Why We Need the Gospels (or Why Saint Paul Isn’t Enough)
I’ve been working my way through Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan Pennington. It’s a model of wise instruction on the value of teaching through story, hermeneutics, and the gospel. I plan on posting some of my favorite selections over the next few weeks. The following material is taken from chapter 3, where Pennington explains why, contrary to the functional belief of so many Protestant (and especially Reformed) churches, the epistles aren’t sufficient for a healthy spiritual diet. Numbers 6 and 7 are so helpful I may repost them separately:
Nine reasons we need the Gospels
1. First, we need to study the Gospels because they have been central to the church throughout its history.
2. A second reason we need to study the Gospels is because Paul and the other New Testament writers presuppose and build on the story and teaching of Jesus.
… There is much more not said in the epistles than there is said, particularly, often, the basic information about what Jesus said and did. His sayings and deeds are applied and explained in the epistles more than explicitly stated.
3. Third, another closely related reason we need a healthy diet of the Gospels is because although the written form of the Gospels is subsequent to most of the epistles, the traditions behind them are not; they go back to the time of Jesus himself and he immediately following years, passed down through oral (and eventually written) repetition.
4. A fourth reason we need the Gospels is that in them we get a more direct sense of the Bible’s great storyline…The entire Bible’s theology is at its core a narrative of God’s work in the world from creation to new creation… The Gospel narratives are the perfect combination of story recapitulating story (telling Jesus’s stories in ways that intentionally invoke and complete older stories) and theological and exhortational application in story form.
5. Closely related to the preceding points, the fifth benefit of the Gospels is that they offer a concentrated exposure to the biblical emphasis on the coming kingdom of God. He. Jesus performs innumerable acts of such healing and restoration not merely because he is compassionate or to apologetically prove that he really is a special one sent from God, but rather primarily because they are pictures of the promised kingdom that is to come. They are like our mother’s secret gift of a piece of turkey breast in the kitchen before the anticipated Thanksgiving feast that is soon coming.
6. Sixth, we need to Gospels because there are different languages or discourses of truth. Propositional doctrine, whether it be in the Westminster confession or a local Baptist church’s bylaws, is one crucial and necessary this course of truth but it is not the only one. Story or narrative is another equally valid way of presenting an approaching truth.
We need to think of the Bible not as a single map that gives us doctrinal statements or moral commands, but we must realize that the Bible is like an atlas – a collection of maps/books that show us the way, the truth, and the life but in a variety of languages or discourses or ways of communicating. To privilege – or worse, to rely exclusively on – only one form is detrimental to apprehending the truth; a topographical map helps little one we’re seeking the best restaurants. [Kevin] Vanhoozer observes: “propositional theology…risks reading Scripture as if one size fits all, as it were, or rather, as if there were only one kind of fit. Yet the Spirit has not seen fit to inspire one kind of text only…there is more than one way to ‘map’ reality. The proof: there is no such thing as a universal all-purpose map.” God himself has given us different kinds of discourses of truth in Scripture. We have poetry, narrative, and proverbial wisdom, as well as didactic, straightforward propositions. But one should not be promoted to the exclusion of others, which is what we tend to do. Many tend to look to one type of map for “truth” – abstract propositions – and view the other maps (if they’re recognized as such at all) as parasitic or merely illustrative of the propositions.
7. Seven, pushing this even further, I would suggest that not only are the gospels a different sort of this course of truth; they are in many ways a more comprehensive and paradigmatic type of map.
…Dana Gioia observes: “Art addresses us in the fullness of our being – simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory and physical senses. They’re some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories or songs or images.”
This is true and well said. The most powerful discourse of truth is not abstract doctrinal propositions but stories and images and art because these engage our whole person, not just our minds.
… Along these lines, imagine that a man wants to take his beloved wife on the date to romantic movie. Of the last minute he decides that it would be far cheaper and much more efficient to go to Blockbuster, find the “romantic comedy” section, and together read all the synopses on the back of the DVD boxes. Why would that not have the same effect? Why would this be a failed date? Because it is the story – it’s setting, development, climax, resolution, and the fact that it takes time to experience – that is the film’s power. The (often deceitful) summary on the back cover may guide one choosing a selection, but it cannot replace the experience of the story because story cannot be reduced to its content. If the narrative did not matter, then we could just have the synopsis and be done with it. We could suck the doctrinal truth out of the Gospels, and then we wouldn’t need to waste our time with studying them anymore. We have the “truth”; mission accomplished. But this fails to understand God’s revelation and our God-created human nature.
8. An eighth reason we need the Gospels is because encountering Jesus in narrative helps us grow in experiential knowledge and realize that reality does not always fit into the neat little boxes of “truth.”
9. Finally we need the Gospels because in the Gospels alone we have a personal, up-front encounter with Jesus Christ.
… The doctrinal and moral truths that results from Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is not enough. The Gospels are written so that we might experience firsthand the risen Christ, even as the original followers experienced him, through the abiding ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13-14). Thus we should read the Gospels with this goal in mind, seeking not simply to reduce the gospel stories to their “point” but to enter into the narrative world of the Gospels experientially.
-Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, 38-49