Book Review: Biblical Philosophy

Johnson, Dru. Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 343 pp. Softcover. ISBN 9781108932691. $34.99

When you think about the subject matter that makes up the Christian Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, what kinds of categories come to mind? Terms like revelation, prophecy, narrative, poetry, salvation, or even judgment are probably recalled fairly quickly for most, but what about a concept such as philosophy? Do you naturally think of the Scriptures as a work of philosophy? While some might not for various reasons, it is Dru Johnson’s thesis in Biblical Philosophy that philosophy is intrinsic to what the biblical writers are putting forward to their audiences. With academic credentials from the likes of the University of St. Andrews and Covenant Seminary and several publications dedicated to various elements of the thesis laid out in this particular monograph, Johnson is a trustworthy guide for this philosophical journey into the Scriptures.

We live in a theological moment, at least in the North American West, where many are beginning to ask questions about whether this or that philosophical system best makes sense of how the Scriptures paint reality. Are we to turn to Aristotelianism as a common grace guide, or should we turn to some form of a Christianized Platonism as the dominant paradigm for how the biblical writers thought about the world around them? While these are good questions that deserve thorough answers, Johnson argues that this kind of turn or reliance upon other systems fails to do justice to what is already inherent within the biblical writings themselves. Both the Hebrews, and the New Testament writers grafted into Israel’s typological tree, held out, through the Scriptures, their own philosophical model for seeing the world rightly. It is this Hebraic philosophy that Dr. Johnson exposits throughout this much needed monograph.

Summary

Johnson begins his case for retrieving Hebraic philosophy with a bold assertion: “The biblical tradition is an intellectual tradition” (1). The Hebraic community, who were given divine directives, handed down an intellectually rigorous tradition capable of shaping all those who identified with that community into a truly wise people in a world filled with competing visions. This tradition, passed down through texts, rituals, and the voices of the community, makes up this philosophy, a way of being a people (1). This philosophical tradition has its own unique style, one that cannot be simply reduced to a plundering of their philosophical neighbors (5). Johnson argues that the Hebraic writers used a variety of genres, such as narrative and poetry, to depict their own understanding of how the Creator had ordered the world. The question is not one of whether the Hebrews had a philosophy of their own; rather, the question is one of coming to grips with the Hebraic philosophical tradition on its own terms. While it may be tempting at this juncture to import one’s own favored philosophical tradition upon the biblical texts, Johnson pointedly urges his audience to allow the Hebrew Bible to speak philosophically for itself (9).

It’s at this point in the argument that Johnson arrives at an all-important question, “What counts as philosophy?” This question occupies the first part of his monograph as he moves various definitions of philosophy and the styles that would have been adjacent to the Hebrew people. To ask the question in a pointed way, is philosophy merely speculation about abstract objects or is it much more than that? In terms of the Hebraic community, Johnson argues it is the latter. The process of Hebraic knowing involved more than sitting around philosophical fires discussing metaphysics. It also demanded a right way of walking in the ritualized world that Yahweh had made. From the beginning to the end of the biblical canon, written by members of this Hebraic community and the New Testament writers who theologically and philosophically retrieved them, there is a prescribed and developed epistemological method that is made manifest through a variety of means. This method speaks to a philosophical style that is not merely one of rigorous thinking, though it surely includes that, but one that must be prescriptive at its heart (37). Philosophy is much more than simply thinking about thinking. To the Hebrews, that abstract something that their minds wrestled with was to be fleshed out in community as a way of life. There was no room for reasoning that existed only in the realm of the abstract. While this emphasis upon philosophy as a way of life is not unique to the Hebrews[1], their employment of such an emphasis within the Scriptures is one that is decisively Hebraic rather than Hellenistic (46). The Hebraic intellectual world found within the Scriptures is not dependent upon any relation to other philosophical forms, whether they be Greek, Egyptian, or Mesopotamian (34). It can stand on its own two feet just fine.

