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At the heart of the matter

Has meaning of the word changed? Luther may disagree.

Where’s your heart? In your chest, of course; but where else? Church and Bible language concerning the heart show that we assign great spiritual significance to this organ — already crucial as the pump that keeps us alive.

We ask ourselves and others: Is your heart still in it? Have you lost heart? Are you downhearted? Do you need heartfelt encouragement?

All this makes February and its festival of St. Valentinus a good opportunity to ponder what hearts mean to Lutherans.

In fact, what Martin Luther meant by “heart” is the subject of recent research — helping us think about where in our own physical being the Spirit moves and makes its presence felt.

John H. Reynolds was formerly chief financial officer for Healthfirst Inc.

Even as Luther prayed and pondered upon a right relationship with God, others were rethinking anatomy.

The researcher is John H. Reynolds, a onetime chief financial officer at Healthfirst Inc., a New York City health-maintenance organization. He left his job mid-career to go to divinity school.

The former Lutheran, now a practicing Roman Catholic, wrote on Luther and the heart for his 2010 doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Reynolds lives in Yonkers, New York, and is seeking a teaching job.

The heart is now an object of science, but much of its vast meaning from Luther’s day persists.

Evil and youth

A change of heart? In Luther’s time, and maybe still, that means complete transformation, perhaps well beyond anything rational. Luther’s theology, Reynolds explains, “always draws us back to something more than reason. It always brings us back to Christ.”

The Bible, of course, is full of heart. “The imagination of a man’s heart,” says Genesis, “is evil from his youth.” Deuteronomy 6 adds: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

In the New Testament, 1 John, well, heartens us: “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.”

And yet Jesus sends a blast in Mark 7 that may still singe Lutherans in the pews: “Well hath [Isaiah] prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’”

No wonder the image of the heart is prominent in the family coat of arms Luther designed.

Cutting up corpses

Even as Luther prayed and pondered upon a right relationship with God, others were rethinking anatomy. Physicians and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, were dissecting human corpses — not always legally — and finding the wonders of God’s work.

The Luther Seal includes a heart (and a cross) at its center. Graphic provided by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

In Luther’s time the meaning of “heart” was in transition. Consequently, scholar Reynolds has thought hard about Luther’s meaning in use of the word. The understanding, says Reynolds, is “complex and varied” — which is, he adds, “the key point.”

First and foremost, Reynolds says, the biblical meaning was crucial to Luther. In the Old Testament, Reynolds says, “the heart is the seat of both thought and the will” — functions that by the 16th century were identified not with heart but with soul.

Luther thought faith resided in the heart.

So for Luther, “heart” is a synonym for soul — and this understanding places the medieval concept of soul under a biblical theology of divine sovereignty, Reynolds argues, because in the Hebrew scriptures, the heart is “always under the sovereignty of God.”

Meanwhile, Luther thought faith resided in the heart. Reynolds notes Luther following St. Paul in Romans 10: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

According to Luther, Reynolds adds, God’s work of justification, the creation of faith, also happens in the heart. Luther likewise places spirit in the heart, writing: “The hearts of all men are in God’s almighty hand.”

Just a muscle?

Is it different now? Is faith only a feeling? Or is faith total transformation, body and soul? Has the notion of God acting in the heart been lost? Where is it now — the stuff that Luther thought was in the heart?

Maybe we can answer that only for ourselves. In any case, then and now, this matter of the heart is, well, at the heart of things.

Yet maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about the vital muscle that keeps us going. “For God,” notes 1 John, “is greater than our hearts.”

How is your own heart just now? Is it the seat of your emotions? Cover to cover, the Bible calls it the place where we encounter evil, and good, and God — and the place where God acts.

Yet your doctor treats it merely — merely?!? — as the vital pump that keeps you going. And of course your doctor’s professional opinion is indeed what might in actual fact keep you going.

So who is right? The Bible? Medical science?

Maybe that is playing the devil’s game. In any case, during this month of deep winter, clearing of snow, pounding pulses, heavy breathing, approaching Lent and the feast of St. Valentine — mind your heart.

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