Jonathan T. Pennington. Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.
Review by Ardel Caneday.
The premise of Reading the Gospels Wisely derives from Jesus’ Parable of the Wise Man and Foolish Man, who construct houses, one upon rock and one upon sand. The one who hears and does what the Lord teaches is like the wise man who anchored his edifice upon rock. “Wise people must hear correctly what Jesus teaches, but they must also respond to this grace with faith and faithful living” (xi). If such wisdom is required to apprehend and to act rightly upon Jesus’ teaching, the same is necessary for our reading of the whole of the Gospels. Thus, Pennington structures his book around orderly procedures for constructing a house and living in it. Three parts constitute the book: (1) “Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation,” (2) “Building the House through Wise Reading,” and (3) “Living in the Gospels House.”
Without solid foundations, structures fail. So, Pennington devotes nearly two-thirds of the book (chapters 1-8) to part 1. First, he defines “Gospel” as message: “Jesus’ 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). “Gospels” as genre, Pennington argues, is akin to Greek biographies (Bioi), accepting Richard Burridge’s view with additions and adjustments to account for the uniqueness of Jesus who is no ordinary human but is God’s agent who brings redemption to his creation. As such, the Gospels are bioi plus—“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 foundational question Pennington addresses is why the need for four Gospels, or why Saint Paul is not sufficient. This chapter hints that Pennington’s targeted readers have an evangelical background or orientation where the apostle Paul’s letters tend to dominate the pulpit much more than the Gospels. Pennington, Associate Professor of NT Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville), offers nine compelling reasons why we need the Gospels.
Having Four Gospels brings both “joy and angst” for Christians even as early as the second century. Pennington addresses how early Christians realized the ways that the Gospels recorded episodes that overlapped and differed from each other and how they attempted to compile ways to compare the episodes, even efforts to harmonize the Gospels into one unified and simplified story. Pennington rejects what he calls “maximalist harmonization” because of its flawed view of retelling history, as though the Evangelists give access to the words of Jesus verbatim (ipsissima Verba) rather than an accurate accounting of Jesus’ sayings even if paraphrased (ipsissima Vox). He is “confident that the Gospels, as inspired, canonical documents, accurately reflect Jesus’ teaching, but we need not (and cannot) insist that they always contain the exact words of Jesus. . . . This is to demand too much and goes beyond what is required of historical discourse” (63-64).
Chapter 5 engages the contemporary discussion concerning how history and theology relate with regard to Scripture. Pennington situates his chapter by giving his account of an exchange in which Richard Hays challenges N. T. Wright for yielding “the upper hand to historical grounding and historical reconstruction as the basis for doing theology, even over against a canonical and ecclesial reading” (75). Pennington engages significant views—theology against history; theology through history; and theology and history—and draws the conclusion that historical criticism faces a crisis. The arrogance of the Enlightenment historian who claims objectivity and excludes God from “real” history has been exposed by the fact that “all history writing is itself an act of interpretation” (94). Thus, Pennington regards history and theology as not “distinct, unrelated areas of study” but “history in the Bible is theologically interpreted narrative retelling” (97). He finds the way forward marked out by his mentor at the University of St. Andrews, Richard Bauckham, who, without abandoning the importance of history, looks to eye-witness “testimony” of the events themselves as giving access to “historical reality” in combination with a hermeneutic of trust that displaces historicism’s suspicion.
Chapter 6 discloses Pennington’s penchant for “theological interpretation of Scripture.” He advances the idea that “wisely reading” Scripture entails a multilayered approach which he calls three avenues. These three avenues call for getting at (1) historical matters that lie “behind the text,” (2) how the literary units of the text develop themes and ideas “in the text,” and (3) how the text has been interpreted by the church “in front of the text,” the history of interpretation but also a cluster of ideas that extend beyond an author’s original design for a text. “These ways of reading focus on the placement of a text within the broader canon of Holy Scripture and Christian orthodoxy.” This “in front of the text” reading of the biblical text engages the divine authorial intention which generates what Pennington calls the “bonus meaning” in contrast to the “surface meaning,” terms he borrows from R. T. France (117). Within this category of ways of reading, Pennington places “the rule of faith,” “biblical theology,” “a redemptive-historical approach that views the canon as entailing a grand narrative, or metanarrative, that runs throughout the whole Bible” (114-15), “typology,” or what he prefers to call “figural reading,” and “biblical intertextuality.” To this I will return.
