The Myth of the Good Heart: Theology B

July 24, 2009 — Leave a comment

[This post is part of the Idolatry series]

The chapter in Waking the Dead entitled “The Heart of the Matter” is, as a whole, a bad attempt at confronting the idea that our hearts contain elements of evil even after conversion. After creating a straw man caricature on pgs. 61-62, Eldredge promptly knocks it down, but then erects something worse in its place. He rightly emphasizes that our hearts have in certain measure been set free (Rom 2:28-29), but then again, the problem is that he keeps talking. Based almost solely on Ezekiel 36:26, Eldredge tries to convince the unsuspecting reader that you now have a good heart.

Eldredge’s Argument Presented

To see the structure of his argument, it goes something like this:

  • Your heart of stone has been removed (Rom 2:28-29, Col 2:11)
  • You have been given a new heart (Ezek. 36:26)
  • Your body is the the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19)
  • Your heart is equivalent to the holy of holies (Eph 3:17)
  • God cannot dwell with evil (Ps. 5:4)
  • Therefore your new heart must be good and Jesus confirms and teaches this (Luke 6:44-45; 8:15)

Now, we’ll come back and pick this apart in just a minute but first, some hermeneutical matters. Some of this thinking arises from his misunderstanding of the word for “heart.” What is lost on Eldredge is that the word that we translate as “heart” in Hebrew and Greek means slightly different things just on its own, not to mention additional nuances it takes in context. In OT anthropology, “heart” carries the connotation of being the center of thought, desires, and will. In the NT, this idea is conveyed by referring to the mind. In the NT, “heart” is seen as being the seat of the affections and emotions and as stated above, mind is the center of thought. This would mean language like that presented in Ezekiel 36 would probably show up as say a passage talking about a renewed mind (Rom 12 for instance).

Eldredge’s Argument Examined

In light of this, Eldredge is very guilty of equivocating, that is, assuming in English any time he sees the word “heart,” it is referring to the same underlying reality. This is sometimes true, but sometimes not. He pinpoints that we received our old sinful nature from Adam, and receive a new nature from Christ (pg. 66), but misses the point that they now co-exist until we die. Eldredge concludes from the new heart language that now there is only one heart in you and that because the Holy Spirit is said to dwell within you, then that heart cannot be evil. Based solely on Ps. 5:4 he concludes that God cannot dwell where evil remains.

Unfortunately for Eldredge, this is not actually what the passage in question teaches, the verse in question actually reads, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (ESV). In Hebrew, suffixes are sometimes put at the end of verbs to indicate the person who is the object of the verb. In this particular passage, there is a 2nd person masculine suffix (“you” meaning God) at the end of the verb “to dwell.” This is constructed this way to indicate that someone is unable to dwell with God, i.e. people who are characterized by wickedness. If there was a 3rd person suffix at the end of the verb, then the emphasis would be on God not being able to dwell with evil.

But this is not the case.

This of course is problematic for the point Eldredge is trying to make, so he must find an obscure translation to support his meaing. I consulted several translations (NET, KJV, NIV, NASB, The Message) and then finally looked in the front cover of the book to see a multiplicity of translations relied upon throughout WTD. This is very strong sign of proof-texting, as one has to search for the right translation to match the meaning you want to make. Eldredge does this several places, but this is the most glaring.

The climax of the chapter involves Eldredge trying to show how Jesus actually teaches that one can have a good heart, but again falls flat on his face in light of the actual text of Scripture. Here we find Eldredge searching for obscure translations that read the way he wishes them to, rather than going with the sense embodied in the major English ones, or even the Greek text for that matter.

To see the examples next to one another in Luke 8:15, here’s what Eldredge quotes:

  • “The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word and retain it…” (NIV, TNIV)
  • “But as for the seed that landed on the good soil, these are the ones who, after hearing the word, cling to it with an honest and good heart…” (NET, cf NASB, NKJV, ESV)

One approach is taking the “honest and good heart” to describe the individual, the other is taking it to describe the manner of hearing.The latter is a more faithful rendering of the Greek as this is not an example of Jesus teaching “good heart theology” but rather He is using poetic expression to communicate receiving the truth and appropriating it. Eldredge is trying to read metaphysical claims into a passage whose plain sense does not support it.

Eldredge’s Argument Amended

If we go with a contextual, plain sense, canonical reading of the texts in question, the argument looks a bit like this:

  • There is a circumcision of the heart that is a work of the Spirit which involved a breaking of our captivity to sin, but not a removal of our sin nature (Rom 2:28-29, Col 2:11, which is quoted out of context and with a translation that supports his point).
  • Sometime in the future, after the nation of Israel has been regathered, God will completely purify them of their sins and give them an entirely new mindset (what appears as “heart” in English) and then place them in the land to vindicate His name before the nations (Ezek 36:24-32, of which v.26 was pulled out of context, the “you” in this passage is not you, at least not yet)
  • Your body is the temple for the Holy Spirit to dwell in and therefore you should not use your body to commit sins with it (1 Cor. 6:19). 1 Cor 3:16 does not refer to the individual since the “you” is plural in the Greek. The idea is more that God dwells among you all (the Body of Christ) as his temple.
  • Because God is holy, the wicked cannot dwell with him, therefore those who have been redeemed and restored must be continually purified by God in order to remain in close fellowship with Him. Psalm 5 is emphasizing very clearly that the righteous can enter into God’s presence, while the wicked cannot. There is no emphasis of God being unable to dwell where any wickedness remains.
  • Jesus teaches that some people receive the Word genuinely and respond accordingly. He uses the imagery of a good heart without focusing on whether or not a person has a “good heart.” Jesus also wisely points out that our actions flow from our hearts (Luke 6:44-45) and so if you still sin, there is wickedness still remaining in your heart. Since I think we all can agree that we do still sin against God, according to what Jesus actually teaches, this is because our heart still to some extent remain wicked even after conversion.

Conclusion

One can readily see at this point that when the passages are put in context, they don’t flow in such a neat little argument that Eldredge presents. As is most disappointing with Eldredge, even his emphasis on the heart is tainted by misconceptions of its use in Scripture. What will lead us back home to the reality of the heart is to see clearly how one can get it so wrong. When he says that “The subject of the heart is addressed in the Bible more than any other topic,” he probably came to this conclusion doing a search in a concordance. He pinpoints that the heart is focused on even more than worship, which demonstrates his ignorance of context, for most of the mentions of “heart” in Scripture have to do with worship. Indeed, worship is the more likely the subject addressed most often in the Bible, it is just that the heart is the part of man that is construed as worshiping. The heart is always laid bare before God and its desires, thoughts and intentions all reflect who or what we are worshiping.

That is exactly back where we need to be in order to continue, for worship and misplaced worship is the issue of the Bible. Our hearts are prone to wander even after conversion and a theology of a good heart can’t account for this at all. Jesus teaches us that our behavior flows from what is stored in our heart (Luke 6:44-45) and since we know that our behavior is a mixture of good and evil, our hearts must still contain a mixture of good and evil. As John Calvin noted, we create idols all the time, this is the essence of our depravity still effecting our hearts and lives. But Jesus did come to redeem our hearts, it is just not quite the neat little solution that Eldredge presents and even his presentation erects just another idol of the heart, one that doesn’t go down easily.

Yourself.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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