Red Letter Christians

Some of you may know a bit of a crowd gathered around the idea of being red-letter Christians, that is, Christians who root praxis in the words of Jesus. Some are not too happy with that approach if it means dismissing or devaluing the teachings of the apostles. In other words, this is about canon — all the books are God’s Word for the churches and not just the words of Jesus — and hermeneutics — where do we begin when reading the Bible?

What relationship do the teachings/words of Jesus have in the Christian thinking about ethics? First place, even with the others, or the measure for the others?

Mike Bird and Denny Burk have a brief face-off on this issue:

Denny Burk:

In other words, the “I am of Christ” faction may have felt that they could sidestep the authority of Christ’s apostles by claiming that they heard directly from Jesus himself. In this sense they were the original red-letter Christians. Because Jesus spoke to them directly, they could sideline the apostles and other teachers in authority over them. Is this not the same approach that modern day red-letter Christians take when they elevate the words of Jesus as if they had some special priority over the other words from scripture? This approach lends itself to the suppression of black letter texts that seem to differ from the emphases of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Mike Bird:

1. I think Paul was a “red letter Christian” to the extent that he recognized and prioritized the dominical authority of Jesus’ words ahead of his own instruction. Consider his remarks about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.

Paul is careful to note when one of his exhortations is rooted in Jesus tradition and when he speaking out of his own apostolic/charismatic authority. He does that, not to avoid plagiarism, but because he recognizes the particular authority that the words of Jesus carry.

2. In my recent studies, I have been impressed with the repeated reference and strong reverence made in the early church (esp. by Clement of Rome and Papias of Hierapolis) to the ”words of the Lord” (logia kuriakon).  The words of Jesus, from canonical and agraphical sources, emerge time and time again as the highest authority to which one can appeal. Not against or as an alternative to the prophets and apostles, but within them, as part of the “oracles of God.”

3. The Gospels are not super-canonical over the Epistles. However, the Gospels do possess a canonical primacy, placed at the head of the New Testament canon, and as primary witnesses to the ministry, passion, and resurrection of Jesus.  As Meredith Kline put it:

In the canonical sequence, the tetraevangelion functions for the New Testament, much the same way that the Pentateuch functions for the Old Testament: a testimony to God’s redemptive work, a ratification of the covenant, and marking out the way of life for God’s people. (Meredith G. Kline, “The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre,”WTJ 38 [1975], 1-125-27).

Thus, we have to countenance the special place that the words of Jesus have in Christian discourse, be that in ethics or theology. In that sense, within a canonically shaped hermeneutic, we should all be “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 fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Luke Allison

    I don’t mean disrespect by this, but I can’t think of a less thoughtful and more dogmatic thinker in the blogosphere than Dr. Burk.
    His argument here is short-sighted: When Paul was writing to the Corinthians and referencing the “I am of Christ” faction, what were they reading (more likely hearing) as “Scripture?” Does he really think they were poring over every word of Paul’s letters looking for doctrinal significance?

    Dr. McKnight, can’t we say with some certainty that the early church was completely formed by the oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings? From 1 Cor 15 to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, it seems as if Paul was constantly handing on something that was already being sung, chanted, or repeated. Inerrantists like Burk seem to always have this picture of faithful 1st Century Christians gathered around their leather-bound Bibles doing word studies.

    I have consistently seen Burk tow the proverbial line for the past 5 years on just about every subject. If that’s what being a conservative is, then count me out completely. Of course, I’m sure he already would do just that!

  • Rick

    “The Gospels are not super-canonical over the Epistles. However, the Gospels do possess a canonical primacy, placed at the head of the New Testament canon, and as primary witnesses to the ministry, passion, and resurrection of Jesus.”

    I think the Bird and Burk are coming at this with differing concerns. Whereas Burk’s concern is in regards to the reduction in the authority of the epistles, Bird’s concern is in regards to a lack of appreciation for the importance of the gospels.

    However, the two approaches do not have to be in conflict. The epistles are inspired and therefore authoritative, and their importance is how they shine light on Christ, as He is seen in the gospels.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy
  • Luke Allison

    Derek,

    It IS in the Geneva Convention. Look it up!

    But seriously, I don’t think calling someone unthoughtful and dogmatic is disrespectful. I’d feel perfectly comfortable saying something like that in one of his classes. I would feel less comfortable talking about his personal sexual proclivities or the way he treats his children.

    Just enjoy the win, okay buddy?

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Just havin’ a little fun. Every time I hear that phrase I now thing of Ricky Bobby.

