Sermon on the Mount
Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7; cf. Luke 6:17-49). These passages of Scripture are often seen as pointing to the essence of the Anabaptist understanding of the Christian way, especially in contrast to mainstream Protestantism with its roots in the Lutheran and Calvinist reformations. Whereas Luther emphasized salvation by faith and grace alone, the Anabaptists placed emphasis on the obedience of faith. To their critics this meant the introduction of a new legalism and works righteousness and therefore made them just as guilty of error as the Catholics. The Anabaptists, of course, did not treat the Sermon on the Mount as a separate or special category of Scripture, elevating some New Testament writings above others the way Luther did with some of the writings of Paul and John's gospel. They did have a clear understanding of the priority of the New Testament over the Old and of the centrality of Christ. This understanding derived in part from the Sermon on the Mount. But the sermon did not become a canon within the canon of the New Testament in any explicit sense.
Nevertheless the references to the Sermon on the Mount by various Anabaptist writers are frequent. The Beatitudes are cited quite frequently, especially Matthew 5:10-12 (in relation to the Anabaptists' experience of suffering and persecution). Other references which are cited most frequently are Matthew 5:33-37 (integrity and the oath); Matthew 5:38-48 (nonresistance and love of enemies); Matthew 6:24 (serving God or mammon); Matthew 6:33 (seeking first the kingdom of God); Matthew 7:13-14 (the narrow way); Matthew 7:15-20 (false prophets are known by their fruits); and Matthew 7:21-23 (doing the will of the Father). These references demonstrate a heavy Anabaptist emphasis on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Howard Loewen has demonstrated the predominance of citations of Matthew in most Mennonite confessions of faith. Within Matthew the Sermon on the Mount is most extensively referred to and within the Sermon the references to love for one's enemies (Matthew 5:38-48) and the section on integrity and the oath (Matthew 5:33-37) predominate (Loewen, Confessions, 35, 250-57/58). These citations are perhaps not surprising because they focus on doctrinal distinctives of Mennonites. On the other hand, the references to persecution and suffering tend to fall away in the confessions of faith, perhaps because of changing circumstances.
One of the most significant threats to the central role of the Sermon on the Mount in Mennonite thought and practice has been the influence of dispensational theology, especially in North America but also to a considerable degree among the Russian Mennonites at the beginning of the 20th century. Dispensational theology created a method of biblical interpretation (hermeneutic) which seriously undermined the central role of the Sermon on the Mount. In this view history was divided into a series of seven ages or dispensations. God was seen as working in different ways in each dispensation. The age of the law preceded the age of grace, which was the age of the New Testament church. Characteristically the dividing point between the two ages was seen as coming with the crucifixion. Christ, at the beginning of his ministry, offered the kingdom of God to the Jews until they rejected it, and Matthew 11 was often viewed as marking the point of rejection. Christ's earlier ministry, including the Sermon on the Mount, was therefore still kingdom preaching with an emphasis on the law rather than on gospel.
The impact of dispensational teaching was very clearly felt by various Mennonite groups, although it was not always taken to extremes sufficient to counter directly Mennonite teachings on nonresistance and discipleship, which were strongly rooted in the sermon. Nevertheless, some of the foremost exponents of dispensationalism did undermine Mennonite theology implicitly or explicitly. The Selbstschutz (self-defense) movement in Russia in 1918-19, for example, was supported or tolerated by prominent individuals who had accepted a dispensationalist eschatology. In North America, William Bestvater was perhaps the best-known exponent of dispensationalism among Mennonite Brethren. He regarded the Sermon on the Mount as a proclamation of the kingdom which was essentially postponed until the millennium. In the meantime, Bestvater maintained, Paul was given a new gospel to proclaim -- a gospel of grace. Nevertheless Bestvater asserted that the Sermon on the Mount is instructive for the Christian life.
Among other Mennonite groups the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount often became part of the larger Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. In the 1930s a number of pamphlets and articles appeared questioning whether the Sermon on the Mount remained applicable to the church. One of the clearest statements was given by John Horsch in an article entitled, "The postponement theory." Attempting to refute the substance of a book by Donald G. Barnhouse, Horsch argued strongly that Jesus did not offer an earthly kingdom to the Jews at the beginning of his reign and that the Sermon on the Mount was intended for our day. Horsch was particularly concerned about the implications of the theory for the doctrine of nonresistance because, according to Barnhouse, Jesus later in his ministry had declared himself against the principle of nonresistance.
Other Mennonite expositions, such as Jacob Nickel's Betrachtungen über die Bergpredigt, have often echoed Horsch's concern about setting aside the Sermon on the Mount in such a manner.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century in many ways set the stage for the Mennonite and Anabaptist renewal signaled especially by Harold Bender's essay, "The recovery of the Anabaptist vision." Bender's concluding statement in the essay was, "We shall not believe [the Anabaptists said], that the Sermon on the Mount or any other vision that He had is only a heavenly vision meant but to keep His followers in tension until the last great day, but we shall practice what He taught, believing that where He walked we can by his grace follow in His steps." (Recovery, 54). The impact of this restatement of vision and the associated emphasis on discipleship, following of Christ (Nachfolge Christi), kingdom ethics, and the doctrine of the church generated more interest and literature on the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon was seen as setting forth in the most beautiful way the ideal society of love and was contrasted to the magisterial Reformers' emphasis on faith alone. In a similar way the (Hutterian) Society of Brothers under Eberhard Arnold was inspired by the story of the Anabaptists toward an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount.
In subsequent decades the appreciation for the Sermon on the Mount has been manifested in a variety of ways among Mennonites, including the popularity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The cost of discipleship. A number of recent books by Mennonite authors on the Sermon on the Mount have appeared, including John W. Miller, The Christian way, John Driver, Kingdom citizens; and Clarence Bauman, The Sermon on the Mount: the modern quest for its meaning. While the authors do not make any special claim to be writing solely from an Anabaptist or Mennonite theological perspective, it is nevertheless clear that they view themselves in that tradition. Mennonite ethical reflection today continues to see the Sermon on the Mount as foundational for much of its work.
Hershberger, Guy F., ed. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957.
Arnold, Eberhard. Salt and Light: Talks and Writings on the Sermon on the Mount. Rifton, NY: Plough 1967.
Horsch, John. "The Postponement Theory." Gospel Herald (23 November 1933): 722-23, 731-32.
Bestvater, William J. "Dispensationelle Lehren aus dem Evangelium Mattaei." Zeugnis der Schrift (n.d. [May, 1919?]): 9-18.
Nickel, Jacob J. Betrachtungen über die Bergpredigt unsers Herrn Jesu Christi. Rosthern, SK, 1959.
Miller, John W. The Christian Way: a Guide to the Christian Life Based on the Sermon on the Mount. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969.
Driver, John. Kingdom Citizens. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.
Bauman, Clarence. The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for its Meaning. Macon, GA: Mercer U. Press, 1985.
Martin, Jason. The Sermon on the Mount: a Guide for Practical Faith. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1986): 197.
McGrath, William. The Sermon on the Mount. Minerva, Ohio; A[mish]-M[ennonite] Publications, 1985.
Loewen, Howard John, ed. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith, Text-Reader series. Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 811-812. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Dueck, Abe J. "Sermon on the Mount." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 20 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S475ME.html.
APA style: Dueck, Abe J. (1989). Sermon on the Mount. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S475ME.html.