A Changed Heart

Usually when someone says “I’ve changed my mind” we can take the shift as a passing matter.  It depends on context, of course, but changes of mind are common.  I might say, for instance, “I know I said I can meet for coffee at ten but I’ve changed my mind because of a deadline I’m facing . . . would tomorrow work for you, same time?”

If, on the other hand, someone says to me, “Umm, you know, I’ve had a change of heart about meeting with you over coffee . . .” well, that would catch my attention!  It might signal something much deeper—possibly a value-shift or realignment of motives in the relationship.

So, using that loose distinction, here’s my question.  When Christ began his ministry with calls for repentance, was he calling for a change of mind or a change of heart?  With one more abstract and the other more fundamental?

We can, of course, hear his call for repentance as an invitation to change our minds if we notice the underlying Greek word can be strictly translated as “a changed mind”.  Given this etymology the essence of repentance might be summarized like this: “In repentance we take up a new way of viewing things by changing how we think about God and his ways.”

Treating repentance as a change-of-heart, on the other hand, looks back to the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, who (in 36:26) spoke of the need for our hearts “of stone” to be changed to heart “of flesh”—that is, to move from a dead state to one of new life.

But isn’t this an artificial distinction?  I believe it is, at least in this sense: our bond with Christ is one of both knowing and loving him.  It is only by insisting that the mind has some sort of self-guiding capacity that we can separate the two.  As Jesus made clear more than once, however, it is out of the heart that we speak and choose—with the heart treated as the affective center of the soul.  And affective in the sense that the heart is ever and always responding to outside invitations to embrace and follow various attractions.  So, as Luther understood in launching his part in the Protestant Reformation, the battle is always one of “affection versus affection”.

Jesus, we know, prayed to the Father just before he was crucified of a proper faith in which believers “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  While this might sound like a call to a rational affirmation of faith—of simply affirming certain things to be true of the Father and the Son—the finale of the chapter offers an affective summation of the real point: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

A real knowledge of God, he is saying, is only engaged as we enter into the heart of the Father-Son relationship—by joining “the love with which you have loved me”.  That means, in turn, that for any of us who have a religion that stops short of a whole-hearted response to God as expressed in his love for us in Christ, there is still room for repentance.   And I, for one, am still repenting as I learn how deeply my self-absorbed rationalizations allow me to maintain an abstract and disaffected view of Christ.  It’s time to open my heart to his attractiveness with a full devotion.

Any thoughts or comments from others on this distinction?

6 Responses to A Changed Heart

  1. Rob Trenckmann March 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    I know we’ve talked of it before, but I’d be interested to see a written response to the belief that the greek word ‘heart’ is really ‘mind’ by today’s definitions. I’ve heard it said that when they said ‘heart’ it meant mind, and when they said ‘gut’ or ‘bowels’, it was the equivalent of our meaning of heart. I’m, of course, fully convinced of the affective model of the soul, but I’d like to know how to better articulate a response to that argument . . .

  2. Ron March 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Actually, Rob, I’d love to hear your own thoughts here! But I’ll at least offer something until you give your own report.

    I’ve read the same sort of thing myself, of course. I grew up theologically with that view held by many of my profs. But there’s more than just that. Word usage within a particular context needs to be honored; even if a text seems to undo a claim like my own about how the heart is to be understood.

    That said, I think most of those “heart = mind” claims are birthed out of a prior commitment to a Stoic understanding of the soul (which was, indeed, common among the Greek philosophers). I believe, too, that most evangelicals have no awareness that they’ve adopted a Stoic axiom. Rather it’s so entrenched it’s taken as a “common sense” that isn’t ever questioned.

    Let me go to a particular text, then, as a test case. A major repentance text that might be used in favor of a “mind” based version of the heart is John 12:40 where Jesus cited Isaiah 6:10, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” (Jn 12: 40). The reference to “understand with their heart” seems to push repentance into a role for the mind. And I agree with that reading.

    But let’s press below the surface: just how did the heart-linked-to-the-mind come about in this context? The answer (in both the OT & NT uses) is: by their self-blinding affections. In this context, for instance, see the next section where Jesus unpacked the problem of why the local religious leaders rejected him or “could not believe” (v39): “For they [the rulers] loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (v43). A love for mutual human glory trumped the irrefutable evidence they had in front of them in Jesus and his works.

