It is commonly assumed that there are two kinds of knowledge when it comes to the Christian faith: head knowledge and heart knowledge. “Head knowledge” is often associated with knowledge limited to the level of information, without any practical implications or impact in someone’s life. On the other hand, “heart knowledge” is associated with that information that results in transformation in someone life. It may also refer to the emotional impact that results from information, such as joy that results from the knowledge of God’s love. Head knowledge is usually considered pejorative; heart knowledge, conversely, is generally favorable.
While I understand the intent behind this bifurcation and certainly believe that knowledge just at the information level is limited (in many, but not all, contexts), and while I share the sentiment of those who espouse these terms (whether intentional or unintentional), I don’t think the bifurcation is necessary helpful and sometimes can even be misleading. I propose two main reasons why. First, “head” and “heart” today does not mean the same thing it does today as it does in the Bible. “Head” today symbolizes the decision-making aspect of a person, while in Scripture has a variety of metaphors, one being “authority” (or “source”). “Heart” today refers to the emotions of a person, but in Scripture refers to the center of a person, including the mind, affections, and will. So to categorize knowledge into the two distinctions of heart and head seems to (intentionally or unintentionally) ignore the biblical uses of these words.
Second, when knowledge is referred to in Scripture, there is no taxonomy of knowledge, but it is usually synonymous to wisdom, and in many contexts is seen as a good thing. Solomon begins his book of Wisdom by stating “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7), implying a close relationship between knowledge, wisdom, and instruction. Furthermore, Paul refers to his fellow Israelites as having “a zeal for God but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). Their zeal is based on ignorance. While I don’t have the space here to survey all the ways “knowledge” is used in the Bible, it’s probably safe to say that it is seen as a positive characteristic that one is to strive for. But the modern dichotomy of head and heart knowledge seems to indicate that there may be a type of knowledge that is bad, some actually even scoffing at those who have lots of it.
As an alternative, I would suggest that instead of using these misleading terms, we use preferable words like ignorance or hypocrisy. In fact, I would suggest that what some refer to when they refer to “head knowledge” is actually hypocrisy: their life does not reflect what they know. So instead of saying something like, “He has a lot of head knowledge but no heart knowledge,” I suggest that person really means is, “He is hypocritical: he knows a lot about the Bible, but his knowledge is not reflected in his own life.” The latter may get a few more frowns than the former and is probably more offensive to say out loud (and also highly judgmental), but that’s what we really mean, don’t we?
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).
9 thoughts on “Head Knowledge vs. Heart Knowledge: Fine Distinctions or False Dichotomies?”
I really appreciated this article. I am beginning to see that the whole, “He has head knowledge, but no heart knowledge is actually a false dichotomy that has no scriptural basis that has become a Christian-ism. Meaning, something we have heard so much that we assume it’s correct.
I wonder what you would say to someone who would challenge what you are saying with James 2:19 and say, “See, the demons believed but had no heart knowledge!” For me, I believe the demons do know the truth, but because of their sinful nature, rebel against it. Would you agree with this assessment?
Thanks again for your work!
Hey Chad, thanks for the comment. Yea, I think that James verse is kind of where we get our dichotomy of head vs heart knowledge, at least one of the reasons. I would argue that it’s not a distinction of head vs heart knowledge that’s occurring with the demons, but rather a type of knowledge that hasn’t/doesn’t affect life transformation. In other words, it’s an ineffectual knowledge, a knowledge that doesn’t result in transformation. Knowledge is knowledge, whether or not it changes one’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions. I just don’t think this dichotomy is helpful much in our pursuit of God. Good point you bring up.
Great to see Christians addressing this issue because those who use it tend to do so in a way to imply superiority of ‘heart knowledge’ over ‘head knowledge’, forgetting that all thought and thought processing takes place in the brain and not the heart, hence the false distinction between the two. As a former believer this phrase was often thrown at me by believers, probably because I studied an academic degree in Theology at a university instead of a bible college, so it came across as an elitist put down, implying that I couldn’t have been a ‘true’ Christian, because I had too much ‘head knowledge’. I’d therefore be careful about using ‘head knowledge’ to imply hypocrisy.
