Toward a Christian Psychology

It would be most unwise to assume that the Bible is a textbook in psychology. If one should gather together and correlate all the texts in the Bible containing some word or phrase or thrust with psychological import and then systematize these findings, he would not yet have what could properly be called a scientific psychology.

However, we are not therefore to conclude that the Bible is to be ignored in the development of a scientific psychology. Quite obviously the Bible has much to say, directly and indirectly, as to the nature of man. This biblical material must be studied and interpreted if we are to gain a correct knowledge of the structure and function of man’s personality.

When we state that the Bible has much to say relative to the makeup and workings of man’s personality, we refer to two distinguishable but inter-related sets of biblical data. In the first place we refer to those basic, broad elements of biblical teaching which must govern all our thinking concerning man’s nature, life and destiny. We refer to the fact of man’s creation in the image of God, to the teaching of the fall and rebellion of man, to the fact of God’s ever active and sovereign providence, to the renewal of life for time and eternity in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Such and similar biblical teachings are not simply a collection of intellectual items existing somehow “out there.” Rather as every personality is actualized within a framework of meaning, so the Christian personality must be actualized within the framework of and under the governance of these elemental principles of biblical truth. They, therefore, have great psychological relevance.

In the second place we refer more particularly to those biblical data that bear on the actual inner life of man, those data that are more specifically related to and descriptive of the inner workings of man’s being. It is in this area that the special concern of psychology as a science lies. And it is at this point of more specific psychological interest that the Bible has much to say that is of utmost importance in the development of a systematic psychology. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that if the systematizers of scientific psychology had always been sensitive to what is to be presented in these articles as the central thrust of these more specific psychological data in the Scriptures, that science would have avoided certain pitfalls and blind alleys which have marked its development. In the very next breath it should be added that such a constant sensitivity, even as a simple elementary awareness, would have served as a deterrent to the appearance of certain unwholesome religious tendencies in the history of the church.

The Unity of Man’s Being

Of first importance in examining the more specific psychological data in the Scriptures is to note that the Bible stresses the oneness, the unity of the personality of man. This is apparent from the very outset of man’s appearance on earth. Whatever may be said regarding the creation narrative in Genesis 2:7, certainly this minimal statement must be made, namely, that both the physical component (“dust of the earth”) and the spiritual component (the divine inbreathing) are essential to the being of man as man. By the divine inbreathing into the physical mold man became man and as such he was an “organic unity.”(1)

It should be carefully observed that the work of salvation is not an exclusively spiritual affair, but extends to the redemption of the entire man, body and soul. The Word which operates savingly in man penetrates not only to the spiritual consciousness, but also to the physical being of man. In Proverbs 4:22 we read that God’s words of wisdom “are life to them that find them, and health to all their flesh.” Hebrews 4:12 tells us that God’s word pierces even “to the dividing of joints and marrow.” At the same time such divine saving operations involve a response that is depicted in terms of the whole man, body and soul. In speaking of his intense yearning for God and his house, the psalmist declares, “My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God” (Psalm 84:2b ). The love which the redeemed man shall render to his God must be that of the total being, including also his “strength” (ischus), which according to Thayer is to be thought of as “especially physical.”

It is quite plain that the scriptures present the work of sanctification as a work affecting the whole man, the body as well as the soul. In I Thessalonians 5:23 Paul expresses this encompassing character of sanctification in his concern that God “sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A similar stress appears in the familiar reference in I Corinthians 6:19–20 to the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, wherefore Paul’s Corinthian readers are exhorted to “glorify God therefore in your body.”

Indeed, the end product of the divine redemptive operations is not simply a saved soul, but is rather a saved person in the wholeness of his being. The salvation for which we “groan within ourselves” is “the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). Do we not faithfully confess that we believe in “the resurrection of the body” as a necessary prerequisite to the enjoyment of “the life everlasting” which is the Christian’s sure inheritance?

The immediate implication of this biblical emphasis is plain enough. The spiritual cannot be placed over against the physical in man’s being. There can be no sharp dualism between spirit and body, between body and mind, between soul and body. There is no spiritual essence in man capable of operating independently of organic interconnection with the other aspects of his being. At all times and under all circumstances, in all responses and reactions, be they ever so refined and spiritual, man’s being is always one, with every aspect of the being operating in organic interconnection with every other aspect of his being. In fulfillment of the first great commandment all the energies of man’s being must be operative, his “strength” being enlisted in this highest service along with the heart and the soul and the mind.



When we stress this element of biblical teaching we do not thereby intend to deny or minimize the fact of the priority of the spiritual in the image-bearer of God. Moral action by man is not simply a refined name for certain purely mechanical, physical responses to some stimuli in his environment. In fact, every time man limits, guides or controls his physical being in the interest of some value, he demonstrates this priority of the spiritual in his personality, But such priority does not set aside the organic interconnection with all other aspects of the person. Such priority is like the prior authority which the father exercises in the home. When he exercises this prior authority, he does so in the context of all the ties that bind him to every other member of the family.

