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Jesus as a Jewish Philosopher

by Matthew Del Nevo

An appraisal of Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus (St. Augustine's Press, 2007)

This is a popularly written book about the philosophy of Jesus rather than the Jesus of philosophy — at least that is the intention. The book scopes the philosophy of Jesus in terms of the primary questions of ontology, epistemology, anthropology and ethics, respectively: What is being? What can I know? Who is man? What ought I to do? The style is very direct, and what is lost in subtlety is gained in clarity. The book gets off to a good start but increasingly confuses the philosophy of Jesus with the theology of the Catholic Church as represented by recent official documentation. The book is divided into four sections aligned with the four prime questions. There is a subject index and a scriptural index.

So what does Kreeft make of Jesus' philosophy?

First of all Kreeft makes it clear that he does not occupy that ostensibly neutral or supposedly objective position struck up by many in philosophy of religions discourse. Kreeft's presumption in writing about Jesus' philosophy from a Christian point of view is not apologetic or polemical, rather he understands, rightly in this reader's view, that Jesus' teaching and person (like Socrates') present matters of intellectual substance that have to be engaged philosophically if they are to be engaged properly. He believes that Jesus' philosophy is not only of historical philosophical importance in the history of ideas, but still has a critical relevancy today. As a Christian he is in a good position to expound this, just as someone who knows the Greek is in a better position to expound Plato.

On Jesus' metaphysics or ontology in Chapter 1 Kreeft rightly accentuates its Jewishness and in this regard the uniqueness of the Jewish take on reality in which God, world and humankind are seen as ontologically other and not merged, submerged or seen as intrinsic to one another. It is a philosophy of otherness and difference. Kreeft could have been more definite about this point. The threefold difference of God, world and humankind demarcates Jewish reality from pagan reality which does not mark the ontological otherness of these three so absolutely, if at all. The Jewish take on reality is different from that of other religions and non-religions (pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, ontologism, atheism, prophetism etc.), and Kreeft touches on this.

Kreeft tends to describe Jesus' metaphysics theologically rather than out of the Jewish world of Jesus. Kreeft speaks of a metaphysics of love, but this does not capture the links back, in rabbinic thought, between God, world and humankind which can be encapsulated by naming Creation, Revelation and Redemption, as Rosenzweig has famously put it: Jesus has both a teaching on these links back and a personal stance that is re-creative, redemptive and revelatory. It is in this kind of metaphysical context that Jesus speaks of love. Kreeft argues his case for Jesus' metaphysics of love from the Name of God, but he is incorrect in saying that Jesus calling God 'abba' (father, papa) was revolutionary. It is not in the Hebrew Scriptures as such, although the Fatherhood of God is, but speaking to God familiarly as abba was common in rabbinic tradition. What is revolutionary about Jesus' philosophy is that he said you did not have to be Jewish to speak to God like this, or even religious!

Kreeft rightly asserts that everything else follows from Jesus' metaphysics. In epistemology, what we must know is ourselves, the world and God. There are degrees of knowledge and the key is wisdom. Again Jesus not only taught in the Jewish wisdom tradition but personified it. As Kierkegaard wrote in Practice in Christianity, 'the only explanation of truth is to be it.' Jesus' philosophy is in that sense 'existential'. Our knowledge will increase with our sanctification of the Name of God, and of the world and of ourselves. Kreeft rightly refers to prayer as an important key to knowledge, allowing us to draw close and relate to that which we need to know, rather than just to 'know about'.

Jesus' anthropology revolves around the imago Dei, the instruction that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Each person is infinitely other than God, but bears God's image and likeness in one major respect: each human person is absolutely one and only. Upon this is founded human dignity. Jesus' anthropology is one which seeks to serve human dignity and increase it upon the face of the earth, for God's glory.

