Many lists of famous philosophers do not include “Jesus”… Most reference books in philosophy suggest by omission that Jesus was not a philosopher. For example, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), long a standard reference work, has no entry under “Jesus” or “Christ.” The newer and well-respected Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) has no entry for “Jesus” or “Christ” but includes one on “Buddha.”
I am fully convinced that Jesus is a philosopher… and millions more agree on this, including two Presidents of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, an unflinching rationalist, who wrote and published ”The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth,” and the actual President George W. Bush who named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher at the December 13, 2000 Republican debate in Des Moines.
A “philosopher” etymologically is a “lover of wisdom”, and the essential condition of being a philosopher is to be a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning. By ‘philosophical matters’ I mean the enduring questions of life’s meaning, purpose, and value as they relate to all the major divisions of philosophy (primarily epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics).”
Jesus employs arguments and engages in rational disputes that reveal his philosophical prowess on what matters most. He used logic to lead people into truth. In that sense, he publicly pursued and declared truth rationally. Moreover, he articulated a full-orbed theistic worldview.
Perhaps by recognizing Jesus as a philosopher we can learn more about both Jesus and philosophy.
Many experts claim that Jesus Christ is the object of philosophy or philosophy itself… too big to limit him as a philosopher… he is God, the Savior, the Redeemer… why to limit him as just a philosopher?… well, to be a philosopher or a carpenter or a human being is very important and he should be recognized as such.
Faith, of course, is very important in Jesus, but belief in God is reasonable. Reason is not an enemy of faith but a good friend.
Philosopher Douglas Groothuis points out Jesus engaged in extensive disputes, some quite heated, mostly with the Jewish intellectual leaders of His day. He did not hesitate to call into account popular opinion if it was wrong. He spoke often and passionately about the value of truth and the dangers of error, and He articulated arguments to support truth and oppose error.
Jesus’ use of logic had a particular flavor to it, notes philosopher Dallas Willard:
Jesus’ aim in utilizing logic is not to win battles, but to achieve understanding or insight in his hearers…He presents matters in such a way that those who wish to know can find their way to, can come to, the appropriate conclusion as something they have discovered — whether or not it is something they particularly care for.
Willard also argues that a concern for logic requires not only certain intellectual skills but also certain character commitments regarding the importance of logic and the value of truth in one’s life. A thoughtful person will esteem logic and argument through focused concentration, reasoned dialogue, and a willingness to follow the truth wherever it may lead. This mental orientation places demands on the moral life. Besides resolution, tenacity, and courage, one must shun hypocrisy (defending oneself against facts and logic for ulterior motives) and superficiality (adopting opinions with a glib disregard for their logical support). Willard takes Jesus to be the supreme model, as does Christian philosopher James Sire.
Jesus indeed based “his entire ministry on faith and love” but with a lot of intellectual philosophy and logic battles:
1- On the Sabbath… the blasphemous statement:
Jesus healed on the Sabbath and the religious leaders challenged Him for breaking the sacred day by working. He responded, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Jesus’ disputants viewed His statement as blasphemy because “not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:17–18). Ancient Jews sometimes referred to God as Father, but not with the possessive “my Father” since they thought this suggested too close of a relationship between the Creator and the creature.
Instead of denying this conclusion, Jesus made six other statements that reinforce their conclusion that He was, in fact, “making himself equal with God:”
1. He acts in the same manner as the Father by giving life to the dead (John 5:19–21).
2. He judges as a representative of the Father and with His authority (5:22, 27).
3. If He is not honored, God the Father is not honored (5:23).
4. The one who believes in Jesus believes also in God (5:24–25).
5. Like God (see Deut. 30:19–20), He has life in Himself (5:26).
6. He is in complete agreement with the Father, whom He perfectly pleased — a claim no Jew in the Hebrew Scriptures ever made (5:30).
Jesus, however, did not leave the matter only with His assertions. He moved to apologetics by appealing to evidence to which His hearers would have had access:
1. John the Baptist, a respected prophet, testified to Jesus’ identity (John 5:31–35).
2. Jesus’ miraculous works also testified to His identity (5:36).
3. The Father testified to Jesus’ identity (5:37).
4. The Scriptures likewise testified to His identity (5:39).
5. Moses testified to who Jesus is (5:46).
Jesus reasoned with His intellectual opponents and did not shrink from issuing evidence for His claims. He did not simply make statements, threaten punishments to those who disagreed, or attack His adversaries as unspiritual. He highly valued argument and evidence.
2- The son of David:
Jesus’ use of reductio and absurdum philosophical arguments:
Philosophers and other debaters use reductio ad absurdum arguments. The term means “reduction to absurdity.” When successful, they are a powerful refutation of an illogical position. The argument takes one or more ideas and demonstrates that they lead to an absurd or contradictory conclusion. This proves that the original ideas must be false. For such an argument to work, the logical relationship between the terms must hold and the supposed absurdity must truly be absurd. Consider Jesus’ apologetic use of reductio ad absurdum in defending His identity as the Messiah.
Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” The reply was, “The son of David.” Jesus responded, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’” By quoting Psalm 110:1, Jesus appealed to a source that the Pharisees accepted. He concluded with the question: “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” which, as Matthew recorded, silenced the audience (see Matt. 22:41–46). The argument can be stated as follows:
1. If the Christ is merely the human descendent of David, David could not have called him “Lord.”
2. David did call the Christ “Lord” in Psalm 110:1.
3. To believe Christ was David’s Lord and merely his human descendent (who could not be his Lord) is absurd.
4. Christ, therefore, is not merely the human descendent of David.
3- On Satan:
Jesus employed another reductio ad absurdum when the Pharisees attempted to discredit His reputation as an exorcist by charging Him with driving out demons by the agency of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In other words, Jesus’ reputation as a holy wonderworker was undeserved. What seemed to be godly miracles really issued from a demonic being. In response to this charge, Jesus took their premise and derived an absurdity:
Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? (Matt. 12:25–27)
We can put it this way, step-by-step:
1. If Satan were divided against himself, his kingdom would be ruined.
2. Satan’s kingdom, however, is not ruined (since demonic activity continues). To think otherwise is absurd.
3. Therefore, (a) Satan does not drive out Satan.
4. Therefore, (b) Jesus cannot free people from Satan by satanic power.
For all their honesty in reporting the foibles of the disciples, the Gospel writers never narrated a situation in which Jesus was intellectually stymied or bettered in an argument; neither did Jesus ever encourage an irrational or ill-informed faith on the part of His disciples. With Jesus as our example and Lord, the Holy Scriptures as our foundation (2 Tim. 3:15–17), and the Holy Spirit as our Teacher (John 16:12–15), we should gladly take up the biblical challenge to outthink the world for Christ and His kingdom (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
When Jesus defended the crucial claims of Christianity — He was its founder, after all — He was engaging in apologetics, often with the best minds of first-century Judaism.
Jesus was not a philosopher in the sense of trying to build a philosophical system from the finite human mind. He appealed to God’s previous revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17–19; John 10:31) and issued authoritative revelations of His own as God Incarnate. On the other hand, Jesus reasoned carefully about the things that matter most — a handy definition of philosophy. His teachings, in fact, cover the basic topics of philosophy. As an apologist for God’s truth, He defended the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as His own teachings and actions.
Presenting Jesus as a worthy thinker can be a powerful apologetic tool to unbelievers who wrongly assume that Christian belief is a matter of blind faith or irrational belief. If the founder of Christianity is a great thinker, His followers should never demean the human mind (Matt. 22:37–39; Rom. 12:1–2). In addition, Jesus’ strategies in argument can serve as a model for our own apologetic defense of the truth and rationality of Christianity, which I will discuss.
Two American Presidents call Jesus Christ a philosopher:
1- Thomas Jefferson:
On Jan. 20, 1804, Thomas Jefferson ordered from a Philadelphia bookseller two copies of the King James Version of the New Testament. An unflinching rationalist, Jefferson deeply admired Jesus the man but disdained the cloak of doctrine and mysticism in which he’d been draped. And so, despite all his duties as president, Jefferson found the time to sit down in the White House with his two Bibles and, over several evenings, excise with a razor all those passages that related to the virgin birth, the resurrection, the incarnation and anything else that smacked of the supernatural. Only about 1 in 10 verses survived. Jefferson cut them out and pasted them into two columns of 46 octavo sheets, the size ministers then favored. Published as ”The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth,” this truncated Gospel portrayed Jesus as a wise man who spent his time wandering around Galilee, delivering parables and aphorisms.
Among Jefferson’s heirs were the Baptist preachers and Methodist circuit riders of the first third of the century, raising revival tents in mountain hollows and prairie fields and jettisoning the stern doctrines of Puritanism for a subjective emotionalism rooted in the ”private stirrings” of the heart. In place of the traditional Protestant rallying cry of ”sola scriptura” (only Scripture), the evangelicals put forward a new slogan: ‘‘solus Jesus” — only Jesus. Theirs was a very approachable Savior, offering solace and comfort to all who would embrace him. After the Civil War, the task of humanizing Jesus fell to liberal Protestant ministers, who, seeking to better society, cast Jesus as ”more a moralist than a miracle worker,” a figure who walked the earth not to pay a debt owed to an angry Father ”but to reveal to human beings the loving character of God, and to prompt them to develop the same character in themselves.’
2- George W. Bush:
George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher at the December 13, 2000 Republican debate in Des Moines, and other GOP candidates followed suit after the applause Bush received, so did Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gary Bauer.
The question was posed by the moderator: “Who is your favorite political philosopher?” George W. Bush surprised, if not stunned, his fellow candidates when he tersely declared, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my life.”
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