Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: Living the Sermon on the Mount

Those who know the deep, deep regard with which I hold my mentor, Glen H. Stassen, will not be surprised that I am about to plug his latest book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (Jossey-Bass, 2006). This is the second installment in a new series by Jossey-Bass, “Enduring Questions in Christian Life,” which represents a new venture into Christian publishing by a publisher most widely known for publishing textbooks in non-religious subjects. The series is edited by David P. Gushee, another friend, and co-author with Stassen of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003), now in its 6th printing.

Those of us who have known Stassen personally or through his writings have long known of the serious way he combines biblical exegesis and theological reflection in his approach to Christian ethics. The heart of his biblical work for years has been a new approach to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) that sees it structurally as a series of 14 triads, and roots interpretation deeply in the Jewish background of Jesus’ thought. Stassen has even argued at length for this approach in a long article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, hoping to influence the way New Testament scholars approach the Sermon. (The Matthew Group of the Society of Biblical Literature had Stassen on a panel on the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount at their annual meeting this past November. It is rare that someone who is not employed as a professional biblical scholar is given such an honor and is an indication of the seriousness with which biblical scholars are taking Stassen’s work.)

Stassen wants to avoid historic interpretive errors that have “let Christians off the hook” on following the Sermon, but he also resists the tradition that sees the Sermon as “an impossible ideal” that we attempt to live out, but can’t. For Stassen, the heart of the Sermon is “God’s Delivering Grace,” which diagnoses the particular “mechanisms of bondage” to our patterns of sin and shows us a way out through “transforming initiatives”–all rooted in God’s transforming initiative in sending the world Jesus to deliver us. We aren’t told just not to nurse anger or lust, etc., but given patterns which will enable us to live differently.

This book is designed to be read by serious Christians who are not necessarily biblical scholars or theologians. Technical terminology is kept to a minimum and so is scholarly apparatus, although there are a number of endnotes and a brief bibliography for further reference. Yet this is not just another of the numerous popular biblical “expositions” by TV preachers or other popularizers. It is rooted in a lifetime of study and serious scholarship which has been spelled out in detail elsewhere. It includes a challenging final chapter on “how to tell a true ethic from a false one.”

Two errors must be avoided: (1)This is not an attempt (as with Tolstoy and others) to reduce Christianity to its ethics, or to separate Jesus’ teachings from his life, death and resurrection. But Stassen is well aware that in the early centuries of Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount was the most quoted part of the New Testament; it was at the heart of the early church’s life. All that changed when the church became wedded to empire. Since the Sermon is the largest block of Jesus’ teachings recorded in the New Testament, how we treat the Sermon shows how we treat all of Jesus’ teachings–and the church has too often tried to find ways to ignore or water down that teaching–either reserving them for monks and nuns (the Catholic pattern) or fearing that any concentration on Jesus’ teaching will somehow “get in the way” of focus on the gospel proclamation of saving grace (the conservative Protestant pattern). So, the second error (2) is to think that Christian discipleship is an “option” added on to salvation by grace through faith–rather than the living out of the same.

I hope this book gets wide use in the churches.

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February 10, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, pacifism, Sermon on the Mount

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Michael; I’ve ordered the book and will very much look forward to reading it (the Amazon.ca website quotes strong endorsements from Richard Rohr and Willard Swartley, too).

    Comment by Tim Chesterton | February 10, 2007

  2. Oh, great! As if I don’t have enough must-read books on my Amazon wish list! ūüôā

    Seriously, I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time. I’m glad to see the wait may soon be over.

    Comment by D. P. | February 10, 2007

  3. Yeah, Darryl, I have a number of books on my wish list, too. And, since I turn 45 in April, I may just put them up here, soon. I keep trying to get books by reviewing them, but can only do so many–and my book buying budget isn’t very large since I am no longer teaching full time.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 10, 2007

  4. Michael, is this simply an edited and popularised version of Kingdom Ethics?

    It sounds excellent, but I’ve got KE, so could do with not spending the money if there’s nothing new.

    Comment by graham old | February 11, 2007

  5. You won’t find anything shockingly new if you have Kingdom Ethics, Graham. However, you might recommend that your church Bible Study buy copies of this and study it–something that won’t fly with the much larger and more expensive KE.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 11, 2007

  6. Thanks, I will look for this too. Any thoughts on how this deviates from George Fox’s treatment?

    Comment by Looney | February 11, 2007

  7. I’m afraid I can’t help you much, Looney. Although I know many Quakers and have read Fox’s journal, I am not familiar with his approach to the Sermon on the Mount. Quaker pacifism is much less text-based than, say, Anabaptist pacifism. Glen has been heavily influenced by early Anabaptists (like Menno Simons) and by John Howard Yoder, but his approach to the Sermon is also deeply influenced by the Welsh NT scholar, W. D. Davies, who was his teacher at Union Theological Seminary of NY.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 11, 2007

  8. Thank You

    Comment by Alex | April 22, 2007


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