The Who Question


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The who question is surprisingly important.

When René Descartes (1596 –1650) wrote—I think therefore I am—he neglected to talk about the preconditions for his statement, which must have annoyed his parents. Why did he have time to consider the question? Where did he get the words to express the thought? Why did anyone else pay attention? Who is this guy anyway? 

While we might neglect to consider who Descartes was, his role in modern philosophy is undeniably critical in the development of the modern era and, by inference, the postmodern era. The who question is all about identity, something we obsess about. 

For the Christian, the who question is doubly important. Probably the most inconvenient verse in the Bible is this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) We only participate in God’s eternal nature and reflect God’s image when we are joined with our spouses. Alone, we sin and perish. In ourselves, we are broken and quickly obsolete. What could be more inconvenient in this narcissistic age that we live in?

This inconvenient verse implies that we cannot answer the who question without considering the family. Because Descartes’ social position—who he was—is a precondition for all that followed, likewise Christian exploration of epistemology and ethics hangs on who God is and who we are together in his image. If Descartes had been an orphaned, penniless drunk in the sixteenth century and thought the same deep thoughts, the modern and postmodern eras may have been nipped in the bud.

Human Rights

For the Christian, the implication of being created in God’ image, setting aside our joint creation for a minute, imparts immense value to the lowest human being. 

Back in the Obama years, I used to ask my kids: How would your life change if the President of the United States set aside the affairs of state every Saturday morning just to play basketball with you? Would you tell your friends? How would they respond? How much more would your life change knowing that the creator of the universe, God makes himself available to you in prayer, anytime,  anywhere because he created and loves you?

This immense value of the human being arises precisely from God’s immense power. The observation that God created the heavens and the earth means that they belong to him by creative right. God’s social position is second to none. Because God values human beings, their life has intrinsic value—value that does not change with circumstances—and that value is enormous. The concept of human rights arises from the intrinsic value of being created in the image of God—a tiny fraction of infinity is still infinite.


Our joint creation with our spouses in the image of God is the root of gender equality. We cannot participate in God’s eternal nature without our spouses. The blessing that follows—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28)—is not a random act of kindness. It allows human beings to participate jointly in God’s eternal nature. This blessing is lost if we remain alone or pair up with anyone other than our spouse or try to compete with our spouses as if equality were equated with sameness.


Being created in the image of God implies that we want to be like God. What is God first act of creation after creating the heavens and the earth?  The Bible reads: “And God said, a Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Then, God declares the light to be good.  Goodness and light are equated as God begins by creating a moral universe. Imitating God implies that we should want to be moral, just like God. 

Being created in the image of God accordingly implies a moral mandate even before human beings are created. The who question and the primacy of relationships dominates the discussion even before the advent of sin, the introduction of community, and the giving of the law, but morality itself requires thinking and volition—you have to want to be good. God does not discount feelings and relationships, but feelings and thinking are inseparable. 

Heart and Mind

Hebrew anthropology (the theory 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. 

Sin and the Sacred History

Sin is hardwired into the human psyche. Original sin arises whenever you have two babies sharing one toy. No one is innocent, which is why Christ was unique.

Moses anticipated the course of human development in Deuteronomy 30:1-3. You (plural) will sin; be enslaved; and cry out to the Lord. God will send you a deliverer and restore your fortunes (Brueggemann 2016, 59). This framework outlines biblical history and with it the rise and fall of nations. The implication for postmoderns is that cultural progress—however defined—is temporary.

The question posed by scripture when we witness sin and societal decay, are we in the community of faith going to pray for sinners like Abraham witnessing Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) or run away from our prophet duty like the Prophet Jonah (Jon 1)? Like Abraham and Jonah, we have been told in the Book of Revelation (Rev 20) that destruction of sinners is coming. How will we respond?

Return to Christian Spirituality

Anthropology is an important component of Christian spirituality. A complete spirituality addresses each of the four questions typically posed in philosophy:

1.Metaphysics—who is God?

2.Anthropology—who are we?

3.Epistemology—how do we know?

