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Jesus as Philosopher: A Hermeneutical Approach to His Teachings

by Avery Merriel Smith, PhD

In this essay I lay out an argument for including the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the canon of philosophical study and propose hermeneutics as a means of doing so. I argue that this is in keeping with the mission of the Catholic university that St. John Paul II identifies in the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as well as the mandate he gives us as Catholic teachers and philosophers. In Article 4 of Ex Corde, St. John Paul II states, “It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. […] Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic university is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God.”   I argue that in order to best serve this “cause of truth”, we should recognize the philosophical nature of Jesus’ teachings as they pertain to our natural pursuit for and love of knowledge, wisdom and truth by approaching his teachings through a hermeneutical method and including his words within the canon of philosophy. 

It is appropriate that Catholic universities, theologians, and philosophers alike have routinely designated theology as the place for studying the word of Christ. However, I believe that the Catholic university and philosophers are missing an opportunity to incorporate Jesus’ words into the canon of traditional philosophical inquiry. From a purely philosophical study, I submit that Jesus teaches his friends, students, and followers how to live life well while doing it in company with others. This is the crux of what theologians call his ‘ministry’ and what philosophers can refer to as his ‘thought’. 

The rationale for introducing Jesus’ teachings into the canon of philosophy is threefold:

  1. While it is generally taken for granted that his teachings are purely religious or theological, they are also intrinsically philosophical and can be fruitfully approached through philosophical methods.

  2. His philosophy remains relevant to our contemporary pursuit of truth and may be applied in varying ways.

  3. Although the aim is not to indoctrinate, we as Catholic philosophers still have a responsibility to expose our students to the Good News. 
     

I am not suggesting that we take up the mantel of evangelization as such, but within our capacity as teachers who are followers of Christ and lovers of wisdom, dedicated to the “cause of truth,” it seems to me that our profession is a response to a calling to live out our faith by being examples of creative and critical study that can examine and challenge Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Jesus with equal academic rigor, scrutiny and interest, if not passion. Our vocation to the “cause of truth” requires both faith in Christ and the critical exploration of Jesus’ philosophical teachings.  In short, we need not do one at the expense of the other since it is possible to do both faithfully and authentically. 

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote The Philosophy of Jesus in which he explores this very topic. In this work he approaches Scripture and the tradition to crystallize and reconstruct certain philosophical aspects of Christ’s teachings. The success of this book is evidence that there is a desire for this kind of work and that it can be carried out. Nevertheless, I am also suggesting a methodological approach that is neither endorsed nor practiced by Kreeft: we must set aside Christ’s divinity and the salvific or theological aspects of his teachings and approach them through a fully philosophical lens. While Kreeft claims that his work is for non-Christians as well as Christians, he appeals throughout to revealed theological truths and dogma in a way that makes the philosophical results irrelevant to the non-Christian reader.   The approach I am suggesting, however, is that in response to Pope John Paul II’s instructions in Ex Corde, we as Catholic philosophers engage with the words of Jesus as philosophy rather than as the Word of God. What I am suggesting is more radical and will appeal to thinkers from all backgrounds rather than just Christians, since one need not have faith in order to engage in this authentic investigation. 

It appears to me that we as Catholic philosophers tend to shy away from Jesus as a philosopher, if we consider him as such at all, for fear of being accused either of evangelizing in a manner that is not academically serious or of straying from the subject matter of philosophy, becoming theologians in philosophers’ clothing. The former accusation can be rebutted in practice, namely, by carrying out this project in an academically rigorous way. As for being accused of the latter, we will have done the work to substantiate our arguments in referring to Jesus as a thinker and not just a religious figure. Moreover, there is virtually no philosophy that is completely devoid of any mention of a divinity, creator or absolute being either implicitly or explicitly. If religious aspects of a system of thought is not a barrier to philosophical study of Aquinas or Kant, then neither should it be a barrier to the philosophical study of Jesus’ teachings. 

There is a way to include, analyze and critique the teachings of Jesus as a human philosopher rather than the theological approach of the divine made incarnate.  The distinction is significant: In studying Jesus’ teachings as a purely philosophical investigation, the message becomes more readily acceptable as legitimate philosophy by those who are not necessarily inclined to consider that Jesus has anything to offer in the way of knowledge, wisdom and truth. With that said, we as philosophers will have to distinguish between the theological and philosophical aspects of Jesus’ teachings. Therefore, it is at this point that I suggest we employ hermeneutics. Paul Ricoeur’s explains hermeneutics in terms of interpretation and understanding in his work Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences

Interpretation is the art of understanding applied to such manifestations, to such testimonies, to such monuments, of which writing is the distinctive characteristic. Understanding, as the knowledge through signs of another mental life, thus provides the basis in the pair understanding-interpretation; the latter element supplies the degree of objectification, in virtue of the fixation and preservation which writing confers upon signs.

