Book Review: Jesus the Great Philosopher

Jonathan T. Pennington’s new book, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life, reintroduces readers to a vision of Jesus that is often ignored. Continuing themes that Pennington has developed in his more academic titles, this popular-level book shows readers that Christianity is not merely a message about going to heaven after we die, but also presents a powerful vision of human flourishing in the here and now.

Pennington begins by showing how the early church understood Jesus as a philosopher. But he helpfully recognizes that how they understood “philosophy” is different from the way the general public perceives it today. For the early church, philosophy was not abstract speculation, but deep meditation on what constitutes the good life. In particular, philosophy sought to answer questions about human emotions, relationships, and what it means to be happy.

The Bible, as Pennington shows, has always pursued these same questions. In fact, because Jesus is the divine “Logos”–the One who holds the world together by his own creative and sustaining Word–he is the only one who is uniquely able to guide his followers to ultimate satisfaction on these universal questions of human flourishing. He is the philosopher we need. Without deemphasizing the salvation that Jesus brings his people, Pennington powerfully demonstrates that salvation involves much more than we typically think.

Ultimately, Pennington has written this book to combat four trends that he sees in the contemporary church:

  1. We have disconnected our faith from the rest of our lives.
  2. We depend on outside gurus to guide us toward human flourishing because we do not believe that Jesus has the answers that we need.
  3. We have stopped seeking answers to the big questions of life even though Scripture provides answers to those questions.
  4. Our witness to the world has been limited because these are questions the world is asking and that Jesus answers.

A recovery of Jesus as Philosopher is Pennington’s solution to counteract these trends, and it is ultimately successful. Obviously, a book like this is only successful to the degree that its readers are impacted by its ideas. My advice: read it and follow Jesus the Philosopher. When you’re done reading, if you want more along the same lines, I recommend James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Both books powerfully show the connection, often lost, between Christianity and the human concerns with which we daily wrestle.

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