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.

Why did Jesus tell us to do good works for others to see and then say to do them secretly?

Q.  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  But just a little earlier, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Which is it?  Are we supposed to do our good deeds secretly, so that only God can see, or publicly, so that others will see and praise God?

In these two teachings Jesus is actually addressing two different problems.

The problem he addresses first is people who have a sincere faith but who aren’t living it out through generosity and service to others.  They are like “salt that has lost its saltiness” and a “lamp hidden under a bowl.”  In other words, they’re supposed to be having a preserving influence on their community and setting the right example, but they’re not.  So Jesus tells them to live out their faith through “good works” (not religious performance, but kindness and generosity), and this will lead others to recognize God’s compassionate character and praise Him for it.

The problem Jesus addresses next is people who are doing good works, but with bad motives.  They’re giving to the poor just “to be honored by others.”  Jesus says that if our sincere desire is to help those in need, we should do so discreetly and quietly, not to be praised by others, but to be part of God’s work of compassion in the world.  When we do this, God will be pleased and will bless our efforts.  (“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is an example of hyperbole or exaggeration, a technique Jesus often used to make a point.  It’s impossible to do literally, but it actually means not calling attention to what you’re doing.)

So we do “good works,” on the one hand, in a way that others can see, not so that we will be praised, but so that God will be glorified for His compassion.  But on the other hand we carefully avoid any self-promotion, because it’s not about us being honored, it’s about God’s purposes being advanced and God’s ways becoming known.

There’s a fine line to walk here.   A donor might want to make a gift public, and even agree to have their name on a building, for example, to encourage others to give.  That would be letting their light shine. But they’d always have to keep a watchful eye on their true motives.

Former President Jimmy Carter volunteers publicly with Habitat for Humanity to encourage others to take part in charitable work.

“Take no thought for tomorrow”—don’t we have to plan for the future?

Q.  Jesus told us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” But don’t we have to plan for the future?

When Matthew records Jesus’ teaching about what our attitude toward tomorrow should be, he uses a Greek word that can, in many contexts, mean to give careful consideration to something.

Paul uses the same word, for example, when he tells the Philippians that Timothy is genuinely concerned for their welfare, and when he writes in 1 Corinthians that all parts of Christ’s body should have equal concern for each other.  The King James Version reflects this common meaning of the word in its translation of Jesus’ teaching, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”

This translation, however, can suggest to modern readers that we can and should take a spontaneous, impromptu approach to life, making no provision for the future.   People can even spiritualize such an attitude, as I discuss in this post.  Unfortunately, this can lead to many mistakes and misfortunes that could have been avoided with a little forethought.  Even though these mistakes actually reflect a lack of due diligence, people can excuse them by saying they were following Jesus’ teaching.  They might even judge others who do plan for the future.

This is all really a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Jesus was saying.  The same Greek term can also mean—in fact, it more commonly means—to be unduly anxious or worried about something.  The context in the Sermon on the Mount, where this saying of Jesus appears, shows that that is his intended meaning there.

Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father cares for us and will provide for us, so we don’t need to wonder, “What will we eat?  What will we drink?  What will we wear?”  If we seek his kingdom and righteousness, all these things will be provided as well.  And so, Jesus concludes, “do not worry about tomorrow” (NIV, NRSV) or “do not be anxious about tomorrow” (ESV).

Other passages in Scripture teach positively that we should plan carefully for the future.  Proverbs, for example, teaches:

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
and to nourish your female servants.

Even though this teaching is offered in an ancient agricultural context, its implications are clear for us today.  We can’t assume that things will always go well, so we need to make careful provisions for the future.  But “careful” shouldn’t mean “full of care.” We shouldn’t be anxious or worried, but trust in our heavenly Father’s love.  That’s what Jesus is telling us in the Sermon on the Mount.

Why did Jesus say he wasn’t going to the Festival of Tabernacles and then go?

Q. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go to the Festival of Tabernacles, but then he goes anyway. By faith I’m accepting that this is not sinful deception, but do you have any thoughts about why it’s not?

I don’t address this question specifically when I come to this episode in the John study guide, but I do note earlier in the guide (pp. 27-28) that often in conversations between Jesus and others:

“Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities. They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further.”

I discuss this dynamic specifically in the cases of people like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and the same thing is going on when Jesus speaks with his brothers here.

When he says, “I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come,” his brothers think he’s speaking on a material level and saying that it’s not a convenient or strategic time for him to travel to Jerusalem. But since he does then go to Jerusalem, readers of the gospel are supposed to understand that this wasn’t what he meant. Instead, his reference to “my time” (a richly symbolic phrase in this gospel) shows that he means he won’t be “going up,” that is, ascending to the Father after dying as the Savior of the world, at this particular festival, but rather at a later Passover.

Raymond Brown, in his excellent commentary on John in the Anchor Bible series, observes that “John is giving us a play on the verb anabainein, which can mean go up in pilgrimage to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and can also mean ‘to ascend.’ In 20:17 Jesus uses this verb when he speaks of ascending to the Father, and that is the deeper meaning here.”

So this is one of the many places in John’s gospel where a deeper meaning lies behind Jesus’ words and where the difficulty we have in understanding those words should drive us to seek that deeper meaning. (“How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb!” “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”) Accepting by faith, as you did, that Jesus is not being deceptive is the first step in discovering the true, rich, saving meaning of his words.

Rembrandt, Jesus Preaching