Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

After You Believe 5


Tom Wright’s newest book is about virtue ethics, about how we move from where we are through habituation so we can arrive at the goal. This is all found in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
For a long, long time people have been debating whether or not we really have to obey the teachings of Jesus, not the least of which are those found in the Sermon on the Mount — did that “not the least of which” sound like Tom Wright?, and Tom weighs in on this one. 
What role do the teachings of Jesus play in the formulation of virtue ethics? How do you explain to people who ask how it is possible to follow the Sermon on the Mount?
First, he pokes at those who have done their dead-level, serious best to all but say “well, not really.” Second, Tom says, “Well, yes, really.” But he means Jesus is teaching the kingdom life and we are to be transformed into the kind of character that anticipates in the here and now what Jesus teaches. So, what Tom is arguing in his virtue ethics is a kind of “inaugurated eschatology.” (Funny that he is so like many Europeans who don’t ever quote George Ladd, but Tom might well say, “George Caird is the one from whom I learned it.”)

Tom’s sees the Beatitudes themselves as virtues. I don’t. I see them as people groups who are blessed by Jesus in contrast to other people groups who aren’t, and the virtue component is less an abstract virtue than a character trait of a specific group of people. In other words, if we take the Luke 6 version, I don’t think we are called to practice poverty so much as see that the poor are blessed by God and not the rich. More could be said, but that’s not the point here. Tom’s on the side of those who see a connection of the Beatitudes with the fruit of the Spirit.

He sketches “perfect” from Matthew 5:48 (emphasizing this as the “telos” or “goal” since the Greek word is formed from “telos” or “goal”), then examines the death of Jesus, where he manages to say almost nothing about the specifics of what Jesus actually says about his atoning death, but by the time he’s done he’s made the cross up front and central to the telos and virtue ethics of Jesus. Which is exactly right.
He also examines the need for humans to have cleansed and softened and forgiven hearts.
On Jesus as example, much to be said but he finds the one element of Jesus’ life that is seen as exemplary is his sacrificial, cross-shaped love and generosity, turning “example” on its head.
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posted March 18, 2010 at 4:02 am

AGAIN… The Divine Conspiracy. (Pretty please Scot, do a series!)
“Tom’s sees the Beatitudes themselves as virtues. I don’t. I see them as people groups who are blessed by Jesus in contrast to other people groups who aren’t, and the virtue component is less an abstract virtue than a character trait of a specific group of people.”
Willard agrees with you on this, going on to say that they are groups of people who by regular human logic are NOT BLESSED, but (because of it’s upside down nature) in the kingdom the are. That was a real paradigm shifter for me.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted March 18, 2010 at 5:50 am

Yes. Unfortunately I can’t read this book yet. But I think I would think more in the direction of you (and Willard). At the same time I would want to say that there may be some overlap here. Beatitudes include showing mercy, hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice, being pure in heart, poor in spirit, as well as just being poor period, being persecuted for righteousness sake (even that may be a bit more toward Tom’s side). So that I’m not sure, though I still see this as God’s evaluation according to his kingdom in Jesus as to who is blessed and who is not, contrary to the world’s evaluation of the same.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 7:11 am

The beatitudes may reflect people groups – I don’t see it in Matthew as much as in Luke. But the people groups in some cases are defined by virtues.
The poor and those who mourn (Mt 5:4-5) are people groups – and not defined by virtue. But the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, for the peacemakers,… while there are allusions to “economic” people groups in some of this – these seem clearly to be “virtues” – a description of the way we should turn and the people groups are defined chiefly by virtues. Those who have been persecuted and insulted for his name or because of him are a people group – but defined by adherence to truth – not by an external factor.
And then we get o the rest of the Sermon on the Mount – tough stuff.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 8:21 am

Yes, I thought Dallas Willard too. Unfortunately, when we stop at “those people” are blessed by God, we’re in danger of complacency. Aren’t we call to more than an observation?
I have just been reading Diana Hayes, a black Catholic theologian from Georgetown U on the Beatitudes. She maintains that the Beatitudes are not Jesus’s observations from afar–they ARE Jesus; they ARE what he did and was: peacemaking, mourning (Lazarus), being persecuted, hungering for righteousness–and that we are urged to become with the “people groups” like him. She sees the Beatitudes as a radical call to change in this world. If Jesus IS the Beatitudes, shouldn’t we all seek to be that?
I worry that Willard represents another dodge by the comfortable around the reality of the cross.

