The Beatitudes: blessings, not curses

If you can cope with the skittish (though well-executed and fun) “DON’T GET BORED DURING ALL THE GREEK WORDS, YOUNG PEOPLE!” visuals, this video by Revd Jonathan Fisk is well worth the fourteen minutes of your time:

Revd Fisk presents a very interesting argument (derived from David Scaer) for reading the Beatitudes as gospel rather than law: as a Christ-centred proclamation of blessing, rather than as hammer-blows which leave us reeling at our failure to live up to the demands which a law-centred interpretation places upon us. (As in the Sunday-school formula, “BE-attitudes”: “BE humble, BE sorrowful, BE meek” etc. In short, “Do this and you will live be blessed”.)

The key point is that the Beatitudes were spoken by Jesus to “the disciples” (that is, the apostles), not “the crowd”. They are blessings pronounced to those who are already Jesus’ followers, not the conditions of entry for outsiders.

Revd Fisk argues that the Beatitudes have a chiastic structure (A-B-C-D-D’-C’-B’-A’), so that each blessing has to be interpreted in the light of its parallel working from the other end. When we do that we find that those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” are the same as those who are “poor in spirit”, and so on. Then in the final Beatitude, added on at the end, Jesus confirms that his blessings have not been for aimed at some theoretical, perfect super-saints, but at the real, flawed followers in front of him: “Blessed are you…”.

But it was Revd Fisk’s final point, right at the end, that I particularly wanted to share here:

There are other ways you can handle the text. At the end of the day, how you interpret a text must come down to the rule of faith. You cannot depart from the teaching of the catholic church. Not Rome: the true one church.

What is that teaching? That salvation is a work that Christ does for you; that Jesus didn’t come to be a new Moses – something greater than Moses is here; that salvation is by grace through faith, for the sake of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.

That is why I’m a Lutheran: that consciousness of representing an evangelical catholicity; the insistence that the gospel proclamation, “salvation is a work Christ does for you”, is itself the rule of faith, the teaching of the true one catholic church, and thus the only final test of any interpretation of Scripture. What matters is not that we find the One True Interpretation™ of every biblical text, but that every interpretation we do make conforms to the rule of faith; that is, to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And the Beatitudes are far from the only biblical text to which that principle needs to be applied. (*cough* Genesis 1 to 3 *cough*)

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8 Responses to The Beatitudes: blessings, not curses

  1. Pingback: Alden Swan dot com - The Blessings

  2. Chris Jones says:

    “how you interpret a text must come down to the rule of faith”

    Well, sure; but is it really true that “the rule of faith” boils down to “salvation is a work that Christ does for you”? Is there nothing else to it? I think not.

    I know that Luther said that justification by faith is the article by which the Church stands or falls. But who, before Luther, ever made that claim? I don’t recall St Irenaeus or any of the other very early Fathers who spoke of a “rule of faith” by which the Scriptures must be interpreted saying that the rule of faith they were talking about was that “salvation is a work that Christ does for you.” Come to think of it, when St John gives us something of a “rule of faith,” it has more to do with the Incarnation than with justification or any other aspect of soteriology (Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God 1 Jn 4.2-3).

    There’s nothing in Appolinarianism, Arianism, Monophysitism, or Monotheletism that denies that “salvation is a work that Christ does for you”, but they were rightly judged as being inconsistent with the rule of faith. Fr Fisk is quite right that Scripture must be interpreted according to the rule of faith, but the rule that he offers is far too narrow.

  3. John H says:

    Chris: Fair enough, and I don’t think Revd Fisk was saying the rule of faith is “Christ saves us” and nothing else. But I’d say that:

    1. “Salvation is Christ’s work” and “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” are two sides of the same coin.

    2. The broader rule of faith (as expressed in e.g. the apostle’s creed) is ultimately a matter of unpacking those statements and defending them against error.

