Book Reviews

Book Review: Jesus the Great Philosopher (Jonathan Pennington)

Is Jesus a philosopher? What would you think if you saw a big banner at your church proclaiming Jesus as our great “Immanuel, Savior, Healer, and Philosopher” (ch. 1)? It’s basically what a church in the third century did, only instead of a banner they painted Jesus on their walls, healing, teaching, and performing miracles, dressed as a philosopher. In the early second century, Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist and philosopher, saw both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets as philosophers. He explained that “philosophy is a way of finding true life,” and he had found this true life in Jesus (ch. 1). Even in 1999, George W. Bush refereed to Christ as a philosopher who had had the most influence on his life. Jonathan Pennington writes, “Christianity is not just a set of doctrines but a divine whole-life philosophy worth dying for, if need be” (I reviewed this book through NetGalley. It didn’t have page numbers, so I don’t have any for the quotes).

In chapter one, Pennington, associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at SBTS, shows the results of not thinking of Christianity as its own philosophy:

  1. Faith is too often disconnected from other parts of our life.
    1. We separate our life into different drawers. Just as socks, underwear, and pants go into their own drawers, we separate health, money, education, relationships, and faith from each other.
  2. We look for other sources/alternative gurus (from Jordan Peterson to Oprah, from Marie Kondo to Nick Offerman) to advise us on hoot live the good life.
  3. We have stopped looking to Scripture to tell us “how the world really works and how we should live in it.”
    1. We have a book of ultimate authority and all the answers, but do we know the questions to ask? Are we asking the right questions?
    2. What is reality?
    3. What does it mean to be human?
    4. Where is true happiness found, how do I get there, and what do I do when I get it?
  4. “We have limited our witness to the world.” 
    1. Christianity needs to be big enough to make sense of your whole life, not taught in a way that divorces it from our normal life.

A Vision for Life Itself

But doesn’t philosophy just ask big, nonsensical questions without providing any answers? As Steve Martin put it, “you remember just enough” from college “to screw you up for the rest of your life” (ch. 2).

But in the ancient world, philosophy was the frame or “the vision for life itself,” helping people understand “Good and the goodness of life.” It went from meaning being wise in certain fields such as mathematics, biology, or physics, to being “a pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of all the world,” focusing “on character traits and habits that, if practiced, will result in a flourishing life and society.” Students were taught to know politics, music, and astronomy (and more) because as we see the how different aspects of the world work in harmony, we will develop a deeper inner harmony.

Four Big Questions

The philosopher was someone who had knowledge, training, years of experience, as well as virtue and integrity who could “serve as instructors and models.” These were teachers who knew the information and could teach how it fit in with the rest of life. Even the Hebrew Scriptures “actually present themselves as a philosophy of life in the ancient sense” (ch. 3). It answers the four big questions of metaphysics (what is the true nature of the universe?), epistemology (How do we know things?), ethics (what is right, and how do we live it out?), and politics (how do we structure society and institutions in the best and wisest ways?).

Jesus, the Philosopher, and the Gospels

In he early first centuries of Christianity, Jesus was depicted most often as either a king or a philosopher (just think about wise king Solomon). One of the most influential ways of writing about one philosopher teacher was through bios, “the retelling of the ‘life’ of someone famous” (ch. 5). This method was well established by the time Jesus came on the scene, and it explained the teachings, life, and dignified death of the teacher.

One way we can know the Gospels present Jesus as a philosopher is because the “form and content of the Gospels closely resemble the many Lives that were written about other ancient philosophers.” Aphorisms (short, pithy sayings), parables, and winsome arguments are a few ways we can see how Jesus functioned as a philosopher, for philosophers also regularly taught others through these styles. Jesus is “a disciple-making wisdom teacher,” and his teachings are collected into “five major topical epitomes” or blocks.

Philosophers asked what the Good was and how could we live in right accordance with it. Jesus taught the same thing, only we find the Good by looking at God who is whole, mature, complete, and perfect. Jesus teaches these truths in the Sermon on the mount, where he is a better Moses, God in the flesh, a great philosopher king giving out wise laws. John, Paul, Peter, James, and the whole New Testament in fact teaches us to imitate our great Teacher, who saved us and makes us whole, complete, and perfect.

I Got 99 Problems…

In chapter nine, Humans, We Have a Problem, Pennington writes that all humans have a problem (if you couldn’t guess). That problem revolves around “meaningful happiness.” It’s the nagging question that asks, “Does any of what we do really matter?” If it gives meaning, is it lasting? Will it make me happy? (Think Ecclesiastes.) Even in his The City of God, Augustine noted that everybody wants to be happy. However many disagree on “what this happiness looks like and how to obtain it.” Family? Food? Achievement? Religion?

According to Yuval Noah Harari in his bestseller Sapiens, are we, homo sapiens, “simply an ‘animal of no significance’”? But, concerning happiness, we often discern happiness in our lives by weighing all of our happy moments vs our bad moments instead of seeing our lives in their “entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.” We flourish through living intentionally and thoughtfully. But why do we have so many happiness gurus? Why does life feel like reading a menu at the Cheesecake Factory? Should I follow the veto diet, do CrossFit, pay it forward, do hot yoga, or (and?) journal every day?

…But Finding Happiness Ain’t One

In the end (chapter 10), Pennington points to Jesus as the one who came into the world “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Jesus’ Beatitudes tells us what true flourishing is. We are allowed to long for happiness, and we find it fully in God himself. Psalm 1 even begins with the idea of being happy/flourishing, but certainly when you read through the rest of the psalter, it doesn’t look like very many are flourishing. But yet they are. In a covenantal relationship with God, God’s people flourish.

Recommended?

I found this to be a great book that really helped me to see another facet of Jesus, one of a philosopher, as well as what philosophy is really meant to be. I haven’t read much philosophy (from any era), but Pennington shows how Jesus and the Gospels give us the answers to happiness. Jesus answers your deepest needs. He doesn’t merely give you a list of rules to follow but changes your entire orientation to life. Pennington shows how the Bible helps us understand our emotions and how we thrive in relationship to other people. While many today don’t know how to integrate the teachings of Jesus into their new lifestyle as Christians, Pennington shows that Christianity has always wrestled with life’s important questions (despite what the new atheists say), and it offers everyone the answers to those questions.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Jonathan T. Pennington
  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Brazos Press (October 20, 2020)
  • Sample: Read the Introduction or download the Study Guide

Buy it from Amazon or Brazos Press!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Brazos Press through NetGalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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