recent Reformed systematic theologies have sparse psychological concerns, such as an interest in the body and soul problem, the nature of the imago Dei, the dichotomy vs. trichotomy debate, etc. But a host of historical psychological issues are largely ignored by Reformed evangelicals, including the powers of the soul, the priority of the powers, virtues and vices, the interaction of grace, temptation, and demonic suggestion with these powers, etc. These issues and others need systemic theological treatment. Insofar as psychology is concerned with the inner dimension of what it means to be human—what it means to bear the imago Dei—it is a fundamental doctrinal locus that interfaces with many of the others.
Where Reformed psychology has not paid close attention to how human agency is qualified by embodiment, the psychology of the Middle Ages had a much more physiologically developed theory. Yet, my aim is not primarily to deconstruct contemporary theological assumptions, but to recommend a model as a basis for practical theology. The most significant contributions of this model are its accounting both for the relationship between the psychological tiers of consciousness and the unconscious and for the constraints that embodiment places on a person, both positively as the ground for character formation and negatively on resistance to change.
This post was adapted from The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology by Matthew A. LaPine (Lexham Press, 2020).