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Mind vs Brain

Truth In Love 360

What is the difference between the brain and the mind, biblically speaking?

Apr 25, 2022

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I’m delighted to have with me, Dr. Greg Gifford. He’s the Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University. He earned his PhD in Biblical Counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling from The Master’s University, and a BA in Pastoral Ministry from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He has worked as both a full-time biblical counselor and an associate pastor before joining The TMU faculty, counseling in both nonprofit and local church settings. Greg has also served as a Captain in the United States Army from 2008-2012, after which he transitioned to counseling ministry. His research interests are the influencing role of habits to desires and also post-traumatic stress disorder. He has authored two books, Heart and Habits, which was released in 2021, and Helping Your Family Through PTSD in 2017. He’s a certified biblical counselor with ACBC and is also a fellow as well, and he’s an ordained minister of the Gospel. When not teaching, Greg enjoys counseling, serving his local church as a pastor, working on his Harley—Greg, I’m not sure about that—and then wrestling with his three boys, which I love.

Brother, I’m so grateful that you’re here. We’ve known each other for quite a few years and I’m so grateful for your ministry, it’s just fun to see what the Lord is doing with you and your ministry and the work that’s happening here at The Master’s University. So, brother, thank you for joining me today. 

Greg Gifford: Yes, thanks for having me. 

Dale Johnson: Well listen, we leave those difficult topics for the right people, and today you happen to be the right person to talk about this issue of mind versus brain. The topics in this sphere are many and the questions that people have, particularly as it relates to biblical counseling, are often under this umbrella of mind versus brain and how we think about the role of the body or the role of the material relative to the immaterial. So I want us to sort of dive in here, and obviously in a podcast we’re not going to cover comprehensively or exhaustively all the things that we wish we could, just to set some framework here.

I want to start off by just sort of setting our parameters. What are we talking about when we talk about the brain and the mind? Are they or are they not the same thing? 

Greg Gifford: Okay, so I want to start big picture with, first of all, we’re seeking to understand a biblical perspective on these, so we could go back to maybe a classical understanding or a secular understanding, or whatever different posture you want to take, but we want to try to establish a biblical perspective on the mind versus the brain. The reason that’s important is because there’s confusion on the mind. Is it the brain? When we say things that pertain to the mind, are we talking about the brain and vice versa with the brain and the mind? So, at times our jargon can get a bit confusing and so it leads to a confusing anthropology.

When you kind of get back to a baseline of what the Bible is talking about, we talk about the mind. We’re talking about something that is immaterial, the inner person, and when we talk about the brain, we’re talking about the organ of the brain, the outer person, material. You could touch the brain technically, not that you would want to, but you could not touch the mind as it is immaterial. So, big picture, that is biblically maybe the 60,000 ft overview of the categories of mind versus brain, but that sets the stage for a whole host of implications and clarifications. 

Dale Johnson: Now, even as you describe that, I think it’s important, yes, that we set a biblical foundation, but one of the ways that I think people get distanced from the biblical reality of immaterial and material are through some of the questions that come up culturally. I want you to help me maybe think for just a second about some of those questions that come up culturally where this issue of mind versus brain arise.

What are some questions that people would ask or topics that they would think about that are at the intersection of this sort of mind-brain discussion? 

Greg Gifford: Sure. Let me start secular and then move into the church and just try to share with you a couple of facts. So, I think the questions that we’re asking are in part motivational questions. Why do we do what we do? We are looking for explanations. If you remember, there was a book written by Ed Welch. It had this really great title. It was back in the ’90s. It was called Blame It On the Brain. Do you remember that? 

Dale Johnson: You’re asking me? Back in the 90s? That was my day. Yes, I remember Blame It On the Brain. 

Greg Gifford: Yeah, right. That was such a pithy title, but Ed, I think in that book, got it right. He got a sum of how we’re looking for reasons why we do what we do, and one of those hooks that we can hang our hat on is trying to find some type of motivational, or some type of explanation in our bodies, so we chalk it up to anatomy.

