Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Philosophy of Jesus


John the apostle, author of five books found within the New Testament documents, in his record of the gospel of Jesus Christ recorded the summary of Jesus’ view on the three main branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. This pericope in John is located in 8:30-36. In this section of Scripture Jesus speaks about truth, epistemology, and ethics in the most profound manner. Despite the crispness and the clarity of Jesus words, theologians and scholars alike have failed to appreciate the reverberating consequences and the profundity that emerges within this text. First, and foremost, we should be clear about how Jesus was characterized by His closest followers. Jesus was a great teacher, a great Rabbi, and this fact is beyond dispute. His followers were firmly convinced that He was divine, God in the flesh. They were certain that He was the promised Messiah. However, next to His status as the divine Son of God, God of very God, Jesus was not celebrated for being the greatest theologian to have ever lived. He was not esteemed to be one of the fine doctors of religion. He wasn’t even revered as the grandest of philosophers. More than all these things, Jesus was viewed by his closest and most trusted disciples as the great shepherd. He was the Bishop of bishops, a pastor with a pastor’s heart.

Jesus and Metaphysics
Most Christians never bother with terms like metaphysics and epistemology. We are too busy living, working, relating, and watching Hollywood productions like ‘American Idol’ to waste our time on such brain-stretching concepts. While I am a firm believer in keeping things as simple as possible, it is simply impossible to keep everything simple. Some things are naturally and unavoidably more complicated. Of course, the less familiar a person is with a subject, the more complex it will appear. Therefore, I strongly suggest that Christians become more familiar with at least the basics of some of these terms, if for no other reason that such familiarity will aid you in having conversations with unregenerate people who are familiar with the terms and who actually build their worldview around them.       

Most Christians are not terribly acquainted with the term ‘metaphysics’. Ordinarily, I like to provide a working definition for any term that might contain nebulous elements or that might not be as widely distributed to my audience. In the case of metaphysics, that custom proves to be more difficult than it should. Allow me to provide just one example of this problem.
“It is not easy to say what metaphysics is. Ancient and Medieval philosophers might have said that metaphysics was, like chemistry or astrology, to be defined by its subject matter: metaphysics was the“science” that studied “being as such” or“the first causes of things” or “things that do not change.” It is no longer possible to define metaphysics that way, and for two reasons. First, a philosopher who denied the existence of those things that had once been seen as constituting the subject-matter of metaphysics—first causes or unchanging things—would now be considered to be making thereby a metaphysical assertion. Secondly, there are many philosophical problems that are now considered to be metaphysical problems (or at least partly metaphysical problems) that are in no way related to first causes or unchanging things; the problem of free will, for example, or the problem of the mental and the physical.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

The area of metaphysics addresses the idea of being. Essentially, when we talk about metaphysics we are dealing with the reality of well, reality. Metaphysics is the attempt to say something truthful about the physical world. It deals with the origin, or cause of the physical and the reality that lies behind it. It is concerned with the first cause, the source of all reality. The question is indelibly related the question of the being of God. Furthermore, how we see God and think of God will determine, to a large degree, how we interpret reality. Fundamentally, there are two basic schools of metaphysics: Christian metaphysics and non-Christian metaphysics. The area of metaphysics is indeed a complex branch of philosophy. However, all the Christian really needs to know is fundamentally how the non-Christian perspective differs from biblical metaphysics and this will help equip them to encounter non-believers and skeptics who take an ungodly perspective toward the subject.
Heidegger wrote, “Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’? Not at all.”[1] According to one of the greatest minds of modern times, humans do not have an answer to the question of being, of reality, of how things actually are. The regrettable facts are that many modern philosophers and philosophies have been constructed on the foundation of views of men like Heidegger. Worse still is the fact that many theological systems have been tragically affected by this paradigm as well. Painting the desperate situation vividly, Gadamer wrote, “So we are led to ask with increasing urgency whether a primordial falsity may not be hidden in our relation to the world; whether, in our linguistically mediated experience, we may not be prey to prejudices or, worse still, to necessities which have their source in the linguistic structuring of our first experience of the world and which would force us to run with open eyes, as it were, down a path whence there was no other issue than destruction.”[2] Man’s quest for the truth about reality, about being, about our existence, apart from God has proven to be beyond our greatest philosophers’ reach. The picture is much different in the Jesus paradigm.

