The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries

The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries

The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries is a collection of essays in which scholars look at how different commentators have approached the Sermon, from John Chrysostom to John Stott. Here are some lessons, drawn from that book, that may help as as we seek to understand and apply this greatest of sermons.

Chrysostom: The Sermon on the Mount as the Philosophy of Christ

Was Jesus a philosopher? Certainly many early church fathers tried to present his teaching in philosophical language. As Margaret M. Mitchell pointed out, even the non-philosophically-minded John Chrysostom (c.347-407) counted Jesus as the greatest philosopher. Chrysostom, however, defined philosophy differently than some of the other church fathers:

“Chrysostom was not the first to present the Christian message as a philosophy…already in the mid-second century with Justin the movement had self-consciously taken on the mantle and the vocabulary of Greek philosophy in its self-expression, representation, and development. In the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius…this quest and claim for a Christian philosophical theology was self-consciously being constructed. Chrysostom, in contrast, is famous for his lack of philosophical acumen, by which scholars mostly mean his relative disinterest in metaphysical speculation…But what is sometimes seen as its alternative, Chrysostom’s famous moralizing, can also be regarded—as indeed he presented it—as a philosophical pursuit of the virtuous life.”

Chrysostom measured a philosophy by its effect on people’s daily lives. And from his perspective, the philosophy of Jesus was winning like no philosophy ever had before. Chrysostom was preaching on the Sermon on the Mount in the city of Antioch. The church there went back to the early days, as celebrated in the book of Acts. He was preaching in the late 300s, about a generation since Christianity had received the approval of the Roman government. It is not hard to see how, from his perspective, Christianity was conquering the world and would continue to do so.

According to Margaret M. Mitchell, John Chrysostom was comparing Christ’s teaching to the most famous work of the most famous philosopher, Plato’s Republic:

“If we look at the full scope of Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew’s Gospel, we can see that for John this politeia is a comprehensive vision of human life and society that has utterly vanquished every other option, in particular that of Plato’s famous Republic (in Greek, Politeia).”

Christ had outdone Plato. His teaching had made a deeper and wider impression on the world:

“John’s essential point is that the Christian message is the preeminent philosophy as proven by the fact that it has done what none other in history has—met with worldwide acceptance.”

Chrysostom’s triumphalism was premature. Plato’s influence continues. The world has not become a Christian Republic. Nevertheless, his point is worth considering. If you define philosophy as the thoughtful, conscious pursuit of a virtuous life, then the Sermon on the Mount is indeed the greatest of philosophies.

Augustine: The Sermon on the Mount as the Path to Divine Life

“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NKJV)

Like many others, Augustine (354-430) saw these words as a promise—the key promise of the Sermon on the Mount. And he saw Jesus’s words in the Sermon as the means by which the Holy Spirit realizes that promise in us.

To understand how Augustine read Matthew 5:48, it is helpful to see how he read Matthew 5:44-45, which says, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (NKJV).

Robert Louis Wilken pointed this out in his essay on Augustine:

“Augustine also notes a curious feature of Jesus’s language. He observes that Jesus did not say, ‘Do these things because you are children [of God],’ but ‘do these things in order that you may be children [of God]’…His interpretation of the Sermon hinges on this insight. For Augustine the works one does as a Christian are not simply the expression of one’s faith; they are the means used by the Holy Spirit to bring us closer to God and make us what we are intended to be, made in the image of God, godlike.”

Wilken continued:

“In a later sermon Augustine cites Jesus’s words ‘be ye perfect’ as ‘be ye like your Father in heaven.’…In other words, according to Augustine, Jesus is speaking about ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization.’ It is often assumed that divinization is a distinctly Eastern notion, but it is thoroughly Augustinian, and one of the biblical texts he cites in support is the one he appeals to in the commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, John 1:12.”

John 1:12-13 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (NKJV).

What the New King James Version calls “right to become,” the original King James Version called the “power to become.” This represents a shift in understanding. But if we a right, let us remember that it is more than simply permission; the permission comes with power. Some call it authority. Augustine saw it as a process of becoming children of God—a process of divination. He then applied that understanding to his reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

This is a step beyond Chrysostom’s philosophical approach. As the Holy Spirit empowers us to obey the words of Jesus, we are not just pursuing a more virtuous life. We are becoming more like God.

