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  • The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspectiveby William C. Mattison III
  • Charles R. Pinches
The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective. By W illiamC. M attison III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii + 279. $99.99 (cloth). ISBN: 978-1-107-17148-0.

In this interesting and helpful book, Mattison throws himself, workmanlike, into the many puzzles and perfections of the Sermon on the Mount. Readers of this book can never lose track of where they are; Mattison takes us point by point through the Sermon and, in an equally ordered fashion, displays for us the long Christian tradition of reflection about the virtues. He uses the latter to interpret the former. "The pattern of this book" he tells us, is to "[suggest] a virtue or virtues in light of which each section of the Sermon might be fruitfully understood" (63).

Mattison divides the Sermon in six segments, treating each in its turn in the book's six chapters. He follows Matthew's sequence, with one deviation: he separates the Lord's Prayer, treating it in the final (sixth) chapter, as "the perfect conclusion to this book on the convergences between the Sermon on the Mount and a virtue-centered approach to morality" (269). The book is therefore a commentary of sorts: each chapter opens with a section of text from Matthew in italics, taken from the revised edition of the New American Bible. Mattison then refers repeatedly back to this text, following its sequence. (One minor inconvenience is that the italicized sections from the NAB are not marked by verse, although the commentary refers to verses by number.)

The book's chapters are also arranged clearly. Each begins with a detailed chapter plan, ends with a recapitulation of the chapter's themes, and is divided into aptly named sections. Throughout, Mattison guides us along by questions (such as, "What contribution if any does a virtue-centered approach to morality offer for interpretation of these passages?" [187]), which he then proceeds to answer. This style can sometimes seem predictable or ponderous, but its perspicuity is nevertheless something to admire. Mattison has asked himself at every turn how he can make his points clear—and worked like a soldier to do so. [End Page 313]

At one juncture, Mattison refers to what he is doing in the book as a "research project" (102). Sometimes it feels this way: as if he is experimenting with something, seeing how he might match the virtues creatively to this most famous text. But the description obscures the significance of what he has done. It seems to me that the central point of the whole book has to do with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the key biblical text for understanding what Aquinas called the "new law."

When discussing Jesus's many statements following the form of "you have heard it said . . . but I say to you," Mattison takes note of Pope Benedict XVI's discussion of a passage from Rabbi Jacob Neusner.

"What did he [Jesus] leave out [of the law]?" to which Neusner replies, "Nothing." When asked "Then what did he add?" Neusner replies "Himself." Jesus is what is new about the new law. Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of the material content of the new law, in a manner whereby it fulfills the old. He makes possible the living of the law in a way not possible without him. And He Himself is the telosof the law, the very union of God and humanity toward which the old law orients humanity. (116, quoting Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration)

To grasp the full significance of this book, we should remember that Mattison was a student of Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., who, he tells us, was the book's inspiration. For Mattison (and this reviewer agrees), Pinckaers "is the most impactful post-Vatican II Catholic moral theologian" (xi). Pinckaers, of course, was a Thomist who urged Catholic moral theology to overcome its fascination with the "morality of obligation" (72) and to return rather to the virtue tradition...


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pp. 313-317
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