The Problem with Red Letter Christianity

There is a move among some self-described “progressive evangelicals” to identify themselves as “red-letter Christians” – describing themselves as Christians particularly devoted to the words of Jesus (which are printed in red in many editions of the Bible). The umbrella of “red-letter Christian” covers a wide variety of believers, from orthodox Christians with a particular theological emphasis to others in whom it is difficult to find a distinctively Christian point of view at all. What follows, then, is a word of caution and may not apply equally to all who claim the name “red-letter Christian.”

First of all, let me admit that we all have a canon within the canon. We all have sections or themes within the Bible that we use to interpret the whole of scripture. If the red-letter Christians want to say that Jesus is the key to understanding all of scripture, there’s no problem there. If they are saying that Christians must take the teachings of Jesus more seriously than they have, again there is no problem.

If, on the other hand, they want to prioritize Jesus’ teaching over the saving power of his death and resurrection, there is a big problem. If they want to play off the teaching of Jesus against the Old Testament or the letters of Paul or the mid-century church of the evangelists or the so-called “early Catholicism” of the later New Testament, there is again a big problem.

Protestant Christian churches have historically affirmed that 66 books of the Bible are Holy Scripture. To hear the word of God, we must listen to the entire Bible.

Modern Biblical scholarship reminds us that the words in red are part of literary works known as “gospels” which are the products of authors with unique theological perspectives writing to churches in unique historical circumstances. The canonical gospels in their present form were probably written a decade or two after the letters of Paul. The gospel writers – the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – relied on earlier material, some of which was probably written, but it is our gospels and not the hypothetical source documents that are the word of God for us.

There are those who would choose the words of Jesus over the theology of Paul, Matthew or John. You cannot, however, arrive at the “pure” historical Jesus simply by separating Jesus’ words from the rest of the gospel narrative. If you can’t trust the gospel narrative, how can you trust the words in red?

The universal, historic Christian affirmation is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us the authoritative description of Jesus’ life and teaching. God has chosen to give us four witnesses to the life of Jesus in the New Testament. Each has a slightly different perspective. With their literary integrity intact, each of the four is the word of God. The words in red stripped from their literary context are not.

One of the most pressing questions facing the current church is, “Did the early church get it wrong?” Dan Brown-style conspiracy theorists posit that Biblical Christianity is the inauthentic relic of Constantine’s hijacking of the church. Scholars and polemicists offer alternative Jesus figures based on their speculative reconstruction of history. Surprise! They find a Jesus that looks more like a 21st century social crusader than a 1st century rabbi. Have there been no real Christians until revisionist Biblical scholarship met modern liberal activism?

The word of God concerning Jesus’ life and teaching is found in the gospels as written, and not in hypothetical reconstructions of the Q document or in Jesus-Seminar conjecture. In our gospels, both Jesus’ teaching (by word and deed) and his sacrificial victory are essential. You cannot divorce one from the other any more than you can divorce word from sacrament.

In some ways, red-letter Christianity reminds me of a modern day Marcionism, in broad strokes if not in the details. In the 2d century, Marcion objected to the Old Testament’s God of wrath, whom Marcion believed should be discarded in favor of Jesus’ God of love. Marcion offered the church a canon with edited versions of the Gospel of Luke and a selection of Paul’s letters, but no Old Testament at all. Only those passages that supported Marcion’s theology were included. In the same way, red-letter Christianity has selected as authoritative only those aspects of God’s revelation that suit its theological opinions. The ancient church rejected Marcion’s views as heretical; this contemporary view should also give us pause.

In his Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer said, “He comes to us as one unknown”. Schweitzer came away from his quest with no confidence that he could know much of significance about the historical Jesus. What he found was that the Jesus of historical reconstruction mostly resembled the pre-existing beliefs of the reconstructors. We face that problem today. The stereotyped Jesus of the left is no more authentic than the stereotyped Jesus of the right. We are still learning what Jesus means for us and for our world. If we believe that the scriptures have a unique, divine authority for our lives, then the canon of Christian scripture is the only authoritative source in our quest to understand God’s revelation in Jesus. The scriptures sit in judgment over all our interpretations.

So who is the red-letter Jesus? Let me start by citing some good red-letter verses.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. (Luke 6:20-21 ESV)

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, (Luke 14:12-13 ESV)

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (Luke 6:27-30 ESV)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9 ESV)

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:35-36 ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matthew 5:43-44 ESV)

For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25 ESV)

Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52 ESV)

Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)

I would guess that most red-letter Christians would like my selection. Indeed, every Christian must take these words of Jesus with utmost seriousness and apply them to their lives. Let me repeat: I am in no way arguing to undermine the authority of Jesus’ words or lessen their impact. Every one of these words, however, requires more study, reflection and analysis than the simple “red letter” approach implies. And it’s a HUGE jump from Jesus’ words to claiming Jesus’ moral authority for particular tax rates, government spending plans, criminal law enforcement policies or national defense strategies.

In fact, the red-letter Jesus said some things that many red-letter Christians might not like.

The red-letter Jesus gave his stamp of approval to the authority of the Old Testament law.

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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus saw himself a miracle-working exorcist.

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28 ESV)

In fact, if you counted Jesus’ sayings related to exorcism and miracle-working, they far outnumber his sayings on the treatment of the poor.

The red-letter Jesus was an eschatological prophet.

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27 ESV)

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30 ESV)

In fact, the red-letter Jesus could be judgmental.

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12 ESV)

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus demanded that his followers make converts.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus claimed pre-existence and described himself with the ancient name of God.

Before Abraham was, I am. (John 8:58 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus was at least slightly interested in male-female marriage and sexual ethics.

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5 ESV)

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her (Mark 10:11 ESV)

Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28 ESV)

And the red-letter Jesus said this?

Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:36 ESV)

All of these sayings require more study and reflection than a quick reading of the text provides. Insofar as we can recover the the Sitz im Leben Jesu, we can put try to put these sayings into the context of the concrete circumstances of Jesus’ life and ministry. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to understand how these sayings function within the literary framework of the evangelist who wrote them down. What did the author intend for us to understand about Jesus? The greater the distance between the Jesus of our faith and the Jesus of the the four gospels, the more suspicious we should be that we have reconstructed Jesus in our own image. Outside of the four gospels, all we have is conjecture. Again, if there are parts of the four-gospel witness that we cannot trust, what makes us think we can trust the words in red?

Red-letter Christianity takes our theological task too lightly. Biblical interpretation calls for serious, informed exegesis and a mature hermeneutic. The seminary-trained pastors of the red-letter movement know this, so I am surprised that they would foist this incomplete and misleading construct on the church.