Pennington, Jonathan T., Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012). (Amazon.com)
I prefer the conjunctions both/and to either/or, so this book was one of my favorite to read in 2012. Pennington’s approach to the Gospels is to encourage readers to see the value in the historical-grammatical (I’d add critical), literary, and theological approaches, rather than choosing one way to read the text. When I read the Gospels I find value in everything from working on the Synoptic Problem, to doing historical studies on the context within which the text was formed, to Lectio Divina. I read the Gospels as historical texts and as active, living Scripture. This is what Pennington’s book is “about”, reading. It is not a typical hermeneutics textbook, nor is it your common introduction to the Gospels, but a hybrid of the two.
Message of the Book
This book is aimed at reminding people that the Gospels are to be read for a greater purpose than the mere extraction of information. Pennington wants people to read the Gospels “wisely”, hearing their message, asking what this message means for one’s life and the life of the Church, and thinking about the Gospels from a variety of angles.
Summary of the Content
This book is divided intro three parts: Part 1: Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation; Part 2: Building a House through Wise Reading; and Part 3: Living in the Gospels House are somewhat self-descriptive. The idea is the build a house with a strong hermeneutical foundation that allows for readers to best engage the text so that its teachings can change the thoughts and deeds of the reader. This is the flow of the book: hermeneutics to textual issues to application of one’s reading.
Chapter 1: What Are the Gospels? Defining “Gospel” begins by addressing the tendency of evangelicals to find the Gospel in the Pauline corpus, but not the Gospels themselves (e.g., “the Romans Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws”). Pennington reminds the reader that the Gospel is “good news”, that it is based upon “apostolic witness”, that the central figure is Jesus Christ, that it is an announcement with a particular “propaganda” that stood in contrast to that of the Roman imperial cult, that it began as an oral tradition, that that it was eventually canonized into the fourfold Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Pennington examines the canonical Gospels to see what Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John meant by “Gospel”. For those familiar with the work of N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and others who have emphasized Jesus’ Kingdom message this book will please you because Pennington emphasizes this as well. He doesn’t leave the discussion in the New Testament, but also spends time discussing Isaiah, which I think it a wise decision.
For those interested, Pennington’s definition of the Gospels, and the Gospel proclaimed within these books, is this: “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.” (Kindle Locations 3146-3152)
In Chapter 2: What Are the Gospels? Understanding the “Gospel” Genre Pennington summarizes how the literarily aspect of the Gospels have been described as bioi as of recent. Pennington gives a lot of attention to the question of whether the Gospels are bioi or something more unique (engaging Richard Burridge’s popular work What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography). He concludes that the Gospels are bioi plus, or biographies, but something more due to the theological/Christological agenda of the Gospels as well as the Gospels effort to tie their narrative into the Old Testament.
Chapter 3: Why Do We Need the Gospels? (Or Why Saint Paul is Not Enough) is an apologia that the Gospels should be seen as the primary sources for understanding the Gospel itself, even if Paul’s letters are chronological superior to the Gospels, Pennington says that the traditions that find their way into the Gospels are the traditions that informed Paul and the early church. He reminds readers that the Gospels have had a central place in the life and worship of the Church since the beginning, something that has been lost in recent centuries.
Chapter 4: The Joy and Angst of Having Four Gospels is a discussion on “Why four Gospels?” This chapter surveys the early Church’s decision to avoid harmonization (e.g., Tatian’s Diatessaron), to avoid late Gospel traditions that weren’t grounded in apostolic testimony (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Peter), and stick with four Gospels and no more. The differences between the Synoptics with one another, the Synoptics and John, ancient and modern historiography, the trouble of a fourfold Gospel, and the joy of a fourfold Gospel are the topic discussed through the rest of the chapter.
Chapter 5: Texts and History is one of the most interesting chapters in the book. Pennington examines the recent debate over the worth of historical Jesus studies. He summarizes the positions of folk like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hays and others. This question asks if there are dangers in trying to get “behind” the Gospels to the historical Jesus, what the consequences would be for those who do so, and what the dangers are of studying the Gospels without asking about their historical validity. Ancient historiography, Enlightenment historiography, whether the theology of the text remove their objectivity, and whether objectivity is possible at all are topics that receive attention. Pennington critiques “historicism”, finds value in history, but emphasizes that postmodernity has shown us that everything is interpretive, so we should be comfortable with reading the Gospels as interpretations of the Jesus of history. Richard Bauckham’s category of “testimony” is favored by Pennington. This is a chapter worth reading for those who are advocates of historical Jesus work as well as for those who think historical Jesus work should be discarded.
Chapter 6: Reading Holy Scripture Well: Three Avenues and Chapter 7: Reading Scripture Well: Intent, Meaning, and Posture transitions toward philosophical hermeneutics addressing whether we can read the Gospels historically, literarily, and theologically. He discusses topics like authorial intent, “meaning” (here there is reliance on people like Ricoeur and Gadamer), and the reader’s “posture” toward the text. For those familiar with concepts like the hermeneutical spiral, the two horizons of reading, “meaning” as being a combination of authorial intent and the reception of what is said, “a hermeneutic of trust”, and “a hermeneutic of suspicion” will know what to anticipate in these chapters. For those who don’t know what any or most of those terms mean this will be an exciting introduction.
Chapter 8: Foundations for Reading the Gospels Well ends Part 1. Pennington revisits his definition of the Gospels, the historicity of the Gospels, the role of the Gospels for historical Jesus scholars and whether historical Jesus studies are promising, what it means to read the Gospels vertically, what it means to read the Gospels as witness and testimony, and the purpose of the Gospels.
Chapter 9: Reading the Gospels as Stories: The “Whatever Strikes Me” (WSM) Hermeneutic versus Narrative Analysis begins Part 2. Pennington critiques the “Whatever Strikes Me” (WSM) approach to reading the Gospels. He pushes readers to work a little harder to understand the Gospels advocating Narrative Analysis using Luke 7:1-10 as a case study. This chapter aims to explain how stories function, why stories are more meaningful than other forms of literature, and why the Gospels are stories.
Chapter 10: Reading the Gospels are Stories: Circles of Contextual Meaning builds on the previous chapter. Pennington writes about reading individual stories with the Gospels, the literary structures that give broader meaning, how each Gospel informs the other, and how the Gospels should be read in a canonical context. The early chapters introducing hermeneutical theory are unfolded here for the reader to see how it “works”.
Chapter 11: Summing It All Up: Applying and Teaching the Gospels begins Part 3 and aims to discuss the aforementioned aretological (virtue-forming) nature of the Gospels. The Gospels were written to evoke change in the read, not to merely convey information. What does it look like to read the Gospels to hear that message and to be changed by that message? That is the discussion of this chapter.
Chapter 12: The Gospels as the Archway to the Canon will remind readers of Brevard Childs’ canonical approach. The Gospels connect the testaments, the Gospels explain the OT, they set the stage for the epistles, and provide the “archway” to the overarching narrative of the canon.
The book has a forward from Richard Bauckham, a Preface from the author, a Scripture Index and an Author Index.
If I were to teach a seminary class on the Gospels I would require the following reading: (1) The Gospels; (2) Extra-Canonical Gospels (for the sake of juxtaposition); and this book. If I were teaching a class in a church, same thing. If at a university, probably not, unless it was a Christian liberal arts university. If someone approaches the Gospels as both a text for academic study and as Scripture, then this book is worth your time.