Head and Heart

Michael S. Horton
Friday, March 15th 2024
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Mar/Apr 2024

Throughout church history, many have tried to identify the one mysterious thing within us that makes us truly human. Often, that special thing has been identified as our soul or even a specific capacity of the soul. Medieval schools debated which capacity: the Dominicans (following Aquinas) held to the priority of the intellect, while the Franciscans (following Scotus) gave precedence to the will or affections. According to the Dominicans, the will chooses that which the intellect already approves,while the Franciscans insist that love leads to knowledge. This disagreement over the core of what makes us human spilled over into a practical contrast between the good life as contemplative (studying and meditating) or active (loving and serving).

For his part, John Calvin was intentionally vague about the head-heart academic debate. Calvin scholars disagree over whether he was an intellectualist or a voluntarist. Wary of entering the fray, Calvin preferred to consider the soul as exercising various “powers” simultaneously: sense, intellect, and desire or will (Inst. 1.15.6). As in the Bible, he identified the soul with the heart (1.15.7; 2.2.7, 12; 2.3.7; 2.5.15).

Calvin’s overarching category for properly ordered human life was piety. Piety is assured faith, which involves knowledge, assent, and trust; the whole person is engaged and refuses all false choices between spirituality and activism. Thus Calvin can say of a doctrine, “Justification by faith . . . is the sum of all piety” (3.15.7). He even called his Institutes, a primer on Christian teaching, a “summary of piety” (3.3.1, 16).

Like Luther, Calvin turned our focus from looking within to looking outside of ourselves to discover the one thing that makes us who we really are. The whole human being is created in God’s image. Likewise, the whole person is corrupted by sin, and the whole person set free in Christ, the true and perfect man.

In our fallen condition, we’re always tempted to search for something in us that makes us human that remains relatively untainted by sinful corruption. Yet Paul taught in Romans 10: “God does not command us to ascend into heaven, but, because of our weakness, he descends to us.” Still today, God descends all the way to where we live, through ordinary human language, water, bread, and wine. His landing place is not any particular aspect of us uniquely suitable to welcome him, but the whole person. It is his external word and sacraments that sweetly incline our hearts toward him, producing faith,that generates loveand bears the fruit of good works. Here, there is no division between head and heart. It is the whole person who receives Christ and who loves and serves others as Christ loves us.


  • Calvin on Ps 8:3 (CR LIX:54); a key summary is found in Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.7.

  • Calvin on Romans 10, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 19, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 381–407; cf. Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 203, on Pss. 42:2; 24:7.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, March 15th 2024

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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