Jordan Peterson, Christ’s Substitution and Union with Christ
By S. J. Rab
I have deep affection for Jordan Peterson. No; I’ll go one step further – I love the guy. Though I’m still to read any of his books, I must have listened to and watched literally hundreds of hours of his teaching and interviews over the last few years. Since his health has improved to the extent that he has been able to work again, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed season four of his podcast.
I love the guy because I feel he loves me. He has poured out the best efforts of his academic and clinical work, often teary-eyed and hoarsely spoken, exhorting his hushed listeners to bear as much responsibility as possible.
I am a protestant Christian and have been moved by the way Dr Peterson has interacted with the Bible, as well as with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers. I find the lenses through which he has read Genesis affirming of the unique dignity my worldview invests in the Bible. I’ve heard him say something like, ‘If not the Bible, what else?’
It has been deeply moving to hear about some of the health struggles that Jordan and his wife Tammy have suffered over the last few years. While it seems that Tammy is much recovered and Jordan is well enough to record new content, he speaks openly of the constant pain and ongoing struggle he experiences in everyday life. He speculates as to the source of this pain.
A key focus for Dr Peterson is the ‘Christ figure’ - a human ideal of moral and sacrificial living, which we have no better option than to aspire towards. Again, he would say something like, ‘What better ideal do we have to aim at?’
In a recent episode of his podcast (The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast - Season 4 Episode 8: Jonathan Pageau), and throughout his work, Dr Peterson has expressed that aspiring towards the ‘Christ figure’ ideal, so admirably and wholeheartedly, is no walk in the park. As someone who has a sporadic preaching ministry in a local church context, I have a very small appreciation for what it is like to sit under one’s own teaching, and to repeatedly fall short of it.
But here’s the thing. In Christian theology, the extent to which He is an ideal that can be realised by others, is the extent to which we are not only inspired by Him but joined to Him. We imitate Him by sharing in Him. We cannot imitate Him apart from Him.
This is expressed across the New Testament. One thinks of the John 15 ‘vine and branches’ teaching of Jesus, or Paul in Galatians 2:20 explaining that he has ‘been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’
Dr Peterson seems to have been persuaded of the ‘Christ figure’ in only an aspirational sense. In a forward for the Penguin 2018 abridged reissue of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, he wrote (p. xxi):
‘...it is exactly the necessity for interminable sacrifice that constitutes the terrible counterpart of the utopian vision. “Heaven is worth any price” – but who pays? Christianity solved that problem by insisting on the sacrifice of the self; insisting that the suffering and malevolence of the world is the responsibility of each individual; insisting that each of us sacrifice what is unworthy and unnecessary and resentful and deadly in our characters (despite the pain of such sacrifice) so that we could stumble properly uphill under our respective and voluntarily- shouldered existential burdens. But it was and is the opinion of the materialist utopians that someone else be sacrificed, so that Heaven itself might be attained; some perpetrator, or victimizer, or oppressor, or member of a privileged group.’
For me, nothing I’ve come across better expresses Dr Peterson’s understanding of the Christian faith. Does this description of Christianity resonate with you?
When I read this paragraph, it clicked. ‘Oh, that’s what he thinks Christianity is!’ I exclaimed. Is he right? Yes and No. Are the ‘materialist utopians’ right? Yes and No.
So, what is going on? Let’s look at Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul summarises his remarkable conversion to faith in Jesus with these words:
‘I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the
resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV)
The order here is very significant. It sounds like Paul has it the wrong way around. Shouldn’t ‘becoming like him in his death’ come before ‘the power of his resurrection?’ No: this is the good news. For the Christian, we are joined to Jesus by trust (faith) and we receive the power of His resurrection in free newness of life. We can then share in His sufferings, become like Him in his death, and attain to the future, total resurrection of the dead.
It was no different for Jesus. Jesus did not start in the stable and reach to the stars by way of his sufferings and sacrifice. He started in the stars and submitted to the stable and his sufferings, before being raised up again, newly exalted. The narrative shape of the existence of the second person of the Trinity is a U not a /.
In Philippians 3:10-11 Paul seems to be unpacking and owning for himself the narrative U shape that he has already celebrated in the life of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 (potentially an early creed that he quotes). Christ Jesus:
‘...being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:5-11 NIV) (emphasis mine)
Jesus is in very nature God. He is eternal Word of God made flesh. He expresses the divine nature - self-sacrificial, unconditional love - precisely in ‘making himself nothing’ (‘[stumbling] properly uphill’). And as a result, he is exalted again. U shaped, not / shaped.
Perhaps Dr Peterson is killing himself because he has realised that the Christ ideal is real, but has yet to acknowledge that nobody can attain to it apart from the real Christ. The real Christ died for us, and we are joined to him by trusting His death in our place (faith). Through this union with Christ we are then participants in his life, death and resurrection, enabled by his Spirit in us to walk the same road he walked. He has done it. It is finished. Once for all. He made the interminable sacrifice.
I have some sympathy for the ‘materialist utopians’. Who can blame them for looking for someone to sacrifice for the sake of their utopian vision, if the alternative is striving relentlessly uphill under the enormous weight of everything broken and evil in ourselves, our neighbours and the world? But they search for the villain in vain. Dr Peterson is right to point out that the villain is always me, and that this is a Christian idea. But Dr Peterson is wrong to place ultimate responsibility for that villainy at the foot of each individual’s life. To bear this burden is death. Rather, Christ has done it. He was no victimiser or villain, but perfect Son of God, substitutionary sacrifice of atonement, willingly crushed by the full weight of everything sad, wrong and evil.
I have even more sympathy for Dr Peterson. The church can learn so much, especially the protestant church, from his reiteration of the cross-shaped ‘Christ ideal’ as the clear call of the Christian faith. But until you let Jesus ‘stumble properly uphill’ in your place, outrageous and insulting as this seems both to our pride and His glory, you’ll only keep stumbling a little way up hill before falling all the way down to the bottom again. Until you’re joined to Him as your Risen Saviour, whatever newness of life you manage to reach will only end in death. But once you’ve died with Him and been raised again, death itself is just a passing place, the purveyor of joy and life eternal.
“Thus far did I come laden with my sin, nor could aught ease the grief that I was in, till I came hither. What a place is this! Must here be the beginning of my bliss? Must here the burden fall from off my back? Must here the strings that bound it to me, crack? Blessed cross! Blessed sepulchre! Blessed rather be the Man that there was put to shame for me.”
The song of Christian from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Everything I have been trying to say is summed up in these words of Paul:
‘Only let us live up to what we have already attained.’ Philippians 3:16 (NIV)