You highlight the dangers of this false heart/head knowledge division very well. The biggest danger I see is those who rely more on ‘heart’ knowledge is that they often come across as elitist and likely to alienate people like me who have and still do study early Christianity and its development. The ‘heart/head knowledge’ advocates also give the impression that religious experience is superior and takes priority over the religious text or religious knowledge for guidance and beliefs. There are several pitfalls here. Firstly, claiming that religious experience is more valid than religious knowledge automatically validates all and any religious experiences from those following other religions or no religion. Secondly, it is all too easy to go down the ‘if it feels good do it’ route when relying more on your feelings, regardless of whether this contravenes or contradicts the religious text or religious knowledge.
My main concern, when on the receiving end of this “I respect your head knowledge …” scenario, is that Christians will often unwittingly be stating that they are Gnostics! I don’t think many Christians who use the ‘heart/head knowledge’ distinction realise that by claiming that Heart knowledge is about our personal relationship with God, knowing who he is through relationship, and that through this relationship God reveals himself to us and gives us revelations, these are the hall marks of Gnosticism. Secret revelatory knowledge revealed to those ‘in the know’ (relationship) is the core of most gnostic beliefs that were prevalent during the first few centuries of the Christian religion.
Pete, thanks for your comment. I think you are somewhat on a right track with the whole Gnostic comparison, although there are probably marked differences between Gnostics and Christians who state such things. Just curious why you consider yourself a former believer, and what led you away from identifying yourself as such? Thanks again for your interaction!
Yes I used the term ‘gnostic’ in a more general sense, because as you already know there were divergent theologies and beliefs amongst the gnostics, just as there are amongst say Pentecostal churches today.
I was a believer for about 35 years. I did not lose my faith, so much as reject it completely. There comes a point when you get frustrated with the gradual accumulation of evidence against your beliefs and complete lack of satisfactory or credible explanations, so I decided that enough is enough. My decades of waiting patiently ‘in faith’ whilst trying to seek answers proved fruitless and failed to satisfy my questions or challenges. In order to believe ‘in faith’ we have to ‘suspend disbelief’ when confronted with compelling evidence that goes against that belief. However this is dishonest and we can only maintain this for so long before everything falls apart. For example, in the end it became difficult to justify atrocities commanded by God in the Old Testament, when we know that this is wrong and criminal behaviour, yet what appalled me the most was the willingness of believers even trying to justify it all. The real kicker was the church, mostly overtly evangelical, denouncing science as a weapon of the devil to deceive mankind, whilst hypocritically were quite happy to use technology developed by science to suit their evangelising and missionary agendas. I have also studied Astronomy and Planetary science at Uni, so hearing people denounce facts in favour of myths and legends adopted from older civilisations in the Ancient Near East just reinforced the lack of credibility displayed by a lot of believers.
That’s probably me in a nut shell, and hence a former believer.
Pete, thanks for the reply again, and sorry it’s taking so long to respond. I’m sure I won’t convince you otherwise, as you seem to have done quite a bit of study on your own and seem to have drawn a conclusion, but it would be interesting to discuss more in detail about the problems you have with the Christian worldview, particularly the Old Testament, as you note. It is a tough one, I admit, as I’ve actually thought about that recently. Maybe the fact that you do have this sort of internal consistent moral compass sort of points at the fact that God does exist. And while I agree that many fundamentalist Christian groups have done harm for the Christian worldview, I don’t know if that necessarily rules out Christianity from being true. What do you think?
I may not follow any religion but many of our wider family are believers, so I will always have some form of Christianity around me. My own experience was that many assumptions made by new Christians and many ministers are simply wrong, partly through ignorance, lack of knowledge or deliberate distortions on the part of the church or denomination. It felt like the very foundations and starting assumptions of Christianity were false from the beginning, demonstrably wrong, and yet churches persisted in promoting this and ignoring the true origins of the religion, their texts, their practices and how they have gradually evolved and developed over the centuries following Jesus.
