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Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus

Quiz: Name the five most influential philosophy books in Western Civilization. Go ahead, make your list. Don’t worry if you are not an expert in the history of philosophy. Just name the five most influential philosophy books of which you have heard.

There are a lot of viable candidates for that list of five. The number of possible lists is vast. But there is one book that, while it should be on everyone’s list, would show up on very few lists unless mentioned in advance. What is this most important work of philosophy that nobody remembers to list? The Bible.

In terms of influence on Western Civilization, it is hard to think of a book which would rate higher than the Bible. The only question is whether it is properly labeled a philosophy book. A few years back, when George W. Bush was asked to name the philosopher who influenced him the most, he replied “Jesus Christ.” That answer met with much derision. It is not his answer which is odd, however, but the derision.

Jonathan Pennington has set out to fix this state of affairs in his new book, Jesus the Great Philosopher. It is a book which should never have needed to be written. The main argument is so obviously true that it is hard to see how anyone could spin out a book stating the obvious. The fact that this argument is not obvious, however, is exactly why it is good this book exists.

Structurally, the book has two distinct parts, though Pennington does not make this fact clear in the organization of the book. He begins with the argument proper: the Bible is a book of Philosophy.

There are two audiences for that argument, and Pennington does an excellent job of addressing both. First, he sets out to convince non-Christians that even if they reject the Bible as the revealed word of God, it still belongs on the same shelf as Plato and Aristotle. Philosophers don’t think Plato was God, but they still read him to think through his arguments. As Pennington points out, both the Old and New Testaments can and should be read by non-Christians in exactly the same way as they read The Apology or The Republic.

On the other side, Pennington addresses Christians, who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and tells them that they should also be reading Plato and Aristotle. If you really want to understand what the Bible is saying, he argues, you have to see how the Bible interacts with all the other great works of philosophy. The Bible wrestles with the same philosophical problems which occupied the attention of Aristotle. Far too many Christians find that last sentence to be surprising.

Pennington spends a fair amount of time in this first part of the book showing that the Greek philosophers wrestled with four big issues: Metaphysics (What is the fundamental nature of things?), Epistemology (How do we know what we know?), Ethics (How should we lead our lives?), and Politics (How should we organize society?) Pennington then shows that all four of those questions also preoccupied the assorted authors of Biblical books. Moreover, the philosophical insights in the Biblical books are every bit as deep as those in Plato or Aristotle. If you really want to understand politics, for example, you need to read both Aristotle and the Bible.

None of this should be controversial in the least, but we live in an age where both Christians and non-Christians are loath to admit that reading both Aristotle and Paul is necessary to understand the world. Pennington does an admirable job showing non-Christians that the Bible is worth reading and showing Christians that Plato and Aristotle are worth reading. One can only hope the message is persuasive.

Having done that, Pennington shifts modes a bit to demonstrate the truth of his thesis via application. The transition is a bit jarring because Pennington gives no clue that the structure and content of the book has just changed. He takes up three philosophical issues, and in a pair of chapters for each topic explores the first the classical writers and then the Biblical writers. His topics are the role of emotions, the importance of relationships, and the nature of happiness.

The discussion of relationships is the best of the lot. In the chapter on the classical tradition, Pennington examines Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Epicurus, and Cicero. As he demonstrates, friendships were not trivial matters to the Greeks and Romans; they were instead among the most important, if not the most important, relationships which people have. They were a central element in the discussion of how to lead a good life. As Pennington notes, this emphasis on friendship in older works is a bit jarring to the modern ear.

Moreover, friendship was not just an object of study, it was the means of study. Where did one go to discuss friendship or other topics of importance? Plato’s Symposium is a wonderful example; a group of friends lounge around the table, drinking and talking about the nature of love. These sorts of gatherings were common.

How common? Here is one of those “Why had I never noticed this before?” moments:

Early Christians also had a friend-gathered meal and post-meal discussion of great philosophical truths. But Christians consciously subverted this cultural practice in a crucial way. In the Christian symposium, drunkenness was discouraged and the radical Christian philosophy about the equality of all humans was the goal. That is, the Lord’s Table became the premier place to manifest Christianity’s philosophical belief that real and equal friendship was possible across races, genders, ethnicities, social classes, and educational levels. All Christians are friends. (p. 180)

With that insight, think again about Paul’s chastising of the church at Corinth for their practices at the Lord’s Table. It all makes so much sense; the Christians in Corinth were treating the Eucharist like just another drunken symposium with their friends. Paul tells them that friendship is so much more; lose the drunkenness, and share with everyone because everyone is your friend. That is a very powerful message of the importance and nature of friendship.

Insights like that are exactly the reason a book like Pennington’s is so important. It forces us to think about philosophy in a new way. If you are outside the Church, then reading the Bible will enhance your understanding of philosophical issues in the same way that reading Plato does. If you are inside the church, then reading the classical writers will enhance your understanding of Christianity. If you are unpersuaded that this is true, then you really owe it to yourself to read Pennington’s book.

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