Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 240 pp. $17.99.
Is another book on the harmonization of the Gospels really needed? Usually I would answer that question with a resounding “No!” But Vern Poythress’s Inerrancy and the Gospels has convinced me otherwise. This sequel to Inerrancy and Worldview is a fresh contribution to the question of how the Gospels harmonize with one another. Poythress’s work is not so much a case-by-case study of episodes in the Gospels that warrant harmonization as much as it is a theological framework for thinking about harmonization, inerrancy, history, and interpretation.
Inerrancy and the Gospels consists of seven sections that generally alternate between principles of interpretation and the application of those principles. Part 1 discusses the problem of harmonization, particularly as it relates to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. Part 2 unpacks the principles of harmonization and also the theological framework for reading the different perspectives of each Gospel account. Poythress reminds his readers that the Gospels are not “brute facts” but “events with meaning according to the plan of God” (37). Thus these narratives “have theology inherent in them” and are God’s own interpreted retelling of the events and their significance. In this light, Poythress particularly attacks what he calls “The Mental-Picture Theory” of truth, which “expects that a true account will produce in readers a mental picture in direct correspondence to the actual events” (49). He argues, instead, that language by its very nature is “sparse” and therefore allows for variation (50). Therefore, while the narratives in the Gospels are not exhaustive retellings of every detail of certain events, they are nonetheless truthful retellings of those events. This distinction, Poythress says, keeps us from expecting an “artificial precision” the Bible never promises in its communications (62).
Part 3 explores the attitudes interpreters must have when reading the Gospels. Poythress demonstrates the impossibility of analyzing a text with pure neutrality and instead submits that good interpreters engage in the enterprise as faithful disciples of Christ. Only those humble enough to admit their limitations in knowledge and who are committed to the authority of God’s Word will be able to read the Bible as it is meant to be read. In part 4, Poythress discusses special issues in harmonization, namely the synoptic problem and the chronology of the life of Jesus. Part 5 applies the principles and theological framework articulated in the previous sections of the book to individual cases, as when Jesus cleansed the temple, cursed the fig tree, and commissioned the twelve.
Part 6 addresses the thorny issues relating to differences in speeches in the Gospels. Here, Poythress again establishes principles and theological frameworks for wrestling with a particular issue. He focuses on the relation between meaning and intention in reporting speeches and also discusses how the Gospel writers may have summarized dialogues and speeches in their retellings of the events. Finally, part 7 looks at two more case studies and illustrates the type of reading Poythress is advocating.
A Few Critiques
There is so much good in Poythress’s work I almost hate to waste any space with critical observations. Briefly, Poythress’s liberal use of block quotations from Augustine, Calvin, Murray, and others were a bit tedious and, in my estimation, often slowed down his arguments rather than advancing them.
I was also surprised that Poythress did not incorporate some of the most recent literature on the historiography of the Gospels into his analysis. For example, in his discussion of the temple cleansing(s), Poythress adopts the position that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry (recorded in John) and another time at the end (recorded in the Synoptics). However, he also concedes that the one-cleansing position is an interpretive possibility. Yet Poythress assumes that if the one-cleansing position were true, then the Synoptics correctly placed the cleansing at the end of Jesus’ ministry, whereas John must have moved the cleansing to the beginning of his Gospel for theological reasons. Unfortunately, Poythress never engages the proposal (recently submitted by Richard Baukham in “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John” in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple) that John is in fact the most chronological of the Gospel writers and that the Synoptics placed the temple cleansing at the end of their Gospels in accord with their geographical/thematic structure.
Reading the Gospels as a Disciple of Jesus
These minor critiques aside, Inerrancy and the Gospels is a treasure trove of theological wisdom. Readers will find that Poythress sprinkles theological and exegetical insights onto almost every page, which makes reading this book a joyful task. For example, Poythress offers apt advice on the synoptic problem when he states that “the meaning of a discourse . . . consists in what it says, not in the history of its origin” (121). Therefore “we do not have to solve the synoptic problem” to read the Gospels well (121).
The section “Attitudes in Harmonization” is a particularly fresh and helpful reflection on what it means to be disciples of Jesus as we interpret some of the most difficult parts of Scripture. Poythress submits that when we struggle with difficulties in the Bible, we are engaged in intellectual suffering, a suffering that is part and parcel of what it means to share in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10).
Poythress argues that, as interpreters, we avoid the cost of discipleship by embracing the “simple relief” of either forced harmonizations (the theologically conservative approach) or denying the inerrancy or historicity of the Gospels (the theologically liberal approach) (110). Fundamentally, both mistakes reveal unwillingness to take up the cross of discipleship and follow Jesus to the place of “mental crucifixion” (108). In this crucifixion, we learn not only how to settle difficult questions with mature answers but also how to humbly admit our limitations and needs. “We may therefore expect to have our minds and our hermeneutical principles and all that is intellectually dear to us suffer and be crucified and raised, in the process having our minds conformed to the rationality of the Logos (Rom. 12:1-12)” (99).
In other words, the best interpreters are humble interpreters dedicated to the authority of Scripture and submitting to the resurrected Lord. Poythress encourages us to be readers who are honest enough to admit difficulties, mature enough not to force harmonizations that do not exist, and faithful enough to continue trusting in the faithfulness of God. Essentially we are to be readers who embody the notion of “faith seeking understanding.”
Overall Poythress’s book is cogent and persuasive, and it tackles all of the big hermeneutical questions: the relationship between text and history, the nature of narrative literature, chronology in the Gospels, differences among the reportings of speeches, and the relationship between harmonization and inerrancy. Through it all, Poythress calls his readers to sober-minded submission to Christ, intellectual faithfulness, and humility that should characterize every disciple of the crucified King.
Samuel Emadi is a PhD Candidate in Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Hopewell Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.