“Meaning, that pivotal term of every theory of language, cannot be treated without a satisfactory theory of signs.”[3]
The referent of a word necessarily precedes the word. Why would man need a symbol for nothing? The Christian view is that God is the author of both the symbol and the referent to which it is related. Jesus says as much in John 8:31-32. “When listening to discussions in this subject, sometimes one gets the impression that the term “metaphysical” has lost any objective meaning, and is merely used as a kind of professional philosophical invective.”[4]

“To mean is both what the speaker means, i.e., what he intends to say, and what the sentence means, i.e., what the conjunction between the identification function and the predicative function yields.”[5] That both of these ‘meanings’, what the speaker intends and what the sentence says, from an ethical point of view, remain the responsibility of the interpreter.
“What is required for a given illocutionary act, in addition to the utterance of an appropriate sentence, is not that certain environmental conditions actually hold or even that the speaker believe them to hold, but only that he take responsibility for their holding. In other words, what is required is that he recognize that what he is doing is governed by rules requiring that the conditions hold.”[6] It follows then that ethics govern the area of communication, the use of words and symbols to express and convey meaning from one person to another. Words are indeed a powerful tool in the human cache, created by God, not invented by man, for the specific purpose of displaying God’s glory in His handiwork of creation specifically in the area of relating to His creation. “Linguistic behavior, like most other forms of behavior, is subject to moral rules and rules of etiquette.”[7]

“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[8]
Syntactically speaking, we are dealing with a conditional statement. Jesus’ statement is a third-class conditional clause, meaning that the statement is uncertain but likely. What is likely? It is likely they will continue in His word! If in fact, they do continue in His word, then and only then are they true disciples. Jesus then says, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free! This statement raises many questions for theologians and philosophers alike. From a linguist’s perspective, what does Jesus mean with His use of λόγος in this statement? In one utterance, Jesus mentions word, truth, knowing, and a mysterious metaphysical state of freedom. Continuing in the Word of Jesus is synonymous with walking in truth. In His prayer in Jn. 17:17, Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”[9] According to Jesus, truth and His word are one, and the same. To continue in His Word is to continue in truth. Modern metaphysicians would take Jesus to the philosophical woodshed for this statement.

We read this text and ask, from what does knowing truth free us? Moreover, what does this word “knowing” in the text mean? The idea in this Greek word is to know, recognize, or understand something. In this case, that something is ten aletheian, the truth! Jesus obviously believed that the metaphysical conditions necessary to make this statement actually obtained. He presupposed truth about reality without ever attempting to prove it.
The Christian is interested in Jesus’ theory of reality or metaphysic. He or she is concerned to know and understand a biblical metaphysic. Truth about reality, as God has created it, is revealed in Scripture. “This metaphysic is so simple and so simply Biblical that non-Christian philosophers would say that it is nothing but theology…So I point out that the Bible does contain a theory of Reality.”[10]

Jesus and Epistemology
Not only does John 8:31-32 inform us that Jesus presupposed the existence of truth about reality, that he had a well-defined metaphysic in his philosophy, it also informs us that He believed we could know this truth about reality. Modern theories of epistemology are all over the map in how humans know anything at all. The most popular among modern atheists appears to be empiricism. This view holds that all knowledge comes through the senses. All truth claims must pass through the scrutiny of science and scientific investigation. However, not all truth claims possess the nature required to undergo this type of scrutiny. That is to say that some truth claims cannot be subjected to the scientific method. You cannot prove love using the scientific method. There are numerous things we cannot prove using science. We cannot prove that logic exists using the scientific method. We cannot prove that other humans have minds using the scientific method. In fact, the claim that truth exists is not a proposition that can be proven validated empirically. Hence, we required to conclude that there must be more than one way to validate truth other than the scientific method. Hence, it follows that our basis for rejecting truth claims cannot rest solely on a claim’s inability to show validity using the scientific method.

“For ‘I know’ seems to describe a state of affairs which guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact. One always forgets the expression ‘I thought I knew.’”[11]
Wittgenstein is right. To know something describes a state of affairs which guarantee what is known. In our case, what is known is truth. This is truth about reality, about how things really are, about the cause and source of all that was, is, or ever will be.

