A Radical Sermon – The “Transforming Initiatives”

Cover of "Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus...

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I will say it up front and honestly – the remainder of this series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount will be based largely, if not exclusively, on Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary ContextWhen I step away from Stassen and Gushee I will probably land on John R.W. Stott’s The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Stott’s book was previously titled Christian Counter-Culture and I regret the change in name. Christian Counter-Culture tells you that what Stott wrote was intended to be challenging. That book was, and remains, a classic in the field of study on the Sermon on the Mount and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Cover of "The Message of the Sermon on th...

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But, I was recently introduced to Stassen and Gushee’s work and I have been working through it carefully. Dr. Stassen is one of the premier Christian ethicists today, and, I might add not unrelated, a premier scholar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of the questions arising from the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is how a Lutheran pastor, and a man who had accepted the basic tenets of pacifism, could ultimately be involved in an attempt to assassinate a national leader. Much of the problem revolves around the indisputable fact that Bonhoeffer built much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-8 became for Bonhoeffer the key to unlocking not only the New Testament, but the entire Bible and his view of discipleship as well. One question then becomes, how could someone who built so much of his theology upon the Sermon on the Mount become involved in an attempt to overthrow Hitler? Beyond that question, there is the issue of how Bonhoeffer treats (or, to be more correct, omits) the Sermon on the Mount in his monumental work on Ethics. The Sermon on the Mount was the text for much of what Bonhoeffer wrote, yet it virtually disappears in the many essays he penned and hoped to complete on his theory of ethics. The questions is “why this omission?” The story is much too long and involved to fully relate here, and suffice it to say that volumes have been written to attempt to unravel this Gordian knot.

Personal aside here: as related in a personal conversation, Dr. Stassen’s suggestion is that what Bonhoeffer missed in this text is an understanding that Jesus was not presenting a dualistic way of looking at faith and the world, but rather that he was presenting a series of “transforming initiatives” that provide the disciple with an entirely new and, although the term is overused, “radical” way of addressing faith and the world. Perhaps, although it is purely speculation, if Bonhoeffer had seen this structure, he would have been able to use the Sermon in his work on Ethics. Bonhoeffer himself hints that he struggled with his explication of the Sermon on the Mount as presented in such works as Discipleship, but he never fully recanted that explication, and he never was granted the time and opportunity to fully explain what it was that gave him pause as he reviewed his earlier work. Bonhoeffer was incredibly consistent – far more consistent than most theologians who produce the amount of material that Bonhoeffer did, so we are left with a huge gap and a nagging question as to what exactly Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote to Eberhard Bethge that his study on Discipleship was under his own careful re-examination and critique.

Cover of "Ethics"

Cover of Ethics

[Additional note: Dr. Stassen’s study on the Sermon on the Mount was also presented in the Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122/2 (2003) pages 267-308 in an article titled, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”. By way of contrast, Stott’s work in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount follows the traditional understanding of a dualistic, or “dyadic” teaching from Jesus, “You have heard it said … but I say to you…”]

For those of us who were raised with the traditional understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Stassen’s suggestions are not only new, but also somewhat disorienting. However, and I want to stress this, his linguistic, grammatical and stylistic evidence is solid. Moreover, the theology that results is even more compelling, and I am growing more and more convinced that Dr. Stassen has given the church a great gift in the ongoing effort to understand and to live the Sermon on the Mount.

I will work through Dr. Stassen’s arguments in greater detail in the following installments of this series. Let me briefly summarize his main points so as to whet your appetite for the remainder of these reflections:

1.  Dr. Stassen builds his case on a careful study of the Greek words, sentence structure, and also what I consider to be Matthew’s “Rabbinic” style of writing. (Note: that is my term, I do not remember Dr. Stassen making that connection. I believe Matthew to be very well educated, and where else would he have been educated in the Jewish literature of his day if not in a Rabbinic school? Just my two cents worth)
2.  Building on the work of other Matthean scholarship, Dr. Stassen identified 14 “triads” within the main body of the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, Jesus presents a traditional view of righteousness (“You have heard it said…”), then a description of a “vicious cycle and consequences” (“but I say unto you…”) and then Jesus gives a “transforming initiative” that is counter to the “traditional” yet misunderstood view of righteousness, and completely overturns the “cycle of viciousness” that he has identified.
3.  What this understanding of the main body of the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes is that it prevents the Sermon from becoming a list of impossible commands and it allows the Sermon to be a liberating set of instructions for what Dr. Stassen has identified as “Kingdom Ethics.”

Obviously, if you are truly intrigued by the concepts that I will attempt to summarize here, the place for you to go is Dr. Stassen and Dr. Gushee’s book. The article in JBL summarizes the first part of the book, so if you simply want an understanding of the “14 Triads” and the “Transforming Initiatives” you can obtain that article.

I will attempt to do my best to present Dr. Stassen’s arguments and evidence in a brief, yet understandable, format. I truly believe that Dr. Stassen (and those to whom he gives credit) has presented a strong case for this interpretation of the Sermon. It deserves our fullest attention. He answers a lot of questions, and his arguments are persuasive and, to me at least, compelling. I will leave it to you to make up  your mind for yourself.


About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on January 31, 2013, in Christ and Culture, Spiritual Formation, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Kingdom Ethics is one of those books that I keep going back to, what a great source of understanding from a different perspective! I look forward to your posts on the book.

  2. Just want you to know that someone in North Georgia mountains is reading and very interested in your study of “Sermon on the Mount”.

  3. Paul,
    Thank you for an insightful article – I am looking forward to more on this.
    Especially, “[Additional note: Dr. Stassen’s study on the Sermon on the Mount was also presented in the Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122/2 (2003) pages 267-308 in an article titled, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”. for the reference… I’m going to look & se if our library carries that journal.
    Regards from Texas,

  1. Pingback: A Radical Sermon – Releasing Anger (Matthew 5:21-26) « Instrument Rated Theology

  2. Pingback: In Memorium – Glen H. Stassen | Instrument Rated Theology

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