Bible Readers: “Red Letter” Maestros

Recently at Out of Ur blog I posted something about “maestro” Bible readers and I received a letter from a “Red Letter Christian.” Here is a clipped paragraph:

I understand completely when you say that when Jesus is made Maestro it
“leads to violence against Paul and Peter and James and Hebrews etc..”
 So maybe “maestro” is not the best term to use for how “Red Letter
Christians” view the importance of Jesus in the Bible.  I definitely do
not read the rest of the Bible through the eyes of Jesus, but I
honestly do believe that if I consider myself a follower of Christ, the
words and actions of Jesus must be the most important parts of the
Bible for me to attempt to mold my life after

You wrote on the “Out of Ur” Blog:

Protestant liberals, Anabaptists, and Red Letter Christians have all
made Jesus the maestro of their Bible reading. Everything is seen
through the angle of the words “kingdom” and social justice as
“discipleship.” We are tempted, of course, to forgive anyone who makes
Jesus their maestro, but the wisdom of God in giving us a canon–a list
of 27 books that included Paul and Peter and John and Hebrews and Jude–
which renders making even Jesus the maestro suspect.

He adds:

I wonder what you believe the actual danger is in being a “Red Letter Christian”? – I think the pros out weigh the cons… 
I do appreciate the rest of the Bible for what it is.  But if Jesus is
God – and I believe he is – there should be no problem with identifying
ourselves as people who hold the teachings and actions of Jesus in the
highest regard.



RedLett.jpgI don’t want to “exegete” this letter and pick it apart. That might lead to a moment of victory but the big questions this thoughtful person is asking are ones I have myself asked, struggled with, and sought resolution. And I want to extend here what I wrote in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
.

There are two major forms of Maestro Bible readers today: one group reads the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teachings of the kingdom of God and another group reads the rest of the Bible through the lens of Paul’s theology of justification. Most folks do not admit this; in fact, most who read the Bible through a Maestro deny they are doing so. Most of us, however, know whereof we speak when we speak of Maestro Bible reading. So, give me the category that there is such a thing and I think we are led to its problem.

The logic of these words, “Jesus is God, therefore his words are the most important,” appears to be a better argument than it really is. I start with the word “Logos.” We say the Logos became flesh in Jesus Christ and we say that Scripture is also the Logos of God. That both Jesus and Scripture are called “Word” of God is vitally important.

This theological point trumps the logic of the (Maestro) Red Letter Christian. How? The Logos who is Jesus and the Logos that is Jesus’ own teachings and the Logos that is Scripture are “instances” of the Logos of God. In other words, the words of Jesus are Logos not simply because Jesus said them but because Logos takes on verbal form in the “logoi” (words) of Jesus. That Logos of God is at work in all Scripture.

Which brings us to this point: Maestro Red Letter Christians run the danger of denying the Logos to the rest of Scripture by elevating the “logoi” (words) of Jesus into the sole Logos.

Another way of saying this: Maestro Red Letter Christians run the danger of diminishing the Christian concept of Scripture as God’s Word — all of Scripture and not just one part — by converting one set of “logoi” (words) into the Whole Logos.

So, my conclusion is this: As Christians, we go to Jesus first but we dare not go only to Jesus. Not all “Red Letter Christians” make this mistake, but those who do may be justifiably called Maestro Red Letter Christians.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RJS

    Scot,
    A discussion in the comments a while ago that contrasted two approaches to taking the whole NT.
    We take Jesus and let the story and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels tell us how to interpret the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John. After all Jesus, not Paul, is the divine Son of God.
    or
    We take Paul with his exposition of the gospel and let this inform our interpretation of the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels. After all Jesus is acting a story and Paul is explaining the story and actions, developing a Christology.
    How does this dilemma fit into your discussion of Maestro readers? Both give Jesus preeminence because Paul is preaching the cross and resurrection, but the conclusions can be quite different.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Jesus didn’t write his teachings. The gospels are not the transcripts of a court reporter capturing Jesus words and teachings. Nor are they biography in the modern sense of the word. They are four different windows into his teaching through the community of disciples he established. Craig Hill writes in “In God’s Time:”
    “Can one bypass the New Testament and get directly to Jesus? Only if one is content to find a projection of oneself. To know and to listen to Jesus necessarily means knowing and listening to Matthew and John and Paul. The New Testament books are irreplaceable guides into an otherwise inaccessible territory; they are the gold standard against which all claims about Jesus must be tested.” (1)
    There is no access to Jesus’ teaching accept through Matthew and John and Paul. “Red Letter Christian,” to me, is declaring that I follow Apollos while others follow Paul.
    The answer to overemphasizing Paul is not overemphasizing the gospels. The early Christians understood all these books to have authority. So should we.

