The Gospel in the Gospels: A Conversation with Jonathan Pennington

Author of 'Reading the Gospels Wisely; A Narrative and Theological Introduction

I’m not sure exactly to whom you are referring with the phrase “the gospel-centered camp” but if you mean the likes of Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, and Tullian Tchividjian then I would gladly take on that label as well. I am radically centered on the freeing and transforming grace of God in the gospel and am hesitant about much of evangelical pietism. Moralism is not the gospel and I think Jesus focuses on this message very much.


Earlier this week, I posted a review of Jonathan Pennington’s new book, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Today, Dr. Pennington joins me on the blog to discuss some of the issues related to Gospels-interpretation. Dr. Pennington is the associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.

Trevin Wax: There’s been some talk lately in the gospel-centered world about “the gospel” and the Gospels. How would you speak into this ongoing discussion? Where do the Gospels fit in our understanding of the good news?

Jonathan Pennington: This is an important and interesting current conversation. While I didn’t write this book for the purpose of entering into this discussion, I think it does overlap at several points.

In short, I think both in their origins and canonical form the Gospels are central to our understanding of “the gospel.” That is, as I argue in the first chapter of the book, the term “gospel” that the New Testament uses has its roots deeply in the Isaianic vision of God’s return to restore his people in his kingdom through the consummating work of his Son, the Messiah. In this I believe all the New Testament writers are consistent.

Yet it is the Gospels that give the fullest and clearest picture of this understanding of what the gospel is – an understanding that can be found consistently throughout the New Testament, yet is articulated with varying emphases based on the polemical and pastoral situations the different authors are encountering.

If you asked any of the apostles what they were preaching, their answer would be that they are simply applying and clarifying – well, maybe not always simply and clearly! (2 Pet 3:16) – the very things that Jesus taught and accomplished through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It is the Jesus Traditions, collected and beautifully crafted together in the inspired canonical Gospels, that form the basis for all of Christianity, including our very definition of what the gospel is.

Trevin Wax: You push against a view that would reduce the “meaning” of a passage to authorial intent, and choose instead to include the author’s intended application as part of your matrix of “meaning.” How does this hermeneutic line up with ancient views of Scripture? How does it change the way many evangelicals typically read the Bible?

Jonathan Pennington: This is, of course, a hugely complicated hermeneutical matter, but I try in the middle sections of the book to at least wade into the shallows of this ocean.

My views, which have developed over time, have been influenced by many thinkers including much of the vast pre-modern world of Christian interpretation (especially Augustine) as well as contemporary thinkers such as John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, and several philosophers of language. I do believe that what I attempt to carefully articulate in the book accords with the best of Christian interpretive practice throughout most of the Church’s history.

I have been teaching what I say in the book for the last seven years, and I’m not unaware that it differs at points with what has become typical modern evangelical hermeneutics! As I’ve sought to articulate my understanding I have benefited much from interactions with my students and colleagues on these matters.

I don’t think it radically changes how evangelicals typically read the Bible in that I think most faithful readers of Scripture actually read better than their modern hermeneutic allows! That is, good meditative, applicatory reading and preaching always moves seamlessly and circularly around “meaning” and “application,” two things that in reality are as inseparable in us as the two paired molecules of our DNA double helix.

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