Below, Jonathan T. Pennington, assistant professor of New Testament interpretation, talks with Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith about this new book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.
This book is part commentary, part instructional on reading the Sermon on the Mount well. How does that affect the structure?
The first half of the book is how to read the Sermon. The second half, 150 pages, looks at distinct sections of the Sermon. At the end of each section, I have a short explanation of how the section talks about human flourishing. The final chapter is where I try to pull together the ideas and form six theses on the Sermon, including showing from the whole Bible how human flourishing is a theological category. There were moments during the writing process — more than one — where I panicked, like the book can’t decide what it is. Is it a monograph about the historical and literary background of the Sermon or is it a commentary? At the end of the day, we pressed forward, and I talked to my editors over the years and they said, “Let’s just go for it.” I’m really happy with how it came out — that it is a combination and mixing of genres.
The message of the Gospels isn’t just that Jesus died for your sins. It’s that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice and rose from the dead to inaugurate a new covenant which is a means by which the reign of God is to be restored from heaven to earth.
How did you personally get so interested in the Sermon on the Mount?
It’s hard to remember exactly. Honestly, it was probably just from teaching Matthew, and then one year I decided to offer a course just on the Sermon. I saw it in the course catalogue, no one had taught it forever, and I thought, “I can probably say something about the Sermon on the Mount.” But when I started teaching I realized, “Holy cow, I have a lot to learn!” As a result, it’s helped me understand Matthew better — even writing this book helped me understand so many things about Matthew I’ve never seen before. So the origins are not very glamorous — in that sense it was just a class to teach. The things that struck me immediately were that I didn’t know anything about ethics and that I generally don’t agree with how most Christians approach ethics. So I quickly began to educate myself on ethics, and from that, Greek philosophy. The second thing I realized was that the history of the interpretation of the Sermon itself is just a tour de force and a fascinating revealer of all kinds of things — it has a Lutheran reading, a two kingdoms reading, a virtue ethics reading, a monastic reading that separates the councils, the monks versus the average people. It quickly started to consume my thinking, and I’m very glad that it did.