  • Eileen

    If I were to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christ I might Red Letter his words. I think systems help us to define or highlight certain aspects of information that “we” deem important. I read books with a pen and underline key points and have probably developed a Scotology by now. i don’t always read opposing views on topics and information that has been stored in my pea-sized brain is probably slanted to areas that resonate with my world view.
    I wonder if Maestro readers are better or worse than the “open the Bible and point” readers?

  • http://davidwierzbicki.com david

    Michael, that was exactly what I came here to add. Well put!

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, I lost my own comment through this system!
    The issue here is using one person’s words to trump another’s. So, Peter’s words trumping Jesus’ or Hebrews’ trumping Paul’s.
    Letting Paul be a clarification of Jesus is fine since it lets the wiki-story unfold as it really does: we go from Jesus to Paul in order and this permits us to see the ongoing conversation.
    Michael,
    Yes, I agree, but the earliest Christians equated the Matthean depiction/Markan depiction, etc with Jesus; they didn’t obsess on Matthew’s version so that the interpretation became focused on the interpreter. Not sure if that addresses your point or not.

  • Paul

    This is rather an academic discussion, when I thought your original challenge was to the person in the pew and the preacher in the pulpit.
    Are you wanting to emphasize the chronology of the church’s understanding of Jesus’ works and words? e.g. read the NT books in order of the date of writing and see this as all of one piece?

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Paul @ 6,
    Well, if you read them in order of date of writing, you’d start with Paul.
    Scot,
    I’m unclear of the difference between “letting Paul be a clarification of Jesus” and having Jesus as maestro. The way I read your original article, you’re saying Jesus (as found in the Gospels) shouldn’t overwhelm other books (Paul’s letters, Revelation, etc). I didn’t at all think you were advocating not having Jesus as the maestro of our lives.
    There is a difference. Because Jesus, the maestro of my life, is someone I find out about through many ways: the story of him in the gospels, the way Paul and James and Hebrews talk about him, prayer, contemplation, community with my fellow apprentices, and probably many other ways I’m scarcely aware of.

  • Scot McKnight

    Travis, you are right: this isn’t about Lordship questions but about theological questions. Maestro readers let one author/person be the sole point of orientation. Red Letter Christians run the danger of letting Jesus’ words run the show. (I’m not pushing back against the idea of morally following the red letters of the Gospels; that’s not what we are concerned about in this blog.)

  • Your Name

    I’m not sure where this puts me but I tend to approach scripture as logos of God and Jesus as LOGOS of God. Both continue to speak God’s word to me but Jesus, the One and Only Son, speaks as Person. Therefore as I read the rest of scripture it is thru relationship with the Living Logos. He is it’s center and meaning.

  • http://www.getting-free.blogspot.com T

    While I don’t read ‘kingdom’ or ‘discipleship’ as synonymous with social justice, I did say to someone just the other day that the whole NT should be read within the context, at least, of Jesus’ kingdom announcement and his invitation to discipleship. It seems to me that much of our (evangelical) soteriology has been divorced from that context, which seems to be a misreading of Paul (namely, not reading him in light of Jesus’ announcement and invitation).
    If they (Paul, James, John, Peter, etc.) saw themselves in the context of what God ‘got started’ in many ways through the words and actions of Jesus, I think should do the same. The gospels, at least, set the tone, the direction and shape of the work of God through Jesus.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Scot #5
    “… but the earliest Christians equated the Matthean depiction/Markan depiction, etc with Jesus.”
    Yes. My point would be that these same earliest Christians that equated the gospels with Jesus are the same ones who included Paul’s works in the NT. They found no conflict between the two.
    Jesus did not write the gospels. They are authentic compilations and arrangements by his disciples. How do we know? The earliest Christians recognized the authority of the gospels; just like they recognized the authority of Paul’s writings. There is no path to Jesus teaching’s except through the earliest Christians and the earliest Christians understood Paul to be in accord with Jesus.

