Published on March 20, 2023 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2012 | 240 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Bruce W. Speck



Quoting from the back cover of the book, “Responding to the questions surrounding the gospel narratives, New Testament scholar Vern Poythress makes a strong case for inerrancy in the gospels and helps readers to understand basic principles for harmonization. He also tackles some of the most complicated exegetical problems, showing the way forward on passages that have perplexed many, such as the healing of the centurion’s servant, the cursing of the fig tree and more.” 



Vern Sheridan Poythress is distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.



Part One: The Challenge of Harmonization (Chapters 1-2)

“Chapter 1, Difficulties in the Gospels,” could aptly be entitled “The Interpreter’s Attitude toward the Word of God” because the theme of this brief chapter is that the Bible is God’s inerrant word, and as such, it judges us, not vice-a-versa. Thus, “we should practice humility and self-critical awareness about our assumptions; we should take seriously the fallibility of human sources outside the Bible. But we should not endorse modernity” (note 8, p. 16). The theme of humility and self-critical awareness about our assumptions vis-à-vis God’s inerrant word is reinforced throughout the book. 

“Chapter 2, An Example: The Centurion’s Servant” compares Matthew 8:5-13 with Luke 7:1-10 to introduce the notion of harmonization, an attempt “to show that the two passages are in harmony,” (p. 19) not in conflict. In offering three interpretations (or reconstructions) by Augustine, Calvin, and Geldenhuys of how these two passages might be harmonized, Poythress cautions the reader to recognize that such reconstructions are tentative. Why? “We have the accounts in Matthew and Luke, which are inspired by God. They are what God says and are therefore trustworthy. That is the conviction we have and the basis on which we work. But we do not have a third account, also inspired, to tell us exactly how the original two accounts fit together. We make our own reasoned guesses, but they are fallible. We do not have complete information. Our reconstruction, though it may be plausible, is subordinate to the Gospel accounts as we have them” (pp. 21-22). Indeed, differences in the two accounts (or any Gospel passages being harmonized) can point to reasons why a Gospel author focuses on certain details in the inspired account. For instance, “Matthew and Luke have distinctive emphasizes; Matthew emphasizes the centurion’s Gentile status, and Luke emphasizes his humility. Both of these emphases say something significant about the kingdom of God and Jesus’s ministry. First, the kingdom of God will include Gentiles and all who come to Jesus in Faith. Jews who do not trust in Jesus are excluded. Second, those who enter the kingdom must come in humility, recognizing that they do not deserve the benefits that God offers. . . . If God welcomes the humble, it implies that people do not receive God’s kingdom and his salvation because of their supposed qualifications or worthiness” (p. 24). Jews, therefore, cannot claim membership in the kingdom because of their privileges, and Gentiles can have membership in the kingdom when they humble themselves before Christ. Both accounts of the centurion’s servant enrich our understanding of the Gospel message.


Part Two: Principles for Harmonization (Chapters 3-10)

“Chapter 3: Initial Principles for Harmonization” begins by reiterating the integrity of God’s inspired and inerrant word. Thus, “When we say that God’s speech is always truthful, we should endeavor to preserve the richness of his speech and not insist that only some kinds of discourse or only some pieces within a discourse have authority over us” (p. 28), the first principle. God’s word in toto is trustworthy. The second principle is to seek help from those who have endeavored to address harmonization problems. Poythress provides a list of helpful sources. The third principle is to determine whether the passages in question are dealing with the same or two different events. A fourth principle is to recognize that one account of an incident may legitimately omit details that are included in a parallel account. The fifth principle is to pay attention to the environment of the Gospel accounts, the cultural, historical, and literary milieu of the first century. Here Poythress contrasts modern purely individualistic thinking with expectations first-century people would use to frame the Gospel accounts. Ancient people were much more in tune with representative authority, as in Adam’s representation of the human race. Such representation was in the background “when the centurion undertook to have the elders of the Jews present his petition” (p. 31). The sixth principle is theological emphasis. Differences between and among Gospel accounts of the same event “help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications” (p. 32). Again, Poythress cautions readers to recognize that our reconstructions of parallel Gospel accounts are fallible, containing guesswork. “If we are honest, we have to admit that we cannot be sure of everything in our reconstruction. By contrast, we can be sure about the Gospels themselves. Their differences, as well as the areas they hold in common, belong to the Bible, which God intended to function as the foundation in our religious instruction and, indeed, in our whole life” (p. 32).