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Jeff Borden

posted March 18, 2010 at 8:37 am

I ask seriously, “is it wrong to assume that there might be a synthesis of both positions?” (I haven’t read this book…yet. I plan to order it in my next batch-o-books from Amazon).
Hopefully I am not misunderstanding the positions; I’ve gone back and read the post several times now and still think I might be missing something. I’m going to weigh in anyway…
Might this Sermon from Jesus be a “now” and “not yet” scenario? Might the “Kingdom now” be blessing on the people groups…and “Kingdom not yet” be our ascription of and striving for the virtues (as I think RJS #3 points out). I’m thinking that the positions aren’t mutually exclusive but do (per Ted G. #2) overlap one another.
“Can we live it?” I think so; however, human nature and “self-preservation” stand in the way of mission success. I suppose that this is why Jesus said we cannot be his disciple aka follow him until we are willing to deny self. I think the Sermon on the Mount is about “new life” in a “new kingdom” and according to Jesus…one must be born again to experience it. Prerequisite to “born again” is death of self. (John 12:24)

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posted March 18, 2010 at 8:59 am

I like #4’s comment about Jesus embodying the Beatitudes.
I tend to have settled into #5’s position over the years but think of it less as “synthesis”, not quite paradox but more as mystery. I think it’s true of many (not all) “either/or” passages we wrestle with in hermaneutics.
IMO, both interpretations have gospel truth in them. The power and mystery of the Word is thick, alive, dynamic and ever living – and yet – unchanging. At different times, both interpretations have challenged and called me to follow Jesus, and to share with others that both are “Good News” for them.

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Patrick O

posted March 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

Must it be a question of either/or?
The rhetoric of Jesus seemed to be able to reach into lives of different sorts, bringing meaning and insight to different audiences. Maybe, there is a bit of that in this. I would not say it is prescriptive, but I do think it is a statement of God’s values in contrast to human values which has the rhetorical power to both encourage the oppressed and, at the same time, encourage the powerful/wealthy/content to take risks.
If the sign of God’s blessings were in material or worldly wealth and success, then that leads to a whole different set of concerns and approaches. Hegel’s world-historical figure is the icon of this, who can step on others in their pursuit of this enlightened consciousness.
But, Jesus begins his rhetoric with a statement of identity in God. “These” are the sorts God values, and it is with this identity in mind that people can be raised up to embrace that God does work in their life, or people can be enlightened to see that life with God may encounter difficulties, but these difficulties are not a sign of God’s disfavor. This identity then helps shape the embrace of the rest of the sermon, which pushes towards cultural risk and differentiation.
In effect, maybe it is a call to liberation for both the oppressed and oppressors. Not a prescriptive call, it is not poverty itself that it holy, but rather in being shaped into an identity that is of Christ we have to let go, walking in a way that may involve putting aside a revolutionary fervor or material/physical ambitions as we learn, instead, to be the kinds of people who exist fruitfully in holistic community. The long way of becoming this kind of person, with this kind of people, may lead through the sorts of identities that are discussed in the beatitudes, a counter-intuitive reality that needs profound encouragement that God is with us in those places, whether we start from there or our journey towards a more fully formed identity leads us through there.
This is all not of our strength or willpower or direction, but part of the path the Spirit takes us. We do not, I think, choose to be poor, but we may, in our Spirit led maturing, find ourselves poor, or poor in spirit, as we do not see immediate fruits.

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Ed Cyzewski

posted March 18, 2010 at 9:06 am

Thanks for this Scott. It’s interesting and, I confess, fun to read your take on Wright’s latest.
I think the Sermon on the Mount is one of those passages that reveals so much about our context when we try to interpret it. Those who are wealthy have a tough time with Luke, especially Americans who regularly sing God bless America. It’s tough for the wealthy to figure out what it means for the poor to be literally blessed by God by virtue of just being poor, but I think that’s exactly what Jesus meant.

