Wise Gospel Reading: A Review of Jonathan Pennington’s New Book on the Gospels
One of my favorite professors during my time at Southern Seminary was Jonathan Pennington. His class on the Sermon on the Mount rocked my world, challenged my hermeneutical approach to Scripture, and reignited my love for the Gospels and their presentation of Jesus.
A question I ask of almost every theology book I read is this: Did the author help to increase my love and devotion for Jesus? I can overlook all sorts of issues with an author if he or she brings me back to Jesus. In Jonathan Pennington’s new book on the Gospels, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction,my love for Jesus increased. Plus, there is not much I’d want to overlook.
Reading the Gospels Wisely is not the kind of book you rush through. It’s the kind you read with your Bible in hand. It’s a toolbox of insights and suggestions to enhance your reading of the Scriptures.
What’s the main thrust of the book? A call to Christians to read the Gospels wisely. Using the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Pennington offers “a proposed blueprint for building a wise Gospel-reading house and thereby life” (xii). His blueprint is rolled out in three sections.
First, Pennington deals with foundational issues related to the genre of the Gospels, the need for all four of them, and the different problems that arise from having multiple accounts of the life of Jesus.
Next, he moves to practical issues related to reading the Gospel stories properly.
Finally, Pennington suggests how the Gospels are to be applied and taught, with the last chapter making the case for the Gospels as the entryway to the canon of Scripture.
In the chapter that explores the Gospels as literary genre, Pennington argues that the Gospels are designed to present the main character “as one to be emulated.” He writes:
“If the goal of the evangelists is (at least in part) to present Jesus as a model of God-ward virtue, then we should receive them as such, keeping this goal as an important part of what it means to interpret the Gospels and to read them well” (33).
“Our canonical Gospels are the theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign” (35).
The third chapter, “Why Do We Need the Gospel? (Or Why Saint Paul is Not Enough)” is worth the price of the book. Pennington deals with the common issue of Gospels-neglect, demonstrated primarily in our tendency to read of the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than reading Paul as working from the foundation of the Gospels. What’s most helpful here is the way he avoids the common approach of pitting Jesus against Paul, or by recommending the Gospels to the exclusion or denigration of the epistles.
Next, Pennington describes the “joy and angst” of having four Gospels. He recommends reading each Gospel individually, and warns against a horizontal reading that mutes the distinctive voice of each evangelist:
“To receive the Gospels as Holy Scripture is to embrace their diversity, receiving with joy the different insights and wisdom they provide, while also rejoicing in their complementary univocality” (73).
Chapter 5 is the most technical part of the book. Pennington walks through recent discussions of texts and history, particularly how historical studies line up with canonical readings of Scripture. The positions of N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, George Eldon Ladd, and others are outlined, and Pennington demonstrates familiarity with them all. His conclusion follows Richard Bauckham’s proposal that we should read the Gospels as testimonial literature:
“The Gospels are simultaneously making theological and historical claims, not as separate, dual goals but as one exercise, given to us through testimony. Balance is again required. We may so emphasize one of these adjectives at the expense of the other that we cancel out both” (104).
Before getting into the specifics of Gospels-interpretation, Pennington moves into a discussion of hermeneutics. He bucks the evangelical trend of reducing hermeneutics solely to authorial intent, choosing instead to employ a more nuanced understanding of “meaning” that takes into account a text’s application as well as the posture of the reader who approaches the Bible:
“Good exegetical skills, reading for the authorial/Authorial intent, are important guidelines for our reading now and in the future, and thus they should be learned and taught to others. But we must never mistake these means for the real end – developing a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor. And to the question of how we speak to our mother-in-law about her reading, Augustine would be the third person, I’m sure (after Jesus and Paul), to remind us to speak in such a way that we too promote the twin love” (142).
Pennington recognizes that his advice for reading the Gospels will put certain demands on the reader. And yet, he believes the hard work is worth it. Careful attention to God’s voice through the evangelists will bring about the reward of fruitful living.
The book concludes with Pennington’s challenge to view the Gospels as the archway to the canon. If we are to have a “canon within a canon,” it ought to be the Gospels.
“The fourfold Gospel book functions as the portion of Holy Scripture that is so fitted and placed that it holds together the archway with its two sides – the Old Testament Scriptures on the one side and the rest of the New Testament writings on the other. The Gospel accounts complete and make ultimate sense of the story of God’s work in the world as found in the Jewish Scriptures, while at the same time they serve as the fountainhead for the rest of the apostolic witness and teaching” (231).
Reestablishing the role of the Gospels, Pennington wants to widen our view of “the gospel” to include the expansive account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Here’s a memorable quote on evangelical reductionism:
“There ‘the gospel’ has often been boiled down to ‘justification by faith,’ which is then fed to people in moralism-dusted bouillon cubes on a pilaf of pietism.” (256)
If you’re looking for an in depth treatment of the issues surrounding Gospels interpretation, you need to check out Reading the Gospels Wisely. Whether or not you agree with everything Pennington recommends, you will greatly benefit from his careful, balanced approach to the books of the Bible that most clearly unveil King Jesus.