I wonder how many believers are aware that their very New Testament texts contain many inaccuracies, contradictions, errors, deliberate alterations for theological purposes, forgeries, incorrectly assigned works, that were gradually collected, assembled and selected by church committees several centuries after most of the New Testament was written. That there were many documents that once were accepted and read in churches that are no longer used, whilst other documents that were previously rejected, are now accepted. The Head/Heart Knowledge put down was the usual response from most believers.
For example, discrepancies and contradictions about key details in the life of Jesus are blatantly obvious from reading the gospels in our modern new testament, which explains why Tatian went to such great lengths at the end of the second century AD by compiling the Diatessaron to harmonise the gospel accounts to remove the contradictions and discrepancies. Our earliest manuscript evidence proves beyond any shadow of doubt that passages of text were deliberately altered by copyists and scribes centuries later to remove troublesome contradictions and promote what was correct doctrine in their opinion. Some alterations were made to avert challenges to early orthodox/catholic doctrines about the paternity and nature of the person of Christ. So did the documents shape our later doctrine or did doctrine shape our later documents?
In light of this and other observations, I struggle to see how Christianity can possibly be true, although some elements are no doubt true.
You’re (sadly) right, in that many pastors today are critically unaware of some of these discussions, even though they should have paid more attention in seminary or bible college (or gone to a better one)! And I’m aware that many, notably Bart Ehrman, have written on these inaccuracies and discrepancies in the New Testament, including manuscript errors, etc. But I think that many of these claims are exaggerated by some of these scholars, and that reasonable explanations can be made for some of these problems. To start with, I would say that if there were no problems at all, I would be skeptical at the validity. For example, if every Greek manuscript we have were 100% identical in wording, I’d be suspect that some type of tampering didn’t happen somewhere along the line.
You mention two main objections above. First regarding the discrepancies in the Gospels of the life of Jesus. Yes, that is a problematic issue, but not one without any solution. Again, if the Gospels agreed with one another 100%, why the need for four Gospels? They would be suspect of copying one another, and we would really only have one Gospel (and three copies). There is some discussion these days about the origins of the Gospels, and I am of the belief that the four Gospels were written independently of one another, and that each had different “sources,” or oral traditions. In short, they do generally agree with each other. If you identified any specific example of a contradiction, I would be happy to examine that more with you, but I do disagree that there are any contradictions in the Gospels.
Second, you stated: “Our earliest manuscript evidence proves beyond any shadow of doubt that passages of text were deliberately altered by copyists and scribes centuries later to remove troublesome contradictions and promote what was correct doctrine in their opinion.” But I don’t know of any single textual variant that impinges upon any orthodox or Christian doctrine. If you can identify any of these, and the manuscripts that show these variants, I would love to examine them with you as well. The most difficult (and lengthy) variants in the New Testament deal with the pericope adulterae (John 8), the ending of the Gospel of Mark, or a passage in 1 John, which really don’t affect Christian doctrine.
Thanks for your interaction, Pete! Continue to submit your response if you’d like to keep talking about this. I love this stuff!
Great talking with you too, and you make a refreshing change, being able to bounce ideas around. I get the distinct feeling that you and I are both on the fringes of mainsrteam Christianity and share many similar frustrations. My current research is into early Christianity, specifically gospel origins, so this avenue of enquiry will continue to fascinate me until I pop my cloggs. I would certainly like to maintain our dialog so maybe I should start using email or the comments here will be off topic regarding Head knowledge v Heart knowledge.
For many years I used to hold to a loose variant of the Streeter 4 Documentary hypothesis to account for the similarities and in places verbatim text between the Synoptic Gospels. In my variant Mark also made limited usage of Q.
