Interpretive Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount

I’m working on how Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer read the Sermon on the Mount.

In order to help situate my discussion of Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s readings, I’m trying to get a better grasp of the various interpretive approaches to the Sermon on the Mount.

So far, the most exhaustive Sermon on the Mount “interpretive taxonomy” that I’ve found has been from Grant Osborne’s Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 159.

Here are the approaches that Osborne lists, as summarized by Jason C. Kuo in his “Sermon on the Mount/Plain” article in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  1. A medieval approach—two levels of ethics with a higher set of standards for clergy and monastic members.
  2. Luther’s approach—the sermon discloses our depravity and brings us to repentance.
  3. An Anabaptist approach—the sermon is a call to pacifism.
  4. A liberal approach—the sermon is a paradigm for the social gospel.
  5. An existentialist approach—the sermon is not absolute, but a challenge to personal decision.
  6. Schweitzer’s approach—the sermon is an “interim ethic” leading to a temporary set of codes to follow.
  7. The dispensational approach—the sermon is limited in scope to the “future millennial kingdom” and applies only to the Jews, not to the church.
  8. The “inaugurated eschatology” approach—believers should attempt to follow the commands, but full observance will only happen after Christ returns.
  9. A wisdom teaching approach—Jesus was expressing His convictions using wisdom forms.

Now, of course, the question is how best to situate Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s approaches!

Have you come across any other interpretive frameworks for the Sermon on the Mount that you would add to this paradigm?

Kuo notes D.A. Carson’s discussion (which can now be found in his Matthew commentary in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, revised edition, volume 9, 155–57).

Carson notes:

The attempt to understand the Sermon on the Mount within a unified theological grid has not produced consistent results. Schweizer lists seven major interpretive approaches; Harvey K. McArthur (Understanding the Sermon on the Mount [New York: Harper, 1960], 105–48) lists twelve.

Carson then proceeds to list:

  • a. Lutheran orthodoxy (Osborne’s #2)
  • b. realized eschatology, moral road map (Osborne’s #4?)
  • c. “a set of moral standards used catechetically within Matthew’s community”
  • d. Anabaptist-Mennonite: applies to “all believers in every age and every circumstance” (cites Hauerwas’s Matthew commentary). (Osborne’s #3)
  • e. Existential: personal decision, authentic faith. (Osborne’s #5)
  • f. “Interim ethic” (Osborne’s #6)
  • g. Evangelicals and others, “interpret the Sermon on the Mount as an intensifying or radicalizing of the OT moral law” (cites Stott’s Message of the Sermon on the Mount)
  • h. Classic dispensationalism: “law for millennial kingdom first offered by Jesus to the Jews.” Has faced numerous challenges, revised by J. Dwight Pentecost and John Walvoord. (Osborne’s #7?)

Note that Carson critiques all of these approaches as he goes along. He then briefly covers “several scholars [who] have narrowed the focus.”

What’s Carson’s view? He maintain’s that “[t]he unifying theme of the sermon is the kingdom of heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount

“provides ethical guidelines for life in the kingdom, but does so within an explanation of the place of the contemporary setting within redemption history and Jesus’ relation to the OT (5:17–20). The community forming around him, his ‘disciples,’ is not yet so cohesive and committed a group that exhortations to ‘enter’ (7:13–14) are irrelevant. The glimpse of kingdom life (horizontally and vertically) in these chapters anticipates not only the love commandments (22:34–40) but also grace (5:3; 6:12; 7:7–11; cf. 21:28–46)” (157).

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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