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Protest And Dissent: Reformers Read the Sermon on the Mount

Protest And Dissent: Reformers Read the Sermon on the Mount

What have we learned so far? The earliest Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as “literal when possible.” “Literal” implies a preference for seeing the sermon as injunctions to be obeyed; “when possible” shows a recognition that the sermon does contain some portions which are not to be taken in a literal way. This reading took place within a larger context of wisdom and virtue. These were commands to be obeyed, habits to perform (through the power of the Spirit), and character to embody: all in the pursuit of becoming wise, virtuous people in the likeness of God.

But even in this era, there was an implicit recognition that not every person will complete every injunction (dot every “i” and cross every “t”, so to speak), and that we ought to do the best we can; however, complete perfection—bearing the moral likeness of God through virtuous activity—remained every Christian’s goal.

From the late 4th century, a reading strategy was introduced that would eventually lead to “tiers” or “levels” of spiritual achievement, with differing expectations. According to this view, not all of Christ’s injunctions were intended for all people.

“It is easy to see how virtue is not (necessarily) lost in literal and universal application of the sermon.”

There was plenty of room for nuance and disagreement about which teachings applied to which persons in which circumstances, and if a teaching was literal or figurative. But for those wanting a precise or exact interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, the (unfortunately named) “Catholic” approach brought more confusion and tension to that which already existed. It was inevitable, it seems to me, that two more positions would emerge as a result. For some, the sermon must be performed or obeyed literally by every person, with no exceptions. For others, the sermon cannot possibly be performed or obeyed by mere mortals, and thus does not apply as literal commands for any person.



In the 15th century, a number of dissenting groups began to emerge, challenging not only the dominant ‘Catholic’ approach to the Christian religion, but to the reading of the Sermon on the Mount as well. I will use the term “Anabaptist” as an umbrella term for a Radical reformation tradition rejecting the tiers approach to the Sermon, once again applying it to all, and adopting a literalist interpretation of its teachings. “Key to the theological and practical outworking of this branch of Christianity,” writes Pennington, “is indeed an application of the Sermon with no exceptions.”[1]

One thinks first of the Mennonites, who live simple, peaceful, and separatist lives. But this tradition, broadly speaking, could include pacifists who apply such teachings as “do not resist an evil person” and “turn the other cheek” to every circumstance, not allowing violent defense or retaliation (such as in “just war” scenarios). In my own church background, David Lipscomb stands as an example of someone working out of this tradition.[2]

Lest we think the Anabaptist tradition chooses ‘literal’ over and against the virtue approach discussed in earlier posts, Stanley Hauerwas cautions against such a dichotomy:

The Mennonites are often, like Calvinists, accused of being legalistic because they assume that the Sermon is meant to be followed. Still, it is their contention that the Sermon is not a ‘law-like’ code to be applied casuistically; instead, it is a description of the virtues of a community that embodies the peace that Christ has made possible among those who have been baptized into his death and resurrection.[3]

The call to a communal ethic is powerfully illustrated in the life and work of Clarence Jordan. A New Testament scholar, Jordan opened a cooperative farm in Georgia. Farmers of different races lived and worked alongside one another, each sharing the proceeds as co-owners of the land. They called the community ‘Koinonia.’ Boycotted by feed stores, kicked out of their own denomination, this community modeled peaceful co-existence and brotherhood in 1942–twelve years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision! It is easy to see how virtue is not (necessarily) lost in literal and universal application of the sermon.



At what seems like the other end of the spectrum stands Martin Luther.[4] In his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, he takes on both the ‘Anabaptist’ and the ‘Catholic’ tradition. In his introduction, Luther claims to have discovered the true interpretation of the Sermon given by Christ; this true interpretation stands between (what he calls) ‘papists’ who substitute their own rules for those prescribed by Christ (saying these are not commanded or required for most Christians), and the Anabaptists who take these as literal requirements in all affairs of life. Instead, Luther adopts two important theses which dictate his interpretive strategy.

