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.