The second portion of Johnson’s monograph dives down into the marks of this distinct Hebraic philosophical style. In particular, this style is pixelated, networked, ritualized, transdemographic, mysterionist, and creationist (83). By these various marks, Johnson argues that the Scriptures are put together in such a way so that their individual parts, their pixelation if you will, work together in order to form a philosophical tradition that is intended to be fleshed out through ritual by all who called upon Yahweh as their God, whether they be a child, woman, or an esteemed elder. Every kind of person in Israel’s community was to walk in the land given to them remembering their Creator, the narrativized events that marked their formation, and their humble stature as mere creatures before the inexhaustible God. After positing these central elements and convictions of Hebraic philosophy, Johnson moves on to explain the forms that Hebraic philosophical argumentation takes throughout biblical literature. These forms are as follows: narrative as argument, definitions by genus and differentia, analogical reasoning and metaphor, ritualized learning environments, taxonomical paradigm creation, pre-Aristotelian logic not restricted to a binary notion of truth, and the presumption of discernible cause-and-effect relationships (100). To summarize briefly, Hebraic philosophical arguments took on a diversity of forms that together create the aforementioned distinct style evidenced across biblical literature, whether they be through narrative or through a list of laws or historical persons.

Johnson then dives more deeply into what this distinct philosophical style looks like in the narratives, laws, and poetry that make up biblical literature. Each literary formal structure argues for a manner of second-order thinking, they do so with diversity and in ways not beholden to their philosophical neighbors. And before the reader asserts that Johnson may be reading far too much philosophical content into every possible text, Johnson clarifies to his audience that he is not claiming that every individual narrative, law, or poem is philosophy. Rather, he’s arguing that they all have the potential to participate in the advocacy of a particular mode of reasoning. Both philosophers and biblical readers ignore these literary structures at their own peril (148). 

The third portion of the monograph covers the persistence of this Hebraic philosophical tradition amongst a Hellenized Judaism in the centuries following Old Testament record. While there is surely a blending of the Greek and Hebrew styles during this period, Johnson makes the case that this blending is neither repeated nor cited by New Testament authors. When one arrives at the New Testament, he or she sees the biblical writers appropriating a veneer of Hellenistic thought for the purpose of retrieving the Hebraic tradition in ways that their audiences would have culturally understood (153). When reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the reader sees the biblical authors clearly utilizing a networked and pixelated style that presumes a connection to a historical creation, the need for every citizen to engage in the prescribed rituals of the community, and the inability for any person to exhaust the truths gleaned in that community (183).

In the final portion of Biblical Philosophy Johnson sketches some of the philosophical topics that are developed across the biblical canon (227). Whether it be epistemology, logic, or the nature of truth itself, Johnson argues that the biblical writers use a particular style and mode of argumentation to opine on philosophical matters in a way that every member of the covenant community would be able to pick up on and put into practice. That latter phrase “put into practice” is crucial to Johnson’s entire thesis. Philosophy should not be seen as merely as an exercise in thinking about thinking. It is that and so much more, and within the Scriptures one sees this on full display. God’s covenant community is to be filled with those from all walks of life who are coming to know more of their Creator and his promises through imbedding themselves in those Scriptures and putting flesh and sinew upon the philosophy contained within.

Analysis

As mentioned, Johnson’s thesis vis-á-vis the presence of a particular philosophical mode of argumentation within the Scriptures is a provocative one. From the outset he asserts what others have shied away from and from beginning to end he accomplishes his intended goal of discerning a distinct style of philosophy throughout Christian Scripture (46). As one moves throughout the biblical canon, all that Johnson argues for consistently rises to the surface of the text. Though the biblical writers may not have made their philosophical arguments in the same linear fashion as a Socratic dialogue (41), their narratives, laws, and poetry are filled with robust argumentation that demands to be walked out in every place that Yahweh’s followers find themselves.

Before getting to a few controversial points that prompt some questions, it is necessary to give honor to whom honor is due. This work from Dru Johnson is truly an honorable one and that is not a comment that I make lightly. My own understanding of the Scriptures grew as I turned each page of this book, and I am confident that many other readers have experienced the same. The call to do philosophy biblically by participating in divinely ordained ritual and submitting to right and godly voices is one that ought to be heeded, particularly in an evangelical moment where far too many have thrown aside such riches in order to have their ears tickled by charlatans. One does not have to look far to find Christian gatherings that seem built more around vain personality and numerical data than they are the ecclesiology purposefully handed down in the Scriptures. If rituals are given to both gathered churches and the individuals that make them up in order that one might know-how (99), then enacting these biblical rituals in the right way is paramount for survival on this sojourn that every Christian finds him or herself on. Our Lord, through the biblical writers, has graciously given us rituals to be formed by. Whether you are partaking of bread and wine every Lord’s Day or simply walking in the good command to honor your authorities, you, Christian, can trust that these often-unimpressive ways of walking in the world will be used by our Lord to grow your knowledge of him and his works. This beautiful day-by-day call to biblically ritualized living is one that might seem strange in a world so often obsessed with spontaneity, but it is one that Johnson helpfully puts before his audience as vital to the Christian life.