/ /|\ \
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M –> Matthew Luke <– L
Whilst we have never uncovered the mysterious "Q" Source believed to be a collection of 'Sayings' that were used independently by Matthew and Luke (and Mark in my model), the Egerton Papyrus fragment – a gospel of sayings, certainly demonstrates that such a Sayings document could have existed. I used to firmly believe that Mark, Matthew and Luke could have met each other and even shared material that might explain some of the similarities. However, just because something may have been possible does not mean that it definitely happened. The more I read the more I am certain that the Synoptic Problem is an illusion because the gospels were written independently of one another with no interaction, in different Christian communities to suit different theological needs within the local church.
Luke mentions that he reviewed many accounts and yet does not name a single source, yet surely he would have done so had he known of Mark and Matthew, or even John for that matter. This is sufficient evidence that Luke wrote independently of the other gospel writers, otherwise surely he would have named his sources, especially the famed John Mark, the attributed author of Mark's gospel as the mouth piece of the chief apostle Peter and fellow Pauline travelling buddy. The only possible exception being the Mark-Matthew relationship, since 90% of Mark is found in Matthew. Personally I find it more probable that Matthew corrected and tidied up Mark's simplistic Greek, added more accurate descriptions of Jewish traditions and embellished Mark with additional oral and written material. Otherwise I find the alternative, that Mark made use of Matthew, near impossible to see how Mark could have deliberately omitted a fair chunk of Matthew that left out key details about Jesus, destroyed Matthew's polished Greek, for unknown reasons. I am sure that the gospel atttributed to Mark was the first to be written then possibly Matthew and John with Luke maybe doing several drafts between Matthew and John and after John.
Part of our problem is down to the simple fact that a lot of earlier manuscripts have just not survived or were deliberately destroyed under various edicts by Roman emperors or churches considering documents by rivals to be heretical in some way. Another curious fact I came across was that when Jews made copies of text in the first century AD, they would typically destroy the original, since the copy was now the latest version, probably a bit like printers usually only running the latest editions of a book. Whilst we may have about 150 documents up to the Fourth century, most of these are fragments. Our oldest P52, the famous scrap the size of a postit note from John's gospel in Coptic, is about 175 miles away from me in the John Rylands library at Manchester University.
Another major obstacle is that what we have in the New Testament documents that are effectively snapshots in time that were to written to address specific needs and concerns need within a local Christian community, living in a specific geographic region and culture. It is a little like us hearing only one side of someone having a conversation on a mobile phone. From these snapshots, various interpretations and doctrines have developed within the church and today are applied as some universal one-size -fits-all flavour of Chrisitanity to 21st century cultures that are very different to the ones the original recipients of letters wre addressed.
By far the biggest obstacle I foresee is down to our understanding of how the original sources used in the gospels were transmitted. Previous scholars seemed to view it all in a very simplistic "black and white" A copied text B and added Oral tradition C. We also presume that a text source must have been used where the wording is verbatim, and that it was an oral tradition where there are differences but the same general text outline. Donald Guthrie and F F Bruce demonstrate that Oral traditions played a bigger part than we give credit. In reality it looks like a far more complex mixture of various oral traditions and textual traditions were used for our gospels.
Some Scholars like Bart Erhman, do sometimes overplay their hand, which no doubt helps boost book sales, however he and many other scholars still have a case. Whilst many manuscript discrepancies will be down to paraphrasing text, spelling errors, tired eyes as you copy a manuscript, there are some clear indicators that text has been deliberately changed to promote catholic/orthodox doctrines, deter alternate beliefs and counter what they regarded as heresy. Taking the doctrine of The Trinity for example, the infamous Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8) from the King James version regarding "The Three witnesses being the Father, the word and Holy Spirit and these three are one", is a classic case of the Church deliberately altering text to support a core doctrine.
