WeeklyTech #102

A conversation with Dr. Jonathan Pennington about Jesus and Philosophy

This is a transcription of the WeeklyTech Podcast interview with Dr. Jonathan Pennington. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app to get new episodes each Monday morning or listen online.

Jason: In this episode, I’m joined by my friend, Dr. Jonathan Pennington, who’s an associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Pennington holds a PhD in New Testament studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He’s the author of numerous works, including The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Reading the Gospels Wisely, and Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. He’s also on the preaching staff at Sojourn Church East in Louisville, Kentucky. In this episode, we talk about his latest book, Jesus The Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life on how Philosophy connects to our everyday lives. So let’s join our conversation.

Dr. Pennington, thank you so much for joining us here on WeeklyTech. Today, we’re going to focus on your new book. Often when we talk about Jesus, we use names like Prophet, Priest, King, and savior, but in your book you help believers rediscover the idea that Jesus is the great philosopher. I think when most people hear the term philosophy, they think of a class that they had to take in seminary or in college that was kind of boring and seemed disconnected from life. But what does it mean that Jesus is the great philosopher? And how does that connect with our everyday life as believers?

Dr. Pennington: Yeah, that’s such a great question. I hope a philosophy class in seminary wasn’t too boring. I guess that’s a possibility. But for sure, probably in college for a lot of people, I realized that philosophy sounds very abstract and disconnected from life. And in the book I talk about that a little bit. I remember my first philosophy class in college at a state university was just that, it was kind of random things like does a chair exist when we leave the room and how do we know that, all this kind of stuff. But it was only in the last 10 or so years of my own research and writing and work that I discovered that that’s not what philosophy was in the ancient world.

Philosophy was something so much more comprehensive and practical and meaningful. It was really: how do you live well? That the great philosophers that you hear about, you know, Aristotle and Plato and Socrates and later Seneca and others, they really were trying to help people learn to to view life in a certain way that would help you flourish or thrive. And so that’s what I’m trying to do, is just kind of help people rediscover this older sense of philosophy. And when you do, you realize that that’s the world that Judaism and Christianity are living in as well, and that the Bible is really presenting itself as a very thoughtful philosophy of life and in Jesus The Great Philosopher now, as you just said in your comments, He’s more than that. He’s a Savior. He’s Lord. He’s God incarnate, but he’s not less than that. He’s also offering a true vision for how to live well, according to God and then his future kingdom, that’s what I’m trying to do, is trying to rediscover that image of Jesus as a philosopher in that ancient sense.

Jason: Early on in the book, you use a really great illustration of a chest of drawers as a compartmentalized life, where we treat Jesus as simply the spiritual part of our life. We often don’t clearly see how Jesus really is the whole chest of drawers. He speaks into every single area of our life. So how would you say that Jesus and Christianity can become more than just a compartmentalized aspect of our life?

Dr. Pennington: Yeah, that’s right. That’s another really good question. I think one of the things that I’ve come to see over the years of teaching and thinking about the Bible is that it all depends on what questions we ask of the Bible. And if we only ask historical or like theological questions in the sense of like, you know, abstract ideas about God, et cetera, which are certainly fine to ask about the Bible, we should ask those questions and the Bible will answer them. But if we only ask those, we’re missing part of what the Bible’s trying to teach us, it’s also teaching us, again, a vision of life, a way of being.

I often describe it as the difference between a vertical and horizontal set of questions like we’re accustomed to reading the Bible with this vertical set of religious questions and theological questions. But we’ve often stopped asking the Bible questions about this horizontal level, like how should we live in relationship with each other? What is true friendship like, or what does it mean to truly be happy? And where do you find meaningfulness and work and those kinds of really ancient philosophical or universal human questions. That’s where that chest of drawers idea comes in, is that we’ve stopped asking a set of really important questions of the Bible, a set of questions the Bible’s not afraid to answer because God created us and he is giving holy scripture to us to to shape us and to shape who we are as people and to teach us how to live. And so rather than just going to the Bible with the questions about religion and theology, we need to also go with the really practical questions of: how do you live well in this life? And when we do again, we’ll discover the Bible has very thoughtful and wise answers.

