Thursday Review: Hauerwas on Matthew

A review of Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos, 2006. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

First a word about this new commentary series. Or three words: I love it. It is different, refreshingly so. The contributors are not biblical scholars, but theologians from other disciplines – systematic theology, ethics, historical theology. And instead of detailed verse-by-verse comments, we have (roughly) a chapter on a chapter. Broadly speaking we move through the content of the chapters – and occasionally there are exegetical comments – but the main thrust is on the theological significance of the passage as a whole. This is not exegesis; it is theology. The result is that all the disciplines of theology are brought to bear to create a theological meditation on the passage and its contemporary significance. Unlike most commentaries I own, I read this one from cover to cover. Of course, I’m not going to throw out my exegetical commentaries – they’re still important. The point is if you are going to buy yet another commentary on Matthew then why not buy one that offer something slightly different.

The contributors come from a variety of theological backgrounds, not all evangelical, but (as far as I know) mostly adherents to the ecumenical creeds. Contributors so  far include Jaroslav Pelikan on Acts, Peter Leithart on 1 & 2 Kings and Robert Jenson on Ezekiel. Future contributors include Kevin Vanhoozer (Jeremiah) and Timothy George (James). The breadth of  contributors mean evangelicals may need to read some of the volumes with care, but I suspect they may also find them enriching.

And so to Stanley Hauerwas on Matthew purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Hauerwas is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University and author of The Peaceable Kingdom and Resident Aliens.

There are two answers to the question, Why was Jesus killed? Both legitimate answers. There is the answer from the human perspective. Jesus was killed because he and his message threatened the status and power of the religious and political establishment. And there is the answer from the divine perspective. Jesus was killed in fulfilment of the divine plan of salvation to redeem his people from sin and judgment through his atoning sacrifice in their place. I think both of these explanations are true (Acts 4:27-28). The religious and political authorities did not decide to kill Jesus because they wanted to fulfil the divine plan of salvation! And both explanations matter, but the latter matters more – not least because the divine plan rescues us from the sin that warps our societies.

As those who know his other books might expect, the focus on Hauerwas’ commentary is on the former answer. And herein lies both its strength and weakness. Hauerwas is very suggestive on the political and social implications of Jesus. Especially on the birth and death of Jesus, Hauerwas’ comments zip along with sparkle and insight. My version is full of marginal markings. (The central section of the Gospel lacks some of that energy and very occasionally the comments reduce to little more than a retelling of the story.)

The problem is that there is a huge gap. I agree with Hauerwas that Jesus has massive implications for politics, culture, economics. But Jesus said he came to save sinners and a full account of this is missing from Hauerwas’ version of Jesus.

Hauerwas helpfully critiques those who reduce Jesus to an ethic without seeing that ethic embedded in the new kingdom he inaugurates and embodies. Yet in practice this seems to be where Hauerwas ends up. A few examples:

Satisfaction theories of the atonement dominate accounts of Christ’s work, making it possible for the “saved” to avoid the radical character of the discipleship depicted in Jesus’s sermon. What is important, it seems, is that Jesus be accepted as one’s “personal saviour”, which is then though to make the possible the attempt to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. The problem with this way of construing salvation is that the sermon becomes an ethic that is no longer constitutive of salvation. (60)

Therefore, Jesus commands his disciples to teach those whom they baptize to obey all that he has commanded. Jesus’s death and resurrection cannot be separated from the way he has taught us to live. The Sermon on the Mount, how we are to serve one another as brothers and sisters, the forgiveness required by our willingness to expose the sin of the church, is salvation. The teaching and the teacher are one. The salvation that Jesus entrusts to his disciples is the gospel of Matthew. (249)

Notice that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is itself constitutive of salvation. ‘The Sermon on the Mount … is salvation.’

Why did Jesus have to die? Christians have developed explanations for why Jesus had to die called atonement theories. For example, some suggest that Jesus had to die as a satisfaction for our sin, to serve as a moral exemplar for us, or to defeat the devil and the powers that have revolted against their creator. There is scriptural warrant for each of these accounts of Jesus’s death, but these theories risk isolating Jesus’s crucifixion from his life … His death cannot be isolated from his life, because his death is the result of his life. He died because he had challenged the elites of Israel who used the law to protect themselves from the demands of God; he died because he challenged the pretentious power of Rome; and he died at the hands of the democratic will of the mob. He died because he at once challenged and offered an alternative to all forms of human polity based on the violence made inevitable by the denial of God. (238)

I nevertheless commend this commentary. But you need to realise what you’re getting – and what you’re not getting!

Happily for me I happened to read Hauerwas alongside Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears’ great book, Death By Love purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US – not I suspect a common pairing! Death By Love is written in the form of letters in which the implications of the cross are applied to people facing different pastoral situations. It’s a wonderfully fresh and powerful meditation on the soteriological implications of the cross. For me (perhaps somewhat perversely) Hauerwas and Driscoll made happy, if contrasting, companions: one meditating on the social implications of the cross, the other on its soteriological and pastoral implications.

Tomorrow I’ll post some highlights from Hauerwas on Matthew.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Hauerwas on Matthew

  1. Thank you for posting this review. I have skimmed this volume in a local store and debated purchasing it for reference and research. Seems that the angle Hauerwas is taking will both challenge my thinking and give me new insight into the social/political implications of Matthew. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Highlights from Hauerwas on Matthew « Tim Chester

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