In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan B. Peterson lecturing in Toronto

Jordan B. Peterson presenting the first of his series on “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories,” May 16, 2018, Toronto, Canada

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! (Psalm 92:5)

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Jordan Peterson & the Bible

You may have heard of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian university professor and psychologist, who first caught the public’s attention by posting a series of YouTube videos on why he would not submit to government-imposed compelled speech. Then a few months ago his extraordinary interview on British television with Channel 4’s Cathie Newman went viral. The occasion was the promotion of his latest book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” what has been #1 or thereabouts on Amazon for some time.

One of the most unusual things about Peterson’s teaching is his love for the Bible in spite of his own uncertainties about God. Last year he did a twelve-part public lecture series in Toronto called, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories,” where he endeavored to analyze several stories from the Book of Genesis within a strict psychological framework. His appreciation for Scripture isn’t isolated to talking about Bible stories. Biblical references are strewn throughout his “12 Rules” book.

We must keep in mind that Peterson doesn’t come to the Bible as a believer in its divine authorship. While not discounting the reality of a spiritual or mystical dynamic to Scripture, he treats the Bible as the product of higher consciousness, the result of billions of years of evolution. For him, that the Bible stories are no more than a fruit of human achievement doesn’t take away how incredibly profound they are. He continually marvels at the biblical narrative, saying such things as “this is something really worth thinking about for a very long time!” As someone who is driven by a desire to (in his words) “get to the bottom of things,” he proposes that in one case at least, the story of Cain and Abel, this may be a story with no bottom, in other words: infinitely profound.

Peterson’s awe of the Bible is refreshing, especially in a day when the mainstream regards it as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. It helps that he apparently tries to approach Scripture at face value without being burdened by theological and religious interests. He has no need to fit this or that into his own or anyone else’s theological or ideological systems, freeing him to fully ponder and to expound. He does have a particular perspective, however, which I will discuss below.

Peterson has certainly given us something to think about with regard to the depths of Scripture. The tendency among so many true believers is to overly simplify the Bible, as if the goal of God’s written Word is to make it as easy to understand as possible. There’s also the popular misconception that every passage only has one meaning. While it is appropriate to encourage people not to run wild with the text – a common occurrence throughout history, we cannot and should not diminish its depth.

Since the Bible’s origins are in God, should we not assume that its depth of meaning would be virtually infinite? Not that it can mean anything we want it to, but what it does mean is of such a complexity that we may never fully plunge its depths. I am not implying that it’s inappropriate to simplify it for children, for example. Part of the Bible’s ingenious complexity is that it can be engaged at every level of intelligence by every culture. Just because a child can appreciate a great classical symphony or novel doesn’t mean that such great works don’t also contain overly complex meaning to mine for generations. If scholars and others can wax eloquent over a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespearean play, or a da Vinci painting, how much more the divinely inspired written Word of God!

Peterson through an authentic biblical lens

Peterson’s apparent lack of theological bias doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring a particular perspective to Scripture. Apart from his evolutionary presuppositions, he views the unusual profundity of the Bible through the teaching of the highly influential psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Peterson understands many of the Bible stories in terms of “archetypes.” In generic, non-Jungian, terms, an archetype is a most basic, original, or best example of something. While the Jungian understanding of archetype includes the generic meaning, for Jung (and Peterson), archetypes are an expression of collective human consciousness. This is how they account for similarities found in ancient stories, biblical or otherwise. It is why certain themes in literature and film resonate so strongly across time and cultures. So, according to this way of thinking, at its core, the origin of archetypical stories emerged out of human imagination. As Peterson explains in his biblical lecture series, he understands God himself as a projection of human imagination. That doesn’t lead Peterson (at least in his own estimation) to diminish the concept of God or the benefits of belief. Yet combining a Jungian perspective with his passion for the Bible is potentially a dangerous path. Hereon in I will use prototype to refer to the generic, non-Jungian understanding of archetype to avoid associating it with the Jungian version.

Instead of accepting the Bible’s assertion that human beings are the creation of God, Peterson’s god finds his origin in human consciousness. This is where his take on Scripture collapses. On one hand, Peterson demonstrates a level of respect for the Bible that puts many believers to shame. But he doesn’t, at least at this time as far as I know, accept what the Bible actually says about the God who is at the center of the very stories he is enraptured with. On one hand, he is wonderfully overwhelmed that humans could have reached such a level of consciousness to come up with such profound stories, yet this necessarily implies that these same people were totally off base in their understanding of God, the Bible’s most central character.

Moreover, the Bible also clearly views its own origins as being inspired by God (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Peterson would have to say that they either knew their claiming of divine inspiration wasn’t true or they were mistaken. If the former, then the Bible lacks integrity. If the latter, so much for higher consciousness!

Claiming that the stories are the result of highly developed imagination means they are made up. However, the Bible doesn’t present its narrative sections as expressions of imagination. Most of the most profound scriptural narratives, including describing the supernatural, are presented as occurring within normal everyday life. The Bible, for the most part, lacks the normal literary clues of fiction. So again, we face the integrity issue. Can we highly value a collection of writing that presents fiction as fact?

Is it reasonable to conclude that stories such as these could be the result of imagination? I am continually struck by how truth is stranger than fiction. The most unusual, interesting, encouraging, troubling, profound stories are the ones that really happened. Key to the belief in archetypical stories is that they reflect reality extremely accurately, not only as a record of fact, but due their impact on minds and hearts. That’s why great fiction draws upon classical themes. Attempts at fiction which are not rooted in reality and truth tend not to endure. Therefore, is it not more reasonable to assume that the power of the Bible’s stories is rooted in their actually happening instead of being fanciful projections of the mind?

