A Brief Book Notice from Books At a Glance
By Fred Zaspel
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is widely recognized as of central importance for defining life in the Kingdom. It is a passage that has received so much attention over the years that commentaries have been written about the commentaries!
Yet with so much valuable material already in hand, Jonathan Pennington offers his own reading of Jesus’ famous sermon – a new reading centered on the idea of human flourishing that he would have us believe finally gets the sermon right. Pennington does offer a trove of valuable information and even insight into the sermon; however, I am not convinced that he has offered a better understanding of it overall.
I will not attempt a thorough review here; I want only to raise some questions related to his thesis.
- Is the question of human flourishing really “the greatest metaphysical question humanity has always faced” (p.14)?
- Is human flourishing the Bible’s “meta-theme” (p.66, 290, etc.)? Is it really the right grid for reading the Bible?
- Is Jesus’ Sermon intended as “the answer” to that question (p.36)?
- Is Pennington raising a soteriological question (how to find true blessedness) and answering in wisdom-behavioral categories? Has he rightly related human flourishing to redemption?
- Does Pennington’s answer have any room for integrating the Sermon on the Mount with Matthew’s passion narrative?
- Does human flourishing have an eternal component?
- Are makarios and teleios really best understood in terms of happiness and wholeness (chapters 2 and 3)?
- Is Greek virtue philosophy really more influential in Jesus’ thinking than OT concepts and categories (pp.29ff, 289, etc.)? What of the connection to the Kingdom and the Old Testament Scriptures?
- Finally, (and I have to ask this since Pennington’s thesis is so very new), is Pennington really the first one to understand Jesus’ sermon correctly?
I find myself tending to disagree with Pennington on all these scores. He has obviously put much study into this important passage, but I don’t think his new reading of it provides a useful corrective. I am not convinced that his reading rises from the text of the sermon itself, and in my judgment he misses the significance of the sermon’s connection to Scripture’s larger Kingdom of God theme. He does not recognize the flow of Matthew’s account culminating in the passion narratives (and, thus, Scripture’s larger redemptive context), and I think he “finds” more influence of Greek thought than is actually there.
The book has insights to offer, but I think its central thesis misses the point. For my money, Lloyd-Jones, Stott, and Carson are still much more valuable resources for understanding Jesus’ great sermon.
Buy the books
The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary