Heart, Soul, (Mind) and Strength?

OK…so it’s been a while (and by “while” I mean “year”)…  Sorry about that…

In my efforts at reform, I thought that in addition to trying to offer installments of the perhaps-one-day-a-book, I’d post some of my answers to theological questions people send.

The other day I received the following:

Why is it in the Old Testament, the commandment reads:  “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, NRSV), but the New Testament quotes Jesus using “heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Luke 10:27, cf., Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30).  I understand that one was written in Hebrew and the other in Greek.  Does that account for the whole difference?  “Might” would seem to indicate “whole-hearted effort,” while mind seems to indicate a more philosophical response.  Is there more to the story?

I think this is a great question, particularly because – as you know – I think love stands at the heart of Christian discipleship.  If we wish to grow to maturity, it will come by means of loving God as scripture describes.

If you want to hear some sermons I preached on the subject, click here and look for the sermons dates (Aug. 22-Sept. 12, 2010).  But here is how I replied to the e-mail:

The short answer is that what the OT is trying to say (and Jesus is agreeing with) is that we should love God with the fullness of ourselves.

Unlike the Greeks (and many today), the ancient Hebrews did not think of humans as a collection of parts (bodies, minds, souls…) but as persons – as integrated wholes.  It was the Greek philosophers who first began to carve people up into pieces. For them the metaphysics of what distinguished one thing from another was key to understanding the cosmos.  Thus questions like:  What makes a tree and tree and not a human?  After all, both have life.  Both have material presence.  Both require sustenance.  Yet they are quite distinct, particularly with regard to consciousness.  Both have bodies, but humans have something more (and off we go with discussions of mind and soul).  Greeks could spend a lot of time on stuff like this.

By such measures, the Hebrews were far less metaphysical, though the OT clearly demonstrates deeply philosophical questions, particularly with regard to ethics (not just morality, but how to life wisely – e.g., Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes…).  For an ancient Hebrew there was not much interest in what gave trees their essential tree-ness.  What mattered was that humans bear the image of God in creation.  That is, humans have been created with the ability to engage in intimate relationship with God.  God cares about the trees.  But to humanity is given the ability to experience the the love of God and to respond (in love for God and for each other).

Thus the Hebrews understood – like the Greeks – that people have thoughts and feelings and the ability to act.  And they were not unaware  that thoughts were different than feelings were different from actions.  But a Hebrew would never have imagined that that a person could be a person without all of these traits.  Where a Greek could imagine such a thing a pure Reason, a Hebrew could not.  A Hebrew would never have spoken of a disembodied soul or a action devoid of emotion.  People are people and they come as a package.  We may have different dimensions of our selves, but we are always a self.

All that to say:   In the OT, when God commands love with heart, soul and might, what God is saying is: You shall be entirely devoted to YHWH your God. You shall not worship anything else, whether by action, or intention, or affection.  It is as though God is saying: You shall love YHWH with all your willpower and with all your passion and with all your behavior and with all your money and with all your work and with all your devotion to your family and with all your prayers and with all your singing and with all your artwork and with all your philosophy and with all your travel and with all your gardening…and even the kitchen sink.

When, centuries later this is translated from Hebrew (OT) into Greek (NT), we the NT writers were confronted with the problem that what the Hebrews mean by “heart” (seat of the will and willpower) and what the Greeks mean by “heart” (seat of emotion) is different.  Thus to convey the Hebrew idea of the totality of a person, the NT writers switch to the Greek equivalent of that same idea (keeping in mind that Jesus spoke Aramaic [form of Hebrew], so all the gospel writers are very consciously rendering Hebrew ideas into Greek language).

So the NT writers are not adding some new dimension of loyalty to God that the OT did not envision or articulate. Both are saying: Love YHWH with your everything!  The different vocabulary is simply because there is one way to say it in Hebrew, and another way you say it in Greek.

Potato, potahhhtoh.

Hope that helps!