Why Four Gospels?


Puzzling to anyone opening the pages of Scripture is the fact that there are four books, all of them differing from one another to varying degrees, that bear the name ‘gospel’.  From the earliest generations of the church, there have been attempts to harmonize these accounts to form a single ‘life of Christ’. To some degree, this is an unavoidable and even desirable task. Harmonies of the gospels, e.g. by Augustine and Calvin, both attempt to make sense of the welter of events within the life of Christ and account for the nature of his ministry. So long as these harmonies acknowledge the diversity of the sources and do not attempt to flatten them, these can be helpful. After all, we do not actually have four gospels, but one gospel pronounced by four sources – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There are worse ways to harmonize, however. Tatian and Marcion in the early church both attempted to harmonize the gospels in order to declare the fourfold gospel of the church anomalous, to privilege one flattened account as the gospel that suited their own theological purposes.

There is yet another way to do injury to the gospels – to see the particularity and diversity of the gospels as mutually exclusive and as evidence of fissiparous tendencies in the early church so as to undermine the cogency of the single gospel expressed in four sources. The church has always acknowledged the close similarity between Mathew, Mark, and Luke and the divergence of John, but it has also always seen these four accounts as the revelation of God and hence as complementary rather than competitive. Modern higher criticism sees them as texts among others in the late antique world and hence evaluates them solely as human productions. Hence the rise of the so-called ‘synoptic problem’ in which dating Matthew, Mark, and Luke become a key focus. Source criticism in particular can fragment the unity of the gospel by positing diverse communities that produced the material shared between Matthew and Luke but not in Mark (Q) and the material in Luke but not in Matthew (L). Despite the fact that there is no manuscript evidence to back up this claim, as Philip Jenkins has argued, scholars have attempted to reconstruct the content of these texts, imagining that the Q community, for instance, possessed a theology similar to that expressed in the Gospel of Thomas.

What would happen if we returned from scholarly skepticism, not by ignoring the insights of historical criticism, but in order to see these texts freshly as God’s revelation to the church? We might see merit in the third century church father Irenaeus’s proposal of how we should understand the way the gospels fit together. Irenaeus argued, in a complex weaving of biblical texts, that one should see in the four faces of the cherubim an image of how the gospels fit together. The faces of the cherubim – a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle (Rev. 4:7) – reflected salvation history which was gathered together and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Scholars have struggled to find the meaning of Irenaeus’s argument here, and have often stated it only to dismiss it as infantile or argumentatively feeble (one is reminded here of Charles Augustus Briggs’s quip that the church fathers should really be called the ‘church babies’ since they didn’t have access to historical critical textual methods).

The reality, however, is that Irenaeus is on to something in this exegetical insight.  Peter Leithart has recently made a profound argument for its retrieval in The Four: A Survey of the Gospels. Leithart notes that ‘the ox is a ‘priestly’ animal, associated with sacrifice and especially with the priests’ sacrifice (cf. Lev. 4). The lion is a symbol of the Davidic dynasty, the ‘lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Gen. 49.9; Rev. 5.5), a kingly beast. The eagle is an unclean animal, representing Gentiles, and in some prophetic passages the eagle symbolizes swift invaders (Jer. 48.40; 49.22; Lam. 4.19)’. Matthew as the Jewish gospel is the ox, Mark is the lion, Luke is the eagle, and John is the man. The man sums up all of the other three emphases but goes further to give cosmic grounding to the work of Christ. Jesus is the word made flesh, God with us. (113). Thus it is a not a bowdlerized version of the life of Christ that we need to see the whole Christ. Each perspective is ‘symphonic’ in Leithart’s felicitous phrasing, and we need to see each as enhancing the other three: ‘When we read the gospel as a symphony in four movements, we see a growth and maturation. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah; and yet more, Jesus is the Crucified Messiah; and yet more, Jesus is the universal savior; and more, Jesus is the Word made flesh’ (114).