Jason: That’s one thing I really appreciate about your book. You help us to see that fullness of the Christian life. l also really appreciate how you walk through four main areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. For some listeners, those might be brand new concepts and for others those are familiar categories. Can you give us a brief overview of those areas of philosophy and how they relate to some of these big questions that you’re posing us to ask of the Bible?

Dr. Pennington: Yeah, I almost didn’t use those words because I really wanted the book to be very accessible. I wanted a book that anyone could pick up and read with enjoyment. But I felt like I needed to use those words because they’re really helpful ones. So really briefly, what they are and I explain this in the book as well, metaphysics just means what is the nature of the world, I mean, how is it structured? How is it put together? How does it function? Epistemology is the question of how do you really know something. How do you know anything? How do you really know something truly? Ethics is what is the good. What is the really good thing to pursue? What are the good things to pursue in life and how do you pursue them? And then politics, that’s the word that’s the weirdest sounding because that sounds to us like, you know, issues of political parties or something. But politics is a bigger category of relationships in society, like how how should governments be structured? How should we relate to each other? How should the organizations we create function? So those four big ideas are really, really important for us to live good lives.

Again, the ancient philosophers talked a lot about each of those really explicitly and that they’re all interconnected. So, however you think the universe really is going to affect how, you know, things and especially how you live ethically, as well as how do you live in relationships politically. So, again, what I’m suggesting is that when we go back to the Bible that we love, when we go back to the Bible and ask those four kinds of questions, what’s the nature of the universe? How do we know things? What’s the good and how do we pursue it? How do we structure our relationships? We discover, maybe surprisingly, that the Bible is actually trafficking those ideas. It’s very happily addressing those issues and not really even just this kind of side notes, but as really central to what it’s offering to people that the Old Testament and the New Testament are offering a very sophisticated and thoughtful metaphysic, epistemology, ethic and politic. And so, again, it’s learning to ask another set of questions of the Bible that we’ve kind of lost, that Christians used to ask all the time, but we’ve kind of lost it. And that’s what I’m trying to help us rediscover.

Jason: Earlier, you mentioned some of the great philosophers: Plato and Aristotle, Socrates. Who are these ancient philosophers and how does Jesus the philosopher engage in these questions that you’re talking about pursuing the good life and happiness?

Dr. Pennington: Yeah, the reason I mentioned the great Greek philosophers, starting with especially the Socratic style or the Socratic turns of a Socrates, but especially Plato and Aristotle, they were you know, there are lots of other philosophers before them and after, but those are kind of the big three in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition that really focus on, again, how to live a good life, especially Plato and Aristotle, and how do you structure society and all that. The reason they’re particularly important, I think, is because by the time you get to Christianity, Judaism has already been deeply interacting with that Greek world for a few hundred years because, you know, without getting too deep into history, but just to recall that the whole area of Israel and Palestine had been overrun by Alexander the Great and then a series of people after him. There was a big impact of that in that Judaism, around the time of Jesus, found itself again deeply interacting with the Greek world. That was very influential. And then by the time you get right into the first century of Jesus, that world has kind of been overtaken by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, too, is a very philosophical world. So you get into the sort of Roman philosophers, especially the Stoics, like Seneca, all their ideas and their writings and their habits are very much in the air of Judaism and Christianity by the time of the first century. So, I’m not suggesting that Jesus was like reading Aristotle and then, you know, responding to it or something. But everybody is a person of their own culture and time and we’re always interacting with what’s in the air around us.

