Peter Kreeft. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: Saint Augustine’s Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Every kid in Sunday school knows that if the pastor asks you a question, the answer is always Jesus. And so it is with philosophy (9).
In The Philosophy of JesusPeter Kreeft (3-5) observes that we are all philosophers—even Homer Simpson, even Jesus. If we are all philosophers and espouse a philosophy, then what philosophy do we embrace?Philosophy (philo-sophy) is taken from the Greek expression for love (philo) of wisdom (sophy). Kreeft (6) divides philosophy into four primary questions:
- What is? (metaphysic)
- How do we know what is real? (epistemology)
- Who are we? (philosophical anthropology)
- How should we be? (ethics)
Why is it that we use intimate words like espouse (to marry), embrace (to kiss), and love to describe our relationship with wisdom?
Background and Organization
Peter Kreeftis a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. He structures his book in four chapters, one for each of the questions cited. These chapters are proceeded by an introduction in three parts and followed by a summary and indices.
Four Philosophical Questions
Let me say a few words about these four questions. Note that Kreeft considers the ordering of these questions as important:
“The logical order of questions is this: we must first know something is real before we can know how we know it; and we must first know who we are before we can know what is good for us.”(8)
In my own writing, I found it helpful to reverse anthropology and epistemology in this ordering. Our relationship with God comes first as person to person before we begin to intellectualize it or wonder how to respond to it. Our anthropology also seriously affects how we deal with knowledge and wisdom, which tends to give anthropology higher priority. In this sense, I agree that ordering does matter.
Kreeft (10) starts his metaphysics of Jesus with the observation that he is a Jew. This is an interesting observation because throughout history Jesus’ ethnicity has been deliberately blurred to make him more acceptable to gentiles. More to the point, however, is that God chose to reveal specifically to the Israelite people (11), who later in the Bible became Judeans and known to the world as Jews.
The distinctiveness of the Jews comes, in part, because no other ancient language other than Hebrew has the word, create. Only God can create out of nothing (13). Kreeft boldly proclaims that God can only be referred to as He because he impregnated non-being with being. The earth is Mother Earth, which is part of the created order that God stands apart from (14). The Hebrew God is transcendent, standing apart from time and space that are bound up in the created order.
If you think creation is a word game; you would be wrong. There are no paths up the mountain to God because he stands outside of the time and space in which we are bound. We cannot approach God metaphysically; he must approach us (51), which as Christians we believe he did in sending Jesus Christ. Creation is the reason that Jesus is the exclusive path to God. Obviously, lots more could be said about metaphysics here.
Kreeft focuses his discussion of epistemology on truth about being (47). He writes:
“What must we know? Only two things: who we are and who God is.”(50)
This is the person-to-person dialogue that I referred to earlier.
Kreeft (51) makes my earlier point about the importance of creation with these words:
“We can’t know God, ultimate Truth, by climbing any human tower, whether it is built of the babble of words or of bricks [Gen 11:1-11]. We can only know God if God comes down.”
God always must take the initiative in our dialogue with him (54). This is why Kreeft observes that no convincing fiction about Jesus has ever been written that credibly extends his wisdom (58). We can quote him; we cannot one up him.
Kreeft (69) observes:
“Know thyself, said Socrates, at the dawn of philosophy. But know thyself seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.”
Pope John Paul II observed: “Jesus alone shows man to himself.”(69) Kreeft writes:
“Christ is the answer to the question [puzzle]: What is the meaning of human life? Who are we meant to be? The answer is that we are destined to be little Christs.”(74)
The Bible says that we were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) so Kreeft’s observation should come as no surprise to Christians.
What are we to do? Kreeft writes:
“There are really three moral questions, three basic parts to morality: how should we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to God?”(95)
The basic answer to every question in Kreeft’s philosophy is Jesus, not a perfect answer, but a perfect person (119).
Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Jesusis short, readable book that changed my life. I have spent the last six years since graduating from seminary writing about these four questions from philosophy as they pertain to Christian spirituality. I commend this book to you.