Jesus at Thirty
A Psychological and Historical Portrait

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 06/03/2009 by Bob Kellemen.

Not Recommended. This psychological analysis of Jesus has little in common with the biblical portrait of our Savior. What we learn from this book, we learn by negative example.

I have to be honest; Jesus at Thirty is not the type of book that I typically review. The book focuses on a psychological analysis and “historical” portrait of Jesus. I tend to focus my reviews on more “mainstream” approaches that highlight “biblical psychology” and “Christian counseling.” So, why review this book? I was specifically asked by a friend for my assessment. My friend wanted a biblical counselor’s theological and professional evaluation. While it was for my friend that I read and reviewed Jesus at Thirty, you get to listen in on my appraisal.

The Premise and Purpose

Author John Miller admits in his Introduction how “initially unsettling” his topic might be. Miller’s premise is clear: the psychological developmental theory that moves from Freud, to Jung, to Erikson can be applied to Christ. Jesus at Thirty attempts to apply secular psychological developmental theory to the God-man.

Of course, anyone can attempt to apply anything to anyone. The question is, would it be legitimate to apply any secular psychological theory to Jesus?

Miller’s approach assumes, predominantly without question, the validity of psychological developmental theory. That, in itself, raises red flags for “biblical counselors and Christian psychologists” who, while seeing some validity to descriptive research (outlining and organizing the data about what occurs), would question the legitimacy of psychology when it becomes interpretive and prescriptive (saying why things happen and suggesting how change should occur).

Perhaps even more important is the theological premise, or lack thereof, behind Jesus at Thirty. While agreeing with Miller that at some times some segments of the Church have minimized Jesus’ full humanity, Miller seems to minimize Jesus theanthropic (God-man) person (100% God, 100% man), and he appears to deny Jesus as the perfect, sinless Second Adam.

Miller purposes to use developmental psychology to ask and answer the question, “Was the adult Jesus emotionally mature?” Luke 2:40 and 2:52 answer that question directly, declaring that Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, favor with God, and with men. Yes, as a genuine human being, Jesus developed psychologically—relationally, spiritually, socially, rationally, volitionally, emotionally—but unquestionably always perfectly.

As the perfect God-man, as the ideal Second Adam, at every stage Jesus “handled” every “adjustment” sinlessly—He was perfectly holy and loving in every aspect of His personhood every second of His existence. Hebrews 2:9-18 and 4:14-16 both clearly highlight the full humanity of Jesus, while explicitly emphasizing His absolute sinlessness.

Miller further uses the Freudian concept of the traumatic shaping power of early life experiences in one’s immediate family to explore how these shaped Jesus’ “emotional outlook.” “If we hope to get a firmer hold on the idiosyncrasies of the adult Jesus’ inner world, it is to those texts that reflect his experience of father, mother, brothers, and sisters that we must turn first of all.”

No theologian/biblical psychologist would deny the reality of temptations that occur when any human being faces the fallen world, the fallen flesh, and the fallen devil. But Miller’s entire premise seems to miss the point of the Gospel narratives. They contrast Jesus, the Second Adam, with the first Adam. The temptation narratives in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, for instance, clearly compare the external settings faced by Adam and by Jesus, and then contrast their internal responses.

Adam lived in a perfect garden with his every need provided and his hunger sated. Jesus was in the desert without food for forty days. This contrast intends to teach us fundamental theology and vital biblical psychology: while externals can tempt us (the world, the flesh, and the devil), they do not control us. We are not controlled by our environment. As designed by God, Adam and Jesus had a soul, a mind, a will, an inner rational control system—the heart—that could choose God and God’s way. Jesus did just that. Adam did just the opposite.

Miller also wonders how much Jesus’ estrangement from His family (Mark 3:20-21—his family declaring, “He is out of his mind”) impacted statements Jesus made about leaving brothers, sisters, parents, or children for God’s Kingdom (Luke 18:2-29-30). Not only does this appear to attempt to unravel the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, it seems to imply that Jesus had an inability to transcend the impact of external circumstances and personal relationships.

