Limits to a Cognitive Approach

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Epistemology takes seriously the question of how we know what we know and the field of inquiry assumes a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of of a triune God.  Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own. 

Even more so, being created in the image of a triune God differs from being created in the image of a unitary god. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super:

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26 ESV)

In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. Unlike a unitary god, which is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, a triune God is dynamic, alive, and changing.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go. This is, in part, why words can never fully reflect our actual thoughts or feelings.

The Hebrew Heart

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia). Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual. Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

This confusion of where our faith resides, in our hearts not our minds or emotions, implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith. As theologian James K.A. Smith writes: 

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His ‘teaching’ doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who ‘penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit’; he ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (1)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5) If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap. 

This line of thought leads Smith to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart] (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

In his work on emotions in the New Testament, Matthew Elliott (2006, 46-47) outlines a cognitive theory of emotions that “reason and emotion are interdependent.” The alternative is to argue that reason and emotion are independent of one another, a key assumption of the therapeutic gospel because emotions are believed to rule our lives. Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions and his anger (or wrath) is focused on examples of when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.


Elliott, Matthew A. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 

Limits to a Cognitive Approach

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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