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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan T. Pennington

In his book, Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan T. Pennington presents a strategy for fulfilling the title of his work. Pennington attempts to uncover how, by virtue of its narratival nature, the Gospels serve as the fullest revelation of God seen in Jesus Christ and the salvation he came to accomplish. For any reader of the Gospels, a strategy for understanding and responding to the good news they contain is essential. Pennington directs his discussion of exegetical issues in the Gospels primarily to seminary students and pastors whose callings necessitate a faithful proclamation of the Gospels’ message.

He begins by defining the Gospel itself is “Jesus’s effecting the long-awaited return of God himself as King, in the power of the Spirit bringing his people back from exile and into the true promised land of a new creation, forgiving their sins, and fulfilling all the promises of God and the hopes of his people” [1]. The four Gospels themselves 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” [2]. He then makes the case for why such documents are needed, especially since the church has emphasized St. Paul. His answer emphasizes the essential role narrative plays in human formation: "Even those who recognize the predominant narrative nature…often assume-consciously or unconsciously-that story time is over, children, and now 'doctrine and truth' have arrived. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and countless others have shown us that the supposed 'maturation;of moving from childlike stories to abstract thinking is only cutting oneself off from being fully human and alive to the greatest truths and mysteries" [3]. Pennington’s emphasis on the narratival nature of the Gospels is perhaps the strongest aspect of his work, especially in the evangelical Reformed tradition he seems to align himself with, to an extent. In a tradition which emphasizes right doctrine, it is refreshing to hear a voice which recognizes the transformative power of story. After the good exegesis has been finished, it is essential to put the narratives back together and experience them as they are [4]. These two definitions and emphasis on the narratival nature of the Gospels serve as the book’s presuppositions. The rest of the work serves to explain how to exegete these kinds of texts.

The first exegetical question is: why are there four distinct Gospels? Of course, this question contains a plethora of exegetical problems such as the vast differences between St. John and the three Synoptics and diversity amongst the Synoptics themselves [5]. While there are differences in the historical details, Pennington believes that “overall the picture of all four Gospels is amazingly consistent in terms of Jesus’s character, tone, teaching emphases, and the general course of his life and death” [6]. Pennington then provides several helpful clarifications for understanding the differences. First of all, they do not contain the ipsissima verba or the exact words of Jesus, but the ipsissima vox or the exact voice of Jesus [7]. For this reason, each evangelist places the teachings of Jesus in their own words. Second, and perhaps most importantly, readers of the Gospels cannot expect them to represent a modern view of history, but an ancient view of history. “A biographer (and indeed, a historian as well) understood his or her task not merely as a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ description but as selective, interpretive, and intentional” [8]. The Gospels do not necessarily present Jesus just as he was, but as they want us to understand him in light of Israel’s story. Of course, this also presents an opening to the quest to find the historical Jesus behind the text, an opening Pennington neither explores nor attempts to close.

Pennington does not push these historical questions too far. He is concerned that in modern scholarship, historical concerns too often are separated from theological concerns. At this point, he provides an accurate assessment of the views of New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright as someone who rejects Enlightenment notions of objective history and a desire to keep history and theology together [9]. However, he unfairly accuses Wright of prizing history over theology in practice [10]. In his footnotes, he reveals he only interacts with Wright’s scholarly work, such as Jesus and the Victory of God, which may well be subject to Pennington’s critique. However, he neglects Wright’s popular works, such as How God Became King, which include strong theological elements. This lapse stands out in a work which is generally fair to those it criticizes. Pennington himself is also susceptible to this critique in another form. In practice, he seems to emphasize theological concerns to historical ones, despite claiming to view theology through history.

Pennington desires exegetes to keep multiple concerns before them in what he calls the three avenues of the text. The first he calls “behind the text” and it includes the typical questions of redaction, form, and source criticism, social-scientific criticism, historical criticism, grammatical-historical exegesis, and the quest for the historical Jesus. The second he calls “in the text” which is concerned with literary analysis, genre, narrative criticism, composition criticism, and intratextuality. His third avenue is “in front of the text”. This includes the history of interpretation, reception history, biblical theology, redemptive history, and intertextuality [11]. He asks exegetes to study in these three avenues, always concerned with discerning the authorial intent [12], the meaning of the text [13], and a posture of humility [14], with the last being the most important.

After numerous pages of introduction, he eventually comes to sketch a hermeneutical method. Perhaps this structure is the book’s greatest weakness. He provides introductory sketches to each hermeneutical question posed by the Gospels, each of which deserves its own book before developing a hermeneutical method. At times, the book seems to say too many things at once without providing a true synthesis of all the issues discussed. To return to his hermeneutical method, he provides a standard model of narrative analysis which identifies the setting and characters, looks for the conflict, breaks the story up into scenes which unfold the conflict, and identifies the climax of the conflict, resolution, and interpretation of the scene provided in the text itself [15]. He then provides circles of meanings. The individual stories sit within acts, which in turn sit within cycles. These cycles sit within the literary structure of the entire work. The whole Gospel narrative sits within the context of the fourfold Gospel witness and the Gospels sit within the whole narrative of Scripture [16]. Pennington expects exegetes to keep in mind how all these contexts bear on individual episodes.

To then teach the Gospels, it is imperative to not only exegete wisely but to also discern application. Discerning an application, of which there can be more than one, is the task of the Holy Spirit, but Pennington suggests several sets of questions to ask. First, ask how the text reveals a fallen condition. Second, what is the text’s redemptive solution? Finally, how does the text form virtue? [17]

Pennington concludes by presenting the Gospels as the center of the canon. They first complete the story of the Old Testament and second, serve as the foundation of the New Testament [18]. It is clear by the end of the book that Pennington not only wants the Gospels to be read wisely but that he also loves them and desires his readers to love them as much as he does.

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, p. 16.

[2] Ibid. p. 35

[3] Ibid. p. 43.

[4] Ibid. p. 179.

[5] Ibid. p. 55.

[6] Ibid. p. 59.

[7] Ibid. p. 63.

[8] Ibid. p. 67.

[9] Ibid. pp. 87-88.

[10] Ibid. p. 88.

[11] Ibid. p. 112.

[12] Ibid. p. 122.

[13] Ibid. p. 127.

[14] Ibid. p. 137.

[15] Ibid. pp. 175-176.

[16] Ibid. p. 184.

[17] Ibid. p. 221.

[18] Ibid. p. 231.

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