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Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 54–63 

The Renewal of Perception: Romans 12:2 and Post Modernity

Doug Heidebrecht


Since the mid-1970s there has been a growing awareness of the collapse of the modern age and the emergence of post modernity. 1 Evangelicals are recognizing the need to respond to a new set of assumptions regarding reality and truth as post modernism increasingly shapes the lenses through which Western people view life. 2 While the church may welcome post modernity’s critique of the modern age’s exaltation of reason in the quest for certainty, optimism in the progress of humanity’s excessive individualism, clearly an uneasiness arises with the increasing effects of relativism and consumerism. Modernity’s search for absolute universal truth has been discarded and replaced with the affirmation of the “truth” of one’s own experience and perspective. No longer is there the belief that one truth can be applied to all people and every situation; rather there is a recognition of diverse, perhaps contradictory {55} “truths” that have been shaped by an individual’s community and context.

The renewal of the mind is a call for a shared perception and testing of God’s will.

This shift toward post modernity has brought with it a heightened sensitivity as to how Christians have incorporated the assumptions of modernity into the conceptualization of their faith. Post modernity has brought a conscious awareness that we are unable to attain a completely objective vantage point which will provide an unbiased assessment of reality, The human mind is not transcendent. Our perceptions of reality are based on our previous experiences, cultural norms, and environmental influences. Post modernism has helped us realize that we all look at life as through a dark glass and are able to see only in part due to our limited vantage point. 3 The churches’ awareness of the influence of the current culture’s presuppositional base, which provides the building blocks for constructing meaning and interpreting experience, is critical.

ROMANS 12:1-2

Paul’s appeal to the Christians in Rome, “do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2), continues to remind the church of the foundation for Christian ethics. In two verses, Paul summarizes the significance of the revelation of God’s wrath and righteousness for both Jews and Gentiles and lays the groundwork for how to live as God’s people in response to his call to faith. 4 Christian ethics is built upon the foundation of God’s mercy revealed through Jesus Christ and the spirit of life which offers freedom from the power of sin and death. Christians are called to respond to this mercy by offering themselves as a living sacrifice in worship to God. In Romans 12:2, Paul contrasts the ongoing pressure to conform to this age with a call to “be transformed by the renewal of the mind.” The result of this transformation is the ability to discern and approve God’s will for life.


The interpretation of Paul’s appeal not to conform but to be transformed has at times been one-sided; since the call for transformation by the renewal of the mind has often been ignored or misunderstood. If the key to resisting the pressure to conform to this age is the transformation which takes place by the renewal of the mind, then it is critical, particularly as society is in the process of transitioning into the post modern age, to understand what the renewal of the mind entails. A survey of commentaries reveals immense diversity in the way this phrase has been interpreted. For example, “mind” has been understood as diversely as: “the whole soul,” 5 “thought,” 6 metaphysical and moral self-consciousness,” 7 “seat of thought and understanding,” 8 “moral {56} sensitiveness and perceptiveness.” 9

What exactly are we referring to when we speak of the mind? What did Paul mean when he used the word “mind”?

Similarly, the concept of the renewal of this mind reflects a myriad of interpretations: a “complete change for the better of the believer’s mental process,” 10 “thinking in a Christian way about everything—having a Christian mind,” 11 “by a whole new way of thinking,” 12 “repentance,” 13 “sanctification.” 14

The ambiguity of the phrase”the renewal of the mind” and the diversity of interpretations probably reveal more again about the assumptions of the interpreters than about the meaning of the text. Perhaps the post modern recognition of the effect of interpretive communities calls us to look again at Paul’s own context and attempt to hear how these terms may have been understood by the first century church in Rome.


The Jews in Rome were “a diverse community of individually structured congregations” which provided early Christians the opportunity to spread the gospel from one synagogue to another without reprisal from a central authority. 15 The increasing tension between Christians and Jews led to an open confrontation in 49 A.D. and the expulsion of all Jews (including Christian Jews) from Rome by Claudius. 16 While Jews were forbidden to assemble in synagogues, the small number of Gentile Christians continued to meet in homes. When Nero allowed the Jews to return in A.D. 54, the returning Jewish Christians came back to a very different church. No longer tied to the synagogue structure, the Gentile Christians had grown in number and had assumed the leadership roles in the church. The resulting friction between the Gentiles and Jewish believers in Rome most likely lies behind the writing of Romans by Paul in 57/58 A.D. Consequently, Paul addresses both Jews and Gentiles throughout his letter, and would presumably reflect familiar terminology and concepts.


