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Heart and Head, Affections and Feelings, Edwards and Machen

I have made that trip of 18 inches from the head to the heart and I am sure of my salvation. Now God has confirmed it to me and never again will I wonder about the state of my salvation, for I’m saved, saved, saved! Amen and may you be able to say the same thing with that blessed assurance I have.

Most likely, all readers have heard this distinction between “head” and “heart.” Indeed, you may have made this illustration yourself in one application or another.

Dear readers, those of us who espouse a full Biblical worldview, must begin to discern the invasion of unbiblical thinking into our evangelism, personal growth, and theology. This invasion comes from both a pietistic influence of the 19th century and modern psychology.

Curiously, some Christians use Jonathan Edwards to bolster their position about head and heart without carefully reading what he actually wrote. I would posit that there is an historical-critical method needed for reading of past Christian writers, as well as, for Scripture.

Let us explore the nuances of head and heart, feelings and affections, and what Jonathan Edwards actually said.

Feelings in Body and Soul

To begin we should understand what are “feelings,” (a synonym for “emotions”). Feelings are a slippery subject, and possibly one reason for the confusion that abounds.

Feelings are, perhaps, best understood by their various names: sad, mad, afraid, worried, anxious, fearful, distressed, angry, happy, dejected, despaired, gloomy, down, blue, furious, glad, surprised, outraged, steamed, troubled, and longing. These may loosely be grouped as glad, mad, sad, and afraid (“afrad” to continue the rhyme).

The etymology of emotion provides some understanding. The Latin root has the idea of “action.” The French root describes “to move out.” The word “disturbance” is used in one definition. So, for a beginning definition of feeling and emotions, I propose “a disturbance of the person.”

Now, where does this “disturbance” take place? It occurs in both the material (body) and immaterial (soul, spirit) components of a person.

(I am trying to avoid the dichotomy-trichotomy issue here. For either camp, there can still be only material and immaterial. Even the “soul and spirit” of the trichotomist are both immaterial, that is, non-physical. That limitation seems adequate for our considerations here.)

For example, you are driving along in your car, relatively at peace with the world (see below), when another driver cuts in on you, barely missing contact, and speeds on! All of a sudden, your heart (body) is racing, you grip the wheel tighter, and your muscles tense. Similarly, your mind begins to race. “Wow, I just missed getting hurt! Whew! I’m glad that he missed me! You ____ so and so, I hope that you wreck somewhere!”

All that in less than a second! Fear, relief, gladness, anger. Strong emotions and feelings, “disturbances,“ occurring in both body and mind (soul).

Another example occurs from the physical side. You awake with a fever of 102 degrees. You “feel” bad. You don’t want to get up. You don’t want to think, just get back in bed and forget the responsibilities of the day. Body and mind are affected. We are a unity.

For a more lengthy discussion on feelings and emotions, see A Definition of Emotions written by me.

The Biblical Heart

The word “heart” is used more than 1000 times in the Old and New Testaments.  It is one designation of the non-material side of man, along with soul, spirit, mind, conscience, and will. It is unusual, if not rare, for "heart" to be used to describe emotion, but two examples are I Samuel 1:8 and 2:1. Far and away the common use of “heart” concerns the thoughts of man. “As (a man) thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). “Do not think in your heart” (Deuteronomy 9:4). “Nor does his heart think so” (Isaiah 10:6). “Why do you think evil in your thoughts” (Matthew 9:4). “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart” (James 1:26). Thus, the heart is inseparable from the mind and the understanding.  The heart gives values to the things that the mind understands.

At this point, the reader should do his own research. Simply, use a concordance and look up verses on “heart,” Old or New Testament, and study the context and meaning of the use of the word. He or she will confirm what follows here. (You can also use the Bible Gateway word/phrase Search at the end of this article.

“Heart in the Bible is the inner life that one lives before God and himself, a life that is unknown to others because it is hidden from them… the most fully developed, most far-reaching and most dynamic concept of the non-material man.” (1)  One is tempted to say that "heart" is the "real you" -- the real person. But, that is not the case.  Each person has many thoughts, both good and especially evil, that never "overflow" into the physical world.  These thoughts are never acted upon by the will.  The "real you," or better, the "total you," includes the restraining forces (conscience and will, for example) that prevent these thoughts of the heart from overflowing into speech and actions. 

Yet, the overflow of the heart does reveal ourselves in ways that sometimes surprise us and others.  In these ways, we find more of the reality of who we really are, often to our consternation, but testifying to the accuracy and depth of a truly Biblical psychology in which only God can fully "search the heart" (Jeremiah 17:9-10).

