I recently interviewed Jonathan Pennington about his new book Jesus the Great Philosopher (Baker Academic 2020).
Here’s a short video from Pennington about the book:
Here’s what he had to say:
Jesus the philosopher? Seriously? I thought we were trying to teach people that Jesus is more than a philosopher, guru, or teacher! Why Jesus the philosopher?
Ha! Well, yes, Jesus is definitely more than a philosopher or guru or life coach. But he’s not less than these things! I think for most Christians today they understand that Jesus is the Son of God, worthy of our religious devotion and worship. But what we’ve lost is something that used to be much clearer in earlier forms of Christianity — that Jesus is a philosopher of life, that he is teaching practical wisdom for how to live well and experience the flourishing we long for. We are pretty good at understanding Jesus and Christianity as a religion. Not so much as what it also is — a comprehensive philosophy for every aspect of our lives.
Philosophy is everywhere even if we don’t see it. Why kinds of philosophers do we follow today?
Humans have always had gurus — men and women who teach and model ways of being in the world that will help us thrive. In the ancient world these were the philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca. Today we don’t have many whole-life philosophers but we have lots of specialized gurus for different areas of our lives — Warren Buffet or Dave Ramsey for money; Oprah for personal empowerment and what books to read; Marie Kondo for simplifying our lives; David Allen for productivity.
Why is Jesus a better philosopher than, say, Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius or even Jordan Peterson?
I mentioned that we don’t have a lot of whole-life philosophers today but mostly just specialists. Philosophers like Aristotle and the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius were more wide-ranging in their wisdom. Today Jordan Peterson is more like that too.
But Jesus is in a whole different category. Jesus’ teachings and life-model are truly comprehensive, covering the nature of humanity and the whole world, how to handle inner-personal relationships, what the future holds, and most importantly, a clear and true revelation of who God really is. Jesus’ wisdom is superior to all other gurus because he himself is Wisdom incarnate. He is the Logos (John 1:1) – the structuring and ordering principle of the world — and Jesus is the one person in whom all of creation has its origin and being and by which the world holds together (Colossians 1:16-17). In short, Jesus’ divine nature and his perfectly lived humanity makes him the greatest philosopher of the world.
What is the most philosophical portion of the New Testament?
I try to show in this book that the whole Bible is philosophical, is a philosophy. That is, if we understand what philosophy really is. Philosophy in the ancient sense gives us what we need to flourish. Any philosophy of life worth listening to provides some key ideas — metaphysics (what is the nature of the world and how it works?); epistemology (how do we know things correctly?); ethics (what is truly good and how do we pursue this?); and politics (how do we structure society and relationships?).
When we look at the Bible with these questions in mind we see that every page is giving us a philosophy of life! At the same time, I do think the Gospels are particularly philosophical because here we have the clearest teachings from Jesus himself on all these issues. And beyond merely teaching, we also have the crucial added element of Jesus as the example of the true philosophy. No place do we see Jesus as a model of a life philosophy more clearly than in the Gospels.
You quote the Polish theologian Darius Karłowicz who said: “The task of all philosophy, including Christian philosophy, is the therapy of souls who have been led astray by the demands of the passions and false pictures of happiness.” Could you elaborate a little on that?
I love that quote and the little book it comes from! I think Karłowicz is really onto something that is foundational to the whole Bible’s message and is probably best articulated theologically in Augustine. The idea is that God has made us to flourish, to thrive, and yet the Fall has brought a perversion of the Good into our lives and the whole creation itself. God’s gracious redemptive work in the world through Jesus Christ is to restore us to the fullness of what it means to be human. This means a major retooling of our sensibilities and habits and loves and a repair of the cracks in God’s image in us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Comprehensive therapy of the soul for the restoration of true happiness is a great way to describe the work of God in us.
Stoicism is making a come back these days. How is Christianity a better philosophy than Stoicism?
In the ancient mediterranean world Stoicism was very popular for a long time, and understandably so! Many of the principles of Stoicism are extremely helpful for daily practical life — teaching us to be centered and mature and to not over-react, but taking responsibility for our own emotions and practices. Stoicism is a great help for that reason today as well and I read lots of Stoicism regularly and always benefit from it.
But while Stoicism can help us with much of practical life, it ultimately falls short. It does not and cannot give us a comprehensive vision for all of life including hope for the future. Christianity is a forward-looking faith rooted in the reality of God’s own character, focusing on the sure hope of a time and place coming when he will restore truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, reigning over us with love and righteousness. This hope, revealed most fully through Jesus Christ, is the only philosophy of life that is comprehensive and secure in a realistic way, not just providing techniques to deny the reality of suffering in the world (as Stoicism does).
What do we gain by thinking of Jesus as a philosopher and Christianity as philosophy?
With this book I’m hoping to help people see that by regaining this image of Jesus as the greatest philosopher we can recapture greater integration between our faith and every aspect of our lives. In particular, the Christian philosophy has a very robust and sophisticated vision of how to handle our emotions, relationships, and what it means to be truly happy, to name just a few.