Jonathan Pennington explores these ideas more fully in his book Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life (Brazos Press, 2020).
John 6 was an intense day for Jesus and his disciples. Despite having miraculously filled bellies, many stopped following Jesus because of his claim to be the manna in the wilderness that people must eat (John 6:53–58). He turned to his band of disciples and asked whether they planned to leave as well.
With words that have rung beautifully through the centuries, wholehearted Simon Peter stepped up with this response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Here’s the question: when Peter said those words and when John wrote those words and when other Peters and Johns and Marys heard those words for the next few centuries, what did they think “eternal life” meant? What scripts or narratives were evoked in their hearts by that expression, “eternal life”?
What Kind of Life Did Jesus’s Words Describe?
I’m pretty confident I know what images and evocations arise for today’s faithful reader. “Eternal life” likely registers thoughts of a never-ending, bright and heavenly existence that consists primarily of worshiping God forever. The adjective “eternal,” combined with lots of heavenly images and hymns throughout the centuries, has sent us down a narrow alley in our perception of what “eternal life” means.
This isn’t all bad. The endgame of the biblical vision isn’t precisely that—but that vision isn’t completely off either. The book of Revelation’s final picture does include whole, redeemed, resurrected-body worship in the presence of God.
Let me suggest, however, that the operative term in Jesus’s offer is “life” more than “eternal.” The “eternal” part emphasizes the certainty and long-lastingness of the life, but the key idea is that Jesus is offering life.
Moreover, have you ever stopped and wondered why Peter understood that Jesus was offering “the words of eternal life”? What does that mean? Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. When Jesus offers life, what is he saying? I suppose we could have skipped John 6 and gone straight to where he says it even more clearly—“I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” or “have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
So I ask the big question again: what did Jesus mean—and what would people have understood him to mean—when he said he came to bring life?
The answer may surprise you: he means philosophy.
Jesus, the Great Philosopher
Jesus means philosophy in the older and deeper sense of that word: philosophy as a way of life, philosophy as down-to-earth practical guidance for a life that is thriving and meaningful, philosophy as true wisdom taught from a sage. Jesus’s “abundant life” refers to the way of life he is revealing that can only be found, through him, in the lived space of God’s kingdom. This is why Peter says Jesus is offering “the words of eternal life.” Jesus has not only come to make an atoning sacrifice, but he’s also teaching, revealing, and instructing disciples into the Father’s way of life that alone promises flourishing.
Jesus has not only come to make an atoning sacrifice, but he is also teaching, revealing, and instructing disciples into the Father’s way of life that alone promises flourishing.
We still occasionally use “philosophy” in this practical-life sense when we speak of “our philosophy of business” or “his philosophy of golf.” This usage communicates that one’s business culture or golf style is shaped and directed and imbued with certain convictions, practices, and habits. This is what ancient philosophy was about as well, expanded beyond the economic or sports arenas into the entirety of one’s life.
And this is why, from the earliest days of the church, believers understood Christianity as a philosophy of (eternal) life and Jesus as the greatest philosopher. We see ubiquitous evidence of this in sacred art, in sermons, and in apologetics.
It’s helpful to remember that the famous second-century apologist Justin didn’t go by “the Martyr” as a self-designation. This appellation was granted to him only after he died for his faith. (That would’ve been a bit cruel beforehand.) His education, lifestyle, and self-designation was Justin the Philosopher. Why? Because after trying on the mantles of several other life philosophies, he finally understood that Jesus is the true and greatest philosopher (see his Dialogue with Trypho). Justin understood that to be a disciple of Jesus is to enter into a philosophical school of life. And as he became a Christian teacher, like his Lord, he understood himself as a philosopher for others.
More Than a Philosopher, Not Less
It’s important to remember that Jesus is more than a philosopher—he is Savior, King, Lord, the Son of God—but he’s not less than a philosopher. Indeed, because he is the other things, this makes him the greatest philosopher of the world.
So what? We don’t have space in this brief foray to explore all the implications of this now-lost vision of Jesus as philosopher. But I’ll conclude with a simple observation. When we limit our understanding of Jesus and Christianity to the religious, vertical realm of our lives, we find our faith disconnected from the rest of our practical, daily, horizontal lives. As a result, we look to alternative gurus and worldly wisdom to guide our understanding of emotions, relationships, happiness, finances, and a large variety of other aspects of our daily living.
When we limit our understanding of Jesus and Christianity to the religious, vertical realm of our lives, we find our faith disconnected from the rest of our practical, daily, horizontal lives. As a result, we look to alternative gurus and worldly wisdom.
While good lumber can be gathered for the house of life from many places, we have often neglected to build the foundation on the philosophy of Scripture. But by rediscovering Jesus as both our Lord and Philosopher, we can see again that throughout the whole Bible he is providing a thoughtful and robust philosophy, a practical vision for the abundant life both now and forever.