Jesus the Great Philosopher
“Modern philosophy is abstract, depersonalized, and doesn’t help us to learn to live well. But ancient philosophy did. And so does biblical Christianity.”
Jesus and Philosophy
Christians know Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, but what about Jesus as philosopher? Calling Jesus “philosopher” feels awkward, yet Jonathan Pennington shows that from the start Christianity “has been understood as a sophisticated philosophy of life with Jesus as the Great Philosopher.” Why do I feel angst in pairing Christ together with philosophy? This tension Pennington explores in Jesus the Great Philosopher. The answer lies in both a misunderstanding of philosophy and a failure to see Christianity as a comprehensive rule of life.
The book is broken down into five parts. In part one, Pennington addresses two twin misunderstandings. The first is Christianity’s detachment from its ancient self-understanding. In the early years of Christian history, Christians understood the Old Testament Prophets as true philosophers, and Jesus as the greatest of them all. This is hardly the view held by Christians today, and as a result, the Church has suffered. Pennington argues our Christian faith has become merely a religion rather than a whole-life way of living, and consequently we look to “alternative gurus” for wisdom to live a flourishing life: “Because we have lost the image of Jesus as a whole-life philosopher, many faithful Christians find other gurus to help them figure out the questions of daily living.” Ultimately, we have stopped asking the big questions that the Bible sets out to answer and limited our witness to the world. All this can be traced back to a failure to see Christianity as the early church did—a philosophical rule of life.
Secondly, Pennington argues we need correction in our understanding of philosophy. The names Plato and Aristotle feel old and irrelevant, but their vision for life was genius. They were concerned with life’s ultimate questions: What is real? What is good? At first, questions like these can be abstract—but they were never meant to stay there. The goal was to discover truth and live accordingly “so that they might know the happiness that comes from wise living.” Philosophers pursued a “comprehensive understanding of all of the world” in order to flourish in life. They were concerned not only with thinking, but especially living. Pennington explains that once when Plato was approached by a man saying he attended lectures on virtue, Plato responded, “When will you finally begin to live virtuously?” It is one thing to learn and claim ‘honesty is the best policy’, it is another to be honest in the home, the workplace and society. This was the goal of philosophy, to look for “a way of seeing and being in the world that promised human flourishing through knowing what the Good is.” Seeing and Being. Knowing and Doing. Learning and Living. This comprehensive goal was called “the Good Life”.
The Bible as Philosophy
The second section surveys the themes and teaching of both the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament Scriptures, Pennington argues, “present themselves as a work of divinely revealed ancient philosophy” because they provide answers to philosophical questions. God’s act in creation speaks to (“metaphysical”) questions of what the universe is and how it came to be. His creation of mankind, the story of Israel, and the wisdom literature of the Old Testament teach on the (“epistemological”) questions of knowing. God’s commands to the people of Israel directly instruct how people should live ethically, and relate to each other socially. These themes in the Old Testament are explicitly philosophical.
The New Testament builds on answers given by the Old. Philosophy asks, “What is the universe and why is it here?” The Scriptures respond saying, “This world that we experience is actually created and upheld by the incarnated and now-risen Jesus, in unity with God the Father.” Philosophy asks what knowledge is and how we can have it. The New Testament teaches that true, life-giving knowledge is knowledge of God gained through Jesus Christ. Though sin muddles our knowledge of truth, God has made a way for us to know himself through Christ. Ethics remain important in the New Testament too, as Christians are commanded to be holy as God is holy. Still, “every teaching and sermon and letter naturally concludes with an invitation and exhortation to inhabit the world in a way that accords with these truths.” The purpose of all of the teaching in the whole of Scripture is to reveal the truth to mankind (so he can “see” rightly), and to help mankind to live an abundant life here and after (so he can “be” happily).
Jesus himself is presented in the New Testament as a philosopher. The Gospels were written in the same way that philosopher-biographies were in antiquity. “The wise man whose life was recorded in the biography was both a conduit of truth and an example to be followed”—just like the first four books of the New Testament. Jesus’ teaching style also resembles that of ancient philosophers. Just as the Stoics lived by aphorisms—concise statements of truth—such as “Amor fati” (the love of fate), so Jesus had his own truths to live by. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Jesus’ use of concise truths, and his instruction that they have bearing on one’s life put him in the category of philosopher.
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is the greatest example of his philosopher-like teaching. Jesus expresses that his disciples would find the abundant, flourishing life—the Good Life—if they followed him, not only listening to, but also obeying, his teaching in every sphere of life. Jesus concludes his sermon with a contrast between the wise and the foolish: “The final call of the sermon is for people to listen to what Jesus has said and to do what he has taught—that is, to put into practice a life of discipleship based on his way of seeing and being in the world. Those who do not do what Jesus teaches are compared to a fool, a person who makes a wreck of their life by living in an unexamined and undirected way. By sharp contrast, the one who listens to Jesus and practices what he teaches is described as a wise—a phronimos person. This loaded term is the same one the Greek philosophers used to identify those who practiced the ways of the philosophers.” The teaching of the Bible, culminating ultimately in Christ, provides the wisdom needed for the Good Life.
