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Oxford prof defends authority of ‘most famous sermon of all time’

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Respected New Testament scholar David Wenham took aim at the liberal theology espoused by the California-based Jesus Seminar as he lectured at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“These scholars are simply wrong,” Wenham said. “And let me show you why.”

Wenham, an evangelical Anglican priest and dean of Wycliffe Hall, a college of Oxford University, was on Southwestern’s Fort Worth, Texas, campus to deliver the March 10-11 Huber L. Drumwright lectures in theology.

In three lectures over two days, Wenham gave attention to what he called “the most famous sermon of all time,” the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7, Luke 6 and verses from the Books of Mark and John.

Wenham began by challenging the liberal theologians of the Jesus Seminar who scoff at the authorship, and thus the authority, of numerous passages in the Bible. Concerning the Sermon on the Mount, such theologians deny its theological unity with the rest of the New Testament.

Wenham approached his case by analyzing whether the sermon was “Jewish law” or “Christian gospel.” Admitting that many scholars see it more as “law,” he countered with evidence from the context of the sermon within the Book of Matthew.

The key to understanding Matthew, Wenham said, is to look at how the book begins and how it ends. Both the beginning and end of Matthew have “a massive Gospel emphasis,” he said.

Even the genealogy of Jesus that begins the Book of Matthew proclaims the Gospel message, Wenham noted. The list of names in the genealogy of Jesus that begins Matthew presents three sets of 14 generations, or six sets of seven generations, leading up to Jesus’ birth, he said.

“Jesus is thus the seventh seven,” Wenham said. This would have been highly significant for Jewish readers, he said, because “7” was the number that symbolized perfection and completion in the Old Testament.

Thus Matthew’s genealogy presents Jesus “as bringing to completion the story of God’s people,” Wenham said. “Jesus is the one who fulfills God’s promises to Abraham; He is the true king and son of David, and the Savior of the world from sin.”

Matthew presents Jesus as more than a significant religious leader, which is only as much as many liberal theologians will allow, Wenham said.

“[Jesus] is the one to whom the Old Testament has been pointing, the one to whom the prophets have been looking forward,” Wenham said. Jesus is not “a super-Pharisee” in Matthew’s Gospel, Wenham continued, but rather “Jesus is bringing God’s wonderful day of new creation. The emphasis is on amazing, powerful, divine intervention. With Jesus, God’s Kingdom is coming.”

Because of the “gospel theme” that runs throughout Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount should not be seen as “law,” Wenham argued, although that does not mean Jesus was unconcerned about the law.

“Jesus was not in the business of lowering moral standards,” Wenham said. “Exactly the opposite: The Kingdom of God brings higher standards, higher than even the ‘scribes and Pharisees,’” as is seen, for example, in Jesus’ teachings about murder and adultery in the sermon.

“Jesus and His teaching embrace the Old Testament law, but go far beyond it,” Wenham said. Pointing out the postmodern emphasis on “authenticity,” he said, “the Kingdom of God is about living beautiful, authentic lives, [about] fulfilling the Old Testament law, not undermining it…. [The sermon] sets before us the beautiful life that we are called to grow into, with the grace and love of God being the starting point and, indeed, the ending point.”

In his other lectures, Wenham dealt with the question of the sermon’s authorship. Many scholars, including those of the Jesus Seminar, say the sermon does not, for the most part, consist of Jesus’ own words, but rather presents the theological constructs of the Gospel writers, Wenham recounted.

Using a tightly argued textual analysis of the Books of Matthew and Luke, and the letters of Paul and Peter, Wenham refuted this idea.

The question need not be presented as either the sermon presents Jesus’ words or Matthew’s theology, Wenham said. Rather, the sermon could be both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s theology. He pointed out that since Matthew’s theology likely came from his understanding of Jesus’ teaching, the two should be congruent.

Wenham said he doubts the existence of “Q,” the supposed mystery source of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, much speculated upon by biblical scholars. However, he said, there was a large amount of reliable “oral tradition” in the early church about the sayings of Jesus. He said that the Gospel writers, as well as the writers of the epistles like Peter and Paul, would have drawn on this shared tradition when they wrote.

Even though the idea of an oral tradition might be foreign to the text-based modern world, Wenham said it was powerful and prevailing in the ancient world; it accounts for the commonality and unity of biblical teaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Wenham argued for a “common sense” approach to the sources and texts, which would indicate, in his words, that “Jesus did preach the most important sermon the world has ever known.”

Wenham also took up the question of whether the Sermon on the Mount was “relevant righteousness,” or rather a “recipe for despair” because of the seemingly “impossible” and “impractical” demands it makes.

Wenham countered these interpretations by saying that the sermon presents a practical “Kingdom ethic” that deals with “down-to-earth” issues that all Christians face.

Pointing to Matthew 5:21-48 as an example, Wenham showed how Jesus’ teaching about relationships in these verses, “from loving your brother to loving your enemies,” presented “righteousness higher than the Ten Commandments, and far higher than the scribes and Pharisees.”

This is so, Wenham continued, because instead of just forbidding murder and adultery, as the Jewish law did, “Jesus goes to the root causes of murder and adultery: malice and lust.”

“In the Kingdom of God there will not only be no murder, there will be no malice,” he said. “In the Kingdom of God there will not only be an absence of adultery, there will be an absence of the adulterous thought.”

Expanding on the relevance of this teaching to Christians today, Wenham noted that “if adultery is common in our world, then the adulterous thought is epidemic, with the media titillating us constantly, and the Internet alluring us with pornographic temptation, Jesus is saying that God is not only concerned with faithful marriages, but with faithful minds.”

Wenham admitted that “yes, [the Sermon on the Mount] is very hard in our modern age. We will fail and need forgiveness, each other and the Holy Spirit to help us lead Kingdom lives. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about, changing things and changing us.

“What seems impossible and impractical becomes possible and practical with the grace of the Kingdom of God,” Wenham said.

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  • Marc Rogers