Jesus the Great Philosopher: Interview with Jonathan Pennington

David George Moore

The following interview revolves around Pennington’s book, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life

Pennington is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as the director of research doctoral studies. He is a preaching pastor at Sojourn East Church in Louisville, KY.

Moore: Tell us a bit about what motivated you to write this book.

Pennington: In several ways this book is an expansion of several of the ideas I discuss in my book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. Namely, that the Bible presents Jesus and the Christian faith as offering a whole philosophy of life, not just a religion. This philosophy of “the abundant life” (John 10:10) is the Christ-centered answer to the great human question of what it means find and live a meaningful life. As I expanded my study beyond the Sermon, I found that the whole Bible was speaking directly into these universal human questions. This is how Christians thought about our faith throughout most of the pre-modern period, even though it is largely lost now. In this book I’m trying to help the church recover this lost understanding of Jesus as the wise savior and philosopher.

Moore: During a PBS special (aired in 2002), I asked William F. Buckley what he thought about George Bush (#43) saying that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Buckley respectfully thought the notion was misplaced. You think President Bush has the better of the argument. Why?

Pennington: In chapter one I mention this remark from President Bush. It’s difficult to discern exactly what he was trying to communicate. In context it seems more of a signaling to his Christian faith than a deep reflection on Jesus as a philosopher. But whatever Bush himself meant, I do think – as I try to show in this book – that the Bible and the early church clearly present Jesus as a sage, a great philosophical teacher in the ancient sense of that word.

Moore: Two “p” words that many Christians are leery of, or at least have some serious questions about, are politics and philosophy. You do a great job of showing how Christianity has much to say about both. Would you unpack a bit of this insight from your book?

Pennington: I’m glad you found it helpful! I think we suffer from a misunderstanding of both of these “p” words and that’s part of our problem. In the book I show how these are not bad words to be avoided but are universal and important human issues about which the Bible has very thoughtful and beautiful things to say. “Philosophy” in the ancient world meant a way of seeing and being in the world, a life committed to understanding and living in the world according to its true nature. This is exactly what God is calling us to in Holy Scripture in a comprehensive way. A subset of philosophy is “politics,” meaning the issues of how to structure our relationships and society. Again, the Bible, as the revelation of God himself, has a lot to say on these issues.

Moore: I have worked in teaching and discipleship ministries for over four decades. Many men have told me in one way or the other that they do not see how the Christian faith speaks to all of life. Why is there such skepticism about the practicality of the Christian faith?

Pennington: I have experienced that too. I think one of the reasons why is because we have stopped thinking and talking about our Christian faith in this way. We have let the world narrowly define the Bible’s realm as only dealing with the religious rather than offering a wise and true philosophy of whole life.

Moore: Dallas Willard said that discipleship was almost non-existent in evangelical churches. Observing many churches up close myself, I agree. I am curious to what degree you may concur with this assessment, and if you do, how a book like yours might be a tool to better help with holistic discipleship.

Pennington: I’m afraid Willard may have been right, though I can say at my local church we are trying to do better! I certainly hope God will use this book to expand Christians’ vision for the beauty and goodness of following Jesus. I am particularly concerned about the next generation of young adults. I hope this book will help them see that Scripture is not an old and outdated relic but provides a sophisticated and thoughtful vision for deep issues such as how to educate our emotions, how to structure our relationships, and how to truly flourish.

Moore: I have found growing interest in ancient Stoicism not just among non-Christians, but also among Christians. There is the popular Roman Catholic writer, Anthony DeMello, who talks about the importance of “detachment” and other related ideas. You write at some length about Stoicism in this book. To what degree is it incompatible with the Christian faith?

Pennington: That’s such a fascinating and large question – much larger than I can answer here! The shortest version I can give is this: I think Stoicism is the second best philosophy in the world. It was very attractive in the ancient world and it is today as well. Stoicism wonderfully emphasizes personal responsibility, virtue, and self-control. But compared to the true and greatest philosophy, Christianity, it pales and leaves one ultimately unsatisfied. Only Christianity can address the reality of suffering, teach us to forgive and love, deal with our guilt and shame, and give us true confidence for the future because it is based in the reality of the Triune God who is sovereign and loving, revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Moore: What are two or three things you hope people take from your book?

Pennington: I hope Christians and non-Christians alike will pick up this book and come to see Jesus in all his beauty and wonder and to see that Holy Scripture continues to be living and active, teaching us deeply about who God is and who we are. As I like to say, Jesus is more than a philosopher for our lives – he is Savior, King, Eternal Lord – but he is not less than a philosopher. Indeed, the greatest philosopher of the world.

David George Moore is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Leafwood/Abilene Christian University Press). Some of Dave’s teaching videos and contact information can be found at