The importance of a right understanding of “heart” can be more fully understood in the First Great Commandment, “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The reader should note that the emphasis here is on the non-material side of man (heart, soul, mind). Strength could be physical or spiritual, but is more likely both. This commandment is not some mystical, powering up of emotions but a concrete command to have knowledge of God in all His attributes, His names, His history, His redemption, His Second Advent, and more, much more. Then, we are to have a thoroughgoing knowledge of His statutes, directives, laws, and commandments in order “to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our salvation is dependent upon a right understanding of “heart.” “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10). The mind and the heart are inseparable in these verses.  In the heart is where regeneration takes place.

The following was added after the original essay.  However, I believe that is fits well with the flow of this article and adds much to it.

The Distinction between the Heart and the Head (Mind)

The following is a quote, as cited:

The heart, regenerate or apostate, gives the mind its basic “set,” but it does not, in this life, completely control the mind. The unregenerate heart, because of common grace, does not come to full expression in the unbeliever’s mind. The regenerate heart, because of sin, does not come to full expression in the Christian’s mind.

There is an unqualified and absolute antithesis between the regenerate and unregenerate heart. There is not an absolute antithesis between the Christian and non-Christian “mind.” He who in his heart is a Christian, in principle Christ’s, may have a mind that embraces egregious error and breathes a reprehensible spirit. He who is in his heart a non-Christian, in principle Satan’s, may have a mind that embraces much of truth and breathes a temperate spirit. In the case of both the Christian and the non-Christian, the mind, though for different reasons, can be false to the heart."  (Henry Stob, Theological Reflections, Eerdmans, 1981, page 236)

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and His Affections

The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul…. God has endued the soul with two principle faculties: The one, that by which it discerns and judges of things, which is called the understanding. The other, that by which the soul is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers: or it is the faculty by which the soul beholds things… either as liking, disliking… approving or rejecting. This faculty is called … inclination, willmind… often called the heart. (Emphases are mine).(2)

Edwards is equating heart and affections, as the inclination of the will, one of two “faculties” of the soul in the “mind.” What is important here is that the “inclination” of the soul includes knowledge (“liking, disliking” etc.). So, affection is a deeper, ongoing attitude than the fleeting emotions that we reviewed above. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of a similar time period confirms the same thoughts with his definitions of “emotion,” “passion,” “affection,” and “heart.”(4)

It is a mistake, then, to equate Edwards’ affection with “emotions,” especially with all the psychological and pietistic baggage with which they are attached today. (4)

A Wedding and a Caution

Such discussion of these subjects is difficult to manage in this short article. The reader needs to search out numerous passages in the Bible to see how “heart” is used in context. He should go to Webster’s 1828 dictionary and look up the words named above. He must wrestle with what are and are not emotions. So, with those directions, let me suggest a wedding between emotions and affections.

Emotions are more temporary, superficial, with a paucity of associated thoughts. Affections are more abiding, deeper, with thought-through conviction. Consider some of the affections of the Bible: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, faithfulness, hope, and peace. Each involves considerable Biblical understanding and are an abiding, deep presence in believers. To be sure there is some overlap, but the distinction should help to clarify these issues.

J. Gresham Machen gives succinct insight.

Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just brimming with dogma. It depends upon a host of observations treasured up in the mind . . .. human affection is thus really dependent upon knowledge.(5)

And, finally a perspective from Gordon Clark about “heart” in Scripture.

In eighty percent or more of (Bible verses)… the context shows… that the intellect or man’s mind is intended. Maybe ten percent mean volition. Another ten percent signify the emotions. Hence the actual usage very nearly identifies the heart with the intellect.

Conclusions

Apart from those feelings that originate entirely within the body (fever, disease and infection of organs and disease or injury), both feelings and affections are “brimming” with knowledge. Our goal under the Two Great Commandments is to be studied in the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man from the Bible, so that we can have right understanding in our hearts. Then, its overflow (Matthew 12:34) in word and action will be righteous: honoring to God and promoting the good of our “neighbors.”

The separation of head (as mind and knowledge) is a Biblically false identification. It is one of the more serious issues for Biblically minded Christians today. The concept of “heart” has been too much determined by secular psychology and pietism, as a hangover of the 19th century.

Christians who would be world-changers through evangelism and world-view must be students of Biblical definitions, as well as Biblical theology and ethics. A right understanding of emotions, affection, and heart is one of the foundations that is necessary to that end.

References

1. Jay Adams, More Than Redemption, (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), p. 115).

*** Jay Adams has recently written an excellent, simple to understand book that would supplement my article.  That book is Joyfully Counseling People with New Hearts, available from Timeless Texts.

2. Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections."

3. Webster's 1828 Dictionary

4. For a more complete discussion of feelings and emotions, see A Definition of Emotions written by me.

5. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprint 1981), p. 55.

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