Gospel Reductionism

The Gospel is the commonly defined as the “good news” of Jesus Christ and His message of hope and grace for man.  Pennington in his book, Reading the Gospels Wisely, expands on why our interpretation of the Gospels is of utmost and paramount importance.  The question I would like to address at the end of this report is:  If we deviate too far from this question of why the Gospels are important, do we leave the good news of Jesus Christ and the message of His Kingdom completely behind?   First, Pennington highlights “the why” as he discusses how Paul directly and bluntly challenges Peter and the Galatians (pg. 5) for not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel (Gal 2:14).  Paul saw Peter as attempting to add Torah obedience to Jesus’ Gospel message, thereby turning away from the message of hope and grace — which was really no good news at all.  Pennington describes Paul’s
continuous and persistent emphasis on the Gospel message in other letters he writes as well (pg. 5).  Second, Pennington highlights the weight and frequency of how the word Gospel is used in the Synoptic Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the word “Gospel” was used five, seven and ten times, respectively.  More importantly, Pennington says, is how and the word Gospel was used.  Pennington describes the phrase “the Gospel of the Kingdom” as Matthew’s desire to communicate the weight, significance, and centrality of the Jesus’ message of hope and grace for mankind (pg. 12).

Pennington goes on to discuss four areas that stood out to me that I want to highlight in the rest of this paper. These four areas are (1) Gospel reductionism, (2) the richness of having four Gospels, (3) understanding the larger framework of the Gospels, and (4) posture in reading the Gospels.

First, I believe, Pennington has found a deep need to communicate his message in the book because of recent trends in churches today.  He describes nine reasons why the Gospels are important.  Most pronounced to me was when he describes a form of Gospel reductionism (pg. 39). He specifically highlights Lutheran reductionism but I agree with Kyle Fever (Synoptic 1 Video) when he said during the lectures that other church denominations can engage in Gospel reductionism as well.    Pennington goes on to profoundly say “but movements over time always get dehydrated and reduced down to a bouillon-cube state so that they can easily be transferred and promulgated” (pg. 39).  For this reason, Pennington says, we need to study the Gospels wisely because they have been the central message of the Church throughout history (pg. 38).  In a related thought to  Gospel reductionism he describes how encountering Jesus’ true story and intent in the Gospels can help us grow instead of reducing scripture into “neat little boxes of truth” (pg. 48).

Second, Pennington describes a richness of having four Gospel books in the bible that one Gospel could not provide (pg. 70).  Each Gospel book has differences in wording and in the order of some of the parables and events of Jesus life. . He describes this as different “lines of sight” obtained from different perspectives (pg. 61).  By reading the Gospels horizontally (comparing the various wording of each Gospel parable in the various synoptic Gospels) we can gain a deeper meaning of scripture as we reflect on why each writer chose different words to describe similar events in the life of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, differences in order of parables tells us that the Gospel message cannot be interpreted exclusively through historical means, but we also need to interpret the Gospels theologically with an understanding that the intent of the Gospel writers was to highlight Jesus and His Kingdom and purpose (Kyle Fever: Synoptic 1 Video).  Pennington goes on to say that the gospel writers’ interpretations may not be to represent the “exact words” of Jesus Christ but they do represent Jesus’ “own voice” and intent.

Third, Pennington highlights the various approaches one can take to read the Gospels and discusses the “what strikes me” approach (WSM) vs narrative analysis of the stories.  He describes the WSM approach as “nugget hunting” for truth and says it can lead to missing the nuances and essence of the story itself (pg. 180). In contrast narrative analysis attempts to move beyond individual stories and bring into light the larger constructs of the story itself.   Narrative analysis would take into account things like identifying the rising intent and action of the story, the climax of the story, and finally the falling action of the story (pg. 173). Furthermore, we can observe broader items in the Gospels that he calls acts, cycles, and literary structures.  He describes this process as “panning out” to understand the bigger picture that the Gospel writer is trying to tell (pg. 187) so we can dig out the deeper nuances of the Gospel message.  Pennington concludes that we must not forget that the Gospel message and the parables are telling a bigger story that spans the entirety of the Gospel messages (pg. 189). Beyond that even the Gospels stretch across the entire canon of scripture (pg. 198).

