Recently I received word that someone might be interested in publishing my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay that I first shared in 2013—if only I could reduce it a little.
So I expanded it from 23 pages to 31 pages. Then, with great effort and the judicious advice of a friend, I cut it down to 14 pages. Now I have two red letter reductionism essays:
- “Red Letter Reductionism” (expanded version, 31 pages)
- “Red Letter Reductionism and Apostolic Authority” (reduced version, 14 pages)
This is all rather expansive for an essay about reductionism, but I am thankful for the results.
I’m not sure I want to post my abbreviated essay until it has been published in print (trusting it will be). But here is the expanded version of the original essay:
Red Letter Reductionism
What is this essay about?
Red letter Christians are any Christians who in some way prioritize the words of Jesus over the rest of Bible, including over the rest of the New Testament. While the words of Jesus are indeed important, I think that elevating the Bible’s red letters over its black letters is a bad practice that can lead to bad results.
In this essay I explain why, focusing especially on the authority Jesus gave to his apostles, including his promise to speak through them.
From the essay introduction:
This essay is about red letter theology and red letter Christians. It is about the authority of the New Testament and the nature of the gospel. First, we need an introduction to red letter Christianity. Then we will ask whether it is harmless. To answer our question, we will consider the promise of the Spirit, the limits of pre-Pentecostal revelation, and the nature of apostolic authority. We will take a close look at Paul, examining his gospel and his apostolic claims. We will examine John 3:16 as a test case for red letter theology and then ask whether this theology paints a shrunken, two-dimensional Jesus. We will consider the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel and ask whether Anabaptists are truly excited about the gospel. Finally, we will consult Matthew’s opinion on red and black letters, then conclude with two clarifications and five suggestions for readers of this essay.
What is new in this edition?
First, I combed the entire essay, trying to improve clarity and weed out overstatements. Then I added significant new content.
I invite you to read the entire essay, even (perhaps especially) if you’ve read it before. Most paragraphs were tweaked at least a little.
But I don’t want you to miss some of the new material I’ve included, so I’ll share four excerpts here (minus footnotes).
1. On the term “the authority of Scripture”:
We must pause to examine what we mean by “the authority of Scripture.” First, following N.T. Wright, I believe that “the phrase ‘the authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’” On the one hand, this definition prevents us from directing worship to a book rather than to its Author; on the other hand, it reminds us that reverence for Scripture as the word of God is not idolatry but essential fear of God. Second, the term authority is used variously to refer to both (a) the divine origin of Scripture and (b) the weight or influence that any portion of Scripture carries to shape our interpretations and behaviors. In this essay I am primarily addressing the question of the divine origin of Scripture, arguing that red and black letters alike are words from God and, in that sense, equally authoritative. But one question leads to another; those who question whether all black letters truly come from God will also not allow them to shape their interpretations and behaviors as strongly. So near the end of this essay I will briefly address the question of which passages of Scripture should rightly shape our interpretation of Scripture most directly and strongly.
2. On the self-awareness of the New Testament authors about the authority they exercised as they wrote:
At least some New Testament authors seem to have been aware of the authority entrusted to them as they wrote. Peter addresses his readers as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:1), declaring that what he had “written” was “the true grace of God” in which his readers must “stand firm” (1 Pet. 5:12). This self-identification as “apostle” is found at the beginning of many New Testament letters, and should not be missed. When an Old Testament prophet said “Thus says the LORD,” he was using a standard messenger formula—the same formula that was used by the herald of a king, who would preface his message by saying “Thus says king so-and-so.” This formula indicated that the prophet was on assignment, speaking God’s words. A similar thing seems to be happening in the New Testament whenever an author claims to be an apostle. He is using this title to assert that he is God’s messenger—“the special envoy of Christ Jesus commissioned by the will of God.”
…John… prefaces his prophetic visions with a blessing best reserved for the word of God (cf. Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:28): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3a). At the end of Revelation, Jesus repeats this blessing on those who “keep” what John has written (Rev. 22:7; cf. 22:9), just as faithful saints elsewhere in the book are said to “keep” the commandments of God (12:17; 14:12) and the word of Jesus (3:8, 10).