If we were to engage in an exegetical exercise, then our scope as philosophers would be quite limited not just in studying Jesus’ teachings but in studying most texts since exegesis tends to credit a more simplified explanation and interpretation. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, is amenable to more complex interpretations that can take the reader further in their understanding and application than that of exegesis especially since the contexts in which we are considering these teachings is ever changing. Therefore, in using a hermeneutical approach to studying Jesus’ teachings, we can still study some of the teachings that appear to be solely theological in nature, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, the many parables from the Synoptic Gospels, and allegories from the Gospel of John, as well as extra-canonical gospels and epistles like the Gospel of Thomas and the Sophia of Jesus Christ

As an example, the hermeneutical method can be applied to the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus discusses the Roman coin. Jesus says, “Repay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,”   we can interpret this on a purely theological level, namely give unto God what is God’s, but we would be missing the socio-political implications of his statement, which I argue can also be interpreted as instructions to be attentive and responsible in our communities. Jesus does not condemn paying taxes because they are necessary to the administration of a functioning society (city, state, nation); at the same time, in his assertion that we also pay unto God what belongs to God, he is instructing us to be aware of moderation, which is to say that we must not pay all our wages to either government or temple/church. This interpretation can be juxtaposed to Aristotle’s teachings on temperance and justice from his Nicomachean Ethics.

Beyond interpretation, another obstacle to including Jesus’ teachings in the philosophical canon that I foresee is the objection that these accounts may not be historically accurate. In response, an appropriate comparison would be that of our reliance on Socrates’ teachings as conveyed to us by Plato. The historicity of the dialogues is not necessarily a point of contention on which to object to the interpretations of Socrates’ teachings. Moreover, the portrayal of Socrates by others such as Aeschines of Sphettus could differ significantly from the Socrates Plato presents to us; similarly, the historic personage of Jesus of Nazareth may appear differently depending on who is writing about him and recounting stories of his life and teachings. All of this can be taken into account in our study of Jesus, as it is taken into account in the study of Socrates, in which we employ distinctions between the historical Socrates, Plato’s Socrates, and so on. 

I acknowledge that some Christian scholars may have concerns about including Jesus in the canon of philosophical investigation since it could be interpreted that embracing this inclusion is a reduction of Jesus to a mere moral teacher or diminishes his teachings to one of many from which someone may choose to follow. I believe this concern may be alleviated by our faith in the enduring love God has for the human being – in other words, we must allow God’s own work in turning the hearts of those who encounter Jesus’ teachings. Fear that Jesus may be misinterpreted (either his person or his words) should not dissuade the Catholic philosopher from exploring the relevance and value of Jesus’ teachings in the search for knowledge, wisdom, and truth.

The work of the Catholic philosopher in the Catholic university is not to indoctrinate but rather to expose students to various avenues by which they may arrive at Jesus, the Christ. The presentation of Jesus as philosopher does not exclude any possibility or reality of his redemptive power; rather it gives students another means by which to experience an authentic metanoia while enriching the resources from which we may draw credible and viable understandings and practices as they relate to the philosophical discourse and inquiry.

This distinction between the salvific and philosophical aspects of the teachings of Jesus is essential. To be clear: yes, we as Catholics believe in the humanity and divinity of Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One – this is one of the mysteries that we revere and accept. However, the belief in his divinity is not necessarily material to the philosophical study: one can study the teachings of Christ without being oneself a Christian. This approach does not require that we divorce ourselves from all faith in Jesus as divine, but rather, it requires that we do not make belief in his divinity a prerequisite to exploring his wisdom.

Lastly, fear of misinterpreting Jesus is a feeble reason not to engage with Jesus’ teachings on a philosophical level since theologians and philosophers have endeavored to interpret his teachings for two millennia never abandoning “the cause of truth” that is intrinsic in the message regardless of their mysterious nature. We believe that our interpretation honors the integrity of his message, but we must not be so arrogant as to assume that we have absolutely mined the salvific wisdom that Jesus offers. As a point of possibility, philosophy offers us the opportunity to discover and illuminate his teachings in innovative ways that are relevant to the context in which we encounter his teachings today.

The mission that we must uphold is in fidelity to the message of Christ  , which we can and must do as teachers of philosophical inquiry. Indeed, John Paul II says, 

… a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. It does this without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge, aware of being preceded by him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (8), the Logos, whose Spirit of intelligence and love enables the human person with his or her own intelligence to find the ultimate reality of which he is the source and end and who alone is capable of giving fully that Wisdom without which the future of the world would be in danger.

Without the inclusion of the Word, according to Jesus of Nazareth, the human being who was also divine, the scope of our influence on our students’ critical thinking skills and discernment is limited to that which is mundanely secular. Granted, we must keep in mind that as philosophers, we are not taking a position in our teaching on the salvific nature of Jesus’ teachings as such. To do so would convert the philosophical discourse into catechesis, which is not our aim as such. Nevertheless, we have a unique opportunity in the Catholic university to examine Jesus’ words as both philosophical and theological: as wisdom that can be explored through hermeneutical methods, as well as truth that is transformative, transcendent, and redemptive.

1    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html, sec. 4.

2    Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 1. One can readily see that Kreeft’s approach is often theological and Scriptural, see for instance 9, 11, 22-23, 90-91.

3    Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, translated and edited by John B. Thompson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 151

4    Mt 22:21.

5    See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), Book III, Chapter 10 and Book V, Chapter 3.

6    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 17.

7    Ibid., sec. 4.

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Avery Smith

Avery Merriel Smith is faculty in the Department of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. In 2017 she completed her PhD in Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. Her specializations are 20th Century Continental Philosophy, ethics and metaphysics. She has had careers in Corporate America and the United Nations, which have influenced her research focus: human relationship, corporate ethics and Critical Race Theory. Dr. Smith is currently under contract with Palgrave Macmillan for the publication of her manuscript entitled Black America and Existential Incompatibility, A Phenomenological Approach Toward Ethical  Solutions for Problem Groups, which will be published in the first quarter of 2022. 

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