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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