The English word “mind” translates the Greek term nous. The etymology of nous can be traced back to the root meaning “to sniff” which suggests a “way of acquiring knowledge” through the sense of smell. 17 In early Greek literature (Homer), nous referred not to an intellectual organ (brain) but to a function which was defined as the ability to realize fully “the true nature or essence of a thing as against its surface appearance.” 18 It was the ability to perceive a camouflaged enemy soldier hiding among the rocks. “In Greek philosophy almost from the beginning it becomes the main function of the {57} mind to discover the ‘real’ world or the ‘real’ character of the world as a whole, in contrast to other erroneous beliefs of most human beings.” 19

The implicit sense of mental perception, inherent in the term nous, may explain why in almost every Greek philosophy the mind appears to be the link between human existence and divine presence. When God was conceptualized as nous, it only took a short step to recognize the ability of the human mind to perceive the reality of God, which was incomprehensible to the physical senses. The Stoics also saw a significant connection between the mind and ethical behavior.


The Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures represents the increasing Greek influence within Judaism. In the Septuagint the use of nous is rare, due most likely to the absence of any equivalent term within the Hebrew language. 20 The nous, which the Lord gives human beings (Job 7:17) and which he is able to understand fully (7:20) appears to correspond to the inner spirit of a person (7:15).

The growing connection between the concepts of spirit and nous during the intertestamental times can be clearly seen in the Apocrypha, particularly in the Wisdom of Solomon which quotes Isaiah 40:13:

For what man is he that can know the counsel of God? Or who can think what the will of the Lord is? For the thoughts of mortal men are miserable, and our devices are uncertain. For the corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weight down the mind [nous] that museth upon many things...And thy counsel who hath known, except thou give wisdom, and send thy Holy Spirit from above? 21

Philo’s (30 B.C.-A.D. 40) notion of nous must be understood in the context of the question, how can human beings perceive the invisible God? His answer was that “the invisible Deity stamped on the invisible soul the impress of Itself.” 22 Unlike the Greeks, however, Philo recognized that the entire soul, including the mind and spirit, was affected by sin. He suggested that the “mind could not have made so straight an aim if there was not also the divine Spirit guiding it to the truth.” 23 The person who is a “faithful impress of the divine image” is the one who lives according to the “divine breath or Spirit.” 24


When we explore the background of the concept of renewal we discover {58} the term Paul uses is not found in Greek literature prior to his epistles, suggesting that Paul most likely coined a new word to describe his unique concept of renewal (anakaino). The newness of life in Christ, proclaimed by Paul, is clearly anticipated in the Old Testament. Jeremiah looks forward to the day when God will make a new covenant with Israel by putting his laws into their minds and writing them upon their hearts (31:31, 33). Similarly, Ezekiel proclaims God’s promise to give his people a new heart and to put his Spirit in them (36:26-27). Perhaps the reference to renewal in Psalm 51:10, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me, “ anticipates Paul’s concept of renewal. The concept of renewal during intertestamental times was always linked with God’s Spirit and often described a new act of creation. Significantly, renewal was also descriptive of the conversion process in Judaism, though the renewal of human beings was seen as part of the large cosmic process of transformation. 25


Though we may not be able to say definitively that Paul’s use of nous mirrored the understanding of the term within Greek philosophy and first century Judaism, the possibility is clearly present. If Paul’s use of nous is a reference to that element of a human being that perceived the “real” essence of things, most importantly the presence of the invisible God, then the renewal of the nous is a reference to that element of a human being that perceived the “real”essence of things, most importantly the presence of the invisible God, then the renewal of the nous would describe the believer’s increasingly clearer perception of God and his will for their lives. While it would be inappropriate to replace our contemporary understanding of physiology with first century anthropology, it is also inappropriate to read our contemporary understanding of the mind back onto Paul. Several observations follow based on the implications of reading the text in the way suggested by our brief survey.