Christianity’s Sophisticated Answers
In the third through fifth section, Pennington expounds on three philosophical fields of thought: emotions, relationships, and happiness. Philosophy has always been concerned with these issues and their daily relevance to life—and so has Christ, the greatest of Philosophers! Pennington spends two chapters on each topic, first explaining the root of philosophical discussion in ancient times, and explaining the different ways of thinking about each subject. Then, Pennington brings the conversation up to our own day, and shows through culture, philosophy, music, TV, and literature where our present day expresses answers on these major life questions. Finally, Pennington uses the second chapter to show Christianity’s sophisticated and whole-life oriented answer to these ancient issues.
Emotions are common to all mankind, yet there are centuries of evidence—from Plato, to Stoicism, to our world today—that mankind has disagreed about what they are and how to think about them. After surveying the philosophical conversation, Pennington demonstrated that Christianity’s sophisticated solution is to educate our emotions. We must grasp the Christian belief in a “personal and capable God” who is “willing and able to provide for his children’s needs” in order to respond appropriately to our emotions in the midst of life’s circumstances. This instruction given by Christ “is not a denial of the reality of problems (Buddhism’s solution), nor detachment from the uncontrollable world (Stoicism)… but intentional reflection on what is true.” The truth of who God is leads to a flourishing emotional life.
Section four was my favorite in the book. Essential questions for philosophers like Plato in his Republic, or Cicero in his How to Be a Friend, were “What is the Good Life?” And, “How do you structure society to promote the Good Life?” Whether speaking to marriage and family, government and society, or friendships, philosophers knew the importance of relationships to human flourishing. While modern day philosophy has lost this concern, and men like Sigmund Freud have drastically (and largely negatively) affected our current understanding of personal relationships, Christianity continues to prove itself as the truest whole-life philosophy for the Good Life. In the end, Christian love informs every relationship from marriage to government. This love “is manifested in helping each other with practical needs (1 John 3:17-18), in exercising patience and kindness, in keeping no record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:4-7), and in forgiving those who wrong us (Matt. 18:21-35). These loving relationships are the beautiful kingdom anthem of the Christian Philosophy.” Relationships of every kind are at their best with the foundation of Christian love.
Lastly, history has proven that every human being desires happiness; not just surface level happiness, a happiness that comes from a sense of meaning. The problem is that happiness is “incredibly difficult to find and maintain.” Because of this difficulty, there have always been “gurus to guide us to happiness.” One current example is Dale Carnegie and his How to Win Friends and Influence People. However, mankind’s attempts for whole-life happiness fall short, and they do so because they miss the mark on the first step of “seeing”, of knowing what is true and real. Because they don’t see rightly, their search for being happily is off-base. Only the philosophical answers of Christianity provide the truest answers to meaningful happiness.
But the Bible does not promise happiness in the way we may expect. The Scriptures offer to us the supreme example of the Good Life, that is nuanced and no simplified plastic-smile happiness. Jesus went through suffering on the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). His joy was not shallow and absent of suffering. Jesus tells us that blessedness (i.e. happiness and flourishing) are found when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Though the world will hate his disciples, Jesus says he came to provide the abundant life (John. 10:10). So true flourishing does not shallowly depend on the absence of struggle.
Pennington points to Psalm one which asserts that happiness and flourishing come to one who is dedicated to God’s word. He points to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 as well, in which Jesus starts with the refrain, “Happy/Flourishing are the poor in spirit… Happy/Flourishing are those who mourn… Happy/Flourishing are the meek…”. These are just the start to providing Christianity’s nuanced answer to living the abundant, Good life, whatever life may bring. Ultimately, it is Christian hope in the character of our God who will be with us forever that provides a flourishing life today and promises true happiness for eternity.
Wisdom for the Good Life
Both a misunderstanding of philosophy and a failure to see Christianity as a philosophical rule of life have led to difficulties for Christians. Christianity has rightly focused on the vertical relationship between God and man, but has lost its touch in being a philosophy that affects every area of our lives; like a man who can do math on paper to budget, but fails to spend accordingly. Has this disconnect driven me and you away from Christ to “alternative gurus” instead of letting Christ inform every aspect of our daily living?
In many ways, this book is the perfect companion to The Bookshelf. My goal is to read and learn in order to be matured in my thinking and especially my living. Pennington says the philosophical vision of Jesus has this very message and is the truest answer to living the “Good Life”. While some truth can be gleaned from other philosophical views, the truth they contain is only partial. “In comparison with the Christian philosophy, all other views on relationships, emotions, and happiness are fractional and incomplete (and sometimes just flat wrong).” Christianity “sees” rightly in order to truly “be” happily.
If you resonate with my purpose for starting this blog (see the about page), then this book is for you. I am thankful to have read it, as it motivates me not only to continue the endeavor I began with The Bookshelf, but also to know Christ and the truth of his word, and to live as he did and as he has taught. If you pick this book up and read, not only will you have a renewed understanding of Christianity and philosophy, but you will also be motivated to live the Good Life for yourself. This you won’t regret.