When one comes to read about the decades following the Protestant Reformation, one encounters a variety of events and movements in church history – some regarding the Catholic church (e.g., the explorations in the New World), and some regarding the various Protestant movements (e.g., Puritanism in England and the Americas). One very important development in this time period was the early moves toward the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and how those moves affected Christianity. As various Christians emphasized “head knowledge” in their relationship with God, others reacted against that emphasis and focused on “heart knowledge.” It’s that tension that is relevant for us, because we see it in our world, still to this day.
In fact, there is no question that Christianity is founded on at least three kinds of activity: thinking, feeling, and doing. But for some reason, we have often tended to struggle primarily with the relationship between the “head” and the “heart,” as we see in statements like “you’re over-thinking it” and “don’t get carried away with your emotions.” People sometimes criticize too much “head-ness” in the context of emotion-less Bible study or sermons, and others find fault with worship that is “too emotional.” So, is it possible to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind?
I would say “yes.” Obviously, both of these impulses are based on New Testament teaching. For example, Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” (the letters to Timothy and Titus) repeatedly warn against false teaching, which presumes that true teaching – orthodox theology – is what Paul wants (cf., e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-10; Tit. 2:1). Further, Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) are dispositions of the heart, even if they do manifest themselves in action.
Fortunately, in this time period after the Reformation, we find Christian figures whose religious commitments led them to great heights in these areas. People like Desiderius Erasmus and John Locke have been intellectual giants for Christianity, and Blaise Pascal and Philipp Jakob Spener have taught us about the importance of the heart. Of course, there have also been extremes, as you know; the phenomena of deism and “Protestant scholasticism” are expressions of extreme “head-ness,” and some worship gatherings like 18th-century revivals and contemporary “worship concerts” can sometimes be accused of appealing merely to the heart without considering the head.
Happily, there are many other folks who help us in these ways. If you’d like to read more, let me recommend three groups:
1) Writers like the Middle Ages’ Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation’s John Calvin, and the modern world’s C.S. Lewis (especially in his Mere Christianity) do a good job of teaching theology – addressing the head – without losing sight of the heart.
2) Similarly, for folks who can speak to the heart without losing the head, you can read the Methodists John and Charles Wesley, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the recently-deceased pastor and writer Henri Nouwen.
3) Finally, writers like the ancient African St. Augustine, the colonial American Jonathan Edwards, and the modern author Rob Bell often do a good job of blending the two, in my opinion.
Finally, a plug for those who happen to be in my area of West Texas: if you’re interested in this topic, you might want to consider taking any opportunity you can find to interact with my colleague Jeff Childers. He teaches at my university and in my church, and he has a deep knowledge of the spiritual traditions in Christianity. If you get a chance to sit at his feet, do it!