Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing by Jonathan Pennington

by Jun 17, 2021Books, Exegesis, NTScholarship, Preaching2 comments

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary, by Jonathan Pennington (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).
I’ve been using this book as my main helper while preaching very slowly (because very occasionally) through the Sermon on the Mount. When my pastor needs me to fill in, I just pick up the next passage. Pennington has quickly commended himself as the most helpful guide to this marvelous portion of Scripture, one of my most important life companions (along with Psalms 1, 2, 40, and 51; Rom 3; and a very few others). In Pennington one gets the feeling that one is getting a responsible round-up of scholarly opinion while also getting Kidner-quality prose and trustworthy homiletical guidance. Pennington does an exceptionally admirable job of keeping his perceived main theme of the sermon in view; this is something I don’t do so well at, and I appreciate it when others do. I occasionally wonder if that theme is as clear as he thinks it is, but he usually wins me over.

It’s pretty bold to call your work a “theological commentary” these days. Everybody wants to claim those two honorifics. But Pennington actually delivers. Here’s a flavor:

Even though the theme of the kingdom is apparent and consistent, this closing exhortation to enter according to the narrow way may seem an abrupt shift toward merely external behaviors, unlike the emphasis on the internal wholeness that Jesus has been picturing throughout the Sermon. That is, “wide” and “easy” and “broad” sound like the life of loose morals, while “narrow” and “hard” conjure images of piety and self-sacrifice and duty. Historically this text has been read and pictorially represented with images that show the broad way as impious behaviors and the narrow way as acts of service and Christian duty. Has Jesus suddenly shifted gears from wholeness/virtue to fiery-preacher behaviorism? ¶ Quite the opposite. Despite a long Christian pietistic tradition of understanding the difference between the narrow gate and broad way as a contrast between immoral behaviors and pious practices, the distinction made here depends on the same internal versus external righteousness that has marked the entirety of the Sermon. The wide and easy way that leads to destruction is precisely what Jesus has been describing all along as living with merely external righteousness, while the narrow and “difficult” way is the vision he has cast for righteousness that is more and deeper than behavior.

He ties a difficult passage back to the sermon’s theme and also relates it to all of Christian theology. And he’s done the exegetical homework necessary to get here. Highly recommended.

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2 Comments
  1. Brian C Collins

    I’m glad you’re enjoying Pennington’s book on the Sermon. When I revised your material on the Sermon on the Mount for our 8th grade Bible textbook most of the revisions were coming from insights that I had gleaned from Pennington.

    This was the assessment I wrote up after my read:
    I found convincing Pennington’s argument that makarois corresponds to the Hebrew ashre and that both refer to a state of flourishing that comes from being blessed. I also found persuasive his argument that teleios refers to wholeness of person (i.e., it affirms the need to obey the law as a whole person rather than just outwardly as the scribes and Pharisees) rather than to perfection as modern English-speakers understand the term. Pennington’s discussion of the Sermon’s structure was also well done.
    As interested as I am in the possible connection between the Sermon and virtue ethics, I found that part of Pennington’s argument less convincing. That the Sermon and Greco-Roman virtue ethics cover an overlapping area is clear. But that Jesus was actually interacting with Greco-Roman philosophers seems a bit of stretch to me. It was also interesting to be reading this book while also reading Kavin Rowe’s book on Stoicism. Rowe argues against an encyclopedic approach to connecting philosophy with Christian through. Pennington argues for a connection between the Sermon and Greco-Roman virtue ethics by virtue of its “encyclopedic context.” I wasn’t entirely sure if Pennington and Rowe were talking about the same thing by “encyclopedic,” but insofar as they were, I found Rowe more persuasive.
    Another weakness is Pennington’s tendency at points to pit Reformation and Roman Catholic readings against each other. Pennington tended to favor the Catholic readings without any further comment on how those readings fit into larger systems of theology. More troubling, when I looked at Reformation and Post-Reformation writers like Thomas Watson, William Perkins, and even Martin Luther, I don’t always see that opposition that Pennington is claiming existed. Since he tended to footnote the Catholic interpreters but not the Reformation ones, I wonder if there may have been a caricature of Reformation and Puritan authors at this point.
    These criticisms aside, I found Pennington to have a helpful and largely correct approach to the Sermon on the Mount, and I’ve benefited greatly from reading it.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Unlike 99% of the books I review, I did not read this one from cover to cover. I treated it more like a commentary; I began my read at the place I was preaching in when I got the book. So with both of your criticisms I plead some ignorance. I don’t specifically recall places where he pitted RCC vs. Reformation readings… I do remember notes on virtue ethics; they didn’t stand out to me much.

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