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Reading the Gospels Wisely

A Narrative and Theological Introduction

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"Pennington has a wide knowledge of the specialist literature, and he skillfully distills what matters most for the task of reading the Gospels wisely. What comes across is a powerful sense that the Gospels are not only historical but also life-changing."--Richard Bauckham, University of St. Andrews; Ridley Hall, Cambridge
In this work, Jonathan Pennington examines the theological and ethical aims of the Gospel narratives, helping students see the fruit of historical and literary study. He contends that we can learn to read the Gospels well from various vantage points, including those of premodern, modern, and postmodern habits and postures.

This textbook can stand on its own as a guide to reading the Gospels as Scripture. It is also ideally suited to supplement conventional textbooks that discuss each Gospel systematically. Most textbooks tend to introduce students to historical-critical concerns but may be less adequate for showing how the Gospel narratives, read as Scripture within the canonical framework of the entire New Testament and the whole Bible, yield material for theological reflection and faithful practice. Pennington neither dismisses nor duplicates the results of current historical-critical work on the Gospels as historical sources. Rather, he offers critically aware and hermeneutically intelligent instruction in reading the Gospels in order to hear their witness to Christ in a way that supports Christian application and proclamation. This text will appeal to professors and students in Gospels, New Testament survey, and New Testament interpretation courses.


"This is a book that could transform many people's reading of the Gospels. Jonathan Pennington has a wide knowledge of the specialist literature, and he skillfully distills what matters most for the task of reading the Gospels wisely. He is especially concerned that we read the Gospels in ways that are appropriate to the sort of texts they are. What comes across is a powerful sense that the Gospels are not only historical but also life changing."

Richard Bauckham, University of St. Andrews; Ridley Hall, Cambridge

"Reading the Gospels can be tricky, but it is important to read them with a full appreciation of their theology. Jonathan Pennington's study helps you get there--and get there well, as well as wisely."

Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

"Many books on the Gospels slog through source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism--important topics to be sure. How refreshing it is, however, to find a book with a new approach, one that reads the Gospels as literature and sees their importance theologically. This book is like a cool drink of water in what is too often the desert of Gospel studies. While I don't agree with everything Pennington says, his arguments must be reckoned with, and they further the conversation in productive and stimulating ways. I believe this is the best introductory book on the Gospels. Both students and professors will find it to be invaluable."

Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

"Few academic enterprises of recent generations have been as chaotic and contradictory as the study of Jesus and the Gospels. Bultmann, Bornkamm, Borg, Burridge, Blomberg, Bauckham--and those are just some Bs--whom to believe? This learned yet lively volume attempts to transcend past miscues and cash in on lasting insights going back to patristic times. Pennington shows how the fourfold canonical Gospel ought to be read: as the proper entrée to becoming Jesus's disciple for the sake of loving God by the work of the Spirit. Few works explain more."

Robert W. Yarbrough, professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri

The Author

  1. Jonathan T. Pennington
    Freddy Sinarahua

    Jonathan T. Pennington

    Jonathan T. Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews), a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also on staff as a preaching pastor at Sojourn...

    Continue reading about Jonathan T. Pennington


Named to the "Top Ten List of Books Every Preacher Should Read" by Preaching Magazine

"A book that has been needed for a long time--a book that assists preachers and others in understanding how to read the gospels as gospels."

R. Albert Mohler Jr.,

Preaching (Annual Preaching Survey of the Year's Best Books, 2012)

"I was absolutely delighted to read [Pennington's] book and to discover how he defines the gospel itself (and therefore the Gospels) and how to read the Gospels as narrative. . . . I welcome Pennington's connecting of the gospel to the Gospels, and think this is a step forward kind of book for those who want a thorough introduction to reading the Gospels (as the gospel). His book includes very helpful chapters on both academic discussions . . . and learning to read the Gospels as a narrative/story. He concludes with a study of how the Gospels are the archway into the canon. Gotta like that!"

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog

"Pennington presents a comprehensive hermeneutic for the canonical Gospels by paying attention to its historical, theological, and aretological dimensions. . . . [He] writes clearly and persuasively. . . . Pennington has produced an excellent, refreshing introduction for those who are interested in the Gospels. He competently discusses the various hermeneutical issues and perspectives in Gospel studies, admirably guides the reader towards a holistic or 'wise' reading of the Gospels, and passionately pleads with the reader to seek not just information but also transformation."

