The Problem(s) with Red Letter Christianity

BibleAs a Christian, I go in big for Jesus. Count me in the pro-Jesus camp. Among lots of other wonderful things we can say about Jesus: he’s a great teacher. He said some truly wonderful things. Things that should be believed and embraced. Teachings that should be followed. It would be an odd thing for any Christian to be anything but thumbs-up toward the red letters.

I’m referring here to the now common practice of printing the words of Jesus in red ink. Non Jesus words remain in the more mundane black ink. I probably have a dozen red letter bibles in my bible stash. Great red letter words include (among many others):

  • John 3:16  16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
  • Matthew 5:3-9 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

And, of course, lots of other important red ink stuff. I’m 100% all in for all of it. But, the red ink has created some problems as well. How can the words of Jesus create problems? Well, I don’t blame Jesus for the problems. The problems lie elsewhere, generally with really bad theological presuppositions.

I once stumbled across an interesting website (one can’t be too careful where one stumbles on the internet!). This was a website that caused intense cognitive dissonance for me. It was the website of Atheists for Jesus. What in the world is Atheists for Jesus? Was this a satirical site? No, these folks were quite serious.

The Atheists for Jesus had no use for God, or for miracles, or for an afterlife, or for most of what we might expect someone with an interest in Jesus to be interested in. Instead, the Atheists for Jesus loved the red letters of Jesus. In their case, not all the red letters, just the ones from the Sermon on the Mount. They felt that the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were the wisest stuff a human had ever said. They loved a lot of the content there: turning the other cheek, not judging, demonstrating radical forgiveness, etc.

Now, I hope it should be obvious that you really can’t begin to understand Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount without understanding everything else Jesus has to say, and, more than this, everything Jesus did (including miracles), and everything that he demonstrated himself to be. The Red Letters don’t (can’t!) stand on their own. What would it mean to display radical forgiveness without the surrounding context of Jesus’ radical display of forgiveness in action, without the demonstration of God’s forgiveness of human sin through Christ’s atoning work, without…a whole bunch of black ink?

Thomas Jefferson loved the teaching of Jesus, the red letters. Well…some of them. Jefferson famously cut a bible to pieces and kept the bits he liked – you can see this document on display at Monticello. As a true Enlightenment figure, Jefferson loved the ethical teaching of Jesus (though he lived a profoundly ethically challenged life himself), but he didn’t consider references to miracles, the supernatural, a real substitutionary atonement, etc. to be worth the (black) ink they were written in. So, he cut them out.

There are many contemporary Christians who are acting in Jeffersonian fashion by elevating the words of Jesus (red ink) over the rest of the words of the Bible (in black ink). Indeed, there is an organization known as Red Letter Christians affirming explicitly that the words of Jesus really are more significant and important than the rest of the words of scripture. After all, these are the words of Jesus himself.

But…this is problematic. This won’t work. For a number of reasons:

  • It won’t fly with Scripture’s view of Scripture. The most important scripture on scripture:

2 Timothy 3:16-17  16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

According the Holy-Spirit-inspired author (in this case, Paul), all scripture is God-breathed. This includes not only the red ink portions, but the black ink portions as well. This means that even immensely difficult and challenging texts are, and remain, God’s Word and on equal footing with the red ink words of Jesus: the slaughter of the Canaanites, weird stories about Nephilim, Jonah, Sodom and Gomorrah…all of it. There aren’t levels of authority or truthfulness. It’s all God’s Word or none of it is. We can’t pick and choose. We can’t make a canon within the canon. We can’t (with integrity) assert that it is true insofar as it serves as a witness to Christ. It is, red and black, God’s Word.

  • It won’t fly with Jesus’ view of Scripture. Jesus didn’t go around telling people – don’t listen to that dusty Old Testament – my words trump those. Granted, he taught with a remarkable degree of authority. He didn’t say “God says….” but said instead “Truly, truly, I say to you….” That level of authority shocked his hearers. Yet, Jesus viewed everything he said to be in line with the OT revelation:

Matthew 5:17-20  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ affirmed the lasting significance of every character of scripture – right down to the jots and tittles. This is the highest reverence possible for scripture, including passages that many contemporary evangelicals sneer at: Leviticus, for instance. Further, Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was not that they were too concerned with the OT Law, but that they really didn’t understand it. They were missing the central point of that law (justice and mercy) in their obsession with upholding their own traditions. In other words, Jesus says, “Your problem is that you don’t get the black letters! If you did, you would believe in me when I speak (with my red letters).”

Jesus also affirmed many of what (to modern audiences) are among the most difficult to accept and believe OT scriptures. These include the historical narratives of Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, Job, Jonah, and many others. If we want to pick and choose our favorite portions of the Bible to believe and affirm, we get no support for such an endeavor from the example of our Lord!

  • The whole Bible is red ink. In a very real sense the whole Bible is written in red ink.  There are no black letters. How so? Well, what do we believe about Jesus (if we are orthodox in our belief)? We believe that prior to the incarnation, God the Son existed eternally. This is clearly taught in John 1, in Hebrews 1, and in Colossians 1. Who was it that spoke to Moses at Sinai? It was Yahweh – the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Who was it who manifested himself in glory in the Temple of Solomon? Who was it that inspired Isaiah? Whose words are recorded for us in the pages of the Bible, the OT as well as the New? These are the words of our God – not the Father’s words alone, but the words of his eternally begotten Son, whom we know (this side of the incarnation) as Jesus Christ. All the words are red.

It is time for evangelicals to stop playing games with the Bible. We can’t pick our own canon. We can’t excise ethical teaching which strikes our generation as unpalatable. We can’t go against the teaching of Jesus by exalting the teaching of Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed. That includes the black ink as well as the red.