“When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)”[12]
The idea of ideas is based on, not many beliefs about one reality, but on one belief about one reality. The ideas of every worldview begin with one idea at the foundation and move up the tree from its base, the root. This is true regardless of how philosophers describe reality. The statement “you shall know the truth” implies but one truth, not many. In addition, every belief system contradicts that one truth is necessarily is false. Belief systems are like trees with branches. You do not begin with the twig at the top of the tree at the end of a branch. We begin with the root of the tree that serves as the life of the rest of the branches. If the root of the tree (belief system) does not correspond with Scripture’s teaching on reality, on truth, on how humans can and do know things, we cut the tree down. This is because every branch on that tree, to one degree or another possesses what is in the root. In this case, a belief system cannot avoid contamination of error in its branches if error is at its base.

For the Christian, Scripture must serve as the root of our belief system. Every belief must be anchored in the root of Scripture. Christ is our foundation. It is The Christ that is at the center of Scripture. His view must be our view. His presuppositions must be our presuppositions. We glean Christ’s views and beliefs from Scripture. If, however, we prefer another method, we unavoidably encounter a crisis of authority from which we shall never recover. Authority can only rest in one seat. For many American pastors, theologians, Christians, and philosophers, that seat is unfortunately human reason, science or experience. For true Christians, it is Scripture alone! Is it okay to respond to the skeptic’s claim that we cannot know, by asserting that we can know because Jesus said we could? I will answer that question with a question: is it wrong to say you believe something simply because Jesus taught it? Is it anti-intellectual to say that I believe we can know truth about reality because Jesus affirmed truth about reality? Are the words of Christ, of God Himself justification for me to make claims? Must we engage every godless philosophy conjured up by sinful men in order to refute their claims if those claims, while being different at the end of their twig beliefs, are basically the same at their roots?

“A biblical theory of knowledge proclaims the absolute requirement of God’s revealed truth as the tacit foundation of understanding and knowledge.”[13]

Jesus and Ethics
For many theologians, scholars, and Christians, knowledge has as its goal, expansion. That is to say, many people desire to increase their knowledge of subjects for the mere sake of intellectual renovation. They seek more knowledge in order to possess more knowledge. They are not unlike the rich man who wanted to build larger barns in which to store his wealth. Many intellectual Christians, theologians and scholars have the same problem with knowledge. Some wish more for the sake of more. Others acquire knowledge in order win arguments and debates. They want to be viewed as an excellent debater in their particular subject, be it theism or whatever. These individuals expend a great deal of energy to that end. However, when we survey Jesus’ philosophy in the area of metaphysics and epistemology, that is to say, how He views reality/being and how we can know truth about them, His end is fundamentally different.

Jesus says that our knowledge of the truth is freeing. From what does knowledge of the truth free us? In v. 34 Jesus tells us it is sin. The knowledge of the truth frees us from sin. Knowledge of the truth means we are slaves to sin no longer. Hence, we see that Jesus also has a very well-defined view of morality. Sin is violation of God’s moral law. Hence, Jesus believes in absolute morality. He presupposes that absolute reality, morality, and certain knowledge of these things exist when He says you will know the truth and the truth will set you free from sin.
So we see Jesus through the lens of philosophy. We recognize that Jesus believed in absolute reality that was knowable. Ultimate reality of course is God, who is the source of all truth. He is the very essence of truth. To know truth is to know God. To know God is to keep His word. To keep His word is to be free from sin, to walk in divine favor. It is to love what is right, what is holy and to eschew what is evil.

Jesus reveals in this one statement that He believes in the metaphysical certainty of truth and asserts unashamedly that we can know it. Nowhere does Jesus or any of His closest disciples wrangle about whether or not being is, or if it is possible for us to know it. Jesus presupposes the existence of truth as well as the human capacity to know it, contrary to most modern philosophers and even many if not the majority of modern theologians and scholars.
As Wittgenstein said, beliefs are necessarily part of an overall belief-system. Rather than critique individual beliefs, we should focus on the simple task of criticizing the root of the system. Christians demonstrate a belief to be false when they show that it contradicts the revelation of divine truth, the Scriptures. Let the word of God be true, and every competing philosophy a lie.



[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harperperennial Modernthought, 1962), 1.
[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing, n.d.), 546.
[3] C.K. Ogden, The Meaning of Meaning (New York, NY: HBJ Publications, 1923), 48.
[4] A.P. Martinich, The Philosophy of Language (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 99.
[5] Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Thoery (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 12.
[6] Wallace P. Alston, Philosophy of Lanuage (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1964), 42-43.
[7] Ibid., 44.
[8] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jn 8:31–32.
[9] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jn 17:17.
[10] Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: Press & R Publishing, 1998), 58.
[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 3e.
[12] Ibid., 21e.
[13] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 37.

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