John’s prophecy ends with a most solemn warning (that may come from the lips of Jesus himself):
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)
This warning adapts similar warnings found in the Law of Moses (Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; 29:19-20), leading Oxford theologian Christopher Rowland to this observation:
In utilizing this prohibition from Deuteronomy John appears to regard his own revelations as being of equal importance with earlier communications from God given to Moses. There is no question here of this book being regarded by its author either as a series of inspired guesses or intelligent surmise. John believes that what he has seen and heard actually conveys the divine truth to his readers… John sees himself as the one who has been commissioned to write down the divine counsels for the benefits of the churches (Rev. 1:19).
3. On whether Paul undermines nonresistance:
Another reason some people are uneasy about Paul’s influence is because they fear he is not sufficiently clear on nonresistance. After all, a majority of Protestants historically have been all too quick to take up the sword and repay evil with evil. Does this endorsement of violence flow naturally from the Pauline Reformed theology that many of them embrace? More explicitly still, Romans 13 certainly has been and still is used by many Protestants to defend the Christian use of the sword. Isn’t it safest—even essential—to subjugate Paul’s ambivalent teachings on the sword to Jesus’ clear command that we must not resist evil?
Four brief responses can be given. First, Reformed or even Protestant theology simply does not explain most of the Christian use of the sword throughout history. Roman Catholics, too, have historically affirmed the Christian use of the sword, despite not being shaped by the Pauline theology of Luther which set the trajectory for Protestant doctrines. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike waged war and persecuted Anabaptists. And Christian just war theory is much older than the Reformation. It stretches back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430), was developed most significantly by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), and remains the official doctrine of the Catholic church to this day.
Second, Paul is not to blame for Augustine’s formulation of just war theory. Augustine believed that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor meant that Christians must normally not kill in self-defense. Yet, drawing explicitly upon Greco-Roman pagan thinkers—especially Cicero—he made an exception for “just wars.” Romans 13 was not his “starting point,” despite the chapter’s later close association with just war theory by thinkers such as Aquinas and Luther. Augustine concluded, as one scholar summarizes, that “‘times change’… pacifism was appropriate… in the time of the apostles [but] not… in a day and age when kings and nations have succumbed to the gospel” in fulfillment of prophecy. Augustine was well aware of what both Jesus and the apostles taught, but concluded that new circumstances called for new behaviors. Augustine’s theology was too pagan, not too Pauline.
This leads to a third point: the influence of politics on theology. Catholics and Protestants alike developed their theology within the context of a Christendom that extended back to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to bear the sword in the name of Jesus. Political allegiances shaped the magisterial theology of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, with each relying on the sword-bearing support of city councils or German princes. The Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, in contrast, counted the cost of losing political legitimacy at the time they chose believers’ baptism. Living as a persecuted minority, they were free of political entanglements that might have hindered them from following Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent enemy-love. Yet they developed their nonresistant theology, it must be noted, while also wrestling meaningfully with Paul’s teachings in Romans 13. This influence of political power over our theology of the sword continues to this day, as Reformed theologian Preston Sprinkle has observed:
It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context or position shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do… Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation.
“Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far,” Sprinkle continues. “But only a bit.” He notes how Wayne Grudem has applied this chapter to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming that America is the good government and that Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad governments. “Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians,” Sprinkle suggests, “most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13.”
Which brings us to our final point: Paul is far clearer on nonresistance than many Christians, red letter or not, tend to acknowledge. In fact, Paul’s writings are in line with the entire New Testament, which “highlights Jesus’s nonviolent response to violence as a pattern to follow more often than any other aspect of his ministry.” Paul “has the Sermon on the Mount ingrained in his soul,” Sprinkle observes, and most of “Paul’s litany of commands… in Romans 12… has the scent of Jesus’s Sermon.” “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves… if your enemy is hungry, feed him… overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). The clarity of Romans 12 and other Pauline passages should remove all doubt that when Romans 13 puts the sword into the hand of the third-person government (“he,” not “you”), Paul cannot be affirming Christian vengeance. After all, “Paul explicitly forbids the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government does in Romans 13.”
