Interview with Rebekah Eklund for Mere Orthodoxy

“Whence then doth He begin? and what kind of foundations of His new polity doth He lay for us? Let us hearken with strict attention unto what is said. For though it was spoken unto them, it was written for the sake also of all men afterwards. And accordingly on this account, though He had His disciples in His mind in His public preaching, yet unto them He limits not His sayings, but applies all His words of blessing without restriction. Thus He said not, “Blessed are ye, if ye become poor,” but “Blessed are the poor.” And I may add that even if He had spoken of them, the advice would still be common to all. For so, when He saith, “Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” He is discoursing not with them only, but also, through them, with all the world. And in pronouncing them blessed, who are persecuted, and chased, and suffer all intolerable things; not for them only, but also for all who arrive at the same excellency, He weaves His crown.”

John Chrysostom (Homily XV MATT. V. 1,2)

For Chrysostom, the Beatitudes represent a foundation for a new polity under the rule of Jesus Christ, whose authority stretches through space and time. For centuries, the Beatitudes stood for highly prized and desirable virtues. Yet today, they are often peripheral to our Christian living or self-understanding. I speak, of course, from my experience in broadly evangelical churches. How did such devaluing of the Beatitudes occur? To help me understand their history of interpretation, I spoke with Rebekah Eklund about her new book, The Beatitudes through the Ages (Eerdmans, 2021). She traces how the Beatitudes were understood and interpreted throughout Church history.

You are a New Testament scholar and spend a lot of your time in the Gospels. Why did you decide to turn your attention to the Beatitudes?

I first became interested in the Beatitudes when I was working on lament. I wrote my dissertation on lament in the New Testament, and “Blessed are those who mourn” was one of the texts I considered. I was surprised to learn that Christian traditions have often understood mourning in the beatitude as penitence. I was curious about when and why that happened. I filed away that question. Many years later, when I became interested in reception history more broadly, I decided to revisit the Beatitudes to see what I could find ― and as soon as I started reading, I realized that there was a treasure trove of material on them.

Your book surveys how theologians from different Christian traditions made sense of this part of Jesus’s teaching throughout church history. Which Beatitude had the most controversial reception?

It’s an interesting question. I’ll answer it in a couple of different ways.

I would say that the blessing on the meek has been the most challenging beatitude for modern interpreters. It has caused a lot of consternation about why Jesus seems to be commending timidity or self-abasement. The word “virility” comes up a lot at a certain point in history. As you can see in the book, I try to make the case that modern interpretations have lost something valuable about what the Greek word “meek” means, and that this loss caused most of this difficulty.

The other beatitude that comes to mind when I think of controversy is the final blessing of the persecuted. More so than any other beatitude, this one is wielded as a weapon in inter-Christian battles among Protestants, Catholics, and the Radical Reformers. They all use it against one another, to lay claim to being the persecuted, or to defend themselves against charges that they are the persecutors. In some ways, it was the most disheartening chapter to write, to see a beatitude used to harm and divide rather than to make whole.

In my experience, whenever the Beatitudes are taught in broadly evangelical churches today, there is always someone, either the teacher or a person in the audience, who quickly points out that the Beatitudes are impossible for us to do. It is common to hear that they serve the same purpose as the law of Moses, convicting us of our sinfulness and the need for saving faith in Jesus. What would be a common view of the Beatitudes in other Christian traditions: Catholic and Orthodox?

I’ll begin by saying that this was not even the view of the original Reformers themselves! This view is often attributed to Luther or to “the Lutheran approach.” But, Luther himself thought the Beatitudes were perfectly achievable and were, in fact, the characteristic marks of the Christian life. John Calvin likewise related the Beatitudes to the two great commandments to love God and to love the neighbor. So the view that you’re describing develops in later Lutheran thought.

In that sense, the magisterial Reformers (Luther and Calvin and their close contemporaries) fall into line with the Catholic and Orthodox approaches. In Catholic and Orthodox thought, the Beatitudes are virtues that one strives to achieve with the help of the Holy Spirit. Catholic tradition, following Augustine, often associates them with the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (as named in the Old Latin text of Isa 11:2). Orthodox tradition typically links them to the theme of deification or theosis and to the restoration of the image of God that was damaged in the Fall. That is, as one progressively takes on more of the qualities of the Beatitudes and their virtues, one becomes more like God.

Christian thinkers often turn to the Sermon on the Mount to formulate their vision for Christian ethics. How have the Chtistian ethicists treated the Beatitudes?

