Holistic Hermeneutical Method for Just Peacemaking Practices

By Glen H. Stassen (December 2012)

In A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age (Westminster John Knox: 2012), page 203, I promise that I will put a somewhat fuller explanation of my holistic hermeneutical method connecting the ethic of just peacemaking to the Sermon on the Mount on the Just Peacemaking website. Here it is.

It may make more sense if you have already read chapters 10 and 11 of A Thicker Jesus; this is really a supplement to that discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and just peacemaking. But I think it does make sense by itself also.

The holistic hermeneutical method was first developed systematically during postdoctoral research on cognitive processing and ethics at Harvard University in 1969-72, in dialogue with Ralph Potter in Christian ethics and Robert Jervis and John Steinbruner in political science. I wanted a method that grapples with how people actually do their ethics in practice, rather than focusing on only one dimension of ethics. The cognitive processing research within policy studies provided helpful insight into ethics in actual practice. I felt that the discipline of Christian ethics was focusing only on general grounding for theological ethics, or only on types of philosophical reason, or on some particular social issue, without analyzing how the ingredients work together in people’s actual ethics. Unless we can identify how people actually practice their ethics, we will not be able to help them correct their errors adequately.

I saw much ethics in practice that needed correcting, needed repentance—on racism, militarism, economic justice, authoritarianism, and sex and marriage. So I researched how decision-makers actually do their cognitive processing and reach decisions. I wrote the result in a thirty-page single-space letter [!] to Christian ethics professor Ralph Potter in 1971. After subsequent presentations and dialogue in the Religious Social Ethics Group of the American Academy of Religion, I published the holistic hermeneutical method in The Journal of Religious Ethics (Spring, 1977). I identified four dimensions of holistic ethics: ways of moral reasoning, basic theological convictions, perception of the social context, and loyalties and interests. Within each of these four dimensions, I identified specific variables that Ralph Potter’s and my research found were most powerful in shaping people’s ethical perceptions and ethical advocacy. I contend that biblical interpretation that hopes to impact people’s ethics should pay attention to all four dimensions. Here I give only some examples so as not to complicate the explanation over much.

David Gushee has since joined me in writing Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity: 2003), which is finding wide usage. We begin to explain holistic character ethics in chapter 3. The holistic method criticizes ethics modeled on kinds of philosophical ethics that seek rationalism and avoid passions and theological loyalties. Recent psychological research by Warren Brown, Jonathan Haidt, Drew Westen, and others is strongly confirming this criticism. People form their ethical conclusions primarily by almost automatic cognitive perception, driven by loyalties and passions of which they may not even be consciously aware. Then they devise reasons to justify what they had already decided on. Some self-correction or repentance is possible, but more by interaction with others who see differently than by lone-individual rationalistic self-correction. So ethics that seeks to correct the errors that we and our society make needs greater focus on how passions and loyalties influence perception of the context where we form our ethics and do our ethical action. Furthermore, passions and loyalties are in part shaped by basic theological convictions—if they connect with passions and loyalties. Therefore, ethics needs to pay attention to basic convictions, rather than bypassing them as much philosophical ethics tends to do. And our theological ethics needs to be not only abstract dogma, but itself rooted in strong loyalties—to a thicker Jesus as true disclosure of God’s deliverance in our lives, to God the sovereign who cares deeply about justice through all of life, to the Holy Spirit who calls us to repentance, conversion and discipleship, and to church community and communities and practices in daily life in the world.

The Dimension of Ways or Levels of Reasoning

Holistic character ethics does pay attention to ways of reasoning and does learn from philosophical ethics—as I learn from philosophers Nancey Murphy, Charles Taylor, and others in A Thicker Jesus. In dialogue with theologian James McClendon, ethicist James Gustafson, and philosophers H.D. Aiken and Stephen Toulmin, it identifies four logically distinct levels of moral reasoning: particular judgments, rules and practices, principles and virtues, and basic convictions.

New Testament ethicist Richard Hays has more recently advocated a similar four-level mode of reasoning for his hermeneutics. His first two levels are rules and principles, in accord with our scheme.

But he calls the deeper levels “paradigms and symbolic world.”[1] Gushee and I have wholesale respect for Hays’ work, and he is right that “paradigms” are important in ethics; but “paradigms” do not define a distinct level of discourse: they may function on any or all of the four logical levels—as particular judgments, rules, principles, or basic convictions. We prefer philosophical clarity in defining each level.

