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What Kind of Ethicist Was Jesus? Scot McKnight's New Sermon on the Mount Commentary Explains
A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my basement and stumbled across my college senior thesis. While I am now a pastor, my undergraduate degree was in political science with an emphasis in modern and postmodern political theory. My thesis examined the philosophical foundation to modern efforts of character education in America's public schools.
As a young intellectual I wondered how the ethicists of the ages might help shape virtuous children in our schools. My research ran the gamut from Aristotle to Kant, Mills to Dewey, and into modern curricula. Now as a pastor, I wonder how another ethicist might shape virtuous children in my church, not to mention their parents. I wonder about the ethics of Jesus.
Was Jesus an ethicist? If so, what kind of ethicist was he? Was Jesus a virtue ethicist along the lines of Aristotle? Was Jesus's moral vision Kantian? Can we compare his ethic to the utilitarianism of Mills?
These are the kinds of questions Scot McKnight probes in his new commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, an inaugural volume in an important new series, The Story of God Bible Commentary. Throughout this volume McKnight plumbs the depths of Jesus's ethical program to force us to hear his sermon as he means for us to hear it: as his exclusive claim upon our whole being.
In his introduction, McKnight insists that the Sermon is "the greatest moral document of all time." (3) He examines Jesus's moral vision by comparing his moral sermon to major moral theorists in order to see how Jesus fits into the rest of history. While each of the three major theories can somewhat explain Jesus, McKnight outlines four angles from which Jesus "did" ethics, each of which level devistating critiques against our most important ethical theories.
Ethics from Above
Unlike the claims of Aristotelean, Kantian, and utilitarian ethics, the heart of Jesus's claim is that his is a divinely revealed ethic. This claim is rooted in the history of Israel themselves, who believed that from above God spoke ethical imperatives to humans in and through Torah.
"What strikes a reader," when one reads Exodus 19-24 McKnight writes, "is that this is a top down communication from God: God descends to the top of Mount Sinai and reveals divine law for Israel through Moses." (8)
What's unique about Jesus, however, is that he never utters the prophetic expression for such God-directed ethical revelation, "Thus saith the Lord." Instead, "He speaks directly as the voice of God. His words are no less than an Ethic from Above," because he spoke as God himself.
Ethics from Beyond
So God descended from above in order to reveal his ethical imperatives to humanity. But as McKnight continues, "The genius of Israel's prophets was that they revealed God's will to his people, and at the heart of the prophets' ethic was bringing God's future to bear on the present." (10) This is what he means by Ethics from Beyond.
The ethic isn't merely a present disposition from the divine for a moment in time. Rather, God's ethic beckons humanity forward into the future; he beckons them to live the future now. Jesus's ethic reflected this posture, "His ethic was an ethic for now in light of the kingdom to come." (10)
We call this future-determined ethical living an inaugurated-kingdom ethic. McKnight makes an important claim here, "An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus's nor Christian." And this is where the prevailing modern ethics of the day fall flat: A progressive ethic "hopes beyond hope in some form of the world getting better and better;" a green ethic urges humans to live in light of the earth's catastrophic future. (10)
Jesus's ethical posture, however, is shaped by the knowledge of God's future restoration, and he calls on his disciples to live that life right now.
Ethics from Below
The third dimension of Jesus's ethic is an interesting one, because it "emerges from a dimension of the Bible and Jewish history that is too often ignored in contemporary ethical theory." (11) It's what we call the wisdom tradition, which anchors itself in human observation.
"Wisdom is how to live in God's world in God's way," McKnight writes, "but this kind of wisdom can only be acquired by those who are humbly receptive to the wisdom of society's sages. As well, a wisdom culture trusts human observation and through intuition discerns God's intentions for this world." (12)
Jesus encourages such observation and intuition throughout his Sermon. Yet, such reception doesn't ignore or eliminate an Ethic from Above and an Ethic from Beyond, as modernists and postmodernists alike do. Instead, what Jesus encourages is discerning how the Bible speaks about a variety of pressing topics, while holding tightly to both the Above and Beyond aspects of that ethic.
Here, McKnight points to the work of William Webb in Women, Slaves, and Homosexuals, and also Samuel Wells's Improvisation in order to do ethics in a way that Jesus ethics, from Below.
Ethics as Messianic, Ecclesial, Pneumatic
At root, then, Jesus's ethic is a "combination of an Ethic from Above, Beyond and Below—the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom." Those three elements are tied to three other elements: his messianic vocation, community, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus's ethic is a messianic ethic for a messianic community in the power of the Spirit.
"Jesus's ethic is distinct," McKnight argues, "because Jesus saw himself as Israel's Messiah...Jesus offered nothing other than a Messianic Ethic" And Jesus believed certain things about himself as Messiah that significantly shaped his ethic: not only did he fulfill the law and the prophets, "Jesus himself is the Torah, Wisdom, and the Prophet who was to come." (14)
And here's the ethical rub: "Only in association or relationship with Jesus does the Sermon make sense." (14) McKnight explains that Jesus isn't merely replacing proto-prophet Moses's ethical principles with his own. He's replacing Moses altogether by offering himself to his disciples, which means Jesus's ethic will always baffle people who are outside of his community, outside of communion with himself.
Jesus's ethic "was to be lived out in the context of a kingdom community, the ecclesia," McKnight writes. "The Sermon on the Mount is supremely and irreducibly ecclesial." (14) McKnight quotes Yoder here: "The sermon...is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus." (14) Which means that Church forms the context of Jesus's ethic.
Jesus' ethic sits within the context of a relationship with himself, his people, and finally the Spirit. "Jesus' ethical vision was only practicable through the power of the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit who took human abilities to the next level and human inabilities and created them into new abilities." (14) McKnight reminds us pastors particularly of how the Church fosters such empowerment through a weekly sustainability regiment. Such Spirit-driven ethics is to be sustained through Eucharist, the preaching of the Word, the spiritual gifts, and the memory of our common Story.
As you can see, McKnights newest commentary is as much a contribution to Christian ethical and moral studies as it is to New Testament and Gospel studies. In a few weeks I'll explore in more detail how this four-angle ethical scheme plays itself out in his commentary.
Until then, pre-order this important contribution today and also download and enjoy a free eBook based on its contents, called Kingdom Vision. Millions of lives have been changed by the Sermon on the Mount, and you’ll see why as the Kingdom Vision Bible commentary eBook transforms your life.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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