Fourth, Pennington discusses the importance of the posture and lens of how we interpret scripture. Even though there is no one right way to interpret scripture he goes on to profoundly say that “the most important part of reading Holy scripture well is not our method or theory but our posture and goal” (pg. 137). By having the right posture and goal we will have a more productive reading and interpretation of the Gospel messages where we see nuance and the intended meanings and goals of the Gospel writer.

During the Synoptic Gospels pt.1 videos we had opportunity to apply some of Pennington’s thoughts to the book of Matthew.  I was struck that even in the geneology of Matthew there seemed to be purpose and intent that flowed into the message Matthew was trying to tell later in his Gospel.  Matthew chooses different people to include in the geneology (plus several women) than the other Gospel writers as well as different starting and stopping points of the geneology.  Kyle Fever highlighted some thoughts as to why and it was interesting that even in the geneology Matthew had significant meaning and purpose.

Kyle discussed how Matthew spanned across the canon in multiple prophecy fulfillments on the Old Testament (OT). Even in the geneology, again, there is much parallelism to the OT exodus story.

We also panned out a bit on Matthew to the look at the bigger plot structure of Matthew.  We observed items like Jesus’ mission and teaching discourse, outsider discourse and refinement of His teaching through parables, insider discourse, crucifixion, and Jesus’s commissioning of the disciples.  What I found really interesting was after panning out we then panned back in on Matthew.  During the primary teaching discourse of Matthew (Matt 4 – 9) where we have many of the beefy teachings of Jesus I was struck that almost the same exact wording was used like bookends in Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 9:35 when Matthew says Jesus mission was to “teach in their synagogues, proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people”. Teach, proclaim the Gospel, heal every sickness was so important to Matthew that he used almost the exact same words as bookends in the most important teaching body of his message.

As I was personally reading Matthew I also came across one of my longtime favorite verses when Jesus says “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  The verse was so important that Matthew not only included this at the end of his teaching message discourse, but he also included the same message in Matt 12:7. It was clearly a message so important for Matthew to convey in scripture that he felt it was necessary to say it twice as a way of tuning and refining his previous messages.  I see these two verses as Matthews attempt at making a very laser sharp point at crucial times in his Gospel message.

To conclude, I want to go back to Pennington’s idea of digging deep into the Gospels (pg. 3) and the question I posed at the beginning.   If we deviate too far from this question of why the Gospels are important, do we leave the good news of Jesus Christ and the message of His Kingdom completely behind?  The answer is probably that most Christians never completely leave the Gospel message behind. But when other priorities of life or a specific lens of interpreting scripture takes over in our thought processes do we lose the transformational aspects of the Gospel?  Kyle Fever stated in the video that the Gospels were not meant to be read by outsiders, but rather insiders so we can be transformed by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and Jesus kingdom message. The Gospel message of Jesus kingdom must be at the center of our existence as Christians.

From a personal perspective, keeping the gospel message central has been an important part of my life for many years.  I even have a BLOG called centralityofthegospel.wordpress.com.  This message of seeing scripture through the Gospels was solidified by Pastor James Heining (Redeemer Luther Church) when I was living in Rochester, Mn.  It was reaffirmed when I had some close Christian friends that had multiple broken relationships with friends and family that were often a result of having black and white, all or nothing faith discussions.  On one hand their faith was moralistic and religious; on the other hand it was not Gospel-centric.  For many reasons interpreting scripture through the Gospels and eyes of Jesus Christ has been a part of my life for the last 10 years and it has been very personal. Gospel-centric thinking has profoundly shaped the lens in which I view scripture. Pennington’s book and Kyle Fever’s lectures have both reaffirmed and expanded my Gospel-centric view of scripture.

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