His “symbolic world” is our basic convictions level. He highlights two variables within that level, “depictions of the character of God,” and “representations of the human condition.” This exactly matches our two variables of God and human nature. We add three other sets of crucial variables at this level: Christlikeness and justice, justification and sanctification, and mission of the church.

The hermeneutical point that Hays, Gushee, and I are arguing is that a biblical teaching should not be taken only at the rules level, or only at the principles level, but that we also need attention to the more basic conviction or symbolic world level. At the same time, we criticize an overreaction against rules and principles in some narrative ethics: rules and principles do have a place in biblical narrative and in contemporary ethics, if understood not legalistically but as dependent on the deeper theological level of basic convictions.

In addition, Hays rightly argues that we should look for echoes of an interpretation in different parts of the New Testament to validate its importance. Willard Swartley has done so admirably in his Covenant of Peace. The themes that I am arguing for as supporting just peacemaking practices—grace as initiative not mere prohibition, reconciling initiatives, delivering love, peace, justice, repentance and forgiveness, inclusive community, all have echoes in New Testament teaching beyond the Sermon on the Mount. But showing these echoes is beyond what I can do in the present space. And in fact, it was the Sermon on the Mount that led me to develop the just peacemaking practices in the first place, as shown in my Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace in 1992, six years before the consensus Just Peacemaking was published by Pilgrim Press in 1998.

Basic Convictions, Perception of the Social Context, and Loyalties and Passions

Our holistic hermeneutical method points not only to the dimension of ways of reasoning, but also to three other dimensions: basic convictions, perception of the social context, and loyalties and passions. A fully self-critical effort to interpret a teaching of Jesus analogically in our context requires attention to all four dimensions.

From several scholarly research directions, such as the psychology and neurology of Brown, Haidt and Westen mentioned above, we are all becoming aware that ethical formation happens first in the dimension of loyalties, passions, and interests, which powerfully shape our cognitive perception and our ethical reasoning. As Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus then says the greedy eye puts us in the darkness, and the generous eye puts us in the light (Matthew 6:19-23). Our investments shape our heart loyalties, and these shape what we perceive. Therefore, unlike some methods in ethics that seek to exclude elements of passion and focus only on ways of ethical reasoning, our hermeneutic includes a loyalties and passions dimension, a perception dimension, and a basic convictions dimension.

Drop Everything and Go Make Peace with Your Adversary

In A Thicker Jesus, pages 206-8, I interpret Jesus’ teaching on anger and disrespect for other persons as a diagnosis of a vicious cycle that leads to judgment (Matt. 5:22). This pays attention to the dimension of passions and loyalties. It says we can’t simply deny or avoid anger. Instead, we need realistic practices that deal with it. The transforming initiative that Jesus commands—going to the adversary and seeking to make peace—participates in God’s way of deliverance in Christ. God enters into our lives with love and makes peace when there is enmity and defensiveness between us and God. This engages our loyalties to God in Christ—both in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus calls us to act in that love toward someone who makes us angry or whom we have made angry. This is the way of deliverance.

On the rules level of reasoning, this is a direct command: go make peace quickly. It is not an ideal, a virtue, an option, and certainly not a prohibition or a hard teaching: we talk things over with others regularly to smooth out relations, make some peace, and be delivered from the vicious cycle of ongoing anger. But Jesus is not a legalist, and this rule should not be interpreted legalistically. In some cases the adversary may be so old or ill that an attempt at conflict resolution would be too upsetting for her or him. Or he or she may be too dangerous or powerful. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15-17, it may not be possible to practice conflict resolution in simple dialogue; it may require the help of others.

Conflict resolution or conflict transformation is a practice, a normative action regularly practiced by disciples of Jesus, and especially by a community of disciples, a congregation—and by diplomats and labor negotiators, and others. Practices are defined by rules that govern or guide them, but these rules differ in different community contexts, as James McClendon writes in his Ethics. So I place practices on the rules level—but without legalism.

On the principles level, Jesus says making peace with your adversary is of prior importance to worship: drop your gift at the altar and go make peace (Matt. 5:23-24). God desires peacemaking and justice-making, not insincere sacrifice (Isaiah 1:10-17). Principles are more general and less specific than rules. They provide a reason for rules, and may override rules.

