Friday, January 17, 2014

Interview with Jonathan Pennington on Reading the Gospels Wisely

Jonathan Pennington
Awhile back, I had the privilege of reading through Jonathan Pennington's delightful and challenging, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Both Jonathan and I were hoping to get around to doing an interview about this book, but busy schedules on both ends prohibited such intentions until now.

I am excited and honored Jonathan took the time to answer these following questions I posed to him. As a matter of fact, he may be the first two-time interview on this blog! I interviewed him a few years ago here. In my opinion, Pennington is one of the best young Gospels scholars going today. To learn more about him, visit his outstanding website here. He also has a great companion site for Reading the Gospels Wisely here.

On to the interview!

1. Did Reading the Gospels Wisely originate with your teaching of Synoptic courses, and if so, what lacunae did you seek to fill with this volume? 

 It did come out of my teaching an Introduction to the Gospels course over the span of 8 years or so. As I continued to write lectures and think about how to teach this course I found there were certain topics and viewpoints that the textbooks that I used didn’t address. There are many great intro to the Gospels textbooks available and I am not trying to replace these (yet!), but there are things that are not typically talked about in these otherwise good books, such as a fuller discussion on how the Gospels are to be interpreted as stories or narratives, as well as big hermeneutical issues of what is the nature of history in relation to the Gospels and how the Gospels relate to the rest of the canon and Pauline literature. In another sense this book comes out of not just my teaching this course but my own decade plus journey towards understanding hermeneutics that started back in my days in St. Andrews. I've been pondering for many years the question of what it means to read the Bible as Holy Scripture and how to do so. This book reflects a snapshot of my progress on this journey.

 2. It has become a consensus that the genre of the canonical Gospels is most similar to ancient Greco-Roman biographies. How might one build on this observation theologically in order to identify more precisely what genre the Gospels are?

 This is a good issue and one for which many of us are thankful for the fine work of Charles Talbert, Richard Burridge, and others. In the book I do show my dependence and appreciation on the scholars, as well as offering some of my own flavoring to our understanding of what the Gospels are. I think one of the most important applications from this genre identification is our understanding of what our goal in reading the Gospels is. I would define our goal as to learn who this biographee (Richard Bauckham’s fun term to describe the subject of a biography) is and how to follow his teaching and life. Recognizing that the Gospels are biographies helps us understand that the reason a biography is written and the reason you read one is to learn about a significant person -- their life, teaching, death, and influence. If this is true and if our Gospels are at least in some sense like ancient biographies then it stands to reason that we read them understanding that the Evangelists had this purpose in mind as well.

 3. I really resonated with your third chapter, "Why do we need the Gospels? (Or why St. Paul is not Enough)", as I spent much of my time during my graduate degree focusing on Paul, with little attention spent on the Gospels. What are some of the reasons Protestants have neglected the Gospels in favor of Paul in what ways may the Gospels be rehabilitated within the church/academy? 

 There are many reasons for this and I give several these in the book, but I think we might summarize it up for Protestants as it being a function of what I call “downstream Lutheranism." I call it downstream Lutheranism because I don't think Luther is totally to blame for this, but it is a function of a reductionistic understanding of the Protestant tradition (even though I do think the Reformed tradition, both Luther and Calvin, did explicitly highlight Romans as the central book of the Bible because of their own theological debates of the day and thus are partly to blame). This downstream Lutheranism has taught us to think of the gospel as almost exclusively a forensic, justification by faith message – or at least that this is its undeniable core and everything else is secondary. As a result, the Gospels don’t have a lot of apparent connection with this gospel and consequently they have been neglected. (One can see the effects of this in the fact that the theme of a recent TGC conference was whether the gospel message was the same between Paul and the Gospels. The fact that this is even a question is revealing of a common stance or misunderstanding.) In terms of rehabilitating the Gospels I think the easiest thing to do is preach and teach from them regularly and reveal to our hearers and parishioners the beauty and glory and power that is contained in these central books of the Bible.

 4. How has the work of Richard Bauckham, with his emphasis on apostolic testimony, wed the problematic divide of history and theology? 