    On the points, I get the criticism, but I think Rick’s more on point. In fact, I think Dr. McKnight’s splicing doesn’t do the debate any favors by giving one paragraph of Burk’s piece and cutting off Bird’s intro. Bird opens his piece with a hearty enough amen to the basic point that Burk is making. Both of them think it’s a mistake to operate with a simplistic Jesus v. Paul canon-within-the-canon. Bird then steps up further to make the case for a canonically-sensitive approach to being a Red-Letter Christian.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Spelling fail= *think

  • Luke Allison

    Derek,

    Understood and basically agreed-upon. I have an allergy to the idea of “red letter Christianity” more for the fact that it misses the point of the different writers composing their accounts of Jesus life in the first place. The “red letters” of Jesus aren’t intended as some kind of word-for-word stenographic recounting of what he said. They are a summary of his sayings with a very particular literary purpose according to each author. Discerning that literary purpose in context is part of understanding what “the gospel of the kingdom” is all about, in my opinion. So I definitely wouldn’t ever hint at pitting the apostles against Jesus.

    But Burk is so concrete and so Baconian in his thinking: Paul referring to his opinions is actually Paul referring to his apostolic authority (because Paul’s “apostolic authority” is a systematic theological point that has to be introduced into the text at all cost). This is just “common sense” to Burk.

    Again, for men with Burk’s style of reasoning, there is categorically no difference between 21st century Christian practice and 1st Century. All the same pieces are in play, all the same traditions are being invoked, and basically the same theology was being used in the ancient church as in our modern facsimile.
    So “the Scriptures” = the modern Protestant canon
    the Lord’s Supper= the symbolic rite of communion
    Paul’s theology = Luther and Calvin’s (and consequently Denny Burk’s) theology

    This is not undogmatic and not unthoughtful. So….catch 22….

  • Steve Sherwood

    What about the argument that for some time large portions of Christianity has done the opposite, given priority to Paul and then, maybe, the words of Jesus if they don’t conflict in any way with what we’re sure Paul said? I felt this most vividly when reading Justification by Wright and Piper’s responses to Wright both in the book and following its publication. For Piper it seemed to be 1. what did the Reformers say about Paul 2. what did Paul say 3. maybe a little bit of what Jesus said. That may well be an over-generalization, but it was my strong impression.

    I’ve heard some say that the problem for Wright and Piper in talking to each other is that one starts as a biblical scholar and the other as a theologian and they talk past each other. That seems like some part, but not all of the issue.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Yeah, I’m not enough of a Burk reader to know how to defend his typical method of reasoning, but do you really think that “apostolic authority” is introduced into the text as an extraneous systematic point? I mean, I seem to remember Paul arguing on the basis of his authority as an apostle at various points in that specific letter?

    Also, Calvin and Luther are my boys. I have pints with their faces on them. Just sayin’…

  • http://apolojet.wordpress.com Joseph Torres

    Again, the problem with “primacy” language is practice. What exactly does it mean to say that the Gospels have primacy over the epistles? I understand, and make the point over on Bird’s blog, that Jesus certainly has redemptive-history primacy. Without the life, teachings, death, resurrection, etc. of Jesus, there would be no need both for the Gospels and the Epistles. Jesus’s lifetime was the lightning rod of salvation history. But sometimes I fear that discussions of “red-letter Christians” (RLC) neglects to consider OUR place in redemptive history. We, 21st century believers in Jesus, live during a time when ALL of our NT documents come to us by way of apostolic authority (whether direct or derivative).

    The differences between the Gospels on the wording of many dominical sayings tips us off that while we’re dealing with the words God would have us possess, we’re not necessary dealing with the ipssima verba of Jesus (an impression given by some, though not all, RLC). Where we standing on the redemptive-historical timeline, we are under the authority of Jesus’ appointed and commissioned spokespersons. Their written words ARE the words of the Master through them.

    So again, in practice, what would such primacy look like?

  • Luke Allison

    Derek,

    I’m not saying so much that “apostolic authority” is an extraneous systematic point in actuality. Rather, that Burk doesn’t see apostolic authority as a fluid and organic part of Paul’s thinking and writing. In Burk’s (and many Reformedamentalists) way of reading the text, apostolic authority is a means of giving words and ideas and theological notions “for all time” power on the same level of Jesus. Rather like holding a roll of quarters when you punch somebody. So Paul’s words and Jesus’ words carry equal weight because all of Paul’s words (divorced from context, history, and Jewishness) are the very words of God through the Holy Spirit. No subtlety, no interpretation, no “faithful improvisation” required.

    I have a soft spot for Luther, and Calvin is a magnificent interpreter of Scripture. But, I can’t get on board with a few key ideas that they espouse:
    1. The “Law/Gospel” dichotomy in Scripture
    2. The “Judaism as Catholicism” caricatures that have led to so much misunderstanding in these latter years
    3. Everything Calvin says about foreknowledge, sin, and soteriology :)
    4. Imputed righteousness

    The list may go on. I just don’t see the value in basing any foundational theological ideas on 16th century interpreters of Scripture, even if they were basing their foundational ideas on 4th century interpreters of Scripture (or 11th century interpeters such as Abelard). I’ll certainly take some of what those men had to say into account, but the point of theology is to constantly be sorting and integrating ideas and thoughts into our own stew of understanding. There is no “right theology” to be found in the 16th century. Plain and simple. The mythology set up around that time period (made palatable for younger evangelicals by the YRR movement of late) simply will not do.

