Thursday, August 14, 2014

Red-Letter Christianity

Perhaps you have a copy of God’s word that has certain words highlighted or colored with red ink. This is of course not a new trend or something only recently concocted. The red letters have always been around but have they always been red? They are, as I’m sure you’re aware, the words of Jesus. On the surface or looked at uncritically this makes much sense and it’s a wonderfully facile way to find the words Jesus spoke in the flesh.
As with most any fad or trend in Christianity, I have a problem with it. This one isn’t a problem with origins from outside God’s word or one created by the world. At least it seems like it’s different than WWJD, “Bible” movies, books where people make up how they went to heaven and make millions off of credulous Christians, corny Christian clichés and church signs or any of a variety of man-made platitudes. These red letters are right there in our copies of the Bible! How can these red letters possibly lead to an aberrant view of God? Let’s examine the facts.
The infamous red ink

The first red-letter Bible was published in 1899. That’s roughly 1,860 years after Christ spoke in the flesh. Hmm.
Why the wait? Why weren’t the original texts written with red ink in some places? Interesting.

2Timothy 3 (AMP)16 Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof and conviction of sin, for correction of error and discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action)

Every- used to refer to all the individual members of a set without exception (definition)

Without exception? So every word of Scripture, without exception, is given by God’s inspiration? Why then would certain words be given an elevated place above others if they are all equal?

The Gospel According to Matthew
The Gospel According to Mark
The Gospel According to Luke
The Gospel According to John

Now wait just a second. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels? Someone else wrote them? Kind of like someone else wrote the epistles?

John 16 (NASB)12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.

Here we see Jesus’ promise to the disciples that the Holy Spirit will come to them and guide them into all truth. He, the Holy Spirit, doesn’t speak on His own, He speaks what the Father tells Him and glorifies Christ. Jesus also only spoke what the Father told Him to speak.

The parts of the Bible that are not red letters were written as a result of God telling the Holy Spirit what to say to the authors. God is the source.
The red letter parts of the Bible were written as a result of God telling Jesus what to say. God is the source. Furthermore, the writers of the Gospels did not record them as Jesus was speaking but went back later to record them and did so under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

If any part of the Bible is deserving to be red lettered, then all of the Bible is deserving of that same distinction.

I laid out that case not to rail against red-lettered Bibles. If you have a Bible with red ink in it, that’s not the problem. I have different verses noted in my Bible. Is that me elevating certain passages above others? Or do certain verses speak more intensely to me than others because of A) sin I struggle with B) truths I am passionate about and C) words that are profoundly deep? We all have certain “favorite” verses. That’s not really an issue if we’re using those verses in proper context (I’m looking at you Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 people).

There is a danger in the red letters. This has been manifested in a sect of liberal theology known, appropriately enough, as Red Letter Christians. They simply put the words in red above all the other words. Sounds good right? Sounds simple enough to just say, “This is straight from Jesus” and base your doctrine on only those words. But as we saw earlier this rapidly falls apart since the red letters are no more inspired than the black ones.

An interesting note about Red Letter Christians:
They don’t even like all the red letters. They just like some of the red letters. There are passages in Revelation which should be red as Jesus is speaking them directly to John. The letters to the 7 churches are brutal indictments of their sins. How the Red Letter Christians just dismiss those red letters is a wonder to me. Well it’s not really a wonder. They really should be called We Only Believe the Words We Like Christians. For an example of this just read anything by false teacher Rachel Held Evans. Her didactic approach to the Bible is perfectly acceptable and compatible with the non-Christian world. Since she, nor her followers, does not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible it is impossible to debate her. This relative and subjective hermeneutic is even lazier than Jesus-gesis used by many in Covenant Theology (as opposed to exegesis) or the nacigesis employed by so many in the seeker movement lack of theology.

With the red letters there’s also the potential problem of pitting Jesus against God or at least against the Apostles. This then creates a damning error. It necessitates that Jesus and God disagree (probably on grace and wrath and sin). There is then a disruption in the harmony of the Trinity. This disagreement also negates the assurance of any promise Christ made to us. The promise of the Holy Spirit. The promise that He would preserve us. The promise that He’s preparing a place for us. The promise of His return. The promise of the defeat of Satan. The promise that “it is finished.” Yikes! That is serious error. Serious to the point where, to be consistent with their theology, Christ would need to be further crucified.

You can easily see how this can negatively unfold and work itself out in your thinking. When we overemphasize one truth or attribute of God’s character or one book over another we always lead ourselves into danger. Those who overemphasize grace lead people into antinomianism. Those who overemphasize the law lead people into legalism.

In closing let me reiterate that it is not sinful to possess a red-letter Bible. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. My goal was to urge us to be cautious in how we treat the red ink. There will come a time when someone will challenge you by accusing you of bestowing more weight to the words of Paul than those of Jesus. This will most predictably be about the topic of sexual immorality. How to soundly refute those erroneous arguments deserves an entire post (or you could search for one). One of the most important doctrines in church history has been Sola Scriptura but another one is Analogia Scriptura. This doctrine emphasizes that Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture. So we don't interpret Scripture with an open system. We don't look at it like it's open to constant rule changes like we do our favorite sports or even how politics operate. In politics we have laws and taxes in place that finance health care for children that come from taxes on tobacco. The government is also fighting to reduce the number of people who use tobacco. So they need lots of people to smoke to pay for health care for children but then aggressively pursue regulations and advertisements to decrease smoking. We can't interpret the meaning or intent of a law by looking at other laws. We'd be so confused. With Scripture, however, we can do exactly that. We look at some confusing portion of the Bible and then we see the topic or idea written on more clearly elsewhere. The clearer portion then interprets the murky portion. And this application need not be limited to just the red letters. If you hold any passage above or in contradiction to the rest of the Bible, you're in error. Read the entirety of Scripture (Tota Scriptura) to get the best understanding of any given passage. Even Numbers and Leviticus? Even the genealogies? Yes! Numbers gets a bad wrap. There are countless illustrations of New Testament truths throughout that book. Even Numbers should be in red ink, if you see what I'm saying. It should all be red ink. It's all of a divine origin. How awesome is that?


  1. Is there no end to how men will seek to twist and demean God’s Word? ( I tried to type this in red letters but it only allows black)

  2. A large number of the black words in the New Testament are simply narrative devices so that we can see Jesus moving from once place to another. Jesus himself didn't speak these narrative passages. To say that the words "I am the resurrection" are no better than the words "on another occasion Jesus said" is absurd.