[K:NWTS 21/3 (Dec 2006) 63-71]

Again, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount1

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Not another book on the Sermon on the Mount (hereafter SM)! No—not another ordinary, predictable, mundane, neo-Puritan, personal or political-agenda based book on the SM. This is a book that takes the text of Matthew 5-7 seriously; that takes Christ in the text seriously; that takes Matthew himself seriously as a narrative theologian; that takes life in the kingdom of heaven seriously.2 It also, unfortunately, takes too seriously higher critical theories of the origin of the SM and the context of Second Temple Judaism (50 or 100 years from now, these theories will be regarded as the junk of the 20th and 21st centuries). But along with Herman Ridderbos's section on the SM in his brilliant Matthew's Witness to Jesus Christ (1958) 25-363 and his chapter "The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount," in When the Time Had Fully Come (1957) 26-43, Talbert's book will be a great help to those who pay attention to the text, in its context, with Christ at the center (as well as the acme or the apex) of the text and life in heaven's kingdom as the existential (experimental/experiential) outcome.

But, of course, there will be those who refuse to pay attention and will continue to preach the SM as if no one can teach them anything—which means they can't teach their congregations anything because they refuse to learn any of the things that Talbert lays out in these pages. Caveat! Reading this book will be dangerous. You will even have to think about the alteration and transformation Jesus is bringing into history. And, if you are a preacher, you will have to change the way you preach the SM—all this so that you and your congregation will live out the SM in the church and in the world. That would certainly be a radical and refreshing change in the Reformed and evangelical world, would it not! Pastors and people actually behaving as if they were in the kingdom of heaven. Think how many ecclesiastical bureaucrats that would leave gnashing their teeth; and how many good old boy networks in church institutions that would leave in outer darkness; and how many local church personalities whose imperious and control-freak subjugation of others would be trumped and transcended by a truly heavenly arena.

On pages 3-4, Talbert reflects upon the relationship of Matthew to ancient Judaism. In this regard, he indicates that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were not the norm until the 2nd century (ca. 135 A.D.).4 If this sounds like a discarded theory of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is indeed its ghost. F.C. Baur and Adolf von Harnack are revived in what Talbert is suggesting. But we will leave Baur and von Harnack decently interred, consign this section of Talbert to their unlamented and passé biers and move on to something more credible in these pages.

We skip over the pages in which Talbert rehearses the faddish pet theories of our current era—religion is a dynamic of spiritual diversities. Hence we lay our contemporary grid over 1st and 2nd century Christianity and Judaism to find Christianities many and Judaisms many. Diversity of religion and diversity within religions was—Voila!—a Jewish and Christian thing 1900/2000 years ago. Neat!! All of which only goes to prove that modern philosophical approaches to culture inevitably become the presupposition for reading 1st and 2nd century approaches to culture—especially religious culture. This is just more of the same old sophomoric nonsense of making ancients in our own progressive (now, post-modern) image. How convenient that our theories of ourselves are found in the narcissistic mirror reflections which we impose upon apostolic and post-apostolic Christians. When will we (and Talbert) ever learn to allow Christ, the apostles, the early church (even to the 2nd century) to speak for themselves? When will we ever deny ourselves and our presuppositions and let the text speak as the ipsissima vox of Christ and the early church? The answer is: when Christ finally returns and the mirror of the eschaton shuts every mouth, damns every theory foisted on the text of Scripture and consigns every view read on to the text to the great conflagration.

The useful (as opposed to throw-away) portion of this book debuts on page 10 ("The Context of the Sermon"). Here we discover penetrating work with the structure of the text (the opening of Matthew's gospel to be specific, chapters 1-4), not theories about the sources of the text. But having begun well in this regard, Talbert is hindered by pagan rhetoricians and authors (12f.). Our hopes in exploring Matthew's text and Jesus' words are dashed (actually, endure a bit of a hiatus) once more with irrelevant remarks from Diogenes Laertius, Epictetus, Philostratus, etc. Talbert understands ancient Greco-Roman literature—especially rhetoric—and he uses this material to supply background and insight to the SM. The only problem, to quote Tertullian, is: What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?

