Should We Be “Red Letter Christians”?

Should We Be “Red Letter Christians”? October 6, 2012

My good buddy Dr. Denny Burk posts on Paul’s Rebuke of Red Letter Christians. He points to Paul’s denunciation of the various factions in 1 Corinthians 1:11-12, esp. the “Christ faction,” who – if such a faction really existed – seemed to think that they were more followers of Christ than anyone else. Perhaps even to the point that they thought that their exclusive devotion to Christ freed them from the obligation to obey any apostolic authority such as Paul or Peter. (On a side note, I have to recommend Timothy George’s wonderful sermon on this passage preached at SBTS some years ago, available on-line). From this Denny writes:

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.

I resonate with Denny’s remarks because I have heard some Christians argue something like: Yes, Paul does censure homosexual practices, but you know what, Paul was just a sexist and homophobic bigot, Jesus taught an ethic of love and inclusion, so let’s follow Jesus on this one, and not that woman-hating sexually repressed apostle -or words to that effect. Anyone with a shred of canonical consciousness is not going to use Jesus as a brick to throw at Paul.

Note how Irenaeus of Lyons puts the Old Testament, words of Jesus, and apostolic message as part of a coordinated series, as part of his criticism of the theological method of the Valentinians:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures [lit. from unwritten things]); and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth (Against Heresies 1.8.1).

But I do have a few qualifications to make to Denny’s arguments.

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”!

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  • Denny Burk

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mike. I’m working on an ethics book, and the issue that you identified is a big issue hermeneutically. It is very common for Christian ethicists to play off Jesus against Paul on all manner of gender issues. And in some cases, it’s a reconstructed historical Jesus (not the Jesus of the text) that’s played against Paul and the gospel writers themselves. Richard Burridge does it in his ethics book from a few years ago, and he’s not even a radical.
    On 1 Corinthians 7: Even though Paul would distinguish his own teaching from the that which he accessed from the Jesus tradition, I still think he asserted his own authority as an apostle of Jesus. In 7:25, Paul writes: “Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.” Speaking “by the mercy of the Lord” is a reference to His apostleship. Being “trustworthy” is a reference to his reliability to speak for Christ as an apostle. I think that indicates that Paul didn’t view any daylight between himself and Jesus in terms of the “trustworthiness” and authority of their teaching. That’s why he speaks the way he does in 2 Corinthians 13:3, referring to “the Christ who speaks in me.”
    When Paul spoke, he believed it was Christ speaking through him. I think Paul would have insisted that all of his words be colored red as well.
    Thanks for the feedback!

    • Patrick

      To me, the entire narrative is motivated by God, so within a hermeneutic that seeks to understand the thinking of the writing era and audience, all commentary is equal to me.

      The various authors were animated to think what they penned down by God and according to predictions in Deuteronomy 18:15 and Jesus Himself, He too was animated to speak only what He was given by The Father. No difference to me.

  • A Brother

    Let’s take it a step further. We should be Jesus Christians. Let him define our walk personally. Go to him with the tough questions. When we focus on the theories it is easy to forget his present reality. We should be open to his guidance and revelation, which he can confirm, and still be respectful of the authority of those who have gone before us. When error is found, we have a protocol for that. Pride all too often disrupts wisdom.

  • As long as we agree, as you said, not to “use Jesus as a brick to throw at Paul” I’m right there with you.

    One difficulty is to who do we give interpretative priority, the Gospels or the epistles? Would we say that the Gospels and the Epistles are mutually interpreting? Or is priority an unhelpful way to think about this?
    The Gospels certainly are the ‘primary witness’ to the ministry of Jesus (if for no reason other than Paul tends to leap-frog over the particularities of Jesus’ ministry, preferring the bookends of his life, his incarnation, death, and resurrection), they have a redemptive-historical priority. If the story they tell didn’t happen, nothing Paul, Peter, or the others say (perhaps with the exception of James) really matters. The Gospels (better to say “the events later recorded in the Gospels”) define the shape and structure of later Pauline and post-Pauline Christianity.
    Of course, there’s one important sense to which there is a huge difference between the authority of, say, Paul and the authority of Jesus: It’s source. Jesus’ authority is original, coming from the sender. Paul’s authority is derivative, coming from authority of his Lord. But we’re not dealing with the authority of people here, but of the written documents we now possess. So while I think we need to recognize the unique canonical placement of Jesus and his story (lest we misunderstand what’s going on there), I’m not sure if we should speak of a unique “authority” between the Gospels and the epistles.

  • Aaron

    I dont see the red letter christian movement trying to be in the “I am of christ” club, nor do they reject apostolic teaching (some of course may). They want to simply put an emphasis on what Jesus emphasized. Burk’s post seemed like a pretty unfair broad brush approach to me.

  • The two most important lenses for interpreting Pauline ethics are Romans 14:14 (“I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”) and 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All
    things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything”). Paul is a pragmatic, even “morally relativistic” ascetic who would write a raging Galatian letter to all of his overconfident neo-reformed exegetes who have plotted his pastorally contextual exhortations into systematic schemata like their complementarian nonsense.

    The reason the Red Letter Christian reaction is warranted is because so people have tried to superimpose the Romans Road onto every story in the Biblical text. I think it’s appropriate to apply a Christological lens exegetically to the Old Testament like the Ancient Fathers did. But “Romans roading” every passage in the Bible is an abomination. A classic example is the interpretation of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4. There is no reason to say that Jesus is trying to convict the woman of her sin when he speaks of her 5 divorces (which is the almost universal presumption among the “4 spiritual law” people who want to see this conversation as the paradigmatic sidewalk evangelism conversation). There is no mention of sin, forgiveness, or repentance. Jesus could very well have simply been naming her misfortune because she likely didn’t have any choice in whether those 5 men threw her out or not.

    So it’s a little bit disingenuous to act as though Romans hasn’t been over-weighted for the past 500 years of Protestant Biblical interpretation. The “Red Letter” movement is an appropriate backlash against it. A correction is necessary, though certainly as you say the canon should never be pitted against itself.

  • Jeremy Chappell

    This quote from Dr. Denny Burk’s caught my eye: ‘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.’ Doesn’t it strike anyone else that this is exactly what Paul did as well?

  • Jeremy Chappell

    I’d echo what Morgan said. If, as many here have affirmed, the Gospels have “canonical primacy”, then the appropriate lens would seem to interpret Jesus and His message through the Gospels – and secondarily through the Epistles. Instead, the Gospel has become equivalent to Paul’s teaching, which was obviously in tension with the apostles at the time; and, Jesus is interpreted through Paul.

  • ZacharyMartinez

    Why follow Jesus? Why follow Paul? Someone is convinced to follow Jesus – why follow Paul? The position of those who follow Jesus but not Paul makes sense to me.