Jordan Peterson and the Bible

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Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.

One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.

I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosin which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.

Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.

Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!

However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.

Presuppositions Influence Interpretation

Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.

As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.

Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.

The Irony…

Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.

Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview

For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.

Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.

Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!

Nothing New Under the Sun

In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.

All Injunctions, No Justification

My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?

In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?

Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.

As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.

15 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson and the Bible

  1. Good article. At the risk of judging someone’s heart, I would say it is correct that Peterson is not actually a Christian at this point. I believe he is a humble agnostic that at least recognizes how important the idea of God and absolute truth is for man.
    The irony mentioned in this article is so true! He often talks about how destructive we become when we create our own meaning but it seems he does that very thing.

    I think Peterson does recognize the difference between his stance and the actual born again Christian. I think he’s still struggling with it but at this point he can’t imagine reducing all of the information, history and belief systems he’s studied down to one dogmatic belief. I really hope he gets there! His hero, Dostoevsky was of course a brilliant Christian, although his other hero, Nietzsche, not so much. Interestingly, he likes to critique Nietzsche, that although N’s conclusion that man lost his meaning when he killed God and had to invent his own is accurate, N’s further conclusion that man creating his own meaning could be a good thing, Peterson thinks is flat wrong!

    So, I definitely don’t follow his logic at times. I really like his statement that the fact that he lives as if God exists proves his belief in God. In his mind, that’s the definition of belief. I really like that and feel as Christians could use that logic more. But yeah, I wish he would confront Christ and the idea of the gospel on a personal level.

    1. That’s great analysis! Sounds like you’re pretty familiar with Peterson. Have you read the book?
      I really did like what he said about Dostoyevsky, and how he respects him (even above Neitzsche) because Dostoyevsky was willing to confront and engage with the challenges the Enlightenment thinkers posed to Christianity, and he did so without caricaturing them or making straw-man arguments, and also without losing his faith or giving up his convictions.

      1. I am reading 12 Rules for Life now. Other than that, I have watched a number of lectures and interviews. Did you know that his house is decorated with communist propaganda – posters and other memorabilia – from the Stalin era, not to celebrate but as a constant reminder of what man is capable of in his dreams of creating utopia. Interesting guy…
        You present a very fair and insightful critique of Peterson’s relationship to Christianity here.

  2. I appreciate your even-toned approach to critiquing 12 Rules for Life.

    There are a few points with which I disagree.

    “He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.”

    If you mean by ‘objectively true’, literally true, then a great many people do not believe the Bible to be fully literally true, including plenty of religious people. The Bible is not a place to go to understand science. It is a place to gain values. Science cannot inform values. Also, after having listened extensively to his lectures and read 12 Rules, he does place preeminence on the Bible as ‘more true’ than other sacred writings of other religions. While he does express that the Bible has been developed and influenced by the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time, that does not mean that is somehow on the same level as other sacred texts. The Bible (and therefore God) is the top lobster in the hierarchy, so to speak, and needs to stay there, otherwise he wouldn’t emphasize it to the degree that he does.

    “Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars.”

    This sweeping statement seems to depend upon which scholars you agree with. While details of his theory are disputed, the concept itself has a wider acceptance than what you indicate. There is a divide, in part, between academics and theologians, but I doubt it is a black-and-white divide.

    “he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working.”

    Dr. Peterson states that “the necessity for work is one of the curses placed by God upon Adam”. If there was work before and work after ‘the Fall’ then there was no consequence for Adam. However, the necessity for work is there–there are thorns to contend with for the ground is cursed for his sake; it is no longer easy gardening. Besides, focusing on that element of his argument completely misses the point of the idea that the necessity of work is about learning delayed gratification and making sacrifices for a better future.

    Dr. Peterson does state why we must persevere, why push on, why try to be strong and suffer well. Pages 63-64 addresses this, in part. “You could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak, particularly your own individual Hell–you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.” If you live a life worthy of Heaven, the rest will take care of itself. For Peterson, that means acting as if He exists–by walking in His Ways as far as I can see.

    The parables of the sheep and the goats and the house built upon the rock come to mind, as well as the unauthorized exorcist that Paul VanderKlay noted.

    1. Hi, thanks for reading and commenting. Here’s my response:
      1. If you mean that people think the Bible is all literally true, that’s not what I’m saying, since many things in the Bible are meant to be understood figuratively not literally. However, where the Bible claims or purports to be reporting the truth, I believe that it is actually doing so. In other words: where the intention of the text is to convey true statements, it does so.
      You say, “Science cannot inform values.” This is absolutely incorrect, and prominent atheists and agnostics would not agree with that statement. One of the best strides of postmodernism has been the admittance that no one, including scientists, are objective, but especially not those in the social studies, such as psychology for example. That isn’t to say that it is purely subjective however.