“Chapter 4: History, Theology, and Artistry” takes on the challenge of refuting the modern notion that “Theology, literary elegance, and personal meaning are human inventions” (p. 33). Thus, according to this modern view, truth is subjective only Of course, this modern subjectivist view of “truth” is inherently unfriendly to the Bible as inspired and inerrant. In affirming the value of personal perspectives and objective truth, Poythress says, “Personal perspectives are therefore inherent in knowledge at the deepest level, the divine level. By implication, personal, perspectival knowledge of truth among human beings belongs to the very character of the truth; it is not a distortion of an original allegedly impersonal truth” (p. 34). Poythress uses this argument to affirm that God, as sovereign over all of life, created and employed the unique personalities of the Gospel writers, enabling them to write inspired Gospels by the power of the Holy Spirit. “All of it is God’s word” (p. 35). Indeed, “God authorized the differences, as well as the similarities” (p. 35) in the Gospel accounts. The historical witness of the church (from Augustine to Irenaeus) confirms the recognition of important differences and similarities in the Gospels, acknowledging, “The Gospels are intrinsically in harmony, but also complementary. No one Gospel says everything that could be said” (p. 36). Theologically, the meaning of the Gospels is derived from God’s mind Whose thoughts are executed according to God’s plan for history; thus, the events in the Gospels had meaning before they were enacted in history. Poythress recognizes that he is supporting a particular worldview that is at odds with what a number of modern scholars advocate. As he notes, “Modern worldviews have their own assumptions. And those assumptions turn out to have a flimsy basis—really no basis at all. The Bible gives good reasons for doubting them” (p. 37). Lastly, Poythress deals with God’s artistry, and rich speech in many genres.

“Chapter 5: The Historical Claims of the Gospels” is a discussion of the role of genre in interpreting the Gospels. Poythress is referring to the Gospels as a distinctive genre God created.

“Chapter 6: The Authority of the Gospels” asserts that God’s word, including the Gospels, is ontologically and epistemologically definitive. A deduction from this truth is the necessity of searching God’s word humbly. For example, “If God’s word seems to us ethically deficient, it is we, not God, who are in the wrong and who must change” (p. 46). Poythress then provides nine principles of interpretation.

“Chapter 7: A Mental-Picture Theory” cautions readers about putting too much faith in their mental picture of a particular Gospel incident. Using the passage about the centurion’s servant, we might mentally draw a picture of what the Gospel depicts. But typically the Gospel accounts of an incident are “sparse” in giving all the details of a scene. A reader of the account of the centurion’s servant might wonder about who else was there that was not mentioned. What were the expressions on their faces? For many of these questions, the answer is, “We simply do not know” (p. 49); thus, “the demand for human beings to have divine knowledge results in an unbiblical notion of truth” (p. 50). Indeed, “Mental pictures do not correspond to verbal language in a neat way” (p. 51), and when an interpreter’s mental picture does not match precisely the Gospel account, everything God says is true.

“Chapter 8: Truth in a Biblical Worldview” explains how a triad of perspectives—contrast, variation, and distribution—can be used to provide an interpreter with insight into the truth God is expressing in the Gospels. For example, we should not expect that the reality of variation or range of possible variants in a passage enables us “to choose confidently and explicitly within the range of possibilities that it covers” (p. 61). However, that reality does not mean flexibility is linked to error.

“Chapter 9: Truthfulness versus Artificial Precision” touches on the misconception of pedantic precision as an adjunct of infallibility. Jesus’s words as recorded in the Gospels do not have to be His exact words but are required to be “‘an accurate and trustworthy impression of the Lord’s teaching’” (p. 63).