4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

My first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question. My third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. My fifth book, Living in Christ, explored the ethics question. Here in Image and Illumination I return to Christian anthropology from a community perspective.

I thought that I was done with Christian spirituality as a writer, but anthropology is at the heart of many of today’s deepest divisions and I have been repeatedly nudged for the past two years to write about it. It affects the other three components of our spirituality—metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—so profoundly that skipping over a formal treatment leaves the other components wounded. So here we sit wounded as individuals and as a church.

Again, I take up a subject, not out of expertise, but out of obligation. Each of us must answer the who question, whether thoughtfully or not so thoughtfully. Please accept my reflections on Christian anthropology with ample grace.

Soli Deo Gloria.


Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

The Who Question

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:



Continue Reading

Toward a Complete Spirituality

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my personal journey to understand the depth of Christian spirituality I have frequently cited the need to consider the four questions typically posed in philosophy, which are:

1. Metaphysics—who is God?

2. Anthropology—who are we?

3. Epistemology—how do we know?

4. Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I have focused on ethics, the fourth question. While seeking a complete spirituality may seem like an arbitrary decision, serious problems arise when any one of these questions is neglected.

Neglect of Metaphysics

Postmodern culture’s almost exclusive focus on the physical world neglects the metaphysical. Metaphysics literally means above physics or, better, beyond physics. Postmodern people struggle to understand God, especially his transcendence.

Having created the known universe, God stands apart from it or, in other words, he transcends the universe. For us as mortal human beings, there is no path up the mountain, God must come down to us. As Christians, we believe that he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidence of the neglect of metaphysics shows up in the popular expression: I am spiritual, just not religious. Here spirituality is defined as limited to the human experience, especial feelings of ecstasy—great joy or happiness, even if drug induced. While this is nothing new, postmodern people seem stuck in moment of time believing that everything is new. More to the point, however, is the observation that the neglect of metaphysics is rampant in our time.

Neglect of Anthropology

For Christians, the neglect of anthropology manifests itself in the acceptance of Greek anthropology where heart and mind are separate. Emotions are more valued or thinking is more valued, depending on who you talk to, but the two are held to be distinctly different. This separation poses a problem for faith because faith requires heart and mind to be considered together.

While this subject is 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. He coined the phraseholy affections to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

More recently, Elliott (2009, 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 strongly believe.

Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21). Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained because they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2009, 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.

Neglect of anthropology is perhaps the single, most important reason that the Christian faith has been hard to understand and accept in our time.

Neglect of Epistemology

The neglect of epistemology is closely related to the neglect of anthropology. Few people come to faith because of intellectual arguments (epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we know what we know), but many people who have come to faith for emotional reasons later fall away because their faith appears to lack substance. When heart and mind are not engaged together, the absence of one affects the durability of the other.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture appears like the great enigma of the postmodern age. The advances of technology that have led to the convenience of communication and the extension of life through new medical discoveries, yet the thought processes required to develop and sustain these technologies are known to a tiny number of people. Instead, youth culture, which focuses on hedonistic entertainments and moral laxity, appears parasitic relative to this great intellectual heritage.

Neglect of epistemology leaves people apprehensive of the faith that they have seen in others and makes it hard for them to understand the logic of faith and to accept the lifestyle changes required to join the Christian community.

Neglect of Ethics

The neglect of ethics is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

A special form of this neglect of ethics arises when people start to see the church as a holy huddle a kind of shelter from the storms of life, rather than as a team meeting of the faithful, searching together for answers in the midst of the struggles of life. This holy huddle can take the form of an entirely intellectualized faith or of a faith focused entirely on service to the neglect of the interior life. Either way, the hard tradeoffs implied in limited time, energy, and resources are overlooked and growth in discipleship remains frozen in time.

Neglect of ethics becomes obvious in the life of the church and community more widely when political views replace honest discernment and the focus on God melts away amidst senseless conflict.

Life in Tension

Considering all four of the questions taken from philosophy does not lead to a trouble-free Christian life, but it prevents the neglect of important aspects of our faith. Tension will always exist between to the life of the Christian and the culture that we find ourselves in. We need to accept this tension and learn to live with it because without tension our lives cannot be transformed into the image of Christ and we cannot be a witness to that truth.


