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Jonathan Pennington: Reading the Gospels Wisely

The genre of bios also assists apologetically, as ancient bioi “often mix chronological and topical elements in a way that we may not expect.” Additionally, this genre only needs to capture the ipsissima vox [Latin “the very voice”] and not necessarily the ipsissima verba [Latin “the very words”] (31–32). Pennington argues that we should not view the Gospels as clear panes of glass and try to look through them to find the historical Jesus. The vertical reading of each Gospel is an inspired and inextricable meshing of the historical Jesus and theological interpretation. For Pennington, this is good and to be expected, because no history is penned without selection and interpretation. The Gospels are “sermons” with transformation in mind (34). To me, this invites the distinction that the Gospels are not propagandistic but evangelistic.

Pennington argues against the Gospels being read harmonistically (chap. 4), as in Tatian’s Diatessaron, which Augustine pronounced against. Harmonizations are viable at times, as in the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Moreover, Jesus’ itinerant ministry suggests that he said similar things differently at times, so harmonization or even recourse to ipsissima vox may not always be necessary. Pennington paves the way for continuity between John and the Synoptics (chap. 4), but more needed to be done here, and Pennington’s coverage was too brief (64–66). Chap. 5 profits from Murray Rae’s insights on history and its relationship to theology, vis-à-vis the Enlightenment. Pennington notes Martin Kähler’s observation that the historical-critical scholar of the Gospels becomes the “fifth evangelist” (76), articulating my own sentiments. Pennington argues that personal interpretation is not merely an unavoidable evil; it is a necessary good so that biblical historicists who hold that “we can somehow access the truth without the ‘interference’ of personal interpretation,” are wrong. (96–97). He prefers Richard Bauckham’s idea of testimony over against historical positivism, while also anchoring testimony in Paul Ricoeur’s epistemology: Testimony is “irreducible” and is the “bedrock of our understanding of history and indeed all reality” (101). Yet this does not imply that all testimony is equal or that the referential component of testimony is unimportant. Pennington shows balance by saying that “We must not lose history in doing theology, and we must not lose theology in doing history” (103).

“Reading Holy Scripture Well” (chap. 6) provides a helpful analysis of hermeneutical approaches, which Pennington divides into three categories: reading “behind” the text, “in” the text, and “in front of” the text (112). This translates to (1) the standard historical-critical approaches, (2) the newer criticisms like literary and narrative criticism and intratextuality, and (3) the history of interpretation and Wirkungsgeschichte or “effect history” (see. chart on 112). Pennington informs in chap. 7, that we must “categorically reject … some mysterious, intermediary thing called ‘the meaning’ that stands between the text and its application” (135). This is because texts are not merely locutions; they are also illocutions (133), which means the biblical text is asking us to do and apply something and not merely to know something. The application of doing is the meaning. A good summary and further elaboration of what has preceded appears in chap. 8. Pennington nicely leverages the supposed disadvantage caused because the Gospels were written after the events. For him, “The best history writing consciously marries event and meaning. This is what it means to provide testimonial history” (151). This interpretive advantage is gained because the evangelists were “writing their accounts precisely with [a] post-Pentecost perspective and expert analysis and commentary” (153). Thus, distance is positively nuanced as perspective and enhancement.

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Category: Fall 2014, In Depth

About the Author: David L. Ricci, MA (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), PhD (ABD), is an associate professor in the Bible and Theology Department at Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He has served as an evangelist for many years, served on a pastoral staff, has been a marketplace chaplain, and had two radio shows in Rhode Island. He and his family live in Kingston, New Hampshire.

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