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Biblical Philosophy: Is There Such a Thing?

May 4th, 2022 | 7 min read

By David Moore

Dru Johnson directs the Center for Hebraic Thought and is an associate professor of biblical studies at The King’s College. He is the author of several books on the intellectual world of the Bible. This interview revolves around his latest offering, Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments (Cambridge University Press). Biblical Philosophy: 9781108932691: Johnson, Dru: Books

Moore: You have been plowing in this field for some time, but what was the initial spark that got you interested in seeing whether the Bible contained something akin to what we understand as philosophical reasoning?

Johnson: Truth be told, throughout seminary, I was mostly interested in theories of knowledge, fueled by my studies of psychology. I was fascinated by how scientists felt confident about that which they knew. After changing directions and going into seminary I was equally fascinated with thinking about how we know things, especially now that I was interested in theological things. When I was thinking about what I wanted to research for a Ph.D., a mentor of mine (Dr. Michael Williams at Covenant Theological Seminary) challenged me to work in a church for five years to develop the right kinds of questions. Later, after eight years as a pastor, he then counseled me to quit talking about philosophy in the Bible and go see whether there’s something there or not. When I started my Ph.D. research, I threw most of my previous ideas up in the air. I dedicated that period of my life to seeing whether I had invented all these ideas about the intellectual world within Scripture. In effect, I just kept asking the biblical texts, “Do you care about philosophical issues” and then, “how to you speak about them?”

Moore: You dedicate the book to Yoram Hazony whose own book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures, caused quite a stir. What are a few things you appreciate about Hazony’s book and what are a few of your biggest disagreements?

Johnson: Yoram is a close friend and has been extremely supportive of my work. His book, Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, was groundbreaking on many levels and he’s the right kind of personality to push those boundaries that needed to be pushed. He is one of several folks who keeps prying this door open on the philosophical world of Scripture. He has been pleading with academics to come in and look for themselves without many of the traditional biases that hamper a sober-minded view of Hebrew Scripture’s role in intellectual history.

Most basically, Yoram has insisted that we consider the intellectual world in the Bible on its own terms before we put it in conversation with other intellectual worlds. And that value proposition alone is the one that I see most neglected by Christians, both philosophers and theologians alike. They’ll jump to just about any other intellectual world to help them think about the conceptuality of their faith other than the Hebrew Bible and its extended thinking in the New Testament.

I see much of my work as dovetailing with his thinking. For instance, I had been teaching the Hebrew notion of truth as a scientific notion of truth for years. Then I read him on the topic and immediately noticed it was the clearest articulation of things that I was muddling through in my descriptions.

Yoram is a religious Jew and I am a religious Christian, which means that we do not see the authority of these texts identically. I see continuity in the New Testament text that seeks to be intentionally extended from and aligned with the Hebrew Bible. Yoram sees something categorically different in the New Testament texts. Our differences do have proliferating effects in the ways we work with things out.

Moore: I periodically pose this question to Christian audiences: Do you go to church expecting to be intellectually challenged? It results in a lot of baffled faces. Those who are comfortable in responding say things like, “No. I go to worship God.” I guess worshiping an uncaused, self-existent, triune God, who created space and time does not stretch the mental muscles! It seems convincing us Christians that the Bible has a philosophy poses a similar challenge. What have you found to be the biggest obstacles in convincing Christians, including your own students, that the Bible showcases rigorous philosophical reasoning?

Johnson: I believe that the biblical authors would define “intellectual” as concerning the community and the body and the actual practice of the ideas at stake. In this sense, I absolutely expect to be intellectually challenged in worship. I would hope that my thinking and serving throughout the week would integrate with what happens in worship.

The prophets argue that this is exactly what should have happened in Israel if she were living according to the Torah. Jesus as a prophet argues this with farmers and Galilee calling them hypocrites because they understand the intellectual world of meteorology, of clouds and rains and winds in the various effects they can predict from them (Luke 2:52ff). But he calls these farmers “hypocrites” because they don’t use the same skill of interpretation applied to this present time. In other words, Luke’s Jesus argues that this ability to discern and interpret—according to the Torah and available to farmers—is expected of all of us. By my lights, it’s a false dichotomy to sharply divide the intellectual world of scripture from the world of worship.

Moore: Do all the books of the Bible have philosophical reasoning, or is it limited to certain books like Ecclesiastes or Job?

