Head, Heart, and Compatibilism

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I just picked up a review copy of John Piper’s Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, because his views on the relationship between thinking and feeling have some bearing on my preparation for the dissertation defense.

As always with Piper, I was struck by how attentively he listens to the biblical text and asks questions that naturally arise from the text. The relationship between head and heart is one of those questions, one Piper tackles often in this book.

In one section, Piper has just been pointing out what theologians call the "noetic effects" of the fall—the distortion Adam’s fall has wreaked on our thinking. Paul, for example, says that lost people are "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” But he says more; he says that this in turn is “due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). In other words, the unregenerated person’s mind is bent in the wrong direction because his whole heart is. (Piper also finds evidence for this in Matt 16:1–4, and I encourage you to look for it there yourself!)

Then Piper makes these very helpful comments on the relationship of faith and reason, heart and head:

The fact that our minds cannot see the signs of Christ-exalting truth would seem to lead to the conclusion that reasoning and thinking are useless in coming to faith in Christ. But that is not the conclusion the Bible comes to.

The New Testament speaks throughout of the use of our minds in the process of Christian conversion and growth and obedience. For example, at least ten times in the book of Acts, Luke says that Paul’s strategy was to “reason” with people in his effort to convert them to Christ and build them up (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). And Paul said to the Corinthians that he would rather speak five understandable words with his mind to instruct others than ten thousand unintelligible words in a tongue (1 Cor. 14:19). He said to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). In other words, engaging the mind in the mental task of reading is a pathway into the mysteries of God.

Here we meet again the main point of this book about the relationship between our thinking and God’s illuminating. Recall that in 2 Timothy 2:7 Paul says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress “Think over what I say’ They emphasize the indispensable role of reason and thinking. And they often minimize the supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason without God’s illumining work.

But Paul will not be divided that way. And I am writing this book to plead that we follow Paul in this—that we not swerve to the right or the left, but embrace both human thinking and divine illumination. For Paul it was not either-or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Notice the little word for. This is one of those crucial connecting words that makes us ask the question: Why is it here? It beckons us to ponder.

This word “for” means that the willingness of God to give us understanding is the ground of our thinking, not the substitute for it. Paul does not say, “God gives you understanding, so don’t waste your time thinking over what I say.” Nor does he say, Think hard over what I say because it all depends on you, and God does not illumine the mind.” No. He emphatically makes God’s gift the ground of our effort. He makes God’s giving light the reason for our pursuing light. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.”

There is no reason to believe that a person who thinks without prayerful trust in God’s gift of understanding will get it. And there is no reason to believe that a person who waits for God’s gift of understanding without thinking about his Word will get it either. Both-and. Not either-or.

If Piper is always asking specific and careful questions about how Bible statements relate to each other, he is equally always giving answers similar to those of his mentor, Jonathan Edwards. The position Piper elucidates is compatibilism: God’s doing may be the foundation for my doing, but my doing is nonetheless essential. These seemingly contradictory truths are compatible, because the Bible asserts them both. Edwards writes,

In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all. For that is what produces, viz. our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.

What Edwards is saying should not be persuasive if it is not backed up by Scripture. I think Piper shows that it is.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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