    I know from experience that even a host of particular examinations like this one won’t change the way our evangelical rationalists will still frame the issue. I think the problem today is just as it was for the theologians in Jesus’ own day. Back then the biblical scholars couldn’t see the obvious evidence because of their moral/affective disaffection for the truth. See, on this, John 5, where they dismissed a host of indicators in support of Christ’s equality with the Father. What was the problem? “But I [Jesus] know that you do not have the love of God within you” (5:42).

    So the point here? The word “heart” will, indeed, have the function of thinking conflated into its most common emphasis on the heart as the affective and responsive source of all our motives. That’s because the heart has to process whatever the mind offers it in order to embrace or detest the offering. Then the mind and will carry out what the heart delivers as its preferred motivation.

    What are your own thoughts?

  3. Steve Mitchell March 29, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    I was introduced to an affective model of the soul long before my theological training began, long before I ever did a word study. I worked in advertising for more than twenty years, and still do. Good marketing execs understand the primacy of desire, of conscious choice motivated by the affections.

    I realize this is a theologically oriented blog and it may be a bot out of bounds to argue for a particular spiritual anthropology phenomenologically, but I believe that the reason most ad folks’ view of the soul comports so readily with Scripture is because the Bible so clearly communicates what the ad folks discovered through trial and error, namely that we are created to be captured by great loves: love of God’s creation, love of other people, and primarily the love of God in Christ.

    So many of us are so easily captivated by lesser, unholy loves: love of status, love of sin, and ultimately love of self. In fact, if the ad folks have their way, it’ll always be love of sneakers, or fast cars, or iWhatevers.

  4. Peter Mead March 29, 2011 at 6:16 am #

    Thanks Steve – I wouldn’t want to build a case on phenomenological, or observational (social) science, but it is interesting to see the consistency in respect to decision making. Don’t the marketing folks say that people buy on emotion, but justify with fact? I remember working in direct sales for a couple of years and that was certainly true in my experience. The emotional appeal was critical before decision (albeit subtle, since people don’t like to buy based on overt emotionalism, at least not in England!), but then after decision point there was often a need for rationalization of the decision to have spent that money.

  5. Ron March 29, 2011 at 6:48 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for your good insights as a trained market specialist, and for Peter’s follow-up. To me this is one of those areas where some theologians, claiming to be wise (in promoting a ‘non-influenced-will’ in pursuit of a ‘free will’ version of the soul) can sound foolish. Media folks wouldn’t be spending billions on glitzy, appetite-arousing promotions that invariably lack substance when all that’s needed, in theory, is a spread-sheet comparison of costs & benefits: just what a rationally-informed, free-will buyer needs.

    That said, I need to get back to Rob’s thoughtful question. Your concern, Rob, was narrower than my response; and I really didn’t hit the main point at all. The Greek word (and I’m here in the UK without my Greek text of the NT, I’m afraid) that you referenced is transliterated as ‘splanchna’ (or something near to that) and translated as ‘guts’ or ‘bowels’. Paul used it occasionally to refer to intense emotions.

    So about the folks you’ve referenced: is the Greek word for heart speaking broadly and collectively of our rational, volitional, and emotional state? With the language of our “stirred guts” speaking of the intense emotions that sometimes stir us? So that I’m investing heart with an emotional primacy that the Bible fails to support?

    What we find throughout the OT and NT is a continuing linkage of the heart to our affective motives, with marital bonds as ultimate touchstones: e.g. marital joy, jealousy, and the like. So that Christ’s love looks to our role as his bride. Jesus had a love for the Father that was heart-based, if his reiteration of Deuteronomy 6:4 means anything, and his greatest ambition was for us to share in the love that he has had eternally with the Father (in John 17). So I see any arguments that separate ‘splanchna’ from heart as a difference of kind rather than a difference of intensity as misguided, with a Stoic bias lurking in the shadows. Remember that the origin of the language use was certainly physiological: love makes the pulse race and deep emotions cause the gut to tighten. Both are responses to what we experience in our environment.

    A book can be written on this: go for it!

  6. Rob Trenckmann April 5, 2011 at 8:36 pm #


    Sorry for the slow reply here! I posted my question, and then got sucked into a vortex of of other things and forgot to check back for your answer. Looks like some great thinking!

    Both of your answers are very helpful. Thanks. Two things especially click from your response. The physiological origins of the language is especially helpful. I also agree that we are constantly engaging assumed ‘truths’ that are treated as self-evident (like a stoic mindset).

    Great thoughts–thanks!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.