Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beatitudes: What are they?

As I get ready to preach the beatitudes, I ran across this helpful summation:

"The Beatitude, as a literary genre, belongs to both the wisdom and apocalyptic traditions. It may therefore be used as a vehicle of ethical instruction, inculcating certain norms of behaviour, or as a vehicle conveying to the distressed hope and assurance that God will intervene to right all wrongs. In his sermons Calvin gives great weight to the ethical demands implicit in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-23. Expressions of obligation ('we should', 'one must', 'it is necessary to') and of moral exhortation ('let us') abound. He does not, however treat the Beatitudes as entrance requirements to the kingdom announced by Jesus, but rather as marks whereby those who are already in the kingdom may be discerned, and God's grace to them made visible in a fallen world. In actual fact the Beatitudes contain only one explicit command, which speaks not of moral effort but of inner, mental disposition: 'Rejoice and be glad' (Matt. 5:12), 'Rejoice and leap for jot' (Luke 6:23). Eschatological hope lies at the core of Jesus' teaching here: the grieving will be comforted, the hungry will be satisfied, the pure will see God. As a preacher, Calvin is fully alert to the tension which exists between the now and the not yet, between the believers' present experience of suffering and their future exaltation in heaven. As Jacques Dupont has remarked, 'The Beatitudes are simply another way of saying that "the kingdom of God is here", that God's promises are on the point of being fulfilled, that the appointed beneficiaries of the messianic blessing at the end of time may now rejoice, for the time is accomplished.' Jesus is both the herald and the agent of the messianic blessing. All the Beatitudes are summed up in him. Meek, pure in heart, merciful, peaceable, persecuted without cause, he enacts his own message and thus becomes the very embodiment of all righteousness. His vindication will be the vindication of all who believe in him. The Beatitudes thus send us back, not to an abstract list of moral perfections, but to the person of Jesus Christ, to whose image Christians are even now being conformed by his indwelling Spirit. Calvin's sermons of the Beatitudes are an appeal and an encouragement to Jesus' followers to be what they are already reckoned to be in him." --Robert White John Calvin Sermons on the Beatitudes, ix-x

(1) I think Robert White hits is right on the head. There is a tendency to think that historical theology and Biblical exegesis are mutually exclusive disciplines. Certainly they have their unique focuses but this downplays the fact that we are both reading the same text. Sometimes contemporary Biblical scholarship is extremely historically naive--as if nothing good has been said of the text outside of the last two hundred years (or less in some cases). Yet Robert White writes almost as if he is a NT scholar here.

(2) It doesn't take long to discover that the contemporary accusations against the Reformation and historic Evangelicalism are typical way off base. It is certainly true that in our day some evangelicals neglect the ethics of the kingdom and we focus--I am ashamed to say it for I love the Apostle Paul--almost entirely on Paul's preaching of the gospel. Yet this charge which may be right in some contemporary cases hardly sticks against the Reformers and their heritage--including the Puritans. Of course they had a rigorous systematic theology but it is not as if they formed it around Paul alone and in their teaching and preaching neglected Jesus.

(3) Those so-called 'Red letter' Christians, emergents and others of similar stripes, while often quick to level the above charges are sometimes equally uninformed about proper use of Jesus' own words. It has be common far too common stock to see the ethics of Jesus, e.g. the Beatitudes, turned into entrance requirements. They are certainly requirements in the sense of good and necessary consequential fruit of the kingdom. They are not however entrance requirements in the sense of necessary activities that self-assertively build the kingdom in your life; they do not effect the kingdom through rigorous performance for the kingdom of God is received and entered by humble repentance and trusting faith.

(4) Finally, this mode of thinking tends to put too much distance between Jesus and Paul. Certainly the 21st century has its share of wrongly understood 'easy believe-ism' nevertheless both Jesus and Paul teach that God's grace is received through faith which entails belief and trust not action and procurement. Those who have received the kingdom are marked by a certain character.

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