      You say: “he does place preeminence on the Bible as ‘more true’ than other sacred writings of other religions”. On second thought, I think you’re right: he does believe the Bible is ‘more true’ than other sacred writings.

      As regards work, work did indeed exist before the curse, and God himself worked. It may not be the main point of what he was saying, but what he said was incorrect from a theological perspective and betrays the fact that he isn’t as well versed in Biblical interpretation as he might come across to laymen.

      As regards your comments on the reason to persevere, the idea of “individual Hell” is a gross misinterpretation of the Biblical teaching on what Hell is. Furthermore, your statement that “If you live a life worthy of Heaven, the rest will take care of itself,” is absolutely contrary to the Christian gospel, which says that you cannot live a life worthy of Heaven, you cannot earn your way or merit your way to Heaven; that is something which is given as a gift because of what Jesus merited and earned, and which is received by faith. It cannot be earned or merited by living worthy of Heaven.

      1. Hi Nick,
        Thank you for the thoughtful response. I apologize for the delay. The week was busier than I expected.

        “However, where the Bible claims or purports to be reporting the truth, I believe that it is actually doing so. In other words: where the intention of the text is to convey true statements, it does so.”

        Yes, we are in agreement. I believe that the Bible does convey Truth.

        “You say, “Science cannot inform values.” This is absolutely incorrect, and prominent atheists and agnostics would not agree with that statement. One of the best strides of postmodernism has been the admittance that no one, including scientists, are objective, but especially not those in the social studies, such as psychology for example. That isn’t to say that it is purely subjective however.”

        I recognize that atheists and agnostics would disagree with that statement. It is true, none of us are purely objective. Because of this, I do not think we can create (that would have been a better, more accurate word) values through rational thought, through science. Reason is insufficient. I tend to agree with Jordan Peterson: “Facts cannot be translated into values in the absence of an intermediary mechanism” and “such an intermediary is reliant on the action of fundamental axioms, which are not in themselves either facts or easily derivable from facts (another essentially Kantian claim), and that description of that intermediary as “rationality” … is radically insufficient.”

        “As regards work, work did indeed exist before the curse, and God himself worked. It may not be the main point of what he was saying, but what he said was incorrect from a theological perspective and betrays the fact that he isn’t as well versed in Biblical interpretation as he might come across to laymen.”

        I disagree. Peterson very clearly says “necessity of work”, which echoes from Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers “”the ground,” the adamah out of which Adam had been formed, instead of being as heretofore his friend and willing subject, becomes unfruitful, and must be forced by toil and labour to yield its produce. Left to itself, it will no longer bring forth choice trees laden with generous fruit, such as Adam found in the garden, but the natural tendency will be to degenerate, till “thorns” only “and thistles” usurp the ground.” The Matthew Henry Commentary reinforces the concept of the “necessity of work” by stating “Labour is our duty, which we must faithfully perform; it is part of man’s sentence, which idleness daringly defies.”

        ““individual Hell” is a gross misinterpretation of the Biblical teaching on what Hell is.” That is a misinterpretation of what he is saying. He is not describing a theological, Biblical Hell. Everyone has at least one personal, living Hell they could descend into in their lifetime. Illness. Bankruptcy. Addiction. Alienation. Collapse of a marriage. Could be anything that someone would describe as a “living Hell”. Auschwitz and the Gulags were living Hells. Living so as to make the world a better place is turning the world, or at least your small share of it, a little more towards Heaven. Our Founding Fathers turned the world a little more toward Heaven by breaking away from tyranny and declaring that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’. You are doing it by pastoring people and leading them to follow Christ more closely.

        ““If you live a life worthy of Heaven, the rest will take care of itself,” is absolutely contrary to the Christian gospel”

        I agree that you cannot ‘earn’ your way to Heaven. That is a self-centered focus. However, what I wrote is not absolutely contrary to the Christian gospel. Christians should focus on following Christ. Focusing too much on ‘how do I get to Heaven’ or worrying about whether or not one is saved means a person is too self-focused. That’s why I brought up the sheep and the goats–living with good works and embodying faith means the rest will take care of itself. If one embodies faith, then there is trust in God and His Word. In other words, is the focus on oneself and one’s salvation or is one’s focus on serving others and living with love?

      2. Regarding work, I don’t think we’re far from agreement. What the Bible depicts is that work did exist, that work itself is not a curse, in fact it is part of the “image of God” that we bear, that we are people who can create order out of disorder. What the curse introduced was toil and hardship into the act of work. But to paint work as a curse in and of itself is an idea which comes from more Greco/Roman and Eastern mythology and philosophy. The very positive view of work is one of the fundamentally unique aspects of a biblical worldview.

