Scripture and Tradition Synoptic Gospels

Ancient Christian Writers on the Interconnectedness of the Beatitudes: Insights from D. H. Williams, Matthew (The Church’s Bible)

I recently reviewed D. H. Williams’ new installment in The Church’s Bible series, which is entitled, Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators (Eerdmans, 2018) for Religious Studies Review. It was a fascinating read.

I won’t reproduce my RSR review here, but I did want to say a bit more about an aspect of Williams’ work that I didn’t get to say much about there. One of the things that stood out to me in reading the commentary was the way ancient commentators tended to approach the Beatitudes. Whereas modern authors tend to focus on each statement as it stands, early Christian commentators were especially concerned to show how each saying relates to the one that proceeds and follows it. This provides some very rich reflection on Christian spirituality.

Here are some examples.

For Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), the Beatitudes represent a series of steps that lead upward in the spiritual life. According to him, one cannot begins this journey without heeding the first lesson: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3).

“It seems to me that the Beatitudes are arranged in order like so many steps, so as to facilitate the ascent from one to the next one. Once a man’s mind has ascended to the first Beatitude, we will accept what follows as a necessary result of the first, even though the next clause may say something new.”—St. Gregory of Nyssa, Beatitudes 1–2[1]

Why is becoming “poor in spirit” so important and to what does it refer? According to Chromatius (d. 406/407), it means embracing the spirituality of the poor; disciples of Jesus must become detached from wealth and worldly goods. He explains that only in pursuing this spirit can we begin to learn the meaning of the following beatitudes such as “Blessed are the meek” (Matt 5:5):

“And yet how can a mind set upon wealth, on worldly cares and worries—from which arise business dealings, lawsuits, provocations, anger, and unending complications—become attached to such matters as being meek and gentle, unless it first cuts itself off and renounces every cause of anger and occasion for strife. . . It is appropriate then that one step is connected to the next, because who are poor in spirit are already beginning to be meek.”—Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermon on the Eight Beatitudes 2.5–6[2]

Likewise, Augustine (d. 430) explains that before one can pursue the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matt 5:7), one must first embrace the fourth: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness/justice” (Matt 5:6). Why? Augustine puts it this way:

“It is appropriate that this saying [‘Blessed are the merciful. . .’] follows, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.’ You are hungry and thirsty for justice. And if you are hungry and thirsty you are a beggar to God. So you are really standing as a beggar at God’s doors while there is another beggar standing at your door. The way you treat your beggar will be the way God treats his.”—Augustine, Sermon 53.5[3]

In other words, one learns to be merciful by understanding first that God is merciful. Yet this lesson is discovered in seeking from him that to which we do not have a claim: justice. In learning to depend upon God’s mercy, the believer learns mercy. Prayer, therefore, is the prerequisite for learning true mercy.

This is just a sampling. However, I have found this approach to the Beatitudes profoundly enriching. For more, check out Williams’ fascinating contribution. You can find it here:

[1] Cited from D. H. Williams,trans. and ed., Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, The Church’s Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 71.

[2] Cited from Williams,  Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators,  78.

[3] Cited from Williams, Matthew: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, 81.


Leave a Reply