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted March 18, 2010 at 9:37 am

I agree with Diane in respect to Willard’s view of the Beatitudes. I just recently read “Divine Conspiracy” after several months of studying the Sermon on the Mount. I found his read on the Beatitudes surprising and disappointing. While I appreciate that we risk a great deal turning them into an ethic for life or pragmatic formula, the Beatitudes must call for some sort of participation. Perhaps it is largely that we must have our perspective of our condition transformed (which requires our will) which then makes room for the blessedness to bear its fruit.
So much more could be said, but I agree with those who suggest a both/and understanding.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

I stand with RJS, Jeff Borden and Patrick O when I ask why can’t it be both?
Aren’t the Beatitudes declarations describing the Order of God’s Kingdom? I’ve always thought of them as not just descriptions but embodiments – as calls to Kingdom. They are the “Reveil” (bugle reference) for God’s order.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 11:17 am

I think that Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI did a fabulous job walking through the Sermon on the Mount this past year. I’m still wrestling through it. Big topic.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm

The kind of back and forth I get stuck in: I see no place in the Sermon that allows for self defense. So if a student wrongly accused a professor of some form of exploitation or harassment, according to the Sermon, it seems the teacher must just lie down and accept the wrong accusation. But there is no way that makes any sense. Well, perhaps the way of Jesus doesn’t make sense. Well… maybe the kingdom just isn’t here yet and we can’t completely live like this.
The rest of Scripture does speak to law and order. There is such a thing as stewardship. We are supposed to be a voice for the voiceless. Perhaps the actualization of this comes in having a heart of forgiveness even while taking wise actions of appropriate legal defense, or whatever the case may be.

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Michael Spencer Harmon

posted March 18, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Hey brother!
I’m interested in your distinction between virtues and “people groups.” Personally, I have admittedly seen the Beatitudes (both versions) as the ways those in the Kingdom of God are treated or seen by those outside of it. So I think I am more with Tom on this one.
I mean, if they are “people groups,” how do we distinguish between that view and the idea that, for example, God shows no favoritism? How do we behave towards those who, though they admit faith in Christ, do not always behave in the way that “people group” ought? I think, if anything, Tom seems to admit that it’s possible not to “be perfect” yet, but we’re intended to be and should naturally display those characteristics as we grow.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 2:15 pm

It seems to me the problem that Christians consistently have with the Beatitudes is that they *do not* separate the first four Beatitudes from the last four, but that is clearly what the writer of Matthew sought to do. The first four beatitudes are all set off with the same first letter in Greek. The last four are not.
That?s the clue to the right interpretation.
The last four are (in one respect) affirming the virtuous, but they are more precisely a statement of God?s favor upon those who are clearly beat up, often despised, and seemingly not blessed by God. The final four Beatitudes are stated by Jesus because these four (the merciful, peacemakers, pure in heart, persecuted) do not look blessed by the world, nor by the words of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy (which Jesus is responding to ? note the eight blessings at the beginning of Deut 28).
The first four Beatitudes are likewise an announcement, but to those with nothing good inside of them. What great news it is to hear that God?s favor has come for everyone who we thought was on the outside: those empty of God?s spirit, the easily stepped on, the mourner, those starved of a life put right. You will be filled, you will inherit the earth, you will be comforted, God?s kingdom is yours!
Wright correctly does say, ?[The Beatitudes] announce a new state of affairs, a new reality which is in the process of bursting into the world? (105). That is the key.
The Beatitudes are not about virtue (though they mention some who are virtuous). The Beatitudes are Jesus? pitch, appealing to the desires of his early audience, to see God?s new reality and imagine themselves as part of it. Something so many of these beat-up, irreligious Northern Jews would have doubted.
That same offer applies to us who may see ourselves as either rejected by God or working hard for Christ yet never seemingly happy. ?No, no, no,? says Jesus. ?See things as God does.? That is the crux of these eight blessings.

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Bob Porter

posted March 18, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I appreciate the comments in this thread.
It strikes me that ?obedience? may be so important not because of ?keeping the rules?, but because of the results of our transformation, which delivers the same outcomes as perfect rule-keeping (Against such things there is no law. Gal5:23).
The thing that really hits me about the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes is that Jesus was saying that everything that his hearers thought was true was really false. This new Kingdom he was announcing was simply beyond imagination.

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Judy Diehl

posted March 18, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Tim Keller has done two powerful sermons on the Sermon on the Mount called the “Inside Out Kingdom”(from Matt 5-7), and the “Upside Down Kingdom” (see Luke’s edition…). He makes a great argument that we do not place the words of Jesus into their historical-cultural context. Rightly, Keller makes a distinction between the religion of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day and his own message of the kingdom. There are two ways, two paths, and he is contrasting the demands of the religion of the day (first-century Judaism) with the “requirements” for his Father’s kingdom. Jesus is not addressing “good” (believers) and “bad” (unbelievers), but “good” (religion) and “better” (kingdom). Keller says Jesus is suggesting “brighter, deeper, sweeter, higher” living for those who love God and other human beings.

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