    3. Is it really true that the heresies you name don’t in the end amount to a denial that “salvation is a work that Christ does for you”? Wasn’t the point of condemning them the church’s conviction that, however innocent some of them may look at first glance, they ended up undermining the heart of the gospel itself?

  4. Chris Jones says:

    I guess this is one of the reasons that I am not that good a Lutheran, but I see your three points as being reductionist: looking for a simple concept that the Gospel can be reduced to so that we can grasp it. I see the Gospel instead as an unfathomable mystery that we must continually grapple with and engage in order more and more to plumb its depths.

    Just one example of what I am talking about: you say that “Salvation is Christ’s work” and “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” are two sides of the same coin. But the Incarnation is not only about soteriology, narrowly defined. It’s also about anthropology, because in it Christ shows us what it really is to be human — what it was that was lost and/or obscured in the Fall. And it is also about sanctification, because in uniting human and divine nature in his own person, he restores human nature to its proper vocation (union with God by grace) and makes it possible for human persons to realize that vocation by uniting themselves to him and being conformed to his image (the image in which we were made). As the Fathers say, we are called to become by grace what Christ is by nature. (This is what the condemnation of Monotheletism, and the thought of St Maximos Confessor, was all about.)

    But as soon as you start talking about our vocation to union with God, and the possibility of human persons fulfilling that vocation by uniting themselves to Christ by grace, then you are perilously close to talking about sanctification, cooperation with grace, and that dreaded word “synergy,” and Lutherans start to get nervous if not hostile. They are much more comfortable talking about justification (salvation narrowly defined). But then what you were calling “two sides of the same coin” is just reducing the Incarnation to justification. But that loses a whole dimension of what the Incarnation is all about.

    For my part, I start to get nervous when we start talking about “the heart of the Gospel” because to me that means reducing the Gospel to a single concept. I don’t think we can or should do that.

  5. John H says:

    Chris: You’re completely correct. I’m not sure that makes you “not that good a Lutheran” – on the contrary, reductionism of the gospel to a “simple core” is probably an import from other traditions, and to the extent that I have managed to escape my own reductionism (not as much as I’d like, but enough to have not been totally comfortable with that last comment even as I typed it) it’s largely down to the influence of Lutheranism.

    The original point I took from Revd Fisk’s statement was not about reducing the gospel to a simple core, but about a principle of biblical interpretation: that what matters isn’t finding the One True Interpretation, but that any interpretation conforms to the rule of faith (which is to be understood holistically/organically, but from one angle, as it were, looks like “salvation is Christ’s work for us”).

    Contrast my pre-Lutheran days, where (as I described in this 2004 post) I used to fret if a preacher (in my opinion) misinterpreted the passage on which he was preaching, as that meant the Word of God was being muffled by poor interpretation. That is, “the Word of God” in practice meant “the Bible correctly interpreted”, which in turn means, in effect: “the correct interpretation of the Bible” becomes itself the Word of God.

    Only the other day I was thinking that if Lutheranism could be reduced to a phrase, the phrase I’d choose would be: the Word made flesh. That is. the Word which we encounter not as an abstract statement (not even “salvation is Christ’s work for us”), but in its concrete expression in the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments (and, by extension, the whole life of the church). Actually Existing Lutheranism may often fall short of that, but in fairness to Revd Fisk I don’t think that was he was doing.

  6. Robert says:

    Way to preach grace (one way love)! Love it!

  7. Bob G says:

    When the Beatitudes were read recently in my church, I saw something in them that I had not seen before: In verses 3-10, Jesus identifies what many in a harsh culture — and much of the world — might very well perceive as weaknesses or misfortune. After all, where domination is a key ambition, there’s little value in meekness, mercy, peacemaking, etc.

    Over and against a culture that has embraced misguided notions of strength, I hear Jesus telling his disciples to see the various ways in which the people were prepared to receive the ministry of the disciples, and ultimately the gifts of God.

  8. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » The good news of the Beatitudes

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