First, our ability to clearly perceive God and what he requires is rendered useless by our refusal to acknowledge who God is. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he lays out a “Greek (particularly Stoic) understanding of an invisible realm of reality, invisible to sense perception, which can only be known through the rational power of the mind” (Rom. 1:18-32). 26 Paul states that the eternal power and deity of the invisible God are clearly perceivable in the things that have been made (1:19-20), and finally to a mind that is literally unable to test anything. The word play in 1:28 suggests that once human beings have “tested” God and have decided not to acknowledge him, their nous becomes worthless and unqualified in its perception. The singularity of nous implies that people who reflect God share a {59} common way of perceiving reality. It appears that the improper conduct described in 1:29-31 is a direct result of a mind that is no longer able to perceive God’s will for life.

The inability of post modernity to acknowledge the God of truth who stands above our own perspective and experience creates a distortion of reality. While post modernity brings helpful correctives to the assumptions of modernity, the warning not to be “conformed to this age” also cautions against the uncritical acceptance of a post modern perspective.

Second, the renewal of the mind is an integral part of God’s new creation through the death and resurrection of Christ. Believers in Christ are a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:16-17). The resulting transformation brings with it a new perception of reality that reflects the significance of what is unseen, not of what is seen; of walking by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 4:16-18, 5:7). Believers’ participation in this new creation calls for a distinction between life lived according to the ways of the present age (Rom. 8:5-8). Believers are called to live no longer “in the futility of their minds...darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God...due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:17-19). Instead they are to “put off the old person which belongs to your former manner of life...and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new person, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). 27 The renewal of the mind is a radical perceptual shift where everything is viewed differently. 28 This affects, in particular, the distinctions separating people (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, and male/female) which are no longer significant for those who are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13).

The diversity affirmed by the pluralism of post modernity allows for the development of numerous subcultures which are centered around common experiences and ways of looking at life. The church as the body of Christ recognizes the need to be centered on Christ, the head of that body (Eph. 1:22-23). The affirmation of Christ as the center of a new creation which transcends particular community perspectives, challenges post modernity’s assumption that there is no truth beyond one’s own values and beliefs.

Third, it is the Spirit of God who is active in the process of transforming believers by the renewal of the mind. 29 In the immediate context of Romans 12:2, Paul uses the term nous when he quotes from Isaiah 40:13 (Rom. 11:36). With the rhetorical question, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Paul affirms the mystery behind God’s plans for the Jews despite their present rejection of Jesus. But does the Hebrew term “Spirit,” which lies behind the Septuagint’s translation of Isaiah 40:13, now imply that God’s absolute transcendency has been bridged? It is the Jewish and Gentile believers who have the Spirit of Christ (8:9), and it is by this Spirit that Christians {60} can cry out to God, “Abba, Father!” (8:15). Of significance is Paul’s use of Isaiah 40:13 again in 1 Corinthians 2:16, where he unexpectedly answers the question, “but we have the mind (nous) of Christ.” This answer is based upon his earlier argument that just as it is only the spirit of a person that knows the inner thoughts (literally, “things”) of that person, so it is only the Spirit of God that knows the inner things of God (1 Cor. 2:11). Yet this same Spirit which searches the depths of God, has been given to believers so that they might understand spiritual things (2:12-13). When Paul claims that the Corinthians have the mind of Christ he surprisingly uses nous instead of Spirit which would follow more naturally from the above analogy. The point is that believers can begin to perceive the unfathomable and invisible thoughts of God because they have the very nous of Christ through the Spirit of God.

Unfortunately, the law of Moses acted like a veil over the minds of the Jews until Christ came to lift it away (2 Cor. 3:13-16). In Romans 7:7-25, Paul suggests that the nous knows what God’s will is but is unable to control a person’s behavior because of captivity to the power of sin (7:23). Perhaps Paul is describing the struggle of “true believers during the Mosaic Law era who did earnestly wish to do good (7:21) and did joyfully concur with the Law at the core of their being (7:22). But the difficulty they experienced was that they were still under the mastery of sin because they were still under the law (6:14).” 30 When the veil is removed by the Spirit of life, freedom to perceive once again the glory of the Lord and be transformed into the image of Christ follows (2 Cor. 3:17-18).

It is only by God’s Spirit that people are able to perceive God. The need for continual renewal is evident and transformation must be viewed as a journey of walking with and being led by the Spirit. The claim to know God is based on faith in Jesus Christ not on our ability to objectively reach the truth through the use of reason.