Talbert is back on track with page 14. He reminds us to read the SM in sequence with the rest of Matthew's gospel (i.e., from 1:1 to 5:2). What a novel idea! Especially in evangelical and Reformed circles where passages from the SM are routinely used as pretexts for the pastoral hobby horse of the hour; more often, they are twisted to suit the pastoral hobby horse of the hour. We get sermons on pacifism, social do-goodism, sex, abortion (murder), sex, the five easy steps to prayer (from the Lord's Prayer), sex and other assorted banalities, trivialities and irrelevancies which are quickly forgotten. Of course, the congregation has vacated the irrelevancies five minutes from the church door. In pages 10-11, 14f., Talbert is actually leaving us with truly memorable markers found within the text; markers which will not be forgotten, but remembered and cherished the next time one reads (and practices) the drama inherent in the text.

We learn about Matthean typologies (14ff.)—fascinating, if not obvious ("he who has eyes to see"), patterns of redemptive-historical recapitulation: old Israel/new Israel; old Moses/new Moses; old Exodus/new Exodus, etc.5 Add to the typological, patterns of repetition, patterns of framing, patterns of unfolding progression and connection: Talbert lays these out in pp. 16ff. By the time we arrive at chapter 3 ("The Structure of the Sermon," 21-26), we have been led through the contextual matter which leads up to the SM. Surely, placing the SM in the context which Matthew lays down as the portal to the Discourse on the Mountain is fundamental to the message of the Sermon itself. Or, at least, it is so for Matthew and if we wish to have the mind of Matthew (which is the mind of Christ) in understanding, expounding and proclaiming the SM, we must come to grips with his context for the Sermon.

Chapter 3 provides a review of structural suggestions for the Sermon. Talbert reviews the proposals of the heavy hitters in this matter: Dale Allison, George Kennedy, Ulrich Luz, Don Hagner, Jack Dean Kingsbury, Hans Dieter Betz, Michael Goulder, Robert Guelich, Daniel Patte, even Augustine. He then notes: "in spite of the diversity of opinion, about certain things there is a remarkable agreement, if not unanimity" (25). Providing his own particular nuances on this "unanimity," Talbert submits his own structural outline of the sermon (25-26; compare the précis, 147-48).

Chapter 4 broadens the matter of Talbert's subtitle: "Character Formation and Decision Making." It is clear to everyone that ethics is an aspect of the SM. The history of the imbalance in the discussion of this matter would require a book of its own. Suffice it to say, scholars and preachers being sinful creatures, imbalanced treatments of the Sermon's ethics to the exclusion of its eschatology are matched by imbalanced treatments of its eschatology to the neglect of its ethics.

Talbert reads the Sermon primarily as an ethical and character forming homily (29). At the same time, he is not reductionist in doing so ("not reductionist in the sense of reducing it to its ethics [the horizontal dimension]," 31). Instead, Talbert scopes out the Biblical paradigm of "both vertical and horizontal relations" in order to preserve the God-ward and man-ward vectors of our Lord's remarks. In other words, Talbert has not made the mistake of classic liberalism/modernism which reads the Sermon as a socio-political mandate for transformation of the cosmos. Nor has he made the mistake of conservative evangelicalism in reading the Sermon devotionally, pietistically and individualistically. Rather he is sensitive that the Sermon contains two vectors—an eschatological ("kingdom of heaven") and a temporal (life out of the heavenly arena mirrored in the temporal arena). While Talbert is not as emphatic as I would be about the interface of the eschatological and the temporal, he is looking in the right direction with his terminology "vertical and horizontal". We would see the King and Lord of heaven's eternal kingdom drawing us in to the environment of that never-ending relation and fellowship, so that we may now live and behave as we shall forever live and behave coram Deo.