  3. Well done critique. I was thinking along the same lines. I was discussing JP with my son the other day and I reminded him that JP has many absolute conclusions from supposed mythological stories, i.e. the Bible. I do not believe you can conclude anything from myth, unless that myth is founded on an absolute truth, and that only a fixed standard can give birth to truth. I respect JP & though I tend to agree with most of JP’s conclusions, he has no fixed frame of reference since he has rejected the one outlined in the Holy Bible…Jesus Christ, The Son of God. Therefore, he has no real reason for doing anything noble or good, ultimately, if that nobility cannot be exchanged for a noble life in heaven, for eternity, with God.

    1. Great points. I think that’s a big issue in our society today, that Western society is highly influenced in our morality and ethics by the “fixed standard” we have received from the Bible, but secular humanism desperately wants to disassociate from the Bible and Christianity, which is like cutting off the branch you’re sitting on. We’ve already seen disastrous effects of this in eugenics and other natural conclusions of humanistic philosophy. A lot of people today are talking about right and wrong and being good, but they are trying to pretend that they just came to these conclusions intuitively. One of the few benefits of postmodernism is the recognition that truth is not something that people just intuitively come to on their own. The end is result is people who are talking out of both sides of their mouth (“everything is a social construct” vs “some things are objectively right and wrong”) and have no basis for their ethical and moral claims.

      1. Great conversations here. Two things I wanted to add to this particular thread. One, myth, in philosophy or even religion, doesn’t necessarily mean the same meaning as the modern use of the word. It’s not necessarily saying it’s not true. It’s thought of more like a parable, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, a story describing something real, and while it may or may not have been factually true as a particular event, it’s meant to make a much deeper and more significant point. And this is what I tell atheists. It really doesn’t matter whether you think one way or the other about whether the actual biblical event happened (and I’m not saying it didn’t happen), the more significant point is, what is it saying to you? What is it saying about you? And, in that regard, no other writing in human history comes close. I think that may be Peterson’s argument.

        Second, I do think Peterson is making the point that subjective morality doesn’t work. He’s saying that secularists will fail in trying to have a moral culture apart from metaphysical Judeo-Christian values. In fact, Nietzsche predicted this very thing, which Peterson brings up a lot. And while there has been benefit to postmodern ideas about our bias, it’s wrong to say that nothing is objectively true, which is where Peterson is critical of postmodernism.

      2. I am familiar with that aspect of myth in philosophy and religion. It’s my impression that Peterson does not believe the Bible stories to be true. I could be wrong, but that’s because he’s so vague and dodgy when it comes to answering questions about his own beliefs.

      3. Yeah, he is vague. I think part of that is because he’s not sure himself when it comes to theological issues. He’s also said on several occasions that he is deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing and creating a sound-bite that can be used to misrepresent him.

  4. Thanks for pointing me to your review, Nick. As I told you before, I have not read the book so I can’t comment on that. Like you, I don’t think the value of what Peterson has to say to our culture is theological, but more philosophical and psychological. In that regard, he is a welcome voice of reason in the morass of neo-Marxist postmodern subjectivism and identity politics. I do welcome that. So, if he can get people to stop and think, it’s one positive step out of the current chaos.

  5. I appreciate your work on this but I think you’re missing a few lectures based on your commentary and conclusions. You might want to watch his talk: “Who Dares Say He Believes in God?” (on his main channel), and of course, his Biblical series. To try and judge Dr. Peterson’s faith on one book is a bit narrow, don’t you think? Especially considering the breadth of material Dr. Peterson supplies on the matter of faith, I don’t think this is a fair analysis.

    The afterlife is not a sufficient meaning for many Christians, as seen in the fear expressed by Christians (especially Catholics) in palliative care wards. Go and see. Meaning is a very personal thing, as expressed in Viktor Frankl’s works. There is no “one meaning fits all.” And certainly the afterlife isn’t enough meaning to get you through truly Hellish times in life… that I know from personal experience. Doctors even call it “profound pain” in their scientific papers. There’s a reason for that.

    “Many will cry, ‘Lord, Lord! Did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ … Then I will tell plainly them, ‘I never knew you…’”

    Who can truly say they know God’s purpose for their life? What happens when you think you know, then that meaning is ripped from you *by* life? That happens to a lot of people (again, expressed by Frankl). People can be sent into an absolute crisis of faith when that happens, and I’ve personally seen that happen in family, friends, and myself. Dr. Peterson’s works (which I criticized myself at first) brought me back, thank God.

    You should offer more than: “we have a destination and that destination gives us a mission in life…” That’s insufficient on so many levels. Losing faith is far too easy for that to be true. Plus, it’s all left unexplained. What kind of mission? How is happiness achieved? What do you mean by happiness? How do we know God’s purposes? How do we identify what God has done for us in Jesus? It’s not as simple as you make it out to be.

    1. Hi Pam, thanks for reading and commenting. Just as you say that my familiarity with Jordan Peterson’s work may be limited (though this was a book review of one of his books…), I would say that my conclusion is necessarily briefer than all of my ideas on these subjects just due to the limitations inherent in the scope of this short book review.

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