Some Basic Questions

This is the point at which we now stand: the biblical term heart refers first of all to a physical, bodily organ. This is the term’s “eigentlich” (literal, proper) meaning, according to Kittel and others. Having established this point of departure…we are now ready to move on to the main place that the word heart occupies in the scriptures. We are now ready to deal more directly with that which is the centrum of human personality, according to the Bible, namely, the spiritual heart.

In making this transition we do well to use the words of Grosheide et a1 in the Christelijke Encyclopedie Voor Het Nederlanasch Volk. This valuable work speaks as follows on the term hart; “Just as bodily the blood flows out of the heart to all the members (leden), so in a metaphorical spiritual sense the entire soul life comes forth out of the heart; out of the heart are the issues (uitgangen) of life.”

This fine statement is subject to a serious misunderstanding. Such a statement could suggest that, once the transition to the spiritual heart has been made, it is now to be regarded solely and exclusively in spiritual terms. It is now wholly cut off from the physical aspect of life, we might be led to assume. Actually such a notion would be quite incorrect. The article referred to contains other language that guards against such a misconception. We are also told that the heart is “the basis and starting point (gronaslag en uitgongspunt) of the entire physical life, and in connection therewith (in verband daarmede), of the entire psychical life.” Such language clearly indicates something of great importance in our understanding of the biblical heart, namely, that the heart as the central point in the personality of man is never to be dissociated from the physical life of man.

An old reliable biblical theologian makes the same point. In his well-known Theology of the Old Testament Oehler makes clear that the soul of man has a double sphere of life. It is in the first place the animating principle of the flesh. This is evident from the words of Leviticus 17:11—“The soul (nephesh) of the flesh is in the blood.” At the same time the soul is the subject of the psychical life of the personality. These two aspects of man’s life are brought together and are centered in the heart, says Oehler. The heart forms the “focus of the life of the body.” This is illustrated, according to Oehler, by the description of the taking of nourishment with the words “strengthen ye your heart” (Genesis 18:5). At the same time and with equal actuality the heart is the center of all spiritual functions, the “central point of the person’s life.” (See Oehler, pp. 1521f. )

“My heart is fixed,” says the Psalmist (57:7, 108:1). Such language clearly points to the physical origin of the heart idea. Also in such language is a concreteness and a picturesqueness that are gained only when spiritual realities are intimately bound to created tangible things. After all it is physical things that are fixed, firmly established, bound safe in their proper place. What such vivid speech in terms of concrete things means for the statement of spiritual truth is beautifully conveyed in Psalm 112:7b-8a, where we read: “His heart is fixed, trusting in Jehovah. His heart is established, he shall not be afraid.” Something is definitely lost when such concrete speech is replaced by more abstract conceptual terms, as is the case in the rendering of the Revised Standard Version, which reads: “His heart is firm. trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid.”

A Point of Difficulty

Admittedly we have difficulty with such a conception. How can both the physical and the spiritual in man be brought together in an organic unity in a central organ of life called the heart? Are not that which we called physical and that which we called spiritual quite radically different and distinct? It would seem correct to say that our difficulty at this point stems largely from the fact that our thinking has been colored by ways of stating problems that have their roots in pagan intellectual soil rather than in Christian. We have inherited dualisms between body and mind or between body and soul which are construed in ways that are not essentially biblical. It is especially in our use of the word mind that we run into difficulty with the point we are pressing relative to the centrality of the biblical heart. Some even write it with a capital letterMind. The early history of modem scientific psychology was much preoccupied with the notion that man could understand himself if he would just peer into what he called his “mind” by a process of introspection. The theory was that man’s mind somehow could be placed at arm’s length from the rest of the forces in the personality and its contents examined in their pure culture. Under the influence of this kind of psychology a whole “psychology of religion” literature was produced in which the central thrust was that a study of man’s “religious consciousness” was the key to the understanding of religion. The subsequent history of psychology has left this uncritical position behind, especially through the influence of Behaviorism, Gestalt psychology and Sigmund Freud. The writer recalls how his false devotion to Mind was shocked when a graduate student at the university referred rather disrespectfully to the mind with this comment, “That is, mind in quotation marks.”