In chapter 5 ("Is Matthew a Legalist?"), we revisit the age-old problem of grace and works. While Talbert does not use the terms, we are, in fact, using Matthew as a foil for the Augustinian-Pelagian debate. Is a sinner capable of obeying God's law, thereby placing himself in the position of deserving or meriting a reward (Pelagius); or is a sinner wholly incapable of obeying the law of God, thereby finding himself in the position of requiring divine and supernatural grace for beatitude? As classically formulated in the 5th century, this debate is as old as non-Biblical religion and its ethics versus Biblical religion and its ethics; or, to put it yet another way, the age-old conflict between Christian theism and paganism. Talbert affirms the priority of the "divine initiative" (33) in this matter, but he muddies the waters by appealing to E.P. Sanders in support. Sanders is a revisionist scholar who has coined the phrase "covenantal nomism" to describe the Judaism of the 1st century. In other words, Sanders has remade Pharisaic Jews of the 1st century into Protestants of the 16th century (i.e., in the covenant by grace; show the covenant by the works of the law [Greek, nomos]). If Sanders (and Talbert) are correct, one wonders what Jesus and Paul found so objectionable in the Judaism with which they were familiar by up-bringing and personal experience?

In the process of sorting all this out, Talbert introduces the terms "indicative and imperative" (34)—terms now well known to anyone familiar with the discussion of New Testament ethics over the past 40 years or more.6 Those who sneer at the use of this vocabulary are ignorant (not academically or intellectually responsible, let alone credible), obscurantist (saber rattlers with typically tyrannical hidden agendas) and inflammatory (intentionally hurling mud at those who do not choose their benighted ethical legalisms). With regard to the SM, the indicative is the eschatological grace of the breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven; the imperative is the obligatory life-fruition, flowing from eschatological kingdom grace.7 Talbert enlarges on the specifics in Matthew's presentation of the divine initiative with what I denominate "the Immanuel dynamic". Immanuel means "God with us" (Mt. 1:21). That phrase is a singularly serendipitous expression of divine initiative. God being "with" sinners necessitates God himself making the first divine and supernatural move; the sinner's sincere response is the fruit of this divine initiative. Talbert traces the "with Jesus" expression through Matthew's gospel in order to demonstrate this indicative-imperative relationship. Here he makes use of narrative techniques advanced by Meir Sternberg and Robert Tannehill. This section (35-43) has some very interesting observations on Matthean narrative themes, providing fertile ground for deeper reflection.

The next 100 pages (47-146) deal with each of the sections of the SM in detail. Following his outline (25-26), Talbert takes us through each of the six units of the Sermon. It is this feature which makes the book worth the price. His outlines of structure and delimited units/subunits are superb and stimulating. Pastors and students of the SM will appreciate this break-down of preaching/teaching units. The detailed discussion is inaugurated with a return to the issue of "eschatological blessings" (26). Here is underscored the antithesis between the view that regards the ethics of the Sermon as a works requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven and the view that displays the eschatological aspect of the kingdom as a grace initiative—i.e., one which joins the soul of the believer and his character/behavior to the arena of the kingdom of heaven. At this point, Talbert comments on the Marxist (and radical socialist, even trendy evangelical Leftist) approach to the Sermon which regards it as a socio-politico-economic blueprint for the "workers paradise lost" (or other duplicitous slogans of the implacable liberal-fundamentalist guild). Talbert's conclusion is scintillating: "Matthew is a theological, not a political, document" (48). That statement is, of course, a no-brainer, but alas, the no-brainers among the Left-liberal establishment are clueless. After all, for them, text is always and ever pretext—in fact, political pretext arising from the partisan machinations of their intolerant agendas. Vladimir Lenin allegedly called these folk "useful idiots"—a badge of shame to those who still serve the purposes of radical social activism (wittingly or unwittingly).

Talbert proceeds to describe the structure and meaning of the Beatitudes (49-54). We learn that the kingdom of heaven is a passive dynamic (future hope) with an active component (present reign of God in Christ). The predicates of the Beatitudes are thus uniformly rooted in redemptive history. Talbert provides citations of Old Testament passages to illuminate Christ's kingdom affirmations of: "the poor in spirit" (Mt. 5:3), "the meek" (5:5), "the merciful" (5:7), etc. Again, none of this language is socio-politico-economic. It is theological, spiritual, eschatological.