How I Went from Being a Woman against Women’s Ordination to a Woman Seeking Ordination in 25 Difficult Steps: Step 2

Well, I’ve been away a while again. I may finish this before I die. Or not. I’m mainly writing this for 3-5 friends who are terribly interested so I imagine they’ll keep reading and bear with my frequent absence, but for any one else who happens by, here you go.

So, moving on from step 1, which you can read about here, there was still some ‘ground clearing’ in my own soul that needed to happen before I could dig into the issue of women’s ordination, which brings us to:

Step 2. Stop avoiding the questions.  For years, even though I was a woman interested in ministry, I hated talking about women’s ordination. I love theology and I love theological debate and I do not mind a good argument (just ask my husband), so saying that I hated to talk about women’s role in ministry shows that, for me, this topic was scary. I was afraid of it. And I didn’t know how to begin to talk about it.  I was simply afraid of where these questions might lead. First, simply reading some of the harsher Pauline passages (regarding women being silent in church and so forth) at face value, simply hurts. Let’s be honest, most people and especially most women, don’t like these passages. They sting. You don’t see them on refrigerator magnets with little kittens for a reason. These epistles have a bite to them and can cause pain. I knew that to really wrestle with these issues, I had to look into these passages head-on. Because I view the scripture as the authoritative word of God (yes, all of it), I could not simply dismiss these passages as myopic misogeny or a relic of a bygone era from which I was rescued by the 1960’s and 70’s. I had to let them teach me. No matter where that led or how that hurt.
Beyond the apostle Paul, a lot of men (and women) in churches say things that are hurtful when this subject comes up. Paul, at least, spoke with the authority of an apostle and was a great saint. Bring up this topic among regular men and women and all sorts of stupid comments start flying about. That’s fine with me generally (since I like talking theology and God knows I say my own fair share of stupid things) but when men or women who I love and respect thoughtlessly and unintentionally said things in these conversations that carried a bit of venom, it burns.
So to avoid all that hurt, I just went a long time not really thinking, not really questioning, not really wrestling with questions about women’s ordination. I was more or less a women’s ordination agnostic who was simultaneously a woman in ministry, which of course is unsustainable long term.
But it was more than just hurt I feared. I feared becoming a theological liberal. I was worried that if I started investigating the claims of those who supported women’s ordination, I would end up becoming idolatrously obsessed with the sort of liberation/ power-seeking/ individualistic civil rights driven narrative that has come to dominate our culture. It isn’t that I worried I’d read an argument for women’s ordination and the next day become a radical feminist theologian who is replacing the bread and wine with milk and honey as a symbol of female spirituality and fertility (although this has sadly happened to people), but I had watched this issue dominate the thoughts and heart of others around me and lead them right out of orthodoxy and that grieved me beyond words. I’d rather remain unordainable–hell, I’d rather have to cover my head–and still remain faithful to the biblical and historic witness of the church catholic, still be able to honestly recite the Nicene Creed and sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and still remain passionately in love with Jesus and robustly orthodox theologically, than be ordained off doing pet blessings somewhere invoking a god that always suited me. So, I was worried about the “slippery slope” that my own heart is capable of. Let’s face it, questioning the church is sexy. It is all the rage really, especially in the types of places I like to hang out. All questioning now is regarded as a good thing, even a brave thing. Be anything you want, but by God, don’t be a sheep. Sheep are naive and stupid and sometimes mean. But I think Christians must affirm that there are more and less faithful ways to question. That questioning, like sex, can be beautiful or ugly, valuable or cheap, holy or unholy, depending on the context and one’s own heart. I know my heart is prone to wander so I worried I’d follow my sexy questions to places that Jesus would never bid me go.
So meeting my faithful, biblical, womens-ordination supporting friends was the first step and then I had to be willing to be hurt and be willing to trust Jesus and my community to help me toward orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) and finally, finally, start looking at the issues of women’s ordination even if, at first, I still hated having to talk about it. I had to be willing to face the fearful questions.

Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation

The blogosphere, or at least that part of the blogosphere which I frequent, has been lighting up with discussions of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Catholicity and Covenant has a brief discussion of it, and Sublunary Sublime has a much more in depth discussion of the book, which includes a link to Dale van Kley’s (a thoughtful, engaging, and evangelical historian) review of Gregory’s book in the most recent Books and Culture. In the coming week, I am going to add to the blog chatter about this book by doing a series of my own. I’ll start here by locating the genre of Gregory’s book. It is a sophisticated example of the ‘history of influences’ genre, which most historians hate, because such histories are inevitably episodic and incapable of doing justice to the richness of causality of the range of phenemona they are addressing. Inevitably the historian’s pet issues are highlighted at the expense of other causal factors. And this is the case in Gregory’s book as well. Gregory acknowledges all this in the introduction, but he also notes (and I agree with him) that these kinds of works are also necessary and desirable.

van Kley further locates Gregory’s book within the world of Catholic apologetics. Despite the rich historical documentation and the deft methodology, it is pretty clearly a ‘tract for our times’, as van Kley puts it. And it employs, at least implicitly, a time-honored argument of classic Catholic apologetics – the idea that Protestantism is fissiparous whereas Catholicism is not. Thus, in a visible, empirical way, Catholicism manifests the unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity of the church in a way that Protestantism does not and cannot. The claim has powerful and dramatic narrative cache, especially in the early 21st century, especially in America.

But as van Kley points out, it’s a narrative that simultaneously ignores or trivializes the real theoretical and practical gains that have come via modernity, and by focusing on the external possession of the marks of the Catholic church, it downplays the very real internal fissures within Catholicism. van Kley begins the rundown of schismatic forces within the Catholic communion with the de auxiliis controversy between the Jesuits and Dominicans, but he might have started earlier, with the dreadful exclusion of the spirituali – those favorable to a Lutheran understanding of justification – such as Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole, from the decision making process at the Council of Trent and the relentless hounding, imprisonment, and torture of these figures by Carafa, later Pope Paul IV, following the Council. We could go back earlier than this and focus attention on the Great Schism and the inability of East and West to hold together divergent views on nature of episcopal authority, clerical celibacy, the doctrine of the Trinity, Eucharistic practice (especially whether leavened bread should be used), among other things, in a single communion. These very real internal and external schisms problematize the Catholic insistence upon the external marks as a basis for its claims to be the only true church, at least in the west. From what I’ve read so far, there are a lot of really provocative and probably true claims made in Gregory’s book, but we need to not prematurely judge the Reformation to be a ‘deformation’ in the way Gregory seems to want us to.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part II

I think it is virtually incontestable that evangelicals in America have for centuries invested themselves in an epistemology and consequent hermeneutic of Scripture that is indefensible.  Smith spends some time in the book outlining some of the relevant history, lighting upon, for instance, the common sense realism of the Scottish Enlightenment that funded the theology of Old Princeton. This ‘mental science’, as Mark Noll and Brooks Holifield, among others, have noted, became the adjunct to 19th century Princetonian theology that Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy was to the medieval university.  As Smith puts it, ‘implicit in Scottish commonsense realism is a ‘picture theory’ of language, which says ‘words are directly knowable by the mind, and, in addition, are direct representations of the objects ot which they refer. Logically, therefore, words and sense impressions are identical in that each refers directly to objects. Those objects, in turn, are directly and with utmost certainty known by the mind” (p. 56). Adoption of commonsense rationalism led Charles Hodge to affirm that Bible was the storehouse of revelatory facts for the theologian in the same sense that nature was the storehouse of natural facts for the scientists. One still finds these kinds of affirmations in theologians like Wayne Grudem, but they are damaging for evangelicalism because they are simply not true. They constitute a stipulative form of foundationalism that results in a false certainty about the meaning of Scripture and fissiparous and schismatic tendencies on the basis of these false certainties. The irony, as Smith points out, is that evangelicalism’s ‘practice of sola scriptura [which, as many have noted, means something different than it did in the Reformation] in America as a means to arrive at pure doctrine and practice is that the populist pursuit of Bible-only-ism started off as an ideological project not of conservatives but of heterodox liberal Protestants driven by Enlightenment ideals’ (p. 84).

