Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review of The Philosophy of Jesus by Peter Kreeft

[This review was first posted at Denver Journal.]

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.

9 comments:

Tony said...

Dr G,
Thanks for the review--will it be in the Denver Journal?
I read "Three Philosophies of Life" by Kreeft several years ago and thought it was fantastic. The book is a very engaging interpretation of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs as representative of the three possible philosophies of life. I tried to read a couple of his other books later and was put off by his seeming obsession with cutesy rhetoric--sometimes in place of solid argumentation. While I respect his philosophical ability, he has the same problem as Chesterton (though I'm certain he would welcome the comparison), in that it seems as if he's hitting for the fences with every sentence. A Bartlett's quotaton collection is occasionally fun to read, but a poor substitute for careful argumentation. At any rate, it appears his writing style is still an obstacle to the cute-averse. Does he reference your book on this subject at all?

Doug Groothuis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Groothuis said...

It is in Denver Journal. Note the first sentence of the post.

Kreeft makes no reference to On Jesus. He probably didn't know about it. I emailed him to let him know, but heard nothing back.

Tony said...

Ah yes, reading the first line of the review helps...

Jim Pemberton said...

As the Creator of all we know (and everything we don't), Jesus would certainly have an understanding of the universe that is perfectly coherently unified in every form, function and significance. One could call this a philosophy. However, this differs from the philosophies of ignorant men because ours merely fit in such categories as theory or description. His understanding as Creator doesn't fall under any such categories.

I would also consider that Jesus didn't fully expound on much of this understanding while He was here. His focus was salvific. As such the crux of His teaching to us focused exclusively on how His purpose here conveyed the nature of God and how it should be applied to transform our flawed views of the world. Granted, there's much to be said of a Creator whose eternal cohesiveness is exhibited through temporal submission, servitude and sacrifice. However, it is a mistake to assume that this is everything. This is merely everything we need to know for now.

Paul D. Adams said...

Dr. G says:

"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.)"

This is clever indeed on the part of Kreeft. Although metaphorically endearing to some men who are bent on their supposed dominance over women, it's neither biblically responsible nor metaphysically keen, as you note. After all ex nihilo nihil fit. If Parmenides understood this, why can't Kreeft?

JanusMagus said...

While Kreeft might get it wrong, he certainly believes God is male only because he believes the Bible teaches us this.

It's too bad this book wasn't a knock-down defense of Jesus, though. . . I think maybe he's taken to the task of writing too many books. I'll still check it out, and compare with On Jesus (of which I still need to read the whole thing--amazingly my University has a copy).

Speaking of books coming out, I'm eagerly awaiting Moreland's Consciousness and the Existence of God (forthcoming 2008) with Routledge (I wonder how much it will differ from his other forthcoming book God and the Origin of Consciousness: A Theistic Argument?).

evagrius said...

"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.”

Actually, Kreeft is saying something, though in a highly poetic eay, that is quite normal in Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

Mary, the Theotokos, is the "point of the universe" as far as created being is concerned.

Jesus Christ is not a creature. He is "begotten, not made" as the Nicene Creed states.

Mary,however, is a creature, the most highly favored creature since she had the privilege of giving "birth without stain to God the Word".

The high place of Mary in both traditions is due to the development of Christological doctrine in response to both Arianism and Nestorianism, the first reducing Christ to a creature, the second dividing His humanity and divinity such that they were two different substances.

Aaron said...

Thanks for the review. It is helpful--the blogosphere at its best.