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.