So, too, we know that what was in the air around Jesus in the 1st century, we’re a lot of things: expectations for a messiah, hopes for the kingdom of God to come, obviously, the story of Israel was central. But another thing that was very much in the air were these questions of how do you live well? How do you truly know what’s right? What is true happiness? And I’m suggesting that the New Testament is clearly answering these questions. Again, you think of Jesus Sermon on the Mount and you mentioned Jason, an earlier book I did called The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. I unpack some of these ideas in there as well. But I suggest that there’s no doubt that when Jesus opens his mouth at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and gives nine statements that we typically call the Beatitudes, those are technically called Macerisms. Those are statements about true happiness. Right in the very first sermon of Jesus, even though I don’t think he is making a commentary on Aristotle, per se, I do think he’s offering something that would have made total sense to anybody living in the 1st century, that Jesus is offering a different answer to what it truly means to be really happy. So he starts with nine macerism statements. Now, what he says about what’s happy is pretty crazy from the perspective of most ancient philosophers. I mean, the things he says about embracing suffering and looking ahead to God’s coming kingdom, and these kind of things are are not exactly what other philosophers would have answered. But he’s answering the same kind of question that they were answering as well.

Jason: Yeah, one of my favorite things about sitting under your teaching is you come to a lot of these questions from a pastoral angle, but also an angle of biblical scholarship. You have your PhD in the New Testament and you teach New Testament there at Southern Seminary. You were one of my favorite professors at Southern. Now I have the privilege of being part of the doctoral programs that you helped lead. Some of my fondest memories are sitting in your Sermon on the Mount class or your Matthew class, your New Testament classes, and hearing so much of the background that goes into a lot of these questions in the debates. That’s one of the reasons I really recommend this book to listeners is because you’re coming at it from a biblical scholarship perspective. So there’s so much history that’s tied into a lot of the philosophical concepts. I know in the book you focus on some of the big philosophical questions of the Old Testament and then also the New. You spoke on a little bit of the New just a minute ago. What are some of the concepts in the Old Testament that we see that is the big kind of philosophical questions that are being raised?

Dr. Pennington: Well, that’s all very kind. Jason, I’ve loved having you as a student, and it’s great to connect with you again. So I guess I just go back to those four big hooks I used before metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. Again, if you look at the Old Testament, it is clearly revealing that God cares about those issues and maybe the metaphysics you could start right from Genesis 1:1, right? Is that that God has created the world, that the world’s not the child of two Egyptian gods that have had sexual relations and have spit out this you know, this matter that we know or any other of the thousand other mythologies in the ancient world. Knowing doesn’t come about by slicing yourself with razors and dancing around an altar or through some mysterious religious cult or something. And what is the good is not just a function of trying to figure out what’s best for society and how do you structure society is not just something we make up through our own thoughts.

The Bible has answers to every one of those things, that God created the world and he created humans in a certain way and there in his image, and they’re meant to relate to each other in certain ways. And that knowledge and wisdom is a function of knowing God. It’s the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge comes through revelation of God, through himself, through the patriarchs and the prophets, and then finally Jesus Christ and ethics are clearly revealed that there is a Torah, there is a law or a set of instructions that is based on who God himself is. That’s the only way to live that will promise Shalom or flourishing so so I think that’s just a real quick answer to that, but that’s the idea, is that, again, if we start asking the right set of questions, we see, wow, the Bible is very thoughtful and the Bible clearly has a strong revelation of answer to all these absolutely foundational human questions and that’s true about the old and the New Testament.

Jason: I want to shift gears a little bit to address one of the chapters that you focus on about emotions in your book, which I really appreciated you including. I know in certain kinds of faith traditions or faith circles, there’s a temptation to treat emotions as a separate aspect of our life and really focus on the intellectual side of faith simply leaning in on our capacity to reason as opposed to emotions. Emotions are often downplayed or they’re discouraged altogether when you’re discussing some of these big philosophical ideas. What role do you see emotions playing in our lives? But also how does the Bible teach us about thinking through and kind of being emotional creatures?

Dr. Pennington: That’s a good question. You know, those chapters were some of the most meaningful for me. And I have done a lot of teaching during the writing of those chapters and after in a lot of churches and other situations. Your listeners may want to go to Jonathanpennington.com and if you go to resources, you’ll see there are several videos of me teaching at various churches throughout the country on this as well, some discussion of my own church and other churches as well, because this is just a huge issue. I mean, because emotions are a central part of what it means to be human. No one can deny that. I mean, you might have a philosophy that says emotions are bad, but you still are, which I don’t, But you still have you still have to admit that you can’t avoid them as a central part of what it means to be human. So they’re they’re always a part of it. One of the things that was most interesting to me is I spent several years sort of preparing and studying ancient philosophy was that emotions are actually one of the major topics in ancient philosophy. You know, that’s so surprising, isn’t it? Because, again, when we think of modern philosophy, we think of very esoteric, abstract ideas. But, because ancient philosophers were so practical and cared so much about human flourishing, they talked a ton about emotions. Whether it’s Plato or Aristotle or again, getting into the Stoics especially, they talked a lot about what our emotions, what’s the nature of humanity and what part do emotions play in relation to reason or rationality.

