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Book Review

Do you have a reduced understanding of Jesus’ message?

How the Word presents us with a whole-life philosophy

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November 5, 2020

Ever since Adam’s rebellion plunged mankind under the curse of sin, humans have sought to answer the question of how to live full and flourishing lives. Historically, individuals known for providing answers to this question have been given the distinction of philosopher. At the thought of this title, most will recall thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, but one influential figure typically left out of such a company is Jesus Christ. This exclusion is probably unsurprising to most. After all, both Christians and non-Christians agree that he was primarily a religious figure, one concerned with making humans right with God. This project seems to be in an entirely different category than the philosophical pursuit of happiness in this world. 

In his new book, New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington (Reading the Gospels Wisely, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing) charges that though this vertical, religious view of the person and work of Jesus is correct, it only tells part of the story. He argues that the Holy Scriptures are concerned with more than simply how to get to heaven when we die—they also present us with an ethic for the Good Life. By walking through the big ideas presented throughout Scripture, the Christian approach to emotions, relationships, and other themes, Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher provides a rich and relevant guide into how the Christian gospel gives a whole-life philosophy that makes possible a flourishing existence in the here-and-now. 

Summary

Pennington begins with the observation that modern evangelical Christianity often presents a truncated picture of Jesus’s message that is bereft of his philosophical whole-life wisdom. He argues this has resulted in four key problems:

  1. Our faith has become disconnected from every other “non-religious” aspect of our lives.
  2. We turn to alternative sources for wisdom for the Good Life.
  3. We fail to seek from Scripture its answers of how to live rightly in the world.
  4. Our inability to confront these questions has limited our witness to our neighbors (10).

To address these problems, Pennington builds his case for seeing Jesus as a philosopher, beginning with a survey of whole-life teachings in the Old and New Testaments. He then explores three different issues and presents their Christian solutions. These issues include educating emotions, which involves liturgically shaping (not coldly disregarding) them in accordance with Scripture (104). Next is a discussion on restoring relationships with both individuals and broader society in which the local church is the central “worshiping polis” (168). To conclude, Pennington asserts that the goal of the Holy Scriptures is to return mankind to a life of happiness by “reshaping humanity into the image of Christ” (204). In this manner, he shows that the Christian faith is a philosophy that not only presents answers to the religious questions, but also a whole-life ethic that gives instruction for the Good Life.

A philosophy the world needs

Jesus the Great Philosopher is a welcome and well-reasoned rediscovery of the full scope of biblical teaching. It speaks to a multiplicity of issues that encompass human life, highlighting areas often thought to be separate from that to which the Word speaks. While the breadth of topics Pennington addresses is wide, the reader never gets the sense that he has overstepped his bounds. His insights are broad yet concise, informative yet nourishing.

The recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

It is also a timely and important work given the tumultuous state of affairs of the past year. For a time in which people are more isolated, angry, and confused than anything in recent memory, Pennington’s book demonstrates that Christianity addresses these issues by offering salvation through faith and the instruction that makes possible a full and abundant life (John 10:10). 

Thy kingdom come

Jesus the Great Philosopher also speaks directly to the belief often implicitly held by modern evangelicals that the redemption offered by Christ merely affects our individual souls rather than creation in its entirety. Its commentary challenges the common American anticipation of an eschatalogical departure from the physical realm to a heavenly existence. Indeed, Pennington’s work helps remind us that the redemption Christ brings isn’t an escape from this world. Rather, “It is the message that God reigns and he is now finally bringing his kingdom from heaven to earth—through Jesus himself” (165)!

This kingdom-focused mindset prompts us to defy a detachment from this world and adopt a God-and-neighbor focus that allows us to embrace and enjoy life to the full. As such, the human experience and its enjoyment are dependent on a right view and ordering of our emotions. While it is important to recognize the necessity for contentment in all things (Phil. 4:10-14) and to model the Lord’s impassibility, to imitate our Savior means to reflect him as he was: “fully emotional, but in a way that was always harmonious, not imbalanced, inappropriate, or disordered” (111). A biblically-informed shaping of our emotions helps us to rightly order the objects of our love such that the Good Life is made possible. 

This right ordering of our desires finally gives us the capacity to delight in this world as God intended. This is not to say that we enjoy such blessings apart from the One who gives them. On the contrary, we delight in them through him. But the recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Pennington writes that the Christian philosophy emphasizes “an honest assessment of the brokenness of life that is always oriented toward a sure hope for God’s restoration of true flourishing to the world” (218).

Overall, Jesus the Great Philosopher is a clear and enjoyable text that presents an important rediscovery of the broad and robust message of the Holy Scriptures. Pennington effectively addresses a wide range of issues with a skillful yet conversational tone, providing the reader with an active and engaging text. Timely and relevant, this book gives Christians the important reminder that our Lord and Savior is also our Philosopher who gives us not only redemption and salvation, but also the tools necessary for the Good Life.

Isaac Whitney

Isaac Whitney is a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as a pastoral intern at Christ Church West Chester in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Read More by this Author