  • Luke Allison

    Correction: There is no “infallible theology” to be found.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I can see what you’re saying about flat, one-to-one readings. I feel what you’re throwin’ down.

    As for the rest of it about Calvin and Luther, I’m not here to get into a spat about historical theology any mistakes in your views on soteriology, sin, and foreknowledge. ;) I was just sayin’ I like those guys. They’re legit. They’re fun and helpful to read as well as have on pint glasses. Judging by the terms you’re throwing around like “Reformedamentalists” and acerbic references to the YRR, I take it you’re not to keen on that wing of the church/blogosphere. Just realize that might be shading your (over)-reactions to my comments and Burk’s blog itself, reading more into them than is actually there.

    Anyways, have a good one.

  • Luke Allison

    Derek,

    “I take it you’re not to keen on that wing of the church/blogosphere. Just realize that might be shading your (over)-reactions to my comments and Burk’s blog itself, reading more into them than is actually there.”

    Only a certain grouping of feathers in that wing. I like Keller and the more Kuyper-oriented Calvinists. I love Jamie K. Smith’s thoughts. I was once a fairly regular attender of various Reformed-friendly young pastors’ conferences, and even felt myself gravitating in the direction of Reformed theology for a while. My personal experience as a member of the tribe is what has forced me to abandon it.

    Anyway, thanks for your witty and friendly banter on these things. For every neo-Puritan I meet, I meet a person like you who makes me think there’s hope for us yet.

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    As a regular contributor to http://www.redletterchristians.org, what being a Red Letter Christian is about to me is the call to stop Romans-roading the gospels! Let me give you a perfect example. Remember how Jesus has that conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. When he says, “The truth is you’ve had 5 husbands and the man you live with now isn’t your husband,” is he 1) convicting her of her sin or 2) expressing sympathy and acceptance to a woman who got rejected and divorce-slipped by 5 men (which was not adultery under Mosaic law, c.f. Mark 10) and forced to play the whore by the 6th?

    If you automatically answered #1, it’s because you’ve made the Reformation reading of Romans into the normative paradigm by which every Christian conversion occurs (conviction of sin, despair, throwing yourself at God’s feet, justification, assurance). The problem is that the words sin, forgiveness, and repentance do not occur anywhere in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. She becomes his first evangelist without following the rules and repenting of her (ex-husbands’) sin.

    Celebrity sidewalk preacher Ray Comfort has a particularly disgusting reading of John 4 that justifies his evangelism approach of bullying strangers into saying a sinner’s prayer by asking them whether they’ve kept the Ten Commandments.

    Being a Red Letter Christian to me means to let Jesus speak for Himself just like you let Paul speak for himself and recognize that Jesus’ words do have primacy over Paul’s just like they have primacy over Moses’ even though they’re all canonical. Also FWIW, I’m pretty sure Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (who have just released a Red Letter Christian book) have no intention of leveraging Paul out of the canon.

  • Luke Allison

    Morgan,

    Your post on Jesus’ Sabbath healing as a paradigm for Christian morality has been one of the most influential things I’ve read. I’m attempting to construct some narrative metaphors around the concept in order to smoothly teach it to students. Hopefully I have your blessing. :)

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com greg metzger

    Scot, the deeper issue for me is not the primacy of the Gospels–I think it is so–but rather that the whole red letter notion historically separated the “words of Jesus” from the rest of the Gospel words. I think it is too bad that this language is being carried on by this new group, though I think they mean something different with it.

  • http://pauldouglaswalker.blogspot.com/ Paul Walker

    I agree that we should not ignore the tension or pick and choose what parts of scripture we like. (i.e. Jefferson Bible) I just doubt that this is what the RLC’s are doing.

    RLC as a movement is really an emphasis on a Christocentric hermeneutics as an approach to understanding and practicing scripture. This approach assumes that God’s moral character is fully revealed through Jesus, the Word made flesh. The life and the teachings of Jesus, God incarnate, provide the definitive revelation of the character of God. This is to say that every revelation of God, biblical or otherwise, should be judged through the revelation of Jesus.

