A Review of “The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing” by Jonathan Pennington

Maybe one out of every thirty books I read makes a lasting impression on me. It’s not that the other 29 books aren’t good, they are often great books, but they don’t do much to add to or dramatically impact my life, teaching, theology, or pastoral care. But maybe one in thirty makes an impression. Fewer still alter the way I read the Bible, but Jonathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing fits into that rare category. This “theological commentary” provides much-needed clarity on the interpretation and application of the Sermon on the Mount.

Pennington opens his book by asserting what many preachers, teachers, and counselors know first-hand about the text of the Sermon on the Mount: a careful reading of the Sermon creates theological, pastoral, and practical problems (4). There’s the problem of it’s impossibly high demands. There is the problem of legalism, which suggests that ethical living is the key to entrance into the Kingdom of God – a very anti-gopsel message. There is the problem of identifying the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus’ Sermon and Moses’ law. Various interpretations have attempted to answer one or more of these problems through an explanatory grid that tells us how to rightly interpret the text. Pennington gives us a summary of these various explanatory grids, showing their strengths and weaknesses. Then, he offers one of his own, which while not being novel is more fully developed than previous attempts to explore this grid.

The particular explanatory grid Pennington offers readers is to see the text of the Sermon on the Mount within a cultural context of both Jewish wisdom literature and Greco-Roman virtue tradition. The Sermon, he states, is primarily interested in disclosing to readers the key to human flourishing. He writes:

The argument of this book is that the Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced – How can we experience true human flourishing? What is happiness, blessedness, shalom, and how does one obtain and sustain it? The sermon is not the only place in the New Testament or whole Bile that addresses this fundamental question. I would suggest that this question is at the core of the entire message of Scripture. But the Sermon is the epicenter and, simultaneously, the forefront of Holy Scripture’s answer. (14)

This view of human flourishing is deeply theocentric, it is connected at the heart to one’s relationship to God, but it is still an attempt to answer the same fundamental metaphysical question. We ought to read the Sermon, “which is clearly focused on a vision for a way  of being in the world,” with a view towards transforming our lives.

The book is broken down into three parts. Part one is what Pennington calls “orientation.” Here readers get insight on the structure of the sermon, giving us an “encyclopedic context” for the Sermon itself. Pennington argues that a careful observation of the “form, material, and verbiage of the Sermon reveal that it lies at the nexus of…the Second Temple Jewish tradition and Greco-Roman virtue tradition” (24). He walks readers through key terms in part one as well, noting the appropriate translation and usage of terms like: Makarios, Teleios, righteousness, hypocrisy, the kingdom, and more. He particularly challenges the translation of “blessed” in the Beatitudes, providing a nuanced and important reinterpretation to these texts.

Part two turns towards actual commentary on the Sermon. Here, Pennington shows his skill as an exegete, walking readers section by section through the commentary. Having given us the explanatory grid he know puts it to work on the details of the text helping readers to see what he has argued beforehand.

Part three concludes the book with a “theological reflection.” Pennington pulls together several themes, in the form of six theses, to offer up to readers a “theology of human flourishing rooted in the Sermon” (290). It is, he says, only a sketch, but it is a compelling sketch. In many ways, this concluding chapter serves as a summary of the book itself. It is not as robust in its defenses as preceding chapters, so readers will want to read the whole book, and yet it is a good condensed look at Pennington’s overarching thesis.

This is a compelling read. It is technical and dense, not for the average consumer, and yet it is not a dry read. Pennington keeps readers engaged and works hard to show us the beauty and brilliance of the text’s composition. I was blown away by his insights and felt as though I were reading the Sermon on the Mount afresh all over again. I will be referencing this book for many years to come. Whether you are a pastor, teacher, or simply a keen student of the Scriptures you should consider reading The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. It will help to reinterpret one of the most important texts in the New Testament. In a time when questions about human flourishing, social justice, and godly living are constantly being debated, this book helps us to connect the dots between ethics, theology, Scripture, and the gospel, like few others. I highly recommend it.

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