4. On whether Matthew—the favorite gospel of many red letter Christians—promotes red letter theology:
David Starling addresses such questions in his recent book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship. First, Starling notes that both the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the six “antitheses” of Matthew 5 give Jesus’ own words a prominence that matches and perhaps even exceeds the law of Moses. Similarly, at the center of Matthew’s Gospel we find the mount of transfiguration, where God the Father exalts Jesus with an assertion (“this is my Son”) and a command (“listen to him!”). Starling suggests that “the assertion and command… (echoed by Jesus’s own assertion and command in Matt. 28:18-20a) are the twin foci around which Matthew arranges the material of his Gospel.” Thus, there are “five big blocks of red-letter content (chs. 5-7; 10; 13:1-52; 18; 24-25) in Matthew,” each underscoring “the identity and authority of Jesus as the Son of God.” Starling summarizes what this reveals about Matthew’s purposes as a Gospel writer:
The bulk and the prominence of these five blocks of teaching suggest that Matthew intended not only to narrate Jesus’ story but also to preserve and propagate his teachings, so that his disciples might learn and obey them. Evidently, according to the shape and content of Matthew’s testimony, the redness of the red letters in his Gospel is of no small significance to Jesus, to Matthew, and to God himself, and ought to be of no small significance to the Gospel’s readers.
So far, so good for red letter theology. But Starling continues:
But what exactly is the nature of that significance? How does Matthew want us to understand the relationship between Jesus’s words and the words of the Old Testament Scriptures (and, for that matter, Matthew’s own words as the writer of the Gospel)?
Starling answers by examining both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s words. The first words of Jesus recorded in Matthew (at his baptism) implicitly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 3:15). The next recorded words (at his temptation) directly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). The Beatitudes “are soaked in recollections of the Scriptures,” and “it is harder to imagine a stronger claim for the enduring importance of the Law than the language Jesus uses” in Matthew 5:18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” As we continue reading Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, the pattern of quoting and honoring the Scriptures continues. So Starling concludes:
The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be interpreted as an attempt to wrest authority away from the black. Any notion we might have that Jesus’s words could replace or supersede the words of Old Testament Scripture is dispelled as soon as Jesus starts speaking.
Matthew’s own words have a similar effect. Starling suggests that Matthew is teaching a way of reading the Scriptures. He does this by using a “constant interleaving of biographical narrative [about Jesus’ life], typological allusions [from the Old Testament], and scriptural citations [also from the Old Testament].” Craig Keener explains:
Matthew has constructed almost every paragraph following the genealogy and until the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text of Scripture. He thus invites his ideal audience to read Jesus in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of Jesus.
The references to the Old Testament continue throughout Matthew’s narrative, “so that we might learn to read Scripture, and to understand Christ, accordingly.”
Starling ends his chapter with insightful and mature reflections, worth quoting at length:
The red letters of Jesus’s teachings do indeed… fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture. Christians who… attempt to read the Scriptures as a timeless, undifferentiated compendium of divine commands, may revere Scripture but can hardly be said to have understood its message: those who faithfully trace the lines of Scripture’s black letters must inevitably be led to the place where they become hearers (and doers) of the red.
But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of the Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meaning and its implications afresh in light of his coming. The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel are joined to the black in an indispensable, mutually authorizing, and mutually interpretive relationship; what God has joined together no interpreter should attempt to separate.
For evangelicals in our own time, confronted with the claim that we must choose between two different kinds of Christianity—one defined by the red letters of Scripture and the other defined by the black—the Gospel of Matthew provides a timely warning against false dichotomies and needless schisms. It reminds “red letter Christians” of the indispensability of the black letters and reminds “black letter Christians of the centrality of the red (or, more precisely, of the one who speaks them).
To this exhortation I say “amen”—adding only a little more precision by reminding us that it is actually the risen Jesus himself who is speaking in the black letters of the apostolic writings, as we noted above. In summary, Christians who try to use Matthew’s Gospel to create a more perfect red letter version of Christianity do dishonor to Matthew and to Jesus himself.
May God help us all read and honor his written word and his risen Christ more faithfully!
The original version of this essay was much improved by the feedback of some readers—including some very rigorous ones on the crashed-and-rebranded former Mennodiscuss.com. (Thankfully, I downloaded and saved much of that feedback!) I welcome your feedback here, too, in the comments below. Thank you!