Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist
by Douglas Groothuis
Contrary to the views of critics, Jesus Christ was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdum arguments. Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it. Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application of arguments indicates that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds or arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: the relationship between God and morality, the reliability of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, and ethical relativism.
WAS JESUS A PHILOSOPHER AND APOLOGIST?
I had to face the question of whether Jesus was a philosopher and apologist head-on when I was asked to write a book on Jesus for the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. I already knew that Jesus articulated a developed worldview and reasoned brilliantly with His opponents. As I studied the subject carefully, however, I came to appreciate Jesus, the philosopher, more than ever. When Jesus defended the crucial claims of Christianity — He was its founder, after all — He was engaging in apologetics, often with the best minds of first-century Judaism.
Some Christians may be reluctant to label Jesus as a philosopher or apologist because they worry that such a reference may demean the Lord of the universe. One well-known Christian philosopher told me that emphasizing Jesus’ reasoning abilities could take away from Jesus as a revelator, a source of supernatural knowledge. I respect his concern but disagree for the following reasons.
Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos — whom theologians call the second person of the Trinity. As Christian philosopher and theologian Carl Henry and others have emphasized, the apostle John used the term logos to personalize the Greek view of the wisdom, logic, and rationality of the universe.1 Our English translations say, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos]” (John 1:1).2 Jesus embodies the rational communication (Word) of God’s truth. He is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We should expect that God Incarnate would be a wise and reasonable person, however much He may cut against the grain of human presumption, pride, and prevarication. Jesus, moreover, was both divine and human. As a human, Jesus reasoned with other human beings. He did not run from a good argument on theology or ethics but engaged His hearers brilliantly.
Jesus was not a philosopher in the sense of trying to build a philosophical system from the finite human mind. He appealed to God’s previous revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17–19; John 10:31) and issued authoritative revelations of His own as God Incarnate. On the other hand, Jesus reasoned carefully about the things that matter most — a handy definition of philosophy. His teachings, in fact, cover the basic topics of philosophy.3 As an apologist for God’s truth, He defended the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as His own teachings and actions.
When we inspect Jesus’ mind in action in several familiar stories from the Gospels, we see that His thinking was sharp, clear, and cogent. Not only should we believe what He taught because He is our divine Master, but through hard work, prayer, and reliance on the Holy Spirit, we should also strive to emulate His intellectual virtues because we are called to walk as He walked (1 John 2:6).
Presenting Jesus as a worthy thinker can be a powerful apologetic tool to unbelievers who wrongly assume that Christian belief is a matter of blind faith or irrational belief. If the founder of Christianity is a great thinker, His followers should never demean the human mind (Matt. 22:37–39; Rom. 12:1–2). In addition, Jesus’ strategies in argument can serve as a model for our own apologetic defense of the truth and rationality of Christianity, which I will discuss…
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