Review of The Philosophy of Jesus by Peter Kreeft
Peter Kreeft. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2007. 162 pages with index. Hardback. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.
Kreeft, a long-time philosophy professor at Boston College and a prolific author, claims to do what no one has ever done: address the philosophy of Jesus, including the categories of metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, and sexuality. He also takes up Jesus’ ethics, but grants that many have written on this previously.
Having written a monograph on Jesus as a philosopher (On Jesus [Wadsworth, 2003]), I had high hopes that this book might add solid insights to this under-explored and much needed area of study. However, the book fell well short of these hopes. Despite Kreeft’s considerable erudition in the areas of philosophy and religion, he fails to explore Jesus’ philosophy in much depth. (The book also lacks footnotes.) The very idea that Jesus was a bona fide philosopher with an integrated worldview is disputed by many, and needs some solid defense. For example, in The Case Against Christianity, philosopher Michael Martin claims that Jesus actively disparaged the intellect, calling his followers instead to have blind faith. While Kreeft quotes a letter of C.S. Lewis that briefly argues that Jesus was just as much of a philosopher as a poet, he lets the matter rest there. Instead of inspecting Jesus’ specific patterns of reasoning or attempting to codify his worldview on the basis of a sustained analysis of Gospel passages, Kreeft rather addresses broadly Christian (and specifically Roman Catholic) themes. The book is not without insight and wisdom, but it doesn’t take us very far into Jesus’ actual intellectual encounters, his particular modes of argument, or how his worldview differed from those of his interlocutors. In short, it does not tell us that much about Jesus’ actual philosophy—how he reasoned, interacted with intellectual opponents, and developed ideas.
Kreeft is a very clever writer, who sometimes seems to revel in his own wit. This becomes rhetorically tiring and philosophically exasperating at times. Kreeft also tends to philosophize at a brisk (if not reckless) pace, often avoiding needful nuances and qualifications. Some of his reasoning leaves one flummoxed. Consider this riff about Mary and Jesus, spoken by Jesus:
So the universe was a womb for humanity, and humanity was a womb for Israel, and Israel was a womb for Mary, and Mary was a womb for me [Jesus]. Thus, Mary is the point of the universe, and I am the point of that point (p. 90).
Kreeft exalts Mary far beyond what Scripture allows, since it never intimates that she is the point of the universe, nor can any valid pattern of reasoning lead to that conclusion. Rather, she was obedient to God and thus highly favored (Luke 1:28). All things have been created by Christ and for him (Colossians 1:16; John 1:1-3). He alone is the “point of the universe.”
In passing, Kreeft refers to Muhammad as “a great moral teacher” in the same category as Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tze, and Socrates. However, Muhammad was nothing of the sort. Muhammad purloined some limited aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but denied the golden rule, reestablished polygamy (something Christianity banned), and advocated a theology of warfare (jihad) utterly at odds with the Bible. (For more, see Robert Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad [Washington, DC: Regnery, 2006] and Mark Gabriel, Jesus and Muhammad [Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004].)
Kreeft subscribes to a troubling view of sexuality, one that over-sexualizes both God and humans. This view logically leads to the inferiority of women, although Kreeft would deny it. He thinks that God is male, because God initiates in creation and redemption. Thus, men mirror God as initiators and leaders in ways that women do not. The implication is that men are more like God than women are, thus rendering women ontologically inferior to men. But the Bible never deems women as inferior to men in their being. Both woman and man were given authority to rule the earth and both were made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).
The problem with Kreeft’s reasoning lies in granting God a gender at all. God is, of course, a personal being: “I am who I am” is God’s name forever (Exodus 3:14-15). God is not an impersonal force, principle, or substance, as pantheism teaches. We rightly refer to God metaphorically as “our Father” (as well as other biblical names and descriptions of God’s character) but this is not a sexual reference. This is because God has neither a body nor any need for a sexual partner in order to create. Rather, God creates out of nothing; but humans procreate sexually on the basis of what God has given them. Gender is a category of creation, not a category applicable to the Creator.
But Kreeft even sexualizes creation out of nothing, saying that God “impregnates nothingness” to create everything. Through this kind of reasoning, sexuality gains a theological significance it was never meant to bear, and women bear the brunt of the metaphysical blunder. (Moreover, nothingness cannot, by definition, be “impregnated,” since there is nothing there to be impregnated.) Kreeft does not explore Jesus’ radically affirming treatment of women, demonstrated by teaching them doctrine, never belittling them because of their gender, making them the first witnesses and preachers of the resurrection, and much more.
Despite these shortcomings, Kreeft levels many strong arguments against secularism and Eastern religions, using the teachings of Jesus as his point of departure. For example, he avers that India never developed a deep sense of human dignity and human rights because the largely pantheistic philosophy of Hinduism never strongly emphasized the personality of God or the unique, individual personalities of human beings (13-14). This may cut against the grain of multiculturalism, but it rings true. About 250,000,000 million human beings are still deemed “untouchables” (or Dalits, as they call themselves) in India today. (Many are now leaving Hinduism.) I was also struck by Kreeft’s short but compelling argument that the best reason to believe that God is love is the reality of Jesus Christ (24). Neither nature, nor human nature, nor history can provide enough evidence for this conclusion. But Christ can. (Moreover, it can be added that since Christ alone provides the necessary and sufficient evidence for God as loving, to dispute Jesus’ teachings or actions on the basis of some nebulous and non-biblical idea of God’s loving nature is illogical. That move would illicitly presuppose something (God is love) that only Jesus himself can verify as true.)
Despite the strong points of The Philosophy of Jesus, we still await the definitive treatment of the philosophy of Jesus, the greatest thinker who ever lived.