Chapter 5 of my book, which attempts to address this issues, is certainly the chewiest and is actually one of the main reasons I originally was motivated to write the book. I had to figure out what I thought about the relationship of history and theology and how it is that narrative texts can relay history to us. As I said in answer to your first question today, this book is part of my own hermeneutical journey to understanding how to read the Bible overall. Bauckham obviously had a big influence on me in many ways, being a man and scholar whom I respect greatly and whose work has been widely influential as the book shows. My articulation of the issue of the relationship of history to theology in chapter 5 of this book is not perfect certainly and I continue to think about this issue, but I do think what is helpful, and I've learned much of this from Bauckham’s work, is the importance of recognizing that the nature of our knowledge is often based on testimony. Indeed, we might be so bold to say that there is very little that we know apart from testimony. This is obviously an issue that is bigger than the Bible; this is a fundamental issue of epistemology. As it applies to the Gospels, however, I think it's helpful to recognize that the Bible is making claims that accord with our understanding of how knowledge occurs. Specifically, the Bible is appealing to us to believe or not in the testimony of witnesses to those who have known and seen God. In the case of the New Testament and specifically the evangelists, we do have explicit claims that this is apostolic testimony and we are invited to believe and to follow. This issue continues to be an important one in Gospels scholarship and I myself am very interested in newer developments occurring in memory studies. I have begun reading and dialoguing with Chris Keith, Anthony LeDonne, Francis Watson, and others and am trying to wrap my mind what impact their insights have on all of this. I certainly don’t have all the answers and this issue will continue to be an important one.

 5. How important is it to integrate and employ historical, literary, and theological readings of canonical texts?

I try to address this issue at least in part by example in my Chapter 6 where I offer what I call “Three Avenues for Reading” a text of Holy Scripture. The point in short is that, as your question implies, I believe there is value in many different ways of reading texts – theological readings, moral formation readings, literary readings, readings that focus on historical meaning, grammar, or intra-canonical readings connections. All of those (and more) are helpful and beneficial approaches to reading the Bible. Every time period tends to emphasize a certain way of reading. One of the great benefits of the history of interpretation is that you not only learn of different readings of particular texts of Scripture, but you also see whole different values and goals and approaches to reading. That has certainly been my experience and I am enriched because of it. So I welcome readings of all sorts – not that they are all equal in value or persuasiveness – but that the rich treasure trove that Scripture is can be mined through many different veins and for many different precious metals. The problem is that there is a universal human habit of totalizing – latching on to one way of reading and interpreting and insisting this is the only way. This is especially true in Modernism where certain ways of reading are considered the only ways of reading. After all, Modernism is the child of (or maybe better, twin brother) of the great hubris and arrogance of Enlightenment Rationalism, whose stance was often that “everybody before us was stupid; now we really understand.” This sort of mindset gets wedded to human sinfulness and means that the way I see things is the only way to see them. So whether it's a certain grammatical way of reading, social scientific approach, a post-colonial or feminist reading, literary reading, or whatever, it is my way of reading that supposedly has the corner on the market. Far wiser and far more fruitful is to recognize the value of many different approaches to reading, evaluate them, and appropriate and apply them accordingly.

 6. One humorous tidbit that I found myself laughing aloud while reading was your section called "The Mother-in-Law Jeremiah 29:11 Refrigerator Magnet Diet Principle" (139 – 142). Describe if you would the scenario and why her reading may still be considered a faithful one. 

 Well, I consider my job complete if I got someone to laugh out loud while reading a textbook! Glad to hear it! More seriously, I'm very glad that you did find that humorous, and I hope that, following the great Spurgeon, I can with some humor “tickle the clam so that I might insert the knife.” I mean by using a somewhat humorous situation that many seminary students do and will encounter, I can get onto an issue that is very significant. It is an issue that Augustine already discussed and faithful and wise pastors and theologians have throughout the centuries. The situation I describe is a young seminary student struggling with how to correct their poor, supposedly simple-minded, non-seminary trained mother-in-law who is humbly and happily using God’s promise in Jer 29:11 to help with her dieting plans (via a refrigerator magnet). It raises the question of how does a biblically uneducated or non-specialist-knowledge Christian (which is nearly everyone in the church) read Scripture in light of its complexities. That is, for those not trained as a pastor or bishop or theologian or professor or “master of divinity,” how can they hope to read Scripture well? This issue is even more poignant in the modern period because of the explosion and splintering of specialization, such that even a professor feels very incompetent to say much of significance about anything beyond their small area of expertise. This appears to throw cold water on any hope that the average churchgoer could be a good reader of the Bible. My point in the story is that what my mother-in-law and millions of other faithful Christians who never been to seminary do well is that they often read with eyes of faith and with a posture of believing humility. They read the Bible as if it is God speaking to them and they want to hear from God. My point in this little story is that while the ideal is a wedding of both skills, knowledge and this posture of heart, the most important thing is our stance toward God as readers. We must be aware that there is always the great potential danger of knowledge killing what is the most important thing, hearing from God. Again, ideally we will have both, but if we have to place them on hierarchy, then it is a posture of heart and a reading with eyes of faith that wins the day.