With respect to the antithesis in Mt. 5:17-20, Talbert rejects the suggestion that Jesus is annulling the law and the prophets (a straight forward reading of the words in the text, against all antinomians and other dismissers of the "third use of the law", i.e., the law as a rule of present life in the kingdom for the believer). Rather, accomplishment of the former revelation by fulfillment is emphasized. Talbert could have buttressed his case here with the drama of eschatological accomplishment which breaks in with the kingdom Jesus brings. This provides a more dynamic element to the `fulfillment' than a static absolutization of the former (OT) truths. Those truths are revealed anew in the light of the eschatological kingdom of God which Christ both proclaims (SM, parables, etc.) and displays (miracles, prophetic actions, passion and resurrection, etc.). This means that the enduring and permanent elements of the law and the prophets are aspects of the reality of God's character and his heavenly kingdom. They can no more `pass away' than he or his heavenly kingdom can `pass away'. It is this dynamic which would have sharpened Talbert's comments on "righteousness" in Matthew and the Old Testament. If righteousness is an eschatological relation, it is both a status ("constitutive" of eschatological acceptance) and a practice ("definitive" of eschatological behavior). If the classic language of justification and sanctification are reflected in the previous comment, so be it.

Locking horns with Hans Dieter Betz, who de-Christologizes and de-soteriologizes the Sermon (66-68), Talbert defends a Christological reading of the Sermon which joins it to the soteriological purpose of the gospel. This reviewer would venture even further than Talbert. In the declaration "but I say unto you", Jesus places himself alongside God himself—an ontological declaration arising from an eternal Father Son relationship. Surely, it is because of that divine and supernatural identity that he saves to the uttermost those graciously gathered into his heavenly kingdom.

Matthew 5:21-48 has been labeled "the antitheses" because it contains contrastive remarks of Jesus about the Jewish traditions heaped upon the law. Here are the famous antitheses on murder (5:21-22) and adultery (5:27-28). Talbert maintains that Jesus is not annulling the law of God; rather he is affirming "the right interpretation of it" (69). Shrewdly, Talbert notes the combination of apodictic and casuistic elements in these antitheses (69-70). But then Talbert reduces Jesus' teaching to the horizontal aspect of human relationships. Admitting that part of the focus in Jesus' statements is on human relationships, Talbert ironically seems to forget his own hermeneutical key with respect to the SM. If the kingdom of heaven or the eschatological vector is the wonderfully indicative element of God's gracious initiative breaking in upon humans, then is not Jesus describing what kingdom-of-heaven oriented behavior in human relationships entails? Is it possible for a person living out of the consciousness of being part of the kingdom of heaven to murder another human being? Surely that would be contrary to the ethos of heaven's kingdom where there is no murder, let alone hatred of heart or despite of person. In the language of the sports world, Talbert fails to "follow through" with his own profound premises.

Throughout the remainder of this book, as Talbert struggles with the details of the individual units of the SM, he inclines to the horizontal and neglects the integration of the vertical (eschatological) and the temporal (horizontal). Well might we say to him, "You began well. Who has hindered you?" It is at this point that I register my greatest disappointment with the book.

Yet if we maintain the balance of integrating the two vectors of the SM, Talbert will help us do even better than he does with the doctrine of our Lord's wonderful remarks. And that is what our Savior's original disciples heard, believed, taught and lived—as the gospel of Matthew makes all too clear. What Jesus is and says for Matthew is what he is and says to us, the church. That objective kingdom-eschatological drama remains—though subjective reductionists seek to horizontalize, de-Christologize, de-eschatologize and/or de-supernaturalize the SM.


1 A review of Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006). 181 pages, paperback. ISBN: 0-8010-3163-x. $17.99.

2 At least, it does so at the fundamental level. The application of the fundamentals fades after Talbert's treatment of the Beatitudes.

3 Cf. his full-length commentary, Matthew (1987) 81-157.

4 Citing Gabriele Boccaccini.

5 Cf. James T. Dennison, Jr., "The Law from the New Mount." Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 21/1 (May 2006):42-48, especially pp. 44-45.

6 For a review of the discussion to 1979, cf. William D. Dennison, "Indicative and Imperative: The Basic Structure of Pauline Ethics." Calvin Theological Journal XIV (April, 1979): 55-78. Little has changed in the basic parameters of the discussion since this article was written, as Talbert's comments indicate.

7 Cf. the full application of this pattern in the sermon by this reviewer, footnote 5 above.