Brief thoughts on McKnight on Pennington on the Sermon on the Mount

Scott McKnight read J. Pennington’s book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, and while he liked the book, he found the argument for a virtue ethics reading of the Sermon on the Mount helpful, but not totally convincing. This doesn’t surprise me, McKnight wrote a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that rejected any attempt to do what Pennington’s book attempts to do. 

As an aside, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight wades briefly into the deep waters of philosophical ethics and utterly dismisses the arguments made by Kant on the basis of their being “leveled” by Stanley Hauerwas (ha!): 

“Kant’s statement of the categorical imperative is an attempt to free us of the need to rely on forgiveness and, more critically, a savior. Kant’s hope was to makes [sic] us what our pride desires, that is, autonomous.” 

I’m all for pithy dismissals of academics and dead people whose influence has gone on too long. But this doesn’t refute deontological ethics or the need for a categorical imperative (for instance, Christian theology must admit of at least one naturally available law of conscience: do what God says). Hauerwas just states Kant’s alleged intentions without any evidence that Kant thought or felt this way! For instance, if I intend to over-populate the world to destroy the human race by famine, and therefore, devise great anti-abortion arguments, they are not thereby refuted if Stanley Hauerwas tells everybody what my journal or his crystal ball says my true intentions were.

On to McKnight and Pennington.

Here are McKnight’s criticisms of the ‘virtue ethics approach’ used by Pennington:

So, while I would agree with the general description of virtue ethics he offers, the question for me is Whether or not Jesus taught that habits form a character that form a character-who-acts virtuously. I don’t see that habit of thought for Jesus.


So, too I can agree with this in general but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on what he does: “Namely, the Sermon is offering Jesus’s answer to the great question of human flourishing, the topic at the core of both the Jewish wisdom literature and that of the Greco-Roman virtue perspective, while presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-King” (36).


Thus, too, I don’t agree: “Thus, to conclude this discussion we can arrive at an important point and depict this dual context intentionally. The point is that both of these contexts overlap in their goal of and emphasis on whole-person human flourishing, but the basic orientation of the Sermon is first and foremost that of the eschatological story of Israel, the coming of God’s reign/kingdom with Jesus as the King. This redemptive-historical perspective greatly shapes and modifies the virtue vision of the Sermon relative to its otherwise similar approach in Greco-Roman philosophy” (38).


So, to the point directly: Pennington finds Solomon or David behind the Sermon more than I would and he does not find Moses enough. Nothing is more clear from Matthew’s text than Mosaic themes in 5:1 with 7:28-29 and the whole — yes the whole — of 5:17-48. Not enough Moses, too much Solomon/David, and too much Aristotle. My contention is the Sermon has three plus more angles: an ethic from Above (God’s revelation as with Moses), an ethic from Beyond (eschatology of judgment/prophets) and an ethic from Below (wisdom tradition), plus christology and plus ecclesiology and plus Spirit.


A few thoughts:

  1. Regardless of New Testament background, if virtue ethics is true and philosophically demonstrated to be true, then that is the ethical context of humanity and therefore the proper mode of applying the Sermon on the Mount to life if it is accepted as true on the basis of its divine source. And so regardless of whether Matthew or Jesus had the Aristotelian background of virtue ethics in mind, if such a theory of human flourishing is true, then it provides a thought-space within which to interpret a divinely provided summary of ethics. 
  2. It is important to see Moses in the Sermon on the Mount (obviously), but it’s equally important to see Moses as a literate Hellenized Israelite Christian might have seen him. Philo and Josephus saw the way of life exemplified and taught in Moses’ life and law as the exemplary life of a philosopher.
  3. I would add that neither McKnight nor Pennington see Abraham enough in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as ‘the son of Abraham.’ How does that theme appear in the Sermon? I suspect in Jesus sharing a blessing with the world as Abraham was promised his children would do, and going back to Matthew 4:1-17, by being a light to the gentiles, in particular Jesus is a light of truth about the true nature of righteousness. And Abraham was also read by Philo as an exemplar of the philosophical life. Matthew doesn’t have to mean this for the resonance to be present. And Philo’s views weren’t novel. The letter to Aristeas shares similar concerns and predates Philo.
  4. In McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy, he defines ‘kingdom of God’ as basically the church: a people with a king and laws. But if that’s true, then in Aristotle’s taxonomy of politics and virtue, it is only natural that an ethos of a sort will arise from and is exemplified in the laws of a kingdom. And so this provides some coinherence of ideas between the New Testament and Aristotle.
  5. It’s well established that μακαριος is synonymous with Aristotle’s eudaimonia by the writing of the gospels. 
  6. The Old Testament itself treats flourishing as something like contemplative action oriented toward God which leads to prospering/blessedness over time, especially Psalm 1. 
  7. In ancient writings, claims of divine revelation were frequently written/interpreted as a form of philosophical discourse. Parmenides is the paradigmatic example, having written little over a century after the time of Isaiah. Socrates and Heraclitus did the same. Stephen Clark’s work Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy or Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. And it is in the case that several Jewish works from just prior to and during the time of Jesus and the New Testament authors (re?)interpret the Old Testament as a book of philosophy: Sirach, Wisdom, and 4 Maccabees all come to mind. 
  8. Finally, nothing in McKnight’s approach comes close to negating an Aristotelian synthesis, aside from McKnight’s insistence that it does. If Jesus’ ethic is ‘from above, from beyond, and from below, what prevents us from learning from Aristotle, and empirical psychology/social psychology about the nature of habits and their acquisition in order to help us become the sort of person Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This is what Aquinas was attempting in all of his writings, but McKnight hardly interacts at all with Aquinas, which makes sense because books cannot be infinitely long.
  9. The apparent stoic influence on the New Testament is well documented. This could be because the authors imbibed from stoicism or because the moral universe they inhabited was so thoroughly influenced by a stoic virtue ethics that they simply wrote that way. This cannot be left unsaid in a discussion of the role of human flourishing and virtue ethics in the New Testament. 
  10. The New Testament simply doesn’t have to utilize the language of philosophy to answer philosophical questions. I’ve hinted at this twice above, but I felt the need to be clear. 
  11. Finally, by the time of Justin Martyr the Christian lifestyle and thought world was considered ‘the true philosophy.’ The question is this: was this a natural development from the nature of the source material or was it imposed upon Christian discourse by the apologists? Some confirming evidence is that some recent scholars interpret Jesus as a cynic philosopher (he was obviously more than that and also probably was not self-consciously attempting to be that).  

As an aside, I’ve only skimmed a prepublication copy of Pennington’s book. So I don’t know if I agree with his whole argument. But I certainly see what he generally says is in the Sermon on the Mount in there. I recommend his article Resourcing a Christian Positive Psychology From the Sermon on the Mount