In the 1920s and 30s, European archaeologists excavated the Roman colony of Dura-Europos in eastern Syria. Sassanid Persians laid siege to the city in 256 A.D., so residents prepared its defense by stuffing soil and debris into the houses and rooms built into the city walls. To no avail, unfortunately, at least in terms of the city, which was defeated and never rebuilt. Seventeen hundred years later, however, the archaeologists uncovered a treasure trove of art and artifacts, all protected by the very soil and debris that had proved so useless against the besieging Sassanids.
One of those treasures was a house church decorated with frescoes of scenes from the Gospels. Interestingly, in all those scenes, the artist depicted Jesus as wearing the clothes and hairstyle, and standing in the typical posture, of a philosopher. Which poses the question:
Have you accepted Jesus as your personal philosopher?
If that question seems strange to you, it’s probably because you think of a philosopher as a tweedy Ivy League professor — no doubt an atheist! — talking in academic jargon about highly speculative questions that no one in real life ever even asks.
Regardless of whether that’s an accurate picture of contemporary philosophy — and in my experience as a college philosophy major, it’s not — that’s certainly not the way the ancient world thought about philosophy. As Jonathan T. Pennington writes in Jesus the Great Philosopher:
On the contrary, philosophy was the necessary bedrock for individuals and society. Philosophy in the ancient world was the lodestar, the scaffolding, the guide by which humans could experience true happiness; it was the vision for life itself. Philosophy provided the vision for the Good and the goodness of life.
Once you understand philosophy that way, as a vision for life itself, it makes perfect sense to see Jesus as a great philosopher — the Great Philosopher, in truth. To follow Him is to live out His wisdom in every area of your life. And didn’t He say, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)? If Christ didn’t come to offer us a partial life, why in the world would any of us settle for one?
Unfortunately, many Christians do exactly that because they have an attenuated understanding of what Christianity is. Instead of a philosophy for the whole of life, they see it as a religion, as a doctrine of salvation, as something that pertains to the spiritual life.
According to Pennington, the problem with this attenuated understanding is fourfold:
- “Our Christian faith is often disconnected from other aspects of our human lives.”
- “We naturally look to other sources — alternative gurus — to give us the wisdom needed to live flourishing lives, to find the Good Life.”
- “We have stopped asking a set of big questions that Holy Scripture is seeking to answer—questions about how the world really works, and how to live in it.”
- “We limit our witness to the world.”
In order to correct this wrongheaded interpretation of Christianity, Pennington surveys the “big ideas” of the Old and New Testaments, then examines how the philosophy of Jesus educates our emotions, restores our relationships, and prepare us to live happy, human lives. As he does this, he compares and contrasts Christianity with alternative philosophies, both ancient (the ones the writers of Scripture engaged) and modern (the ones we do).
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself at this point, It sounds like Pennington is just reducing Jesus to another philosopher, teacher, or guru. That’s not who Jesus is, according to Scriptures! And you’re right, of course, that’s not who Jesus is. At least not merely. Christ is God Incarnate, a truth that Pennington affirms.
But that truth about the Christ the Incarnate Word doesn’t lessen the importance of acknowledging Jesus as your personal philosopher — it deepens it! Here’s how Pennington puts it:
In comparison with the Christian philosophy, all other views on relationships, emotions, and happiness are fractional and incomplete (and sometimes just flat wrong). Or to think of it constructively, because Jesus is the actual Logos — the organizing principle of the world, the agent of creation, the being that holds the whole universe together — this means that his philosophy alone is whole, complete, and really true.
Several decades ago, Evangelism Explosion popularized the diagnostic question, “Have you come to the place in your life where you know that if you died, you would go to heaven?” It’s a good question, obviously, but most of us have a lot of living before we die. So perhaps, in addition to that question about our eternal destiny, we should also ask this one about our temporal circumstances: “Have you come to the place in your life where you know how to live life to the full?”
Jesus does, so let us hold fast to his philosophy.
Jonathan T. Pennington, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com.