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Beyond the Binaries: A Return To Wisdom And Virtue

Beyond the Binaries: A Return To Wisdom And Virtue

“The Sermon must once again become a basic text and primary source of moral theology, ahead of the Decalogue, natural law, or an assemblage of norms or rights established by pure reason. In the face of the rationalism of our times, this demands of us an audacious faith in the solidarity of the Gospel, both at the intellectual and at the moral level. This is our only real chance to shore up today’s moral edifice, shaken as it is to its very foundations by the winds, storms, and floods of our age.” – Servais Pinckaers[1]

The rise of critical method (in the 17th-20th centuries) had an important impact in studies concerning the Sermon on the Mount. The distance between us and the text only doubled down on the perceived spiritual distance between us and the demands placed on us by the text. While ‘Life of Jesus’ studies were painting Christ as a general humanitarian calling for soft hearts and gentle spirits, reflections on the Sermon reinforced the existential nature of humanity’s summons to a radical interiority of spiritual matters. As a result, especially among Protestant scholars who were heir to Luther, one of three “soft” readings took the upper hand in New Testament scholarship.

  • The Sermon eludes us. The mystery and distance creates more questions than it solves.
  • The Sermon evades us. It describes an interim ethic for a historical situation 2,000 years ago.
  • The Sermon convicts then embraces us. It describes God’s high calling which only Christ fulfills. Thus we cease from seeking righteousness as achievement, and relish righteousness as a free gift of grace.

At the same time, Catholic scholarship (in many places) was dominated by the manualist method, with tiers of application, and an overemphasis on sin and vice. Any “hard” readings of the sermon tended to be applied to the ‘top tiers’, avoiding those in spiritual infancy (which tended to be the largest conglomerate of Christians).

Finding “hard” readings as a way of life among the general populace was not altogether difficult, though, if you knew where to look. The Anabaptist tradition was alive and well—not only creating Amish and Mennonite communities, but influencing free church traditions in numerous places.

It should also be noted that the influence of Calvin and Wesley, both of whom stressed “Gospel obedience” to the Sermon, was seen on display among British and American frontier preachers in the first and second Great Awakenings.

But if you were looking for the “true heirs” of late Patristic readings, I am not sure there was any one tradition that could be said to embody a holistic virtue-based approach, wedding the values of wisdom literature with the ethics of virtue, avoiding the misguided debates about  ‘literal’ vs. ‘spiritual’, ‘faith’ vs. ‘works’ or ‘receiving’ vs. ‘achieving.’


But the dawn of the 20th century brought with it a renewed appreciation for just this synthesis among some Catholic moral theologians, which, in turn, inspired Protestant ethicists to join in a reconsideration of how their chosen profession could offer insight to help bridge the theological gap among the various traditions of biblical scholarship. James Keenan describes the shift:

To replace the manualist method, which had the long-standing, singular concern of knowing, describing, and parsing sin, twentieth-century moral theologians…turned to Scripture, to renewed study of Thomas Aquinas, and ascetical theology to amplify the task of contemporary moral theology. They recognized the love of God as foundational to moral theology, [and] incorporated Scripture’s many insights about virtue into a relational anthropological vision.[2]

Catholic virtue ethicists felt completely at home. “Matthew did not read Aristotle,” writes Mattison, “but it is extraordinary how closely the text of the Sermon matches up with the conceptual resources of virtue ethics.”[3] Chrysostom, after all, preached a series of influential sermons from Matthew 5-7, and used the word “virtue” 22 times in his first introductory sermon alone (Hom. 15)!

But a wide-range of ethical theory came to be seen as helpful in interpreting the sermon. While Mattison criticizes some Protestant New Testament ethicists for failing to emphasize the language of “virtue,” it is worth noting that these same scholars prefer to label the Sermon as “a moral vision” rather than “legislation,” offering precepts that resemble proverbs, and working out of a wisdom tradition which centered on habit and spiritual formation through emulating and imitating one’s master.[4] In this sense, writes Allison, Jesus becomes the ‘canon’ of Christian morality.[5]

This insight—call it, the “ethical perspective”—allows us to appreciate a text that seems to defy the categories of code, law, poetry, drama, analogy, hyperbole, and pictorial imaging.

“Hear the sermon anew, as it draws upon our deepest desires, in line with our greatest hopes: to reflect the character of the King to whom we belong, and the Kingdom to which we have been called.”

It also cautions us to be wary of using just one “ethical” approach (even virtue ethics) as the end-all-be-all way of capturing the real essence of the sermon. The field of ethics offers a plethora of approaches, and, as McKnight rightly points out, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t fit neatly into any one of these, per se.[6] He notes that elements of wisdom are not devoid of element of divine command; and narrative ethics take place within a certain communal life with prophetic, eschatological expectations. This jumble is what allows ethicists to see virtue ethics (yes), but also a categorical imperative or two, some utilitarian thinking at times, and a ‘thus saith the Lord’ thrown in for good measure. At the same time, however, the sermon offers moral clarity; as Pope John Paul II noted, is the “culmination” of the law, and is an antidote to “any kind of relativism or utilitarianism.”[7] This ‘jumbled truth’ is only problematic if we are looking for “the right way to read this legislative decree so as to keep each rule in the list.”