Johnson: You will have probably noticed that the so-called wisdom literature is almost entirely absent from this book. That was on purpose. If the Bible has a coherent philosophical style, then it should be demonstrable from the Torah, the historical books, the prophets, Gospels, epistles, and so on. I assumed that the so-called wisdom literature is the low-hanging fruit of the Bible’s intellectual world that should fit with the philosophical style we find elsewhere in scripture.

I am arguing that the Gospels of Mark or Luke are just as philosophical as the Gospel of John or Proverbs, which is just as philosophical as Ecclesiastes/Qohelet. To see how that could be the case, you must follow along and see how narrative, poetry, legal reasoning, parables, and other types of literature can philosophically reason with us.

Conversely, we don’t have to go too far into philosophy to see that this is also the case in the classic texts of philosophical literature. What we consider classical philosophy includes narratives, dialogs, parables, and many different types of literature. I tried very hard not to ask the reader to suspend belief or treat biblical literature any differently than other philosophical literatures of the world. And only under the most parochial, modern, and niche definitions of philosophy would we have to exclude the biblical literature as having its own philosophical style.

Moore: You have background in both philosophy and biblical studies. How have your scholar friends who mainly have training in philosophy or biblical studies responded to your argument for a “biblical philosophy”?

Johnson: Well, it depends on how committed they are to their tradition of philosophy. I find that younger philosophers are very open to what I’m arguing here. My colleagues in biblical studies are also open to what I’m arguing and see many of the same patterns that I’m highlighting. In fact, almost everything that I’m arguing has been said by philosophers, ancient Near Eastern scholars, or biblical scholars. Mostly, I’m lining up what lots of other scholars have said in order to show the continuity in their observations about the biblical texts.

The main resistance I get is from philosophers who already hold a particular view of philosophy, which would also exclude lots of other philosophical traditions in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Since the biblical philosophical tradition is, by definition, an Asian tradition, it’s no surprise that folks who believe philosophy started with the Greeks would have some heartburn about pushing that timeline back and making it more Asian. Some philosophers have argued that this resistance to Asian philosophies is rooted in racism. I don’t think that’s the case among Christian scholars. Mostly, I run into lots of people who have just never thought about it before. And when they take the time to hear me out, they often say things like, “Oh yeah, why have I never thought of it that way before.”

Moore: The Bible describes wisdom as being accessible to all (Prov. 1:20-33, 8: 1-5). Many believe philosophy has a limited audience, but the Bible says its wisdom is available to any who will listen. Doesn’t this make the philosophy of the Bible a bit different than other schools of philosophical thought?

Johnson: Yes, precisely! I gave this feature of biblical philosophy the wonky title “trans-demographic”—meaning: no person of any age or income can be restricted from this philosophical tradition. As I said above, it’s not just that it’s available but it’s expected of every single Israelite and member of the Jesus following way. Deuteronomy 4 argued that nations would look at Israel and note that they have a God so near to them who gives them instruction — torah. The goal is for them, as a people, to be wise and discerning (Deut 4:6) A little bit later in Deuteronomy, the renowned Shema passage reinforces that this wisdom and discernment given to Israel is also for her children. But we would have already known that from the Passover which is an entire ritual dedicated to training Israelites and their children to properly understanding their relationship to God and history. No other wisdom or philosophical tradition in the ancient world — or maybe even today — values and demands participation from every member of the community no matter their rank or intellectual ability. That makes this aspect of the biblical philosophical tradition unique in the world of intellectual traditions.

Moore: Have you considered writing a less academic version of Biblical Philosophy?

Johnson: Absolutely! Know any publishers who are ready to take on a trade book version of this?

Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers gain from reading your book?

Johnson: I hope to the depths of my being that Christians will begin to understand that we have inherited the greatest intellectual tradition in human history with no real rivals. We today have not plumbed its depths the way that many of our Christian ancestors did. We run quickly to other philosophical schemes, whether the Greco-Roman schemes or enlightenment traditions, and yet we are so slow to turn up the volume on the philosophical tradition within the Bible texts themselves.

I hope that this book will inspire people to trace the thinking of the biblical authors first, and then put those voices in conversation with all the traditions that follow, including the sharpest minds of our day. This requires not just studying books of the Bible, but also putting into practice all the prescriptions of the biblical authors and becoming the kind of community that can be wise and discerning according to God’s standards. There is no other intellectual tradition worth learning to the neglect of the biblical tradition.

That may sound narrow-minded and biblicist, but I would include ventures such as the scientific enterprise as natural extensions of the biblical intellectual tradition (and I argue why in this book). Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this work!