Pennington, Jonathan T. Jesus the Great Philosopher. Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2020. 230 pp.; Pb.; $18.99. Link to Brazos
Many writers have lamented the rise of the Nones, people who mark “none” for their religious affiliation. Pennington suggests the problem is the loss of Christianity as a whole life philosophy, in the view that Jesus is a great philosopher. Yet in an ancient church in Dura Europos a mosaic portrays Jesus as a philosopher, and Justin Martyr set up a Christian philosophy school. People describe Jesus as a wonderful teacher, a religious guru, but rarely as a philosopher.
Pennington suggests four reasons for this. First, Christian faith is disconnected from other aspects of life. Second, we look for alternative gurus for wisdom on how to live a flourishing life. He specifically mentions people like Nick Offerman or psychologists like Jordan Peterson. Third, we stopped asking big questions this scripture wants to answer. Oddly, a high view of scripture might lead to not asking the right questions about life the universe and everything.
Fourth, this limits the Church’s witness to the world. Christians failed at addressing questions the world wants answered, and Nick Offerman has succeeded: people learn hard work and common sense outside of the church. Pennington refers to The Good Place, a popular TV comedy which seamlessly welds philosophical ideas (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics) with religious ideas about the afterlife and what it means to be a good person. Those two worlds were not meant to be separate (34).
After setting up the idea of Christianity as a philosophy, the book moves through four sections. First, the Bible as philosophy. Here he covers the big ideas in the Old Testament, and the New Testament. How does Scripture answer questions about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or politics? Pennington summarizes New Testament philosophy as helping humans “enter into what it means to be fully human” (78).
Pennington then covers three topics philosophy addresses: emotions, relationships, and happiness. There three are what it means to be human: we are emotional creatures developing relationships and seeking to be genuinely happy in life. Each topic contains two chapters, the first summarizing Greco-Roman philosophy (usually Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism) and a brief look at modern thinking on the topic. In the second chapter, he describes how Christianity addressed the issue. Pennington creates a mini-biblical theology on the topic, surveying the whole canon. For example, commenting on Christian relationships, “every book of the New Testament contains instructions for the new Christian politeia, life together” (173).
Some Christians think philosophy and Christianity are opposite ends of a spectrum, so that anything a philosopher says is suspect (or assumed wrong). Because they are both dealing with the most basic questions of life, ancient philosophers sought answers to the same questions Scripture addresses. What is remarkable is how close a biblical view of emotions or relationships is to ancient philosophy.
Under the heading, “Being Human and Happy” Pennington describes Christianity as a sort of “pursuit of happiness.” Christianity is about living a whole, meaningful, and flourishing life. By flourishing life, Pennington means nothing at all like the “health and wealth gospel” or happiness, as defined in contemporary American pop culture. He does not mean Christianity promises someone will be a wealthy, successful person if they are just “spiritual” enough. The problem with the modern pursuit of happiness is that “happiness has been defined as health, wealth, possessions, status, etc. they will flourish in the place where God has called them.
It might surprise some readers to find Christianity described the way to live a happy life since contemporary American Christianity seems dissatisfied with life and is often cranky about other people’s sins (while secretly enjoying them). But that is not biblical Christianity!
In some ways, Jesus the Great Philosopher is like Pennington’s book on the Sermon on the Mount (reviewed here). In that book he suggested the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14).
Conclusion. Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher is an excellent introduction to what the Bible has to say about being human and living in a Christian community. The book is written for a popular audience, Pennington draws from a wide range of pop cultural to illustrate his points and avoids technical jargon of philosophy. Jesus the Great Philosopher should appeal to both Christians and non-Christians.
NB: Thanks to Brazos for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.