Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

A Review of “Reading the Gospels Wisely” by Jonathan T. Pennington


In Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction Jonathan T. Pennington sets out to make the case for the importance of the Gospels in Christianity. He wants readers to understand the history of how the Gospels have been interpreted and he suggests ways for moving forward. He believes it is important that the Gospels be seen as more than historical documents and that they be given a proper voice in the life of the church. Pennington suggests that the Gospels are the “keystone” that hold Scripture together.

Reading the Gospels Wisely is divided into three sections. The first section is the longest section. It seeks to define what is meant by the word gospel, examine the history of interpretation of the Gospels, and give some suggestions for how one should read the Gospels. The second section focuses on the Gospels as stories. Here Pennington wants the reader to understand how a story works and then apply this knowledge to oneʼs reading of the Gospels. Finally, in the last section Pennington gives some practical applications for preaching and teaching the Gospels. He also suggests that the Gospels should be the “canon within a canon” for all Christians.

In Chapter 1 Pennington begins by defining the word gospel. He looks to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Isaiah to define this term. He acknowledges that the term gospel is missing from John, but suggests the idea is found within the Gospel anyway. Instead of focusing on John, he turns his attention to Isaiah 40-66 which the early church considered to be the fifth Gospel. Within these four accounts he finds a common message concerning Godʼs kingdom. In Isaiah the message is “hope in the restoration of Godʼs reign” (15). In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the message is that this kingdom or reign is now present in the person of Jesus. In conclusion, Pennington defines gospel as “Jesusʼs 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” (16).

In chapter 2 Pennington attempts to define what the Gospels are. He gives good reasons why the Gospels are not some unique genre that has never appeared before. He appeals to arguments Richard Burridge made in his book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, and suggests “no communication occurs in a vacuum nor can any literature be created ex-nihilio” (23). Pennington sees the Gospels as being closely related to ancient biographies, but also sees them as being more than this. He concludes that the Gospels are not “freestanding narratives” but are closely related to the Old Testament. For Pennington, the Gospels “make clear that the story of Jesus is the consummation of the story of Israel” (28). He suggests that the Gospels should be understood as “bioi plus.” They have roots in ancient biographies, but they go beyond this genre as well.

Chapter 3 contains nine arguments for why the Gospels are important and why Paul alone is not enough. In this chapter Pennington gives good reasons why Christians and the church should pay attention to these documents. He writes, “The most powerful discourse of truth is not abstract doctrinal propositions but stories and images and art because these engage our whole person, not just our minds” (46). Although the fact that there are four Gospels has troubled some readers and given outsiders something to attack, Pennington suggests in chapter 4 that Christians should celebrate these four witnesses to Jesus. He points out that many of the problems modern readers find with the four accounts are modern problems and not ancient ones. He writes, “it would be anachronistic to expect the ancient Gospel writers to portray things in precisely the way we have come to expect since the development of modern principles of historiography” (66). Although Pennington believes readers should pay attention to differences and problems that arise from having four separate accounts, he believes the good that comes from having four witnesses greatly outweighs any problems.

If the average reader simply wanted a good book on the Gospels and did not want an update on current or past scholarly debates, then he or she may want to skip chapter 5. Penningtonʼs chapter on “Texts and History” is fascinating and enlightening, but it may go over the heads of some people. He begins with a disagreement between scholars N.T. Wright and Richard Hays. Hays believes that Wright sometimes focuses too much on history and in doing so theology suffers because of it. Pennington then goes on to give a history of Gospel studies primarily focusing on the time period from the Enlightenment until present. He shows how the Enlightenmentʼs obsession with rationalism and focus on history alone led to scholars discrediting much of what was in the Gospels. Pennington sees Wright as using history to defend the Gospels, but thinks, as Hays does, that Wright may focus a little too much on history. The way forward for Pennington is viewing the Gospels as “testimony.” Here he appeals to New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham and philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He writes, “Ricoeur understands that testimony is the bedrock of our understanding of history and indeed all reality. Without trusting the testimony of others…we cannot have any knowledge other than our own immediate experience” (101). Pennington believes readers should accept the Gospels as testimony and find a balance between history and theology.