  • Scot McKnight

    Michael, Are we disagreeing? (I suspect you’re supporting my little beef with the Red Letter folks.)

  • me

    Scot,
    Good post on Red Letter Christians. I agree completely with your conclusion. On this issue, however, I am very much reminded of Jesus’ teaching to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (or justice?).
    Nonetheless, I wonder if your conclusion should be taken a step further. Simply “going” to Jesus first and then on the rest of scripture is part of the problem. We must genuinely act on Jesus’ words in our daily lives instead of just “going”.
    I believe that the problem of Christians not intentionally following Jesus’ teachings in their daily lives is much more prevalent issue in our religion and has far worse implications than the “Jesus as Maestro” issue.
    In love,
    A Red Letter Christian

  • Rebeccat

    Scot, Thank you for the discussion of Logos. My problem with the idea of Red Letter Christians is as you say that one portion of scriptures trumps other parts. It seems that this reflects a fairly common problem that many of us have with reading scriptures; on the one side you have those who see conflict in scriptures and believe that they must choose which side of the conflict to believe. On the other side, there are those who come to conflict in scriptures, know that there cannot be conflict in scriptures and twist themselves in knots to try and make the conflict go away (and it the process usually unknowingly allow one part of scriptures to trump the other part anyways). I think the third way, if you will, needs to be to look honestly at the conflicts and be willing to wrestle with them; are there language issues, contextual issues, cultural issues, are we reading it wrong, are we trying to make a both/and into an either/or, etc. The idea of a Red Letter Christian way of reading scriptures seems to me (and please forgive me any RLCs out there if I am wrong) to be a way of copping out of this struggle.
    The other concern I have with RLC (and really this is a concern I have with how many of us read scriptures) is where it places the OT. I know that I have often heard the NT characterized as superior to the OT (and for RLCs the words of Christ in particular as superior to the OT). The OT is sometimes presented as the province of an angry, demanding God and the faith it teaches as one of works. Which was one of the reasons I was rather surprised when I began reading the OT after studying the NT to discover Jesus all over the OT and a God of grace and sacrificial love who is certainly no angrier or scarier than the God of Revelation. I’m not saying that I was reading the OT through Jesus and found it fit. Instead, what I am saying is that there is very little which is in the NT, particularly in the gospels, which is not also present in the OT. When scriptures say that Jesus became Logos, we often think of this as some sort of metaphysical thing (which I don’t know – it may be), but even more simply than that, we can understand Jesus as Logos because he lived the life of the Logos perfectly and as it was always intended. IOW, Jesus took the scriptures and all of the love, grace, mercy which is found there and lived it out. The religious leaders read the word and thought that the rules and rituals were the main point. Jesus said, “I will show you with my life what the entirety of the word actually is.” If we view the gospels as superceding the OT, then we really miss what it meant for Jesus to be logos, IMO.
    Anyhow, there’s my $.02. Take it for what it’s worth.

  • Keith Foisy

    i believe that the NT should be well integrated. Yet i do believe we need to have preference for the NT over the OT whenever there is a change under the NT that trumps the OT. For instance, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I tell you…” When Jesus gives a new teaching based on grace, the Law is no longer equal. God’s Word is all God breathed, but certainly there have been changes under the New Covenant that need to be considered before we begin looking at the OT as all equally authoritative for today.

  • Randy

    My experience concurs with RJS’s initial observations. Growing up in the Christian Reformed (Calvinist) Church, theology could get very narrow and tight. I now realize that much of my argument was with various forms of Systematic Theology.
    In college and then graduate school, I began to wrestle with how much of what were taught meshed, or did not, with the gospels. It seemed to me that the gospels “opened up” the range of the Christian life in their kingdom language, while Romans and the rest of Paul “closed down” what was possible.
    I spent about five years in the early 1990s as what we now call a Red Letter Christian, as I found Jesus’ ministry very much in tension with Paul, and realized that most preaching seemed to use Paul as filter of Jesus. It was really encountering N. T. Wright’s approach to Paul in the middle 1990s that allowed me to see Gospels and Paul as very much in agreement. As Wright approached issues HISTORICALLY and INDUCTIVELY, much as I approached my work in History and my reading of scripture. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s “Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be” really helped me find my way into Wright’s work.
    Randy

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Scot #12
    “I suspect you’re supporting my little beef with the Red Letter folks.”
    Yes. Very much so.