It depends on which branch of Christian ethics you have in mind. For some Christian ethicists, the Beatitudes represent God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized (the poor, hungry, and weeping). This tends to emphasize the church’s responsibility to live in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and to strive against all the things that contribute to oppression or injustice. For other Christian ethicists, the Beatitudes represent counter cultural values that Christians should embody even at great cost to themselves — e.g., a call to be peacemakers or pacifists in a world prone to violence.

I guess I had one ethicist in mind when I asked this question. I remember reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s chapter on the ethic of Jesus in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. He describes Jesus’ ethic in the Gospels (not just the Beatitudes) as full of “unprudential rigorism” and “prohibitive of concerns for our physical existence.” Would you agree with such characterisation of Jesus’s ethic as we find it in the Beatitudes?

I completely disagree with Niebuhr. I think criticisms like this tend to be directed more at the Sermon on the Mount (especially the antitheses) than at the Beatitudes themselves. But I still think Niebuhr is wrong. I think he misunderstood Jesus’ ethics.

I had a similar reaction when I read Niebuhr’s chapter. What would be a better way to think of Jesus’ ethics?

I find it helpful to think of Jesus’ ethics as communal rather than individual. That is, they’re a way of life intended to be embodied in a community that is committed to following Jesus. It’s not primarily an ethic for individuals to try to pursue on their own. Nor is it an ethic for civil societies. It’s an ethic that can’t be detached from other practices like baptism, forgiveness, etc. The Way of Jesus is, paradoxically, both a light and easy burden (Matt 11:28-30) and a narrow and difficult path (Matt 7:13-14), but I don’t see it as rigorist. It’s ultimately the path to an abundant life, and I think that’s captured in some sense in the Beatitudes themselves.

Has there been any attempt to understand the Beatitudes as a whole in relationship to the world, its social, political, and economic structures?

One of the recurring questions with the Beatitudes is whether they apply to 1) individuals, 2) the society of the church, and/or 3) the world as a whole. It’s one of the things I explore briefly in chapter 1 when I ask the question, “Who are the Beatitudes for?” Until the modern era, it was an almost universal assumption that the Beatitudes were for followers of Jesus. In that sense, it’s not so much a question of whether they are for individuals or for societies, but whether they’re intended only for people for whom Jesus is Lord. So the questions about how they apply to the world’s larger structures tend to be embedded in questions of how a Christian trying to live by the Beatitudes might participate (or struggle to participate) in certain larger structures like politics or the courtroom.

The chapter on the peacemakers is probably the best example of how a beatitude was read in relation to the world’s larger structures. The blessing on the peacemaker has been used in the pacifist movement in general and in the nuclear disarmament movement in particular. It also pops up in discussions throughout history about whether peacemakers (that is, Christians) can be soldiers.

Sometimes one will see an argument that society would fall apart if one tried to apply the ethic of Jesus to the society, but those arguments tend to be about the Sermon on the Mount as a whole rather than the Beatitudes.

In your book, you note that it is hard to find an interpreter before the eighteenth century who did not understand the Beatitudes as exhortations or implicit commands (p. 35). It seems that today it is no longer the case. What brought this change in our understanding of the Beatitudes?

I’m going to blame this one on Q. Okay, I’m sort of joking, but it does seem to be the case that the shift came about after the rise of historical-critical methods. I expected the most significant changes to occur during the Reformation, but that’s not what I found. To be sure, some things did change during the Reformation. But the shift away from viewing the Beatitudes as exhortations really didn’t happen until scholars moved away from assuming the harmony of Scripture and instead started to try to dig beneath the texts for the historical Jesus. Premodern interpreters pretty much unanimously assumed that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Beatitudes (in Matt 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26) were fundamentally harmonious. Modern scholars disagreed, and they began to try to reconstruct the “original” version of the Beatitudes. Once one detaches Luke’s version from Matthew’s, especially if one assumes that Luke’s version is more original, it’s much easier to see the Beatitudes as descriptions of situations that Jesus promises to reverse, rather than as desirable qualities to be emulated.

This is interesting, I can see how this shift in the approach to the Scripture can render the Beatitudes peripheral to our understanding of Christian living. Do you think the Beatitudes are normative for all Christians, or are they a set of ideals that we can admire but don’t have to follow?

I think they’re best understood as invitations for all Christians — or even as invitations for all people — into a life of true flourishing. I give credit to Jonathan Pennington for the language of “invitation,” which helped reorient how I thought about the Beatitudes. Scholars often analyze the Beatitudes using a dichotomy: they are either commands or they are descriptions. I don’t find it especially useful to think of them in either of those categories. I certainly think they can function as either, depending on one’s context. I tend to agree with the long arc of the Christian traditions who have thought of them as “the perfect pattern of the Christian life” (as Augustine thought), but in a way that is complex enough to account for both Luke’s version (“Blessed are the poor”) and Matthew’s version (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”). That is, if I am not poor, the first beatitude is an invitation (and perhaps a warning) to me to consider whether my wealth might block me from inheriting the kingdom of God. And so on. The Beatitudes are a bit like parables in that sense; they invite exploration of what they mean in our respective contexts.

