One question that comes up in conversation from time to time when I speak with people about the Christian faith is often phrased something like this: “Don’t the gospels contradict each other? How can you believe what they say when they can’t even agree what happened?”
At a glance this question seems to offer a valid criticism of the gospel accounts. Some events may be complicated but we can generally still construct a consistent timeline of “what happened when”. Failure to do so is problematic.
Some Christians try to respond to this “problem” by going into the literary histories of the texts and emphasising that each of the writers had their own particular agendas and concerns when they were writing. Some try to engage with the ‘synoptic’ problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and to harmonise their accounts. Many simply accept that John’s gospel is simply a different kettle of fish and so treat it separately from the others.
However, Rowan William’s approach in a chapter in a book of “Theological Theology” essays in honour of John Webster takes a different tack. Rather than trying to defend and justify the differences between the different gospels, he celebrates them. This isn’t the first time the differences have been celebrated but what he achieves which I think is helpful is the celebration of these differences within the context of the revelation of God, understood through a Barthian lens, which means that the differences themselves become a witness to God by imitating the trinitarian nature of the Christian God.
He starts by loosely appropriating the Augustinian framing of understanding the gospels as portraying different elements of the person and work of Jesus, in particular with reference to kingship and as prophet. It has been common to view the synoptics as testifying to the humanity of Christ and then John as dealing with the divinity. However this distinction has often divided the unity of the gospels.
Williams reunites them saying, “Putting [John] together with the narrative strategies of the Synoptics, we can say that whatever is said about the identities of Christ and the believer is here shown to be grounded in the eternal reality of God’s generativity (the Father brings forth the Son) and the temporal reality of Jesus’ life, death, ressurection and gift of the Spirit as opening up to created persons a share in that eternal truth.”
This means that the narratives of the synoptics and the claims of John are to be held as interdependent accounts of who Jesus is; more than this, of who we as believers may be in relation to him.
This interdependency is more than wishful thinking or simply asserting that the problem isn’t a problem. I’ll allow Williams to articulate his answer in his own words:
“Much of the language we have been using about the interweaving of the gospel witness echoes (deliberately) the traditional language of trinitarian theology; in one sense the entire divine reality, like the entire force of the gospel, exists in each substantive agency, yet in fact no one of these can exist in abstraction from the others. Each is strictly irreducible to the others and irreducible to general statements about divine nature or gospel truth…
..[this] suggests that in the diverse witness of the basic narratives of faith we are being told that diverse and complementary agency is the very lifeblood of the reality which that witness points to, the mutual in swelling of the Word and human individuality in Jesus, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity, and of believers in the Spirit-filled community.”
This theological response doesn’t shy away from the obvious differences and apparent contradictions of the gospels. What it does do is take Scripture seriously, and takes it seriously as revelation of God. Precisely because of its unique position and role as a mediating element between God and his Church, to the extent that it points beyond and into itself to the objective reality of Jesus as the risen lord who makes himself known by this Holy Spirit, Scripture is both that which belongs fully to the human, creaturely realm of reality which is flawed and subject to sin, error and decay and that which has been (and is being) redeemed, restored and recreated.
This mediational position means that the gospels as Gospel are intimately related to the God they reveal; and this God cannot be adequately be revealed through only one gospel, through only one perspective. Each gospel is truly the Gospel but they are so together with the others.
One might respond, “What about this or that gospel which was in the papers recently? Why these four and not others?”
It is certainly true that there are many other texts out there, some of which were prominent in various communities in the first few Christian centuries. However there are two reasons why we don’t include them in the canon, or readjust the cannon to incorporate new discoveries.
The first is that some of them were judged to be genuinely contradictory. They asserted teachings, stories and understandings of Jesus which were opposed to the reality of his temporal existence as witnessed by the apostles and disciples.
The second is simply that while these alternative texts may be historically interesting in an academic sense, within an understanding of the reality of Jesus and the living presence of the Holy Spirit in the early church the failure of these texts to establish themselves as parts of the ‘interlocking, mutually allusive schema’ which provided the foundation for speaking truthfully about Jesus is sufficient justification for their continued non-inclusion in the canon of scripture.
The Church today has received the the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John because it its through the plurality of these four texts, and not through others, that the Church continually discovers her inheritance of the revelation of the living God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The gospels lead the Church to encounter and participate in the Gospel; the reality of the living God who loves us with a love that overcomes death itself, and inspires our very being with life.