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Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer, The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries (Brazos Press, 2007), 280pp.Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer, eds., The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II (Brazos Press, 2007), 280pp.

(Guest review by Ray Cowan)

           Most everyone agrees that the text known as the "Sermon on the Mount," found in Matthew chapters 5–7 and parallel passages, forms the core of Jesus' teaching about life in the "Kingdom of the Heavens" ("Kingdom of God" in the Lukan parallels).1 But what is much less agreed upon is exactly what Jesus was trying to get across. There's no question of its importance; what is in doubt is what he meant, and there's plenty of ideas about that.

           The volume consists of an introduction by Timothy Larsen and eleven essays by modern-day scholars and theologians. Each essay surveys the works of one or two well-known Christian figures regarding their interpretations of the Sermon. The essay authors include such names as Stanley Hauerwas, Mark Noll, and Robert Louis Wilken, while their subjects include the famous (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, John Paul II) and the less famous (Hugh of St. Victor). Time-wise they range from the ancient (Chrysostom) to the modern (John R. W. Stott, John Howard Yoder).

           My favorite essay was the one by Stanley Hauerwas on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's and John Howard Yoder's views on the Sermon. In my experience, most Christian teachers, authors, and preachers, past and present, view the Sermon primarily as a set of rules to be followed or conditions to be achieved in order to receive some benefit to be given by God.2 "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," so, it is assumed, we should work hard at being meek in order to receive the promised benefit. Or at being poor in spirit (or simply poor, in Luke's version).3 Or we should try hard to be mournful. Bonhoeffer and Yoder run counter to this view; they see the Sermon as depicting what happens when we are living in, and as part of, God's kingdom, right now. Jesus is not setting out a few dozen more commandments to be mechanically, blindly, unthinkingly followed. In God's way of living, the poor are blessed because that's how life in the kingdom of God works. The mournful are comforted; the pure in heart see God (you think the truly pure of heart in this world have an easy time of it?); those that need a coat are happily given a coat and a cloak as well. And so on. Jesus isn't laying out rules; he's laying out life — the truly good life — and offering it, wonder of wonders, to us.

           The view of the Sermon as rules to be followed, or conditions to be achieved, in order to receive blessing from God just gets it all backwards. And this view is so, so prevalent in modern Christian thought, and in past Christian thought as well, as you'll see if you read this book. Instead of seeing the Christian life as based in "good under God", we take it, and twist it, and convert it into legalism, just like the Pharisees did — Jesus' primary opponents. To the Pharisees, it didn't matter what sort of person you were "on the inside"; they based their "righteousness" simply on not doing wrong. Hate as much as you like, just don't murder anyone. Jesus explained his kind of righteousness in terms of living as an integral part of God's kingdom, a whole person, living where doing good under God is the right, and easy, and natural thing to do. On Jesus' view, hate is murder. Of course, we have to come to see it this way: we can't just set out on our own and make it work. We do it "under God": living confidently in reliance on Jesus and his authority in this world. For another view along these lines, see Dallas Willard's book The Divine Conspiracy.

           Overall I'm glad I read this volume. Some parts were a bit too detailed and detached for a biblical non-scholar like me, but the authors have all done a careful job of condensing their subjects' views into a relatively few pages. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the history of interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.

Ray F. Cowan, Ph.D. (
Laboratory for Nuclear Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

[1] It puzzles me why nearly all English translations render Matthew's references to "the heavens" as singular when in the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies Greek texts they are nearly always plural (e.g., Matthew 5:3, 6:1, and 7:21). Perhaps the translators are trying to identify the "Kingdom of the Heavens" with the concept of heaven as "the place you go after you die". While the former may well include the latter, I believe Jesus was teaching with something larger in mind.
[2] See, for example, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famous work, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.
[3] By the way, I don't think "poor in spirit" means "humble". On the contrary, "poor in spirit" is referring to the downtrodden, the broken, people at the end of their rope, those with no hope left. Humbleness (the real sort) is of course a virtue, as taught elsewhere in Scripture. But our tendency is to turn everything we can into rules to be followed, rather than see it in terms of the kind of people we can become under Christ.

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