Anthropology: Key to Theology?

One of the books that’s been most significant for me in the last year has been Matthew LaPine’s The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology. The book is a recovery of classical anthropology for Protestants. LaPine’s argument is that we need to reclaim an older, classical and medieval theological anthropology in order to properly understand and address the emotional life of the human person.

The book is significant on its own terms, helping me to see the problem with what LaPine calls ‘emotional voluntarism’–the idea that emotions are simply under the control of the human will. However, to my own surprise, I’ve found that LaPine’s book hasn’t simply helped to clarify my view of the human soul; it has also illuminated whole swathes of other theological areas.

This is because LaPine lays out, with a clarity that I had not come across before, the older view of the anatomy of the human soul. Put simply, this view understood that we possessed a vegetative soul which we share with both plants and animals, the part of life that operates constantly and involuntarily and that keeps me alive but over which my conscience has no impact. For instance, I can’t just tell my heart to stop beating.

Secondly, we have the sensitive soul which we share with the animals, the part of us that desires food, shelter, warmth, and that avoids danger and threats. This part can be governed by my reason and will but isn’t always. Sometimes I fear that which I know in my right mind to be safe, or desire that which I know to be bad.

Finally, we possess a rational soul, the thing that makes us unique amongst all material creatures. Our rational soul means we possess an intellect and will, an intellect which is properly ordered to the truth and a will that is properly ordered to goodness.

As this summary will indicate to those who are, I am by no means an expert on theological anthropology. However, here are a few areas in which LaPine’s book, and the theological heritage which it retrieves, have helped me to grasp the Christian faith better.

The Trinity

Even our knowledge of God begins with creaturely realities, for no other realities are available to us. Indeed, John’s Gospel names the Eternal Son, “the Word” and so it’s natural that when theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas wanted to understand what it meant for God to have a Son, they looked into how the intellect produces a word, because both eternal generation and human intellect are immaterial processes. They, therefore, stepped into the analogy that John had drawn and used it as a lens to clarify their knowledge of God. And why not? We are, after all, made in the image of God. Therefore, it’s very hard to follow what the tradition says about the Trinitarian processions if one doesn’t have a basic understanding of the faculties of the soul. To take the most prominent example, Augustine makes a big deal of the relationship between knowing and loving in De Trinitate in his discussions of the procession of the Holy Spirit and of our knowledge of God. LaPine’s book clarified my thinking in this area.


It’s crucial to understand what it means for Christ to have a whole human soul, in order to avoid the heresy of Apollinarianism (i.e. the belief that Christ lacks a human soul, with this being instead replaced by the divine Logos). A strong grasp of classical anthropology also explains what it means for Christ to say “not my will, but yours be done” to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (i.e. we see his natural appetitive will recoiling from death) (Lk. 22:42), and for the Son to not know the day or hour (Mk. 13:32). These are questions which can otherwise cause mystification in my own evangelical circles,


Much is written these days about how the image of God is a really tricky idea and we don’t quite know what it means. Is it about Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty? Or somehow related to Christ, who is the image of the invisible God? One often feels at an impasse.

But it seems to me that this kind of “faculties schema” makes it much more straightforward: we have a vegetative soul with plants and animals, a sensitive soul with animals, and a rational soul of intellect and will that makes us in the image of God. Now, there are questions about the angels and whether or not they’re in the image of God (Aquinas thinks they are, and even more so than man (ST 1.93.3), but understanding that it is our capacity to seek truth and goodness that marks us out provides a fruitful departure point for all sorts of ethical and anthropological issues.


I find it exceptionally compelling and helpful to see sin as something in which the faculties are disordered and my appetitive soul governs the reason and the will. It is highly intuitive to see the intellect as being ordered toward truth, and the will toward goodness, but the fallen lower appetites as distorting both. Why do I have that second helping when I know it will do me no good? Why do I sit scrolling on my phone when I should be fulfilling my responsibilities? Because my appetites have wrested control over my reason and will and directed them to lesser ends than they were made for. In short, it explains a lot about where my life goes wrong!


Likewise, it is immensely helpful to understand sanctification and Christian growth as a process of reacquiring the ordered peace for which I was designed. To “make every effort” in the Christian life (1 Pt. 1:5) means first seeking to order my intellect and will to truth and goodness, and then making sure that my appetitive soul can’t sneak in and tear them away from either. This schema makes me a lot better at working out where the threats to my godliness are going to come from, what I need to repent of, and what I can do to try and deal with ongoing sin.


In the last year I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and have had Augustine’s City of God as my guide. Augustine’s basic schema is that human societies are governed by their loves and that the fundamental question is “what do we love?” A society, the City of God, which is ordered to eternal things, to unchanging truth and goodness, will love God and order its appetites for temporal and bodily safety and pleasure accordingly. A society that loves created things will throw off truth and goodness as the appetites gain mastery over the intellect and bend the will away from the Good. Many features of contemporary politics, including our confusion on gender, our massive indebtedness, and the relentless centralisation of property and political power, become more explicable through the classical anthropology which LaPine lays out.


Remembering that my highest faculties are orientated towards truth and goodness helps to explain why and how earthly things bring me joy in the present. It’s not good food or meaningful friendships per se which bring me joy, but the goodness in which they participate. Remembering this helps me to imagine what a life beholding infinite truth and goodness might be like when we see Christ as he is (1 Jn. 3:2).

There are many more things to say, and others could doubtless say them better But beginning to recover a classical anthropology, to which Matthew LaPine expertly guides us, will begin to help us live in this world–not driven hither and thither by the swirl of our bodily appetites, but set firmly on course towards the eternal goodness and truth that is offered to us by Jesus Christ and found only in him.

Graham Shearer is a PhD candidate at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Twitter @GJShearer.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This