I am qualifiedly in agreement with him as well that we need to acknowledge the ambiguity and multivocality of Scriptural texts and the need to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion, especially as the freedom to admit a realm of adiaphora opens evangelicals not to relativism but to tradition, mystery and charity:

‘Evangelicals today cut themselves off from a relevant and important vocabulary–which, when properly used, often describes well Christian faith and life–when they expunge from their theological vocabulary the category of mystery.  They also in so doing perpetuate the problematic tendency in much of evangelicalism toward a dry, know-it-all rationalism in the form of a systematic cognitive covering of all intellectual bases–which ultimately has more to do with modern Enlightenment than scripture’ (p. 145).

I don’t think the answer to the false turns in evangelicalism is to convert to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. My concern, however, is not that evangelicals will convert but that they will fail to acknowledge the ways in which their tradition has maintained (albeit in a theoretically anemic and hermeneutically deficient way) a high view of the inspiration and normativity of the Scriptures and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For all their faults, evangelicals have by and large heeded the warning of Roy Harrisville: ‘Whoever you are, if you do not repent and believe the testimony laid down in this book concerning God and his Christ, it will judge you to inconsequence, render your reading of it, your interpretation of it, your preaching on it a comic  spectacle to the world to which you believed you had to adjust it, and your church will die. As well it should’ (‘The Loss of Biblical Authority and Its Recovery’, in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, eds. Jenson and Braaten, pp. 60-1). If evangelicals do not learn the lesson that the solution to the fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of modernism is something old and not something new, shiny and relevant, they will fail to be faithful. And that will be a great loss for the church and the world.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part I

Christian Smith, who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was received into the Roman Catholic communion in 2011. I have no plans at this point of following him, but I am extremely interested in reading the books he put out in the process of coming to his decision to do so.  Earlier in the year, I read Robert Gundry’s critical review of The Bible Made Impossible, Smith’s book arguing that the predominant hermeneutic (method of reading Scripture in the contemporary context) of evangelicalism, which he calls ‘biblicism’, is self-defeating because it results in what he calls ‘Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism’ (PIP). Biblicism in its most basic form is ‘Bible-only-ism’, or the idea that one can and should read the Bible without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation. PIP refers to the massive number of private, idiosyncratic, often self-interested readings that result from biblicism. PIP is a problem for biblicists, because they believe that every aspect of life is addressed by Scripture either directly or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, through deduction by good and necessary consequence thereof. If in fact it turns out that PIP results from biblicism, this undermines the biblicist contention that the Scripture is clear and a sure guide in every area of life.
Gundry’s review of Smith’s book struck me as defensive and evasive, engaging in mostly ad hominem and tu quoque analyses of Smith’s book. Smith’s recommendation of Karl Barth’s Christocentric reading of Scripture meets with this purely anecdotal quip: ‘For in Basel during the fall of 1960 I regularly climbed out of the basement of biblical studies to attend the theological seminars held by Barth upstairs, only to hear him repeatedly engage in subjective judgments on what in the Bible carries authority and what therein does not’. Without further ado, Gundry dismisses Barth as a ‘subjectivist’. Pretty sure you can’t dismiss the 20th century’s most important Protestant theologian without a greater sense of gravitas. And in response to Smith’s recommendation of creedal readings of Scripture and a stronger teaching office in the church, Gundry’s sole response is that PIP can be found elsewhere than in biblicist evangelicalism. Of course, Gundry virtually ignores the fact that Smith concedes this point and that his argument is not that Christocentric and Christotelic readings of Scripture resolve PIP, but that they are more faithful to the apostolic hermeneutic of Scripture and to the tradition of interpretation in the church and therefore that they are more authentically evangelical readings of the text.  Smith’s point is that the Bible is not God’s ‘handbook’ for life but rather God’s self-revelation to his people culminating in Christ, who becomes the hermeneutical key that unlocks the meaning of the rest.