  • Randy

    In a recent comment on this thread of Red Letter Christians I shared my experience in scripture reading over the past 20 years. I am a campus ministry director at Iowa State University, and I recently had the following exchat
    We were in a meeting where a very wise retired professor, who has been a guide to many of us, shared his very positive perspective on the emergent generation and the kinds of efforts that this blog makes to reach them.
    One of the very conservative faculty asked “Why, if the gospels are stories of Jesus’ life and proclamation, do we tend to use the Epistles, and especially Paul when evangelizing?”
    I thought that he had hit the nail squarely on the head. Jesus’ stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Anointing of his Feet with Pefume, and his Washing of His Disciples’ feet, provide such rich insight into the upside-downess of the Kingdom that they seem much better ways to raise interest and further inquiry, than many (not all) of Paul’s more pointed presentations of Christ as King. Paul is helpful, but I am not sure he should come first.
    Randy

  • Rebeccat

    Keith, that’s just the point! Jesus wasn’t coming up with something new he was harkening back to parts of scriptures which people preferred to ignore in favor of the verses which fit better with their own evil hearts. Just a couple of examples:
    Lamentations 3:27,30 – It is good for a man to bear the yoke (ie do God’s will) from his youth. . . Let him offer his cheek to be struck, let him be filled with disgrace.
    Isaiah 50:6-7(Isaiah speaking) – I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing I shall not be put to shame.
    Proverbs 25:21 – If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, if he be thirsty, give him to drink.
    Leviticus 19:17-18 – You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
    If there was anything new in Jesus’ teachings it was that he explicitly extended the notion of neighbor and countryman beyond the Jews. But otherwise, just about anything which you have been taught was a new or different teaching of Jesus comes right out of the OT. Particularly in the passage you’ve referenced (Matthew 5) Jesus is actually taking the verses people knew and wanted to live by and offering up another verse which demonstrated or demanded a kinder, more compassionate response.
    The problem is that few of us are remotely as familiar with the OT as Jesus was. But again, it’s all there.

  • Rebeccat

    Having just written the above, it occurs to me that Jesus was also modeling for us how we ought to interact with the conflicts of scriptures. Jesus didn’t say, “well, that’s an old law and no longer relevant.” Instead he said, “this other thing is also part of the law. Put as much importance on it as you do on the hard parts of the law. If there is room in your heart for justice, there also needs to be room in your heart for love and grace. What will justice look like from a heart ruled by love and grace?” IOW, I would say that Jesus was rejecting the religious ruler’s attempts at what we here may call a wooden literalism. He was saying that such a simplistic rule following view of scriptures was neither possible or desirable.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    I do sympathize with critique of overemphasis on Paul. I think Jesus and Paul were communicating in two different worlds. Jesus was teaching Middle Eastern peasants while Paul was addressing audiences more immersed in Greco-Roman culture.
    Paul’s logical systematic presentation of ideas rings true with our Enlightenment-Modernist ears. To our minds he becomes the master theologian who gives occasional illustrations to help us get the point. In this mode, Jesus becomes the one who did the mighty acts of salvation but he wasn’t much of a theologian. He traveled around the countryside giving nice illustrations of theological constructs.
    Yet in Middle Eastern culture, theology was taught more through metaphorical theology. Carefully crafted stories were presented. The listener entered into the story and learned theology by experiencing the contours of relationships between people and ideas. The systematic explanation was for those who didn’t get the story. The story was the theology and the logical explanation of concepts was supplementary.
    From my perspective, I sense that many RLCs are still missing the point in that they look more to Jesus’ statements and see parables as illustrations of theological points, rather than seeing the parables as the focus of his theology.

  • Paul Johnston

    While you are free to file this comment under “Catholic mischief making”, Is part of the resentment towards “Red Letter” interpretations based on a Protestant status quo belief that even to engage in such discussions, is to undermine the integrity of *your very Bible itself?
    (“*your”, for the purpose of this discussion is meant to relate that as a Catholic I read a somewhat different bible then most participants here.)

