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Jesus the Great Philosopher: Recovering the Wisdom for the Good Life by Jonathan T. Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was released last month by Brazos Press. It’s a book that will appeal to a variety of readers, from students to professors, from theologians to philosophers, from Christians to the merely curious. Many believers today, particularly young ones, have become discouraged or have even abandoned the church because of a perceived failure of Christians to think critically and well. On this basis alone, I believe Dr. Pennington’s book is meeting a deep need. I know it encouraged and inspired me. I’m thrilled that he was kind enough to take a little time to talk about his book—and more—here.

KSP: Jesus is God. Jesus is the Son. Jesus is the Savior. What does it mean to call Jesus “the Great Philosopher” and why does it matter?

JTP: Recognizing Jesus as the greatest philosopher of the world doesn’t diminish any of those other important titles. But it does help us rediscover an important aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry – that he is a sage, a wise teacher who is inviting us to see and be in the world in the only way that will truly bring us life and flourishing. In the ancient world philosophers were not ivory tower professors disconnected from practical life as we think of them today. Rather, philosophers were disciple-makers, calling people to adopt a certain view of how the world works and how to live in it. This is how the Bible presents Jesus. Understanding this helps us appreciate what he is teaching and what the goal of the Scriptures is – to make us wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15) that we may become complete humans (3:16).

KSP: In the book, you show how the ancient understanding of Jesus as a philosopher has been lost. Can you explain briefly how that happened?

JTP: That it has been lost is easy to show; explaining briefly how this happened is much harder! I think within the West a big part of the reason we have stopped thinking about Jesus as a philosopher and the Bible as a whole life philosophy is because the Enlightenment was a movement to marginalize the significance of Scripture and the Church for culture. Christianity gets reduced to only having a voice in the “religious” or “spiritual” realm, where “real” knowledge becomes scientific, rooted in a thoroughly naturalistic worldview. As a result, the sophisticated and wide-ranging voice of Scripture is muted.

KSP: How is the common, modern rendering of Jesus as our personal Savior inadequate for the wisdom needed for the good life (in the words of your subtitle)?

JTP: As I like to say, Jesus is more than a philosopher – He is Savior, King, Lord – but he is not less than a philosopher. While it is true that Jesus came to rescue humans from the penalty of our sin and enable us to enter into God’s future kingdom, this description does not encompass all that he accomplished. He came not just for the negative reason of rescuing from death but also for the positive reason of bringing life and life in abundance (John 10:10). The universal human desire is to find life/happiness/thriving/shalom, “the good life.” Jesus doesn’t deny or denigrate this desire but speaks directly to it. He saves us so that we might experience the fullness of life in God’s kingdom both now and more fully yet to come.

KSP: What implications are there for the flourishing of our public life in understanding Jesus as a philosopher?

JTP: Throughout the book I seek to show how the ancient philosophers were very thoughtful and practical about the implications of their philosophies – that by adopting their ways of seeing and being in the world people could find the good life in the midst of their relationships with others. Relationships at the levels of friendship, family, organizations, and all the way up to governmental structures, need guidance and wisdom so that we can flourish. When we turn to Scripture with this topic in view, we find that God has a lot to say about our interpersonal relationships as well as how we are supposed to relate to society and culture around us. Rediscovering the idea of Jesus as a philosopher helps us discern how important these ideas are within the Bible’s teaching, helping us to not fall prey to the temptation to relegate Scripture’s voice only to the spiritual and personal realm.

KSP: When I read your book, I was delighted to come across the part where you write about one of my favorite contemporary writers, George Saunders. I don’t meet many Baptist seminary professors who’ve heard of let alone share my love for Saunders. What role has your love of literature played in your development both as a scholar and a believer?

JTP: I was also thrilled to see Saunders in your excellent book, On Reading Well! I’m a voracious reader of good fiction of all kinds and Saunders is one of the most stimulating writers around today. His stories do what all good fiction does – help us understand ourselves and our world more and inspire us to be more thoughtful about how we live. We are story people and great stories help us grow as humans. (You do a great job of exploring that reality in your book.) The more fully connected we are to what it means to be human, the better scholars and believers we will be.

KSP: What are some of the ways in which someone outside the discipline of philosophy can be intentional about pursuing greater knowledge and understanding of philosophy in the world around us (besides reading this book!)?

JTP: Related to your last question, I think one of the best ways to learn real-life philosophy (in the ancient sense of that word) is to read good fiction. I have found the great science fiction writers like Ursula Le Guinn, Orson Scott Card, Ted Chiang, and others are particularly astute at helping us think about our world and our place in it. So read good fiction! Beyond that, there are many good introductions to philosophy that help us explore the big human questions. When we turn to the Bible with these same questions, we will begin to see how beautiful and thoughtful the Scriptures are on these issues.

KSP: As you know, a strain of anti-intellectualism has run through evangelicalism since its beginnings. Do you think this has changed or remained influential in recent years? What is your greatest concern for the church today in this area? What is your best hope?

JTP: I think it’s still very much a mixed bag. Anti-intellectualism is alive and well in certain branches of the Church. This will always be the case, I suspect. But I do think the neo-evangelical movement of the 1950’s and beyond has had a positive impact in inculcating a thoughtful Christian philosophy as an alternative. I was a beneficiary of this tradition at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. There are so many thoughtful pastors and Christian scholars producing so much good material that I’m very encouraged about the future of the Church in the West, despite many obvious problems. My hope is that we will continue to model for the next generation a winsome, thoughtful, open-armed intellectual engagement with the world, rooted deeply in Christian orthodoxy. The Church is not fragile, Jesus reminds us (Matt 16:18-20). We need not live in fear as we follow our wise and wonderful Savior and Philosopher.

KSP: Thank you so much for sharing these insights—and for your book. It is a gift to the church.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places.