The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey

jesus_I_never_knew_philip_yanceyIn typical Yancey fashion the author uses his journalistic skills to question and dig deeper into a subject that perplexes him. This time it is Jesus. He is convinced that his fundamentalist upbringing clouds the real Jesus in his thinking. Over and over he makes derogatory comments about his boyhood church and hot beds of fundamentalism (in his opinion) such as Moody Bible Institute (pp. 14, 80, 85, 148, 187, 239, 252). Given this backdrop he sets out to discover the real Jesus. On the positive side, one of his key sources is the four Gospels which he has studied intently. Unfortunately, he has read the Gospels through various lenses which have skewed his view. Avoiding the rest of the New Testament—a serious error (p. 261)—he has attempted to discover Jesus through 15 Hollywood films (pp. 21-22, 85-86, 88, 193) and numerous novelists such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy (pp. 74, 121, 136-142) and Shusaku Endo (pp. 157-158, 193). He gives much credit to the Russian writers for what he knows about God’s ideal and grace even as he recognizes that Tolstoy destroyed his life through legalism and Dostoevsky through antinomialism. Yancy also draws from a wide array of Roman Catholic scholars and mystics including: G. K. Chesterton (pp. 11, 42), Malcolm Muggeridge (pp. 32, 58, 72, 136), the Jesuits (p. 33), Thomas Merton (p. 76), John Crossan (p. 91), Henri Nouwen (pp. 119-120, 124, 268), Mother Teresa (pp. 125, 143, 173, 233), St. Francis (pp. 143, 234, 235), Flannery O’Connor (p. 236), Hans Kung (p. 234) and assorted priests (pp. 115, 118, 156, 174). In addition Yancey repeatedly turns to theologically liberal and secular sources in his search for the true Jesus. As a result it is not surprising to find that he:

  • Believes the kingdom is on earth now through the church although there is more to come (pp. 191, 251). As a matter of fact the future of the cosmos is being determined by the church (p. 229)—“Jesus played His part and then left. Now it is up to us” (pp. 233, 234, cf. p. 253). This is an inaccurate view on many fronts.
  • Thinks Jesus was primarily rejected because He did not measure up to what was expected in a Messiah (p. 242). This is clearly not the full story.
  • Believes that Jesus taught pacifism, disposal of wealth and apparently was not concerned about homosexuality (pp. 259).
  • Misinterprets the story of the Prodigal Son, calling Jesus a prodigal son and the Father a prodigal God (p. 268).
  • Terribly misunderstands the humanity of Jesus and leans toward open theism (pp. 270-271).

It is important to understand that The Jesus I Never Knew is not a careful analysis of the biblical data concerning Jesus but rather the thoughts and insights the author has gleaned from numerous extra biblical sources in addition to the Gospels: movies, Catholicism, liberal theologians, secular philosophers, psychologists and novelists. As should be expected, the result is a collage of helpful insights and questionable and even errant ideals. Discerning and well-read readers of the book might glean some value but most will not recognize that Yancey has not revealed the real Jesus but muddied the waters by turning to the wrong sources for his portrait of Him. In addition to those mentioned above the author draws from such authors as M. Scott Beck (pp. 53, 191, 204, 257) Kierkegaard (p. 76), George MacDonald (p. 77), psychologist, Eric Fromm (p. 158) and Rollo May (pp. 210-211), as well as liberation theologian Jürgen Moltmann (pp. 183, 253-254), Annie Dillard (p. 234), Salman Rushdie (p. 260), and Tony Campolo (p. 274).

It is significant that Yancey never quotes a conservative theologian. Karl Barth (p. 18) and C. S. Lewis are as close as he gets. Given these sources as the lens through which he views Jesus it should not surprise us that Yancey’s Jesus, the one he never knew, is not the Jesus of Scripture. Without doubt Yancey highlights many accurate descriptions of Jesus, but there is nothing in the book that is original or surprising. There is, however, much that Yancey writes that is disturbing. For example

  • He often over-generalizes (pp. 23, 59, 86, 147, 259, 260, 266).
  • He makes forced or inaccurate interpretations of Scripture (pp. 36, 43, 63, 76, 105-126).
  • He over-emphasizes free will (pp. 78-80, 160, 174).

The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 288 pp., paper 14.99 is interesting, well written, offers some needed corrections in how some perceive Jesus and provides some helpful insights. But there are too many out-of-balance comments and skewed views of Jesus to recommend this book.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel, Springfield, IL

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