The Bible, of course, teaches the opposite about Jesus, and it exhorts believers also to transcend circumstances and hurtful relationships. This does not mean that we can’t feel deeply. It does mean that we are called to respond maturely. It does mean that we must choose not to allow ourselves to be conformed to and shaped by the fallen world. Thus, it is not only theologically illogical, it is also a chilling thought for the Christian biblical counselor. For if even Jesus is so negatively impacted by fallen relationships that they shape the content and direction of His teaching, what chance does the human counselee (or counselor!) have?

Miller’s Christology, if it can even be called that, claims that Jesus’ baptism by John demonstrated “a need on Jesus’ part for repentance and forgiveness.” I had to read that several times to confirm I was reading it correctly. Miller develops this sinful idea of Jesus’ sinfulness further when he states that Jesus was “moved by John’s fiery call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness of sins through baptism. Christian theology has shied away from conclusions of this nature.” For good reason they/we have shied away from Miller’s conclusion.

Miller takes Mark 10:18 to imply that Jesus was saying that no one, including Himself, should be considered good. He also says that only personal sin could “account for Jesus’ insight into the darker aspects of the human heart (Mark 7:14-23; Matt. 15:10-21) and his utterly passionate focus on forgiveness as the epitome of religious experience.” He continues, “The traditional insistence that Jesus was ‘without sin’ (or even the consciousness of sin) is understandable as an outgrowth of reverence but corresponds neither to the realities of human experience nor to the earliest testimony of the Gospels.”

Miller next shifts to the application of the psychology of religion to the life of Christ. He concludes that something was missing in Jesus that led to His baptism experience. “Jesus belongs to the ranks of those who are compelled to live through a prolonged identity crisis lasting well into adulthood, and who resolve this crisis through a ‘second birth.‘" The crisis in Jesus’ case, according to Miller, orbited around “disturbances between himself, his mother, and his siblings." Thus, “in this light John the Baptist’s possible role emerges as a surrogate to Jesus in his search for spiritual and vocational integrity."

Again, in addition to the theological errors and Christological blaspheme, we see “need psychology”—we do what we do because of unmet needs. We are prisoners of our unmet needs. James 4:1-4, speaking of unmet needs, presents an entirely different theology and psychology. We are able to choose how we respond to unfulfilled longings and desires. When we respond selfishly with manipulation, retaliation, and demandingness, James calls us spiritual adulterers and lovers of this world. When we respond with humble dependence upon God, James promises God’s sustaining grace.

The entire book continues along the path thus far outlined. Miller proposes that Jesus had father issues and mother issues (chapters four and five respectively). He then explores Jesus and Satan and Jesus’ sexuality (chapters six and seven respectively). He next examines the developmental concept of generativity (other-centered, unselfish care) and the mission of Jesus (chapter eight). The critiques shared thus far all apply to these chapters.

In his final chapter, Miller concludes that Jesus, rather than being our sinless Savior, ultimately can be a fine psychological example of someone who surmounts trials, unmet needs, family estrangement, and emotional turmoil to become a “gifted yet humble ‘evangelist’ of God’s love." In Church history this has been known as the “moral influence theory,” and has been rejected by Evangelical theologians. Miller’s Jesus hardly seems a pattern worthy of emulation, and surely is light years away from the Jesus of Scripture.

The World’s Research and the Word’s Revelation

Don’t buy this book. As I’ve stated, I would not have bought it, read it, or reviewed it if not for the request of a friend.

That said, we can learn from this book—what not to do.

Miller epitomizes what occurs when we allow the world’s research to hold sway over the Word’s revelation. Once we give as much or more weight to secular psychological theory than we give to God’s truth, we lose all hope for any meta-truth, any meta-narrative.

We either approach God’s Word confident that it is inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, and relevant, or we bypass God’s Word and cling to the wisdom of the world. We all long for wisdom. We are answer-seekers. Miller, in my opinion, is among those who, in their need for answers, once having turned away from full confidence in God’s Word, must turn from the Creator to the creature.