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Thoughts in the heart—proof of bogus science in the Bible?

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While it’s not unusual for sceptics to accuse the Bible of scientific errors, some might be surprised to hear a professing evangelical doing the same. Yet influential author and Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, John H. Walton claims the Bible is mistaken about physiology. He says Scripture depicts the heart and intestines as organs involved in thought, a role that properly belongs to the brain. Joshua W. from the U.S. asked for our response to Walton’s claim, and Keaton Halley of CMI–US obliged.


I have been doing some research about John Walton’s “Lost World” series, specifically on Genesis 1, and I have not been able to find an answer to a point he addresses regarding ancient thoughts on physiology. He mentions that Israel, like the rest of the neighboring nations, regarded specific organs as the seat of emotion and/or intelligence. He states that God did not correct their error or teach them about the function of the brain, but rather used their understanding to teach them and instruct them. They were not given revelatory knowledge about the brain or how emotion is actually processed. Walton connects this accommodationist thinking to how God taught creation within Israel’s view, stating that God didn’t correct their thinking about a flat earth or solid dome for the sky. I disagree with his view that the Bible teaches these two views. However, I can’t find an answer about ANE views on physiology and God accommodating to such views. Is his information/point valid?

Hi Joshua,

I briefly discussed this in my review of one of Walton’s books, which you can find at: John Walton reimagines Adam and Eve. I’d encourage you to read that for a start.

Walton is claiming that Scripture affirms something that isn’t true, the idea that the heart is literally an organ used in thinking (see pp. 18–21, 201 of his book on Adam and Eve). He tries to get around the problem that this raises for the doctrine of inerrancy by abusing the concept of ‘accommodation’. In his view, the Bible can affirm falsehoods as long as it doesn’t authoritatively affirm falsehoods. How do we tell the difference? He says we can dismiss biblical affirmations as long as no theology is built on them. But this is a rule he’s imposing on Scripture, not something drawn from Scripture itself. To say that Scripture, which is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), nevertheless errs in non-theological matters is itself a theological claim, so Walton hasn’t gotten himself off the hook. His view certainly does not fit with the classical understanding of inerrancy. See The Bible and Hermeneutics. But it’s not apparent to me how Walton decides what is and what isn’t theological. The ambiguity in this term, I think, creates a large opening through which one could welcome in all sorts of theologically liberal ideas. Indeed, some would use this same ‘accommodation’ concept to suggest that Scripture also affirms falsehoods when it comes to history, morality, and God’s nature. For a case in point, see Gay ‘marriage’ and the consistent outcome of Genesis compromise.

Since Walton is making the claim that Scripture affirms erroneous things about physiology, the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate this. But he’s merely asserted his position, not shown it to be true or even presented arguments for it, as far as I’m aware. How does he know these were not idiomatic expressions or figures of speech? Even if, historically, these expressions came out of a wrong understanding, or if many people in the contemporary culture did have a wrong understanding of physiology, or even if the Bible writers themselves personally did have some false beliefs about these things, God still could have ensured that what they wrote as Scripture was only intended by both the human and divine authors to be taken figuratively.

Today, we use similar expressions which may have originated in a false understanding in some cases. Yet when we use these, we are not affirming falsehoods. If I say, “I thank my lucky stars”, this doesn’t prove I accept the idea that luck is real or that stars influence my life events. If I tell someone to put on their thinking cap, it doesn’t mean I believe headgear really helps one to think better. We also have plenty of our own bodily idioms that we don’t take literally, including a broken heart, a joyful heart, a change of heart, “I love you with all my heart”, fear behind our eyes, fear in our bones, blood boiling, spleen venting, a gut feeling, etc.

When I read Scripture passages about acts of thought or will or emotions taking place in the heart or kidneys or bowels, it seems to me that these things are being treated figuratively as well. Perhaps because these organs are deep within us, they metaphorically stand for our essence or soul, the seat of our mental states—including thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and acts of will. This figurative understanding has support from the fact that these mental states are sometimes assigned to different organs, as though they are interchangeable, even though the kidneys may predominantly emphasize the emotional aspect, and the heart the volitional aspect, etc. Note, for example, how the heart, the kidneys, and the bowels can all be in emotional distress (Psalm 73:21; Jeremiah 4:19). Both the heart and the kidneys can rejoice (1 Samuel 2:1; Psalm 13:5; Proverbs 23:16). The heart, kidneys, and bowels can all be aligned with moral uprightness or moral corruption (Psalm 26:1–2; 40:8; Proverbs 6:18; Revelation 2:23). This sort of overlap is no surprise if these statements are figurative.

Furthermore, the Bible often uses other body parts figuratively as though agency resides in them as well. Is it literally the tongue that lies (Prov 6:17)? Or is it the lips that speak (Prov 23:16)? Do eyelids slumber (Proverbs 6:4)? No, these body parts are just representative of the person who lies, speaks, or sleeps. In these cases, the body parts were obviously chosen because they are involved in these activities. But such associations could be quite loose or themselves symbolic, not always causal. Lips may be used in the production of speech, but eyelids do not produce sleep. The association of eyelids and sleep has to do with the fact that eyelids are typically closed during sleep, that’s all.

Likewise, if the ‘heart’ is used to represent our ‘inner self’, then there’s no problem ascribing thought to the heart. Or, even if the heart was once mistakenly believed by the ancients to be involved in cognition, this doesn’t prove the Bible writers intended their use of these expressions to be taken as affirmations of this incorrect physiology. They could be employing cultural concepts without meaning to embrace all the baggage of their historical development.

I think this becomes more evident when you try to apply Walton’s perspective to particular passages. In Psalm 16:7, to give a literal translation, David says, “in the night also my kidneys instruct me.” Does anyone imagine that David literally thought his physical kidneys were secreting wise instruction? It seems far more likely to me that the kidneys were being used here as a literary device which stands for something like David’s conscience or his inner contemplations that enable him to discern wisdom. Or, when John instructed Christians not to close up their “bowels of compassion” (1 John 3:17), was he really claiming that the feeling of pity was a product of our physical organs? I see no compelling reason to think John literally believed or asserted that compassion was generated by bowels. If Walton or others have arguments in favour of the literalistic view, I’d like to hear them. Until then, it appears to me that references to the heart, the kidneys, and the bowels as the locus of thought, will, and emotions were intended to be figurative.

Walton is also wrong about the flat earth, solid sky, and heavenly ocean ideas, so there’s no need to embrace his position that the Bible ‘accommodates’ faulty ancient science in other areas either. See the following articles for detailed arguments:

Best wishes,
Keaton Halley

Published: 25 April 2023