Seeing red about red letter Bibles

Clayboy, alias Doug Chaplin, is right on the ball for once with his attack on red letter Bibles. In the first of three posts he called this practice of printing the words of Jesus in red The worst evangelical heresy? (complete with question mark). In the second post he answered an objection about quotation marks. Today he completed his trilogy of attack on the incarnadine text (and to save you looking it up, as I had to, “incarnadine” means “Of a fleshy pink colour” or “Blood-red”) with a summary of the discussion. See also the discussion and links at Evangelical Textual Criticism, and, from that site last year, Peter Head’s Defence of Red Letter Bibles.

In his summary Doug has three main points about red letter editions, of which one which especially impacts evangelicals like myself:

it [the incarnadine text?] overthrows any strong evangelical doctrine of Scripture, and therefore undercuts the whole basis of evangelicalism. I admit I write this as to some extent at least, an outsider. But if the whole of Scripture is in some sense (acknowledging that evangelicals can disagree about the precise sense) either God-breathed (as the NIV has made fashionable) or God’s Word written (as older formulations had it) then singling out the words of Jesus implicitly invites people to believe they are more important, more the word of God, than the bits for which ordinary black type will do.

Indeed. It is quite wrong to take the words of Jesus as somehow more important or authoritative than his deeds, or than the words of the apostles.

In case anyone worries that I am following a liberal Catholic like Doug (well, I’m sure some people describe him as such) rather than good evangelical scholars, I can quote Don Carson on my side. He starts by referring to

what Tony Campolo now approvingly calls ‘red letter Christians’. These red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they take the words of Jesus especially seriously (they devote themselves to the ‘red letters’ of some foolishly-printed Bibles) and end up being more concerned than are other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a ‘canon within the canon’ to bless my preferred brand of theology. That’s the first of two serious mistakes commonly practised by these red letter Christians.

The other is worse: their actual grasp of what the red letter words of Jesus are actually saying in context far too frequently leaves a great deal to be desired; more particularly, to read the words of Jesus and emphasize them apart from the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’s redeeming death and resurrection, not only has the result of down-playing Jesus’s death and resurrection, but regularly fails to see how the red-letter words of Jesus point to and unpack the significance of his impending crosswork.

So, we evangelicals should unite with more Catholic Christians like Doug in calling for an end to these distortions of the word of God.

0 thoughts on “Seeing red about red letter Bibles

  1. First you move your blog to a new name, then redesign it, and now you agree with me. I don’t know if I can handle all this change! 🙂

    I like the new look!

  2. A Facebook friend comments on the Facebook note version of this post:

    I like it, but I don’t see why it is only applied to the New Testament. What about the direct speech of God in the Old too??

    Well, indeed it is inconsistent to put the words of Jesus in red, but not the words of God in the Old Testament, and for that matter not the words of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit in the New.

    But then most of the OT would be printed in red. But how much? Is everything the prophets said the direct speech of God, or only the parts where they have specifically said “Thus says the Lord”? Do we create a further canon within a canon of the prophetic messages to give greater importance to passages with explicit speech introducers? Is Isaiah 54 more inspired that Isaiah 53? That way lies madness. The only safe way to go is to print everything in black.

  3. I think I know what Campolo means, and I think that most people who’ve ever been a part of the fundamentalist movement with it’s various shades of legalism (some extremely destructive) and/or any other similar type of group, also understand. There are many groups who’s interpretation of Scripture is The Right Way, everyone else be damned (er, literally) and yet one interesting thing prevails…and that is that they get very little of their destructive teaching from the words of Christ!

    Usually it’s some extreme literalism with Paul or an obscure OT passage or three strung together to make a framework for their off-balance beliefs, a few more obscure out-of-context passages thrown in for good measure…

    A focus on the words of Christ, however, quickly shows that whatever it is they are teaching, it sure as heck isn’t what HE was teaching. And, if He was the incarnation of God and was here on earth to spread the message of the Kingdom, and He wasn’t saying anythign CLOSE to what these other groups are teaching, then, well… Kind of shows them to be off-balance, since the Messiah wasn’t doing their song and dance.

    So, from that sort of context, I agree with Campolo. In fact, as I exited from teh fundamentalist world and considered giving up my faith altogether (in that it was so sullied by all the lies and abuse), it was primarily the “red letters” that held me intact. As I poured over the Gospels, I saw something…Someone…so different than what I had been taught and what I’d been abused by. It was a faith-saving discovery.

    On the other hand, I totally agree that if we believe all the books of the Bible to be inspired, then there is no point putting some books or some sentences in a higher place than others, as if some are “more” the inspired word than others. Not so.

    Yet from my vantage point, I can’t help but think that the words of Christ and the Gospels are a good measuring stick for us to use when deciphering whether or not we’re on target or far off. If what we are teaching and believing doesn’t match the sum total of Christ’s recorded words, then…what are we teaching?

  4. Bill, Doug is Catholic, i.e. a member of the catholic = universal church, but not Roman Catholic. Of course on that definition you and I are also Catholic. But within Anglican circles at least “Catholic” is used of Christians who put a high value on moving towards unity with Rome, and with the Eastern Orthodox. At least that is my perception – Doug may well want to clarify.

  5. Molly, I agree with Campolo’s central point, and yours, that the teaching of Jesus, and his life, need to be given higher priority in the teaching and life of Christians today. There certainly are too many “black letter Christians” who base their lives on the epistles and more or less ignore the gospels, except I suppose for the passion narratives. Campolo’s corrective of that error is needed. But it is wrong to go too far the other way, to emphasise Jesus’ teaching above that of the apostles. We don’t want “red letter only Christians” but “red and black letter Christians” – or better still “black letter Christians” who are reading and following the teaching of Jesus printed in black along with the rest of the text.

  6. I wondered if that’s what you meant, essentially, but I wasn’t familiar with the use of the term in your circles. Fascinating and beautiful. Once again, I find myself glad to have asked the stupid question. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Who is Catholic, but not Roman?

  8. Pingback: More on the NLT Mosaic – Black Lettered Edition | The Church of Jesus Christ

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