On the basic convictions level, as Thicker Jesus says of the practice of going to your adversary and practicing conflict transformation, “this practice participates in the way of grace that God took in Jesus when there was enmity between God and humans: God came in Jesus to make peace with us…. Peace is a characteristic of the breakthrough of the reign of God—the work of he Holy Spirit in our lives.”

This means peacemaking is crucial for our central Christian loyalties, our passions as disciples of Jesus. In Kingdom Ethics, our first chapter is what to us is an important argument that the characteristics of the reign of God in Jesus’ teaching all have their context in Isaiah’s passages that prophesy God’s coming to reign and deliver us, and that seven characteristics are crucial in that reign: peacemaking, delivering justice, presence, joy, healing the sick and blind, deliverance, and return to God.[2] Peacemaking is essential for the coming of the reign of God. Furthermore, God’s coming to be present in Jesus Christ, God’s entering into our human lives to make peace in Jesus is the basic Christian conviction of the incarnation. In chapter 9 of A Thicker Jesus, I ground this deeply in an incarnational theory of the meaning of the cross. I hope this engages your loyalty to God’s love revealed in Christ. I have passion about this, and I hope you do too.

This illustrates the hermeneutic of incarnational discipleship concerning levels of moral reasoning—particular judgments, rules, principles, and basic convictions. Going to make peace with an adversary is a rule, a command from Jesus. David Gushee and I are doing narrative ethics as realistic historical drama, but not in a reactionary way, as some narrative ethicists react against rules and principles. We affirm the need for some concrete rules, like practice cooperative conflict resolution. Nor are we legalistic; a rule can be overridden by a deeper principle or basic conviction, depending on the specific context.

What does this mean in our context of anger by Iranians, Palestinians, Afghanis and Iraqis against U.S. policy that seems anti-Islam and anti-Arab to many of them, and U.S. anger at Muslim terrorists who attack children, women, the elderly?

I suggest we employ a hermeneutical method of analogy, asking what practices in our context correspond to and carry out Jesus’ command to go and make peace with our adversary. A method of analogy is not an unimaginative and legalistic act of obedience. Nor on the other hand is it an unimaginative assertion that Jesus’ or Matthew’s context was different from our present conflicts with Iran or North Korea and therefore Jesus’ teaching applies only to individual relations and not political relations. Nor does it reduce the teaching to a thin principle not fleshed out in disciplined practice.

I suggest the analogous practice for us based on Jesus’ command to go make peace with our adversary is the just peacemaking practice of cooperative conflict resolution. The discipline of conflict resolution or conflict transformation is extensively developed in our time as an academic discipline as well as a regular practice in marriage counseling, mediation, labor relations, and international relations. In the ethic of Just Peacemaking, it is called cooperative conflict resolution because we emphasize treating the adversary as a cooperative partner—with his or her customs, culture, faith, and initiatives—as contributors to the search for a solution. We seek to correct Enlightenment-rationalistic understandings of conflict resolution and replace it with more realistic and culturally respectful understandings.

If someone would say that a U.S. administration that refused to talk with adversaries in North Korea, Iran, and Palestine was acting opposite to the way of Jesus and the effective practices of just peacemaking, was disempowering itself from being able to solve problems with these adversaries, and therefore was less likely to be effective in solving problems with them, that would be a particular judgment. A particular judgment is not a general rule, but a judgment about a particular case.

Just peacemaking leads most of us to observe that the refusal for seven years to engage in cooperative conflict resolution talks with Palestine, Iran, and North Korea produced destructive results. A realistic understanding of human nature suggests that self-disempowerment by refusing to talk with an adversary like Iran or North Korea is a sign of self-righteousness, abdicating responsibility, and blaming others. The understanding of human nature is one of the  basic conviction variables; see Thicker Jesus, chapter 8 on sin. Who is the realist—Jesus who says we should go talk with our adversary, or those who practice blame and refuse to practice cooperative conflict resolution?

Nonviolent Direct Action and Independent Initiatives

In Matthew 5:38-42, the four imperatives (turn the other cheek, give the cloak, go the second mile, give to the beggar) all command us not merely to comply with a demand, but to invent a transforming initiative of our own. This transforming-initiative interpretation is basically identical with Willard Swartley’s interpretation, with our shared attention to Jesus’ connection with the prophetic tradition and especially Isaiah. It integrates Schottroff’s and Wink’s insights. Wink’s argument is based on Matt. 5:38-42; Schottroff adds 5:43-48; I add the structure of the fourteen triads from 5:21-7:12 as consistently climaxing in transforming initiatives. Wink and I each developed our transforming-initiative interpretations independently of each other, and thus provide some mutual confirmation. But I argue for Swartley’s transformation of relationship as central, not for Wink’s causing the Roman soldier to violate Roman law. As Schottroff and I argue, Jesus’ command of love for the enemy is pivotal for the interpretation, both in Matthew and in Luke (see Thicker Jesus, p. 254, note 19). This is the Christlikeness variable in the basic convictions dimension. The analogous just peacemaking practices in our time are “nonviolent direct action” and “independent initiatives.”

