The Philosophy of Jesus

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: Friends Home Service Committee, first published London, 1973, 14 pp.

The contents of this booklet were first delivered to the Edinburgh Theological Club, who had invited a lecture under the above title, in 1972.

Widely-read students of Macmurray will find hardly anything new here. However, it is useful and agreeable to have Macmurray’s views on Jesus all in one place and in a compact and accessible form.

The title gave him some trouble because he was aware of the obvious retort that Jesus was not a philosopher. He agrees that, on the contrary, Jesus was a Hebrew prophet. However, as Macmurray is a philosopher he tries to explain how he will attempt to extract a philosophy from Jesus’ teaching. Macmurray tells how for some time he has been trying to read the gospels as if he had discovered them for the first time with vision uncoloured by traditional religious teaching. The method which seemed to work for him was to approach them as he would a foreign philosophy he was trying to understand. He would search for the key points in the teaching and seek to interpret them by themselves before putting them together. (I can guess at some philosophical objections to this methodology and can second-guess Macmurray’s response to them but there isn’t space to go into that here!) He thought this worked, possibly because it avoided any traditional religious formulation. He speaks of the necessity he is under to think for himself and the successive heresies into which this had tended to lead him. (I would love to know what they were!) Although he accepted Jesus as saviour and master, for himself and the world, he also accepts him as very man of very man. This has the consequence that Jesus’ understanding grew and changed. His full humanity guaranteed the integrity of his thinking, not its necessary correctness.

Jesus’ public mission started with his baptism by John, followed by a period of meditation in the wilderness from which he returned proclaiming the same message as John: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ He offered himself as leader to his people in a time of crisis, seeing his mission as being to Jews alone because it was through Abraham’s seed that all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. Macmurray surmises that Jesus, during his period of withdrawal, reflected upon the Roman Empire and the place of the Jews within it, and the methods he was to use in his mission. The Roman Empire was to be accepted as God’s will for the time being. The Kingdom of Heaven was not to be established by military means. A community cannot be established by force. Only by consent. So the Roman Empire was to be lived in, but according to the rules of community, and transformed from within. Jesus’ mission was primarily an earthly one. He most certainly didn’t give a blueprint (a la Marx) for the Kingdom of Heaven but gave in his parables and teaching pictures of its characteristics and of the sort of people who would come into it. There was something wrong with men which necessitated a change of heart. And this ‘something wrong’ was not primarily sin (which could be dealt with by forgiveness) but fear.

Before dealing with Jesus’ problem of how fear in man is to be overcome Macmurray reminds us of the character of the Hebrew tradition which Jesus inherited and cherished. In Macmurray’s view the Jews were the religious people of history in that they had passed from primitive tribalism to a complex society without breaking the religious form of their thinking and society. The cultures of other developing societies tend to split into a number of autonomous parts with religion being merely one of them. The society has a religion but isn’t religious as a whole. For the Jews to have achieved social development without losing the religious form of their society implies that their religion must have developed. And this development occurred through the prophets. The Jewish religion is transformed from one of narrow tribalism to one of full universality. From initially experiencing God as one of (sometimes brutal) power they begin, through the prophets, to experience him as a God of Love. And love as the common man understands it. Not some rarefied, theological ‘It’s-love-because-God-does-it’ sort of love but the sort of love that invites the poor and hungry man into one’s home and gives him food and shelter. Hebrew thinking is characteristically empirical and rooted in history. It would yield a practical philosophy. Its central problem would be the problem of evil, not of knowledge, and it would be a personal philosophy.

So how is man’s fear to be cured? By love. ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.’ Faith or trust will replace fear. But how do you get men to love one another? (Surely it can’t be commanded?) By exploiting love’s natural tendency to call forth love. ‘Love one another,’ says Jesus, ‘as I have loved you.’ And, linking his command to the personal infinite, ‘As the father hath loved me, so I have loved you. Continue ye in my love.’ When Jesus realized that he would be rejected and killed this does not seem to have altered his view of his mission. It just meant that his small band of faithful disciples had to be trained to be entrusted with the future of the kingdom. Macmurray considers that it is a mistake to try to extract from the gospels a Christian ethic of universal application. That is the Greek and Roman way. Not the Jewish. The Jewish way is to take people and train them to live in a way which would exhibit the differences required for a transformed society.