The Gospel in the Gospels: A Conversation with Jonathan Pennington
Earlier this week, I posted a review of Jonathan Pennington’s new book, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Today, Dr. Pennington joins me on the blog to discuss some of the issues related to Gospels-interpretation. Dr. Pennington is the associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.
Trevin Wax: There’s been some talk lately in the gospel-centered world about “the gospel” and the Gospels. How would you speak into this ongoing discussion? Where do the Gospels fit in our understanding of the good news?
Jonathan Pennington: This is an important and interesting current conversation. While I didn’t write this book for the purpose of entering into this discussion, I think it does overlap at several points.
In short, I think both in their origins and canonical form the Gospels are central to our understanding of “the gospel.” That is, as I argue in the first chapter of the book, the term “gospel” that the New Testament uses has its roots deeply in the Isaianic vision of God’s return to restore his people in his kingdom through the consummating work of his Son, the Messiah. (You can read this chapter online here.) In this I believe all the New Testament writers are consistent.
Yet it is the Gospels that give the fullest and clearest picture of this understanding of what the gospel is – an understanding that can be found consistently throughout the New Testament, yet is articulated with varying emphases based on the polemical and pastoral situations the different authors are encountering.
If you asked any of the apostles what they were preaching, their answer would be that they are simply applying and clarifying - well, maybe not always simply and clearly! (2 Pet 3:16) - the very things that Jesus taught and accomplished through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It is the Jesus Traditions, collected and beautifully crafted together in the inspired canonical Gospels, that form the basis for all of Christianity, including our very definition of what the gospel is.
Trevin Wax: You push against a view that would reduce the “meaning” of a passage to authorial intent, and choose instead to include the author’s intended application as part of your matrix of “meaning.” How does this hermeneutic line up with ancient views of Scripture? How does it change the way many evangelicals typically read the Bible?
Jonathan Pennington: This is, of course, a hugely complicated hermeneutical matter, but I try in the middle sections of the book to at least wade into the shallows of this ocean.
My views, which have developed over time, have been influenced by many thinkers including much of the vast pre-modern world of Christian interpretation (especially Augustine) as well as contemporary thinkers such as John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, and several philosophers of language. I do believe that what I attempt to carefully articulate in the book accords with the best of Christian interpretive practice throughout most of the Church’s history.
I have been teaching what I say in the book for the last seven years, and I’m not unaware that it differs at points with what has become typical modern evangelical hermeneutics! As I’ve sought to articulate my understanding I have benefited much from interactions with my students and colleagues on these matters.
I don’t think it radically changes how evangelicals typically read the Bible in that I think most faithful readers of Scripture actually read better than their modern hermeneutic allows! That is, good meditative, applicatory reading and preaching always moves seamlessly and circularly around “meaning” and “application,” two things that in reality are as inseparable in us as the two paired molecules of our DNA double helix.
Trevin Wax: You talk a lot about virtue in this book, particularly the Gospel writers’ desire for Jesus and His disciples to be emulated. Too much talk about virtue doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks in the gospel-centered camp, who are (rightly, I think) reacting against moralism. How do we swing the pendulum without losing the balance here?
Jonathan Pennington: Yes, I am working hard in my teaching and writing to help re-introduce and re-invigorate the notion of virtue. I’ve come to see the great importance of a Godward virtue approach through several years of teaching through the Sermon on the Mount as well as reflecting on one of the clear reasons why biographies (such as these Gospel biographies) are written – so that we might learn from the example of the characters, good and bad.
I’m not sure exactly to whom you are referring with the phrase “the gospel-centered camp” but if you mean the likes of Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, and Tullian Tchividjian then I would gladly take on that label as well. I am radically centered on the freeing and transforming grace of God in the gospel and am hesitant about much of evangelical pietism. Moralism is not the gospel and I think Jesus focuses on this message very much.
But the alternative to moralism is not passivity, nor an unclear connection between justification and sanctification. Rather, I would suggest that a Godward virtue approach that sees everything as in, through, and to Christ by grace is what Jesus (and the rest of the Bible) teaches.
We are called to be and to grow into being a certain type of people whose lives are marked by particular postures and dispositions (see for example, the Beatitudes) and a practical God-centered Wisdom learned over time. In accord with the ancient traditions both inside and outside the Bible this can rightly be called virtue.
I am seeking to articulate a balanced view that eschews moralism and exalts the gospel of grace while at the same time calling us (in response) to a way of being in the world that accords with the coming kingdom and the life of makarios-ness.
The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels traffic in this same language and vision. Moreover, this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus - to be one who follows Jesus in teaching and model. This is one of the reasons why the Gospels are so important. They give us many examples of how Jesus lived (and died), that we, as his disciples are to learn from. No disciple is greater than his master.
Trevin Wax: One of the reasons you say we need the Gospels is because they employ the genre of story, and that narrative is a more comprehensive and transformative putting forth of truth than abstract propositions. Some will say you are pitting propositional truth over against narrative. How would you respond to that charge?
Jonathan Pennington: Well, I suppose I would respond by saying that whoever is saying this has not read the book very carefully! I think I am careful to not pit propositional truth and narrative truth against each other; such either/or positions are rarely helpful or true. Rather, I believe there are many discourses of truth, all of which play an important role in our “through-a-glass-dimly” understanding of reality.
My assertion in this book in its boldest form is that a narrative understanding is the most comprehensive discourse of truth because it engages us at the level of our whole beings (intellectually and emotionally) and is the primary and most effective means of personal transformation, which is, after all the goal of reading Holy Scripture. But certain propositions are both essential and important in our understanding as well.
Trevin Wax: You believe the Gospels are the “archway” the canon of Scripture. Explain what you mean by this and why, if we have a ‘canon within a canon,’ the Gospels should be the choice.
Jonathan Pennington: This aspect of the book - concentrated mostly in the last chapter - is certainly the most provocative part in my mind. I expect some pushback, and I look forward to the dialogue.
My point with the “canon within the canon” language is that we in fact all do have certain verses, biblical books, and concepts that are operative, formative, and weightiest in our theological constructions. I simply want to suggest that, based on the early church’s practice and for several other theological and canonical reasons, the fourfold Gospel book should serve in this lodestar role.
I develop the metaphor of a keystone in an archway to suggest that the Gospels present themselves and are placed in the canon in such a way that they hold together both the OT’s witness and that of the other apostolic writings. On the one hand they are the fulfillment of all the OT spoke of, while on the other they are the fountainhead of all the epistolary literature. In this way they serve the key role in all of Holy Scripture. In the final chapter of the book I offer a few possible implications of this.