In developing the just peacemaking theory, I was well aware that our social context includes a private/public dualism in which Jesus’ way and peacemaking get interpreted as idealistic and individualistic. To counter this distortion, I intentionally focused on practices—not ideals—and on historical and political-science evidence showing each practice is in fact working to prevent some wars. See my Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Westminster John Knox: 1992). Furthermore, with the human nature variable in mind, a realistic understanding of human sin argues that these practices need to be institutionalized in policies, international networks, and laws, in order to check and balance concentrations of political, economic, and military power.

Include Your Enemies in the Community of Neighbors

In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. He is commenting on Leviticus 19:17, “love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” The question was, “who is included in the community of neighbors?” Jesus’ answer is that God rains rain and shines sunshine on just and unjust alike. God is LORD, and God includes all people in the community of neighbors.

What is the analogous practice in our time that includes all people, just and unjust alike, in the community of neighbors? Haidt and other psychologists encourage us to treat this as a perception question—whom do we perceive as in our community of neighbors.

In my cognitive processing research, I sought to identify variables that had most influence in forming foreign policy decision-makers’ perceptions. I found that perceptions of power and authority, the threat, social change, and information integrity were pivotally influential in explaining differences of perception. These four variables are crucial for the perception dimension of holistic character ethics, and have proven to be formative on varieties of issues in Christian ethics. I argue they are also important in Jesus’ own teaching and actions. He entered into Jerusalem to confront the powers and authorities there, though knowing it would lead to his crucifixion. If we include the Pharisees as well as the scribes, the wealthy, and the higher authorities, he confronted the authorities thirty-seven times for their injustices, not counting parallel passages. He warned several times of the threat of destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, knowing they were fomenting rebellions against Rome and did not know the practices that make for peace. His confrontations were calls for social change toward repentance and justice, and he was organizing a movement of faith change and also social change for the powerless and the marginalized. Jesus needs to be interpreted in his realistic context. The holistic hermeneutic helps notice these dimensions of Jesus’ ministry, in which he identified with the prophets, and especially Isaiah.

Some policy-makers advocate a unilateralist and nationalistic understanding of power and authority, advocating the right of their own nation to act without regard for international cooperation. Empirical research shows unilateralists make war more often, and have war made against them more often. Others advocate that better results are achieved, and national interest is more successful, when a nation seeks international cooperation. Empirical research shows such nations experience fewer wars. The recent history of the unilateralist policies of the George W. Bush administration, declaring permanent war against terrorism and war against Afghanistan and Iraq, by contrast with the Barak Obama administration, illustrates that conclusion. The same is true of the Milosevic administration in Serbia, making war against Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, and ending in failure.

Some focus on the threat as coming almost entirely from enemy nations, while others see the threat more in economic injustice, our own lack of prudence, or narrow nationalism and lack of peacemaking.

Some fear social change as disruptive and cling to power and the status quo, while others support citizen movements for human rights and democracy, such as the Arab Spring.

Some see information from a manipulative perspective, finding information useful when it can help win a propaganda war. They tend to be closed to information that contradicts their own perceptions and advocacy. Others advocate information integrity more scientifically and with more integrity, and seek to pay attention to information that could correct their own misperceptions.

For example, prior to the Iraq War, the United Nations inspectors reported that they had gone twice to all the locations in Iraq identified by the U. S. administration as likely to contain weapons of mass destruction. They found no evidence of weapons anywhere. Those of us who paid attention to the reports from the U. N. inspectors expected that the weapons of mass destruction would not be there. The book Fiasco by Thomas Ricks shows that the George W. Bush administration was highly unilateralist in deciding to initiate the war, and consistently denigrated information coming from the United Nations. Their unilateralism, narrow nationalism, and exaggerated self-confidence distorted their information integrity and their perceptions of the context. They led the United States into a war that the U. N. Security Council would have voted 12 to 3 against, had the Bush administration kept its promise to go first to the Security Council for approval of the war. The unilateralism, the disregard of contrary information, and the denigration of advice from church leaders and citizens’ social change movements that argued against the war, led the nation into a war that by now most agree was a disaster.

