Book Review: Reading the Gospels Wisely

* Book review by Michael Cooper. Michael serves as Assistant to the President at Criswell College where he is also studying Biblical Studies and Languages.

Jesus once told a story about a wise man and a foolish man. In the story, the wise man builds his house upon the rock while the foolish man builds his house upon the sand. Now the distinguishing element in the story is that the wise man hears and acts responsibly whereas the foolish man merely hears and does not act responsibly.

The fact that the same distinction applies to those who approach the Gospels  is the premise for Jonathan Pennington’s book, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. As Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, states:

Wise people must hear correctly what Jesus teaches, but they must also respond to this grace with faith and faithful living (xi).

In Reading the Gospel Wisely, he uses the idea of building a house and divides his book into three parts: “Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation,” “Building the House through Wise Reading,” and “Living in the Gospels’ House.”

Clearing Ground, Digging Deep, and Laying a Good Foundation (1-8)

In chapters one and two Pennington addresses the question “what are the Gospels?” He answers this question by examining the similarities between the “oral” and “written” gospel, church history, and literary genre. In chapter two he provides his working definition of the Gospels:

Our canonical Gospels are the 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 (35).

In chapter three Pennington gives nine reasons why we need the Gospels, and in chapter 4 he provides a discussion on harmonization, diversity between the Gospels, historical accuracy, and finally the joy of having four Gospels.

Chapter five, the weightiest according to most reviewers, revolves around history and theology, historical Jesus considerations, and the historical-critical method and leads Pennington to draw out five important implications:

  • There is a limited and circumscribed role for historical Jesus studies
  • We should focus on vertical over horizontal readings of the Gospels
  • We should read the Gospels as witnesses
  • We should receive the Gospels as testimony – a blending of fact and interpretation
  • We should read the Gospels according to their purpose – theological and transformational

Chapter six provides three avenues for reading the canonical Gospels: behind the text, in the text, and in front of the text. Pennington states that to be a wise reader of the Gospels one must read the text through all three avenues. In chapter seven Pennington discusses authorial intent, meaning, and application, and in chapter eight he sums up the first seven chapters and states what our goal should be in reading the Gospels:

Therefore, our hermeneutical approach and methods must be more than excavational; they must be personal and application driven” (159).

Building the House through Wise Reading (9-10)

Pennington argues in chapter nine against the “Whatever Strikes Me” hermeneutic (only reading the elements that strike the reader’s particular fancy) and proposes the tool of narrative analysis (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement) to better grapple with the Gospels. In chapter ten Pennington makes the observation that,

Most of the stories can be enjoyed, appreciated, and even learned from when taken in isolation. But the best, most powerful, and deepest reading will come when they are read and experience din the narrative story line of which they are a part (184).

The best way to understand the message of a text is to look at the circles of contextual meaning: canonical story, whole gospel story, literary structures, cycles, acts, and individual story (204).

Living in the Gospels House (11-12)

Chapters eleven and twelve provide some practical advice for using the Gospels, including a proposal for the following form of sermons drawn from Gospel texts: (1) Introduce the situation; (2) Retell the story; (3) Draw out the main points; and (4) Apply the story with illustrations..

He concludes his book with the statement:

My desire for this book…is that readers will be invited into the joy of studying the Gospel more deeply and more often (258).


If I could recommend a book on the Gospels it would be this one. Pennington is engaging, not only on an academic level but also, most importantly, on a practical level. The book is organized, clear, and very accessible for future reference. The book is not an introduction to the Gospels nor is it a survey. It is simply a guide to a hermeneutical approach. It presupposes the reader is familiar with various issues concerning historical Jesus studies and Gospel development.  What I found most helpful was his definition of the Gospels, primarily the aspect of virtue forming, and the Gospel sermon form. In the short time of reading the book I have used the practical sermon form.

If I could pick out one “weak” area, it would be the lack of discussion concerning historical research in preparation for the sermon. Pennington would agree with the use of historical research but not as the governing foundation for truth. Of course, I agree with that as well. However, my two questions would be: What is the benefit of historical research in sermon preparation and proclamation? And how would a preacher go about using that historical information responsibly?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and I would highly encourage people to pick it up, read it thoroughly, and apply the practical instructions to form a wise Gospel reading.

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3 Responses to Book Review: Reading the Gospels Wisely

  1. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – February 8, 2013

  2. James says:

    I would have liked to see some comments on his hermeneutic. Personally, I find it problematic. He allows for multiple meanings. He is good with a postmodern reading. I’m not sure if this wasn’t picked up on or not. Concerning the last chapter, where the Gospels are a canon within a canon it seems like it is pressing. However, the book is a fresh look at the Gospels and I appreciate it.

    • Michael C says:

      Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment and interaction. Unfortunately, space does not permit a full discussion on his hermeneutic. I agree though more information could have been provided. I would encourage to reread chapter 7 on meaning for a fuller understanding. The author believes that there is such thing as “objective meaning”. So it might be farfetched to call it a “post modern reading.” A “post modern reading” or reader response criticism would deny, for the most part, objective meaning. However, the goal of the reader is to local the “most faithful rendering of the text.” I think this is just an honest assessment of how you can have multiple individuals reading the same text and coming to different conclusions. In most cases this results from a different hermeneutic. I’m sure, depending upon the text, you and I could arrive at different conclusions. Yet that doesn’t mean we believe in a post modern reading.

      As for the “canon within a canon” idea I believe this stems from his theological framework. It appears that the author is coming to this conclusion through redemptive narrative approach of reading Scripture. For me this was an interesting idea. I’m still not sure if I buy it or not. So again, I think it is a matter of hermeneutics.

      Thanks again for your interaction with the post!

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