Cornelis Bennema,

Review of Biblical Literature

"[This book] offers up-to-date discussion of the nature and purpose of the Gospels, thoughtful reflection on current debates relating to Gospel history and hermeneutics, practical suggestions for interpreting and preaching Gospel narratives, and a warmly argued appeal for Christians to give the four Gospels a central place in their reading of Scripture. . . . Pennington has written an attractive midsize book that covers the whole spectrum of issues relating to Gospel interpretation. He analyzes issues in significant detail and draws from and interacts with the most recent trends in Gospel scholarship. His historical and theoretical chapters take us just a little deeper into questions, or lead us a little further along the paths of contemporary discussion, than most introductory treatments of the Gospels. The same can be said of his practical chapters. They offer substantial, systematic guidelines for reading, applying, and preaching the Gospels, often highlighting processes other books neglect. . . . [Penngington's] book will certainly do much to advance the cause of wise and faithful Gospel reading."

Timothy Wiarda,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"Reading the Gospels Wisely is a highly scholarly work that balances a comprehensive appreciation of competing approaches to reading and understanding the Gospels with a constant acknowledgement of their capacity to be transformative. . . . This is a rich, detailed, and satisfying guide to reading the Gospels in an erudite and considered manner."

Peter Stiles,

Expository Times

"An excellent introduction to the study of the Gospels from the perspective of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. . . . Pennington's presentation of a theological and narrative approach to the Gospels is lucid and entertaining, and his analogies are excellent. While this book would be of value as a textbook for a class that surveys the Gospels, it will also serve the general reader as an introduction to the application of Theological Interpretation to the study of the Gospels."

Phillip J. Long,


"Reading the Gospels Wisely is not the kind of book you rush through. It's the kind you read with your Bible in hand. It's a toolbox of insights and suggestions to enhance your reading of the Scriptures. . . . If you're looking for an in depth treatment of the issues surrounding Gospels interpretation, you need to check out Reading the Gospels Wisely. Whether or not you agree with everything Pennington recommends, you will greatly benefit from his careful, balanced approach to the books of the Bible that most clearly unveil King Jesus."

Trevin Wax,

The Gospel Coalition blog

"It is perhaps not exaggerating to say that in Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington distills a half-century's work on the Gospels into a single volume. . . . [Pennington's] full-orbed view of 'the gospel'. . . retains a healthy balance between the indivisibly united moral core and eschatological framework of the gospel. . . . The book is well written. Well-implemented examples and illustrations, from the Kentucky Derby to Fiddler on the Roof, abound. . . . The writing itself is executed with excellence--words are well chosen, sentences are well crafted. . . . Reading the Gospels Wisely will be most useful to pastors and students. Pastors will grow in understanding how to read the Gospels in a theological-canonical-narratival way that complements (not replaces) the grammatical-historical exegesis with which many will have been trained. Students will be helped especially by the clarity, accessibility, and distillation of so much of the specialized work that has been done on the Gospels over the past few generations."

Dane Ortlund,

The Gospel Coalition blog

"[This book] is extremely well written and a very fresh theological perspective on the hermeneutics of the Gospels. Like a good dialogue partner, I found myself at times nodding in agreement with Pennington, at other times scratching my head in confusion, and even still wanting to throw the book across the room out of frustration and disagreement! That is a good thing! He's making me think! . . . [An] excellent book."

Nijay K. Gupta,

Crux Sola blog

"[The] discussion of hermeneutical and theological issues draws upon a wide range of scholarly works from Plato and the church fathers through the rise of historical criticism, to modernism and postmodernism, as well as contemporary scholars. . . . Teachers of a course in biblical interpretation will want to consider requiring students to read this book. Any mature Christian will find in it help for 'living in the Gospels house.'"

Lamar Williamson Jr.,


"A stimulating and very helpful theological introduction to the gospels. This would be quite useful for a pastor getting ready to preach through the gospels."

Ray Van Neste,

Preaching (Annual Survey of the Year's Best Bibles and Bible Reference, 2013)

"[This book] is charmingly written, and concise but comprehensible. It provides both a decent survey of the history of New Testament Gospel scholarship, a fine account of the most pertinent current issues, footnotes leading to further reading, and solid discussion of hermeneutical theories as they impact the reading of Gospel narrative. Pennington wears his learning lightly, intersperses the scholarly discussion with humorous examples and asides, and, as a former pastor, knows what the terminus of the discussion has to be: how should we then preach? . . . Pennington writes with great clarity and practical helpfulness. He provides general principles and then through judicious biblical examples shows how these principles make a difference to how the texts are to be understood and thereafter preached. His major argument is that the four Gospels must stand as the capstone of Christianity, theologically, pastorally, and personally. He is particularly good on how to connect narrative to application in the sermon. His case is well made, and I found myself inspired to read the Gospels once again with fresh and eager eyes."

