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The problem with being a Red-letter Christian

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 08.48.06Red-letter Christians‘ is a movement or network in the States (primarily) initiated by Tony Campolo with the support of Jim Wallis. Alongside Campolo, another main contributor is Shane Claiborne, a leader in the New Monasticism movement. The name of the movement comes from the practice in some Bibles of printing the words of Jesus in red, as Campolo explains:

During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, the DJ happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians–you know–who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!” Jim answered, “That’s right!” And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. … In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said. Of course, the message in those red-lettered verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

This commitment is a response to two issues: the social reality of life in contemporary America; and the way that evangelical Christians there are all too often aligned with the political right. Campolo hopes that this new movement will not simply take a position within these politico-religious culture wars, but offer a non-partisan approach that transcends the divide:

The purpose of this gathering was not to create a religious left movement to challenge the religious right, but to jump-start a religious movement that will transcend partisan politics. Believing that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, we want to unite Christians who are concerned about what is happening in America.

He then lists the social issues that are of concern—inequality, the environment, education, overseas development aid, and discrimination. I don’t think I would disagree with any of these issues, as you could see from wandering around this blog. It is worth noting, however, that Campolo’s proposal of transcending the right/left divide looks somewhat disingenuous here, as these are all ‘left’-type issues. Where is the mention of parenting and the scandal of a fatherless generation? Where the need for a sense of personal moral responsibility? These classically ‘right’ issues also have a good claim to be rooted in Christian values.

More importantly, I think focussing on the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus is the wrong way to address these problems. In fact, this approach offers considerable problems of its own.

The first danger is that it detaches Jesus from his Jewish context by failing to read his words in the context of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that Jesus himself read. One of the refrains on the website is ‘If Jesus didn’t talk about it, why is it so important?’ But, as Wes Hill points out, this has never been the main way Christians engage with ethics, and it is potentially highly misleading.

Contrary to the “red-letter Christians” experiment, it is simply not a classic Christian practice—among Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants—to pit the words (or silence) of Jesus over against other portions of Scripture.

And if we do, this very quickly leads to a neo-Marcionite position, where we contrast the (rather nasty and obsessive) god of the Old Testament with the radical and inspiring message of Jesus. Apart from anything else, this is incoherent and unnecessary. If you want to look for resources for a radical alternative to consumerism, you can do no better than turn to Lev 25 and read the teaching on the Jubilee—as many other Christians have in fact done. Here we find a radically communitarian vision of life under the reign of God where we do not own our possessions but are merely stewards of them. And in the gospels, Jesus is mostly presented as a fulfilment of such a vision, not a contradiction to it.

The second danger is that this approach dehistoricises Jesus. In removing him from his Jewish theological context, we also remove him from his historical context and treat what he says as though they were timeless statements of truth which need no interpretation. Ironically, this has a similar effect to the one imposed by the Jesus Seminar, a group of historically sceptical scholars who believe we need to recover the historically authentic words of Jesus from the layers of later theological additions. To do this, one criterion apply is the ‘criterion of dissimilarity‘; we can be confident that something is from Jesus if it is untypical of both his Jewish context and the later teaching of the church. But this is not a way to find the authentic Jesus; it is a way to find the eccentric Jesus. And by focussing on his radical sayings, the RLC movement does the same.

One consequence of this is a common but bizarre assertion that Jesus was not particularly religious—or that the main people he had a problem with were the religious people. Andrew Wilson deals with this deftly:

“The only time Jesus drew a line, it was religious people who were on the other side.” Well, since pretty much everyone in the Mediterranean world in the first century was religious, including a certain circumcised, Torah-observant, festival-keeping Jewish Messiah, that’s not a particularly striking claim. Everyone in that scene (John 8:1-11) was religious. So what?

This has immediate implications for our approach to discipleship. I am the last person to defend the idea that truth is to be found in a religious institution rather than relationship with Jesus. But in fact we all need ‘religion’, if by this we mean a tradition and pattern of devotion into which we are inducted with others. That is why the disciples saw no need to end their regular visits to the temple (Acts 2.46, Acts 3.1) even after Jesus was raised and the Spirit poured out. If we are not shaped by these habits, it all becomes a matter of individual effort, and we end up with what Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline called ‘will worship.’

