If church kids over the years learned that the answer to just about any Sunday School question was “Jesus,” scholar and pastor Jonathan T. Pennington says adult church goers often have similar ingrained responses.
Like a call-and-response Rorschach test, if Pennington offers the prompt “humanity” to a group of students or parishioners, the association they’re most likely to make is “sinful.” They’re not alone. Raised on a diet of verses like Psalm 53’s, “There is no one who does good, not even one,” Pennington also grew up believing the Bible—and God—had a pretty negative view of humanity. “Our comprehensive anthropology has been ‘all our acts are like dirty rags,’” he explains, quoting Isaiah 64:4.
But a decades-long deep dive into studying the language and themes of the Bible—and particularly the Sermon on the Mount—has convinced Pennington that there’s a better “first word” to describe the way God sees humanity: beautiful. “God created a beautiful and good world, with us the ‘very good’ image bearers at the apex of it” insists Pennington. “Too often, we preach as if the story of our faith begins in Genesis 3 with our sinfulness. But it doesn’t.”
Genesis 1 and 2 provide more than the chronological beginning of the Bible: they provide the theological touchstone for anyone seeking to read the Bible faithfully. “The fundamental nature of all creation and the final goal of all creation is goodness,” he explains, “because it reflects the work and character of God, who is good and light and in whom there is no darkness at all. Everything about him and emanating from him is good.”
Celebrating truth, goodness, and beauty in God’s world does not mean Pennington (or the Scriptures) are treating sin with a light hand. “Yes, the world is broken and marred,” he concedes, “there’s mud on the Rembrandt—but it is still good. The Bible clearly teaches that humanity is sinful and dead apart from new life in Christ. But the Bible also has a great deal to say about beauty, happiness, and human flourishing,” says Pennington, if only we have eyes to see.
Pursuit of happiness
Perhaps this kind of optimism about Scripture and humanity might seem surprising, given Pennington’s credentials. An associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and a regular visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Pennington runs in circles which tend towards a more serious mien.
Yet it is precisely because of his commitment to faithful scriptural interpretation that Pennington has found himself leaning more and more towards preaching, writing, and teaching about happiness and human flourishing in recent years.
“You can fall off the knife edge of the truth on either side,” he explains. “You can fall off the one side by saying, ‘Christianity and the Bible have nothing to do with happiness; it’s about self-sacrifice and self-denial’, but the other risk is to fall off the side of the health and wealth gospel and say ‘it’s all about your happiness’,” says Pennington. Discernment is needed. “Like a good doctor needs to diagnose his patient to determine what they need, so too we need to diagnose which side people are leaning. In my world, I come across more people who aren’t sure there’s any place for happiness.”
But Pennington’s careful study of the Scriptures have convinced him otherwise: “The Bible very much cares about happiness,” he says, “it just defines it in a different way.” Whereas the world might be tempted to define happiness as freedom from pain and success in all things, the Scriptural vision of happiness is one that also holds space for pain and disappointment, and points to Christ’s redemption rather than our own hustling to find it.
The fundamental human desire to pursue happiness—an ambition expressed plainly even in the American Declaration of Independence—reflects something innate in our makeup. As creatures made in the image of a good God, our desire for good is part of who we are and how we are made, explains Pennington. “Even Greek philosophers agreed that everyone wanted to be happy,” he cautions, “No one disputed the goal, they just diverged on how to go about it.”
So, if our desire for happiness is not—as perhaps we have feared—a reflection of human selfishness but in fact a facet of our imago dei orientation towards goodness; the question remains: what do we do with that? How then shall we live?
Jesus, the great philosopher
The question of how to pursue the good life is really a question of wisdom, says Pennington, and one central to the teachings of Jesus, whom he describes as “the Great Philosopher” in his book by the same name.
‘Philosopher’ might not be in the 3 (or even the top 10!) ways we might think of describing Jesus. But Pennington is quick to explain that this word does not—as Inigo Montoya famously warned us—“mean what we think it means.” It’s simply not accurate to think of a philosopher as an abstract thinker sitting on the fringes of society thinking abstract and impractical thoughts: entertaining, perhaps, but certainly not useful.
Philosophy, in the truest sense, takes its meaning directly from its word origin: philos meaning “lover of—” and sophia meaning “wisdom.” A philosopher loves wisdom, and teaches those they teach to love wisdom, too. And wisdom—which is more than informational knowledge, but knowledge applied to live well in the world—is the essential ingredient to pursuing human flourishing.
Understood this way, the Word of God does more than give us orthodox knowledge. It also shows us a roadmap to right behavior (orthopraxy) and right desires and emotions (orthokardia). To describe Jesus as a Philosopher does not remove him from the nitty gritty of everyday life; but rather centers him as the anchoring principle, whose teaching and life guide us as we then work out big truths in myriad different daily, practical ways.
The Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus asking him: “Good Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) And certainly, Jesus answers that. But what Jonathan T. Pennington wants his brothers and sisters in Christ to know is that Jesus can answer another, profound question for us, too: “Teacher, how can I live the good life?”
