Biblical Word Studies Class 4
Heart Knowledge v. Head Knowledge

C. Michael Holloway
4 October 1998

  1. Opening & prayer.
  2. As always, let's begin with a review of what we've done so far.
    1. The basic goal of the class is to increase our understanding of the meaning of certain words used in the Bible. We're doing this by concentrating on determining the meaning of certain English words as they appear in the New American Standard translation.
    2. In the second week, we saw that the word heart has several different meanings in the Bible, but that it most often expresses the totality of a person's nature and character and includes all 3 of the traditional personality functions of man: the affections, the intellect, and the volition.
    3. We saw that we should
      1. be very careful about using the word heart;
      2. make sure we know what someone means when he uses the word; and
      3. most importantly, cultivate a Biblical psychology, one that recognizes that the intellect, the affections, and the will form an integrated whole, not separate parts.
    4. Last week, we studied the words knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, and saw that the three words are intimately related, but not quite synonymous, because
      1. Knowledge generally refers to basic information or facts;
      2. Understanding generally refers to assembling this information into its proper relationships; and
      3. Wisdom generally refers to the ability to arrange, articulate, and apply knowledge and understanding to the circumstances that arise in one's life.
    5. We saw also that
      1. It is possible to have knowledge without also having understanding or wisdom.
      2. It is possible to have understanding without also having wisdom, but it is not possible to have understanding without knowledge.
      3. And wisdom is not possible without both understanding and knowledge.
    6. As applications, we discussed the need to
      1. Acknowledge that KUW comes from God alone.
      2. Take advantage of every opportunity that God gives us to increase our knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about His word and His world.
      3. Remember that we are charged only with making good use of the abilities and opportunities God has given us.
      4. Remember that no matter how much KUW God, by His grace, may enable us to obtain, we have no cause to boast, because we are woefully ignorant compared to God.
      5. Concentrate on the intimate relationship between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not on the differences between them.

  3. This brings us to the subject of today's class, namely Does the Bible speak of a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge?
    1. Without telling me what you believe the answer to the question is, tell me what you have to know to be able to answer the question.
    2. Of course, you have to know lots of things, but one thing that is absolutely essential is knowing what the person asking the question meant by the phrases head knowledge and heart knowledge. Apparently, all of you thought you knew what I meant, because no one asked me what I meant. Now, before anyone thinks I was trying to trick you, I didn't have any special meanings in mind. I just meant what those phrases mean in common usage, whatever that may be.
    3. So, again without telling us how you answered the basic question, someone tell us what you believe head knowledge means. Likely answers include:
      1. Knowledge without understanding or wisdom
      2. Saying that you believe some things are true, but showing no evidence that you believe them. Intellectual assent without volitional commitment.
    4. OK, now someone tell us what you believe heart knowledge is. Likely answers include:
      1. understanding and wisdom
      2. Showing evidence by your actions that you believe what you say you believe. Assent with commitment. Saving faith.
    5. Now a few of you tell us briefly how you answered the question: Does the Bible speak of a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge?

