According to the title of his book, Addison Hodges Hart asks the reader to take Jesus at his word, but then he dedicates the ensuing pages to present an interpretation of how we should take Jesusí word in the Sermon on the Mount. Although the title raises the specter of an exercise in literal exegesis, his endeavor is realistically self-described as a reflection. He also arranges another tension in his opening pages as he identifies himself as a former priest who has broken with his religious tradition. It seemed as if the stage was being set to take a stance against his former tradition. Fortunately, he predominantly uses his background experience to yield analysis that is often prophetically challenging and beautifully written.
In preparing his argument, Hodges Hart raises a call to give Jesus priority of place amidst Scripture and Church. The contemporary attempt to separate Christ from all conceptions of Church and, even more so, Scripture, involves great risk to the depth of oneís inquiry. Knowledge of Christ is necessarily minimized without recourse to sources that carry forward the earliest, most immediate witness. In spite of his call to unleash Christ from Scripture and Church, functionally, Hodges Hart does not fall into this problem. He does turn to Scripture to mediate his encounter with Jesus.
The early chapters of this book are the most creative and fulfilling to read. He explores the meaning of the kingdom of heaven, ultimately connecting it with a way of living out a Christianity that emerges from within the individual and is manifested through his or her humanity, with all its limitations. His explanation of the pivotal term, blessedness, hinges on the notion of a continuity of oneís actions or the effects of oneís actions beyond the current moment, into eternity. He goes on to offer a subtle re-appraisal of the focal character traits highlighted in the Beatitudes. Hodges Hart teases out nuanced understandings of these traits, yet it is difficult to be sure whether Jesus consistently intended to advance the purported underlying meaning of a given situation or whether he was speaking more directly of specific human experience. To support this approach the author turns to other Scripture passages which are not traditional cross-references, but they do exemplify some of the nuance he advocates. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into his development of these characteristics.
The recognition that discipleship is based on an inner discipline plays a role in several chapters, allowing him to paint a distinctive picture between Jesusí way and the way of the world. This is also seen in his description of the fulfillment of Torah as an internal act. Although concentration on the internal dimension of Christian life still has some effect on the outer communal setting, it lessens the overall influence of communal context. Perhaps intentionally, this would reduce the contemporary role of institutions, such as the Church. This approach can also make an abstraction of the core intent of Jesusí teachings.
Hodges Hart offers a very interesting explication of the concept of hell which unbinds it from some of the more discomforting aspects, but he never fully dismisses a hellish reality. Neither does he clarify a useful understanding of the concept. This might be more symptomatic of the modern struggle over what to make of hell. He tends toward describing it as a self-revealing symbol, a symbol that points toward some deeper aspect of self. This is an area that he might continue to explore using the same approach he employs to draw out nuances in the beatific traits.
The authorís work with the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount stands out among the highlights of the book. When taking up the antithesis surrounding adultery, he delivers a nicely balanced differentiation of love and lust, but a question is raised over his description of the removal of offending body parts as hyperbole. How can we be assured when figurative language should be taken as general symbolism and when it should be seen as hyperbole? The distinction might seem like quibbling, but as exaggeration, hyperbole is more easily dismissed than other symbolism. In keeping with his focus on internalization of the experience of Christ, much of the application of the antitheses is referenced to the individual and not society, until he comes to the question of divorce. Here, Jesus is not concerned with an inner spiritual bond but, rather, with the social consequences for divorced women.
Another thought provoking point is raised over Jesusí teaching on the swearing of oaths. Hodges Hartís position is that this is a call to remain within our limits, not to overextend ourselves. This has the negative effect of downplaying the importance of commitment in life. Things that are well within oneís ability to achieve, generally, do not call for commitment. For the teaching on loving oneís enemies, he carefully develops an understanding of love which is not an emotion but an orientation to do good. Much of the text material which follows this is less intriguing. One gets into a cadence or rhythm with the material after the most novel ideas are treated early in the book. Later chapters continue to be beautifully written, but they tend to simply remind one of what is expected in this kind of analysis. They stand in contrast to the more challenging and prophetic-toned material presented earlier.
The one, most noteworthy, topic treated later in the text is prayer. While he generally keeps his analysis close to the text of the Sermon, when it comes to prayer, he moves further afield. He reveals more of a deep personal prayer life, setting aside the argument of his book for a while. This is a worthwhile excursion for the beauty of thought and expression he brings to the topic.
There are many challenges to be raised over Hodges Hartís analysis, and this is a sign of the success of his effort. A theological or exegetical text need not be written if it merely re-capitulates the existing font of understanding. A good text causes us to argue with its findings, reject some material, and be moved by other material. Taking Jesus at His Word should not have the only say in a class on the Sermon on the Mount, but studying this bedrock passage of Christianity would be less rich without bringing Hodges Hartís text into the conversation.