“Luther ended up…splitting not some people into each category but each person into both.”–Jonathan Pennington

First, Luther adopts a “two kingdoms” view, in which Jesus addresses normal Christian relations between neighbors, not how one should act in an official capacity as representing government. Christians can take oaths in court and fight in war, but only as “citizens,” not as “Christians.” It would not be right to act violently toward one’s neighbor for selfish gain, but it would be wrong to fail to do so if you were entrusted (with governmental authority) to bear the sword for protection. Pennington offers a criticism of this two kingdoms approach:

As pragmatically helpful as this view is in many ways, in effect Luther ended up with yet another version of the counsels-versus-precepts bifurcation, splitting not some people into each category but each person into both. Instead of the dualism of two kinds of people, the result is a two-realms dualism, splitting one’s attitudes from one’s actions. This goes against the whole-person focus that we will see appear as the dominant theme in the Sermon.[5]

Second, Luther believed the point of the sermon was to double-down on our need for grace. No one—I repeat, no one—can “keep” the Sermon on the Mount except Christ. To think one can—and to attempt such—is both legalism and hubris. The sermon shows us the way of life accepted by Christ on our behalf, leading us to fall on our faces and revel in God’s grace.  In his postscript, Luther offers reasons to believe that entrance into Christianity is the same for all—by grace, with no merit.

Luther takes the Devil very seriously, and sees idolatry as the main problem with Christianity. “Whenever God builds a church,” Luther was fond of saying, “the Devil builds a chapel right next door.” For Luther, both the monks and the Anabaptists offer their systems, thinking they had found the key, when what God really required was no ‘system’ of attainment at all; but rather prayer, hiddenness, and a recognition that we are blind to our own thinking and ambitions.[6]

What, then, does Luther do with ‘merit’ language in Scripture? For Luther, there is ‘merit’ language for Christians in terms of receiving a ‘reward’, or in describing how one star differs from another star in glory;  but in Christ the substance of each ‘star’ is the same, just as there is no such thing as differing levels of ‘Christian.’

“The Sermon…is not law, nor is it exactly the gospel,” writes Susan Schreiner, summarizing Luther’s view; “the moral injunctions of the Sermon are the fruits of justification by faith.”[7]  In opposing the ‘Catholic’ tradition of which he was heir, Luther adopted what Pennington calls a “negative” reading of the Sermon, which had profound implications. “Intended or not,” writes Pennington, “this view, which stands in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic monastic interpretation, contributes to the neglect, evasion, or at least confusion regarding the Sermon in much of the Protestant tradition.”[8]



Jean Calvin offered a Protestant response to both Anabaptists and Luther, rooted in what is called the “third use of the Law.” For Calvin, the Sermon on the Mount contains a compendium of sayings which, taken together, shows us “the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life.”[9] He is most interested in the language of “law” and “gospel,” but not in the way Luther found fascination in these terms. Just as the 10 commandments (with its injunctions, meant to be carried out) summarize a just and holy life, so too the Sermon on the Mount, with its injunctions, show us what holy living looks like. Rather than seeing a great contrast between law and gospel throughout the New Testament, writes Pennington, Calvin

teaches that there is a productive use of law/covenantal instructions understood in the context of grace…In Calvin’s reading of the Sermon we see Jesus rescuing the law of God from the Pharisees, who emphasized its external acts instead of its heart. The Sermon is the compendium of the doctrine of Christ, the new-covenant law. Unlike Luther’s negative reading, for Calvin the Sermon can be fulfilled by Christians not in the flesh but by the grace given through the Holy Spirit, through dependence on God alone. We are weak, but God grants us what we need to obey him.[10]

Calvin begs the reader to be judicious in his reading, but also reverent with regard to what God spoke in both Testaments. Calvin writes:

We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator who adds anything to the eternal righteousness of his Father. We must listen to him as a faithful expounder, that we might know what is the nature of the law, what is its object, and what is its extent.[11]

It is not the business of the good and judicious commentator to seize eagerly on syllables, but to attend to the design of the speaker…Nothing is more unbecoming the disciples of Christ, than to spend time in caviling about words, where it is easy to see what the Master means.[12]

With this reading strategy in mind, Calvin takes aim, first, at the Anabaptists, who (in his view) conceive of a radically new manner of life that is not consistent with the kind of life God demanded throughout the history of His dealings with His people. Stephen Spencer makes the point:

In Calvin’s judgment, [the Anabaptists] teaching is not merely false to Scripture and the gospel, it is blasphemous, alleging that God changes his rule of life from one covenant to the next and thus that God’s moral character changes and develops from lower to higher.[13]

