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Resolving tensions in our reading of Scripture

redletterFollowing my previous observations about Tony Campolo no longer calling himself evangelical, Tony himself responded on Christian Today.

Every once in awhile unfair judgments are made. That was the case when Christian Today contributor Ian Paul wrote that I, along with other Red Letter Christians, emphasised the red letters in the New Testament, which in many Bibles highlight the words of Jesus, at the expense of the rest of Scripture.

I offered a response to this, which was not, in the end, published in Christian Today. There are quite important issues at stake in the claim that Jesus’ displaces Old Testament teaching, that Paul gives us our essential theology, whilst the gospels give us the lifestyle we should live, and that justice is the centre of the good news that Jesus proclaimed.


Every once in a while people get upset at being asked some difficult questions, and offer a response to set the record straight. But at times that response highlights the very issues that it aims to resist, and I think that was the case when Tony Campolo kindly responded to my comments last week.

In response to my observations about following the ‘red letters’ of Jesus’ teaching, Tony suggests that in Matthew 5, ‘Jesus declared that his commandments take precedence over what was written by the law givers of the Hebrew Bible.’ That’s quite an odd suggestion, given the nature of Jesus’ teaching here; far from displacing the teaching of the law, Jesus appears to be giving them renewed force. They do not merely regulate the outer, visible life, but also our inner life, which is known only to God and hidden from our neighbour. It is an even odder suggestion, given that in his temptations in the desert, Jesus quotes these ‘law givers’ as if they were writing the words of God himself, and earlier in Matthew 5 has been quite emphatic:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all has been accomplished (Matt 5.17–18).

It is no wonder that Jewish Matthew alone records a parable about his task as a Jewish follower of Jesus, holding on to both Old and New Testaments together as the treasury of the words of God:

Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matt 13.52).

We cannot read the Old Testament as if it was written to us, ignoring the cultural, historical and social gap between ourselves and those to whom it was first written. We are not nomadic subsistence farmers living in an iron-age warrior culture. Nor can we read the Old Testament as if Jesus had never lived and taught. But, like the writers of the New Testament, Jesus demands that the Old Testament is read through his interpretive lens, not displaced by him—it is still written for us. When we set the one against the other, we end up with real problems, as Tony’s comments illustrate.


First, he claims that ‘the Epistles give us our essential theology, while the Gospels define the lifestyle we are called to live out.’ Ironically, this has been a central plank of the evangelical tradition which Tony criticizes, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It was the teaching and action of Jesus recorded in the gospels, not least his resurrection, which gave rise to the worship of Jesus alongside the God of Israel (surely our ‘essential theology’) which we find in the epistles. And it is hard to read the closing chapters of (for example) Romans without seeing clear guidance on Christian lifestyle, parts of which are in striking parallel to the teaching of Jesus.

Secondly, Tony appears to squeeze Jesus’ teaching into his own concern for social justice, rather than the other way around. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is not about Christians helping the poor; elsewhere in the gospel, Jesus uses the language of ‘these brothers (and sisters) of mine’ quite clearly to refer to his disciples, the ones who follow his teaching, and not the poor in general. This parable does indeed include radical and challenging teaching, but not quite of the kind that Tony suggests: if we follow Jesus, we might well end up hungry, thirsty, naked and a stranger, sick and in prison, and needing the help of ‘sheep’—those who respond to us with kindness, unaware of whom they are truly helping, members of the body of Christ.

Jesus is indeed concerned with justice, and Tony has over the years done evangelicals a great service in both teaching this and putting it into practice. But I wonder if he is in danger of forgetting where this justice flows from. According to Matthew (and the other gospel writers), it arises from Jesus’ preaching of ‘the kingdom of God, and his righteousness’ (Matt 6.33). For the Jewish Jesus, this righteousness includes loving God with all our heart, soul and strength (as those law-givers commanded) and our neighbours as ourselves (also from the law-givers). And in matters of marriage and sexuality, it means continuing to live in the creation order of male-female marriage—not (as Tony claims) as part of our spiritual actualization, but as a reflection of the creation pattern of Genesis 1 and 2—or living as celibate single people in anticipation of the new creation, as both Jesus and Paul did.


I am heartened to read Tony confess that ‘I still believe what evangelicals believe.’ If that is the case, I ask again, why ditch the name? If the term ‘Christian’ becomes misunderstood, would he drop that too? Why hand the term ‘evangelical’ over to be monopolized by those with ‘anti-feminist, homophobic, anti-environmentalist, militaristic, xenophobic views’? Such people need to be brought back to their evangelical confession—that we need constant reform of our views in the light of Scripture, which is the sole authority for Christian life and doctrine. It applies to them; it applies to me; and it applies to Tony’s commitment to social justice. If Tony is disowning the word, is he also rejecting this principle?


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9 Responses to Resolving tensions in our reading of Scripture

  1. Jonathan Tallon October 8, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

    As we speak, a large number of ‘evangelicals’ in America are sticking by Trump, despite the tape showing he regarded women as available to sexually assault.

    If I were in America, I’d want nothing to do with the label ‘evangelical’. I suspect it has been irrevocably tainted there for decades.

    • Mat Sheffield October 9, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

      Precisely.

      As I think I tried to articulate in my comment on the previous post, the problem is not so much a debate about weather Tony is an evangelical (most of us agree he is, but some have doubts about aspects of his theology), but weather the word is helpful and useful to describe anything anymore.