  4. Now, I'll give you my answer: 'Yes, but we shouldn't.'
    1. Before anyone seeks out the nearest elder to charge me with heresy for suggesting that we ought not do something that the Bible does, let me explain this little play on words.
    2. The 'yes' part means that the Bible does make a distinction between something like what is often called head knowledge and something like what is often called heart knowledge. In that sense, it is appropriate to say that it speaks of a difference between head and heart knowledge.
    3. The 'but we shouldn't part' means that the phrases head knowledge and heart knowledge are not very good ones to use to express the distinction that the Bible makes, so we ought not use those phrases.
    4. Someone out there is almost certainly thinking at this point, 'but John Calvin used those phrases, why shouldn't we?'
      1. First, although Calvin wrote in Latin and French, not English, he did write some things that, if not quite translating into the specific phrases we're discussing, are pretty close.
        1. In Book III, Chapter II, Section 8 of the Institutes, he writes that faith 'is more of the heart than of the brain.'
        2. In Book I, Chapter V, Section 9, he writes that 'we are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if takes root in the heart.' The translators footnote says, 'Calvin here distinguishes between cerebrum and cor, brain and heart, in relation to the knowledge of God, characteristically giving the importance to the latter.'
      2. So, I agree that Calvin made a distinction between types of knowledge. I've already said that the Bible makes such a distinction, too. What I'm saying is that, today, in the culture in which we live, using the words head and heart to make that distinction is unwise. The example of what Calvin wrote over 400 years ago does nothing to disprove this. The words he chose to make the distinction may have been the right ones for 16th century Europe; I do not think that these words are the right ones for 20th (almost 21st) century America.
    5. Just as an aside, I found an interesting use this week of head & heart to distinguish things.
      1. I was reading a two volume set called The Debate on the Constitution, which contains federalist and antifederalist speeches, articles, and letters during 1787-1788 when states were deciding whether to ratify the constitution.
      2. During the North Carolina Convention, James Iredell gave a speech about the impeachment provisions in the Constitution. In this speech he said the following: "I beg leave to observe, that when any man is impeached, it must be for an error of the heart, not of the head."
      3. He went on the explain, sort of, what he meant by this statement: "Whatever mistake [in judgement] a man may make, he ought not be punished for it, nor his posterity rendered infamous. But if a man be a villain, and willfully abuses his trust, he is to be held up as a public offender, and ignominiously punished."
      4. What does this have to do with our lesson? Not a lot, but it does illustrate the ambiguity in the head/heart distinction. I suspect that both those who think our current President should be impeached, and those who think he should not be impeached, could quote Mr. Iredell to support their position.
    6. Let's now look at the Scripture to see what the actual distinction that it makes is, and then let's consider what words can best express that distinction.

  5. Let's look first at Deuteronomy 6:4-9, James 1:21-27, and Psalm 111:10.
    1. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! {5} And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. {6} And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; {7} and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. {8} And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. {9} And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
    2. James 1:21-27 Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. {22} But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. {23} For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; {24} for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. {25} But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. {26} If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. {27} This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
    3. Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever.
    4. First, are these passages talking about what is often called heart knowledge? ... Yes, they are. How do they characterize it?
      1. It is associated with love for God, which in turn is associated with ...
      2. ...doing what He commands. 'A good understanding have all those who do His commandments' says Psalm 111:10. 'prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves' says James.
    5. Further, many other passages make clear that it doesn't much matter what someone says they know or believe, it matters what they do. Matthew 15:7-9 is one of many that could be chosen to illustrate this. Here Jesus says, "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, {8} 'THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. {9} 'BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'"
    6. So, the Scripture clearly speaks of a type of knowledge that leads to godly behavior, which corresponds to what is sometimes called today heart knowledge.