Jesus' ethics revolves around the imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, which in Christianity becomes the imitation of Christ. Kreeft argues that we have to be 'little Christs', which I take it has to do with becoming all that God has called us to be, individually and as a people of God. The idea is that we each need to be personally responsible for our share in collective destiny, which is with God, to 'mend the world' (tikkun olam). Jesus' own philosophy was to do the Father's will, which he did, and which he enjoined us to do, and in which prayer and personal wholeness is the key to knowledge and true freedom.

In the second half of the book, in these chapters on anthropology and ethics, Kreeft's tendency to move from the philosophy of Jesus to the theology of the Church, becomes more pronounced. This shift will lose many readers not predisposed in like manner to Kreeft. The problem goes back to Chapter 1 on metaphysics which gets a little lost in a Thomistic interpretation of the Creed, which is an anachronistic discussion. But this kind of anachronism is stepped up in Chapter 3 on Jesus' anthropology. This chapter starts with the idea of Jesus as perfect Man and perfect God, which is Greek philosophy, not Jesus' philosophy. Kreeft then takes up the anthropological question in terms of the Socratic dictum, 'know thyself'. This chapter shifts into apologetics with a justification of Mary as the Mother of God, Catholic dogma rather than Jesus' philosophy. Chapter 4 on Jesus' ethics also shifts over into apologetics with an argument that ends with the assertion that, 'we are to worship the Eucharist'; again, Catholic dogma, rather than Jesus' philosophy.

Traditionally Catholic Christians have taught that philosophy is a 'handmaid' to philosophy. This is preferable to the Protestant response which was to try and expunge philosophy from theology, which gave them ideology. My view, the view of most philosophers, would be that any theology is no better than its philosophy. Traditionally Christian thought, that is, Christian interpretation, has depended on Greek philosophy, more precisely on combinations of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Jesus' philosophy — whatever it was — was Jewish, rabbinic, in the sense we read about in the Talmud, which reflects the oral tradition of Jesus' Jewish world. Jesus' philosophy was not Platonic or Aristotelian.

The problem for Kreeft, which his book bears out, is that philosophy for him is by definition non-Jewish. There is a long quotation from C. S. Lewis in the Preface to show that Jesus' style followed broadly along Aristotelian lines as found in the Poetics and the Analytics. But Jesus' style was halakhic and aggadic. Kreeft asserts in the Preface that it is not the style but the substance of Jesus' philosophy that interests him, his answers. Jewish religious philosophy has always revolved around the question, though, not the answer; on answers it is pluralistic.

Catholicism by contrast is about answers and is autocratically assertive about its own answers, both to its own global constituency and with regard to other denominational points of view. Kreeft needs to cross over from a culture of answers in which he is steeped to a culture of the question, in which Jesus was steeped. Moreover, in achieving the relevancy of Jesus' philosophy another bridge has to be crossed from an autocratic 'one answer fits all' culture to a plural culture. For we live in an age of philosophies, a pluralist age in which by definition there cannot be one overarching theological metaphysic because that would mean one underlying dominant philosophy, which is simply not the case in our time. Therefore we need to situate Jesus' philosophy in terms of an age of interpretation if we are going as Kreeft intends, to gauge its enormous transformative power.

Ultimately the lack of distinction between the philosophy of Jesus and Catholic dogma lets the book down. Kreeft has taken the ecclesiastical future of Jesus as the cue, rather than the Jewish background, Jesus' own world and the greatness of rabbinic thinking in particular.

In an age of interpretation when a lot of metaphysical theology is suspect, archaic and unengaging, the project of re-discovering Jesus' philosophy is important as a basis for Christian self-understanding, and then for pre-understanding in philosophical argument. Jesus' philosophy was certainly questioning and critically formulated in a rabbinic manner and it aimed to be foundational for the philosophical task of bringing heaven down to earth, a prophetic task in which humanity becomes all that God meant it to be.

© Matthew Del Nevo 2007


Dr Matthew Del Nevo
Senior Lecturer in Theology and Christian Spirituality
Broken Bay Institute
Pennant Hills
New South Wales