Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. 288 pp. $24.99.
All these scholars (hopefully) will be quick to point out that we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Yet the advances in understanding the Gospels are astounding.
It is perhaps not exaggerating to say that in Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington distills a half-century’s work on the Gospels into a single volume. Every scholar and movement mentioned in the first paragraph above is engaged.
Readers are introduced to how the Gospels define the gospel; how the apparent discrepancies between the accounts can be handled; what role history plays (and what healthy historiography is); the coinherence of history and theology in reading the Gospels, and the epistemological framework that supports such coinherence; the importance of reading the Gospels as pieces of literature, and specifically as narrative; how the Gospels relate to and clarify the exploding discipline of biblical theology; what hermeneutical foundations fuel wise reading of the Gospels; the relationship between Jesus as Savior and Jesus as exemplar, and the priority between the two; how to read an individual pericope as a story within the broader Gospel story, which itself is part of the broader canonical Story; and how to preach and teach the Gospels.
Throughout, however, Pennington has one central burden. He wants to help students of the Gospels read the Gospels as sacred stories at the climax of the canonical Story relating what God has done in Jesus to regain his rightful reign over the world. These stories are to be read through a historical/theological/literary trifocal lens; they are not for cognitive download but spiritual transformation.
A few bits were mildly (only mildly) perplexing on the way through. Could more be said about the Gospels’s use of the Old Testament, beyond the canonical and narratival emphases Pennington (very helpfully) adduces? Could the treatments of historical figures such as Kähler, Barth, and Bultmann be less dependent on secondary sources and more dependent on the works of these figures themselves (82–87)? Can the Gospels be held forth as a hermeneutical keystone to the whole Bible without the unnecessary provocation of calling them a “canon within the canon” (230)?
But these are relatively minor matters, and I will say no more about them and other concerns lest the rich appreciation I have for this book be muted. Let me instead reflect at greater length on two strengths, among many that could be identified.
A Gospel Both Deep and Wide
First, I mentioned to a friend recently that in some ways I consider this book “N. T. Wright without the baggage.” I consider Wright one of the most stimulating New Testament scholars writing today, but I find myself constantly wishing to excise ill-advised statements from the otherwise brilliant biblical connecting-of-the-dots that is his bread and butter. We need a generation of scholars following Wright that swallows the meat in his writing and spits out the bones. Pennington, I think and hope, will be in that number.
A concrete example of why I say this is Pennington’s explication of “the gospel.” The opening few chapters tackle the debated question of what the gospel is according to the Gospels. To my view, the book succeeds in navigating between a reductionistic view of the gospel as only individual forgiveness of sins (morally) on the one hand and an overly inclusive or vague view of the gospel as the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” or that the kingdom of God is here (eschatologically) on the other hand. Unfortunately relegated to a footnote, Pennington makes the important statement:
In the recent rediscovery of the kingdom-centrality of Jesus’ message of the “gospel” there has often been a naïve and sophomoric pendulum swing away from the essentiality of Jesus’ atoning death on behalf of his people. Not only is sacrificial atonement clearly testified to as essential in the apostolic witness (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Pet. 3:18), it is also the obvious endgame of all four Gospels, one of the few ways in which all the witnesses are in total agreement and emphasis. (16n39; cf. 194–98)
Pennington’s burden is to persuade us of what I believe is a crucial and neglected dimension of the theology of the Gospels: in Jesus, the end of the ages has come and the long-awaited reign of a reinstated, triumphant Davidic king has been inaugurated—and this eschatological event is even described as “the gospel” (e.g., Mark 1:1–15). Yet Pennington lays this out in a way that complements rather than supplants (or even mocks) the traditional evangelical and equally true focus on the gospel as forgiveness of individual sins. (Throughout the book it seems to be assumed that the individual focus is a Pauline way of describing the gospel, yet both the individual and the eschatological are found in the Gospels and in Paul—but that is yet another minor matter.) Here’s a nice summary statement, for example, as he concludes at the end of the book: “the Gospels clearly present Jesus’ life and teaching as focusing on the coming reign of God inaugurated and opened by his sin-forgiving sacrificial death and his death-defeating resurrection” (255).
This is a full-orbed view of “the gospel” that, if I have understood Pennington correctly, retains a healthy balance between the indivisibly united moral core and eschatological framework of the gospel. Sin is dealt with; the new age dawns. The only way in to the new age is through forgiveness of sins. Or conversely (yet equally true), through this moral acquittal one is ushered in to what the Old Testament saints called “the latter days,” the long-anticipated reign of the Davidic heir and the renewal of the cosmos.
Second, the book is well written.
Well-implemented examples and illustrations, from the Kentucky Derby to Fiddler on the Roof, abound. Repeatedly Pennington lets the reader come up for mental air by pausing to explain where we have been and where we are going. The book is written to illumine, not to impress. And so on.
But what I want specifically to draw attention to is that the writing itself is executed with excellence—words are well chosen, sentences are well crafted. That is a strength often pointed out in passing in reviews, but I would like to linger here for a moment.
It is difficult to enjoy a delicious meal if the atmosphere is noisy, the silverware dirty, and the plates chipped. Presentation matters. Presentation isn’t all that matters. Poisoned prime rib can be presented on silver china; heretics can write as beautifully as anyone. Yet scholarly works too often focus on what is being said to the neglect of how it is being said. Not so Pennington. Content aside, the book is beautifully written. For an extended sample of the literary excellence of Pennington’s work, see pages 36–38. In the meantime, here are a few snippets of what I am talking about:
• “As several close readers of Wright have noticed, this balanced, two-legged view in practice seems to have one much longer and heavier-booted foot.” (88, referring to Wright’s avowed upholding of both history and theology in Gospels study)
• “Interest in Barth has been strong since his earliest days of scholarly output, but with the castle of modernism crumbling from significant postmodern trebuchet attacks, there seems to be a fresh and broader appreciation among many younger scholars for the ways in which Barth sounded an early and prophetic call against the dangers of historicism.” (91)
• “It seems that even as the last flames of a dominantly historical-critical study of the Bible wane into embers, the time is ripe for a phoenix-like, reborn approach.” (94) “A richer understanding of what it means for a text to ‘mean’ releases much steam from the pressure cooker of modernist exegesis . . .” (136)
• “If we cease to read the Gospel accounts—or any narrative—as stories and instead become lab-coated technicians, we will miss the greater point. We will be the literary-analysis equivalent of Martha instead of Mary.” (179)
• “Though modern scholarship has at times denied Paul’s knowledge and use of the Jesus traditions, the predominant and most persuasive view is that one need not dig very deeply to find the Gospel materials under every epistolary rock.” (245)
Given my role at Crossway, I will not, despite my affection for Tolkien, comment on Pennington’s graphic reference to “the massive onslaught of books that pour forth from the publishing houses every year like orcs from the gates of Mordor” (98).
Reading the Gospels Wisely will be most useful to pastors and students. Pastors will grow in understanding how to read the Gospels in a theological-canonical-narratival way that complements (not replaces) the grammatical-historical exegesis with which many will have been trained. Students will be helped especially by the clarity, accessibility, and distillation of so much of the specialized work that has been done on the Gospels over the past few generations.
I closed this book more grateful for and excited about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I will read them, Lord willing, with greater understanding, yet also freshly re-sensitized to the great purpose for which the four Gospels exist: transformation into the image of Christ. And surely this is the final measure of whether one is reading the Gospels wisely.