“Chapter 10: Variations in Writing History” compares passages in the Gospels and affirms that the focus of a Gospel writer helps explain differences in the Gospels: “Matthew is noteworthy for his Jewishness, for his compression, and for the introduction of subtle hints of extra significance. Mark is noteworthy for action and concentration on the main points. Luke is noteworthy for care in historical research. John is noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events” (p. 74).  


Part Three: Attitudes in Harmonization (Chapters 11-15)

“Chapter 11: Confidence and Doubt” can be characterized as a discourse on an interpreter’s ethical responsibilities when exegeting the Bible. Confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant word does not mean that an interpreter cannot have doubt, so Poythress lists five types of doubt, affirming that doubt can be the occasion of temptation to sin. Nevertheless, the temptation to sin because of doubt does not entail the requirement to sin. When Eve was tempted, she “did not sin merely by hearing the doubt; but she did sin by giving way to the temptation that Satan introduced” (p. 79).  An interpreter, therefore, needs to keep in mind that the experience of human frailty reminds us that we have a great high priest who provides us with mercy and grace in time of doubt. In particular, Poythress warns against the temptation of religious neutrality, believing that interpreters can separate their worldviews from their exegetical endeavors. “If we come to the conviction that the Bible is God’s word—a conviction that God himself wants us to have—it is not right to set that conviction aside when it comes to methods, argumentation, or specific claims that we may make as we address the larger world of biblical scholarship or ordinary run-of-the-mill unbelief or doubt” (p. 83). Any supposed neutrality is always supported by a worldview that, in the case of the unbeliever, suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. But if there is no neutrality, doesn’t that suggest that reasoning is circular? Poythress provides six responses to this query, noting that the modern notion of autonomy (rooted in Adam’s fall) has a starting place: rebellion to God. Thus, each interpreter starts from some fixed location, the Christian from the point of deference to God’s word, a stance of humility toward God.

“Chapter 12: Seeking God” reinforces a theme in the book that attitude matters in understanding how the Gospels fit together. “Do you want to understand the Gospels for the sake of the glory of God and to love Christ more, or do we want to look better and wiser in our own eyes and in the eyes of admirers?” (p. 87). Seeking God means seeking God to enable us to be pure in heart so that we can communion with God through His word. Poythress cites Biblical passages that point out the punishment of the wayward because of their failure to seek God. Such passages are reminders that unbelief, even in the believer, has a corrupting influence on understanding the Bible. “We grow in understanding the Gospels or other parts of the Bible through God’s work in delivering us from sinful corruptions that interfere with our humbly receiving what God says” (p. 89).

“Chapter 13: Limitations in Human Knowledge” begins with the assertion that even when we seek to understand the Gospels by humbly submitting ourselves to God’s authority, as humans, we have limited knowledge. Recognizing the limitation of our knowledge, “We should confidently believe that God knows what he is saying and that he is speaking truthfully at every point when we read the Gospels” (p. 90). Even when we do go through a reverent process to construct a harmonization of the Gospels, our harmonization “is possible or maybe probable” not airtight, “because our reconstruction brings in speculative elements” (p. 92). How does this lack of certainty relate to apologetics? “With respect to the Gospels and their harmonization, we must avoid expecting too much or promising too much. We cannot guarantee that we can solve all harmonization problems even to our own satisfaction, must less to the satisfaction of an unbeliever. . . . Moreover, we should readily acknowledge to unbelievers that we have placed our faith in Christ and have trusted in the Gospels and their accounts because they are God’s word. We have given this trust and this commitment before we have ‘solved all the problems’” (p. 93). These principles of interpretation also apply when we are in dialogue with Christians who have doubts about the viability of the task of harmonization of the Gospels. 