PeterPaul12-360x311The third danger is that the RLC approach emasculates our theology. It is very clear from even a cursory reading of the NT that the first disciples, whilst they attended very carefully to the teaching of Jesus, proclaimed a good deal more than that. Jesus was not just someone who told us things we did not know; in his resurrection God had done something we could not do. That is the centre of Peter’s teaching in Acts 2; that is clearly the message of Paul in Acts 17. Even in the gospels themselves, Jesus’ teaching can never be separated from his miracles. In fact, the later apostolic teaching about Jesus is presented very strongly in continuity with the teaching of Jesus. Wes Hill again:

The unfolding of the New Testament canon presents itself as the continuation of Jesus’ speech, so much so that Paul’s words in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere about sexual behavior are to be read as having the authority of the same Jesus who allegedly said nothing about homosexuality during his earthly life. Notice how Paul describes his identity: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” (Galatians 1:1).

If we focus only on the teaching of Jesus, we are aligning ourselves with the Gnostics; the so-called ‘gospel’ of Thomas, which contains 114 sayings of Jesus, is no gospel at all, since a ‘gospel’ announces good news about what God has done.

The irony of all this is that focussing on the ‘red letters’ is not what is need, nor does it deliver what is necessary. One of the ‘trending’ articles on the website explores the idea that ‘Being born again is not about Going to Heaven‘. The articles draws on the writings of Tom Wright—hardly a ‘red letter Christian’ but in fact a renowned Pauline scholar. Another related articles loudly proclaims ‘The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself.’ It is arguing against the notion of biblical ‘inerrancy’, but is probably one of the worst examples of engaging with this issue I can think of. It suggests that, because 2 Tim 3.16 says that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ then it is not God. And only God is perfect. So Scripture is not perfect.

My mom isn’t perfect. She would be the first one to tell you so. She has several degrees and a lifetime of experience, but she would also tell you she’s not inerrant.

And the Bible is like that. We go to it for wise advice, but it is not perfect. This is the most appalling logic—and quite the opposite of what Paul intended in 2 Tim 3.16! The reason for the problem is that the writer of this is locked into the same assumptions as the people he is criticising—that the opposite of ‘inerrant’ is ‘errant’ and so the Bible must be one of these two. But in fact the real problem that needs to be tackled is the background of nineteenth-century rationalism which is framing this whole discussion.

What is actually needed here is not to read less of the Bible, Jesus’ words alone, but to read more of it. If Campolo and others are concerned that abortion and homosexuality are taking up too much of evangelicals’ attention, then the answer to that is to locate these issues in the whole of the Scriptural witness, and give them due weight—no more, and no less. Campolo is wrong that the main issue for Christians in America is inequality, or poverty, or discrimination. The main problem there, as here, and in every place, is that all have sinned; that the kingdom of God is at hand but we need to repent. If some Christians twist this into a right-wing, moralistic, individualised message, then the solution is not to try and ‘transcend’ these issues, but to engage with them in a better reading of the whole Bible that we all share.

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34 Responses to The problem with being a Red-letter Christian

  1. John Allister May 13, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    Added to which, it presupposes a crazy notion of translation. We’ve only got a handful of ipsissima verba – talitha koum, etc. The rest are already in translation (albeit divinely inspired translation, often by those who knew Jesus well), which necessarily changes the shades of meaning. Given that we trust John’s translation of Jesus’ words, which can probably be fairly free at times, why shouldn’t we trust his teaching about the consequences of Jesus’ words?

    • Ian Paul May 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

      John that’s a really interesting point, thanks. Yes, the idea that we somehow have the unmediated teaching of Jesus, free from any interpretation of Jesus’ first hearers, does seem fanciful.

  2. Emlyn May 13, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    That’s why I don’t like red-letter Bibles (apart from the fact that with my fading eyesight they are harder to read!)

    Sadly, it’s increasingly difficult to buy an American published Bible which isn’t red-letter. I have a Zondervan TNIV which is red-letter despite the translators’ introduction which says, ‘… the issuing of “red-letter” editions is a publisher’s choice – one that the Committee does not endorse.” So as usual the market wins!