The Bible’s inspiration is not solely found in its recording of actual events, but in how it presents its contents. The Bible doesn’t simply tell us what happened, it also provides insight into God’s involvement. For example, we are not only told that God created people, but that we are made in his image. We don’t just read about wild disasters endured by the Egyptians, but that they were initiated by God as an expression of love for his people. King Saul didn’t just slip into dysfunction, God gave him over to evil spirits because of his arrogance and insubordination. Yeshua didn’t just die an unjust death. He gave himself for our sins. That there were other interpretations of these events at the time is likely. God’s interpretation is what the Bible is all about.

A most profound book

Yet, in spite of Peterson’s Jungian misunderstandings, he is still correct about the profound nature of Scripture. Years ago, I knew someone who was enamored with the stars to the point that he knew all their names. He was an atheist, and yet gazing at the stars filled him with not only awe and wonder but appreciation as well. That he had no one to whom to express that appreciation didn’t prevent him from such a sensation. His rejecting the stars’ divine origin didn’t prevent him from regarding them as profound. Astronomy is worthy of human investment whether or not God is explicitly acknowledged. I assert that knowing the Creator puts that sphere of study on its best footing and increases the potential for understanding. Still, as God’s creation, they themselves are worthy of awe. A person needn’t know the painter of a great painting to appreciate it. It’s the same with the Bible. What makes Peterson so unique is that he hasn’t given into the prevailing political correct view of this book, which has provided the foundation for what’s good in Western Civilization. He is able to appreciate it on a great many levels regardless of its origin.

If Peterson is in awe of the Bible, how much more should we who accept its divine origins be in awe? That these narratives reveal God shouldn’t lead us to acknowledge that and nothing more. It’s not as if giving him credit for the Bible’s creation is its only objective. That God is at the core of Scripture should lead us further into its depths, not keep us in superficiality.

God chose Scriptural narrative as his fundamental teaching tool. That’s why there is more to learn from a very brief Bible story than volumes of abstract explanations. We learn about the value of marriage from Adam’s reaction to seeing Eve for the first time. We are confronted with the loneliness and challenge of being faithful to God through Noah building an ark for years and years. We are encouraged that we can be useful at any stage of life by God’s call of an elderly, childless man to be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited into grappling with life’s utter confusion when that same man is directed to sacrifice his miracle son. We learn about the pain of character transformation through Jacob’s wrestling with God. We are given the gift of how to be free from the trap of bitterness through Joseph’s forgiving his murderous brothers. We discover that God can use us in spite or great wrong by his choosing of Moses. We are exposed to the reality of becoming a leader the hard way through David’s hiding from jealous Saul. I am not saying that these are the only things that can be gleaned from these stories. We can pick any of these or others and make long lists of additional helpful insights, not to mention that each item on these lists may be further expounded virtually forever.

The Messiah: fulfillment & illumination

A word about how the Messiah functions within the Scriptural narrative: Yeshua’s unique role is often misdirected to eclipse, rather than illumine, the rest of the Bible. While it is right to emphasize his person and work as “fulfilling” the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Covenant’s sense of fulfillment doesn’t mean “to finish off something” or “to put an end to something.” Rather it means “to bring it to the full,” thus providing all sorts of color and texture to the older stories that were not as clear before. Far from diminishing and devaluing the Old Testament stories, Messiah’s coming allows us to delve even deeper into the Bible’s depths. Not only does Yeshua brings fuller meaning to Scripture, under the New Covenant we are also offered the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely given to believers both as God’s agent of Scriptural illumination and the one who enables us to live out the Scriptures effectively.

Yeshua is the Bible’s central prototypical character. The way he embodies the Hebrew Scriptures is uncanny. This leads some scholars to deem the earlier writings as unnecessary. But that misses the point. Instead, Yeshua’s unique character gives greater meaning and integrity to the grand narrative. Is it not reasonable that when the God who revealed Scripture, embodies himself that even the smallest detail of his written revelation would be found in him? The ways Yeshua incorporates the Scripture should send us back to these stories over and over again to discover more and more of the treasures of knowledge and wisdom they contain.

Delving into the Bible’s depths

The Bible is indeed full of prototypical stories. What Paul writes regarding Israel’s wilderness wanderings is true for all scriptural narrative: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). These stories are not simple moral tales or allegorical pictures of otherwise lofty spiritual principles. There is something about these real-world events that reflect the truth of God and life in a way no other stories can. Other stories may or may not echo biblical truth, but the authentic prototype for those truths is only to be found in the Bible. And that these stories really happened to real people just like us in real places and times invites us to not only engage these stories but share in similar experiences today.

What prevents us from being in a state of rapturous awe worthy of the Bible’s divinely inspired depth? I have already mentioned the tendency to overly simplify or be limited by strict theological categories. The former keeps us superficial. The latter blinds us from unfamiliar and unexpected insights. In addition, misunderstanding the grand narrative of the Bible undermines the richness of its overarching story. Neglecting its story reduces it to a collection of disconnected moralistic principles. Spiritualizing Israel, for example, skews the concrete aspects of Scripture into overly interpretive abstract concepts. This all results in a theological and philosophical commentary overlaid upon the pages of Scripture, thus fooling us into thinking we are reading the Bible when we are actually rehashing our preconceived ideas. What can be more boring than that!

But the Bible isn’t boring. If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by its depths as we grapple with how to live godly lives in these difficult times, we will discover fresh heavenly nourishment each and every day. And most importantly, unlike the great classic works, the Bible’s author is alive and available for consultation. Therefore, we needn’t be intimidated by the challenge of delving into Scriptures’ depths. God will be our guide.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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