“Chapter 14: Intellectual Suffering” begins with the assertion, “God does not guarantee or promise that we as finite creatures will always find satisfying answers to all our questions, even our questions about the Bible. It is for him to decide how much information and how much insight we have” (p. 96). Also, “We do not know all the hidden sins buried in our hearts” (p. 97), so we do not know God’s sovereign purpose for letting us be tempted with doubt. When such temptation occurs, “it can at times be desperately hard for us to fit disparate Scriptures together” (p. 98). Such suffering, however, can be salutary as “our minds and our hermeneutical principles and all that is intellectually dear to us suffer and [are] crucified and raised” (p. 99) for our sanctification. Poythress then points out that people can avoid intellectual suffering because of intellectual pride, spiritual warfare, the accumulation of perplexities about the Bible, and pride that orthodoxy will not allow unsatisfactory harmonization. Indeed, “the contamination of human pride” can tempt a person committed to orthodox doctrine “to triumph over autonomous intellectuals with the power of his own reason, and this move conceals autonomous desire on his own part” (p. 103). 

“Chapter 15: Positive Purposes for Difficulties” raises the issue of why the Gospels, in particular, present difficulties based on apparent discrepancies. The short answer to this perplexing issue is that God is transforming us by humbling our pride, and crucifying our wanton intellects. “In a fundamental way, trust in the matter of intellectual questions or historical difficulties or apparent discrepancies or biblical paradoxes remains part of the general obligation to trust God in every area of life” (p. 109). To short-circuit the intellectual trials due to tough intellectual questions, to provide simple relief in pat recipes for resolving intellectual difficulties regarding harmonization, is to deny the necessity of intellectual crucifixion. “This conclusion is cheap religion. It is a lie. A comfortable lie, but a lie none the less” (p. 110). Indeed, one of God’s mysterious purposes is to bring judgment on those who reject His word. But rejecting God’s word is not advised because “God is wise. An intellectual will not win in a duel against him” (p. 112). 


Part Four: Special Issues in Harmonization (Chapters 16-17)

“Chapter 16: The Synoptic Problem” begins by defining the synoptic problem as “discussions about the literary relationship between the three Synoptic Gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, and Luke” (p. 117). Part of the discussion of the synoptic problem is the relationship in time between the Gospels. Was Mark the first Gospel? If so, did the other Gospel writers depend upon Mark in any way? Questions about dependence may exaggerate differences, so Poythress affirms the need to protect the integrity of each Gospel as a bona fide witness of God’s truth. That God inspired the Gospels is foundational to addressing the synoptic problem, “not a detailed history of their origins” (p. 122). Indeed, “The presence of many possible sources produces a situation far too complex for us to draw firm conclusions. . . . As a result, I think that the synoptic problem is unsolvable” (p. 123). 

“Chapter 17: Temporal Order of Events” deals with the issue of the relationship between the written order of events in the Gospels and the chronological order of those events. The Gospel writers use a great deal of flexibility in ordering what actually happened. Sometimes this flexibility may be attributed to repetition in Jesus’s teaching, e.g., using the same parable on various occasions. However, “Whenever the Gospels do make claims about chronology, we should believe these claims because of their divine authority” (p. 127). “We must understand that the Gospels may possibly invite us to see two events as closely related not only because one event immediately succeeded the other in time, but also because the two are related thematically in various ways. We must be willing to follow the lead of the Gospels even when this lead takes the form of an intimation rather than an explicit statement. On the other hand, we must assess carefully what kind of intimation we have. We must be satisfied sometimes with tentative knowledge” (p. 128).


Part Five: Individual Cases (Chapters 18-21)

“Chapter 18: Cleansing the Temple” examines all four Gospel accounts of the temple cleansing, asking the question of whether there were one or two cleansings.

“Chapter 19: The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth” again asks the question of whether the Gospels are dealing with one or two events, paying particular attention to Luke’s placement of the rejection.

“Chapter 20: Cursing the Fig Tree” proposes a solution to the problem by citing Matthew’s use of compression, giving a minimal account.

“Chapter 21: Commissioning the Twelve” notes possible solutions to difficulties (the differences among the three synoptics about staff and sandals) that have been offered, and Poythress closes with four observations about harmonizing the three versions of the commissioning of the twelve.


Part Six: Reporting Speeches (Chapters 22-27)

“Chapter 22: Stilling the Storm” is the first example of synoptic differences in reporting speeches. Again, previous questions about method are applied, such as determining whether the incident in each Gospel is the same incident, whether different wording in different accounts is reasonable, given the selectivity of each Gospel writer. In addition, applying strict Aristotelian logic to language shunts aside context, so the expressions “no faith” and “little faith” in the incident must be considered in the total context of a particular Gospel.  

