Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

30259200Jonathan T. Pennington is associate professor of New Testament Interpretation and director of research doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Pennington received a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Along with numerous articles, Pennington is the author of Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew and Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, and works on both Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Most recently, Pennington has written a theological commentary that provides a fresh approach to the Sermon on the Mount that is both contextually informed and practically concerned with application in the Christian life.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary is strategically divided into three major parts: (1) Orientation, (2) Commentary, and (3) Theological Reflection. In the introduction, Pennington surveys the history of interpretation and positions the reader to better recognize the overall strategy of his approach. As Pennington acknowledges, the entire purpose of the book is to wrestle with one, single question: What is the Sermon really saying theologically and practically? (p. 14). In Part One, Pennington familiarizes the reader with the interpretive lenses used throughout the second and third parts of the book. Pennington positions the Sermon as a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation (p. 15). Contextually, Pennington rightly positions the Sermon within the crossroads of Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, and spends a fair amount of time detailing how such a crossroad influences the language therein—especially terms such as Makarios (“Flourishing” or “blessed”), Teleios (“whole/complete” or “perfect”), and others. In Part Two, Pennington applies his interpretive lenses to the text of the Sermon and offers a section-by-section commentary on Matthew 5:1-8:1. In Part Three, Pennington brings the entire book to a practical point of digestion and offers six “theological assertions [or theses] that seek to pull together several threads and themes to construct a theology of human flourishing rooted in the Sermon” (p. 290). The book closes with an author index and a Scripture and ancient writings index for reference use.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing is both convincing and engaging. Pennington is judicious and detailed, but also clear and accessible. A few observations need to be mentioning here. First, and probably foremost, those not familiar with a theological approach to the Bible will need to read Part One before moving into the commentary proper. This is not to say that readers cannot delve into the commentary without reading Part One, rather that much of what is developed in the commentary is further implications from that previously established. It should be a necessary start point for most. Second, Pennington’s lexical exploration on Makarios and Teleios was not only convincing (I can almost guarantee that you won’t read the Sermon the same again), but it was a superb example and demonstration of how to do such work properly. The keen reader will not only glean from Pennington’s conclusion, but thereafter will do well if they imitate his methodology. Lastly, though some readers may at points disagree with Pennington, it is nearly impossible to see how such disagreement could detract from the value of his willingness to follow the text and establish the Sermon as “an eschatological, Christ-centered, kingdom-oriented piece of wisdom literature with roots in the Jewish Scriptures that invites hearers into human flourishing through faith-based virtue, expressed in language that overlaps with other first-century moral philosophies” (p. 289). Pennington is careful and honest, and does much to help the reader recognize the benefit of reading the Sermon through theological lenses.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary by Jonathan T. Pennington is a remarkable, theological exploration into one of the most important passages of the New Testament. Pennington is familiar with the history of interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and his expertise in the Gospels provides a solid foundation for the work produced here. Pennington is insightful, engaging, and informed. If you can only own a single book on the Sermon on the Mount, please, let it be this one! It comes strongly recommended and will be used often.

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