Heart and Mind


“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and 

that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 

And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and 

it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because we are created male and female in the image of God, it is important to understand this image. Because God’s image is closely tied to the giving of the law (Exod 20), the church has often concentrated on a cognitive interpretation. God’s revelation of his attributes in Exodus 34:6, however, introduces a more emotional  interpretation of God’s person. Thus, we see in the Godhead of scripture a more complex image of God than is normally pictured, where heart and mind are integrated closely, a characteristic that theologians sometimes refer to as Hebrew anthropology. In a postmodern context, we might describe the Triune God as emotionally intelligent.

Hebrew anthropology (the study of human beings) refuses to separate feelings and thinking. Heart and mind are inseparable. Greek anthropology separates the two, vacillating between giving priority to one or the other. Because Greek anthropology dominates the modern era (think about the division of labor among professionals), it is hard for modern people to understand Biblical writing—when Jesus talks about the heart, he means the whole person, not just the organ pumping blood or mere feelings. 

Limits to a Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach often assumed in theological discussions cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) 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.”

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12)? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” 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 (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, 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.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

The heart and mind dichotomy is described alternatively as feeling versus thinking or body versus mind, emotions versus logic, or even the male versus female stereotype. The terms used are less important than the concept. The postmodern concept of emotional intelligence builds on Hebrew anthropology.

While this subject is very timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. Thus, he coined the phrase “holy affections” to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

Elliott (2006, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly. Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained—they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2006, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

God’s Wrath

God’s wrath in the Old Testament and Jesus’ anger in the New Testament suggest consistency with this cognitive theory of emotion. Unlike other gods in the ancient world who behave badly and inconsistently, God gets angry primarily over sin, as cited in the Genesis 6 passage above. The Bible often refers to this trait as righteous anger.

The only passage in the New Testament where Jesus gets angry occurs in the story of the healing of the man with the withered hand:

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, Come here. And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:1-6)

In the story, Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is right to do good on the Sabbath?  In other words, is Sabbath observance more important than caring for one another?  Their unwillingness to answer incensed Jesus and he gets angry because of the “their hardness of heart”. In his anger he heals the man. The object of Jesus’ anger is accordingly a hardened heart (Elliot 2006, 214).

Emotional Intelligence

If God acts not out of impulse, but out of concern for the law and righteous, then the cognitive theory of emotion provide important insight into the character of God. Our beliefs should likewise inform our emotions.

Emotional intelligence, as it is normally interpreted focuses on employing our intuition about other people’s emotional states in crafting our response to them. This is an application of Hebrew anthropology because emotions and thinking are treated as integrated, but the concept is less fundamental to our thinking than Hebrew anthropology, which is more of a philosophical approach. 

Emotional intelligence says nothing, for example, about the righteousness of the emotions observed or the purpose to which this intelligence is put to use. People talented in intuiting emotions may become people pleasers or be tempted to use this talent in devious ways. Consequently, it is probably best to describe God’s character as holistic rather than emotionally intelligent.

One in Christ

The unity of head and heart in Hebrew anthropology is usually thought of in individualistic terms, a kind of holistic worldview, but the social implications run deeper. The Apostle Paul writes:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and call were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Cor 12:12-14)

When Paul talks about slave or free, he forbids class distinctions. Unity of head and heart poetically removes the class distinction between managers and workers, who are now one in Christ. Democracy is rooted in Hebrew anthropology.


Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (orig pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

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.

Heart and Mind

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Christ_2021


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