by Jackson Watts
Near the end of 2015 I began reading Jonathan Pennington’s excellent book entitled Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2012). Pennington is a professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though biblical studies hasn’t been my principal area of academic focus, I think it’s important for pastors to try and stay abreast of scholarly work being done in biblical studies as it will no doubt inform and influence their preaching and teaching at some point. Pennington’s work is not only important, but helpful as well.
One specific concern he tackles in chapter three really captured my attention. He poses the question, “Why Do We Need the Gospels?” Pennington then highlights the epistle-centric nature of much of Protestant, evangelical thought and practice, especially when it comes to preaching. His discussion is very frank in terms of his own lack of interest in the Gospels during some of his seminary training and even early years as a pastor. He cites several reasons for his lack of attention to this part of Scripture, among them being that he fundamentally “didn’t know what to do with them.” He explains,
“For Protestants, especially evangelicals, especially Reformed, doctrine-oriented ones, we love Paul. Give us Romans and thirteen years to preach through it phrase by phrase, and we’ll be in heaven! We love chewy, heady doctrine-wrestling with election, justification, and sanctification. We know doctrine is important, and we know the Bible makes claims about theology and how we ought to live, so we love Paul. He’s a straight shooter; he nails it on the head; he lays out the truth in powerful and straightforward ways. He provides a clear map of the theological landscape and the moral path for our lives” (37).
I think Pennington’s analysis tracks fairly well with how many Free Will Baptists, especially pastors 45 and under, tend to think about things. Even for those not interested in spending much time on Romans 9-11 and the complexities of election, we find a general emphasis on the epistles that often exceeds attention to the rest of Scripture. I suspect the Gospels receive healthy attention at Christmas and Easter, but not so much the rest of the year.
The rest of chapter three proceeds to offer some explanation of why Pennington thinks that many (more than probably would admit it) tend to deemphasize the Gospels in terms of functional usage and pulpit attention. He also notes,
“In many ways the loss of emphasis on the Gospels is a function of a reductionism of the Protestant Reformation, especially in some Lutheran versions that run all of Scripture through a hypersensitive law versus gospel grid. The result of this paradigmatic grid is a desire for clearer justification doctrine than the narrative Gospels allow. Thus, the Gospels are often downplayed” (39).
My own encounters with mainstream, conservative Lutherans suggests that Pennington is correct, though in the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd this kind of modified Lutheran thinking isn’t difficult to find also.
Pennington proceeds to offer nine reasons why we need the Gospels. I would refer readers to his book directly for more discussion of each, but here I’ll simply list them and say that I have greatly enjoyed this work.
Reason 1: The Gospels Have Been Central to the Church Throughout its History
Reason 2: Paul and the other New Testament Writers Presuppose and Build on the Story and Teaching of Jesus
Reason 3: Although the Written Form of the Gospels is Subsequent to Most of the Epistles, They Go Back to the Time of Jesus Himself and the Immediately Following Years, Passed Down Through Oral (and eventually written) Repetition.
Reason 4: In them We Get a More Direct Sense of the Bible’s Great Story Line.
Reason 5: They Offer a Concentrated Exposure to the Biblical Emphasis on the Coming Kingdom of God.
Reason 6: There Are Different Languages or Discourses of Truth.
Reason 7: They Are in Many Ways a More Comprehensive and Paradigmatic Type of Map.
Reason 8: Encountering Jesus in Narrative Helps us Grow in Experiential Knowledge.
Reason 9: In the Gospels Alone We Have a Personal, Up-Front Encounter with Jesus Christ.
As I note above, some of these reasons on their face may seem unclear, or perhaps questionable. I would again refer readers to Pennington’s book for a more thorough explanation and discussion of each, as well as the many other gems throughout the book.