Beyond Function: A Biblical Understanding of the Mind (2023)

by Pastor Mark Chin


Where do religious thoughts and impulses come from and why? With the advent of new dynamic neuroimaging techniques such as petscanning, neuroscientists like David Linden and Michael Trimble are now eagerly attempting to furnish the world with the answers.[1] Their quest to locate in the brain a definitive neurobiological source for religious thought highlights three modern scientific assumptions about the mind of man:

  1. the human mind is merely the higher faculty of the brain,
  2. the functions of the human mind such as thinking, understanding, desiring, or judging are biologically generated and thus synonymous with the “higher” functions of the human brain, [2] and,
  3. the answers to the riddle of spirituality in the human mind lies within, not without.

Hopefully, most conservative Christians would object to such assumptions about the mind of man along with their implied scientific reduction of spiritual thought (or for that matter sin, salvation, and sanctification) to evolutionary aberrations of neurochemical impulses. For the Christian, the mind is something much more than the sum of the brain’s neurochemical transactions. Yet in spite of such a conviction, why is the conservative Christian’s working definition of the human mind so remarkably similar to the modern secular definition? The Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible defines the mind as “the part of the human being in which thought takes place, and perception and decisions to do good, evil, and the like come to expression.”[3] Dr. Zemek describes the mind of man as the seat of mentality, consciousness, intelligence, emotion and will.[4] By comparison, the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the mind is almost identical, referring to the mind as “The seat of consciousness, thought, volition, and feeling or a pattern or way of thinking or feeling.”

The similarity can be accounted for by the fact that contemporary Christians and secular evolutionary scientists have both chosen to narrowly describe and define the mind primarily in empirical terms of observable function (i.e., what the mind does). The conviction of this writer is that a modern empirical focus on observable function is inadequate for a true understanding of the human mind. Scripture’s teaching on the mind of man extends well beyond observable function, distinguishing its definition of the mind from that of the modern world by describing it in terms of divine design, divine relationship, and divine purpose. It does so for good reason. The world attributes to the mind a primary role in the identity, behavior, and destiny of man. The Bible attributes to the mind a critical role in sin, salvation, and sanctification. How one understands the mind of man directly affects how one understands and addresses man’s relationship with his Creator. The stakes are immeasurably high. Christians can ill afford to conform to the the modern world, especially in its understanding of the mind of man.


How does God’s word define and describe the mind of man? In the absence of a specific Hebrew word for the mind[5] and with infrequent mention of it in the Gospels, answers to this question often focus on the apostle Paul’s teaching. With the Koine Greek word for the mind, nous, being found almost exclusively in Paul’s epistles, it would initially appear that a study of the mind should center primarily on Paul’s writings.[6] However appearances, as the cliché goes, can often be deceiving.

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The modern functional description of the mind as the seat of man’s volitional and rational functions is often drawn from Paul’s use of the word nous. Based on Paul’s writings, four major functions have been used to define the mind:

  1. Disposition, inner orientation or moral attitude (Eph 4:17),
  2. Practical reason, i.e., moral consciousness as it concretely determines will and action (Rom 7:22-25),
  3. Understanding, i.e., the mind as the faculty of knowledge and the seat of wisdom (Phil 4:7),
  4. Thought, judgment, and resolve (Rom 14:5).[7]

However, the reference to such functions is not unique to Paul or his use of the word nous. The same functions are found in the use of the Greek and Hebrew word for heart, kardia in the NT ( disposition, Lk 16:15; will, 2 Cor 9:7; understanding, Mk 7:21; resolve, Ac 11:23) and leb and lebab in the OT (disposition, Gen 6:5; will, Jer 23:20; understanding, Prv 19:8; resolve, Is 10:7). Furthermore, the LXX, the version of the Scriptures most familiar to Paul’s original Hellenized and Gentile audience, also used the word nous six times as a translation for the Hebrew word leb or lebab.[8] Clearly Paul, a man of the Scriptures and, prior to his conversion, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, was not developing a unique functional theology of the mind to be understood apart from the context of the entirety of Scripture. His use of the word nous connects his readers to the grand theocentric OT anthropology of the heart, “the king of anthropological terms” and must therefore be understood in light of this relationship.


The heart, leb/ lebab, in the OT refers to the whole inner person, and is distinct but not separated from the soma, the physical component of man.[9] In its fullest sense it is a broad entity that encompasses a wide range of functions, including but not limited to the faculties of thinking, judging, understanding, and conscience – those that are most often associated from the NT onward with the mind. In accordance with this OT understanding, the LXX, communicating biblical truths to Greek speaking Jews, deemed the heart as the organ of noein – thinking, judging, understanding, and willing (Jn 12:40; Is 6:10).[10] From a NT perspective, the Greek term nous or mind represented the intellectual or cognitive aspect of the OT concept of the heart.[11]

This is demonstrated when Jesus quotes to His NT audience the first and greatest command of Dt 6:5, “…you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mk 12:30).” Everyone present, including the Scribes, accepted his quotation as the word of God (Mk 12:33), even though His quotation includes a fourth noun (mind) not present in the original Hebrew text.[12] Far from adding something new to the Scriptures, Jesus use of the term “mind” emphasizes a particular intellectual aspect or agency of the heart that is understood to be present in the original Hebrew text in Dt 6:5. As such, the mind is not an agent or a faculty of the physical brain, which, for the Greeks, would have been identified with the soma, but rather it is an agent or faculty of the heart as defined by the OT.