But what if the Sermon is calling for us to embody the character of Jesus Christ? To think as He thinks? To love what He loves? To discern, reason, consider, weigh options, all from a disposition that is bent toward the bright light of God’s Holy desire? Charles Talbert rightly challenges us to consider a shift: rather than read the Sermon primarily as a treatise on ethical decision-making (prompting us to ask ‘what is the right analysis or method for deciding what to do?’), what if we read the Sermon primarily (though not exclusively) as a treatise on character formation (who we are, how we see the world, and what our intentions and motivations suggest we are truly seeking)?[8] We begin to read through the sermon slowly, asking how each statement speaks to a larger moral vision of the wise person, who, having adopting the virtues, seeks to live out a way of life that is characterized by the same righteousness that characterized the life of Christ. It reads the sermon as directing us toward a certain way of life (complete with habits and dispositions). “How can we experience true human flourishing?,” asks Jonathan Pennnington. “What is happiness, blessedness, shalom, and how does one obtain and sustain it?…In short, Jesus provides in the Sermon a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation.”[9]

Pennington expounds on the complex matrix or web of traditions and trajectories which culminate in this ‘way of life’ reading:

Jesus is stepping into the stream of the great universal question of how one can attain true happiness and flourishing. His answer is simultaneously Jewish in origin (rooted in divine revelation), Greek in context (the language and engine of virtue), and radically new in emphasis (eschatological kingdom orientation).[10]


The sermon, then, is intended to shape my character. How does this approach help reinforce the early Christians penchant for “literal” readings? Precisely because what we do creates the habits we form, and the habits we form shape manner of life we lead. Aristotle saw this perfectly: “We become just by doing just acts; temperate by doing temperate acts; brave by doing brave acts” (Nic. Eth. 2.1). Doriani summarizes Aristotle’s point:

In his view, character is a role we play until we gradually become that role. Character begins with a choice to behave in a certain way. An action repeated often enough becomes a habit, and habit, once sufficiently ingrained, becomes a virtue or a vice. Aristotle’s approach accents the outer life…[and] emphasizes public virtues, such as civility and self-control.[11]

Any parent, or any teacher, will prescribe specific actions to be performed, and habits to be adopted, if they wish for their students or children to develop in character. This is why society instantiates laws, families expect norms, and churches include customs and rituals which we ignore to our own peril. If character is the goal, we would expect some clear ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ that are consistent with our intended manner of life. And, says Doriani, there is great value in recognizing this.

Aside from hypocrites, our public behavior at least roughly reflects our true character. Furthermore, a good reputation is valuable. The book of Proverbs says that a good name is precious, more valuable than riches (Prov. 22:1).[12]

We must become people who show mercy, who bless when provoked, who remain faithful in our relationships, who give without hypocrisy, and who show love even to the meanest of enemies. For in practicing the sermon, we learn what it means.


But is this all there is to say about character? Of course not. Doriani pinpoints the flaw in stopping here:

Political leaders can be drawn to this concept. They adopt the practices that suggest a dignified and honorable persona. The concept is that they are what they do, at least in public. Private thoughts and traits matter little; the public’s perception of character counts most. Character, then, is the role that one chooses to play. If we play a role well, we gain honor before our peers and a pride in our status. If we leave God out of the picture, the move from character to status—and pride in it—is complete…[But] the strong interest in presentation and reputation does lead to pride and hypocrisy…Humility, which is a biblical virtue…has to be nurtured in private. Scripture certainly looks to the heart, the inner life, far more than it looks to the public presentation of character.[13]

As others have noted recently, echoing Augustine, ‘you are what you do’ should be modified to this: ‘you are what you love.’ And if there was ever a sermon that spoke to what we do with even greater emphasis given to what intentions, motivations, and loves cause us to act in the first place, it is the Sermon on the Mount.


It is time we adopted a method for reading the sermon that can move past the binaries that have proven so unhelpful. tell the world

The sermon, then, can be viewed as a model for Christian ethics (regardless of the historical contingencies), precisely because it models the ethics of Christ, whom we intend to imitate. “[M]orality is not limited to narrow confines of obligations and commands,” notes Pinckaers, “but includes as its best part the study of happiness and the virtues.”[14]  As Augustine rightly said, ethics starts with questions about happiness, not obligation.[15] If ethics is only about our do’s and don’ts, writes Pinckaers, it can’t possibly help decipher a sermon that penetrates the depths of human nature.

