Jesus as Philosopher and Thinker
Dallas Willard once said, “There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence.” What Willard meant is that there are many things we, as Christians, think of when we think of Jesus, but His smartness and intelligence are not often among those things. It’s true that most of us will affirm Jesus’ divine omniscience, but we do not seem to think of Him as generally a brilliant thinker. That is, when we think of the world’s great philosophers and thinkers, Jesus doesn’t often make the list. Or when we read through the Great Books, we read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and often blow right past Jesus and perhaps pick up with Plutarch to Athanasius and Augustine. We rarely read the teachings of Jesus as a great and influential work of intellectual history.
Why is this? Perhaps it is, in part, that Jesus did not often teach on the level of theory. Jesus taught us how to live (applied ethics) and what to think (worldview) without providing a specific philosophical theory to underlie this ethic and worldview. Though there is some truth to this, His claims and thought are still revolutionary and turned the world upside down.
A more salient reason that we fail to appreciate the intellect of Jesus is that we fail to make Jesus Lord of our intellectual lives. We look to Jesus for how to live morally and perhaps what to think theologically, but we do not look to Jesus as our model in how to think. We seem to think being Christ-like intellectually is simply optional.
The Intellect of Jesus
Jesus performed miracles and cast out demons. These things gathered a crowd, to be sure. However, Jesus also regularly put on display His intellect and wisdom. And people gathered and were equally astounded! There are far too many examples of this to mention (consider Matthew 7:28-29; 13:54-57; Mark 11:18; Luke 4:22). At one point, having heard His teaching, the Jews asked in amazement, “How has this man become learned, having never been educated?” (John 7:15).
Many of us know the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) by heart. But we often fail to notice the context and some of the implications of this command. The intellectual elites of the Jewish world, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, attempt to theologically trap and intellectually confound Jesus. This does not go well for them.
The Pharisees press Jesus about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If he says “yes,” then this recognizes Caesar as an authority. If he says “no,” He breaks Roman law. In response, Jesus requests a coin and asks who is pictured on the coin. They have to concede that it is Caesar. Jesus tells them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21b). And they were amazed! At what are they amazed? Jesus’ brilliant answer.
The Sadducees approach Jesus with an elaborate thought experiment intended to refute the idea of a general resurrection. We are to imagine a wife who has married in turn seven brothers after the brother before has died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Since she cannot be married to all and there is no reason to think that she will be married to any one of the brothers in particular, the implication is that the notion of resurrection is absurd.
Jesus gives two responses. First, He says that they do not properly understand the concept. When the resurrection is characterized properly, the problem does not even arise.
Second, he quotes Exodus 3:6 and makes a very subtle point about what it implies. Jesus says, “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (vv. 31-32).
Now the argument here is not immediately obvious. J.P. Moreland has said about Jesus’ response to the Sadducees:
As a young Christian, I was puzzled by Jesus’ response because I myself could have cited better verses than this one—for example, Daniel 12:2, which explicitly affirms the resurrection. Or so I thought. Jesus’ genius is revealed when we recognize that He had studied Sadducean theology and knew that they did not accept the full authority of the prophets, including Daniel. He also knew that the very passage He used was one of the very defining verses for the entire Sadducean party! His argument hinged on the tense of the Hebrew verb. Jesus does not say, “I was the God of Abraham, etc.,” but, “I am (continue to be) the God of Abraham, etc.” a claim that could be true only if Abraham and others continued to exist.
With this very subtle but penetrating argument, they were astonished!
Despite seeing this, the Pharisees are not done. They muster one last question to test Jesus: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). And here it comes. Jesus’ response is that we are to love God with all of who we are—with all our hearts, souls, and minds (v. 37).
Loving God with All Our Minds
We are intellectual beings. Jesus tells us that we are to pursue God with the deepest parts of who we are, including our intellect. Jesus lived this out. If He is the Lord of our lives, this should mean patterning our lives after His in all ways. Thus, being intellectual about our faith and loving God accordingly is simply part of our discipleship.
One may think, “But we will never attain to the intellect of Jesus.” True. But we will never attain His moral perfection either! The point is that we should see Jesus, in both regards, as our exemplar; we should strive to be like Him in all ways. Thus, we should see Jesus as the ideal logician and thinker and make Him Lord over our intellectual pursuits.
Christian Scholar’s Review, 1999, Vol. XXVIII: 4, 605-614.
Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 53.