  6. Let's turn now to what is sometimes called head knowledge.
    1. Those of you on my left look up Hosea 4:1-6, and those on my right to look up 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
      1. Those on my left, let's read Hosea 4:1-6 together: Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. {2} There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. {3} Therefore the land mourns, And everyone who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear. {4} Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof; For your people are like those who contend with the priest. {5} So you will stumble by day, And the prophet also will stumble with you by night; And I will destroy your mother. {6} My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
      2. Now, those on my right, let's read 2 Timothy 2:24-26: And the Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, {25} with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, {26} and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
      3. When it comes to knowledge, what do both of these passages say about those who reject God? The passage in Hosea says it directly, the one in 2 Timothy by implication.
      4. They say that people who reject God do not have knowledge about Him or the truth. 'My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.' Neither passage suggests that these people have the wrong kind of knowledge; they say these people have no knowledge of God's truth.
      5. Does this mean that these people were not aware of any the facts of God's truth? Does the passage in Hosea mean that the people had lost the written Scripture and oral tradition and were ignorant of the sacrificial system, the Ten Commandments, and all the rest?
      6. No, it doesn't mean that. It means that their behavior was no different from those who were not aware of the facts. That is, someone who is acquainted with true propositions but lives as if those propositions were not true, has, according to the Scripture, no more grounds for claiming to know those propositions than someone who has never even heard them.
    2. Let's look at some more passages to see that this same idea is taught elsewhere, too.
      1. In Luke 11:52, Jesus says: "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered."
      2. Paul writes in Romans 10:1-4: Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. {2} For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. {3} For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. {4} For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
      3. Paul also writes in 1 Timothy 6:20-21: O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called "knowledge"-- {21} which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.
      4. These passages also characterize those who are not believers as not having knowledge. They don't have head knowledge, they have no knowledge.
    3. Some possible objections to this.
      1. Objection: unbelievers do know some things
        1. It is certainly true that in our culture today, we use the word 'know' and 'knowledge' rather more loosely than the Bible usually does.
        2. When it comes to matters related to salvation, I think we are on solid Biblical grounds to say that the only ones who have real knowledge are those who are regenerate.
        3. When it comes to other matters, like how to remove an appendix, or how to rebuild a car engine, there's not a lot of harm done by saying that unbelievers have knowledge about such things. At a fundamental epistemological level, unbelievers have their feet firmly planted in mid-air, as Frances Schaeffer wrote, so they can't really know that they know anything. But, unless you're engaged in a discussion with someone who is philosophically sophisticated, making that distinction might show off your knowledge and understanding, but it would also probably show off your lack of wisdom.
      2. Objection: demons know all about God based on James 2:19]
        1. James 2:19 says "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder."
        2. From this verse, we can legitimately conclude only that the demons are neither atheists nor polytheists. We can conclude nothing about how much more they know and believe.
      3. Objection: demons know all about Jesus based on Luke 4:41]
        1. Luke 4:41 says 'And demons also were coming out of many, crying out and saying, "You are the Son of God!" And rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ.'
        2. I've not asserted that the Bible never uses know or knowledge loosely, only that it doesn't do so often.
        3. I believe we should stick to the predominate usage, lest we be misunderstood more often than we are understood.

  7. So, where are we now?
    1. The Bible does distinguish between types of knowledge, but, for the most part, it does so by referring to true knowledge and no or false knowledge.
    2. The extent of a person's knowledge is not determined by what they say, or claim to know, but by what they do.

  8. Based on these things, I suggest that it is rarely wise to use the phrases heart knowledge and head knowledge.
    1. If people had a good understanding of the Biblical meaning of the word heart, then heart knowledge wouldn't be a bad phrase. But, because people today tend not to have a good understanding of what heart means, I suspect that the phrase heart knowledge is more often misleading than it is illuminating.
    2. The phrase head knowledge is, Biblically-speaking, basically oxymoronic, because the Bible rarely attributes knowledge to those who are simply acquainted with true propositions. Knowledge is possessed by those who act not to those who simply assert.
    3. To replace these terms, I make the following suggestions, which you may do with as you see fit:
      1. Instead of head knowledge, I suggest that you use one of the following terms, depending on the context: unbelief, propositional acquaintance, or, perhaps in some situations, hypocrisy.
      2. Instead of heart knowledge, I suggest, again depending on the context: knowledge, understanding, wisdom, or belief.

  9. That concludes our study for today.
    1. Your regular homework for next week is come up with a biblically-supported procedure for determining whether something is gossip or not.
    2. Your special homework remains what I mentioned the second week: coming up with a good definition for the word nature. In particular, this definition must do justice to the traditional orthodox distinction between nature and person. That is, it must explain how Jesus is one person with two natures, while the God-head is one nature with three persons.
    3. I will leave you with a quote from J. Gresham Machen: 'We prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that He may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.'


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright by The Lockman Foundation.