Red Letter vs. Black Letter Bible People: Or?

Red Letter vs. Black Letter Bible People: Or? April 3, 2019

Matt Smethurst, at The Gospel Coalition, pokes at the Red Letter Christians movement (RLCs), the movement that wants us to focus on the “red letters” in the Bible — namely, the sayings of Jesus. I, too, have heard some simplistic, reductionistic and misguided statements from those impacted by the RLC.

Smethurst knows there’s some nuance here but he begins with a sketch of the RLCs, not all of it nuanced:

With the way some Christians talk, you might be forgiven for wondering why the canon includes more than four books. Sure, the Old Testament is useful in tracing the development of human reflection on the divine, and the New Testament in conveying the thoughts of some of Jesus’ earliest followers. But if you really want to know what God thinks about something, you’ll need consult the recorded thoughts of Jesus. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to stick to the “red letters.” In other words, flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (or that less traversed terrain, Revelation 2–3) and stay put.

To be sure, I understand the impulse. It’s not altogether misguided. It makes some sense in light of the differences between the sinless Son of God (on display in the Gospels) and the bona fide sinners who penned most of the rest of the New Testament (unbelieving James and Jude, denying Peter, blaspheming Paul, and so on). Dubious résumés, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Christians have always recognized the God-breathed character of their words. The miracle of inspiration means the whole Bible is the voice of God. While central and foundational, the fourfold Gospel witness is no more true or reliable or relevant or binding than the black letters that precede and follow. Indeed, when we treat the red letters more seriously than the black ones, we muzzle the Son who speaks in all of them.

Jesus himself, he contends, looked forward to more revelation:

It’s foolish to downplay the Bible’s black-lettered pages if for no other reason than that they’re fulfilling a red-lettered promise. Consider Jesus’ words to his apostles:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15, emphasis added)

Now ponder the words of Paul:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12, emphasis added)

Did you catch the parallel? Christ’s promise finds fulfillment in Paul’s teaching. The ministry of the Savior marches on in the ministry of the apostle. Jesus said that he had more to say. He promised further revelation of truth to his apostles through his Spirit. Paul is just Exhibit A.

Sadly, he chooses to title his last section “Jesus Blinders”:

I recently heard a remark that only in Jesus do we see God “as he is.” While this statement may sound profound and even have a ring of truth—Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3) [Smethurst might read Colossians more carefully to say the Christ is not just the image but the fullness of the Godhead, that might just might say more than he’s saying here] and the point of the biblical story (Luke 24:27, 44)—it is finally misleading since it does not reveal the whole picture. The Lord’s self-disclosure was not exhausted by the Son’s earthly life [what does “fullness” mean?]. Jesus’ appearing neither nullified the revelation that came before (Matt. 5:17–18) nor rendered redundant the revelation that followed after (John 16:12–15). [Agreed.]

On the surface, “Jesus shows us what God is really like” language appears pious and even Jesus-exalting. In reality, it betrays a tragically truncated view of the Jesus of the Bible. We see God “as he is” by gazing with the eyes of faith on the pages of his Word—all of them.

One day, our faith will vanish into sight, and we will at last behold the king in his beauty. Until then, however, we live and move and have our being in the age of the ear. “For now,” Augustine taught 1,500 years ago, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”

There is a fundamental mistake here that Smethurst needs to address.

Yes, the whole Bible.

But the whole Bible read through which hermeneutic? One doesn’t just have the whole Bible. One has a way of reading the whole Bible. A simple illustration: we don’t follow the food laws of Israel or of Jews at the time of Jesus or, perhaps, even of Paul (at least when among fellow Jews). Why?

That’s the question. Why? Because we have a hermeneutic.

It’s simplistic to claim the whole Bible for two reasons: most everyone does that, even the Red Letter Christians I know who think Jesus fulfills the Old and thus brings revelation to the fullest. So does Greg Boyd, who operates with a cruciform hermeneutic. So does Tim Keller, who operates with a grace-vs.-religion hermeneutic that allows him to read even Genesis through that hermeneutic.

One might respond to Smethurst then with this: Red Letter Christians, too, claim the whole Bible but they have a different hermeneutic. It seems to me Smethurst has pushed us into a false choice: either we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus or we believe in Jesus because we believe in the Bible. Isn’t it the case that Jesus is the fullness of God in whom we see God and through whom we now know the mind of God?

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