Our particular stress on the unity of man’s personality should not be regarded as placing in jeopardy the biblical teaching of the survival of the soul after death. There are difficult questions here, of course, to which any thoughtful Christian is sensitive. Relative to this point and to this whole line of discussion we can do no better than to quote a most clear and direct statement by that very sound and solid theologian, H. Bavinck. “Soul and body,” says Dr. Bavinck, “are not dualistically set over against Church other nor do they run parallel to each other like two timepieces operating side by side, but rather they are united to the inmost reaches of the personality and together they form the very being of the person, so much so that the fatal separation brought about by death will be nullified in the resurrection.”(2)

The Centrality of the Heart

A question among possible other ones now rather naturally presents itself. Is there any point at which the unity of man’s personality is especially localized? Is there anyone clement in biblical teaching which represents the central focal point in man’s being? In answer to that question we cannot but be impelled to say, “Yes, there is such a focal point, and that centrum of man’s total life is simply the heart.” In further answer to our question we would point to one text especially which highlights this element in biblical teaching, namely, Proverbs 4:23, which reads, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (“from it flow the springs of life” RSV).

The place of the heart in the Scriptures is a matter of wonderful fascination as well as one requiring careful study. If we count only those passages in the Bible where there are translations of the Hebrew word leb or lebab and of the Greek word kardia, we find that there are no less than nine hundred eleven (911) occurrences of the word “heart” in the Bible, with seven hundred forty seven of them in the Old Testament and one hundred sixty four of them in the New Testament. It is of interest to compare this total figure of nine hundred eleven with the total of four hundred seventy five (475) occurrences of the word “soul” in the Bible as translation of the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche. Without trying to press this comparison beyond its value, we can legitimately assume, it would seem, that the term “heart” is easily the one which most commonly expresses that which is central in the biblical representation of man.

Any cursory examination of a number of passages in which the word heart occurs makes it plain <It once that we are dealing with a matter of considerable intricacy. In fact, the complex character of the subject tends to make any effort at precise formulation seem rather forbidding. Yet, benefiting from the labors of many a careful biblical scholar, we shall try to see this crucially significant subject in its proper light.

The Physical Heart

By way of preliminary observation it would seem to be correct beyond doubt to state that the term heart in the Bible first of aU denotes something physical, something in the bodily organism of man. As Kittel(3) points out, this is its “eigentlich” (proper, literal) meaning. Now another question promptly presses itself upon us. Did the term have a specific sense to those who wrote the Bible and in the historical-cultural milieu in which the Bible had its birth? We can make our question just a bit more precise. Did the term heart refer first of all to a specific organ in the body, or did it refer in a general way to the inner body as opposed to the external man as he appears to another?

In considering this question we must take note of the fact that the most thorough dictionary of the Hebrew language (that of Brown, Driver and Briggs) does list a few references in the Old Testament which seem to use the word heart in this general sense of the inner body (see Psalm 73:13, 26 and Ezekiel 3:10). However examination of these passages does not suggest that this interpretation is necessarily correct. On the other hand we must reckon with the fact that the Hebrew language did have words for the inner sections or cavities of the body. The words kereb and beten generally represented the upper and the lower sections of the inner body respectively. Furthermore, there is at least one instance of the use of the word heart which clearly shows that it was regarded as denoting a specific part of the body. In II Kings 9:24 we read, “And Jehu drew his bow with his full strength, and smote Joram between his arms; and the arrow went out at his heart, and he sunk down in his chariot.” Such definite language rather clearly implies that the heart was thought of as a specific organ in the body. Though not quite so graphic, II Samuel 18:14 seems to suggest the same kind of understanding of the word heart.

Our intent at this point is not to claim that the word heart in its physical reference never means anything broader than a definite bodily organ. The term heart may very well refer to the general area of the body in which the physical organ is located. Such usage would be quite in harmony with the character of the Hebrew language, which is not to be regarded as marked by the consistent precision which language used today in the fields of scientific study is expected to convey. All we wish to point out is that the term heart did have a definite meaning in the physical sense and that it presupposes a definite central organ in the body known as the heart.

It is worthy of notice that knowledge of the bodily organ called the heart as associated with the flow of blood through the body goes far back in history. Aristotle wrote at length on this subject in his day. It is not at all unlikely that the biblical statement that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11) is to be related to the place given to the heart in the Old Testament.

It is necessary to understand the term heart in this more definite physical sense if we are to move on to that conception of the heart which is of such central psychological importance in the scriptures. If the word heart had no rather definite physical import, but represented in a general sort of way the inner body, then we would also have to understand the spiritual heart in this vague, general manner. The Bible moves from a physical heart to a spiritual heart. To make that shift intelligently, we had to inquire first of all as to what the heart in the physical sense is. Now that we have answered this inquiry in the measure that would seem to be required by our purposes, we are now in a position to examine more intimately that which the Bible teaches relative to the spiritual heart and its interconnection with the physical heart.

(To be continued)

1) See H. Bavinck, Bijbelsche en Religieuze Psychology, p. 18. 2) Op. cit., p. 79. 3) Kittel, Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament; article on kardia.