In the three chapters that conclude section 1 Pennington gives some advice on how to read the Gospels. He suggests that they should be read repeatedly and that readers could learn something from others who have read them well in the past. In chapter 7 Pennington addresses some hermeneutical problems including that of “authorial intent.” He sees this as a problem that cannot be solved. He writes, “if the ʻobjectiveʼ meaning of the text according to authorial intent could be discerned once and for all, then certainly we would have done so by now, wouldnʼt we?” (132) In chapter 8 Pennington gives some practical helps for reading the gospels. He believes the gospels should be understood as a “message” and this message is both “Christ-centered” and “kingdom-centered.” He also believes that the gospels should be viewed as documents that seek to form and shape Christians in “God-ward virtue.” Finally, he suggests that readers should identify with the Gospels and the characters within. He writes, “our goal in reading Scripture must be more than informational; it must be transformational” (159).

In section 2 of Reading the Gospels Wisely Pennington sets out to show how the Gospel narratives are stories and reading them as such will benefit the reader. He begins chapter 9 by explaining “what stories are and how they work” (172). He first appeals to Aristotleʼs book Poetics, and then appeals to Gustav Freytagʼs more recent work, Technique of the Drama. Pennington believes that understanding story will help one better understand pericopes found within the Gospels. He shows how both story and pericope are important to ancient as well as modern readers. Although Pennington believes “authorial intent” may be impossible to arrive at, he does believe one can arrive at the main point of a story. In chapter 10 he expands this idea of story to all of Scripture. He suggests that stories found within the Gospels are part of larger stories and must be understood as such. He writes, “Any particular story in the Gospels sits in a story line that ranges from its immediate context to broader literary structures to the whole book of which it is a part, as well as its place in the canon of Scripture itself” (185). In chapters 9 and 10 Pennington gives the reader a process for understanding pericopes found within the Gospels. First, the reader should understand and analyze pericopes as stories, and second, the reader needs to acknowledge that pericopes are a part of a much larger context.

Ultimately Pennington has several goals that come out in his final section. In chapter 11 he gives practical advice on applying and teaching the Gospels. He wants Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be relevant and transformational for readers. He does not think it appropriate for one to approach these documents solely to gather information and never be affected by the stories they contain. In earlier chapters he critiqued the use of history and hermeneutics solely as a scientific method to collect data. He does not think one should abandon history or hermeneutics, but that they should be used for the right purposes. He writes, “Proclamation is always the goal of hermeneutics; otherwise we have missed the point of Holy Scripture and have failed to read it with the direction of its purpose” (219).

Pennington unveils his final, and perhaps ultimate, goal in chapter 12. He wants Christians to make the Gospels their “canon within a canon.” He wants readers to use the Gospels to interpret the rest of Scripture. He sees the Gospels as the “keystone” in an archway that holds everything together. He suggests that when Christians do this it will bring Scripture and theology into its proper focus. For instance, he believes that Christians have focused too much on “justification” and not enough on “kingdom.” When the Gospels are the lens through which Christians see everything else Jesusʼs entire life and purpose have meaning and not just his death and resurrection. He also believes making the Gospels central to the Christian faith will mean that Christians properly give weight to practices such as the Lordʼs Supper and the Lordʼs Prayer. Pennington sees a renewed focus on the Gospels as having implications for all aspects of Christianity, and he believes this is a good thing.

Reading the Gospels Wisely serves as a good introduction to the Gospels. It does a great job of balancing scholarly debate with practical information needed to teach and preach from the Gospels. It is a true introduction and anyone seeking to learn more about the individual gospels will need to look at other resources. It is obvious that Pennington has a deep love for the Gospels and Scripture and that he wants them faithfully proclaimed so they will be able to transform the lives of as many people as possible.

2 Responses to “A Review of “Reading the Gospels Wisely” by Jonathan T. Pennington”

  1. […] Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan T. Pennington was reviewed by minister Scott Elliot of blog Resurrected Living. […]

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