On the other hand the question of happiness gives rise to an ethical system based on the attraction to truth and goodness, which readily harmonizes with the promises of the Beatitudes and the paths traced out by the Gospel precepts. Linked with the desire for happiness, the teaching of the Sermon penetrates to our inmost souls and responds to our deepest aspirations, purifying them and directing them to God.[16]

Call it, if you will, a “virtuous, grace-centered, habit-forming, ethical transformation of love” reading. Reading the sermon in this way, we can avoid the major pitfalls to each ‘standard option’ for reading the Sermon on the Mount, while accentuating the great strengths found in each one. Not only is this approach to the sermon good for biblical studies, but for ethics as well! “By removing the study of grace and the gifts of the Spirit from moral theology,” writes Pinckaers, “today’s ethicists lose the specifically Christian principle that should enable them to answer the question about the practicability of the Sermon.”[17] He continues:

The main lesson of the Sermon is about the works the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in us through the power of His grace, with our humble and docile cooperation, as described in the Beatitudes. The Sermon gives us the Spirit’s promises and calls us to hope before telling us what we must do. Through the work of the Spirit, the precepts prompt us first to the inner obedience of love.[18]


This shift does not remove the strong possibility that any one statement is a divinely commanded rule meant to be read literally. After all, there are 50 imperatives in the roughly 100 sentences contained in the sermon.[19] And Christ seems to model an ancient philosopher of happiness, in a tradition which emphasized specific habits, including do’s and don’ts. Christ offers more than this, but certainly not less.[20]

But there is joy in the “more.” Doriani tells us those 50 imperatives are set alongside about 320 verbs that are not commands.[21] Jesus asks questions, and stokes our theological imagination. “Even in passages that are filled with imperatives, Jesus does not simply tell us what to do; he invites us to see the world as he does.”[22]

It is time we adopted a method for reading the sermon that can move past the binaries that have proven so unhelpful. Is the sermon law or gospel? About faith or works? About morality or spirituality? Righteousness as proper conduct and behavior, or gift of standing through Christ alone? Hear the sermon anew, as it draws upon our deepest desires, in line with our greatest hopes: to reflect the character found in the Kingdom to which we have been called, to which we belong.

In the beautiful words of Pennington, “We create a self-inflicted dilemma that cannot make sense of the entirety of Scripture’s witness when we pit grace and virtue against each other.”[23]

This shift allows us to treat each statement as part of a grander vision, so that we can look for the most “beneficial” reading that will align our character with that of Christ. The sermon moves beyond and above rules without ignoring or erasing them. It allows a “literal” reading to make sense within a larger vision of our spiritual goals. Thus we can offer a “serious” reading of passages far removed from our own historical context, or that offer hyperbole, or that speak to matters of Mosaic law which are no longer in our conceptual world. The character of Christ speaks through all of this, and we do well to adopt his way of life.

Daniel Doriani offers his own conclusion echoing forth from the considerations given in this post:

Matthew carefully locates the words of Christ to the disciples in the context of the work of Christ for the disciples…Matthew invites his readers to see the demands of Christ in the context of the gifts of Christ…We see, therefore, that the Sermon on the Mount is the word of King Jesus to his people. But Jesus’ main goal in the sermon is not to declare laws, even laws for disciples. Above all, he describes the disciples’ way of life under his authority…So then, the Sermon on the Mount is law, but much more than law. It tells us what we should do, but it also describes who we are and should be. It probes our character and invites us to see the world in a new way, as Jesus sees it.[24]


[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Trans. Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1995), p. 162.

[2] Daniel J. Harrington & James F. Keenan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2002), p. 7.

[3] William C. Mattison, III, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 1.

[4] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 1996); Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: Crossroad / Herder & Herder, 1999), pp.11-12, & 24. For the criticism, see Mattison, p. 1.

[5] Allison, p. 24.

[6] Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), pp. 13-14.

[7] John Paul II. Dialecti Amici, par 6. https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1985/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_31031985_dilecti-amici.html

[8] Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Ethical Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 27-31.

[9] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), pp. 14-15.

[10] Pennington, p. 150.

[11] Daniel M.Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount: The Character of a Disciple (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), p. 26.

[12] Doriani, p. 26.

[13] Doriani, pp. 26-27.

[14] Pinckaers, Sources, p. 164.

[15] Augustine begins his treatise on Christian ethics with these words: “There is no doubt about it. We all want to be happy. Everyone will agree with me, before the words are even out of my mouth. […] So let us see if we can find the best way to achieve it.” Cited and translated by Servais Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness—God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes, Trans. Mary Thomas Noble (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1998), p. vii.

[16] Pinckaers, Sources, p. 160.

[17] Pinckaers, Sources, p. 161.

[18] Pincakers, Sources, pp. 160-161.

[19] Doriani, pp. 5 & 8.

[20] Pennington, p. 144: “Through his authoritative and eschatological claims he is more than an ancient philosopher of happiness, but he is not less than this.”

[21] Doriani, p. 8.

[22] Doriani, p. 9.

[23] Pennington, p. 159.

[24] Doriani, pp. 7 & 9.


The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1

Conversation Partners for Reading the Sermon
The Devil’s Masterpiece: Sermon On The Mount Background–Part 1
Literal When Possible: The Sermon’s Earliest Reception: Background–Part 2
Not Problematic…Paradigmatic: Later Patristic Readings: Background–Part 3
The Middle Ages: Virtue, Vice, Mendicants & Moral Manuals: Background–Part 4
Protest and Dissent: Reformers Read the Sermon on the Mount: Background–Part 5
Biblical Criticism and the Sermon: ‘Literal’ As Problematic: Background–Part 6


photo credit: Ghirlandaio, Jesus Commissioning the Twelve Apostles (1481)

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