The Myth of Head Knowledge

January 20, 2016

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written by Grant Gates

Christian speakers often talk about the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. The difference, we are told, is between facts and theories comprehended by the intellect and understandings that affect our emotions and actions. This distinction is presented as a dichotomy. One should avoid piling up too much head knowledge without also acquiring heart knowledge; head knowledge must be allowed to sink to the heart. How one does so is left as an exercise for the reader, with a hint indicating that maybe one should pursue application, and maybe the Bible and prayer are involved. There is, however, a simple solution: the dichotomy is false, because its premise is as well.

First we should understand why the head knowledge/heart knowledge dichotomy is appealing. The answer is quite simple: humans are practical and emotional. At UCLA, almost all of us view education as preparation for the workforce. Especially within GOC, we take majors that are either job training or preparation for a graduate degree that is job training. Not very many of us major in useless things like English, history, or pure mathematics. Our educational philosophy is deeply utilitarian. We insist on a similar philosophy in our religion.


In our religious history, we recount examples of knowledgeable hypocrites, chief of whom would be the pharisees and sadducees of Jesus’ time. Despite knowing the Old Testament inside and out, the Jewish leaders were, in the words of Jesus, “whitewashed tombs.” We see their religious knowledge, and we see their spiritual pride, their oppression of the poor, and their enmity to Jesus. We rightly form a distaste for those whose theological knowledge fails to inform their lives. Religious hypocrites of all times, from the indulgence collecting Catholics of the sixteenth century to disqualified pastors today reinforce our disdain for this failure to connect actions with beliefs. This turns us off to being knowledge collectors.


So this head knowledge thing is bad right? After all, isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1? No, actually, Paul was speaking in a particular context: the knowledge being referred to is the very practical knowledge that a Christian can eat meat offered to idols. Perhaps that is not a relevant verse. A more relevant verse would be Psalm 14:1:

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good.”

The first thing to consider is the Hebrew concept of heart, which is very much different from ours. When we say heart, we think of emotions. The Hebrew concept for this is the bowels. The Hebrew heart can include the emotions, but often does not have that connotation. Instead, heart refers to the totality of the person, or often to the rational intellect, what we we call the head. When describing Biblical concepts, it is wiser to use Biblical expressions and concepts than to project our own postmodern terminology that does not really fit the Scriptural doctrine. This is why anyone would care enough to write about why the “head knowledge/heart knowledge” distinction should be discarded: the Bible doesn’t recognize a consistent difference between the head and the heart.


Psalm 14:1 lays out a pattern seen throughout Scripture, that the beliefs and knowledge of the mind determines the actions of an individual. The fool does not really believe in the existence of God, and is therefore undeterred from corruption and sin. The Old Testament, in its Hebrew expressions, doesn’t recognize our dichotomy between head knowledge and heart knowledge, because it rightly denies the dichotomy between head and heart. So let us follow suit. Let us recognize that separating our heart from our heads creates distinctions in our internal soul that are so blurred their existence is doubtful. Let us free ourselves from confusion by denying the head knowledge/heart knowledge dichotomy. Let us boldly go where a lot of puritans actually have gone before. Let us concur with Charles Hodge’s diagnosis,
“[Head knowledge is] what men are wont erroneously to call dead orthodoxy, as though truth can ever be dead.”

Where will this take us?


Well first, we’ll be forced to take the Biblical pattern that knowledge and beliefs determine actions. Consider, for example, the doctrines that God is omniscient and omnipresent. If we really believed that God was constantly watching us and knew our innermost thoughts, we would struggle far less with pride, sexual lust, envy, holding grudges, and other secret sins. Our morality would be far less based around the guiding principle of “hurt not other people” and far more around the central principle of “fear the almighty, holy God.” Our struggles with sin indicate, then, not that our so called head knowledge is bad, but rather that either we are sinfully forgetful (by which I mean a forgetfulness that we are indeed morally responsible for) or don’t actually believe what we say we believe. This is the Charnockian concept of practical atheism: when we sin, we by our actions deny the existence of God.


The chief example of a sin that shows our disbelief, then, is pride. Undergirding every Christian doctrine is an infinite God, creator of sinful, unworthy men in his image. The more someone understands this doctrine and those connected to it—to wit, the more knowledgeable he is—the more he is compelled towards humility, with a fuller view of his own depravity and insignificance, and a better view of God’s love both for himself and others. Correct theology makes it very easy to put others first. This is why, in Philippians 2, the teaching of humility is predicated on the gospel sacrifice of Christ Jesus. This is why the command to humility in Romans 12:3, the commands to love in Romans 12:9-12 and 13:8-10, are given, through the lens of Romans 12:1-2, as logical consequences of the vast expanse of doctrines in Romans 1-11. Paul’s commands for how Christians interact, both here and in the application half of Ephesians, are built upon his Calvinistic, dispensational doctrines explained in the former portions of the respective letters. A deeper understanding of the doctrines of grace is a deeper understanding of the Gospel. A deeper understanding of the Gospel is a deeper understanding of God’s love, which then in turn manifests itself in how we live.


What then of the hypocrite? How, with all this knowledge that should guide him toward godliness, has he fallen so far short of the logical conclusion? Why does he fail to apply what he has learned? Actually, he has not failed to apply his knowledge. He has just failed to apply it appropriately. A hypocrite has made use of his knowledge to say, “Look at me, I did more Bible study than you.” He practically uses this to manipulate, say, his social standing or to get the best seat at the dinner party. In general, it’s not that the hypocrite acquires truly useless information, as that he doesn’t rightly use the information they have. And that is because he doesn’t actually believe what they’ve learned. It can even then be defined, because he doesn’t believe it, he doesn’t properly speaking have that knowledge. It is indeed possible to pile up right Christian doctrine and live an ungodly life, but the head knowledge/heart knowledge distinction doesn’t reflect this, because head knowledge is not unapplied truth, but rather truth not meditated upon, truth not actually accepted as true, truth misapplied.


So how is this all practical? In short, we now have a mechanism to apply doctrine: ask if our actions match our stated beliefs. We’re now motivated to do so more, realizing that a discrepancy between our actions and stated beliefs is indicative of a discrepancy in our stated and actual beliefs. Then to do this, we recognize that incorporating more doctrine, more knowledge is never a bad thing, but that as doctrine naturally cries out for us to practically apply it, we must actively look for its implications. Because if we really believe that something is true, it motivates us to act in a particular manner. Our beliefs and our knowledge determine our actions. Many counseling issues stem from people not practicing what they say they believe. Patiently and lovingly calling for this consistency, pointing out that the counselee has become that hypocrite that he hates, is a very effective tool for moving forward. Similarly, for self-examination, we must do the same. Knowledge, then, is never a hindrance, but only a tool for practical progress.

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