    It’s a much wider issue than just the red-letter movement.

    • Ian Paul May 13, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

      Indeed, and there is another whole post or two to be written about the impact of the market on Christian publishing, and the printing of Bibles in particular.

  3. J May 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Let me be more blunt: Jesus-words-only is a dangerous cult-like perspective as it drives a wedge into the Trinity and commits (by omission or deliberately) the fallacy of the finite Jesus.

    Once Christ is stripped of his context, heritage and promise He becomes little more than an anachronistic flower child of the sixties.

    • Ian Paul May 13, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

      Interesting comment. I did rather think when I wrote this that I was going against the grain and would get some negative reactions…clearly I am not alone!

      • J May 13, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

        Subjectively, the fallacy I mention seems to be the part of the Emergent experiment that has persisted despite the failure of the experiment as a whole.

        In the end, Christ can no more be understood without examining the ‘black letters’ than a house can be built by starting with the second floor.

        • Alan Molineaux May 13, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

          It always makes me chuckle when I read someone saying that the emergent experiment has failed. Yet here we are discussing its influence upon the church.

          Just because the markers that the church tends to use to measure success (size of congregation etc) are not seen it doesn’t mean that the conversation has failed.

          I would suggest that many people in many evangelical churches are having the conversation but do not feel comfortable expressing it because to do so is to face criticism.

          • Ian Paul May 14, 2014 at 8:34 am #

            That does raise the interesting question about ‘success’ or ‘failure’. I don’t think i can say anything about the US situation, but it is striking in the UK that it appears church growth is mostly happening in inherited forms of church, with perhaps Messy Church an exception (though there is a big debate to be had on whether this is ‘church’ or pre-evangelism).

            Something that does not seem to be explored much is the way that alternative/progressive/post-evangelical church often functions as a long route to the exit door for many long-standing Christians.

          • J May 14, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

            The emergent experiment /has/ failed. Rob Bell has shown his true colours and has set up camp as an evasive, Oprah-friendly denizen of a quasi-intentional ‘spiritual’ community. Brian Mclaren’s generous orthodoxy has proven to be little more than narrow, fashionable compromise and Franky Schaeffer continues to have daddy issues that would drive a therapist into therapy. The emergent experiment was little more than a failed re-branding of ‘liberal’ Christianity and like all expressions of chronic compromise it is terminal if not dead on the bough.

            We are discussing its influence inasmuch as its influence was to sicken and weaken after a disease has run through the Church body.

            There was no conversation. Simply recapitulation.

          • Ian Paul May 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

            J, we might be talking about different kinds of ‘failure’. In terms of influence, Alan is right that people are reading and following.

            I suspect the failure you are referring to is a perceived failure in offering a convincing and coherent hermeneutic. I think I am probably with you on that—though I do very much agree with the idea that we must give Jesus’ teaching prominence in ethical discussion. See the exchange above with Alan about the death penalty.

          • J May 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

            Ian – I was attempting to reply to Alan. It looks like the threading/reply system had some mischief in the placement of the comment. I’ll address individuals directly to avoid shenanigans in future.

            The failure i referred to was the failure to establish the Emergent church as some ‘third way’ between the deeply entrenched left and right wings of Christendom. As time passed it proved to be defined by the tropes of progressivism and as such it placed itself on the left with an intention of countering the dogma of the Christian right.

            As for primacy of Jesus’ words, I would respectfully say ‘it depends’, for the reasons of parity among the Godhead that I’ve mentioned already. Certainly red-letter types have in my experience relied more on the OT than NT drawing on the social justice behaviour expected of Israel.

    • flexdoc November 29, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

      What you mean to say it that following Jesus instead of worshiping a post Easter deity disempowers the church and redirects us to the teachings of a first century prophet .

      • Ian Paul November 30, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

        I think you might be labouring under the false dichotomy between the so-called Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

        The earliest documents in the NT include the letters of Paul, and we find, in one of the most significant, early, undisputed letters of Paul the incorporation of Jesus’ identity into the monotheism of the Shema, in 1 Cor 8.

        The first followers of Jesus evidently thought that you could not encounter the historical Jesus unless you saw in him the unique presence and action of the God of Israel.

