A Review of Reading the Gospels Wisely

Our four Gospels are like stained-glass windows, which capture and refract the sun into different shapes and hues and images. Even a mighty cathedral would be unduly darkened and under-appreciated if illuminated only by one pinhole window, so too the intricacies and beauty of God’s revelation in Jesus the Christ deserve a flood of light from all four sides.

In the introduction to his book, Reading the Gospels Wisely (published by the Baker Academic, a division of Baker Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan) Jonathan Pennington’s doctoral supervisor, Richard Bauckham of St Andrew’s University writes,

“His concern is with helping Christians read the Gospels in a way that is faithful to the sort of texts they are… He invites us to read the four Gospels as history and theology – each as a narrative whole in its own right, as the climax of the great scriptural metanarrative, and as the keystone in the archway of the whole canon of Scripture. What is perhaps most distinctive in his approach is his concern for Christian virtue and discipleship.”

I believe that Pennington does a wonderful job of providing a rich and detail guide in learning how to read the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament. And I appreciate this book as both a Christ follower and a Christian minister.

In this twelve chapter book, Pennington lays out a case for calling the Christian Church to a greater study, understanding, and application of the first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And then he proceeds to make a solid case on why they need to be read well and then suggests a format of how to read them well.

This book is divided into three sections: Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation; Building a House Through Wise Reading; Living in the Gospel House. In the first section, Pennington believes that the Gospels are “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.”  And in defining the Gospels this way he addresses the long standing debates within Biblical studies relating to the various schools of interpretation such as source-criticism and the like, the nature and literary genre of the Gospels, and  the important issue of witness. In the second section he lays out what he calls “a narrative analysis method for how to read the Bible” and in the third section he “drives home the point of the preceding ten chapters by discussing how to apply and teach the gospels” and he concludes with an “open-house invitation to enter into the richness of the fourfold Gospels.”

I acknowledge that it has been a while since I have read a book of such depth and it took me a while to get acclimated. But I am glad that I read it for this is a book if you are pastor or at least as serious student of the Bible that is worth your time. Pennington’s familiar knowledge of Biblical studies and the implications  of the major schools of thought serve as a back drop for the very deep and thorough case he makes for a great study and application of the Gospels.

There is much information that this short review cannot share in this space but I will point out a couple of things that have given me some fresh perspective in my reading and preaching of the Gospels:

The importance of testimony. As Pennington talks about the genre of the Gospels he comes to the conclusion that at their core they are testimony, written in light of Pentecost when clarity came to the hearts of the twelve disciples and others about what Jesus said and did.

The value of vertical reading over horizontal reading. This segment was very illuminating for me as I am currently walking the congregation I serve through the gospel of Mark. Pennington, while not fully dismissing reading horizontally across the four Gospels, i.e. the gospel harmony approach, encourages more vertical reading, reading the account within itself.

Reading the gospel as a story and telling it like a good story that it is. His personal story about being so focused on the Pauline epistles to the exclusion of the Gospels underscores his desire that the Gospels are read well and read as the revealing stories they are which continuously point to Jesus Christ.

I give this book a ‘great’ read rating.

Note: I receive a galley copy of the book from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.



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