The Johannine Comma only appears in later Latin Manuscripts, so is not found in earlier Greek manuscripts. This was at a time when the church had exclusive access to the text, so controlled the interpretation and transmission of the bible to the illiterate, uneducated masses of Medieval Europe. Today most bible translations omit this text, or may put a reference to it in the footnotes. Yet the Anglican church relied on the King James bible for centuries to promote the Trinity. If you tell a lie long enough people eventually believe it. Even today, some 404 years after it was completed, the King James version is still a firm favourite amongst believers for its Shakespearean prose style, despite it's mass of poor translations. Whilst apologists will have an answer, I grow increasingly more suspicious that it is always put down to a 'marginal gloss' by a scribe making an 'honest mistake' for thinking that a comment in the margin was to be inserted into the text. I also grow weary of some apoligists claiming that this text must have existed in some ealrier Greek manuscript that has not survived, and since it is impossible to prove non-existence, it cannot be proved that such a manuscript did not exist, then it can remain a 'possible' explanation.
A lot of answers given by Evangelical Christian apologists seem to rely heavily on the inability to prove non-existence, because the absence of evidence for existence is not evidence of non-existence, so any 'explanation' along these lines remains a 'possibility' that then gets treated as a fact, since we cannot prove a negative existence. Other times, the answers are factually corect within a specific context, but that context is deliberately overlooked when it would weaken the argument or negate the answer. A typical example is that there are thousands of manuscripts that can demonstrate that the text of our New Testament was accurately copied and reliably transmitted. This is true, however, only with regard to manuscripts created by the process of Printing during the Middle Ages, that provided a consistent and standard method of generating multiple identical copies of a source document. The claim about reliable transmission and copying is demonstrably false when comparing the earliest hand written manuscripts.
I certainly would agree with you that it would look suspicious if the gospels were all word for word verbatim. However, they all portray a different Jesus. Mark is the action gospel, John is the reflective gospel. What was Jesus' attitude towards the Romans invaders? Luke is pro-Roman, the others present an indifferent Jesus. What was Jesus' attitude towards foreigners/gentiles? Luke portrays a very pro gentile – Jesus for everyone, whereas the others protray an elitist nationalist Jesus. When did a certain event take place when the same story appears in different places in each gospel. What day was Jesus crucified on? Who was crucified with him? Who witnessed it? What did Jesus say whilst on the cross? What frame of mind was he in? Mark has a very human terrified Jesus, whilst Luke has a cool laid back Jesus following a preordained divine plan and in charge of his own destiny. I won't add the differences between the resurrection accounts just now. So there are differences. The usual apologist answer has been along the lines of each gospel recorded different things, which is true to a point, until beleivers then do a mental Diatessaron and combine all four gospels, which gives the impression that Jesus said and did everything contained in all four gospels. Then we are back to our old typical answer "well the gospel of A didn't say that Jesus didn't do X or say Y" of trying to disproving a negative.
A classic place for contradictions is between the two conflicting geneaologies contianined in our modern Matthew and Luke. Here we have both internal and external contradictions to contend with. Internal Contradiction – Jesus cannot have any paternal human descent if his father is not human but the Holy Spirit. External contradiction – Jesus cannot be simultaneously descended according to the geanealogies of both Matthew and Luke. The genealogy of Matthew specifically names four women, two of whom are foreigners, not Jewish/Israelite. Unfortunately, Jewish lineage is always through the male racially pure uncontaminated blood lines, so who ever was responsible for originating the genealogy of Matthew was not a Jew, otherwise they would have known this. Paul, Mark and John mention nothing of special significance about Jesus's birth being prophecied, angellic announcements, visitations, or a virgin birth. Mark even uses the curious phrase "Jesus the Son of Mary" implying that Jesus was illegitimate, since sons were always referred to as the son of their father, as in James nad John the sons of Zebedee. Both genealogies attempts to show Jesus paternal human ancestors, but this cannot be if his father is not human but the Holy Spirit.
My own personal view is that the gospels of Matthew and Luke originally circuclated without these genealogies, birth narratives and infancy narratives, since I was very much inspired by Proto-Luke hypothesis, further supported by comments Ireneaus made about Marcion's version of Luke. Matthew and Luke reads perfetly well starting from the baptism. Remove the genealogies and birth narratives from Matthew and Luke and all four gospels then begin with the Baptismal stories. Others have claimed that early Christians attempted to enhance the credibility of Jesus by embellishing Matthew and Luke by giving Jesus a geneology and 'prophetic fulfilment'. There may be some truth in this but I'm not convinced as you will see why.