Likewise, Johnson’s mapping of philosophy onto the various genres that make up the Scriptures is a move that not only successfully advances his thesis (116), but it also serves as a needed reminder of how practical these texts truly are, even if their application is difficult to perceive at first sight. From story to poetry, Johnson incisively makes the case that these differing literary forms and structures are all being used by the biblical writers for philosophical thought, and, as Johnson also makes clear, this thinking is not merely to remain in the realm of the mind. It is prescriptive at its heart (49). Thus, it is with this philosophical, whole-way-of-life thinking that one can confidently approach the narratives of the Patriarchs, the Chronicler’s genealogies, or the poetry of Job and find rich doctrine that stimulates the mind, enriches the heart, and moves hands and feet to action. In an evangelical world rife with biblical illiteracy, Johnson’s argument for the philosophical shape of all of Scripture is one that ought to bring encouragement and build confidence in the biblical reader.

Lastly, Johnson’s case for the New Testament’s retrieval of Hebraic philosophical thought brings a fascinating challenge to scholars who argue that the NT authors merely repackaged their favored Greek or Roman philosophical system for their audiences. While Johnson notes that the New Testament writers clearly garbed themselves in the robes of Hellenistic philosophy, it is the philosophy woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that truly guide their efforts (205). To use an often-repeated line, much of what we see in the New Testament is a “plundering of the Egyptians” strategy rather than one of philosophical or theological syncretism. The New Testament writers simply used that which overlapped with Hebraic philosophy in order that they might make a greater appeal to their audience. Such an example from the biblical writers themselves ought to be an exhortation to scholars, pastors, and laypeople to affirm and promote God’s truth wherever one finds it, whether that be in the words of Plato, Seneca, or – dream with me here- a political leader on the other side of your favored proverbial aisle.

Though these honorable arguments far outweigh any dents in Johnson’s Hebraic armor, there do remain a few points that raise some questions. To clarify, these are not necessarily critiques as much as they are opportunities for further conversation. First, Johnson’s remarks vis-á-vis what one can truly know apart from God’s action upon epistemic organs raise the controversial question of natural theology. Johnson frames this discussion with the phrasing of a “Deuteronomic dilemma,” asking the question, “Can humans reason their way to God-as-creator by studying created order, or must God enable them to grasp creation as signaling beyond itself to a creator?” (162) He then states that “optimism regarding Israel’s ability to discern through brute observation of creation seems Deuteronomically dubitable” (165). He then goes on to say that “where a text says or implies that one can gain understanding apart from action, it clearly diverges from the normative biblical style of philosophy” (168). While I agree that action and ritual are imperative to gaining knowledge according to the biblical style of philosophy, a question must still be asked as to the epistemological content one can possess, namely of God-as-creator, apart from explicitly Christian ritual and practice? If, according to the Apostle Paul, the knowledge of God is plain and can be perceived even by the unrighteous, then how do the unrighteous arrive at such knowledge without walking according to God’s rituals and commandments? Commenting on that very text, Johnson states that bad ritual hinders one’s knowledge of God (177). While true, there still remains the question of Paul’s assertion that mankind knows God through the revelation of created order. This knowledge, though darkened and perverted through ingratitude and immorality, is still some manner of knowledge according to the Apostle. How are we to cash out his claim that the eternal power and divine nature of God have been seen and evidenced through what’s been made? While Johnson is right to assert that divine intervention is surely needed in order to gain a right understanding of this world and its creator, this abiding question of what, or if, one can naturally theologize apart from being given a new heart, eyes, and ears is one that could use further meditation in light of Johnson’s argument.