    Jesus is the fulfillment of progressive revelation. Jesus exegetes the Father to humanity. So Jesus, the Son, doesn’t present a different God than the Father, but is the perfect revelation of the Father. This is to say because Jesus is the perfect picture of God, the Old Testament revelation is incomplete. Or as you said “evidence of how God is willing to deal with humanity, by meeting us where we are”. God in his love appears as ugly as our hearts portray him to be and as beautiful as we allow him to be. RLC are not ignoring the “hard texts” of scripture, but rather seeing them as you do.. a piece of the story that ultimately progresses to fulfillment in Jesus.

    A couple key texts that demonstrate a Christocentric view of scripture.

    “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

    “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25–27; cf. John 5:39–40, 46–47)

    “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” John 14:9

    “No one knows the Father, except the Son” Matthew 11:27

    “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” Hebrews 1:3

    “He is the image of the invisible God” Colossians 1:5

    “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” Colossians 2:9

    The critique I have is to question is the accusation that RLC’s are following the Gospels over Pauline writings due to christological focus and the dating of the letters. RLC’s are focusing on Jesus above all else because that is the emphasis of the New Testament. RLC’s approach is not formed by issues of dating and authorship, by rather from the emphasis of the text itself. Paul, more than anyone, is focused on expounding Christ and Him crucified. The OT points to Christ, the Gospels proclaim Christ, and the rest of the NT reflects and exegetes Christ to the context of first century Christianity.

  • Ben Thorp

    While I can understand (and respect) where Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne are coming from, my biggest problem is the way that people are going to interpret it. The implication that people seem to take from the RLC stuff is that the “red letter” stuff in their Bible is from Jesus, and the rest isn’t.

    Morgan says above: “Being a Red Letter Christian to me means to let Jesus speak for Himself just like you let Paul speak for himself and recognize that Jesus’ words do have primacy over Paul’s just like they have primacy over Moses’ even though they’re all canonical. ”

    Personally, I think this is wrong. For me, the whole point of the doctrine of inerrancy is that _all_ Scripture is ‘God-breathed’, and therefore Jesus, being God, speaks _all_ the words of Scripture. Yes, there are the differences of context and human-authorship, but the RLC stuff seems to simplistically apply this to the epistles, whilst ignoring that the same is true for the Gospels.

    I agree with Paul Walker that “[t]he OT points to Christ, the Gospels proclaim Christ, and the rest of the NT reflects and exegetes Christ to the context of first century Christianity” and that we should have a Christocentric hermeneutic, but I reject the idea that the words reported to have come from the mouth of Jesus whilst He was here on earth have some sort of primacy over all the other Scripture.

  • John I.

    Since Jesus didn’t write any of the gospels, being an RLC is hardly being non-apostolic. Given that all scripture is inspired, and both the gospels and other canonized writings are scripture, all the writings are inspired and profitable for us to us.

    There are different ways in which Jesus’ words can be given primacy without denigrating the other scripture. For example, the paraphrases of what Jesus said have at least hermeneutical primacy when trying to develop coherent doctrines and Jesus’ words and other scripture are capable of more than one interpretation. In such cases, where each set of words seem to imply different trajectories of meaning (but are not in conflict) then the trajectory implied by Jesus’ words should be used to control the trajectory of other passages of scripture.

    In addition, Jesus words are usually more general in application and pre-church, whereas the epistles are pastoral advice given to specific churches. Hence we shouldn’t allow particular advice to restrict the wider implications of Jesus teachings (e.g., forms of church leadership or organization, women in the church).

    One should also look to Jesus words as to what he considered to be priority and significant issues. The other documents address issues that were of particular concern to specific churches, and so the focus of those documents is on those particularities and not on what Jesus emphasized.

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    First, thanks to Luke Allison. You have my blessing!

    Ben Thorp, do you not think there is any need for a corrective reshuffling of the hermeneutical lens to break up the hard pavement of the Romans Road that has been laid across the whole of the canon so that those four spiritual laws are read into everything?

  • Ben Thorp

    I think that any attempt to use single portions of Scripture as the definitive lens through which we read Scripture, or any attempt to place greater importance on one book or series of books, is a flawed hermeneutic.

  • Dennis Clough

    Mike Bird wrote:

    “I think Paul was a “red letter Christian” to the extent that he recognized and prioritized the dominical authority of Jesus’ words ahead of his own instruction. Consider his remarks about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:

    10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.

    Paul is careful to note when one of his exhortations is rooted in Jesus tradition and when he speaking out of his own apostolic/charismatic authority. He does that, not to avoid plagiarism, but because he recognizes the particular authority that the words of Jesus carry.”

    This is an incorrect conclusion. Paul is simply saying that Jesus had already spoken on this subject. He then adds to it with all the conviction of the one appointed by Christ to be the “Apostle to the Gentiles” who also received special, new revelation from Christ re the church. To ignore the unfolding, progresive nature of the Bible as seen in the Apostolic age is to flounder in an incomplete understanding. This eases the deviation into social or political activity fueled by misplaced zeal.


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