At the risk of sounding like a "mystic", my gut feeling is that something doesn't sit right with the geneolgies, especially Matthew's because it is too blatantly obvious that Jesus cannot be the genetic offspring of Joseph if he is fathered by the Holy Spirit. The most disturbing thing about the Genealogies in Matthew and Luke is that the contradictions are so impossible to overlook, that I would have expected them to have been harmonised by some even later scribe/copyist. So why didn't someone 'fix' things like they had in other texts to remove conradictions or prevent text being taken out of context or abused by rival Christians?
I'll let you in on one of my pet research projects, because one of my hypotheses is that the genealogy in Matthew is not really a genealogy, but is actually some kind of code or cipher containing a hidden message that was added later. The genealogy just looks too obviously wrong to be taken literally, so why include it? Unless it probably has some hidden meaning or message, that we've lost the knowledge to decipher. If Christianity was not tolerated by the Roman authorities, would Christian writers openly put some of their core ideas out there in the open? "He who has ears to hear …" would understand the secret hidden message. Is that why Paul exhorts believers to pay no attention to genealogies, because at face value they are not saying what we think they are saying? I speculate that we lost the ability to understand its true meaning when a copier from another community who was unfamiliar with Matthew, copied it, and in doing so rearranged the textual format either through translation on the fly or possibly in a different arrangement pattern, so the key to understanding the inner meaning of the text was lost.
Why do we have 4 gospels? Ireneaus said that the heretics have many gospels but we have four for the four winds and the four corners of the Earth. So selecting four gospels to run with is really a marketing excercise to promote catholic orthodox Christianity towards the end of the second century AD.
Regarding the various endings to Mark's gospel, I'm aware of possibly 5 known endings if we also include Morton Smith's hypothesis regarding a fragment of Clement mentioning a longer version of Mark that was edited down prevent text being abused by rival christian communities. Our oldest reliable Greek texts end at 16:8 where the women having seen an empty tomb were afraid and said nothing. The alternate endings are forgeries invented by later scribes, copyists and redactors, who did not like Mark's abrupt ending and lack of mentioning Resurrection, since the Resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity.
To anyone who claims that no significant theological or doctrinal point is adversely affected by ommiting these later endings, they are gravely mistaken. For if we dispense with these later endings, we also dispense with The Great Commission, beleivers being immune to snake bites and poisons, plus accoutns of hundreds of witnesses to the resurrection appearancs by Jesus. That means the whole evangelical missionary focus of Christianity is fiction. As I'm sure you are well aware, the King James Bible (that translation causing problems again) used the longest version ending at Mark 16:19, so for centuries the Anglican church and off shoot denominations like Methodism, has promoted the great missionary commission of evangelism (as well as the three witnesses that comprise the Trinity). Some denominations deliberately use poisonous snakes during their worship, as recently a Pastor from such a church in the USA died after being bitten during a service. I wonder if this denomination would ever have existed if they had known that their keynote verse about beleivers not being affected by snake bites or poison was a later forgery bolted on to Mark.
More important is the contradiction between the earliest text ending of Mark where the "women said nothing because they were afraid", and a longer ending where in the very next verse of the forged bolt on, the women tell the disciples. The typical apologist answer (I regularly used it when I was a beleiver) is usually that this is an 'apparent contradiction', yes the women were afraid at the time, but eventually plucked up the courage to tell someone they'd seen the resurrection as the following verse (first verse of the later ending bolt on) states. The author of this alternate ending obviously did not know that the testimony of a Jewish woman counts for nothing, otherwise they would have known this and not added verse 9 where the women gave testimony to what they'd seen and heard.
Apologies for the length of this but you seem very good at encouraging dialog 🙂