Book Review: Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

Pennington, Jonathan T. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 326 pp.; Hb.; $32.99. Link to Baker Academic

In the introduction to his new book on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington suggests the Sermon should be read in both a Jewish and Greco-Roman context. In placing the Sermon in this dual context, he argues the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14). He does not force either a virtue-based ethic on to the Sermon or a Jewish wisdom model. He will attempt to balance both wisdom and virtue (or, Jewish and Greco-Roman context) because Jesus is the fulfillment and incarnation of both.

Pennington, The Sermon on the MountThis first part of this book begins with a chapter on the context of the Sermon. He uses Umberto Eco’s Encyclopedic Context model to show the ideal “model reader” of the sermon has a cultural and philosophical encyclopedia which consists of both Greco-Roman and Jewish elements. Pennington is clear he is not proposing a new way of doing biblical backgrounds, but rather he is trying to locate the Sermon in the right context, and that context is More complex that either Jewish or Hellenistic. He therefore briefly surveys wisdom literature with its emphasis on shalom which only fully restored in the eschaton and Greco-Roman virtue tradition with its emphasis on eudaimoia, or human flourishing. The Sermon on the Mount sits at the crossroads of these two traditions (38).

The middle three chapters of Part 1 deal with key vocabulary used in the Sermon, primarily makarios and teleios. The word makarios is notoriously difficult to translate with a single word. The traditional “blessed” is not sufficient, and although “happy” is closer to the meaning it does not have the same gravitas. Following Scot McKnight, Penning observes if you get this word right, everything else in the Sermon falls into place. By beginning with the Beatitudes, Jesus is “painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like” (47). For Pennington, the Beatitudes blend both eschatological reversals with wisdom/virtue. In fact (as is often observed), wisdom literature has an apocalyptic edge.

The second key concept in the Sermon is telios, a term often translated as “perfect” but should be translated “wholeness” or “completeness,” or even “virtuous” (70). The word is important since it appears in Matthew 5:48, a verse which Pennington sees as central to the whole structure of the Sermon. Rather than “be perfect,” he reads this verse as encouraging wholehearted devotion to God. This cardiographic reading of telios helps to explain how a person could keep the whole law and still not be whole (Matt 19:21).

Pennington surveys seven other key term sin the Sermon, including righteousness, hypocrisy, heart, gentiles/pagans, “the Father in Heaven,” the Kingdom of God/heaven, and reward, recompense and treasure. Each are only treated briefly, each is worthy of a chapter (or monograph)! The final chapter in Part 1 is an attempt to provide some structure for the Sermon.

The second part of the book is the commentary proper (about 130 pages) divided into six chapters. Pennington begins each pericope with his own translation followed by a few paragraphs dealing with the overall teaching of the text. Since Pennington subtitled this book a “theological commentary” he often goes beyond exegesis to theological reflection. Most exegetical details are restricted to the footnotes and interaction with the Greek text is minimal (and transliterated). This makes for a very readable commentary which will appeal to both professions and laypeople.

For example, for the Beatitudes there is little traditional exegesis. To be fair, Pennington covered the main issue for the section in his chapter on makarios. He has a sub-section on the Isaianic background to the Beatitudes, a section connecting the Beatitudes with the rest of Matthew, a section on the paradox of suffering-flourishing, and a section on the theological appropriation of the Beatitudes in the rest of the canon.  Although not as clearly marked in other sections of the commentary, Pennington follows this pattern throughout his work. He sets the sayings in context by looking back to the Old Testament, the whole context of Matthew, then forward to the reception of the sayings in the rest of the canon and early church.

The final chapter is a final theological reflection on the contribution of the Sermon on the Mount to a “theology of human flourishing.” He makes a series of “theological assertions” based on his reading of the Sermon. First, Pennington says the Bible is about human flourishing, a claim he needs to make because of the Protestant fear of describing the Bible in this way. Protestants tend to see the Bible as a “drama of redemption” (how does God deal with the sinfulness of humanity), but to focus solely on this misses the rich material throughout the Bible on how people can flourish as humans. This assertion makes perfect sense if one has a biblical view of shalom, essentially the second and third chapter of Pennington’s book.

Second, the Bible’s vision of human flourishing is God centered and (ultimately) eschatological. This point is developed from Pennington’s work on telios in chapter 3. Since the story of the Bible is working toward the restoration of shalom, it is goal-oriented. Part of this goal can be realized in individual human flourishing, but it is also missional and outward focused. By participating in the story of redemption, humans work toward God’s eschatological goal of restoring shalom.

Third, the moral view of the Bible is a “revelatory virtue ethic.” Although he is attracted to ethics as virtue, Pennington is adamant the virtue demanded by the Bible is shaped by and encircled by divine revelation (300). This is not a case of baptizing secular virtue ethics by prooftexting them with the Sermon on the Mount.

Fourth, salvation is “inextricably entailed” with discipleship and virtuous transformation. In this assertion Pennington wants to defuse the potential disconnect between Jesus and Paul. In Matthew, disciples pursue righteousness, in Paul, righteousness is imputed by grace through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Even though they talk about righteousness differently, the Sermon and Paul both have a vision of discipleship as a transformation of the heart.

Fifth, virtue and grace are compatible. Again, this may be another problem generated by setting Jesus against Paul, since in the Sermon the virtuous disciple “seeks righteousness” and Paul is often made to say righteousness as a legal status equivalent to salvation. For Pennington, righteousness, virtue and sustaining grace are all essentially the same vision for Jesus’s disciples.

Finally, Pennington observes that biblical human flourishing will provide an insight into the meaning of God’s saving work. He does not want to leave the impression one can live a happy and prosperous life by following the Sermon on the Mount but never actually encounter Jesus as a savior. Human flourishing is not the only metaphor to describe the message of the Bible (309), but it does provide a framework for understanding redemption and the kingdom of God.

Conclusion. In this book, Pennington demonstrates that the Sermon is a “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15). He achieves this goal by setting the Sermon in a canonical context of wisdom literature, but also by paying attention to interaction with the world of ancient ethics texts. Pennington’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Sermon on the Mount is far more than a commentary, it is an introduction to biblical ethics. Like Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, Pennington’s book attempts to use the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for discussing larger issues of discipleship, virtue and ethics.


NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

  1. Nice review. Don’t know how you are able to read the amount of books you do, AND comprehend them so well, but, I suppose that’s your job!

    • The inside info is I am teaching Sermon on the Mount at my church this fall, so I read the Pennington book in preparation for that class. Unfortunately I read faster than I can write, I have at least ten books read and ready to review, but I haven’t had the time to write up my notes for them yet. I traveled a great deal this summer, and I read several of these on long waits in airports.

      • Hey Phil, I’d love to see a post on how you take notes for book reviews. Of course, that would add to your list of things to write…

      • The short answer….most of the time it is a moleskine notebook, one page per chapter (I have filled nine so far, the tenth is nearly full).

        While I read, I try to mark key points in a chapter with an asterisk symbol, then I can return to them later.

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