Carl Trueman,

Reformation 21 blog

"Pennington offers what should be an enduring introduction to the Gospels. . . . Reading the Gospels Wisely is an invaluable contribution to Gospel studies, and in my opinion ought to be a standard introduction to the interpretation of the first four books of the New Testament. Not only does Pennington adeptly introduce topics integral for the study of the Gospels . . . but he also does so in the context of teaching his readers how to read Scripture. He eruditely demonstrates that a proper reading of Scripture, including the Gospels, ought to give credence to its narrative, theological, and ethical character, its christological focus, and the importance of all of these in the history of interpretation. This approach to hermeneutics allows Pennington to argue for a reading of the Gospels that is much more full-orbed than most in the last two centuries, and one that reflects the Gospel writers' intentions: to show us who Jesus is and what that means for how we ought to live."

Matthew Y. Emerson,


"As a supplement to a traditional introduction to the Gospels, [this book] has three primary virtues. First, Pennington draws attention to a number of important issues that may not be covered as thoroughly in traditional introductions and provides well-reasoned arguments in support of his conclusions. . . . Second, Pennington provides a helpful model for interpretation of the Gospels. . . . Pennington's eight steps draw attention to many important aspects of the text to which readers would be wise to attend. Third, Pennington continually reminds readers of why they are studying the Gospels in the first place. His advice on how to interact with ordinary people while attaining advanced training keeps the reader alert to the danger of becoming puffed up in oneself instead of focusing on building up the body of Christ. Reading this book with wisdom will better equip many for that work of edification, and it would make excellent reading for classes focused on introducing or interpreting the Gospels."

J. Andrew Cowan,

Trinity Journal

"[Pennington's] expertise in the field of Gospel studies is apparent throughout this thought-provoking book. . . . Pennington is an effective teacher and storyteller himself. He leads the reader through a well-defined study, deftly constructing his case, and continually reminding the reader of each step that has been completed. One of his strengths is his lavish use of relevant illustrations. . . . Pennington expertly employs these stories aptly to illustrate a point and help guide his reader to the importance of understanding story in the Gospels. . . . Not only is this book helpful for pastors and teachers of the Gospels, it is also beneficial for any student of the Word of God. It is especially valuable for exegetically-trained students and scholars who may have lost sight of the powerful message of story in the Gospels as well as the need for responding to God's powerful message contained therein. Pennington's balance of narrative criticism with an emphasis on the spiritual message and the call for life change helps the Bible interpreter to stay on target in Gospel studies. His Gospel expertise has enabled him to make a fine contribution to kingdom work."

James R. Wicker,

Southwestern Journal of Theology

"An eloquent and persuasive case for the Gospels to reclaim a central place in the life of the church."

John Wind,

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology

"Employing a narrative-theological approach to understand the Gospels, Pennington uses lively prose but maintains a rigorous scholarship governed by a great respect for Scripture. . . . Eminently practical, Pennington writes so that 'readers will be invited into the joy of studying the Gospels more deeply and more often' and to lead readers to respond to the Gospel's message of faith in Jesus Christ. Pennington reconnects the church and the academy, erasing the disjuncture between Scripture and the people."

David L. Ricci,

Pneuma Review

"Pennington is to be applauded for his excellent contribution to scholarship on the Gospels. His text is accessible, his writing is clear, and his organization is logical. . . . Reading the Gospels Wisely is an important text for biblical students and scholars. Pennington's overt commitment to the Bible as the inspired word of God marks his text as a trustworthy resource for conservative scholars. Pennington's appreciation for the literary artistry of each Gospel is greatly valued. His step-by-step method for approaching, analyzing, and explicating the text of the Gospels is a helpful tool that is balanced by his encouragement to be flexible in both interpretation and exposition."

Andrea L. Robinson,

Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry

"Students of the Bible interested in a fresh, compelling, and appropriately provocative work on the Gospels and beyond would be wise with this [book] to make like Augustine and 'pick up and read.'"

Josh Hayes,


"This is a college textbook, but would be useful in any serious bible student's library. . . . Pennington has a solid understanding of theology and that shows. But Pennington also encourages us to look at the gospel stories as what they are--stories. . . . He shows us how to examine the stories carefully and how to ask questions. . . . Of course context is extremely important to understanding the meaning, and he gets into context very well. . . . We need to examine the stories well in order to get all that the author intended. [Pennington] takes a few of the stories and examines them in great detail. [The book is] written in a nice flowing style that is easy to read."

James Jordan,

Wichita Bible Examiner