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Douglas Groothuis

Jesus the Philosopher

What counts as thinking?

The question was posed by the moderator at an early Republican presidential debate in 1999: "Who is your favorite political philosopher?" George W. Bush surprised, if not stunned, his fellow candidates when he tersely declared, "Jesus Christ, because he changed my life."

Commentators had a field day. Maybe Bush didn't know the names of any real philosophers and seized on Jesus out of desperation. Other observers suspected a calculated pitch to Bush's core constituency—a shameless bit of pious posturing.

At the philosophical level, we might say candidate Bush dropped the ball. He gave a religious or devotional justification for his choice of Jesus as favorite philosopher instead of stipulating just what it was about Jesus as a philosopher that he valued above other philosophers. There's no reason to doubt his sincerity; nevertheless, he didn't speak to the question.

But what about Bush's answer taken on its own terms? Was it, as the media generally took for granted, frankly absurd, embarrassing, ignorant? Or was Jesus in fact—whatever else he may have been—a bona fide philosopher? If the answer is yes, several other engaging questions emerge: What kind of philosopher was he? What did he believe and why? How does his philosophy relate to that of other philosophers? Does his philosophizing have anything to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates? Further, just what is a philosopher anyway?

Most reference books in philosophy suggest by omission that Jesus was not a philosopher. For example, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), long a standard reference work, has no entry under "Jesus" or "Christ." The newer and well-respected Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) has no entry for "Jesus" or "Christ" but includes one on "Buddha."

So what is the essential condition for being a philosopher? I take it to be a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning. By "philosophical matters" I mean ...

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