Jesus the Great Philosopher | Book Review

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:

  1. “Our Christian faith is often disconnected from other aspects of our human lives.”
  2. “We naturally look to other sources — alternative gurus — to give us the wisdom needed to live flourishing lives, to find the Good Life.”
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan T. Pennington, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from

Grandstanding | Book Review

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s Grandstanding is a work of philosophy informed by psychology. Its authors evince no religious commitments one way or another, and they work from secular premises. So, you might wonder why I’m recommending their book in a magazine for Christian ministers.

The answer is that Grandstanding trains a searchlight on “the use and abuse of moral talk,” in the words of its subtitle. Moral talk is an intrinsic part of spiritual leadership. Proclaiming the moral excellency of Jesus and calling believers to imitate His example are among a Christian ministers’ most basic duties (e.g., Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). But with this duty comes a temptation to abuse moral talk.

For example, Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, only the tax collector went home “justified before God.”

Tosi and Warmke would describe the Pharisee’s prayer as an example of grandstanding, that is, “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” Grandstanding consists of two elements: “Recognition Desire” and “Grandstanding Expression.” In other words, grandstanders want “to impress others with their moral qualities,” the authors write, and they “try to satisfy that desire by saying something in public moral discourse.”

Grandstanding can take a number of forms. Tosi and Warmke identify five, which they term piling on, ramping up, trumping up, expressing strong emotions, and dismissiveness. The Pharisee’s prayer, for example, combines a strong emotion of disgust (toward lawbreakers and tax collectors) with an air of dismissiveness (as if the Pharisee’s righteousness were self-evident). All five forms of grandstanding are legion on social media, especially Twitter.

Interestingly, write Tosi and Warmke, “You don’t have to know you’re grandstanding in order to grandstand, nor do you have to say anything false.” Perhaps, like the Pharisee, you really think you’re that good and others that bad. And maybe the others actually are nasty pieces of work, while you’re an upstanding citizen by comparison. Regardless of whether you’re witting or wrong, however, you’re still grandstanding. Jesus criticized the Pharisee for exalting himself, after all — not for telling a lie.

But if grandstanding can be unwitting and truthful, what exactly is the problem? As moral philosophers, Tosi and Warmke draw on the three main streams of ethical theory — consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics — to describe what’s wrong with grandstanding. In a nutshell, they argue, grandstanding has social costs, it disrespects people, and it manifests a defect in moral character.

The social costs of grandstanding include “polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion.” Grandstanding disrespects people “by using others to show how good the grandstander is, or by misleading others about how good the grandstander is.” And it manifests a defect in moral character because to be virtuous, “you must do the right thing for the right reasons.” A grandstander, however, is selfishly (that is, wrongly) motivated.

Tosi and Warmke conclude Grandstanding by suggesting several strategies, both personal and social, for reducing self-promoting moral talk. As the United States enters the home stretch of its presidential election season, these strategies are helpful, especially for spiritual leaders like you and me whose calling requires speaking prophetically — that is, morally — to the pressing issues of the day.

But let us make sure we speak with clean hands and a pure heart. “It is far less important to identify grandstanding in others,” Tosi and Warmke write, “than it is to know how to avoid it in ourselves.” Or, as Jesus put it, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Only by doing so will we avoid the Pharisee’s temptation to abuse moral talk for selfish ends.

Book Reviewed
Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the September/October 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.


Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God | Influence Podcast

Publishers harvested a bumper crop of atheist book in 2006 and 2007. Letters to a Christian Nationby Sam Harris, The God Delusionby Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spellby Daniel C. Dennett, and God Is (Not) Greatby Christopher Hitchens come readily to mind, among many others. Each of these book claimed in one way or another that belief in God was intellectually deficient, a matter of faith rather than reason.

The philosophers who contributed to Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for Godbeg to differ. They think there are good reasons to believe that God exists. In Episode 155 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Jerry L. Walls about good  arguments for God.

Walls is Scholar in Residence and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, as well as co-editor with Trent Dougherty of Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God, which is published by Oxford University Press.

P.S. This is cross-posted from with permission.

Review of ‘Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’ by Anthony C. Thiselton

Anthony C. Thiselton’s Doubt, Faith, and Certainty is not a practical book. It does not teach Christians how to overcome their doubts, increase their faith and achieve certainty. Instead, it examines the definitions of each of those three terms, painting a complex, nuanced portrait of them using the colors of Scripture, theology and philosophy.

The author is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England. He is best known for his books on hermeneutics or interpretation, especially The Two Horizons. In addition to his hermeneutics books, he has published New Testament commentaries and several volumes on theological topics.

Thiselton opens the book by noting, “It is a practical disaster that in popular thought some view all doubt as a sign of weakness and lack of faith; while others, by contrast, extol doubt as always a sign of mature, sophisticated reflection.” Something similar could be said of the terms faith and certainty. By contrast, Thiselton’s “simple message” in this book is that “none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings.”

Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’s purpose is to tease out their various meanings and functions. While defining terms is not, in and of itself, a practical enterprise, Thiselton states that it nevertheless constitutes “an immensely practical and potentially liberating pastoral and intellectual issue.” Read the book for yourself to see whether and how that’s true.

Book Reviewed: Anthony C. Thiselton, Doubt, Faith, and Certainty (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review was written for and appears here by permission.

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