If, then, one is to understand the mind in the same way that both Jesus and Paul did, one must understand it within the context of the anthropology of the OT, specifically the OT anthropology of the heart. In sharp contrast to the empirical compartmentalized anthropology of the modern world, the OT anthropology of the heart is a theocentric and holistic one, built upon three key presuppositions. These presuppositions direct our understanding of the mind beyond mere function.

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  1. The first presupposition begins with a very simple truth, “ In the beginning God…” It is God, by His will and word, who has designed and created the whole of man, including his heart and mind.
  2. The second presupposition is that God designed and created man, with all his complexities, as a unified whole, not as a bundle of separate parts functioning independently of one another.[13]
  3. The third presupposition is that God has designed man, including his heart and his mind, for a particular divine purpose. Ultimately that purpose is to glorify God by being a true image or copy of the Sovereign Creator (Gen 1:27,28).

In light of these presuppositions, the Scripture teaches that the heart, as a reference to the whole inner person, serves to describe the core relationship between God and man.[14] It is the tabernacle of the soul, the entity of deepest connection or opposition to its Creator, the place where the glory of God resides in the life of the saints. The mind then, as an inseparable agent of the heart, participates at the deepest level of man in this relationship with God. This truth is borne out in Paul’s use of the word nous, where it is quite clear that his references to the mind are made in terms of this central relationship between the whole of man and God (e.g., Rom 1:28, 12:2, Phil 4:7, etc.). He identifies the mind of man as the core repository of the truth of God or the lies of man.

Within a holistic Scriptural framework, the heart never functions in isolation from the rest of man but is dynamically interwoven with the spirit, the soul, and the body. Scripture informs us that the heart relates to the rest of man by serving as the “mission control center” of man.[15] The heart directs the whole of man (Prov 16:23; Isa 32:6).[16] The mind, then, is the faculty or agency used by the heart to do so. The whole of man, including his behavior and his physical body, is directed through the thinking, understanding, judging, and will of the mind (Col 1:21). The whole of man is transformed by the renewing of his mind (Rom 12:2). So then the brain, as part of the body or soma, is a servant of the mind and not its master, as Linden or Trimble would lead us to believe. Furthermore, the nature of a man is the fruit of his heart and mind, not the fruit of his neurotransmitters or the chemical balance of his brain.

From the perspective of divine design, the purpose of the mind is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by Jesus in Mk 12:30, “… and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The mind, with its capacity to think, understand, weigh, and will, is a faculty that was designed to enable man to love His Creator and Savior in all truth. This includes providing man with the capacity to know God, by understanding His truth and by proving His will (Lk 24:45 ; Rm 12:2). It also includes the capacity to direct the whole of man, including his behavior and his body, to serve God rightly and fruitfully as an expression of His truth and His love (Eph 4:23,24). It is a faculty which, through the renewing power of the Spirit, allows man to fulfill his ultimate purpose – to glorify God by being like Him, walking in His footsteps, thinking His thoughts, and loving with His love (Eph 4:23, 24), essentially living in union with his sovereign Creator.


Where do religious thoughts and impulses come from? Scripture teaches us that they come from the heart by way of the mind. However, Scripture does far more than just identify the mind as the producer of thoughts, impulses, decisions, or behavior. Beyond function, Scripture informs us that the mind is a faculty or agency of the heart of man, a creation of God, designed to be the tabernacle of His truth and wisdom, enabling man to know and love God entirely, directing the whole of man to be one with His Creator, for the praise of His grace and the proclamation of His glory in Christ.


[1] Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., D.Sc., “Seeking God in the Brain – Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Functions.” The New England Journal of Medicine 358:1-5 [Jan 03, 2008]: 6.

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[2] Snyder, in the above cited article, notes that Linden attempts to tie religious impulses or beliefs that defy “everyday perception of reality” to speculative neural mechanisms.

[3] Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Mind/Reason.”

[4] George J. Zemek, “ Aiming the Mind: A Key to Godly Living”, Grace Theological Journal 5/2 (1984), 205-207.

[5] Theo J.W. Kunst, “The Implications of Pauline Theology of the Mind for the Work of the Theologian” [doctoral thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979], 6.

[6] Of the 23 times Nous is used in the NT, 21 are in the apostle Paul’s writings.

[7] TDNT, 958-959.

[8] Ibid, 953.

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[9] BTDB, 528.