“Chapter 23: Variations in Citations” need to be investigated in light of the various languages being used, whether Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and other principles of interpretation already explained apply to variations in citations: Is the incident in question the same incident for each Gospel? What role does selectivity have in understanding the incident in each Gospel? In addition, we need to recognize that modern conventions for quotations are not the standard for ancient texts. “The Bible in the original does not have quotation marks. It does not make explicit the modern distinction between an exact quotation and an interpretive citation” (p. 167). The relationship of cross citations in the Bible raises the question of inerrancy. For example, does Jesus’s change in wording of an Old Testament passage violated the canons of inerrancy? Poythress explains why the answer to that query is a resounding, Of course not.

“Chapter 24: Meaning and Intention” continues the discussion about the New Testament rewording or combining passages from the Old Testament. Because God has ordained language and the variations in and among languages, human communication is under the authority of God. Of course, “God’s communication is original, while human communication is derivative” (p. 175). The link between God’s original communication and human derivative communication means that “when we know truth, we are reexpressing in our mind what God has in his mind” (p. 176). Likewise, God can reexpress what he said previously. The Son, being God, also can reexpress what the Father has said. Unlike God, however, when humans reexpress what God has said they may either reexpress God’s words faithfully or unfaithfully. When the Devil reexpressed God’s words in tempting Jesus, Satan distorted God’s meaning. Merely repeating what God said does not guarantee faithful reexpression. 

“Chapter 25: Speech When Jesus Stills the Storm” reinforces the reliability of God’s speech in the Bible. In reporting the meaning of speech, the Gospels “accurately give us meaning. But they may not always give us a verbatim report. They do not explicitly claim to give a verbatim report, so in any one case, we do not know whether they are giving an exact quote or a summary or a reexpression” (p. 182). For example, in the stilling of the storm, the turmoil of the situation certainly allows for excited speeches that overlapped, so “We cannot possibly reconstruct a chronological sequence of several such speeches. All three Gospels may be summarizing a rather complicated set of pleas” (p. 185). Poythress suggests two reasons we might want exact wording in the Bible, but insists that the Gospels are summaries, particularly if we compared them to everything that transpired during Jesus’s life. The desire to reconstruct the original wording of the Gospels may be rooted in a desire to compare unfavorably the Gospels with their reconstruction, but the desire may have an opposite purpose: to answer critics. “But there are limitations. We should be honest with ourselves and with the critics. Reconstructions always have a probabilistic character and easily involve speculation” (p. 188).

“Chapter 26: Augustine on Reporting Speeches” calls upon Augustine as a witness to the validity of reporting speeches in the Gospels. In sum, “Augustine sees in the variations among the Evangelists a positive benefit, namely, that they establish by their absolute authority a guideline for assessing truth in the case of ordinary human testimony” (p. 192).

“Chapter 27: The Rich Young Ruler” seeks to explain differences in the Synoptic records of the rich young ruler. Various explanations from commentators are examined, and the problem of textual criticism comes into play. “On some occasions, imperfections in textual transmission may explain difficulties in the copies that we now have. But we should not automatically prefer a particular textual reading just because it is useful for harmonization. We need to weigh which reading represents the original, that is, the autograph of Matthew” (p. 195), and because the more difficult reading is to be preferred, “We may conclude that the original of Matthew probably did contain the more difficult wording” (p. 195). At bottom, however, the Gospels claim to give readers God’s meaning. “Their wording is exactly what God says in giving us each Gospel. As usual, we can rely on each Gospel without having to reconstruct some hypothetical wording behind the Gospels” (p. 197). 


Part Seven: More Cases

“Chapter 28: Jairus’s Daughter” approaches the problems of when Jesus excluded everyone but three disciples and when the daughter died. Using the mental picture theory discussed previously can be misleading in seeking to answer these questions, but the explanations Augustine and Calvin offer have merit. Indeed, the Greek word used for die “is not perfectly specific” (p. 211), and even with modern technology, there is a timelapse between the heart stopping to beat and the cells in the brain dying. “We may underline a point that we have already made: God, as well as the human authors, has given us all three narratives. God wants us to absorb the distinctive emphases of each, as well as what is common” (p. 211). 