Hugh of St. Victor: Material to Be Chopped Up and Rearranged

Hugh of St. Victor lived in medieval France. He died in Paris in 1141. Boyd Taylor Coolman introduces him in his essay in The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries:

“Though not widely known today outside scholarly circles, Hugh of St. Victor is one of the most significant medieval European thinkers. Regarded by his contemporaries as an alter Augustinus, a ‘second Augustine,’ Hugh inaugurated a medieval theological tradition that built upon an Augustinian foundation…”

Hugh’s 35-Step Program consisted of five sets of seven. First was his version of the seven deadly sins, replacing sloth with sorrow. Next were the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the seven descriptions of the Holy Spirit found in Isaiah 11:2-3: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. His delight is in the fear of the Lord…” (NKJV).

Augustine had linked this passage in Isaiah to the Sermon on the Mount, comparing it to the Beatitudes. Hugh must have seen a similar connection, for the next two sets of seven in his program were taken from the Beatitudes: the virtues being the sixth set, and the blessings associated with those virtues being the seventh.

This kind of arrangement of ideas into groups was what Coolman called “a quintessentially medieval mode of thought.” It might not appeal to us today to take Bible verses out of context like this, and the connection between Isaiah 11:2-3 and the Beatitudes seems forced to me. But in the “medieval theological tradition” this approach had its value. It helped people internalize the word of God.

Coolman offered the following defense of this approach:

“At first glance, such a scheme—apparently artificial, even arbitrary in the extreme—will not likely compel and may even repel the modern reader. Such a reader may be dismayed to find that Hugh has abstracted the Sermon on the Mount from its original biblical context…Despite its off-putting appearance, however, Hugh’s strategy facilitates insights regarding the theological significance and practical application of the Sermon. In this work, he offers a highly integrated and progressive account of the spiritual life…”

Martin Luther: The Sermon on the Mount as a Manual for Spiritual Warfare

In The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries, Susan E. Schreiner begins her essay on Martin Luther with this:

“When we think of the Sermon on the Mount we commonly recall themes of meekness, mercy, love, and peace. Matthew 5–7 is the section best known for the Lord’s Prayer, turning the other cheek, and the lilies of the field. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that Martin Luther’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount was a polemical call for battle against all enemies, particularly Satan.”

Martin Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount is full of combative language. He was going through a combative period in his life. So was he getting too personal? Was he taking Scripture out of context?

Schreiner explains it as part of Luther’s approach to interpreting the Bible:

“It is often the case that when reading Luther’s biblical exegesis, students cannot understand how he could find references to the pope, the monks, the radicals, and other sixteenth-century people within this ancient text. Was this a naïve precritical attitude toward the Bible, or was there another reason? Luther’s exegetical method depended on one underlying theological proposition, namely, that the human condition before God has never changed over time. The forms, styles, conventions, and outward circumstances of human life have varied, but the basic stance of the human race remained unchanged. In his eyes, therefore, the Bible spoke immediately to his own time, without having to apply the fourfold sense of Scripture. Thus Luther repeatedly used the phrase the same is true today. In short, this theological presupposition allowed Luther to collapse time without denying the historical context of Scripture. The enemies Luther addressed, therefore, existed both in the past and the present.”

The Sermon on the Mount says a lot about spiritual warfare. There are enemies who persecute the church. There are false prophets who deceive. But there is also religious self-deception that we all must guard against. There is war to wage against what Luther considered idolatry. According to Schreiner, we can only understand Luther’s view of the Sermon on the Mount when we understand his view of idolatry:

“In Luther’s thought, Satan’s primary disguise was idolatry. In order to make sense out of Luther’s polemical reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it is critical to recall the centrality and meaning of idolatry in his thought. For Luther, idolatry was the overriding and all-pervasive condition of the fallen world. He explained that idolatry had a twofold nature: it was supremely religious and it was completely rational. Luther was keenly aware that no one ever wanted to be an idolater. But idolaters cannot discern that their god is an idol. The reason idolatry is undetectable is that it conforms perfectly to human reason. Idolatry meets our needs, particularly our spiritual needs, in such a complete and rational way that it never occurs to us that our world is false. Idolatry simply is now what we call reality. Moreover, idolatry is all-embracing: it forms a total and self-enclosed world that satisfies every desire.”

John Calvin: The Sermon on the Mount as a Random Collection of the Sayings of Jesus

We can make an outline of the Sermon on the Mount. We can see a progression of thought in it. But how much of that can we attribute to Jesus? I am convinced that Matthew’s Gospel accurately gives us the words of Jesus. But does Matthew 5-7 give us the sermon of Jesus? How much did Matthew edit it? How much of the outline is his work?

