The Old Testament as Classical Philosophy

Abjan van Meerten
9 min readApr 19, 2021

‘Throughout the vast span of the church’s history, Christianity has been understood as a sophisticated philosophy of life with Jesus as the Great Philosopher’ [1]. This is the core argument of this remarkable book written by Jonathan Pennington. In this article I want to take a closer look at a specific section of this book where Pennington discusses the Old Testament as philosophy.

Classical Philosophy

When using the term ‘philosophy’, Pennington refers to philosophy in its classical sense. He explains the pursuit of especially Greek philosophy by examining the following subjects: epistemology, physics and metaphysics, ethics, and politics [2].


The first relevant question for philosophers was, how do we know [Grk: epistemai)? How do we evaluate what is right and wrong, true and false? Epistemology is thinking about how we think, not what we think.

Physics and Metaphysics [3]

After we’ve figured out how to obtain knowledge, we can investigate the world around us. So we come to physics, which describes the way the world is constructed and functions. In the ancient world this included areas such as mathematics, astronomy, biology, etc. Philosophers went beyond those subjects to pursue ‘a comprehensive understanding of all of the world’ [4].

Physics was organically related to metaphysics. Metaphysics ‘refers to the deepest principles of existing — being, knowing, cause, time and space (…) Understanding how the world is constructed and functions (physics) teaches us who we are, what the nature of truth and time and being are (metaphysics), and this enables us to live well’ [5].


This is how we arrive at ethics. Philosophers did a lot of thinking about reality the nature of reality, but ‘this exploration and speculation ‘were always for the purpose of helping people live a certain way [ethics]— in accord with the nature of reality — so that they might know the happiness that comes from wise living’ [6]. ‘[P]hilosophy focuses on character traits and habits that, if practiced, will result in a flourishing life and society’ [7].


Ethics formed the foundation for politics. Philosophers understood that ‘(1) flourishing is not possible apart from societal stability and structures that promoted beauty, goodness and virtue; and (2) humans need each other to flourish’ [8]. Politicians should strive to make a society that forms its citizens into virtuous, wise people.

The School of Athens by Raphael

Philosophers explored these issues ‘for the purpose of knowing and living in accord with the Good’ [9]. As a whole, philosophy provided ‘the vision for life itself (…) the vision for the Good and the goodness of life’ [10], ‘a whole-life vision for flourishing’ [11],

The Old Testament as (Classical) Philosophy

Pennington then moves on to apply the framework of Greek philosophy to the Jewish Old Testament. He does that by examining the four philosophical categories epistemology, physics and metaphysics, ethics, and politics in the Old Testament. However, first of all we need to grasp the foundational story of the Old Testament, namely Genesis 1–3. This is something Pennington doesn’t address in this direct way but which he implicitly draws on and which I think is certainly helpful.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

The Fundamental Story of Genesis

In Genesis 1–3 we read that Yahweh sovereignly ordered the universe out of chaos. He created mankind as the crown of all creation. At creation he revealed himself to them and made a covenant, with promises to trust and commands to obey. Creation and covenant together define our relationship to God, our relationship to other humans and our relationship to the world around us.

  • Our relationship to God — We are made in the image of God. This means that our relationship to him can be best described as obedient sonship and vice-regency (other articles are needed to substantiate this claim). As sons, we resemble him, we obey him and and we represent his rule.
  • Our relationship to others — God made us male and female in the image of God. This was revolutionary for Eastern religions: man and woman are of equal worth. Genesis 1 establishes both the unity and diversity of mankind: we are meant to carry out our task as image-bearers together.
  • Our relationship to the world —As humans we are distinct from the rest of creation because of our creation in God’s image. In the Middle East an image of the king was put up to indicate his rule over that area. In the same way, humans represent God’s rule over the earth.

However, we as humans sinned. We failed to trust God at his word and protect the garden against the enemy, the serpent. Therefore our relationship with God, with other people and with creation was shattered. Still hope remains, because God promises offspring that will crush the serpent (Gen. 3:16). That is in short the account of Genesis 1–3. Now we can move on to epistemology.

Epistemology: Covenant and Revelation

How do we know? Knowing in the Old Testament is closely related to experience and is very personal (it can even be used to describe sexual intimacy). However, this experience is marred because of the fall. Therefore God needs to take the initiative, and he does. He takes initiative by choosing people for himself and revealing his word to them. By means of the covenant relationship people experience restoration with God, with others and with the world, and they can truly know again. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ is a famous Bible verse that points to a great reality: only in a restored relationship with God can human knowledge be restored.

