Book review of Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan Pennington (Baker, 2012)
If any of the following statements are true of you, then you should pick up a copy of Reading the Gospels Wisely (RGW) .
- You desire to love God and your neighbors as you follow Christ
- You want to read the gospel accounts but are afraid of them or confused by them
- You find yourself critical of how people interpret and communicate Scripture
- You lead a small group or have opportunities to speak
- You want to help equip others for a lifetime of devotion to Christ
- You prefer explanation over stories and haven’t read a Gospel account in a couple years
- You have never attended seminary but are really into exegesis and Greek words
- You think the Gospels aren’t as clear as Paul on “the gospel”
- You want the Gospels to be a natural part of how you converse and do evangelism
What’s in it for me?
The benefits are at least three:
- Better form: Pennington, like a golf coach, offers sound advice on improving the way you swing at the gospels. His approach even includes a diagram, so that you see the narrative pattern that exists in many parts of the gospel, as well as in any crafted story. This gives you some objectivity instead of just approaching a particular story and saying, “This is what it means to me.”
- Better posture: Though you might think this book is about academics and puffing your head up, it’s not. We have to get over wrongly dividing head from heart; the Bible knows nothing of stupid love nor does it encourage cold knowledge. RGW will show you that knowledge and understanding are wed to love and humility. Biblically, the truth is something we’re supposed to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Pennington begins this theme in Chapter 7.
- Better perspective: We often don’t know what we don’t know, which may be symptomatic of pride or just plain ol’ youth. Having someone point out things we’ve always assumed or hadn’t thought deeply about can go a long way.
Did you know it’s misinformed to think of the Gospels as just biographies or a collection of Jesus vignettes? Or that we bypass the true intent of the Gospel authors (and Christ himself) when we dissect and compare pieces of Matthew with Luke or John with Mark, in order to really understand them? Are you aware of the dead German liberals, who still whisper lies from the grave like “It’s possible to interpret without applying?”
Like a trusty compass, RGW helps to orient us. Chapter 3 is all about why we need the Gospels.
Don’t just buy the book, read it
This book will take some effort and engagement but will be worthwhile. Read it over Christmas break and with a friend.
Let me suggest three reading strategies:
- If you’re the kind of person who must read the book (eg, Les Miserables ) before seeing the movie, then read RGW cover to cover. (Beware that chapter 5 might feel like the movie credits to Nacho Libre unless you have some theological background.)
- If you like to read lots of reviews before you see a movie, then read
- If you find pamphlets taxing and grow impatient with long text messages
* The last few pages of Chapter 1
* Chapters 2-4, 6
* The last six pages of Chapter 7
* Chapters 8-12
* Say to yourself “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and
* Read Chapters 8-11 along with last page of Chapter 12
* After that, you might re-visit Chapters 1-7, still skipping Chapter 5
In keeping with the triplets above, here are three warnings:
First, occasionally you’ll pass by a Latin or German phrase with no translation. Just keep going and treat them like signs that say “Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft.”
Second, you’ll see a lot of authors you don’t recognize—it’s okay. You can’t know everything. (This summer someone asked me to name four professional basketball plays. I couldn’t.) Embrace your limitations; don’t be discouraged.
And last, you’ll notice this at various points throughout the book and especially towards the end: Pennington has an agenda. He wants to invite you “into the joy of studying the Gospels more deeply and more often.” He also desires that “readers will not be merely hearers of but responders by faith to the clarion call of the love of God in Christ as presented in the Gospels.”
In the world of theological study, Pennington is no amateur (MDiv from Trinity and PhD from St Andrews). But he's not a touring pro. He's a teaching pro: providing practical instruction for everyone looking to improve their game.