Some people think it is a waste of time to try to discern the work of Jesus in the outline of the Sermon on the Mount. John Calvin was of this opinion. Stephen R. Spencer, in his essay, quotes Calvin as saying that the Sermon on the Mount was “a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ…collected out of his many and various discourses.”

Spencer elaborated on Calvin’s approach:

“He frequently reiterates this point, either noting that Matthew’s or Luke’s account comes from a variety of Jesus’s discourses on a variety of occasions or emphasizing that Matthew and Luke gathered them together in literary collections or both. This entails another point Calvin frequently makes—that the Sermon is ‘not a continuous discourse,’ but that portions of it are ‘detached sentences’ that are ‘entirely separate’ and ‘not at all connected with what came immediately after’ or what preceded.”

Calvin’s despair at finding a meaningful outline of the Sermon on the Mount supports the cut-and-paste approach we have seen with Hugh of St. Victor. We may not agree, but we must take into account Matthew’s editorial power to shape the message. Even if Matthew faithfully recorded the order of Jesus’s words, the stories he tells before and after those words influence how we hear them.

John Wesley: Common Ground with Calvinists

John Wesley made the Sermon on the Mount, and his commentary on it, central to the doctrine of the Methodists. Wesley published a collection of his sermons that came to be called the Standard Sermons. According to Mark Noll, this collection was Wesley’s way of “responding comprehensively to demands for a defining account of what his movement was about.”

Among the collected works was a thirteen-sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. Mark Noll had this praise for Wesley’s sermon series:

“The great marvel of Wesley’s thirteen discourses is how consistently they maintain both an exalted view of divine grace and a full dedication to active holiness—and without compromising one by the other.”

Noll was also struck by the similarities with the teaching of Jonathan Edwards:

“Wesley’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount is important historically for what it reveals about the character of eighteenth-century evangelical religion in the English-speaking world. Of many significant matters, perhaps the most interesting is how close Wesley comes in his thirteen discourses to the main emphases of Jonathan Edwards, his American contemporary and Wesley’s only serious rival as the guiding theological light of emerging evangelical religion.”

Parts of Wesley sermons sounded to him like they could have been written by Jonathan Edwards. Wesley and Edwards had stark theological difference. However, it seems that the Sermon on the Mount provided common ground for these two influential men, or highlighted what Noll called their “much deeper commonality”:

“Differences there certainly were in the nascent evangelical world, and far from insignificant: Calvinist versus Arminian, Anglican versus Congregationalist versus Baptist versus Presbyterian, learned versus enthusiast, and more. Yet an overriding reality was that the search for true religion over against the specter of hollow religious formalism revealed remarkable similarities across a wide spectrum. Edwards and Wesley had their real differences, but what joined them together—especially in defining true religion as God-oriented affections longing for the beauty of an infinitely holy God—constituted a much deeper commonality.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder: A Message That Forms a Visible Community

Stanley Hauerwas provided an essay on the views of two men who both came away from the Sermon on the Mount with similar convictions about non-violence.

We have seen the tone of triumphalism in Chrysostom’s commentary. He was preaching a generation after Constantine had made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire. As Hauerwas explains, Bonhoeffer and Yoder saw things differently:

“Bonhoeffer’s observation concerning the effects of Luther’s understanding of grace correspond to Yoder’s understanding of one of the results of the Constantinian shift. Yoder notes that after Constantine the meaning of the description Christian changes. Prior to Constantine, it took exceptional conviction to be a Christian. After Constantine, it took exceptional courage to be a pagan. According to Yoder this development resulted in ‘the doctrine of the invisible church.’ Before Constantine, Christians knew as a fact of everyday experience that the church was under God’s care, but they had to have faith that God was governing history. After Constantine, Christians assumed that God was governing history through the emperor, but one had to take it on faith that within the nominally Christian mass there was a community of true believers. No longer could being a Christian be identified by church membership, because many in the church clearly did not belong to Christ. To be a Christian was transmuted to ‘inwardness.’ Bonhoeffer and Yoder in quite similar ways were intent on a recovery of the visibility of the church.”

According th Hauerwas, both Bonhoeffer and Yoder provide a corrective in our reading of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Bonhoeffer and Yoder defeat all attempts to separate the Sermon on the Mount from the one who alone had the authority to preach the Sermon. I am convinced that they have taught us why and how the Sermon must be read if the church is to be seen to be a visible alternative to the world.”