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.

Toward a Complete Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Presuppositional Ethics


Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume 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 ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image 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.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. 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) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

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.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach 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 (Heb 4:12)

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 (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.

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.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.


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

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Elliott: God’s Emotions Inform Our Emotions, Part 1

Elliot_review_08032015Matthew A. Elliott. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.(Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you think that Jesus practiced emotional intelligence?

In emotional intelligence training we learn that complete communication has 2 parts:  the information being communicated and the feeling attached to it. Excluding one part or the other leads to confusion and misinterpretation [1]. Information communicated in concrete examples is easier to remember than abstract examples. Short stories communicate ideas and emotions better than long explanations. Body language often reveals our true feelings, even when we are not entirely truthful with ourselves.

In his book, Faithful Feelings, Matthew Elliot examines scripture’s descriptions of God’s use of emotions with special emphasis on the New Testament (NT).  He writes:

“This book attempts to apply modern studies dealing with emotion to the NT. But it is not primarily about the vocabulary of emotion: anger, love, joy, hope, jealousy, fear, and sorrow. Instead, it is about emotion itself, how it was perceived by the writers of the NT, and what role they thought it should play in the life of the believer” (14-15).

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 distinguishes 2 theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” (47) while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion (46). 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 writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” (53-54) informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

The implications of this discussion are far reaching for the church. If my emotions reinforce and inform my thinking, then work on either side can help me understand my own priorities.  Reflection on my emotions can then help me organize my thoughts which may otherwise be inconsistent for lack of priority.  Likewise, theological reflection aids my emotions in being more consistent, more “even tempered”. Fellowship and Bible study in the church can, of course, aid in this process because healthy thinking and healthy emotions go hand in hand. The balance of heart and mind is therefore an obvious goal to reach Edward’s ideal of holy affections.  The bodily resurrection of Christ reminds us that we are both body and spirit—a denial of the Platonic duality of body and soul—which is another allusion to the unity of heart and mind.

Matthew Elliott received his doctorate in NT studies from the University of Aberdeen and is currently the president of Oasis International in Chicago, Illinois which makes Bibles available to the poor in English speaking parts of the world [2]. Faithful Feelings is written in 6 chapters:

  1. What is Emotion?
  2. Emotions in the Greco-Roman World.
  3. Emotions in Jewish Culture and Writings.
  4. Emotion in the NT: General Analysis, Love, Joy, and Hope.
  5. Emotion in the NT: Jealousy, Fear, Sorrow, and Anger. and
  6. Emotions in the NT: A Summary Statement.

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, abbreviations, a list of books of the Bible, and an introduction and are followed by a bibliography, an index of names, and index of biblical references.

Elliot (90, 238) observes that emotions must have an object and that our evaluation of the morality of a particular emotion depends on its object. For example, Elliott (214) reports that the only passage in the NT 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 ESV)

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—in other words, a righteous object of anger[3].

Matthew Elliott’s Faithful Feelings is a book that I have referred to this book frequently in my writing and speaking since I read it in 2012. This book is of obvious interest to pastors, lay leaders, and seminarians interested in current controversies. Elliott makes an important contribution to the discussion of how to understand emotions in the Bible and to develop a better balance between head and heart in our faith.

In part 1 of this review, I have provided an overview of Elliott’s work.  In part 2, I will dig more deeply into his analysis.

Did Jesus practice emotional intelligence? Jesus’ extensive use of parables and object lessons, like the washing of feet, in his teaching suggests that Jesus was an expert at communication and fully understood the role of emotional intelligence in effective communication.

Question:  Do you suppose that the observation that post-moderns often hold inconsistent views is more a consequence of choice (decision by emotional response) or simply the result of insufficient time for reflection?  What do you think?


[1] This is often the source of problems interpersonal communication via electronic media—even the most carefully crafted email can be misunderstood.


{3] God likewise gets angry over sin:  “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 ESV)


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


Continue Reading