Jesus proclaimed that forces of self-righteousness and resentment against Rome were leading toward the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. In this Jesus was fully in sync with the prophets of Israel.[3] They advocated the equivalent of international law in their time. Jesus confronted the Jerusalem authorities for their injustice and their violence. He wept over Jerusalem because they did not know the practices of peace. He made peace with a Centurion and some Gentiles and Samaritans. He called for taking the log out of our own eyes rather than practicing blame for the speck in others’ eyes, so that we could see better (with more information integrity). He prophesied the threat that war was coming, and urged his followers not to participate in the war, but to flee to the hills when it came (Mark 13 and parallels). As N. T. Wright writes in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus’ disciples followed this teaching and became the peace party in Israel.

Thus the hermeneutics of incarnational discipleship leads us to pay more attention to Jesus’ own prophetic teachings on peacemaking and his connection with the prophetic tradition on peacemaking. It gives support to the practices of international cooperation in just peacemaking, as checks and balances against unilateralist megalomania.

Practices of Economic Justice, Human Rights, and Democracy

Matthew 6:19-34 teaches practices of economic justice: not hoarding money for ourselves, but making God’s justice and God’s reign our priority. In Kingdom Ethics, chapters 1 and 17, and also in Living the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 7, we argue for four dimensions of justice as a central characteristic of the reign of God, and central to Jesus’ many confrontations of the power structure in Jerusalem and the Pharisees. Delivering justice means deliverance from economic oppression of the poor, from domination, violence, and exclusion of outcasts.

One analogous just peacemaking practice for our time is “Foster Just and sustainable economic development.” This is spelled out in the longest and fullest of the ten chapters in Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm, chapter 6. It makes implicit connections with Jesus’ practices beyond what I can try to spell out here.

Another analogous just peacemaking practice that implements Jesus’ teachings on justice in our time is “advance human rights, religious liberty, and democracy.” New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall argues:

If Christians are to engage meaningfully with the great moral issues of our day, they will need to master the rhetoric of rights and to use it sensitively to articulate key Christian insights and perspectives. At the same time, Christians will also have to recognize the limits of a rights-based morality…. A one-sided emphasis on individual rights can obscure the characteristic Christian stress on duty and self-sacrifice…. Yet …the notion of human rights is deeply, and uniquely, grounded in the biblical story and Christians therefore have something special to say about human rights.[4]

I would not do justice to Marshall’s argument by trying to summarize it in this short space. His focal convictions are Creation, Cultural Mandate, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation—analogous to Richard Hays’s focal convictions.

Justice and its relation to love form a crucial variable in the basic convictions dimension of holistic character ethics. They powerfully distinguish faithful from unfaithful Christian ethics.

Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice, and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness

This practice of just peacemaking is so clearly grounded in Jesus’ teaching that it hardly needs explanation here. “Repent, for the reign of God has come near…. Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors…. Take the log out of your own eye.”

But here, too, some are influenced by a privatistic dualism that limits the practice of repentance and forgiveness to individual relations and does not see that nations also need them to overcome historic animosities. Donald Shriver has written two outstanding books thoroughly putting that dualism in the trash heap where it belongs. They are An Ethic for Enemies, and Honest Patriots. Shriver also wrote the chapter on this practice for the third edition of Just Peacemaking.

Reduce Offensive Weapons and Weapons Trade

A just peacemaking practice is to reduce offensive weapon capability, including the trade in offensive weapons, and thus reduce the temptation to initiate war. As does Willard Swartley, I connect this with Jesus’ admonition to put up the sword, and “those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:51-52). Swartley’s discussion of this passage is instructive,[5] but his whole book may be seen as supporting this theme throughout the New Testament.

I simply want to clarify that the debate between pacifism and just war theory focuses on the question of permission to make war. That diverts attention from the equally important question of practices that prevent war. These are two different questions. Most authors of the new paradigm of just peacemaking are just war theorists, and some are pacifists. They disagree on the permissibility of just war, but they agree in supporting practices of just peacemaking. When our hermeneutical question is not permission to make war, but practices of peacemaking, we notice many dimensions of teaching peacemaking practices in the Torah and the prophets, and Jesus and the New Testament, than we had noticed before.[6] Jesus teaches the practices that make for peace.

