By Garrett Best
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been blogging about literary relationships among the four Gospels. I wanted to conclude this series by reflecting on the implications this discussion has for how we think about the inspiration of the Scriptures.
God has chosen to give us four canonical Gospels in Scripture. In one sense, they are four separate Gospels, each with their own authors, who organized the material and wrote in their own style and in their own words. At the same time, these four Gospels are four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and only through these four do we have access to the one gospel of Jesus Christ.
There’s no getting around it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar to one another and John is different from the other three. I believe that the evidence suggests that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark and another Gospel, referred to as Q, in order to write their Gospels. I believe this scenario best explains why the first three Gospels are so similar. It also partially explains why John’s Gospel is so different. John wasn’t copying from Mark and Q as were Matthew and Luke. John wasn’t drinking from the Synoptic Gospel koolaid.
I am sure there are Christians that feel that all this literary interdependence talk is just academic hogwash concocted by liberal scholars who don’t believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures in the first place. After all, why even talk literary relationships and a hypothetical Q document when the similarities among the Synoptics are due to their shared inspiration by the Holy Spirit? Couldn’t the similarities be explained because the Holy Spirit is truly the author of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Well, yes and no.
Have we really thought through the implications of that question? If the similarities among the Gospels are due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what do the differences among the Gospels say about the Holy Spirit and inspiration? I don’t believe these are questions dreamed up in the ivory tower of the academy. These are the questions the text invites us to ask. Any reader of the first three Gospels would notice the remarkable similarities, and they would also notice that the Gospel of John is different. Why? And, what does all this mean about the inspiration of Scripture?
I believe that the Bible contains the inspired words of God and is the primary witness to the incarnated Word of God, Jesus the Christ. I believe when we read Scripture, we are reading the words that God has breathed. I believe and affirm that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) I believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures.
I think this affirmation is where the real questions begin. If Matthew and Luke contain the God-breathed words inspired by the Holy Spirit, why would Matthew and Luke need to copy Mark? Assuming the tradition that the author of Matthew is the Apostle Matthew, why would an Apostle need copy nearly 90% of the Gospel written by a non-Apostle, Mark? If Mark is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak, why is his Greek style inferior to the other Gospels? Wouldn’t the Holy Spirit speak in perfect Greek grammar and syntax? Why do Matthew and Luke have different orders of the three temptations given to Jesus in the wilderness? If the same Spirit is inspiring all four Gospel writers, why is John so different from the other three? And, these are just a few questions we might ask.
Maybe another way to look at it is, how much of the four Gospels is the Holy Spirit responsible for and how much of the Gospels is man responsible for? Asked another way, how much Matthew is behind Matthew’s Gospel? And, how much Holy Spirit is behind Matthew’s Gospel?
I love teaching the Gospels, but I find that sometimes Christians are troubled by these kinds of questions as if a threat is being posed to the inspiration of the Scriptures. I was teaching on the Gospel of John and throughout the class I continuously pointed out the uniqueness of John’s Gospel. I referred to the author as a “literary artist” who has crafted his own way of telling the gospel of Jesus. I have no problem saying the author “wrote” or “embedded certain motifs within” this Gospel and is responsible for the content. Several weeks into the class, someone approached me because they were concerned I might give the impression that the writer of John’s Gospel was more responsible for the content than the Holy Spirit. So, in what sense is John the author? And, in what sense is the Holy Spirit the author?
Any serious attempt to deal with this subject has to take two things seriously. First, it must take seriously the teaching of Scripture and the historic position of the Christian Church that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are the very words of God. Secondly, it must take seriously the phenomenon of Scripture itself which includes the similarities and dissimilarities of the Gospels.
The introduction to Luke’s Gospel is significant:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
If the historic tradition is correct then Luke is the author of this Gospel. Luke was not an original eyewitness of Jesus. He was a traveling companion of Paul (cf. Col. 4:14). In the introduction to Luke, he makes it clear that the information he has received comes from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Luke had to investigate. He had to “follow all things closely”. This means that in order to write the Gospel According to Luke, he wasn’t being fed what to write by the Holy Spirit. He also admits that he has organized the material. The introduction of Luke says that the author is responsible for investigating, collecting, organizing, and writing the material.
What this means is that God was not interested in human stenographers. However inspiration works, Luke was not merely a typewriter for the Holy Spirit. God chose to preserve the message of the Gospel through the investigations, words, vocabularies, styles, organizational methods, and themes of four holy men.
Accepting a theory of interdependence of the Gospels does not deny the inspiration of the Scriptures. It does deny that the Scriptures were dictated through the Holy Spirit to their human authors. It means that Matthew had a very significant role in the material contained in the Gospel According to Matthew. We do not lessen God’s role when we emphasize Matthew’s. Instead, we honor the process that God has chosen. Matthew is responsible for the content of Matthew’s Gospel, and at the same time, Matthew’s words are the words of God.
I find a similar analogy in the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus. How is Jesus fully God and fully man? I affirm it, but don’t fully understand it. When we de-emphasize the humanity of Christ, we are left with a divine Son who cannot sympathize with or redeem our humanity. When we de-emphasize the divinity of Christ, we are left with a good, moral teacher who has no real authority over our lives. So it is with the inspiration of the Scriptures. When we over-emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit, we are left with humans that are merely stenographers. When we over-emphasize the role of the writers, we have a wonderful book written by men which are not the words of God. The Gospels are both fully human and fully divine. They are the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are the very words of God. This is a tension I am quite satisfied living with.