“Chapter 29: Blind Bartimaeus” acknowledges that the healing of Bartimaeus is the same incident for all three Synoptics. Various proposals commentators have offered are reviewed with the assertion that omission of details is not error. “For myself,” Poythress notes, “I prefer the conjecture that Luke was thinking in terms of a different city center from that which Matthew and Mark presuppose. But this too is no more than a conjecture. God has not chosen to provide complete information” (p. 216). 



In a bit more than one page, Poythress concludes his book, and two quotations are central to the summing up of the book’s argument. “We receive true knowledge from the Gospels. But this true knowledge is also incomplete knowledge. We are so created that we can know some things without knowing everything” (p. 217). “We ought not to seek assurance in our own independently positioned intellectual or critical powers before we commit ourselves to God’s care and submit to his voice. A pursuit of security through autonomous criticism presupposes autonomy. It is already intrinsically in rebellion against what we were created to be, children of our heavenly Father” (pp. 217-18).



I find it refreshing that a scholarly book so openly addresses the attitudinal aspect of reading and seeking to understand the Bible from a position of humble reliance on the integrity of the Biblical text. Much critical scholarship of the Bible just assumes the Bible is not the Word of God and not the standard for judging humanity. Rather, as Poythress emphasizes throughout his volume, the human tendency for believer and unbeliever alike is to sit in judgment over the Biblical text, particularly when we have trouble making sense of it. That nasty word autonomy, such a celebrated term in the Enlightenment and today, is full of arrogance and defiance. Quite literally, when we seek autonomy, we seek self-law. We want to govern according to our standards, and whenever anything does not affirm our autonomy, we find ways to denounce it, even misusing scholarly apparatus to prove our point. Poythress demolishes such an approach, noting that it is not just the provenance of the unregenerate; rather, it is the provenance of the fallen human condition, in which we all participate.

He also successfully challenges our vaunted notions of certainty in interpretation. Clearly, an honest approach to the Bible wants to know what the Bible says. But that goal is often hindered by our worldview, which includes what we value as participants in a particular culture. We can easily believe that what we value—e.g., personal freedom and complete knowledge—is what God values, in the same way, we value it. We then impose this value on the Biblical text and find God involved in ethically suspect behavior. What this conclusion should drive us to is a refresher course on the impeccable authority of the Bible, a reconsideration of our conclusions, and repentance of a sinful attitude that calls God into the dock while we play the role of prosecutor and judge. 

The value of Inerrancy and the Gospels is not limited to the brisk assault on our pride as interpreters. Two other aspects of the book are quite useful. First, the text is packed with hermeneutical principles that are extremely helpful in plying harmonization. Second, Poythress kindly reminds us that God has not provided all the clarity we may desire regarding how to harmonize the Gospels. Even applying all the hermeneutical principles the book provides, we will come to a point of recognizing our or any reconstruction of the Gospel texts will not provide certainty. This is a painful lesson for those of us who really do believe the Bible is inerrant and hold that God is communicating to us through His word. This is particularly painful to our intellectual assumptions that get in the way of walking by faith, not by intellectual acumen. 



As I read the book, I was struck by the devotional quality of the text. Inerrancy and the Gospels could aptly be entitled A Meditation on the Harmonization of God’s Inerrant Word. To anyone who is up for the challenge of such a meditation, for the searching investigation of our motives as interpreters of God’s Word, for an out-and-out assault on our intellectual pretensions as believers, I highly recommend Poythress’s tome. If, however, you are looking for a book that will soothe your intellectual doubts and give you five easy steps to harmonizing the Gospels, look elsewhere. If you’re not prepared to affirm that the Gospels judge us, not we them, you would find yourself arguing with Poythress from page one to the end of the Index. 


Bruce W. Speck, Ph.D., is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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Crossway, 2012 | 240 pages

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