      I agree with you Jonathan.

    • David Shepherd October 9, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

      Jonathan,

      As we speak a large number of Red Letter Christians, including Tony Campolo, are sticking by Hillary: http://www.redletterchristians.org/support-hillary-president/

      This is despite the Clinton Foundation’s complete and utter Haitian aid and development debacle during her watch as US Secretary of State. It has been the antithesis of appropriate development.

      For instance, did impoverished Haitians really need the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to invest $2 million in building the 5-star Royal Oasis ­hotel in their midst, where a sleek suite with hardwood floors costs more than $200 a night and the shops sell $150 designer purses and $120 men’s dress shirts.?

      Or how about the construction of the 175-room Marriott Hotel, which now employs only a few dozen locals, but was built by multi-national contractor, Kier at a cost of $45 million through a Digicel finance deal brokered by the Clintons?

      Or how about the Caracol Industrial Park, a 600-acre site which displaced farmers from their land without adequate compensation with the promise of over 60,000 jobs?

      Yet, to date, Caracol has a couple of tenants producing mid-range to luxury garments at dirt-cheap costs. Workers are left with US$ 1.36 a day after they paid for food and transportation (which is far less than before the 2010 earthquake). To date, the project has only produced approximately 5,000 jobs and the surges of its wastewater have caused floods and spoiled crops.

      If I were in America, I’d want nothing to do with Red Letter Christians or the Clintons (or, for that matter, Trump)!

      Does the support for Hillary Clinton by Red Letter Christians, like Tony Campolo, taint their label too?

      • Mat Sheffield October 10, 2016 at 9:12 am #

        “Does the support for Hillary Clinton by Red Letter Christians, like Tony Campolo, taint their label too?”

        I don’t think it taints the label “evangelical” (I’m not sure how strong the association is), but I do think it makes us question their judgement and integrity. I’m intensely suspicious of any christian group or movement that directly supports or endorses any political movement or ideology.

        Noneoftheabove

      • Jonathan Tallon October 10, 2016 at 9:31 am #

        Please do not try to pretend there is any equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Trump. You are complaining that a charity foundation didn’t spend as wisely as it could have done, and comparing this to someone who, in addition to boasting about sexually assaulting women, wants five innocent black men to be imprisoned for a crime that someone else has confessed to and for which DNA evidence has exonerated them. He has shown utter contempt for women, for ethnic minorities, and for the rule of law.

        • David Shepherd October 10, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

          Jonathan,

          They’re as bad as each other, even if only one of them supports liberal causes.

          Such euphemisms as ‘didn’t spend as wisely as it could have done’ are a luxury of the first and second-world with it’s church ‘for the poor’, but ‘not ‘of the poor’.

          I can only suppose that to you it shows Hillary Clinton’s deep and meaningful respect for the ethnicities of Haiti that the Fund:
          * used donations intended to help the poor for building useless luxury tourist palaces;
          *claimed to have ‘built’ schools for which the fund only contributed an Earth Day celebration;
          *Helped secure a $1.5 million USAID contract for one of its major contributors, Dalberg Global Development Advisors, to identify incompetently uninhabitable mountains with steep ravines as possible sites for Haitian rebuilding.

          Yeah, I can see how, by comparison with Trump, Hillary is way ahead on the token espousal of minorities, the rule of law (after all, there isn’t on in Haiti is there?) and utter contempt for the unborn child.

          • Jonathan Tallon October 10, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

            If you genuinely think they are as bad as each other then I see no further point in discussion.

          • David Shepherd October 10, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

            Of course, I see a difference…

            Clinton doesn’t have a comb-over! Lighten up.

  2. Bob MacDonald October 8, 2016 at 10:53 pm #

    Ian, what more can you say about governance and policy that might follow from this teaching? This is a big hole in the writings of people who believe. Just what are the implications of the canon for globalization, nation states, immigration, corporate taxation? Must I think include the implications of the canonical history of Judaism.

    An African king is known to have said (Berber I think), justice requires the crown, the crown requires an army, an army requires taxes, taxes require wealth, wealth requires justice. Does this justify the divine right of kings? (If anything can be said about the KJV, it takes every opportunity to resolve ambiguity in this direction.) But Elihu reports the disciplining of monarchs: Job 36:7-9 (my reading)

    He does not lower his eyes from the righteous one,
    but kings are on the throne,
    so he seats them in perpetuity and they are haughty.
    And if prisoners in chains,
    are caught in ropes of affliction,
    Then he makes evident to them their works,
    and their transgressions that prevail over them. (and so on but I think you will find it difficult to hear the full criticism of kings from the KJV: yea, he doth establish them for ever, and they are exalted).

    Of course, like anyone in power, a man or woman will admit his faults for the purpose of saving his or her own skin, but can such be trusted to change from self-interest and provide the wealth and taxes to keep the army and the wholeness of all people (not just ‘followers’)?

    Every now and then I blather about the political implications of our faithfulness. But coercion from me is no better than coercion from the government. What does the canon testify to concerning governance? Unfortunately as I think about this, we do not have control of the kingdom of God. Yet we must together discover how to become a mature child of the same God. My implications are directed to the Psalms. Maybe 110 and the two following acrostics are a sufficient soundbite.

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