Finally, the renewal of the mind is a call for community ethical discernment. Paul probably did not refer to the renewal of individual minds but to the way the church as a community perceives God and tests his will. 31 Elsewhere Paul calls on the church to be “united in the same mind (nous)” so they can judge together what is right (1 Cor. 1:10). A critical issue for the church in Rome was how Jewish and Gentile Christians could together discern God’s will for their lives. 32 The Jewish Christians in Rome had boasted about their ability to know God’s will and test what was excellent because they had been instructed in the law (Rom. 2:17-18). However, their inability to keep the law only revealed the power of sin and that the law was unable to provide a way of escape, only condemnation. Paul calls both Jews and Gentiles to fulfill the law through love for one’s neighbor (Rom. 13:8-10).

The post modern emphasis on the role of community in the shaping of {61} one’s values and beliefs finds affinity with the New Testament portrayal of the church. The renewal of the mind is a call for a shared perception and testing of God’s will. Ethics is a function of the church as a community. Individual ethics must always be understood in the context of that community and in the light of one’s accountability to God (Rom. 14).

The above reading of Paul’s use of nous as mental perception affirms post modernity’s recognition that our understanding of reality is essentially perceptual. However, this reading of nous also challenges the assumption that our understanding of truth is limited by our own perspective and experience. Rather, as part of God’s new creation, believers are called to acknowledge their continual need for renewed perception by God’s Spirit, which results in a clearer understanding of God’s will for the church.


  1. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996); David Lyon, Postmodernity (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1994); Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
  2. David S. Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint, 1995); J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995); Alister McGrath, A Passion for the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996); Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Post Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995); Gene Veith Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).
  3. See 1 Cor. 13:9-12.
  4. For an exegetical study of “Romans 12:1-2: The True Worship,” see D. Edmond Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1-2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (1994): 309-24; David Olford, “Romans 12:1-2: The Gospel and Renewal,” in Faces of Renewal, ed. Paul Elbert (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988); and David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1993): 271-88.
  5. C. Hodge, Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1886), 385. {62}
  6. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1993), 436.
  7. F. J. Leenhardt, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Lutterworth, 1961), 305.
  8. J. Murray. The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965).
  9. C. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 609.
  10. Kenneth Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 208.
  11. James Montgomery Boice, Mind Renewal in a Mindless Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 98.
  12. P. Achtemeier, Romans (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 195.
  13. Barth, 436.
  14. H. Olshausen, Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1849), 389.
  15. Wolfgang Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” in The Romans Debate, ed. K. P. Donfried (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 91-92.
  16. Ibid., 93. See also Acts 18:2.
  17. Kurt von Fritz, “NOUS and NOEIN in the Homeric Poems,” Classical Philology 38 (1943): 92.
  18. Ibid., 83, 90.
  19. Kurt von Fritz, “NOUS, NOEIN, and Their Derivatives in Pre-Socratic Philosophy (Excluding Anaxagoras): Part II. From the Beginnings to Parmenides,” Classical Philology 41 (1946): 31.
  20. G. Harder, “Reason,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 124.
  21. Wisd. of Sol. 9:13-15, Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha with an English Translation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972), 17. Cf. 1 Esd. 2:8-9.
  22. Philo. Det, in Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, et al., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929-1971), 3.29.
  23. Ibid., Mos. 2.265.
  24. Ibid., Mos. 2.55-57.
  25. For example, see Jubilees 1:29, 1 Enoch 45:4-5, and Joseph and Aseneth 8:11.
  26. J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 58. {63}
  27. Cf. Rom. 13:11-14 and Col. 3:5-14. The new is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10).
  28. Robin Scroggs, “New Being: Renewed Mind: New Perception - Paul’s View of the Source of Ethical Insight,” Register 72 (1982): 3.
  29. “Transform” is in the present passive form suggesting that believers are not transforming themselves but are being transformed by someone else (the Spirit) through an ongoing process.
  30. Walt Russell, “Insights from Postmodernism’s Emphasis on Interpretive Communities in the Interpretation of Romans 7,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (1994): 524.
  31. See Horace Stoessel, “Notes on Romans 12:1-2,” Interpretation 17 (1963): 161-75. He notes the consistent use of the corporate sense of nous in Paul’s letters.
  32. See George Smiga, “Romans 12:1-2 and 15:30-32 and the Occasion of the Letter to the Romans,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53 (1991): 257-73.
Doug Heidebrecht studied under Elmer Martens at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and is currently an instructor at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan. Portions of this article are based on his unpublished M.Div. thesis, “The Renewal of the Mind in Paul’s Thought” (MBBS, 1991).

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