 7. Discuss the importance of recognizing the Gospels as stories and how narrative analysis provides a fruitful way forward for interpretation. 

 Each of your questions, Matthew, are obviously and wisely based on chapters of the book, and so you can imagine my turmoil as I think about what to say to a question on which I already wrote 30 or 40 pages! But it’s a good exercise and I will try to do it in short form. Basically the point is that while, as I said, I think there are many good ways of reading the Gospels, I do think one of the primary and most hopeful ways of reading is to recognize that they are stories which can be best understood by paying attention to basic issues of plot flow development. So in chapters 9 and 10 of the book I talk about how stories work and how to analyze them in a basic way. There's so much more that can and should be said on this issue than I do in the book, but I try to introduce students to the basic idea of how stories function and then give some examples and a method for applying and interpreting gospel pericopes in light of this.

 8. How are the Gospels a “canon within a canon” (230) and how we should approach the rest of Scripture?  

This is an important issue and one that has brought me a little grief at points, but I don't mind. The language of “canon within a canon” is somewhat provocative (even as John Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” was in his day) and of course I understand that. I actually don't really care about that phrase per se, but rather the point of discussion I am trying to raise through it. If someone stumbles over it, then I'm very happy not to use it. In fact, I use it at the beginning of chapter 12 and then go on to define it quite differently than its typical negative connotations imply. The critical point is that I'm simply suggesting that for historical, canonical, and theological reasons we should see the Gospels as the central way in which to understand the rest of Scripture. On my more aggressive days I'd say it like this: Calvin and Luther were very explicit that if you have an understanding of the Book of Romans you can understand all Scripture. If that's not a functional “canon within a canon” then I don't know what is! Of course they're not going to call it that and I don't need to call it that either. But the point for Calvin – and especially for Luther – is that the Book of Romans provides a lodestar, or compass point, or Geiger counter, or launching pad, or doorway, or North Star that enables us to put together the many various teachings and understandings of the Bible, to order them hierarchically, and to make sense of them as a whole. We need this. It is natural and helpful to have some texts that set parameters and guide our reading, even while affirming the inspiration and value of every text. Most theologians would not say that “If we understand Nahum we will have an entryway into all of the Bible or a perfect summary of the gospel message.” But that is being said about Romans since the Reformation. All I'm suggesting is that when you look at the history of the church’s understanding of the Gospels, you think about their placement canonically, and then reflect theologically upon them, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the Gospels can and should serve this central role in our theological construction and in the church’s life.

 9. What is your hope for the reader of Reading the Gospels Wisely? 

My hope is simply that readers grow in their ability to be wise and skilled and more joyful in reading, studying, and preaching from the Gospels. The Gospels are a great gift to us, where we get to see the Lord Jesus Christ speaking, teaching, touching, loving, and proclaiming what is our only hope for true human flourishing – life through his life, death, and resurrection.

 10. What project(s) are you working on now? 

Thanks for asking. I am under contract to write the Pillar Commentary on Matthew, which is a great honor and I keep plugging away at it as I have time. As a part of this I have been concentrating most of research time on wrestling with the beautiful Sermon on the Mount (the canon within the canon within the canon? :-) and will be releasing an exposition of the Sermon, understood in light of the grand theme of human flourishing. I am arguing that the Sermon is to be understood as residing at the nexus of the Greco-Roman virtue and Second Temple Jewish-Christian wisdom traditions, both of which are offering a vision of what true human flourishing looks like. There are always other smaller projects percolating as well.

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