  4. James Byron May 13, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    “The reason for the problem is that the writer of this is locked into the same assumptions as the people he is criticising—that the opposite of ‘inerrant’ is ‘errant’ and so the Bible must be one of these two.”

    It must, mustn’t it? Either the Bible contains errors or it doesn’t. You can certainly debate what form those errors take — whether the Bible’s errant on, say, cosmology, but not on doctrine — but there’s no third way on the fundamental question.

    I totally agree with your criticism of the Jesus seminar and red-letter Bibles for decontextualizing Jesus. The gospel sayings must be read in context, but that’s easier to do when the text can be viewed as a human creation, with all the flaws and biases that entails.

    Marcion didn’t want a flawed Bible; he wanted a perfect one that he could agree with.

    • Ian Paul May 14, 2014 at 8:35 am #

      ‘Either the Bible contains errors or it doesn’t’. Only if it is the genre of a car maintenance manual.

      • James Byron May 14, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

        How about the genres of theology, history and moral instruction?

        • Ian Paul May 15, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

          I don’t think the categories of errant/inerrant apply.

  5. Alan Molineaux May 13, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Hi Ian. Whilst you make some interesting points I am not sure that you understand what Red letter Christians is all about. It is not a club for those who want to ignore the rest of the bible and just read the words of Jesus; it is a response to the often seen use of bible verses without reference to Christ.

    Here I am not saying that you don’t offer a critique worth considering but that what you say does not really represent what they are trying to achieve; the blog is also a little less than generous in its approach (I am not speaking here of your own personal generosity – which I do not doubt).

    Shane has just shown what they are trying to achieve in his excellent response to Albert Molher’s defence of the death penalty. He shows that Mohler does not reference Jesus in his writing on this subject. Shane is not trying to suggest that the rest of scripture has nothing to say: he is showing that Jesus is of supreme in importance in being the revelation of God (of actually being the Word Himself).

    You say ‘The first danger is that it detaches Jesus from his Jewish context by failing to read his words in the context of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that Jesus himself read.’

    This is a misrepresentation. It is in fact a distinct mark of much of the RLC teaching to show what the words of Jesus meant in his historical context.

    In the academy I am aware that historical context is important so I feel sure that you Ian are committed to this. The problem is that a lot of teaching in the evangelical world treats the bible as if it either an encyclopaedia of knowledge or a personal promise box rather than a dynamic story of God walking with people.

    You may not like the idea but left to Mohler and others we will be using scripture to support laws without even a glance at the way Jesus dealt with people.

    Hope that helps. Al

    • J May 13, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

      “Shane is not trying to suggest that the rest of scripture has nothing to say: he is showing that Jesus is of supreme in importance in being the revelation of God (of actually being the Word Himself).”

      And therein is the problem: the clear implication that Jesus’ words in the NT trump all. This necessarily fractures the Godhead and subordinates the Father and Spirit.

      That is why the viewpoint is utterly wrong.

      • Alan Molineaux May 13, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

        All evangelicals do this. We don’t follow OT law to the letter. We don’t see all OT prophecy except through the life, work, death, resurrection of Jesus.

        We even understand the godhead through the NT not primarily the old.

        • J May 14, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

          “We don’t follow OT law to the letter.”

          Neither did the most devout saint in the Old Testament, because the law was not some monolithic entity. It was deeply granular such that parts of it only applied at certain times, and parts of it only applied to certain groupings.

          It was never universal.

    • Ian Paul May 14, 2014 at 8:59 am #

      Thanks for the comment Alan–very helpful.

      I think it might be worth distinguishing between the teaching of Campolo and Clayborne and what is happening on the website and the articles that are posted. I agree with you that SC’s response to Mohler was quite right; how can you do any ethics without considering Jesus’ teaching? That is crazy. And SC offers a fantastic response to it.

      But the way the movement presents itself is that it has found a way to rise above the details of debate about method and interpretation–and that is simply not possible. The best informed ‘conservatives’ know their Bibles and questions of interpretation very well, and if you want to change their mind you need to engage in the debate.

      I think SC and TC can do this…but I am not sure that the RLC idea is encouraging their followers to do so.