For constructing his reading of the Gospels Pennington’s toolbox includes a hermeneutic that is multidimensional. In chapter 7 he explains that he seeks the meaning of a text by identifying the author’s intention but additionally by taking into account a text’s application and the reader’s posture in the process of approaching the Bible’s text. Pennington draws upon Ricoeur and Gadamer as resources that aid in fusing two horizons—the authoritative biblical text and “the situatedness of all readers”—which is “remarkably similar” to the hermeneutical tradition exemplified by Augustine, who recognized the “bonus meaning in Scriptures’ texts without reducing the text to a wax nose manipulated by interpretive freewheeling (128-29). Pennington reasons, “Texts are inevitably recontextualized into new environments that go beyond the original situation of their creation; this new environment inescapably affects how they are understood (129). He attempts to illustrate this with, “It’s not easy being green,” from his childhood, which evoked images of Kermit the frog, a Muppet. Today, the same expression evokes different meanings, given the ascendancy of environmentalism, which may provoke competing responses, “the greater cost and hassle—but importance—of living in an earth-friendly way.” What “It’s not easy being green” may come to “mean in one hundred years is impossible to say” (130). Does this really illustrate Scripture’s later use of an earlier text of Scripture?
While Pennington embraces the text as “stable” and “authoritative,” he contends that to distinguish between “what a text meant” and “what it means” may be a noble effort to guard against manipulation of meaning, but it ultimately fails because texts yield numerous “meanings or interpretations that are constantly produced by contemporary readers” even by readers with comparable backgrounds, use of methods, and beliefs (132). Thus, Pennington turns to speech-act theory to accent how biblical texts entail three aspects: they communicate information (locution) as they appeal for a response (illocution) with a view to transforming us (perlocution). Because to inquire about the meaning of a text is to ask for an application, Pennington argues that “the most important and determinative aspect of reading Holy Scripture well is not our method or theory but our posture and our goal” (137). Pennington endorses instructing Christians to read well and wisely, but it may surprise some that he concedes “a reading that results in greater love for God and for neighbor, no matter how poor the exegesis, is in some real sense good” as Augustine reasoned, “in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to” (141).
Chapter 8 summarizes the arguments of the first seven chapters. It is a helpful review, summary of implications, and welcomed reprieve, especially when one realizes that all the heavy lifting done thus far has prepared and constructed only the foundation. The frame and finishing of the edifice of the Gospels wise reading house awaits.
Part 2, disproportionately smaller than Part 1, comprises Chapters 9 and 10 which focus upon framing the house upon the rock foundation. Pennington uses Luke 7:1-10 to demonstrate his method of reading narrative with six procedural steps: (1) isolate the episode; (2) read the episode many times; (3) identify the setting and characters; (4) observe the episode, especially grammatically; (5) isolate the pericope into its different scenes; and (6) analyze the narrative in terms of its plotted conflict—its rising tension, its climax, its resolution, and its consequential action and interpretation. To these six steps, Pennington adds two additional steps in Chapter 10: (7) ponder the interpretive contexts that expand and radiate outward—acts, cycles, literary structures, whole Gospel, whole canon); and (8) summarize the pericope with sensitivity to the narrative flow, to its characterization, and to its many contexts that affect its meaning (meaning as already defined by Pennington).
Part 3 is where Pennington takes up residence in the Gospels house where he now catalogs the series of eight steps as subordinated under step 1—“Reading Actively.” As resident reader in this Gospels house, he engages in conversation concerning his active reading and identifies this as step 2—“Articulate the Revelation and Identification.” Conversation in his house focuses upon two things: (1) giving voiced expression concerning God’s revelation in Christ; and (2) identifying character traits both to be emulated and eschewed. This enables dwellers in the Gospels house to apply, to teach, and to preach the Gospel narrative. To this, Pennington adds one final exercise, step 3, “Use Questions that Frame (fallen condition, redemptive solution, virtue formation) to Form the Message.”
The final chapter makes a case that the Gospels are like a gatehouse that encompasses the archway into the whole canon of Scripture. The Evangelists built this gatehouse and reside there as the “Keepers of the Story,” for their Gospels provide access to the Canonical house. The Gospels, Pennington argues, hold both historical and canonical-theological priority so that they are a “canon within the canon.” Because of their location, situated immediately after the Old Testament and at the beginning of the New Testament, the Gospels hold “a privileged place and controlling position” to provide direction for how one is to read all of Scripture, both OT and NT. Ironically, Pennington’s “canon within a canon” is noticeably weighted in favor of Matthew and Luke, as the book’s index reveals, kind of a “canon within a canon within a canon.” Full disclosure: my work in the Gospels is likewise imbalanced toward Mark and John.