Before taking a close look at each Beatitude, you begin with a chapter on how to approach the biblical text. The introduction serves as a kind of primer to help your readers raise their self-awareness about the sort of Bible readers they are. Some readers make it their main goal to find the author’s intent when reading the Bible, others are simply looking for the plain meaning of the text that is evident on the surface. What is your approach to reading the biblical text and making sense of it?

That’s such a big question, I don’t think I can do it justice in a short space. I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we can know the author’s intention. I also think texts always exceed their author’s intentions, and I talk about that in the book’s introduction. I do think it’s super helpful to gather as much information as we can about the text’s original context, including the original language, socio-political context, first-century Judaism, etc. One of my NT teachers and mentors, Klyne Snodgrass, used to tell his students that three things matter when interpreting the biblical text: context, context, and context. I tend to agree — the text’s historical context, a passage’s context in the canon, my context as a reader — they all contribute to making sense of a text.

As I was reading the first two chapters discussing different approaches to interpreting the Bible and giving an overview of the Beatitudes, I was waiting for you to talk about the person who spoke them. Yet, in your discussion, Jesus is not present as an important figure that determines how we read the Beatitudes. Help me understand why?

I discuss this very briefly in chapter 1, in the section about whether the Beatitudes are demands or descriptions. I have a short section on the Beatitudes as “descriptions of Jesus.” In that section, I point out that this is one of the very few places where everyone agrees. The Beatitudes are described over and over as a portrait or even autobiography of Jesus. So Jesus himself shows us what the Beatitudes look like throughout his life — he weeps, he is pure of heart, he shows mercy, he makes peace, etc. I’m sure I could have done more with that section, but the general idea is pretty basic. Some of the individual chapters also briefly touch on the same theme of Jesus embodying each beatitude in his own life. One thing I didn’t end up putting in the book (too much material to fit it all in!) was the premodern emphasis on Jesus’ identity as the speaker of the Beatitudes: as the Son of God, he spoke with divine authority and not just as a wise human teacher.

On the other hand, I also try to make a case in chapter 1 that Matthew and Luke can be thought of as the first interpreters of the Beatitudes. They took Jesus’ teaching (in whatever form or forms it originally occurred) and placed it into a specific (and different) part of their overall narratives, and they’re also the ones who narrate how Jesus embodies those Beatitudes (e.g., when Matthew uses the word “meek” twice to describe Jesus later in his gospel).

Has the connection between the Beatitudes and the Old Testament been explored by Christian thinkers? How were the Beatitudes understood within the larger biblical continuum?

Many of the ancient writers recognized how much the Beatitudes emerge from texts like Isaiah 61 and Psalm 37. You mentioned earlier that the Beatitudes were for centuries understood as virtues. This is definitely true, but it also wasn’t the unanimous approach of the earliest interpreters. For example, Tertullian, Jerome, and Chromatius of Aquileia all discuss the Beatitudes without relating them to virtues. Tertullian and Jerome were especially interested in exploring the connections between the Beatitudes and Old Testament texts. Tertullian does so in part to prove (against Marcion) that Jesus’ teachings mirror the teachings of God in the Old Testament.

It’s also very common throughout history to refer to the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes, as the “New Law,” in contrast to the “Old Law” given by Moses on Mt Sinai. This theme is sometimes used in a positive way to show how indebted the Beatitudes are to Jewish Scripture and to show the connections between the two Testaments, but it could also be used in the service of a vicious anti-Semitism. I address this briefly in the first chapter.

Going back to the idea that the Beatitudes are hard for people to do, how have Christian thinkers reconciled human agency and God’s grace in keeping them?

That’s a great question! Christian thinkers have typically insisted that both are necessary. I think the tension between divine and human agency is captured in this lovely, paradoxical way by the apostle Paul when he writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12b-13). Do we work, or does God work? Well, both, but it is ultimately God who enables us to work at all, or even to have the will to do the work. That’s a good snapshot of how Christian thinkers have typically understood the Beatitudes. God’s grace empowers people to live into the Beatitudes.

Your book is a wonderful resource, especially for those who want to teach or preach through the Beatitudes. Thank you.

Thanks, Vika!

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Posted by Vika Pechersky

Vika Pechersky studies theology at Loyola University Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter @vikapechersky.

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