Dr. Jonathan Pennington, associate professor of New Testament and director of the doctoral program at Southern Seminary, has written an important, new book on the Sermon on the Mount. The title is The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Baker Academic, 2017). You can find a link to Amazon here. The book is not exactly new; I’ve known about it for about a year now. But it is new to me and perhaps to many of you.
Pennington is regarded broadly as an expert on the Gospel of Matthew. Now, on the way to writing the prestigious Pillar Commentary on the whole Gospel, he paused and wrote an extensive theological commentary on the Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best known sermon of Jesus. Oscar Brooks called it “the inaugural address” of Jesus because it laid out the platform for the kingdom of God.
At the heart of Pennington’s book, as the title shows, is an interpretation of the beatitudes and the Sermon as what we would call today “human flourishing.” Essentially, what wisdom is needed and what virtues must be cultivated in order for humans–or in this case, Jesus-followers–to flourish. He begins by re-translating the beatitudes (Matt 5.3ff) in a manner like: “Flourishing are the poor the spirit, . . . “; “Flourishing are those who mourn, . . . ” You get the idea. He moves the Greek word makarios out of the category of “happy” or “fortunate” or “blessed.” While the term “human flourishing” may be anachronistic, it is heuristically valuable and gets at the heart of what is the good life and good society.
One of the most important features of the book is Pennington’s commitment to join together the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greco-Roman virtue ethics. Rather than seeing these as discrete aspects of Galilean/Jewish culture, Pennington invites us to see these as mutually instructive. He makes a good case for it. But wisdom here is not just “this worldly,” it also has an eschatological dimension as well. It is thoroughly Christ-centered and kingdom-focused.
Pastors and scholars have been writing on the Sermon for years. My first encounter with a book devoted largely to it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. I am not sure the trend will end, but I do think that Pennington’s book is likely to become one of the most significant books on the sermon for years to come.
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