Secularly when we’re beginning to ask questions, you know, I have before me just different articles about why we cannot save money, purity, what mental illnesses now entail, if we’re asking questions about why we do what we do. One was a Christian organization. They were arguing for purity and pornography as being connected to your brain, why you’re struggling with purity. So the questions that we’re asking seem to be connected to why we do what we do and the brain-mind dynamic starts to come in when we’re finding reasons for why we do what we do. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s good. I think that’s super helpful. Even in some of the labels that we use like depression, for example, I mean, we think about that in terms of things that we do, and because we see that as things that we do outwardly, or symptoms or expressions, we want to give some sort of explanation that we think is reasonable, tangible and that often goes sort of reduced to explanations of brain. How the brain affects this or that or causes this or that is the language. It’s the spirit of our age to do biological reductionism. It’s sort of where we live. Now, if people will step back and they see sort of a view of history, what they’ll understand if they look at a history of psychology or history psychiatry is this really cyclical pattern of body reductionism, biological reductionism versus what’s called romantic psychiatry, which is sort of this immaterial view of explanation of forces and powers or things from within that drive us to be who we are. We’re in a strong spirit of the age right now of biological reductionism.

So what I want us to do is to pause for a second and just see, okay, we know that that’s the spirit of the age. Just the articles that you mentioned—our go-to is to explain physiologically why something is happening or the cause of it. That’s sort of our default, but why has our culture gotten this part wrong and how do we understand this rightly? 

Greg Gifford: I’m going to offer my perspective on the answer to that and you feel free to jump in and critique. You know, I think our anthropology has been shifting post Darwin to a predominant naturalistic worldview. One thing we can thank Darwin for doing is ushering a physical and a material explanation for everything, except for personality. If you do read The Origin of Species, he has no idea how to deal with personality or consciousness, but what Darwin did now is he kick started naturalism and so everything has to have a natural explanation. Our culture has imbibed that and we’re very much swimming in the downstream waters of Darwinian thinking about people, because now we are looking for organic explanations to everything that we experience and at times to a degree that we are unwilling to ask immaterial questions about why we’re experiencing what we’re experiencing.

So, where have we gotten it wrong? I think we have grown up in a society that is naturalistic. Start with that. I tell a story in my classes of an older fish swimming by two younger fish and he says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” And they don’t say anything, they just look at him. He keeps on swimming. What they do is after he swims by, they ask themselves, “What’s water?” That’s a lot of where we’re at, we’re in that naturalistic water to where we don’t realize that’s the way we think about ourselves, but that’s the way we think about ourselves. So mental health started as mental hygiene, started as maybe an erroneous understanding of the mind. It is now assumed to a certain degree in 2022 and that’s in part because our anthropology has shifted, and when you shift on a biblical understanding of the mind, you end up with unbiblical categories for people.

Dale Johnson: Now I want to get to anthropology in a second and talk about some of the implications with this worldview that you just described. There’s certainly nothing in what you said that I would critique. I might would add to to say that some people would argue, well, Darwin didn’t talk about anthropology to this degree and I would say, okay, that’s fair, but what he did do is he set a world view, a closed system, that now tried to explain everything from this biological perspective. Then what you see happen is Darwin had what I would call primary apostles who began to implement his worldview in other areas like anthropology. For example, he has been called Darwin’s chief European apostle, Ernst Haeckel. Many of you read about Ernst Haeckel in biology class, 9th grade biology, where you see Haeckel’s embryos. That’s a Darwinian explanation of development. Then later through the years, through genetic psychology and Wilhelm Fliess which led to Freudian thinking, and Freud then blew up—all swimming in this whole water, to go back to your illustration, of Darwinian thinking and that’s where we are.

What we can’t miss is to just say, okay, I’m happy that that’s intellectual, but that infects us because now we swim in this redefined anthropology that’s divorced from the Scriptures and we often don’t recognize what’s happened. So let’s talk about this in relation to the implication of how it has affected our understanding of man or anthropology particularly.

Greg Gifford: Yeah, good. One addition too is, it shouldn’t surprise us that William James then was the father of American psychology, he also studied with Darwin, and he intentionally pushed for psychology being a natural science. It shouldn’t surprise us that what he’s now doing is moving into the study of the soul, but approaching it like observing biology, like observing anatomy, observing the environment, things of that nature. So, yeah, that was a big one. 

Dale Johnson: Alright, now let me set this up because some of you have gotten lost in names and I want you to pay attention because you’re probably separating yourself saying, well, I don’t even know who Wilhelm Fliess is. I don’t even know who Ernst Haeckel is. I’ve long forgotten 9th grade biology, okay? Or I don’t even know who William James is and why he matters to me. Yes, we’re having a little bit of an intellectual discussion, but you need to see on the ground how this impacts us, right? Greg is going to introduce you to the water, so to speak, that we’re swimming in relative to anthropology and how we understand it today. So, Greg, help us to understand how this has affected our understanding of man or our anthropology, if you will. 

Greg Gifford: Yeah, good. So I teach at The Master’s University. It is probably the best university in all of history, and one of the things that we have is a culture of mental health that is coming in with 18 to 22-year-olds. What do I mean by that? I don’t mean that in a negative way. I don’t mean this generation is inferior. No, I don’t mean that. I just mean we have a generation that has grown up being given labels and being given diagnoses based off of an understanding of people. So, mental health was once known as mental hygiene, and the converse of mental health would be mental illness. Everyone listening to this has heard of mental illness in some way, whether it’s a full-blown disorder or it’s just like an unhealthy tendency. So now, what’s taking place is, if we take hook, line and sinker secular perspective of the mind and a secular perspective of the brain, then our categories for people fundamentally shift. So we move from understanding the mind as being connected biblically to the heart and connected to the soul, and your inner person, and we have a new category for people which would be mental or mental health or mental illness in the negative. So now we create all of these labels and disorders and diagnoses and categories for people based off of a faulty understanding of the mind and the brain. We create new categories of people that maybe do not exist because there’s a sense in which the mind and the brain are different and we have to note those distinctions.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, it creates, to a larger degree, a false dichotomy where we start to look at problems and we say, okay, now we’re forced into a corner. Listen, all of you feel this pressure to some degree in the way Dr. Gifford has helped us to see this. We all feel this pressure where we’re backed into a corner that when somebody’s experiencing some sort of problem or some sort of emotional issue, we think, okay, I’ve got to decide, is this a problem that can be described because of what’s going on in my mind, the inner man? The Bible sort of leans me in that direction, but I’m not sure what to do with it. Or do I explain this in this category of biology and the brain? Something’s wrong with my brain. I need another path of therapy to fix this, right? So, we feel that dichotomy. What we should see is that biblically you don’t see that distinction of separation in fullness, right? The inner man affects the body. The body certainly affects the inner man. It challenges us relative to suffering, and there’s a typical flow from how this happens from inner man to outer man. We have to begin to see people from that biblical perspective of anthropology in the ways in which we think about remedy and help and hope and that sort of thing. It’s forced us in many ways, as you’ve articulated, to limit what we think is the use of the Bible to human problems. That’s a critical thing.

So let’s expand this now. We’ve talked about some of the implications as it relates to mental health, mental illness. Let’s talk about how our culture reduces, if you will, in biological ways, this term of mental health or mental illness into culturally biological reductionism. 

Greg Gifford: Yeah, sure. Let me share with you a quote, and this isn’t something that I’m making up. It comes from The question is, “What is mental health?” and the answer is, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. Over the course of your life, if you experience mental health problems, your thinking, mood, and behavior could be affected. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including: biological factors, life experiences, family history.” The last statement is this, “Mental health problems are common, but help is available. People with mental health problems can get better and may recover completely.”

So what we’re seeing with mental health terminology is it’s being treated like physiological health and that started with the understanding of mental health as mental hygiene. I mentioned that a little bit ago. If you lived a hundred years ago, you would have probably called it mental hygiene. There wouldn’t have been a lot of people talking about it, but that’s what it would have been called. Then now we’re creating treatments for what is seen as a biological issue and we’re creating physiological treatments, or biological treatments, for mental health categories. So then now we have created a whole remedy of methodologies and solutions for helping people with mental health, or conversely, with their mental illness, and so it starts to become a tricky balance of helping people with categories that may not be the most helpful in describing them. 

Dale Johnson: Part of that is because of what it does in hindrance to the Scripture. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, it becomes limiting to what we think the Bible actually addresses. So these labels matter. Here’s the thing, can we both be honest and say that we as biblical counselors need to grow in our understanding of the relationship of mind-body? Yes. Can we learn something about this body that God has given us? Yes, absolutely, but we can never see man differently than the way that God describes him in Scripture, and when we start seeing ourself divorced from a biblical anthropology, the flow of man from the inside to the outside and the effects of the inner man and the way God measures motivation and that sort of thing, it’s critical that we not divorce ourselves from that. 

Greg Gifford: I would add, if you change that anthropological category, change how you understand people, then you’re going to change how you help people, and potentially what you’re going to do is not help people because you don’t really understand them. 

Dale Johnson: I like that. I think that’s a perfect sort of conclusion to what we’re saying. One of the ways I describe what you just said, which I think was really well done, is, whatever you believe to be the problem of a person limits your view of what you think will be the solution, right? That’s the danger if we don’t get this right. I don’t know that anybody’s perfect at this. We’re all wrestling with this, but I do see a trend that’s moving away, posturing away from the Scriptures. So we need to be conversant in this. We need to be well understood. This helps us to understand our counselees, I think, better.

