Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Image result for jordan peterson

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.

What is Baptism with Fire?

This past Sunday I was out of town, officiating the wedding of some friends in Minnesota. It was my first time in Minnesota, and it was really nice! I can see the appeal of the lakes.

So this past Sunday I was out of town, but the week before that I preached a message titled “Baptism by Fire” in which I taught about the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in fulfillment of the promises of not only Jesus, but also of God from even the Old Testament. I made reference to the words of John the Baptist, who said that he baptized with water unto repentance, but that one (Jesus) was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and I talked about how the fulfillment of that is found in Pentecost, when the believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and as a sign of them each individually receiving this baptism, tongues of fire rested on each of their heads.

Afterwards, someone asked me a great question: Whether the baptism with fire that John the Baptist was talking about was a description of the baptism with the Holy Spirit (like I had taught), or if John was speaking of the fire of judgment – because in the very next verse, John the Baptist says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)

Here was my response:

I am familiar with that interpretation you mention, and I think it’s entirely possible given the context of what John was talking about — which is promise of the Messiah and a warning of judgement. In this interpretation, the assumption is that Jesus is saying: he will baptize some people with the Holy Spirit and other people he will baptize with fire — i.e. the same fire of judgment that he refers to in the following verse (vs 12).

Is that what John meant by those words? I agree with you (and many Bible interpreters) that it is quite possible that this is what he meant.

The other main interpretation about this, is that the “fire” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and the purpose of the tongues of fire on Pentecost was that they were a sign that these words of John were now being fulfilled. This is the line of thinking that I took in my sermon. Here’s more on that from the Holman Bible Dictionary:

Fire is one of the physical manifestations of God’s presence. This is illustrated several times in the Bible: the making of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17 ), the appearance in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), God leading the Israelites by a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:24; Numbers 9:15-16; Numbers 14:14; etc.), His appearance on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:11-36; Deuteronomy 5:4-26; etc.), and others (1Kings 18:24,1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2Chronicles 7:1,2 Chronicles 7:3 ).

Fire was used symbolically in Israel’s worship to represent God’s constant presence with Israel (Leviticus 6:12-13 ). God’s presence as fire represented both judgment and purification (the words purify and purge come from the Greek word for fire). To be in God’s presence is to be in the presence of absolute holiness where no sin or unrighteousness can stand. To be in the presence of God is to have the overwhelming sense of one’s uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean (see Isaiah 6:1-6 ). God is able to judge and destroy the sin and purify the repentant sinner.

To be baptized with the Holy Spirit has a wider application than this; but when the Holy Spirit is coupled with fire, the particular aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work as described here is in view.

One thing I would add to this excerpt is that fire is a cleansing agent, and one of the roles of the Holy Spirit as he indwells us is sanctification, e.g. Rom 8:13.

This is one of the difficulties of Bible interpretation — to figure out what exactly was meant by a particular word or phrase in its context. In this case, both options are theologically sound and contextually possible, so it’s kind of a win-win. I’m glad to have the chance to explain a little more about the fire aspect and what the significance of it might be.