      Perhaps history is a good example. I don’t believe that this is simply ‘important in the academy’. As I comment about the resurrection, http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/evidence-for-the-resurrection/ the historical nature of Christian faith is something that all Christians need to be aware of and take seriously.

      Does that make sense?

      • Alan Molineaux May 14, 2014 at 11:30 pm #

        Ian – I take your well put points.

        I would raise these two questions.

        1) could you be presuming that goal is to debate/win over conservatives when it might not be. The goal for some of us is to wrestle with the issues. This some times involves debates with others (I see this as a positive thing) as we are doing here. I don’t expect to win you over. I would see our respective goal as being to offer a constructive corrective to the assumptions we might make about each other’s position.

        2) could it be that our different approaches (and here I am not talking about you and I specifically) are what makes us see the others position as being incorrect. For example I find systematic theology inadequate in describing/explaining the bible. I would adopt a more narrative/dynamic approach. I wonder if what us revealed in your kind response to me here is a dismissal of my viewpoint because I don’t employ the same method as you. I am sure I have probably done the same in return.

        I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

        • Ian Paul May 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

          Wrestling with the issues is good…though Campolo does explicitly say that the aim is to address those who identify Christianity with the religious right.

          However, I am curious that you class me as someone ‘to be won over.’ As I point out on the post, I have written on many of these issues, and was reading Yoder, Tom Sine and the like many decades ago!

          I would agree with you in your comment about systematic theology. Doctrine must reflect on but then lead back to Scripture, not the other way around. have you read my post on ‘Satisfaction’ and the long debate that followed?

          http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/on-the-cross-when-jesus-died-was-the-wrath-of-god-satisfied/

          I would also say that method is neither neutral nor detached from Scripture…

          • Alan Molineaux May 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

            Thanks Ian

            I didn’t mean to suggest that I should see you as someone to be won over. The opposite in fact. I was referencing what saw as your critique of RLC – that they are approaching things wrong if they are looking to convince the ‘right’.

            Offering is a challenge is perhaps not the same seeking to change.

            Thank you for your thoughts. I will keep reading.

            I would say that I still feel you have created a slight caricature of RLC that means your critique is slightly misplaced. I don’t say that to suggest you have nothing important to say but in the hope that you might have a further look at what being ‘red letter’ means for those involved. Is that ok.

  6. Brian May 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    Jesus is not known except as mediated by the Bible writers, and to insist arbitrarily on the particular logia that are preserved there is naïve, as well as not having much faith in Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit to the Church after his ascension.

  7. Jonathan Tallon May 14, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    The other objection to the red letter approach is that it can privilege the words of Jesus over the actions of Jesus. Failure to consider the actions leads to a different perspective on Jesus (contrast the Jesus seminar, which majored on the words, to EP Sanders’ approach to the historical Jesus, which began with his actions).

    • Ian Paul May 14, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      Yes, that’s an interesting example.

  8. Steve Pownall May 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Is Tony Campolo in the UK at the moment? It would be good to hear you in conversation with him, because as you suggest above he would be perfectly capable of debating the problems you describe. I wonder if something is being lost in translation here between US & UK contexts?

  9. Sarah McClelland May 15, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Thanks for this, Ian, really helpful. Groups I’m involved with – especially Business Connect, Jersey – are keen RLC-ers particularly because of their concern for social issues which I know you agree with. Their approach has helped me understand more of the subversive nature of the Kingdom of God, especially in terms of worldly power as seen in heirarchy and institutions vs the power Christ demonstrates that flips that on it’s head – as seen throughout scripture whether it’s written in red or not!

    So… the group’s name is rather unhelpful as you point out – but I’ve found their approach interesting and helpful and it’s transformed how I think about Church and the Kingdom. Maybe they should rename themselves – I wonder if they intended us to take them so literally?

    • Ian Paul May 15, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      Thanks Sarah. I am not sure it is just about renaming though. Interestingly, there is now a large and growing literature on the anti-imperial nature of the NT from an academic point of view…and this would be at least as effective a place to start, even with noting the anti-imperial elements in Pauline theology.

  10. David Schwier July 25, 2017 at 12:00 am #

    Seems like this is the biggest problem with being a ‘Red Letter’ Christian: https://substandardseminary.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/what-is-the-goal-of-the-christian-life/

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