Bible Canon of Scripture Theology

The Fallacy of Red Letterism as an Interpretive Grid

Most people have heard of “Red Letter Christians.” Who are they and what do they believe? According to, 

“Red Letter Christians is a movement that holds the teachings of Jesus—which are highlighted in red letters in many Bibles—as central to our understanding of the Bible. Christ is the lens through which we interpret the Word — and the world. Not only do we have words on paper, but the Word becomes flesh — in Jesus.”

This is not much different than what one person expressed on social media: 

Jesus’ actual life and teaching preceded the epistles, the contents of which were in circulation orally prior to being recorded in the gospels. We all have a functional canon within a canon, and a red letter one makes most sense since we are Christians, followers of Jesus.

This sounds fine, until you begin to work through the assumptions and implications of it. At a basic level, we need to recognize that the decision of which letters to make red is an editorial one—made by the people publishing your Bible. John 3 is a good example of how it is difficult to tell exactly where Jesus’ words may end, and where John’s words begin. It’s possible that the most famous verse in Scripture, John 3:16, are not words Jesus spoke, but what the apostle John recorded as commentary on the interview Jesus had with Nicodemus. However, it makes no difference whatsoever in terms of the authority of these words. To be fair, the demarcation in most places where Jesus speaks is clearer than the John 3 example. But one also has to contend with the synoptic differences. That is, in the same incidents, Jesus’ words differ slightly from one gospel to another. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus states them as, “Blessed are those who…” while in Luke’s version they are in the second person: “Blessed are you when…” 

The point is that the gospels represent the words the Holy Spirit wanted recorded about the life and ministry of Jesus. He used the four evangelists to do so, but quite clearly, the Holy Spirit is an editor, since there are slight differences in each gospel. If one’s view of inspiration is “these are the exact words that Jesus spoke” then it leads to difficulties in explaining the variations. If, on the other hand, one sees that these are the words that God inspired the evangelists to record, it is a truer representation of what we have in the gospels. The Holy Spirit was not active only in these four accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke wrote a gospel, but also the book of Acts. Is Acts less the Word of God than his gospel because it contains far fewer words of Jesus?

The usual way in which this sort of hermeneutical principle is presented is that the words of Jesus have priority and thus a controlling influence on how we read the rest of Scripture. Some have in particular called attention to the epistles of Paul, to set these in contrast to Jesus’ words. In an interaction with someone espousing this, I asked for concrete examples, that is, which texts in Paul’s letters are being misunderstood, or misapplied because we are paying insufficient attention to the words of Jesus? No examples could be cited. Another person offered the case of German Christians appealing to Romans 13—submission to authorities—as such an example. By privileging this over what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount against violence, this violates the principle of reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus. But this is not a compelling example. One can go back just a few verses into Romans 12 and find plenty that would represent a renunciation of violence. 

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Rom. 12:17-19. 

This is just as much a case of not reading all of Paul coherently, rather than ignoring the words of Jesus.

None of this is to say that the words of Jesus are unimportant. But it is sometimes the case that what we mean by the words of Jesus are not what is recorded in the gospels, but our inferences of his words. It represents a kind of Midrash on these words. We may extrapolate from our sense of the ethics of Jesus, and where no commentary is made on a matter directly, we construct what seems to us to be in harmony with this ethic.  “If Jesus were on the earth today, I think he’d _______.” This may mean we affirm something the epistles denounce, with the justification that Jesus cared more that people are compassionate toward one another than that they are doctrinally correct. To cite one example, Jesus told the Jews that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) There is some doctrinal content that is necessary. It defines who Jesus is, and if one redefines Jesus outside the biblical parameters, one cannot say they believe Jesus’ self-revelation.

But it can also define compassion differently than a full reading of Scripture would support. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the Proverbs says.  Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” In other words, love and truth belong together, and are never set against one another in any kind of hierarchy in Scripture. We are not more compassionate toward others if we withhold the truth from them. As many have noted, Jesus spoke more of hell than just about anyone else in Scripture. Believing it insensitive or lacking in compassion to speak these truths is not, in fact, loving.

We also need to recognize the genre differences between the gospels and other writings of the New Testament. The gospels are mainly narrative, and while they do contain direct teaching, they contain much that isn’t, or that is parabolic teaching. The epistles, on the other hand, are exhortation, encouragement, correction—all of which was suited to the local congregations that received the letters, and by extension, any and every congregation. It can be challenging to take narrative sections of Scripture, attempt to draw out a principle, and set it against parenesis that is clear. Indeed, sometimes it ends up creating a conflict where one should not exist, and the result is that those clear passages in the epistles are reinterpreted by the narrative sections in the gospels; sections which may (or may not) contain the principle someone insists is there. 

We need gospels and epistles, history and apocalypse. We need all of the New Testament to understand God’s will and plan for believers. Paul insisted his words were the words of the Lord, not secondary, but God’s true word. As I haven’t really seen good examples of where this is happening, I have to conclude that Red Letterism is a solution in search of a problem.



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