The reader is asked not to misunderstand at this point. There is no plea here for modern anti-intellectualism. We would not derogate the term mind as such, nor would we be thought of as minimizing the importance of clear and correct thinking. By no means. But, it is proper to stress that much emphasis at the point we are discussing has pulled our attention from the real center of focus. Every aspect of the personality, including the intellectual, is centered in the heart. Those elements of the total personality of man that the Greeks thought of as lower are also centered here. We reiterate: man’s personality is one, and the center of focus for this organic whole is the heart. The question of utmost importance for all of life, for the physical life, for the emotional life, for the intellectual life, is the question of the condition of the heart. “How is the heart fixed?” Where is its fundamental allegiance? Is this heartlife sound so that under the governance of this center of life the whole of man’s experience may be directed toward his proper end and destiny?

A help to gaining a proper understanding of the biblical heart is found in our conception of the sacraments. The essential element in the sacraments is spiritual. They are means of grace. But the spiritual grace conveyed by the sacrament is not to be divorced from the physical element( s) in the sacrament. We reject the views of those, for instance, who would do away with the use of water in baptism on the ground that the essential factor in the sacrament is baptism with the Holy Spirit. ‘We insist that the water and the bread and wine are necessary to the receiving of the grace they signify. This sacramental principle inheres in a fact in Christian thinking that is utterly basic. Because God is the creator and keeper of all his creation, the physical and the spiritual may never be artificially divorced at any point. In the crown of God’s creation these are in most delicate and intimate organic union. And at the center of that union is the heart.

“Fixing” the Heart

Before we enter into a more detailed study of the specific character of the biblical heart, we must deal with a question which rather properly presents itself at this point of our inquiry. Does not the kind of picture which we are trying to develop tend to make for a type of irrationalism? What is the connection between this central heart and man’s reflective life? If the intellectual life is only a phase of the deeper heart life, then how can we arrive at any satisfactory notion as to man’s place in a rational world? What is to guide this heart to proper place and peace in the universe? Is not man’s relation to the world in which he lives and thinks and aspires left wholly in a dim mystic light where nothing is clearly seen and men grasp willy-nilly at anything that may give them peace?

Should we not rather fall in step with that frequently dominant emphasis which speaks of man as a “rational creature” or sometimes as a “rational animal?” In this strain of thought man is regarded in terms of a noblest task to engage in a high intellectual quest for place and peace in the universe. He must think his way to a tenable and rational intellectual structure within which and by which he may live. Of course, it must be pointed out that man so regarded never arrives at a fixed point of place and peace in the universe except by the grace of an arbitrary decision to make his stand at some station in his intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage. If he is inclined to be “tough-minded,” to use the language of William James, he may be a realist or a mechanist or a pragmatist or an existentialist. If he is inclined to be “tender-minded” he may he an idealist or a humanist or even a theologian.

In the biblical perspective with its stress on the center of life in the heart, the whole matter of man’s place and peace is not left in the chaos and despair of such relativism. The heart is fixed by at least three basic structural principles that fundamentally determine the place of man in the universe and his peace. The first of these is that man is created in the image of God. This fact establishes man as man in his total spiritual-physical personality centered in the heart. This spiritual-physical unity is not therefore merely a mechanism or an animal. Rather at heart he is a being in whom the spiritual has priority and he is morally and spiritually responsible before the God in whose image he was created.

In the second place God has dealt with man covenantally. Man was made for fellowship with God. Man was created a religious being, and that more than anything else is the clue to his nature. He was made for communion with God. Therefore his heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in the living God. God did not leave man to himself after he was created. God did not leave him to think out his place and peace for himself. God made covenant with man. And even after man failed miserably in the first covenant, God did not desert him. God continued to keep his covenant so that by his grace man might live in loving fellowship with God in Christ Jesus. His heart relation to God, either as a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker, is the most important factor in his total life.

In the third place God deals revelationally with man. In the setting of his entire creation God has given to man a revelation of fact and word. And it is in response to this revelation and in accord with it that man, the image bearer of God, must live in loving fellowship with God. Therefore with his heart fixed in relation to the living God man is called upon to live his whole life in all of its phases in responsible rapport with the fullness of God’s revelation whose line is gone out through all the earth,” which God has spoken to men by his prophets and apostles, and which came to supreme expression in the Christ, “who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”

To stress the centrality of the heart is not to develop an irrational picture of man’s being and of his place and peace in the universe. When we relate the biblical emphasis on the heart to the three basic structural principles we have just mentioned, then man’s heart and life is “fixed.” He is in a position to live that life abundantly and broadly in that world he has been commanded to subdue and direct for the glory of God.