They all have different opinions. There’s a big difference between what Plato says and what Aristotle says and then the tradition that becomes dominant, I mean completely dominant by the time of the first century and before that, what’s called stoicism. All those people have very particular instructions for their disciples, for their followers, about how to think about emotions and how to manage them, or as I call in those chapters, educate them how to educate emotions. So what I do is that I explore what were the various views that ancient people said about emotions. And then I kind of pulled those threads up into the modern period and talk about different views within neurology and psychology and therapy and others, and show that really all the different views we have about emotions today are just kind of variations on those same debates that are going on in the ancient world. Just we have a little bit more technology now. But it’s still basically the same ideas. And then I turn to the Bible and show that the Bible, again, has a very thoughtful view of emotions. That the Bible encourages us that to be human is to have emotions and that that’s not a bad thing, that Jesus himself had emotions and that that’s not a bad thing. That’s part of what it means to be made in God’s image and that is the heartbeat of the Bible.

The book in the center of the Bible, The Psalter, is a book full of emotions, anger and lament, and joy and sadness and confusion, love, and so we could go on and on. But the point is that the Bible, again, encourages us that emotions are normal and a natural part of what it means to be human. They’re not a bad thing. They’re important windows. They educate us and at the same time, they’re something that we can learn to train and shape in certain godly ways over time, through prayer and meditation and reflection and practice. And so I think it’s, again, a very nuanced or even sophisticated view of emotions that the Bible has that I think are very practical as we try to live out our lives. You know when I think of tumultuous times in our country with pandemics and elections and things like that, I mean, I’m aware, myself,  of a lot of emotions that get triggered and I’m upset about this or that. I’ve really learned from the things that I end up writing in this book that it’s good to pay attention to that and that I can learn through biblical teaching to educate and shape my emotions in certain ways that doesn’t deny them, but also enables them to not completely control me. That’s something I’ve really learned from my own sort of research in this book.

Jason: I really encourage listeners to grab a copy of your book. Dr. Pennington, I know you wrote this book hoping that it would be really accessible and I think you really accomplished that. It’s deep and there’s a lot in there, but it is very accessible. Even on this podcast, we’ve only been able to barely scratch the surface of a lot of the concepts and issues that you talk about. But as we close out our time today, outside of your book, what is another book or two that you might recommend to listeners who want to dig a little bit deeper into philosophy or ethics?

Dr. Pennington: Oh, boy, I always do such a bad job on book recommendations just because I think of a million things, but I can’t think of any one. So on the biblical ideas of knowing and how we know, so epistemology, I don’t think you can do better than my good friend Dru Johnson, that’s the author. Dru Johnson’s Scriptures Knowing. He actually has three or four books on this, but Scriptures Knowing is probably the most successful one. I know I made you read that in a class and so that’s a good one. And there’s others as well. Also along those lines, another good friend of mine, Jeff Dryden, Hermeneutic of Wisdom is a really good book on how to read the Bible as wisdom, and that is as shaping us as people. Those are really good books as well.

If somebody wants to study along the lines of what I’m saying about what ancient philosophy was, not from a Christian perspective, but just from a kind of historical perspective, the guy that really helped me was a famous French philosopher named Pierre Hadot. He has a couple of books that are in English that are really good. What is Ancient Philosophy is one of them that really shaped a lot of my thought. And he deals with Christianity in there, too, because Christianity is obviously interacting with us in the ancient world. So those are a few that come to mind. I’m sure after we get off, I’ll think of ten more that I should have said. But those are the ones that come to mind just now.

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