Four-Part Harmony, One Grand Symphony

Recently, we mentioned that in modern times the academy has made much of the so-called synoptic problem. That Matthew, Mark, and Luke are at one so similar and dissimilar seems to vex some beyond measure. Add the cryptic Fourth Man to the mix and the white noise reaches fever pitch. All differences must be dissonance; distinctions must imply contradictions, complementarity never enters into it. I would suggest that a few piano lessons would have solved most of their angst.

This is because the composition of the gospels reveals a musical methodology. The various parts of a concerto are symmetrical but they are certainly not identical. But this does no violence to the unity of the piece, actually this purposeful diversity establishes the unity of the piece. This is what we call harmony. If every part were identical in every way that would uniformity but it would not be unity. Played on time and in tune, the varied bits form a symphony rather than a cacophony. If every instrument drones the same note throughout the duration of the entire piece we are not moved by the melody composition, we are offended by its monotony. It is fitting then that the One who gave the morning stars their song and taught the birds to sing it would commission a quartet to deliver to us the good news of the kingdom.

While I think that the musical metaphor can’t be overplayed here, there are other reasons for such diversity among the Evangelists. Consider the words of Irenaeus on the rationale for four gospels:

“Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the gospel and the Spirit of Life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the artificer of all, he that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, had given the gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit…For the cherubim too were fourfaced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Sonf of God. For, as the Scripture says, ‘The first living creature was like a lion,’ symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second was like a calf, signifying His sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the third had, as it were, the face of a man—an evident description of His advent as a human being; the fourth was like a flying eagle, pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church: Matthew shows him as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a calf, John is the eagle. ” (Against Heresies)

Irenaeus would go on to argue that the four gospels pictured the history of the First Testament, each of the accounts corresponding to what he saw as the principal covenants of redemptive history: the antediluvian, the Noahic, the Mosaic, and the New Covenant administration. While some may regard this as a completely novel flight of fancy, I think that Old Ira was on to something. The gospels do seem to function in a recapitulatory fashion, retelling and recasting the history of Israel in and through the person of Messiah.

Matthew is a Mosaic mosaic. Law looms large over his narrative. This is seen clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), the various teachings concerning discipleship (Mt. 10, 18), and in a host of references to the Hebrew Scriptures which portray Jesus as a new Moses. Mark gives us the “busy Christ,” always on the move, always acting “now” or “immediately.” He is the stronger Strong man who faces down demons. He is also presented as great David’s Greater Son—the true Davidic king. Luke is interested in those with whom no one else is interested; the poor, the outcasts, the neglected. Luke the historian dates the scenes in his drama by referencing Roman rulers so that the story is contextualized within Roman history—Israel in the midst of the Gentiles; a post-exilic exile. John does something completely different though. While he does reference the First Testament (a lot), he does so in a very different way and for a very different purpose. Whereas the other evangelists evoked images of Old Covenant personalities in order to demonstrate similarities, John mentions them to manifest the striking dissimilarities. Moses may have delivered the word of the Lord but Jesus is that Word. The law may have come by Moses but grace and truth comes in Jesus the Christ. John opens his gospel in such a way that he wants us to understand that, in Jesus, the world is made new—a new Genesis. Thus, Jesus is both the climax of Israel’s history and the commencement of the history of a brand new creation.


Later I will try to show how the four gospels correspond to the history of the New Testament era as well.


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