Dissertation Précis

Précis of Discerning the Thoughts and Intentionality of the Heart:
Assessing Reformed Psychology

My dissertation addresses the problem of how we explain our unwanted emotions to ourselves. There are a variety of answers to the question “what is this?” Unwanted emotion may be sin, disease, natural appetite, etc. Often our self-explanation takes the shape of a dichotomy, either unwanted emotion is sin or it is disease, either we need biblical counseling or the psychiatrist.

My aim is to collapse the dichotomy by clarifying the nature of emotion using categories from medieval theology. The benefits of retrieving these categories are several. First, they arise in a time when psychological thinking was a major doctrinal loci. Second, the operative account of the soul’s powers was not yet influenced by the developing mechanistic approach to the human body. And third, as a result—and against prevailing intuition—these psychological categories were already well integrated with prevailing physiological theory (Galenic medicine).

The dichotomy does not exist in the Thomistic category of sense appetite because its movements, the passions, are movements of a composite of soul and body. The passions are movements of the soul mediated by the quality of the body (the four humors), and their movements reciprocally condition the body. The sense appetite is a lower faculty where moral and natural evil intermingle, where disease and sinfulness overlap.

Moreover, sense appetite is responsive to its own lower form of cognition, sense apprehension (perception). There exist independent, lower and higher volitional and cognitive systems—sense appetite and apprehension, the will and the intellect. Both distinguishing perception from sense appetite and maintaining their relationship is crucial for understanding the dependent-independence of the emotions. Aquinas asserts that passions are merely “sensitive to reason,” since reason can inform our vision of particular experience, the primary object of the passions. But in turn, experience strengthens these automatic, intuitive perception dependent movements (judgment-movements).

The upshot of these Thomistic categories is we can answer the question, “what is this?” by asserting that my emotion is a complex automatic response of my lower faculties. It not the same as my willing, nor entirely dependent on my thinking. I need not own my emotions as either what I truly believe or what I truly want. My emotions are automatic responses to particulars depending on both my thought and my experience. Emotions are guided by the same orientation that guides our other faculties, so in fallen man are deeply influenced by sin. But, for example, my depression may be a mix of natural sadness to calamity, a habit of the body/soul (physiological and psychological), and a failure of orientation to the hope of God in Christ.

Methodologically speaking, my project compares the psychology of Thomas Aquinas to that of John Calvin, tracing also the developments between the figures. I argue that Calvin’s psychology is simply less developed and may be augmented by these Thomistic psychological categories without damage to his theology. Calvin both allows further speculation on these matters and does not provide decisive biblical warrant for his own categories. I will draw some biblical principles for psychological theorizing about emotion, before integrating these categories with contemporary psychology and Reformed theology.

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One thought on “Dissertation Précis

  1. Matt, I have been anxious to read your findings since AJ told me what you were researching.. From what I have seen in my own family the past couple of years I believe you will support what I have believed has been missing in the church which can be something than can work along with what the Lord has taught us in His word.

Kindly respond

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