Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

Nijay Gupta, quoting Eddie Adams, recently posted some thoughts on the distinctiveness of each Gospel. While there certainly may be some truth to Adams’ list, namely in noting some of the unique literary devices used by the Evangelists, I personally find the list dissatisfying, particularly for its lack of theological engagement. This is seen in Adams’ first distinctive, which for him is that Matthew’s Gospel is more Jewish and more explicitly tying itself off to the OT.

But this is, in my opinion, to get the point exactly backward. Matthew is not the most Jewish nor the most oriented towards the OT; instead, each of the four Gospels’ different orientation towards the OT is exactly what makes it distinctive.

As I tell my students, the four Gospels each present a broad picture of Jesus that demonstrates he comes to:

  • Restore Israel, through which he will
  • Restore the entire creation, and therefore Jesus comes to
  • Bring salvation through his life, death, and resurrection to God’s fallen world

I then go on to point out that what makes each of these books unique is not their purpose, or even their outline (Jesus’ beginnings, ministry, Jerusalem, death, resurrection), but the lens through which they view Jesus. Specifically, which Old Testament lens do they use?

In my estimation, Matthew views Jesus through a New Moses/New Israel lens, Mark through a New Exodus lens, Luke through a New Elijah/New David lens, and John through a New Creation lens.

This approach, for me, focuses on the literary and theological distinctives of the Gospel writers instead of on rather subjective historical reconstructions of the provenance, date, and audience, and also gives a more robust picture of both the literary and theological goals of the author and therefore their distinctiveness in comparison to the other Evangelists.

What do you think?

Francis Watson on the Biblical Story

. . . a book that begins with the assertion that ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ establishes, through the comprehensiveness of its scope, the expectation that the narrative will lead eventually to an equally comprehensive goal – as indeed it does, in the creation of new heavens and a new earth at the close of the book of Revelation. The universal horizons of this narrative do not permit the extraction of ‘the story of Jesus’ to serve as the legitimation-myth of a small community in its self-imposed exile from the world. Over against the apolitical parochialism of some postmodern narrative theology, the story of Jesus must instead be interpreted as the midpoint of time, deriving from the universal horizon of the creation of the world and of humankind in the likeness of God, and pointing towards the universal horizon of an eschaton in which the human and non-human creation together reach their appointed goal.

Francis Watson, Text, Church and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 153.

Narrative Method

The fourth aspect of a Christian theological method is that it ought to be narrative, meaning that

it frames interpretation of particular passages within the broader framework of the biblical storyline – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. This aspect also recognizes that Christ stands as the goal of that story and that our lives need to be re-oriented within it.

As noted previously, each of these foundations relates to the others, so notice here that this narrative aspect focuses on the Christotelic sense of the biblical story, giving interpretation an eschatological flavor; recognizes and relies on the Scripture’s canonical shape and interconnectedness, imbued by the Spirit’s illumination and inspiration; and expects the narrative to confront readers and transform them through the power of the Spirit.

The biblical story has an endpoint, the new creation of Revelation 21-22, and it is towards this climax that everything moves. Further, this climax actually begins with Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, but the cosmic scope of his restorative, atoning, and ruling work is finally realized at his second coming. To read the Bible as literature, and to read it as its authors intended, is to read it as an interconnected, telos-oriented narrative.

This narrative is Christ-centered, as it is through Christ that the act, redemption, and goal of creation are accomplished, but it also points readers to the missiological, cosmic, and global character of Christ’s redemptive work. Moreover, remembering that the Bible is narrative in character helps us to remember that the Old Testament is Israel’s story, instead of a deposit to be mined for theological proof-texts and instead of cutting it off as no longer historically relevant to primarily Gentile Christians. Additionally, it in my opinion assists us in reading books like Ecclesiastes or Songs from an explicitly Christian perspective, as it helps us to place the material in these books in the larger context of both Israel’s story and the story of God’s redemption.

Finally, a narrative approach will call those who don’t know Christ to re-orient the narrative of their lives into the narrative of the Bible. Narratives are powerful, both for worldview formation and confrontation, and thus relatedly for evangelism and apologetics. “Come follow me” is a command from the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe who became man, suffered, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead to restore creation, defeat the powers of evil, and atone for sin. We are presented with alternative viewpoint on reality; in the words of a recent book published on empire – “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” That claim is particularly narrative in nature. Re-orient your life to live under the rule and reign of Jesus, not Caesar. Of course this transformational narrative also applies to and confronts Christians; the structure of the New Testament puts the epistles, often assumed to be more propositional and logical, in this narrative context. Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude also seem to assume this larger narrative context as they call Christians to live in light of both Christ’s first and second coming. Structuring our theology and interpretation around this story ought to be foundational for our theological method.

Jesus and the Last Days

Last night I attempted to explain to my New Testament class that the Old Testament anticipates certain things to happen in the “last days” that are fulfilled in Jesus in the Gospels and Acts – e.g. the coming Davidic King, the new Temple, the resurrection, etc. After I demonstrated (hopefully successfully) that the “last days” anticipated by the Old Testament are inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit, and culminated by his return, I made this summary statement: “In Christ, the end of time has entered into the middle of time.” In other words, we are now living in the end times because of Christ’s life and work.

I came across this quote today from G. K. Beale’s new NT theology that summarizes what I was attempting to say:

. . . Christ’s resurrected body was the first newly created body to to pass to the other side of the new creation. The coming new creation penetrated back into the old world through the resurrected, new-creational body of Jesus. Although his postressurection existence was on this old earth for a time, he ascended to the unseen heavenly dimension of the beginning new creation, which will finally descend visibly at the end of time, when the old cosmos disintegrates (Rev. 21:1-22:5).