“Red Letter Christianity” and the Bible

Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne recently published an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead.” They write that evangelicalism (or at least its reputation) is a “casualty” of the recent presidential election. They believe it is time to bury evangelicalism and replace it with a more authentic expression of Christian faith.

Campolo and Claiborne regard the fact that 80 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Mr. Trump as evidence that evangelicalism has been poisoned by self-interest. Its reputation “has been clouded over.” How, they wonder, could people who take Jesus seriously ever vote for a man whose campaign was marked by “racism, sexism, xenophobia,” and “hypocrisy”?

Campolo and Claiborne have been heroes to young evangelicals. They have consistently called Christians to live in obedience to Jesus’s words, stressing above all the care for the poor that Jesus advocated. In calling Christians to actually do what Jesus told them to do, they have done a service to the church generally and to its evangelical arm in particular.

But when they go on to call for a new movement to replace evangelicalism, a movement they refer to as “Red Letter Christianity,” I fear they are doing the church a disservice. If they ‘re calling people to listen to Jesus’s instructions and obey them, great. That is key to a flourishing life, and the heart of being Jesus’s disciple. But if they are suggesting that Jesus’s words “trump” the rest of the Bible or that they can be used to negate earlier and later revelation, they are propagating a dangerously misguided idea.

The people I’ve known who have identified as “Red Letter Christians” have done just that. They have attributed to Jesus’s words, as recorded in the gospels, greater authority than the words of Moses, the prophets and the apostles. This tends to play out in a particular way: what Jesus said is granted divine authority (as it should be) and what he didn’t say is regarded as a subject non grata. The absence of words from Jesus on a particular subject are taken as the last word on that subject.

The “Red Letter Christians” I have known have not taken Jesus’s words more seriously than other Christians. They have just taken other biblical words less seriously and, in some cases, refused to take them at all. I don’t think this is what Claiborne and Campolo are advocating, but others may.

Much of what Claiborne and Campolo say is thoroughly biblical and, what’s more, is biblical in a way that evangelicals in the age of Trump need to hear. But presenting it in a way that plays Jesus’s words against the rest of scripture is a theological error of the first order.

For one thing, Jesus’s words, spoken in Aramaic, were translated into Greek and later into Latin and the modern languages, which means that we have Jesus’s words only through the medium of others. The idea that Jesus’s words exist in some kind of vacuum is neither biblical nor logical.

For another, Jesus’s words were remembered and passed on by some of the very people who wrote other parts of the Bible, parts that some “Red Letter Christians” choose to ignore. We are dependent on others. Without the testimony of the apostles and the painstaking research of the evangelists, we would know nothing of Jesus’s life and teaching. If it wasn’t for the people who wrote the black letters, we wouldn’t have the red ones.

The idea that we understand Jesus better than his contemporaries and can interpret what he said through our cultural lens more accurately than the people he chose to be with him and carry on his work is a self-conceit.

It is a first principle of Christian theology that the entire canon of scripture is God-inspired and is of a piece. Yes, there is progress to the revelation, and one scripture can cast light on another, but one scripture cannot be used to contravene another. Not even if it is written in red letters.

Campolo and Claiborne are right about failures within the evangelical movement and may even be right about it being time to move away from it. But it is not time to move away from the Bible – red letters or black.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/10/2016

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4 Responses to “Red Letter Christianity” and the Bible

  1. Xose says:

    “Jesus’s words were remembered and passed on by some of the very people who wrote other parts of the Bible…” ?? Which “words” of Jesus are these and who are “the very people who wrote other parts of the Bible…” thereby passing on these words? A timeline would help.

    • salooper57 says:

      Thanks, flamenqo@lycos.com, for reading and taking the time to discuss. I really appreciate it. The words of Jesus are the ones recorded in the Gospels or referenced in the letters (e.g., The Letter of James, which is chalk-full of references and allusions to Jesus’s teaching). The evangelists Matthew and John were early followers. St. Peter both recalled Jesus’s words in his own letter and was, according to early witnesses, a source for the evangelist Mark, who seems to have been present to hear Jesus’s words at least on some occasions himself. Though Paul was not present when Jesus was teaching, he quotes him in the Book of Acts, which makes clear that Jesus’s words were already being circulated among the early believers.

      The timeline is a little more difficult. There has been much scholarly debate. But it should be noted that the evangelists make good use of source material that was already widely circulated by 60 C.E. or so. Mark’s gospel probably comes first, but this was written after the earliest letters, and best dating is around 65. The latest and most unique of the Gospels is John’s, with its content carefully selected to support seven major blocks of teaching.
      The Book of Acts was probably written by Luke before 70 (since the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned), and Jesus is quoted there by Peter. 1 Corinthians, which quotes Jesus, was written before that.

      Thanks for reading, and for the excellent question.
      Shayne

  2. M. Ferris says:

    I think your points are right on. The “Red Letter” concept is fraught with all kinds of problems. It creates a canon within the canon, as you note, and puts editorial decisions in between the reader and God’s word. John 3 is good example. It is not at all clear exactly where Jesus’ direct quote ends, and the apostle’s narrative picks up again. In its most egregious form, the Red Letter concept is a replacement for the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding us in our reading of Scripture. Not saying this is what proponents of it are advocating, but it certainly a danger.

    • salooper57 says:

      Hi M. Ferris. I appreciate your comment and hasten to agree that the Red Letter folks are not advocating the kind of thing I wrote about, but are vulnerable to it. May God bless them and everyone who keeps the red letters (and he will – he promised; cf. Mt. 7:24-25), but there is, as you say, much more that is involved.
      Shayne

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