My Journey— “Revelation and Identification”
by Jonathan T. Pennington
Each year at Christmas time a distant aunt would send my family a box of goodies which always included some interesting game. One that we played for many years and which I remember very distinctly was the classic French card game called Mille Bornes. This translates “1000-mile journey” and the goal is to be the first to reach 1000 miles by laying down mile-marker cards. All the while, each player is seeking to hinder their opponents from doing the same by placing upon them “flat tire” and “empty gas tank” cards. (Our old version was diglot, with both the English explanations and delicious French phrases such as “Creve!” and “Panne D’Essence.”) There was always something very satisfying about laying down the mile-marker cards which recorded how far one had traveled – 50 miles sometimes, 100 miles or more at others, all moving me toward the goal of 1000.
My book Reading the Gospels Wisely is a significant mile marker on my own journey toward understanding how to be a faithful reader of Holy Scripture. I have traveled down many roads over the years that have led me to my current understanding – roads that include the history of interpretation, theological hermeneutics, philosophy of language, Gospels studies, and others. The writing of this book was my own attempt to think my way through various issues that kept bubbling to the surface in my reading, lecturing, pondering, and conversing. It is a happy place now to look back and sense that I have made at least some progress in laying down a few mile-marking cards on this long journey.
But I’ve certainly not arrived. As I continue to teach and dialogue, some of the topics I discuss in the book keep resurfacing through student questions and in my own mind, reminding me that I still have much to learn and consider on these issues – more miles to go, more journeying to be done. These topics include further exploration of the implications of my arguments that the Gospels should be understood as the center of the whole canon (see Chapter 12). Also, I am painfully aware of how underdeveloped the notion of “virtue formation” is in the book. In both cases I am seeking to advance my journey a bit with some further writing – an article in the case of the former and for the latter, a book-length treatment of the Sermon on the Mount and human flourishing.
And yet another matter from the book that continues to re-surface in my teaching is the notion of “Revelation and Identification.” I use this phrase to describe the pairing of two key ideas that I believe should guide our reading of the Gospels. I suggest that to read any Gospel pericope well is to ask how each story both reveals to us who God is for us in Christ and how each story calls us to identify with the characters in the story – bad and good, Pharisees, disciples, and Jesus – as models of virtue and vice. I believe that when we seek to read each Gospel story with this paired set of tools or lenses, we will be reading Holy Scripture according to its God-given purpose and we will grow as wise readers.
This issue continues to surface for me because of how different it is from much of evangelicalism – maybe especially the Reformed permutation of which I am apart – which strongly emphasizes the christo-centric revelatory function of the Gospel stories, but either ignores or even opposes any kind of reading that calls us to learn morality and virtue from the characters in the story.
There is a fear among many evangelicals that if we speak about virtue and moral lessons from narratives that we will somehow lose the gospel of grace. On the one hand virtue and moral lessons sound to many evangelicals scarily “Catholic,” and on the other hand, they often sound equally scarily “liberal.” Indeed, for some conservative evangelicals too much emphasis on the Gospels (rather than the Epistles) is the sign that one is going “liberal” and losing the gospel. It’s no small irony that one could be concerned about too much of the Gospels in our understanding of the gospel!
But it’s a false and dangerous dichotomy to pit against each other Epistles versus Gospels, or teaching versus example, or revelation versus identification. Within a thorough-going, grace-saturated understanding of the gospel we can and should understand that we need both doctrinal revelation and exemplars to follow. We need the example-inspiring Gospels and the instructional Epistles.
The Bible not only gives us revelation but it also calls us to moral transformation. We are not only given a new being by our union with Christ, we are also invited and exhorted, through examples, to a new becoming through Christ. After all, Paul not only describes the gospel in terms of justification, but also with the language of transformation, as being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
There is more pondering to be done here and there are more connections to make on this titanic issue. I raise it here briefly because I think we are getting to a place where faithful, gospel-believing evangelical Christians can and should rediscover the dual role of Scripture – particularly the Gospels – in calling us to be not only believers in the truth of Jesus but also followers of his example (and of his disciples). “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” as none other than the justification-by-faith-preaching Apostle says (1 Cor 11:1; note also 1 Cor 4:16; Eph 5:1; 1 Thes 1:6; 2:14; Heb 6:12; 13:7; 3 John 11).
I believe it is time for us to place down another mile-marker card in our communal ecclesial journey toward faithful and wise reading of Scripture by recognizing that at its core the Bible presents itself as offering both Revelation and Identification.
[For more discussion and application of revelation and identification, see Reading the Gospels Wisely, 159–65.]
Jonathan T. Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew and has published a number of biblical language learning tools, including New Testament Greek Vocabulary and Old Testament Hebrew Vocabulary.