To have successful public debate, both questions need a widely understood paradigm around which to cluster the debate. Until recently we have had only the widely understood paradigms of pacifism and just war. Now at last we have a just peacemaking paradigm to guide debates about the obligatoriness of practices that work to prevent wars. It was deeply influenced by serious wrestle with the ethics of Jesus, and a holistic hermeneutics. It is spreading quickly, because it meets a major need.

Appendix: Some Dialogue Subsequent to the Initial JBL Article

I am grateful to several New Testament scholars who affirmed the transforming-initiative structure of the Sermon on the Mount prior to its publication in the summer 2003 issue of The Journal of Biblical Literature.[7] They are cited in a footnote of gratitude in that article.

Since then, Willard Swartley has published his major work, the Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Research. It helps New Testament scholars notice the central theme of peacemaking in the New Testament in its semantic and theological context. I am naturally thankful for his clear statements of affirmation of my efforts on the Sermon on the Mount. He writes, for example, the “structural analysis is impressive and persuasive, in that the repeated use of the same grammatical features for the three elements (negative command, descriptive indicative, and imperative verbs) are hardly coincidental.” We are in agreement, and I need not say more.

I am also deeply grateful for Dale Allison’s graciousness in writing, “I accept the correction of Glen H. Stassen, ‘The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,’ JBL 122 (2003), pp. 267-308, that these are not appended illustrations but climactic ‘transforming initiatives,’” and that Stassen’s “scheme—’Traditional righteousness’ + ‘Vicious cycle plus judgment’ + ‘Transforming initiative’ —does work remarkably well for much of the Sermon on the Mount and is a contribution to interpretation.”[8]

I do want to make clear that I dedicated the article to my teacher, W. D. Davies, and that in that article I put Dale Allison and Don Hagner in the same category of highly respected predecessors who set the terms for the discussion. I was not “correcting” Allison, but arguing for a correction in the broad tradition of interpretation. I know of no one who had proposed the transforming initiatives structure for each of the fourteen teachings previously, so by no means was I singling out Allison for correction. Despite the extent of the “correction,” it has been accepted by all the New Testament scholars I have heard from, and I know of no dissent. It was gracious of Allison to write so supportively.

Allison and I also agree on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount in grace. He sees the theme of grace in 4:23-5:2; 5:3-12; 6:25-34; and 7:7-11. He concludes: “The Sermon on the Mount sets forth God’s grace in the past (4:23-5:2), in the present (6:25-34; 7:7-11), and in the future (5:3-12); and this circumstance is the theological context for 5:13-7:12. Amos Wilder was justified in writing that Matt. 5-7 offers ‘not so much ethics of obedience as ethics of grace.’”[9] The “correction” that the transforming initiatives structure suggests is that this theme of grace rightly identified in these defining parts of the Sermon applies also to the other parts. All the central section is consistent with Allison and Wilder’s observation here; it is consistently transforming initiatives of deliverance, and never a negative prohibition. I am arguing for a correction of the old tendency to speak of “hard” teachings or a “hard” road. The transforming initiatives are where the imperatives occur, and they are all breakthroughs of grace; not one is a legalistic negative prohibition. I would not write “Before delivering his hard imperatives, Matthew’s Jesus first encourages and consoles the faithful.” Nor “After the Beatitudes, uncompromising demands constantly bombard the disciples. Respite comes only in two places, in 6:25-34 and in 7:7-11.” I believe the transforming initiatives structure places the emphasis on grace-based initiatives of deliverance, so that the central section is consistent with what Allison has well pointed out about the other sections. Nor would I write of “the hard road (7:14).” The Greek says the road is narrow, not hard.[10]

The transforming initiatives structure indicates that Jesus’ teaching about anger in 5:22 is no command not to be angry, but a participle functioning as a diagnosis of a vicious cycle that leads to judgment and sometimes to murder. As Allison writes in his 1999 book, early Christian tradition did not clearly know an injunction against all anger: Eph 4:26; Mark 1:41 (where the original text may have had Jesus “moved with anger”), Mark 3:5, Matt 21:12–17. . . . For the most part later Christian tradition followed Eph 4:26 and did not demand the elimination of all anger—only anger misdirected.” Matthew 23 shows Jesus angry, and in 23:17 Jesus calls his opponents fools.[11]  A dyadic reading that treats Matt. 5:22 as if it were an imperative leads to insoluble contradictions. Allison has accepted the transforming initiative structure; this means Jesus did not here command us not to be angry or not to call anyone a fool; Jesus commanded us, in effect, not to let the sun go down on our anger, but to drop everything and go make peace. This means Allison need no longer treat what he calls the “command” against anger as an insoluble contradiction, as he does in his 2005 book.[12]

