Jordan Peterson is quite the flavour of the month at the moment. His book 12 rules for life has sold millions of copies all over the world, while an interview he took part in with UK Channel 4’s Cathy Newman has at the time of writing gained over 12 million views on YouTube. His popularity among certain groups has soared and his ideas about a whole range of issues are gaining traction wherever you look. His impact among Christians is also not be underestimated. Many regard him a cultural hero, here to save us from the scourges of liberalism, feminism and a number of other ‘isms.’
My aim in this article is to first offer a brief summary of his philosophy on life in general before offering an explanation as to why he is so popular with scores of believers. I will then discuss his views from a biblical standpoint, suggesting how we might think and engage with the ‘Peterson-ist’ worldview.
Summary of his views
Peterson believes that the key to a good and meaningful life is to ‘take responsibility’ and to be self-sufficient. To quote directly from the man himself:
“Most people find the meaning in their life through responsibility.”
More candidly, the Canadian professor has said that many young male adults need to “grow the hell up” arguing that many are living in a state of prolonged adolescence.
Peterson also believes that there has been an attack, instigated by the academy, mainstream media, various governments and other institutions on these viewpoints plus a host of others that might be considered ‘traditional.’ Lectures, interviews, Q&A sessions and much more can be found on YouTube and elsewhere confirming as such.
Why he’s found favour with Christians
It’s not difficult to see why Peterson is so popular with believers today. His views on certain topics do seemingly chime with what the Bible says. He affirms the biblical definition of marriage (insofar that it should be between one man and one woman) believes the family unit has been undermined by western government policies, and his opinion that men need to grow up, take responsibility for themselves and their families, and not play video games all the time has chimed with evangelical opinion. This is before we consider his thinking on gender and free speech, which like the above issues has many Christians nodding in agreement.
As such, many have treated him pretty much as if he’s an adherent of the faith. But what does he think about the gospel? Does he think it’s objectively true? Does he think that Jesus is Lord? And to what extent does this matter?
The importance of being a Christian
Peterson essentially believes that Christianity conveys true ideas and morality through stories, but the stories themselves are not true. Accordingly, Peterson has difficulty accepting that the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened and that the Bible is God’s inerrant, authoritative and sufficient voice revealed to us.
To be clear, I’m not saying that just intellectually assenting to this definition of the Bible and the death and resurrection of Christ makes one a Christian, it doesn’t. What makes one a Christian is a personal, heart level acceptance that Jesus is Lord and trust in him for the forgiveness of sins and defeat of eternal death. And yet, one cannot have this heart level submission and trust without believing in the objective reality of the above.
As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
“And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But is there nothing at all to what Peterson says about morality? Well, as we said at the outset, Peterson does seem to espouse ‘the right things’ in regard to marriage, the family, gender and so on. And yet we have to ask, what produces the values and character we all need? Jordan Peterson would answer, “taking responsibility”, “manning up”, or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” The Bible however would answer very differently. For it’s only the gospel of Jesus as Lord, slain for our sins and risen to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) that gives us the change the need. Beautifully, when we admit our abject failure and throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus, he gladly receives us (Matthew 18:2-4), forgives us from all our sins, and gives the Holy Spirit, thus enabling a life gradually conformed in the image of Christ as he works in us through the Bible. Indeed, its only through reading, reflecting and acting on the Bible (and not a Jordan Peterson book) that we’ll get this change.
Listen to what Paul says in his letter to the Romans, the Corinthians and Thessalonians:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.[b] Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
2 Corinthians 3:18
1 Thessalonians 2:13
“And we also thank God constantly[d] for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men[e] but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
Another key implication of the gospel is the new creation. This is taking effect right now and will be made complete when Christ comes again to fully usher in a new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21-22). Further, God is gathering together a new people to and for himself – the church, and this body is building itself up in Christlikeness and adding to its number all the time (Genesis 26:4, Matthew 16:13-20, Ephesians 4:12, the book of Acts!). One day, this body will be complete, and Christ and his church will be in perfect relationship with one another. Such glorious truths should obviously shape how we live life now.
We can and should do as Jesus says and ‘lose life now to gain it later’ (Mark 8:34-38). That is, we can make significant sacrifices now for Christ and the gospel because we will gain a perfect eternal life, with Jesus in perfect relationship with him forever. Being in a relationship with Christ now means that we can spend time now and make sacrifices no getting to know and grow in him as we read the Bible, talk about him with others and share the good news of the gospel with those who don’t yet know him. Indeed, when we behold Christianity for what it really is, we see that it’s so much more and so much greater than a self help manual for living better lives now and a few good ideas to make our society function a bit better.
And on the subject of responsibility, while it is true that taking responsibility for ourselves and our families is a good and biblical thing, it misses out the crucial truth that in all things we (in our weakness) are to be humbly reliant on God, our loving father. This goes back to the point about the objectivity of what we believe. If we don’t believe the gospel and its objective truth, then in all likelihood we’re not going to see the sense in relying on God for all things.
Paul in his letter to the Corinthians sums up this need for reliance in weakness:
“For consider your calling, brothers: mnot many of you were wise according to worldly standards,3 not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But nGod chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; oGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even pthings that are not, to qbring to nothing things that are, so rthat no human being4 might boast in the presence of God. And because of him5 you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us swisdom from God, trighteousness and usanctification and vredemption, so that, as it is written, w“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
In conclusion, Jordan Peterson does indeed have some helpful things to say on issues of morality, politics, economics and in terms of how we think and analyse ideas. However, these point to much bigger realities. In saying this, I can be tempted all too often to put this life ahead of the one to come, thinking that this world matters more than it really does. For this reason, we need to be reminded from the Bible, and each other of the infinitely greater glorious reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the future new creation this gospel brings for those adopted as God’s children. We must also remember that the change we need can only come from this one true gospel. Hence, while 12 ways to live may be worth a read if you have the time we mustn’t let secular thinkers like Peterson replace what we get from the Bible, fellow Christians and our local churches where the bible is faithfully taught.