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:
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.
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 , 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”!