Are the “red-letter” parts of the Bible superior to the “black-letter” parts?

In the current issue of Christian Ethics Today (#89, Spring 2013), Tony Campolo, one of the founders of the Red Letter Christian movement that seeks to promote non-violence and social justice, makes some provocative statements about the biblical basis for its positions.  He writes, “Our critics responded to our new name by saying, ‘You people act as though the red letters of the Bible are more important than the black letters.’ To that, we responded, ‘Exactly!'”

While I am very sympathetic to the overall aims of this movement, I am concerned that statements like this one actually undermine its otherwise solid biblical grounding.  So I would like to explain what I feel are the dangers of asserting, as Campolo does, that “the red letters are superior to the black letters of the Bible,” and suggest another way to understand how the Bible undergirds the progressive vision of the Red Letter Christians.

By way of background for those who are not familiar with the source of this terminology, in some editions of the Bible the words of Jesus are printed in red.  This was first done by Louis Klopsch, then editor of the Christian Herald, for a New Testament in 1899 and a full Bible in 1901, so that followers of Christ could “gather from His own lips the definition of His mission to the world and His own revelation of the Father.”  Since then the format has been adopted widely by publishers, so that most contemporary translations of the Bible are available in “Red Letter Editions.”

The name Red Letter Christians, therefore, expresses a commitment to be guided by the words of Jesus (printed in red letters), in preference to any other teachings in the Bible (printed in black letters), since the latter have now been “transcended by a higher morality,” as Campolo puts it.  (The group’s name has been adopted specifically as an alternative to labels such as “fundamentalist” and “evangelical,” which originally conveyed a similar commitment to following Christ’s teachings, but which he says now carry much “negative baggage.”)

Now as I’ve said, I’m very sympathetic to the aims of this movement. As I write in this post, I believe personally that “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.”  However, I also believe that this involves a process that’s more complicated than simply reading and following the red letters at the expense of the black ones.  Let me explain why.

For one thing, there is the practical issue of what actually are red-letter statements and what are black-letter ones. Interpreters and publishers don’t agree about this.  In the gospel of John, for instance, there are places where it’s not clear whether Jesus is still speaking or whether the gospel writer has resumed the narrative.  There are actually no quotation marks or any other punctuation in the earliest NT manuscripts. So in many cases it’s an interpretive decision where to put quotation marks and thus which statements to attribute to Jesus.

Publishers also disagree about whether only words spoken by Jesus on earth should be put in red, or whether things he spoke after his ascension to people back on earth should be in red as well.  For that matter, some biblical statements are “black letter” when they first appear in the Old Testament, but then “red letter” when Jesus quotes them in the New Testament.  Is the identical statement in its red-letter presentation superior to its black-letter form?

Because of such considerations, some translation committees actively discourage red-letter editions.  The Committee on Bible Translation, for example, says in the Preface to the New International Version (NIV) that it “does not endorse” such editions.  So treating them as the default presentation of the Scriptures and a suitable source for a meaningful allusion puts the Red Letter Christian movement on  shaky ground.  There really are no “red letters” in the Bible.

But this is not the most important problem with the approach Campolo describes.  Rather, we need to recognize that “red-letter” statements, even if there were such a thing, and we could identify definitely which ones they should be, would only be meaningful in the context provided by the surrounding “black-letter” statements.  This is true in the case of individual passages and books, and in the case of the Bible as a whole.  Just as a word is only meaningful in the context of the other words around it, so a statement in a literary work is only meaningful in the context of the statements that surround it.  No black letters, no meaningful red letters.

In other words, we can’t simply extract isolated statements, whoever made them, from the rest of Bible and use them as the basis for contemporary moral and ethical decisions. The difficulty of this approach becomes evident as soon as we begin to compare various “red-letter” statements with each another.  For example, Campolo sees a mandate for non-violence in Jesus’ statement that we should love our enemies.  But Jesus also told his disciples at the Last Supper, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”  Now it may be possible to show how this statement can be reconciled with an overall commitment to non-violence.  But this can’t be done by pitting one isolated statement against another.  On that level, there’s no basis for deciding which should take precedence.

The fact is that the Bible is not a compendium of individual statements.  It is a collection of literary creations that together trace God’s redemptive dealings with humanity over the course of history.  As we catch the flow of those dealings, we can work out, with fear and trembling, how our lives form part of the story they tell, and we can begin to determine how, in our day, we can help move the story towards its anticipated culmination.  But this necessarily involves ambiguity and perplexity as we struggle to appreciate, perhaps never with complete success, how the parts of the story that seem anomalous somehow nevertheless bring it up to Christ and through him to us today.  It’s not enough to dismiss them as having been “transcended.”

Even so, a Bible that properly consists of all black letters can still get us where the Red Letter Christians want to go; it’s just a little more complicated.  As Campolo himself acknowledges, “The black letters all point to the Jesus we find in the red letters.”  But they do this, for one thing, by identifying him with figures such as Moses, who delivered all those black-letter laws, and Joshua and David, who led violent military campaigns.  Take away these figures and the New Testament portrait of Jesus becomes too vague for us to recognize who Jesus is and why we should follow his teachings and example. But see Jesus in light of these earlier figures and the challenge of following him becomes complex and nuanced.

Even so, I believe we can still live out the spirit of Christ’s teachings in our own day, as the culmination of the entire biblical story.  I know this is what the Red Letter Christians are trying to do, and I truly admire them for that.  I just think the formula for doing this can’t be expressed quite so simply as reading the red letters and leaving the black ones behind.  To me that disintegrates the very Bible that, taken as a whole, can be understood to provide solid support for many of the positions the Red Letter Christians advocate.  I wish them well.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

7 thoughts on “Are the “red-letter” parts of the Bible superior to the “black-letter” parts?”

  1. I thought of another reason why taking the “red letters” as a priority is not such a good idea. Jesus was a practicing Jew speaking mostly to other practicing Jews; in such a discussion there can be times when the discussion is about things that are really only relevant to Jews and not directly relevant to gentiles and in somehow trying to make them relevant to everyone is just going to end up distorting things.

    1. I agree–putting letters in red practically invites people to lift them out of their social, cultural, literary, and redemptive-historical context, as if they could be applied directly to us today without any “translation” from their original context(s) to ours. In other words, red letters short-circuit or eliminate the entire process of hermeneutics.

  2. OK I SUGGEST ONE OF THE REASONS FOR HAVING RED LETTERS IS, IT JUST LOOKS GOOD, AND IT’S JESUS’ WORDS, SOMEONE SHOULD CLEARLY SEE THAT HERE IT’S JESUS SPEAKING.

    1. There are two issues here. (1) Should we have red letters at all in the Bible? You’re saying that this is a way to lift up and honor the words of Jesus, and actually, in some medieval manuscripts of the Bible, Jesus’ words are put in red or purple ink, so red letter Bibles follow in that tradition. That could be a good thing. (2) Should we privilege the red letters above the “black letters” when it comes to understanding from the Bible what we should believe and practice? I’m saying we shouldn’t. I’m all in favor of honoring our Lord Jesus; putting His words in red letters is like standing up for the gospel lesson in worship. But we only understand how Jesus is the culmination of God’s redemptive-historical work by reading and following the “black letters,” too.

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