  • Mariam

    Well, I don’t have quite as high a view of Scripture as the rest of you, but I find the argument that the Gospels are not really what Jesus said, but what other people said he said a bit ironic from people who do take a high view of Scripture. People work themselves into a lather over a few verses that Paul wrote in his letters to the early churches and say they’re really aren’t anti-gay or against women in ministry but it’s in the Bible and therefore the Very Word of God. Or that even though original sin is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, Paul’s teaching seem to support it and whatever our personal views are about the matter Paul speaks for God, but when it comes to what Jesus is actually purported to have said, they say “Well, we don’t know that these are Jesus’ actual words or acts. They are just the writers’ interpretation of his life and words.” You know you would think if there is one thing in the Bible that God would want to make sure the writers got exactly right it would be the very words He spoke when He was on earth, living among us. And if there is one thing the writers of Scripture would try their hardest to remember as objectively and accurately as possible it would be the conversations they had with God on earth, not the conversation in their head (I have conversations with God in my head too), or in a vision or an hallucination. I actually agree with Michael here:
    “Jesus didn’t write his teachings. The gospels are not the transcripts of a court reporter capturing Jesus words and teachings. Nor are they biography in the modern sense of the word. They are four different windows into his teaching through the community of disciples he established. Craig Hill writes in “In God’s Time:” I would just apply that same logic to Scripture in general. God did not write these teachings. They are not the transcripts of a court reporter capturing God’s words. Nor are they a biography/history/description of God in the modern sense of the word. They are different windows into the teachings/character of God through a community of disciples He established.
    No matter how we read scripture, whether we come to it as simply a collection of writings that we do not believe are inspired, whether we focus on the purported words of Jesus or whether we try to shoehorn scripture into a a particular theology, or whether we let our community of faith do the interpreting for us, we are reading with bias and finding “a projection of ourselves” . And perhaps that is what God intended.

  • Dianne P

    On my denominational path over the years, from Eastern Catholic, to home church Quaker, to Presbyterian, to Roman Catholic, and onto evangelical non denominational, my greatest confusion on entering the last was the seemingly (to me) unbalanced emphasis on Paul – Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, etc etc. I even asked one of the elders – why don’t we ever study the gospels? the answer – well, we do. IMO, well, yes, occasionally, but not very often.
    I think if the proverbial martian were to land in many of our typical non-denom churches, they would certainly think that our faith was based on Paul. Jesus would be seen as a minor player, mostly off stage. I think that the whole RLC thing has been largely a reaction to such a skewed, off center theology. And like most reactions, in attempting to find some sort of balance, it tends to go off the other end. When non-denoms put Jesus back at the center of the story, will the RLC lost its impact? I don’t see how you can make any comments about the RLC without also discussing what it seems (to me) to be reacting against. I don’t see it in isolation.
    On the question of the OT, again in non-denoms which are also non-liturgical, it is very difficult to see the truths of God’s mercy and grace throughout the ages when you never hear those readings inside the church. To Rebecca’s points, whenever I read the OT, I’m amazed at its reputation of a harsh God in light of what I see as bountiful mercy and grace.

  • http://darrenbrett.wordpress.com/ Darren King

    Okay, but to play the oppositional advocate – here’s a question one might logically ask:
    If we determine that we should take scripture all equally – because scripture says we should – aren’t we simply engaged in circular reasoning?
    Scot mentions that scripture is LOGOS, in addition to Jesus being LOGOS. Okay, but according to what evidence? One might ask how we determine this – especially considering a postmodern understanding that the confines of worldview must be evidenced in the writing of authors such as Paul.
    Isn’t it plausible that – assuming the gospel writers get Jesus’ saying mostly right – that Jesus, as the only GodMan, is less subject to the biases of worldview than someone like Paul?
    Again, I know this is not the evangelical take. But one might ask why?
    Thoughts?

  • RJS

    Darren,
    I think that Michael in #11 gave the best reason. I don’t think that it does us any good to play a Jesus Seminar type game and try to read back through the text for only the most authentic sayings of Jesus.
    There is no path to Jesus words except through the earliest Christians. This means we take the whole text as it is meant to be read.