[10] TDNT, 950.

[11]Theo J.W. Kunst, “The Implications of Pauline Theology of the Mind for the Work of the Theologian” [doctoral thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979], 15.

[12] The literal translation of the Hebrew text for Dt 6:5 contains only three nouns. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus’ quotation includes a fourth noun, dianoia – a compound derivative and synonym for nous, translated as “mind.”

[13] BTDB, 528.

[14] Zemek, A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Grace, 17.

[15] Ibid, 16.

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[16] TDNT, 950.


What is the biblical perspective of the mind? ›

Biblical perspectives see the mind (or thought life) informing a person's focus and eventually the actions. The beginning of Romans 12 illustrates this perspective, where Paul exhorts believers to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds.” The Greek word used here is nous, the intellect or the understanding.

What is an example of a stronghold in the mind? ›

A stronghold is a way of thinking and feeling that has developed a life of its own in a person. It might be a rut of depression or recurring unbelief or habitually bad temper. That was a stronghold in my life, but with God's help, not any more!

What is the meaning of Psalm 119 11? ›

When Psalm 119:11 speaks of hiding God's word in our hearts, however, it is not referring only to memorization. This phraseology refers to what we might call internalizing God's word: reading it, studying it, believing it, marinating in it, being filled with it, being shaped by it.

What is job's definition of understanding? ›

“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

What is the function of the mind? ›

The mind has three basic functions: thinking, feeling, and wanting. The three functions of the mind — thoughts, feelings and desires — can be guided or directed either by one's native egocentrism or by one's potential rational capacities. Egocentric tendencies function automatically and unconsciously.

What does God's word say about our minds and our thinking? ›

Romans 8:5–7

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

How do you hold your thoughts captive? ›

How Do You Take Your Thoughts Captive?
  1. Look for problem areas in your life. ...
  2. Recognize the lies you are believing. ...
  3. Look for what God says on the subject. ...
  4. Run your thoughts through Philippians 4:8. ...
  5. Practice redirecting your thoughts every time you notice the lie pops up.
Jul 21, 2023

What are strongholds in 2 Corinthians 10 4? ›

So, what is a stronghold, according to 2 Corinthians 10:4-5—the only passage in Scripture that uses the expression? Strongholds are: Arguments raised against the knowledge of God. Lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God.

Have the power to break strongholds? ›

2 Corinthians 10:3-4 (ESV) -- For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We live each day in the flesh and world.

Why is Psalm 119 so special? ›

The psalmist uses eight different words to describe God's word (law, word, judgments, testimonies, etc.), and he uses at least one of them in every verse except two (verses 122 and 132). And the third way this psalm is unique is its length. You may have heard that Psalm 119 is the “longest chapter” in the Bible.

What is the main message of Psalms 11? ›

The general theme is that godly people can trust the Lord, so they should stand firm against evil. If God-honoring authority is lost, there is nothing more good people can do. The opening lines of the psalm are a rhetorical question.

What is Romans 8 39? ›

neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What does God mean by understanding? ›

• Understanding – ability to translate meaning from the facts (Psalm 119:130, Proverbs 3:5-7, 18:2, Philippians 1:9-10). • Wisdom – knowing what to do next, given an understanding of the facts and circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:1, James 3:17).

What is the difference between knowledge and understanding? ›

The word knowledge refers to skills/information/facts that one gathers through education or experience. The word understanding refers to the ability of someone to understand something. It is used as Noun. It is used as Noun and Adjective.

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom and understanding? ›

Wisdom is the quality of having a good judgement based on knowledge. It is popularly known as the ability to discern. If knowledge is power, wisdom is your choice to use or apply that power. Understanding is the ability to understand one's knowledge and choices.

What is difference between mind and brain in Bible? ›

4:16-18). The organ of the brain is a physical, outer-person reality. It is not the mind, and it stands in contrast to the mind. To be most biblical—which makes us most accurate—we should speak of the brain as the outer person and the mind as the inner person.

What is the difference between the brain and the mind? ›

Brain refers to the neurons, cells, and chemicals that govern activities of the organism. Mind is often considered consciously aware perceptions and thoughts.

What is the meaning of the god of the mind? ›

Manish (also Maneesh) (Devanagari: मनिष or मनीष) is a common Hindu masculine given name that literally means "The God of the Mind" or the one who has controlled and mastered one's mind (representing an intellectual, genius, etc.), derived from the Sanskrit words "man" (mann) which means Mind and "ish" which refers to ...

How do you change your mind according to the Bible? ›

Five Steps to Renewing Your Mind
  1. Step 1: Ask the Lord to guard and direct your mind. ...
  2. Step 2: Recognize the source of self-focused and self-defeating thoughts. ...
  3. Step 3: Replace self-focused thinking with a God-focused mindset. ...
  4. Step 4: Rest in the truth that you are accepted in Jesus Christ. ...
  5. Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 daily.
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