Calvin believed in divine accommodation, not only with reference to “how” God speaks, but also with regard to “what” He speaks. Spencer notes that, for Calvin, laws of a nation are given to accommodate sinful humanity; but this is not so when it comes to the internal spiritual laws of Christ. Calvin calls for an inward righteousness, one complete with “pure and holy affections” so as to lead “a devout and holy life.” “To follow Jesus,” summarizes Spencer, “is to submit to his teaching, to respond from the heart with faithful obedience born of love and gratitude in response to gracious redemption.”[14] Calvin agrees with Luther that no human will achieve sinlessnness in this life, but interprets ‘perfection’ (the Christians goal of Matthew 5:48) in realistic terms: to aim at the same object as Christ himself aims.[15]

Calvin is quick to move the discussion away from any ‘legalistic hubris’ to dependence on the Spirit. We pray for God to deliver us from evil. But this can only be accomplished by God changing us from the inside out, writing his law upon our inward parts. In the Institutes, notes Spencer, Calvin cites Matthew  5-7 approximately 80 times, but most of these citations fall into the section of the Institutes dealing with the role of the Spirit in the life of the Christian.[16]



In an interesting and helpful study, Stanley Hauerwas brings together the Luther Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Anabaptist John Howard Yoder.[17] Both men shared an emphasis on recapturing the significance of the visible church–the place where the Lordship of Christ takes up space in the visible world. Luther moved the discussion away from externals and onto one’s heart condition; but the sermon also spoke to a community defined by that new heart. “[F]or Bonnhoeffer,” writes Hauerwas, “the Sermon is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. Therefore the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon.”[18] Here is Bonhoeffer in his own words:

The followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus. The followers are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship. And discipleship is as visible as light in the night, as a mountain in the flatland. To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.[19]

The Anabaptist tradition sought to retain external practices in keeping with the sermon’s injunctions; but here, too, we can see an increased emphasis on the manner of life identifying the community of God’s people. “The community that Jesus calls into existence cannot be determined by what it avoids,” writes Hauerwas, “but rather what is avoided is avoided because of the character of the community that is to exemplify Christ’s life.”[20] Here are Yoder’s own words:

The cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determine the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship between cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.[21]

For both Bonhoeffer and Yoder, the call to “be perfect” remains the high calling of every Christian; but by this phrase, what is meant “is to learn to be part of a people who have the time to take the time to live without resort to violence to sustain their existence. To so live requires habits like learning to tell one another the truth, to be faithful in our promises to one another, [and] to seek reconciliation.”[22]


[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), p. 7.

[2] See the discussion in Richard Hughes, “Dare We Live in the World Imagined in the Sermon on the Mount?,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer & Dave Bland (St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2007), pp. 45-58, esp. pp. 51-53.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Living the Proclaimed Reign of God: A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” Interpretation 47 (April 1993), p. 155.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 21: “The Sermon on the Mount (Sermons) and The Magnificat,” ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1956).

[5] Pennington, p. 8.

[6] Susan E. Schreiner, “Martin Luther,” in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II, ed. Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), pp. 109-128

[7] Schreiner, p. 111.

[8] Pennington, p. 6.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Trans. William Pringle, Vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 258 [Matt 5:1]. “Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses” (Harmony, p. 259 [Matt5:1]). “Matthew collects all the leading points of doctrine in order that the whole amount of them may be more clearly perceived by the readers when they are placed in close succession” (Harmony, p. 315 [Matt 6:9/Lk 11:1]).

[10] Pennington, p. 7.

[11] Calvin, Harmony, pp. 283-284 [Matt 5:21].

[12] Calvin, Harmony, p. 299 [Matt 5:39].

[13] Stephen R. Spencer, “John Calvin,” in Greenman, pp. 146-147.

[14] Spencer, p. 148; see also p. 147.

[15] Calvin, Harmony, p. 308 [Mt 5:48]; Spencer, p. 149.

[16] Spencer, p. 149.

[17] Stanley Hauerwas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder,” in Greenman, pp. 207-222.

[18] Hauerwas in Greenman, p. 212.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 112-113

[20] Hauerwas in Greenman, p. 215.

[21] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 232.

[22] Hauerwas in Greenman, p. 217.


The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
Life with a Capital ‘L’: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 2
New Things To Love: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 3
A Change of Desire: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 4
The Cost of Apprenticeship: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 5
Calling All Neurotics: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 6
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

Biblical Criticism and the Sermon: ‘Literal’ As Problematic: Background–Part 6


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

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