  • http://darrenbrett.wordpress.com/ Darren King

    I understand that RJS, and believe me, the last thing I’m advocating is a Jesus-seminar approach. And I agree with you that we must take the earliest experiences of Christians as they come to us.
    What I’m questioning is why we don’t take into account a worldview filter when reading Paul. The idea that Paul had some kind of magical way of seeing it all – as if he somehow bypassed the human condition and didn’t read it all through a particular, contextually localized worldview, seems to fly in the face of how we now understand human beings experience reality.

  • RJS

    Darren,
    Your first comment seemed much more radical to me than this last comment.
    Personally I think that we should take Paul’s context into account when we read Paul. This is why I am not convinced that it matters, for example, whether Paul thought that Adam and Eve were real people or not – Paul told the story in his context. I wouldn’t expect him to do anything else.

  • http://darrenbrett.wordpress.com/ Darren King

    Agreed, RJS. And the question is: if this is true, how else, and in what other areas and issues, might this also be the case? I guess my overall point is that resorting to some failsafe position of “its LOGOS” – just doesn’t quite do.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #23 Mariam
    “I would just apply that same logic to Scripture in general. God did not write these teachings. They are not the transcripts of a court reporter capturing God’s words. Nor are they a biography/history/description of God in the modern sense of the word. They are different windows into the teachings/character of God through a community of disciples He established.”
    Agreed. But my take is that just because God did not dictate them doesn’t mean they don’t carry authority. The books demonstrated their authority across the early generations of the church and throughout the widely scattered communities. The church did not give the books their authority but rather surrendered to the authority the books carried.
    I’ve read enough about the means of oral transmission of teaching in the period after Jesus died to be confident that the gospel writers got the teaching right. But consider that Jesus likely taught in Aramaic and the gospels are written in Greek. Even if we read the Greek we aren’t getting the exact words Jesus spoke. Yet we have it on the authority of the early church that the gospels are what he taught.
    My point is that while these are windows, I understand them as windows that carry authority beyond other windows.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #25 Darren
    “If we determine that we should take scripture all equally – because scripture says we should – aren’t we simply engaged in circular reasoning?”
    I don’t know that “scripture” says we should take it all equally. I think we take it all equally because the earliest generations who knew Jesus and the succeeding generations who “road-tested” these books recognized the authority these books carried. That’s my perspective.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    John Stackhouse has a wonderful section on this topic in his book, “Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World.” Here are six paragraphs I posted at my blog back in May:
    “What would Jesus do?’ therefore is the wrong question for Christian ethics. If we keep asking it, moreover, we will keep making the perennial mistakes many have made, such as prioritizing church work over daily trades (“because Jesus gave up carpentry for preaching the gospel”); valorizing singleness, at least for clergy (”because Jesus didn’t marry”); and denigrating all involvement in the arts, politics, or sports (“because we never read of Jesus painting a picture or participating in political discussions, much less kicking a ball”). Instead, “What would Jesus want me or us to do, here and now?” is the right question – or, if I may, Who are we, for Jesus Christ today?
    Connected with this material issue, the issue of the imitation of Christ as the main motif of Christian discipleship, is a formal issue for ethical method. Many Christians, including some quite sophisticated theologians, seem to equate the priority of Christ himself versus other figures with the priority of the gospels versus other books of the Bible, such as the prophets or the epistles. But this is an important hermeneutical error (bemusingly reminiscent of 1 Cor. 1:12: “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ.”), and in at least four respects.
    First, even though the gospels come first in the canon of the New Testament, they are probably not the earliest testimonies to Jesus in the Bible. Paul’s early letters, most scholars agree, predate most or all of the four gospels. So if we are seeking access to the most primitive layer of “Jesus tradition,” in terms of whole books (rather than this pericope or that saying or this hymn or that parable in the gospels), Paul’s work would deserve priority.
    Second, we should not be privileging whatever we guess is the earlier material in the New Testament versus the later, because all of it is inspired by God and therefore has the same status: Holy Scripture. Any historian knows that sometimes later accounts are better than earlier ones precisely because the later accounts can have benefited from access to several earlier accounts plus perspective that only time can bring. So there is neither theological nor historical ground for preferring “earlier” to “later” – and that goes for preferring Mark’s gospel to John’s too.
    Third, privileging the gospels in the name of privileging Jesus would make sense in terms of the relative status of the Lord Jesus versus his disciples, the epistle writers Paul, Peter, John, and others. But the gospels are authored not by Jesus but by other Christians: traditionally, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So to privilege them is simply to prefer Matthew to Paul, or Mark to Peter, or John to, well, John (I-III John) – which reduces to a preference of genre, of gospels versus epistles. Such a preference hardly has literary or theological merit. (Indeed, the championing of the gospels over the rest of the New Testament is particularly odd coming from educated Christians, who sound as if they have discovered a red-letter edition of the Bible, except that their new version prints all of the gospels in red ink, while the rest of the Bible remains in black.)
    Finally, the story of Jesus is, of course, the key to history. But to emphasize the gospels over the rest of the New Testament is to forget that Jesus is Lord over all of history, Head of the church that succeeds him in earthly ministry, and in fact Author of the whole New Testament via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – as he is the God who inspired the whole Bible. The better hermeneutical path, therefore, is to keep clearly in view what each of the books of the Bible has to offer us and to draw upon them according to their distinctive natures, regarding not only their genre strengths and limitations but also the place of their subject matter in the Christian Story. We Christians are not to be forever repristinating the experience of the disciples trooping about with Christ in ancient Judea – nor, for that matter, the experience of the disciples in the early chapters of Acts. For there are more chapters in Acts, and the unfinished nature of the book has itself prompted many readers to the conclusion that God intends the rest of the church to keep writing it, generation by generation, until the Lord of the church returns, to fulfill the promise made at the book’s beginning (Acts 1:11) (190-192)