I want you to talk about that for a second because as a counselor when you hear counselees, most of the time—David Powlison wrote a famous article, How Do I Help My Psychologized Counselee? Listen, since the time that David wrote that, the need for the article has only increased because our culture, the spirit of the age, has moved more in this direction. So, talk about that even for a counselor, why this is an important discussion, because a lot of the people that come in are thinking in that language. This is the water that they’re swimming in. 

Greg Gifford: Yeah, that’s right. It’s interesting because in class the other day—I do an intro to biblical counseling class—I had just kind of assumed that we were all on the same page, so that was my error. We were talking through Generalized Anxiety Disorder as a label and how that can be helpful at times because we can divorce that from what the Scripture says about anxiety. I just kind of said in a way that I thought was agreed upon, common knowledge, I just said, you know, the Bible calls us to repent of anxiety and if we are not careful and we treat Generalized Anxiety Disorder as an illness that needs treatment, we may miss that there is a faith issue connected to this. So that actually upset some of my students in such a way that it kind of created a little stink in the dorms, apparently, and they came back and talked to me about what I meant and what I didn’t mean. It showed me, there’s something changing here where I can’t say something, I thought, as agreeable as anxiety as a faith issue. So I had to carefully explain myself and do my best to say, hey look, we can struggle. We can have tendencies since birth. Maybe there are physiological anomalies that are contributing to this—yes, yes, and yes—but at the end of the day, if I’m worrying or if I’m anxious, that is a faith issue between us and the Lord and so we approach it as such. So that was a great example.

You see it in counseling all the time where people, I think they’re not being deceptive and maybe I’m overly charitable in this. They have been told this is who they are and it becomes part of their identity. So in understanding yourself, you are your label, and what we’re trying to do is, if you’ve ever pulled out a bush—You know, we grew up in Georgia where you pull out azalea bushes and you kind of had to wiggle them back and forth and wiggle them back and forth, and then you could yank them out of the ground. That’s kind of what this helps do for a person, it just wiggles a little bit looser the grasp on an understanding of, this is my disorder. This is who I am. Rather, I want to wiggle that a little bit loose so I can insert in, that’s not who you are. You’re in Christ or you’re outside of Christ. That’s who you are, fundamentally. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right, and I would even take your illustration about fear and worry and anxiety a little bit further. It’s not that there aren’t physiological presentations. If you get into a pattern of anxiety over time, you’re going to eventually see presentation. Proverbs 17:22 demonstrates that the way that we believe or feel in our heart, the emotional responses that we have, affect our bones. There’s an immaterial, physiological effect that happens. So, we’ll recognize that as presentation, but we can’t hide ourselves to the fact of the way the Scriptures describe these types of inner man struggles and their representation symptomatically outward.

We have a lot to learn about this, all of us. Greg, I really appreciate that you’re willing to tackle an issue like this and help us in development as we think, we assess, and analyze where the culture is. We assess biblical truth so that we don’t run into error, but also to know that we have some ways to grow as we think about this, the way we articulated it, and how we help people because that’s the ultimate goal. So, let me say, I know we’re going a little bit longer here, but listen, this is a very important topic. Lots of people are thinking, researching about this. If some of our readers want to read some more in this area, what are some of the places that you say might be helpful to explore? I would argue that nobody’s settled this issue 100% into how we should think about it. There’s a lot of area of growth for us to write more in, but what are some of the places that you might recommend people go and read more about this? 

Greg Gifford: Let me start with an academic resource. Crossway published it. I think it was in 2020 by Carl Truman. It’s this anthropology on a sexualized revolution. It’s called The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and what he does is he just tracks what we believe about people historically and he finishes by saying that as our commitment to truth is changed, now we’ve legitimized self-assertion. We’ve legitimized a person’s beliefs about themselves as being the final authority. It’s extraordinarily pertinent because he connects one of the biggest dots in a shifting anthropology to a mental health culture. So I would highly encourage that to you. It’s pretty dense. You’re going to have to slow down. Understand that. If you haven’t read it, you know we mentioned a throwback, the Ed Welch book from back in the ’90s. It is something, as a biblical counselor, you should be familiar with and the members will have access to a lecture that I’m doing on this topic. So become a member, get access to that topic, because what I’m going to do is go into detail about this. So perhaps I’ve left you with questions today. There will be a lecture available with some greater detail. 

Dale Johnson: Thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate you helping us to think better about this topic.

Helpful Resources:

Blame It On the Brain: Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, and Disobedience by Ed Welch

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl. R. Trueman