One of the things I love about teaching in a seminary — as opposed, say, to a research university — is how easily I can make connections between the students’ various subjects of study and thereby deepen their grasp of how interwoven all the theological disciplines are, as well as how important that interweaving is to their own lives of faith and ministry.
For example, at the beginning of this semester in my New Testament Introduction class, I offered a simple explanation for the shape of the New Testament canon. Bridging the gap between Old and New Testaments, I said, is the Gospel of Matthew, which begins with numerous links to the characters and narratives of Israel’s Scriptures. Next come the remaining three Gospels, underscoring to us the foundational importance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and signaling that everything that comes after is, in some way, an explication of the meaning of Jesus’ life. The Gospels are the keystone of the canon, I told the students: they’re the centerpiece that holds the arc of the rest of the biblical books in place. In Jesus’ life is the “climax of the covenant” God made with Abraham and his descendants (as N.T. Wright has felicitously put it), and in his apostolic spokespersons’ lives and messages — Paul, Peter, John, Jude, and all the rest — is the continuation of all that Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1 RSV).
And we can see this mirrored, I went on, in the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Word, we begin with an Old Testament reading, followed by a psalm. Then we hear a portion of an apostolic writing. And then, climactically, two torchbearers and a deacon process into the middle of the congregation, holding aloft a gilded book that contains the four canonical Gospels. As the deacon reads aloud an appointed portion of one of these Gospels, we the hearers declare our praise to Christ and make the sign of the Cross over our foreheads, lips, and heart, reminding ourselves of the centrality of what we’re hearing. The Gospels are the hinge point, the axis, on which everything turns.
For many of my students, who have discovered liturgy and sacraments after sojourning in more low-church or “nondenominational” settings, this practice of elevating and honoring the Gospels is unfamiliar and perhaps even unsettling. And yet, in my classroom, they can see that the canon itself paves the way for this kind of practice. It also doesn’t seem to hurt when I point them to a very similar perspective from the undisputed evangelical saint J.I. Packer:
[We can] correct woolliness of view as to what Christian commitment involves, by stressing the need for constant meditation on the four gospels, over and above the rest of our Bible reading: for gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him. The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the gospels. Some Christians seem to prefer the epistles as if this were a mark of growing up spiritually; but really this attitude is a very bad sign, suggesting that we are more interested in theological notions than in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in person. We should think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels, and we should never let ourselves forget that the four gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth.
And yet I also value the opportunity the seminary affords to allow the various theological disciplines to query one another. To take the same example, what does it mean, I ask the students, that most of the rest of the New Testament is written by the apostle Paul, for whom many of our fellow churchgoers harbor a strong disliking? By processing with the Gospel and giving it pride of place in our liturgies, are we unwittingly colluding with the problematic idea that one can choose to be a “red letter Christian,” preferring the supposed social justice agenda of Jesus and avoiding or downplaying the doctrinaire arrogance of the Pauline epistles? Are we inadvertently inviting people to choose the Gospels over the epistles?
The famed preacher Fleming Rutledge fears so. In her (magnificent) new book The Crucifixion, she says this:
The focus on the four Gospels to the neglect of the Epistles is an impoverishment so serious as to threaten the theological foundations of the church. … The practice in liturgical churches of carrying a Gospel book in procession, sometimes with torches, and having a passage from it read by a member of the clergy (never a layperson) sends a distorted message about the relative importance of the Gospels and the Epistles. Furthermore, in many churches the Gospel reading is usually the sermon text of choice and is featured in the bulletins distributed to the children—as though the Old Testament and the Epistles scarcely existed.
Rutledge’s critique of liturgical practice is, I think, overstated. But I still want my students to wrestle with it. Happily, I teach at a place where this is possible — where we meet for daily worship in chapel, walk across the street to the academic building to study the New Testament, break for lunchroom conversation, and then go back for lectures in Old Testament, prayer book, and pastoral care. The Gospel reading that’s done in chapel allows me to talk more pointedly about the shape of the New Testament canon, and the lectures I give on St. Paul allow the students to raise sharp questions about why they do what they do in liturgy class. One could be forgiven for thinking this is the way theological education ought to be done: as a seamless, integrated enterprise. One can see why our forebears bequeathed this institutional model to us — and why it might be worth saving after all.
Dr. Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015). His other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image was taken by A.K.M. Adam and is licensed under Creative Commons.