The Fourfold Gospel: A Review

The chaos of violence continues to swell, like a wave, thrashing upon our collective attention. Violence is nothing new, but it never loses its edge. I want to let those who have lost loved ones, and their sense of stability, to senseless violence know that I weep with you. For those in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, Orlando, Iraq, Turkey, and the world over, your tears and your weeping are heard and shared. Before diving into the review, it seems right to begin by praying a prayer from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.

Let us now turn our attention to Francis Watson’s new book, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus. Watson is one of the world’s leading New Testament theologians. I was introduced to his work by a Duke professor who said, “If you want to read New Testament theology, then read Watson, read it again and again.” I took my professor’s advice seriously and, when Baker Academic agreed to send me a review copy, I was stoked.

Watson’s goal in this book is to offer an approach to answering the question, “What good is there in having four different Gospels?” Although the question is complex, Watson’s writing is intended to be readable for students and pastors (and, as the dedication reveals, for his parents who have had “a long-standing request for a shorter book accessible to nonspecialist readers”). His reading of the gospels does not subject them to breakneck historical criticism, nor does it negate the difficulties presented by the fourfold gospel. He reads the gospels in a theological-critical spirit that seeks to harmonize with early Christian readings of the gospels.

In the prolegomena, Watson reviews key matters for thinking about the gospels, including background to their literary development and canonical collection. This section moves quickly and is intentionally abbreviated. (Interested readers can review Watson’s more comprehensive work, Gospel Writing, for more detail on gospel origins.) The second section treats each gospel separately following “the patristic assumption that a gospel’s unique character comes most clearly to expression at its beginning” (ix). Here Watson attempts to show how the Gospels are four sides of the same face. This description is borrowed from Irenaeus (or an unknown predecessor) who, in turn, borrowed the image from Ezekiel (p. 44-46). Whereas the second section was devoted to identifying the unique beginnings of the four gospels, the first few chapters of the final section draw together the gospels’ shared storyline, specifically focusing on aspects of the crucifixion narrative.

The reader, up to this point, will have received ample content to think about. Evangelicals like me will be pleased to see the extensive Scripture references. His attention to Scripture, however, does not keep him from dealing at length with early Christian fathers. Eusebius’s “canon tables” are, for instance, the driving force behind chapters 5-7 and figures such as Origen and Irenaeus appear throughout the text. Someone seeking an informed and balanced reading of the gospels would be well served by the first seven chapters of this book.

The final chapter, however, is clearly what the whole book was working toward. The collective movement of the previous chapters, with their acknowledgement of the complicated relationship between the four gospels, leads naturally into the fundamental question underlying the whole book: What is, or how might we understand, gospel truth? The question, one must realize, is much bigger than “Is what is written in the gospels true?” The question is what does it mean that these gospels, even in light of their differences, are true?

After introducing a modern secularist critique of the gospels, Watson proposes an alternative theory of truth:

“Some truths are no doubt universal and universally acknowledged. The question of their truth or falsehood does not arise, and there is no room for debate. Other, perhaps more interesting truths or truth claims are embedded in communities and must be observed in situ. They do not exist in the abstract, and there are no universally applicable criteria for assessing them. That may be the case when the truth in question is the truth of the gospel.”

Watson’s claim is that some truth can only be considered from within a community — in this case, the Church. Watson, at least here, does not spend time substantiating this claim about truth. Neither does he spend time defending it against critiques of “relativism.” His easy acceptance of this concept of truth reminds me of the young Karl Barth, writing near the end of his pulpit tenure, suggesting that the Bible calls us into a “strange new world.” The rest of this final chapter wrestles with occasions throughout Christian history where the gospel truth has been “asserted in the past, in hope that these will prove instructive for the present” (p. 171).

His first “case study” concerns Justin Martyr’s conversion from ancient philosophical schools to the faith of “the prophets and friends of Christ.” Reflecting on Justin’s experience of hearing the Scriptures read with “instruction” and “encouragement” to “imitate these good things,” Watson suggests the connection between hearing and living is what concretizes the full truth of the gospels. “The truth of the gospel is not some inert correspondence between text and referent,” Watson writes. “Its capacity to transform must constantly be rediscovered as the gospels are read, interpreted, heard, prayed, and lived” (p. 172). Truth is not just history, but communal and personal transformation and action.

Watson’s other case studies are equally insightful (already I anticipate writing a separate post about the second case study, “Evangelical Apologetics”),  but I wish to remain with this one for a moment longer. In light of the violence that overwhelms our political and social milieu, we must consider Watson’s suggestion. Christians who wish to “engage” in the public discourse of America, or wherever, ought to carefully consider how we ought to engage. Is the best thing we have to offer the world words that are true? Even if we say the right words, something we consistently to struggle to do, they are only a fraction of the truth. If Watson is correct, then we must think long and hard about how to live the truth of the gospels in our fraught world. In another one of Dr. King’s prayers, he prays “Help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day when all God’s children — Black, White, Red, Brown and Yellow — will rejoice in one common band of humanity in the reign of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.” This is a simple directive, that is, to live according to the gospel. But, for me, it is an important reminder that our actions are a part of gospel truth. Might we pray along with Dr. King, in word and in deed, so that the fullness of the gospel truth may be given to our world.


One thought on “The Fourfold Gospel: A Review

  1. This is definitely going on my reading list! In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on Watson’s chapter, “Evangelical Apologetics.” My faith was reared in a generation and subculture that valued (beyond measure) evidentialist apologetics, and I confess my jaded estimation of its common use. “Just watch,” such apologetic approaches often go, “I can show you all you need to know to prove the Gospel…(or the resurrection, or King David’s historicity, or whatever)…then surely you will believe, right?” There is certainly a long Christian tenure of showing the evidence of God’s work in the world (the Aposlte Paul in some instances, obviously Tertullian, and others), but I confess my dissatisfaction with the way I have seen it applied in the present day. All that to say, can’t wait to hear what Watson makes of “Evangelical Apologetics.”

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