Review of Pennington's Heaven and Earth

Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. Jonathan T. Pennington. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. 399 pp.

Rarely has an academic text felt as revelatory and immediately applicable as Jonathan Pennington’s Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. As a scholar and professor of biblical Greek with an undergraduate major in history, Dr. Pennington is well equipped to examine the linguistic, historical and theological themes of Matthew’s gospel.

The thrust of the work makes a bold claim: that the Matthean phrase “kingdom of heaven” has been misunderstood and misrepresented for over 100 years. Pennington explains in an orderly and even devastating manner that Matthew was highly intentional in his use of heaven language, emphasizing important theological themes for his readers, as opposed to piously avoiding the phrase “kingdom of God.” His thesis argues “that by describing this kingdom as heavenly or from heaven...Matthew highlights and heightens the tension between God’s kingdom and all earthly kingdoms”(322, emphasis original).

Pennington makes this destination clear throughout his work, and he also makes clear the vehicle he uses to get there: “The question must be answered based on… evidence within Matthew itself”(130). He returns again and again to the actual text of Matthew, as well as trimly yet exhaustively examining the other primary sources which come to bear upon Matthew, most notably the Old Testament, Jewish works of the intertestamental period, and the Mishnah.

One of the greatest strengths of this work is its orderly and methodical arrangement. Pennington lays his groundwork so carefully that reading through his smaller arguments on the way to his larger point feels like listening to a tightly constructed piece of music coursing towards its climax. He begins by dismantling the old “reverential circumlocution” argument which had come to reign “through the magic of publication, repetition, and elapsed time”(36), showing persuasively from Matthew itself that this old thesis cannot be true. Next he provides his reader with neat summaries of how heaven language was actually used in the Old Testament, Second Temple Literature, and Matthew, giving the raw data which he will later interpret. He also helpfully gives an overview of the other recognized themes in Matthew, which his heaven and earth theme will interact with.

The meat of Pennington’s book comes into view in Part Two, where he makes his arguments regarding the whats and whys of Matthew’s heaven usage. He divides this heaven usage into four discrete categories: the use of the singular and plural forms of οὐρανὸς, the heaven and earth diad, the image of God as Father, and the image of God’s kingdom. With each topic, he alternates examinations of the Old Testament and Second Temple works in their own chapters, followed by chapters showing how Matthew’s usage of heaven language is both continuous with his traditions and also brilliant innovation for his new formulations.

For section one, he demonstrates that Matthew picked up on the two interpretive poles of οὐρανὸς—the physical sky and the heavenly realm--and made their meanings more distinct by using the singular for the earthly meaning and the plural for more heavenly meanings. Next he shows that while “heaven and earth” was a normal stock phrase in Matthew’s tradition which could be used merismatically or antithetically, Matthew deliberately chose to both use the phrase a lot, and bring its antithetical usage to the forefront. Pennington’s third examination, that of the Father in heaven image, is the one that felt the most scattered and thus least persuasive.  Here he shows that this image is most prominent in the Sermon on the Mount, is equal to the Father who sees in secret, and that the image is often contrasted with negative earthly fathers. Here his arguments felt reasonable but not as immediately meaningful as the other three sections.  His fourth section shows how Matthew’s kingdom of heaven concerns both the reign of God and the idea of physical territory related to the kingdom, and how the dramatic repetition of the phrase and its force underlines the difference between God’s ways and humanity’s ways.

In his conclusion, Pennington summarizes the importance of his contribution by rehearsing again how many functions Matthew’s heaven language performs in his gospel: that it shows the superiority of what Jesus offers contra what the world offers, that it importantly links the gospel to its Old Testament roots, that it emphasizes Jesus as Messiah and his radical teachings, and that it deeply encourages the disciples in the worth of their new identity in Christ. And, of course, by highlighting the tension between God’s heavenly kingdom to the earthly kingdoms, Matthew causes his readers to long for “the eschaton in which the kingdom of heaven will come to earth”(343).

On the whole, Pennington’s arguments are immensely persuasive, precisely because they are based rigorously on data and not on authorial assumptions. One could say that his points are even elegant, for while he builds towards saying something profoundly new in Matthean studies, he does it all the while making it seem so patently obvious; one reads his interpretations and almost wants to exclaim aloud, “of course!” By showing that Matthew’s use of heaven language emphasizes the tension between God’s kingdom and those of the earth, the reader experiences the tension anew for herself. The pieces of his argument fit neatly together without feeling forced.

Especially helpful are his discourses on the debt of Matthew to Genesis (211ff) and Daniel 2-7 (268ff). These sections were illuminating for how thoughtfully Matthew sought to connect his work to the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as how God’s previous words were inspiring and helpful to the apostle as an author. Contact with these sections heightened my appreciation for Matthew’s Gospel and what he was seeking to accomplish, as well as especially increasing my understanding and appreciation of Daniel. Equally profitable was Pennington’s explanation of how Matthew 6:1-21 should be seen as one interpretive unit which fully fleshes out the importance of Matthew’s heaven and earth tensions. I felt ministered to and encouraged as a Christian reading this section to pursue the things of God over against what the world offers.

I would have no hesitations recommending this book to every minister and student of the Word, for its personal encouragement in Jesus as well as its help in rightly teaching the first gospel to those under our care. Perhaps especially for seminarians, it stands as example of what first rate, faithful scholarship looks like, in both its academic strength and pastoral care. I look forward to seeking out other works by Dr. Pennington.