Allison also gives truly extensive support for Matthew’s (and likely Jesus’) proclivity for triads, and avoidance of dyads.[13]

Allison and I also agree in seeing symmetry in the section whose structure has not yet reached scholarly consensus—6:19-7:12. We both see extensive evidence that 6:19-34 and 7:1-12 are parallel in structure. We both see that “symmetry and triads are the compositional keys.”[14] In his recent chapter here cited, he presents additional supporting evidence, as my JBL article also presented additional supporting evidence. Our one difference is that he does not see the transforming initiative pattern in 6:19-7:12, although he refrains from offering evidence for his disagreement.[15]

The pivotal difference is that his scheme has 7:6 as concluding the unit on not judging but taking the log out of our eye in 7:1-5, while I see that unit as having clearly concluded with verse 5, and verse 6 beginning the next unit. The consistent pattern throughout all the fourteen triads except the incomplete third unit on divorce is to conclude with an imperative that shows the way of deliverance, plus an explanation. 7:5 clearly contains the imperative that climaxes the teaching: “first take the log out of your own eye.” The explanation that ties directly to it is “then you will see clearly to see the speck in your brother’s eye.” This finishes the unit, as clearly as a unit can be finished.

Verse 6, about dogs and pigs and holy things, is not about logs, seeing, judging, and repenting. It is a new topic. In his new essay, Allison sees that 7:6 begins with “a proverb or traditional line.”[16] Throughout the other thirteen triads, a traditional teaching begins a new triad. The verse begins with a negative command; a negative command consistently begins a new unit in  6:2, 6:5, 6:7, 6:16, 6:19, 6:24 or 25, and 7:1, and if consistency applies at all, surely also 7:6. But Allison’s scheme places 7:6 not as the beginning of the concluding unit, but as the trailing end of the previous unit—which it does not fit, since it is not about judging and taking the log out of my own eye. It leaves 7:6 without convincing context.

Two other small problems: Allison writes sometimes as if a new unit begins at 6:24, and sometimes as if it begins at 6:25.[17] Allison sees 6:25-34 and 7:7-11 as “encouragements,” a form which is anomalous, not occurring anywhere else in the central section, and lacking in triadic form, while I show they fit the triadic transforming initiative structure characteristic of the other units of the central section of the Sermon.

But I repeat: we have come very close, and I have no desire to disparage Allison’s careful and insightful work. His help in dialogue as well as his extensive writing assisted me greatly in my small writing, and I am deeply grateful. I consider Allison an ally, and a brilliant one at that. I hope my effort to support what I think is a small improvement is not read by anyone to change that. I am arguing for a significant change in perception, and I know that habitual perceptions do not change easily.


[1] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 209.

[2] Willard Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 77-79, 83, et passim, nicely develops the theme of healing as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and sees most of the characteristics of the kingdom that Gushee and I discern.

[3] See my forthcoming “The Prophets’ Call for Peacemaking Practices,” in Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan, Old Testament Holy War and Christian Morality (IVP: 2013).

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Swartley, 76.

[6] Again, see “The Prophets’ Call for Peacemaking Practices.” Also Susan Thistlethewaite, ed., Interfaith Just Peacemaking (Palgrave-McMillan: 2012).

[7] Glen Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-7:12, Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (Summer, 2003), 267-308.

[8] Allison, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), note 24, page 183, and note 41, page 193.

[9] Ibid., 198.

[10] Ibid., 178, 179, and 197. See my Living the Sermon on the Mount, 186-188.

[11] Allison, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Herder and Herder, 1999), 66 and 71.

[12] Allison, Studies in Matthew, 237, 246-8. Allison is supported by his pointing out that Matthew softens Mark 3:5′s explicit statement that Jesus was angry, but then he has to discuss (he does it insightfully) Matthew’s clear portrayal of Jesus’ anger in turning over the tables, and Jesus’ clear anger throughout Matthew 23, as well as his calling his opponents “fools.”

[13] Ibid, 198-215.

[14] Ibid., 188.

[15] Ibid., 193, note 41.

[16] Ibid., 190.

[17] Ibid., 189.