Such an evocative and provocative book invites challenges, some of which other reviewers have addressed. Though deserving fuller attention, space restricts me to comment on an aspect of chapter 6 where Pennington presents his multilayered interpretive approach, “three avenues.” My reading may reflect misunderstanding, but I am uncomfortable with his three avenues idea—“behind the text,” “in the text,” and “in front of the text.” Of particular concern is the third and those elements that Pennington locates in this category, each of which warrants thoughtful engagement. Of his locating “in front of the text” the following—“biblical theology,” “a redemptive-historical approach that views the canon as entailing a grand narrative, or metanarrative, that runs throughout the whole Bible,” “typology,” or his preferred designation, “figural reading,” and “biblical intertextuality”—I will address primarily “typology,” “figural reading.”
I am puzzled by his locating these “in front of the text,” for as I read the Gospels and all of Scripture, I find all of these elements embedded deeply “in the text” by the Bible’s writers. If Pennington had located “systematic theology” “in front of the text,” I would understand. But, do we not do “biblical theology” because the Bible’s writers themselves do biblical theology? Likewise, I am confused by his locating the redemptive-historical storyline “in front of the text,” for I have always understood it to be “in the text,” integrally woven into the very fabric of the text the Bible writers have bequeathed to us (cf. Luke 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). The same is true for “typology” and “biblical intertextuality,” which entails Scripture’s use of Scripture.
Several times Pennington uses the expression, “figural reading,” yet nowhere does he explain it. He hints at his meaning when he explains that he prefers “figural reading” over “typology”: “I, along with others, prefer the term ‘figural’ because it more readily communicates the atemporal, analogous nature of such connections without tying this nature to a particular historical development (one figure or event being the historical precedent or type of another)” (115). Given Pennington’s predilection for the “theological interpretation of Scripture” movement, one might have expected a robust essay on “figural reading” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, but the entry refers readers to “Allegory; Literal Sense; Typology,” none of which offers a satisfying discussion of “figural reading.” Even so, while I’m willing to have my views corrected, what I find in both the dictionary and in Reading the Gospels Wisely neither offers correction nor does it comport with my understanding of Scripture’s presentation of types or prefigurations. Prefigurations are embedded “in the text” not sitting “in front of the text” to be maneuvered by interpreters.
In other words, we surely may use the adjective-noun expression, “figural revelation,” but to speak of “figural reading” or “figural interpretation” is to dislocate the Bible’s types or prefigurements from “in the text,” as the property of divine revelation, and relocate them “in front of the text,” as the property of human interpretation. The apostle Paul is instructive concerning this, for he states, “Now these things happened typologically [τυπικῶς συνέβαινεν] and were written [ἐγράφη] for our admonition upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” If you prefer, “Now these things happened figurally and were written down. . . .” God embedded the prefigurements in history and saw to it that they were written down in Scripture. Indeed, readers are obliged to interpret the Bible’s prefigurements, but to do so is hardly properly called “figural interpretation” or “figural reading.” Readers do not cast biblical figuration. Rather, God, who reveals himself and his actions in Scripture, casts the Bible’s figurations that reach fulfillment in Christ Jesus. Not even the apostle Paul or the Evangelists, who wrote Scripture, engaged in “figural readings” of the Old Testament. They did, however, recognize divinely authorized prefigurements as finding fulfillment in Christ.
The same things could be stated concerning “biblical intertextuality,” for Scripture’s prefigurements are species of Scripture citing Scripture, which is “biblical intertextuality.” How Pennington locates either types or Scripture’s use of Scripture and other features also “in front of the text” bewilders this reviewer.
Pennington’s Reading the Gospels Wisely warrants careful reading by all, but especially by all who work closely with the Gospels. This book is well-researched, well-written, academically thorough, full of breadth and depth, weighty, and dense. Because of its compactness its accessibility is probably beyond most undergraduates and perhaps many graduate students. It should provide much grist for seminars among post-graduate scholars. The author attempts to accomplish what may have been better served with two or three shorter books. Though written well, with well-turned phrases, rich imageries, and helpful analogies, Reading the Gospels Wisely is not a page-turner. Even though it is a pleasant and sometimes elegant read, at times the text becomes ponderous, even if artful, so that reading feels like slogging. Often I needed to read again whole sections to track the argument being made. Pennington leaves no reader unchallenged, repeatedly inviting one to reflect deeply upon what one has just read. So, as with Tom Schreiner’s endorsement of Pennington’s book, readers need not agree with all that he argues in order to read the Gospels wisely. For surely Pennington is correct that the most crucial aspect involved in reading the Gospels as Scripture is one’s posture and willingness to be transformed by the text.
 See my discussion of “typological interpretation” in “The SBJT Forum: Biblical Theology for the Church,” SBJT 12.4 (2008): 96-98
Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.