Physics and Metaphysics: Creation and Monotheism

One of the unique features of the Jewish creation story is that Yahweh is the only God (monotheism). He is exalted as Maker over everything else that exists. In comparison with him, all idols and all the kings of the earth are ‘nothing’ and ‘emptiness’. This is stated repeatedly especially in the Prophets. One example suffices, Isaiah 40 (note the references to creation):

“All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains ( … ) To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing (…) Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable

Isaiah 40:17–19, 25–26, 28 (ESV)

Pennington links creation and monotheism in this way with physics and metaphysics: ‘[T]he world does not consist of mysterious and impersonal forces that are in conflict with each other and striving for dominance or balance (…) The world is not an impersonal mixture of various atomic elements (…) Rather, the world is one consistent reality, because it comes from one personal and kind God who exercises sovereign and wise control over the whole world’ [12].

Ethics: Covenant and Character

The ground for ethics in the Old Testament is twofold: God’s revelation and God’s character. First of all, his revelation. God reveals to his covenant partners his promises to trust and his will to obey. As such, ethics are grounded in God’s covenantal instructions. But God is no arbitrary lawgiver. That’s because ethics are ultimately grounded in metaphysics: in his holy character. Yahweh is the only God and sovereign King, and as such he has the exclusive right of being worshipped and served. His people must pursue virtue: the character of his people must be formed according to the Good, namely God himself.

The prime character traits of God are love and justice. That’s why the focus in Old Testament ethics is mainly on loyal love and justice, with loyal love covering the relationship with God (vertical), and justice (or what we would often call social justice) covering the relationship with others and with the world (horizontal). The most obvious ethical instruction in the Old Testament is the Torah, which can be best translated as covenantal instruction [13]. In the Ten Commandments we see the focus on loyal love (the first three commandments) and justice (the last six commandments), with the family interposed as the cornerstone of society (the fourth commandment). Another noteworthy example of ethics is the Wisdom literature found in the Old Testament, with its central teaching that ‘the fear of the LORD [obeying covenantal instructions] is the beginning of wisdom [wise living]’.

God is no arbitrary lawgiver. That’s because ethics are ultimately grounded in metaphysics: in his holy character.

Politics: Covenant and Kingdom

God’s kingdom can be defined as: his rule over his covenant people in his place. The Mosaic Law is the prime example of ‘kingdom through covenant’: God effects his rule over Israel through covenantal instructions. The Mosaic Law extends to every part of society and of personal and communal life. The political state of Israel could be described as a politeia, which is structured and instructed by the law of the LORD with the purpose of a flourishing life under his rule. Only when the political leaders lead the people in service and faithfulness to God, will the people flourish under the blessing of God. In this way the people of Israel would show to the world the true way of being human and be a blessing to the other nations.

Philosophy & Theology

Is it justifiable to apply philosophical categories to the Old Testament? Two comments suffice.

First of all, the similarities between the Old Testament and classical philosophy need to be understood. Especially the Wisdom literature in the OT is focussed on ‘wise living’, for the sake of the flourishing of the individual person and Israelite society as a whole. Of course, where the OT differs from philosophy is that it inserts the ‘fear of the LORD’ as central to wise living. But that is a difference in content, not per se in form. In addition to that, the OT as a whole is holistic and was meant to shape every part of the daily life of the Jew, as the covenantal instructions of Yahweh extent to every part of individual and societal life. In this way the Scriptures can be seen as a ‘whole-life’-philosophy. Indeed, ‘the Hebrew Scriptures present themselves as a work of divinely revealed ancient philosophy’ [14].

Secondly, it must be conceded that the Jews did not use these philosophical categories themselves. The Jewish thinking wasn’t as systematic as the Greek. However, that does not mean that the realities behind the Greek categories did not exist in Jewish thinking. We just must be careful not to draw the line too hard between these categories. Also it is noteworthy that the category ‘ethics’ is still used a lot in systematic theology nowadays.

‘The Hebrew Scriptures present themselves as a work of divinely revealed ancient philosophy.’

Overall, Pennington’s philosophical approach to the Old Testament is original and insightful, and leads to a deeper understanding of the way theological concepts such as kingdom, covenant and ethics fit together into the Jewish mind and together shape the story of the Old Testament.


[1] Pg. 9.

[2] Every category deserves much more attention than it can get here, but the purpose of this article is not to deal extensively with each topic, but to provide some pointers as to how the over-all picture looks like.

[3] Pennington treats physics and metaphysics separately, but for the sake of this essay I put them in one category.

[4] Pg. 22.

[5] Pg. 23.

[6] Pg. 21.

[7] Pg. 22.

[8] Pg. 48.

[9] Pg. 29.

[10] Pg. 18–19.

[11] Pg. 20.

[12] Pg. 42.

[13] Pg. 47.

[14] Pg. 39.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God