In both Jesus the Great Philosopher and his more scholarly work, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Pennington hopes to invite the church to engage afresh with a deep, true and beautiful vision of human flourishing and show us how the true path to the good life mapped out in our Bibles.
Start inside out
Flourishing and goodness makes for compelling conversation, but the news headlines of wars and global discord as well as the personal tragedies around us demand some reckoning.
“What about the person who sits down with you over coffee and is just heartbroken about the brokenness of the world,” I asked Dr Pennington. “How would you help them to wrestle with what’s good in the humanity when there’s so much evidence of the bad?” After all, we study the Bible not just to learn of the world as it was there and then, but to help us to understand and live in the world now.
“My first invitation would be to ask the one wrestling ‘what’s really going on inside?’” says Pennington, “because God sees and cares about our inner person, not just our exterior.” Humans have a tremendous capacity for self-deception, he warns, and “religious people can be some of the most self-deceived.” Cultivating self-awareness of what’s really going on in our hearts and motives is internal soul work that is “always valuable”, says Pennington, “and we need more of that.”
Leaning back in his chair with a low chuckle, Pennington observes: “perhaps that’s not the answer you expected from a New Testament scholar. But it’s the answer I have to give from the New Testament, as both a pastor and a priest.”
The encouragement to dig deeper within to discern our desires and emotions has a long biblical history. “The Psalter has been recognized for thousands of years as an absolutely central soul-care book,” explains Pennington, ‘it both validates and invites us to educate and process our emotions.” If we’re going to wrestle with big truths, we’ll have to wrestle honestly as question-askers.
Pennington is not just a teacher of these truths, though: he is first and foremost a student of Jesus. “I’ve found the Sermon on the Mount to be incredibly helpful as a diagnostic tool to what’s going on inside of me and of others,” he explains. “(Jesus) touches on so many points and areas where we as humans struggle to be authentic. We struggle with fear and anxiety, or with shame which makes us cover up our behavior.”
Come and see
So what might Jesus, the great Philosopher, say to one who is authentically acknowledging their anxiety or inner anger; and wanted to know what to do next? What’s the next step for the one earnestly hoping to discover—and live—the good life?
“Come and see,” is Pennington’s confident answer. Just as the Psalms invite us to “taste and see that the Lord is good”, and the Gospel of John repeatedly invites the curious to “come and see” what Jesus is about, “church teaching and conversation is always an invitation into Kingdom life as we paint a picture of the beauty and goodness of the Christian life, which includes joy and also tears,” says Pennington.
“Happiness is a combination of both joy and suffering,” he explains, “as the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount make clear. There are nine statements about happiness, almost all of which are negative. They speak of giving up rights, experiencing poverty or hunger, or about being maligned or misrepresented.”
But, as with Pixar’s character Riley discovers in Inside Out, happiness is most meaningful when it’s experienced in a complex and honest reckoning with sadness. “There is some mystery to it,” admits Pennington, “but redemption is better than innocence. Somehow, in the restoration of all things, there’s a beauty that is greater than our original undefiled state.”
What God invites us to do in Scripture (and what we, in turn, invite others to consider as we talk about life with them), is to “come and see” how the wisdom and goodness of kingdom life is worked out amid the world’s profound beauty, marred as it is by sin. Even if we don’t “have all the answers” to the problem of evil or the minutiae of ethical debates, we can still come to know wisdom over time.
“Knowing is not an acquisition of content,” Pennington is quick to assure us. “Most of our knowing is experiential, like learning to drive ‘stick’ in a car. I can show my kids the mechanics and explain it to them, but you’ll only really start to know what’s involved after you’ve done it a bunch of times and have had to take off on a hill… that’s what you’ll really know it!” This is the kind of wisdom that goes into the Christian life, explains the father who taught all six of his children to drive: it really can only be acquired by practicing it over time.
Gaining wise, practical knowledge “is a slow process of starts and fits, failures and successes, of stumblings and moments of speed,” says Pennington. “Yet it’s a constant invitation to learning to live and flourish. And it’s all based on his incredible, unending, renewing daily grace, because God wants us to flourish and find abundant life.”
It’s a good thing to pursue the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10, says Pennington, and we can take Jesus at his word on it. If the essence of sin is “trusting the wrong voice as humans mistrusting the voice of God and following the voice of the serpent instead”; then faith involves heeding God’s repeated calls in Scripture to listen to him and trust his voice once again; one decision at a time, and one day at a time.
“Do today well, and that’s enough,” is Pennington’s advice. And as we ‘come and see’, and risk trusting his voice enough to obey it, we will find ourselves firmly on the path of wisdom leading to flourishing.
A life of Matthew 5’s blessings, even as they are mingled with trials. A life of happiness, even: to be found in this present age even as we long for completion in the next. “Amidst the real challenges and struggles of life with its mistakes and misunderstandings, God’s heart towards us is smiling because he wants us to find life,” says Pennington. And the Scriptures are our faithful guide to get there.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.