Second, Johnson’s arguments regarding the biblical sense of truth have the potential to ruffle some feathers among many Westerners who have been inoculated from conception with the idea that true and false act as opposite ends in a binary relationship. In this binary relationship, something is either propositionally true or it’s propositionally false with no possibility of another option (265-267). Johnson, however, bluntly proposes a challenge to this line of thought stating that, “Biblical authors work with a notion of truth not restricted to a true/false binary” (264). Now, while the less discerning reader might look at that statement and immediately cast the author as a relativist, it is important to note that Johnson rejects relativism (287). For Johnson, truth and falsehood are discerned not through some process of detached reasoning but through embodied experience (276-277). Again, ritual does much of the heavy lifting here. The concern is that a strictly propositional and binary understanding of truth and falsehood neglects a Scriptural emphasis upon a person learning over time what’s true and false within a community that enacts the rituals and commands that God has laid down for them. In this sense, something can be more true or less false, as on a continuum, and that truth or falsehood is discerned over time, as one lives the philosophical life put forward in the Scriptures. While Johnson clarifies himself to say that a binary relationship between truth and falsehood can still cohere within a Hebraic style, the thrust of the argument lies in logic and reasoning being an embodied reality that works itself out diachronically (272).

This thrust from Johnson is one that Westerners ought to mull over in great depth. It can be tempting to separate logic and reasoning from ethics, and, as the Scriptures continually remind us, that is a move that the believer cannot abide. As Johnson notes throughout his monograph, logic has always been intended to be embodied and in-fleshed in our communities. One only needs to read through the Gospels to see the biblical writers consistently arguing that being a good fruit-bearing tree is intricately tied to a right understanding of what God has revealed through prior Scripture. If the religious leaders had understood that Moses was writing of Christ, for example, then they would have been, in theory, full of faith, rejoicing in the coming of the Messiah, and bearing good fruit in the land in which they were living. True knowing and true living go hand in hand. However, at least in my mind, further probing around this idea of truth and falsehood being on a continuum might prove helpful. How is one to cash out in real-time what such a continuum looks like? For example, the Scriptures clearly forbid adultery in any form, whether it be with a neighbor, your mother-in-law, your daughter-in-law, etc. According to Johnson’s argument, what would it look like for a given adulterous action to be either more true or less false? Is this continuum merely a diachronic tool, meaning that time and testing prove an action to have been true or false to greater or lesser degrees as more evidence is uncovered? That would certainly be one way of understanding the argument, and it seems to be the understanding that Johnson is working with. According to his own example, in the case of adultery, per Deuteronomy 17, the relationship between what’s told and what’s actually true is not resolved by mere proposition or abstracted assertion but through diachronic investigation (272). In this case, while the adulterous action is either true or false, the veracity of its truth or falsehood must be tested empirically.

Now, this is a true way of wrestling with biblical epistemology, at least in my humble opinion, but how then does one fit this understanding of diachronic testing truth and falsehood into a matter that simply cannot be proven empirically by finite creatures, namely the resurrection? How would a text like Hebrews 11:1 speak into this diachronically testing if faith is the conviction of things not seen? How can we know that the resurrection is true when one is not able to verify that through investigation? Ultimately, the answer to that question lies in the nature of the faith that the author of Hebrews is speaking of, but that is an answer that ought to be brought to bear alongside Johnson’s argument. Is the language of the resurrection being true in-and-of-itself useful in our conversations with those who doubt, or is there a way of explaining the time-tested veracity of the resurrection through God’s epistemic action upon the hearts, eyes, and ears of those who place their faith in the Christ? Do good theological and ethical fruits in the life of the believer serve as that time-tested witness to the reality of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead? These kinds of conversations might be some of the good fruit that could come through wrestling with Johnson’s argument vis-á-vis truth and falsehood.

Conclusion

Biblical Philosophy is a sorely needed work. As debates and conversations ramp up in various pockets of evangelicalism over philosophy and its usefulness in both theology and the Christian life, Johnson’s work reminds us that the philosophical world of the Scriptures is the world that we all inhabit. For all those who place faith in the person and work of the long-awaited Messiah Jesus, the true Son of God, Israel’s story suddenly comes to life as our own. God has given us a new heart, with eyes and ears to see God’s work in this world rightly, to listen to right and true voices, to imbibe the beautiful rituals that he has graced his new covenant people with, and to spend our sojourning bearing the fruits of those who have been brought from death to life. And this call to inhabit the philosophical world of the Scriptures, to engage in its logic as whole persons, is one that goes out to all who call upon the Lord’s name. Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, male or female, Jew or Gentile, every image-bearer finds in the Scriptures a call to do philosophy.


Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


[1] To this point, Johnson helpfully shows where this emphasis is also evidenced within Hellenism (42-46).

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