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    As I read this, I’m reminded of something that the late Dr. David Scholer used to say often when teaching his class on Women & the Bible: “Starting points” are very important. What passage do you consider “clear” enough to help you to understand the “less clear” parts?
    While he was talking about the issue of women in ministry, I think the same might be said in regard to this discussion of whether Jesus, Paul, or any other part of Scripture is given too much authority. There’s really no way around developing a framework that emphasizes one part or the other as you try to understand what the whole of Scripture teaches. We’re not here concerned so much with the question of whether people choose to interpret Paul through the light of Jesus, or whether the interpret Jesus through the light of Paul (or again, they might interpret both through some other Scriptural “lens”). To make such a choice, one way or another, is simply inevitable.
    The problem we seem to be having here is if one “speaker” is elevated so highly as to be used against other “speakers.” For example, “Paul says X, but Jesus says Y. I’m going to go with Jesus!” If this is the attitude, then we have a problem….

  • Tom

    Seems like the primary drive on the thread is to demonstrate the underlying unity of the Bible.
    Some go red letter and others go conversational. But everybody wants to make things lay down and work out.
    I don’t sense that a lot of evangelical and emergent types right now really believe the Bible comes together.
    Scot, or others, why is that kind of biblical unity important?

  • Scott W

    How can someone call themselves “Christian” and not have the spiritual orientation,at least, of a “Red Letter Christian? The life, lifestyle, accomplishments,and words and deeds of Jesus are our benchmarks and the foundation of our Faith. Paul thought so,as the rest of the authors of the NT.
    As always,the doctrine of Scripture,usually Protestant,where the Bible is made to carry the epistemic load it’s not meant to do alone,becomes an issue.

  • K

    This is one of the things that has always baffled me about Christians: Christ is Lord, Christ is God…but, when it comes to teachings, he is just one among many, and may be not even the most important if we consider how much some Christians quote the OT and Paul, and how little they repeat (or act) Jeusus’ words -except of course, for that famous sentence “I am the way…” used to pretty much condemm every non-Christian to hell. Jesus says that people can be “perfect ” as God is “perdfect” Paul says that nothing we can do can be worthy to God. Who do most Christians seem to believe? Pauls, of course!
    I guess that after Jesus/God came in the flesh, tought, pay the debt to himself and then left, he realized that there were many things that he had forgotten to tell the world, so he sent a e-mail to Paul, and Jude, and Oeter and James and whomever wrote Hebrews. But hey, Christ is Lord…


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