In his provocative work At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the late Jesuit theologian Michael J. Buckley notes the abiding prestige of Jesus Christ as a moral authority during—and despite—the Enlightenment. Even secular thinkers turned to Jesus for guidance on how best to live. This comes as a surprise, since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by an unprecedented rise in secularism in Europe.
“No one denied the moral genius of Jesus,” writes Buckley. “The Enlightenment agreed that Jesus was a Jewish ethical preacher still illuminating a world in which tradition and Church had distorted his beliefs and maxims.” There was one outlying group of “interpreters” of the New Testament who had gotten it right, however: the philosophers. The philosophers rejected his divinity, but many identified Christ nonetheless (in Thomas Paine’s words) as “a virtuous and amiable man.” Many, like Paine, compared him to Confucius in the East and the ancient Greeks in the West. To these, Jesus was a pre-eminent ethicist. But the Son of God he was not.
The secular great moral teacher narrative is alive and well today, too, thanks to figures like University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson has captured the minds of many Christians. His project, taken in totality, is not perfectly harmonious with the Catholic worldview. (For a nuanced Catholic analysis of Peterson, see the work of Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek.) But in teaching the Bible from a strictly psychological point of view, Peterson has succeeded in making the Bible credible again to many a skeptic—at least as an ancient mythological text brimming with wisdom.
A major part of Peterson’s program (deeply inspired by twentieth-century psychiatrist Carl Jung) has been introducing the New Testament Christ as the archetypal perfect man. Many recent converts to Christianity have credited Peterson as the major factor, and thus his objective analysis of the sacred texts has made him, unintentionally, an important pre-Christian thinker for our times.
Non-believing historian Tom Holland has offered a similar pre-Christian service to the culture. Holland, in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, defends Christian values with vigor and conviction while defending the contention that Jesus’ crucifixion was the pivotal event by which West came to realize that even the “lowest of the low”—even a convicted criminal, humiliated and crucified by the highest authorities—possesses nonetheless the utmost dignity. In his more recent collection, Revolutionary: Who Was Jesus? Why Does He Still Matter?, Holland zeroes in with interest (now as editor) on the founder of Christianity, compiling a variety of essays from atheist, agnostic, and religious authors.
But can Christ be no more than an archetype, or a great moral teacher—or even just the perfect man?
In the final analysis, no—Jesus was infinitely more than these. He was God—goodness itself, apart from which there is no gold standard by which to measure the great moral sage from the self-imposing dictator.
C.S. Lewis had some things to say about this, famously. Jesus, in plain and clear words and language, claimed to be God. He must be Lord, liar, or lunatic. And we do not usually call con artists or lunatics great moral sages, nor do we call them archetypes of the perfect man.
Thus, as Lewis claimed back in the mid-twentieth century:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
Some have challenged that a fourth L should be added to Lewis’s trilemma. Could it all amount to a fanciful legend? This seems hardly a viable option. For as the pre-eminent New Testament historian N.T. Wright has written, “We have got almost as much good evidence for Jesus as for anyone in the ancient world.” Scholars like Wright, Brant Pitre, Craig Blomberg, Richard Burridge, and Richard Bauckham have shown that the Gospels are biographical and intended—with impressive reliability—to convey real facts of history according to eyewitness accounts.
That Peterson and other secular figures are advocating for Christ as a noble character is a good thing. It offers our post-Christian culture a pre-Christian service. But it is not enough. We need to be absolutely clear about this. They do not teach the gospel. For they deny (or at least do not affirm) Christ’s divinity. So, as Christians, we should be always ready to extract the good from the bad. Just as we do with ancient pre-Christian thought like that of Plato and Aristotle, we should labor to make the necessary distinctions and corrections in modern pre-Christian thought, and we should be abundantly clear with ourselves—and others—about both.
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, often referenced as the C.S. Lewis of our times, gets right to the heart of it all. He writes:
The only honest reason why anyone should ever believe Christianity, or anything else [is]: because it is true. It may also be helpful, comforting, challenging, relevant, responsible, creative, or dozens of other things; but none of those is the first reason why an honest person believes Christianity.
Reframing this passage about belief in Christ demands no less: that we believe first because his claims about being co-equal with God are true. Jesus Christ is the everlasting God, and any spiritual system built upon a lesser Christ is barren. There are only two logical options: either take him at his word or dismiss him as a fraud. A lukewarm or falsely irenic Christology might as well be an atheistic Christology, and . . . well, in that case, it might as well just be a Christless atheism. For Christ—and there is no way around it—declared with unapologetic clarity and conviction that he was above even the Law (Matt. 5:17-48). He was clear about how he saw himself. These are not the claims of a great moral teacher. So it seems that the only real choices are God or nothing.
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