Revenge of the Black Letter Christians
This article was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
I remember being in a convention hall once, arguing with an elderly lady about the song “Jesus Loves Me”. Let me first say that I would completely chastise my self of 20 years ago for my overconfidence in the theological correctness of my “tribe”.
I even felt bad at the time – this woman reminded me of all the Southern Baptist ladies who taught me Sunday school (and “Jesus loves me”!), right down to the bouffant hairstyle. I bet she also had mints in her bag. I was annoyingly argumentative, and she had every right to pat me on the head, say, “Bless your heart,” and send me on my way.
We were poles apart from what was then a great doctrinal schism in my denominational tradition, and we were debating one of the points of contention in this controversy. I asked for her interpretation of a biblical passage dealing with any subject, and she said, “It’s Paul; it’s not Jesus. Jesus never said anything about it.
When I came back to another passage, she said, “That’s the difference between you and me. Your authority is the Bible; mine is Jesus. I replied, “But what do you know about Jesus apart from the Bible?” And she said, “I know everything I need to know: ‘Jesus loves me, I know that!’ And to that I said, “… because the bible tells me so.”
I cringe when I think how proud I was to have “won” this debate. When that woman left, I assumed it was because she couldn’t respond to my line. Now I know she was probably thinking, Who is this punk, and how do I get away from him? That said, while I understand better the point she was trying to make now, I still agree with the point I made, just not in the crude way I did.
There was a time when I really worried about “red letter Christianity” – which is the idea that the words of Jesus (printed in red ink in many Bibles) are more authoritative than the rest of the Bible and may override theological or ethical considerations. teaching found in, say, the Old Testament or the Pauline epistles.
I still share that concern, and that mentality is found in many places to this day.
At first glance, a hierarchy of “red letters” makes sense. Jesus is, after all, more authoritative as a person than Moses or Jeremiah or Paul or John. If we were to find ourselves in a crowd of resurrected saints in heaven and a point of biblical interpretation arises, no one will look at Nahum if Jesus is there.
The most complete revelation from God is Jesus Christ, and He gives meaning not only to the rest of the Bible (Luke 24:27) but to the entire cosmos (Col. 1:17). The problem with this direction is not that it becomes too centered on Jesus, but that it is not centered enough.
Jesus’ view of the Bible is that it is the Word of God and cannot be broken. He reinterprets the revelation of God and the history of Israel, explaining what it is about him. Even when Jesus said, Moses said ___, but I’m telling you… , it’s never about explaining the hard edges of the Old Testament. Rather, Jesus sharpened those hard edges even further: Moses said no murder, but I also say no rage in your heart.
Jesus also told his disciples that he had more to say, things God’s people were not yet ready to hear (John 16:12-13). And then, just as God chose prophets through whom to speak, Jesus did the same through his apostles (Eph. 2:20). Even the direct speech we see from Jesus after his ascension, like his letters to the churches in Revelation, goes through his chosen apostles (in this case, John).
Moreover, without a view of the inspiration of all scripture, we have no red letters at all. Almost everyone recognizes that the earliest writings of our New Testament were not the Gospels but a few letters of Paul. And the Gospels, once written, were not found in a cave. They came through Matthew and John, disciples of the Lord, as well as through Mark and Luke, associates of apostles like Peter and Paul.
The Bible affirms that all Scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV throughout), that the authors of all Scripture speak for God as they are “carried away by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1 :21), and that the carrying Spirit is “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Peter 1:11). If that’s true, then, as I told my seminary students, “Every word in the Bible should be in red letters.”
Many might see red-letter rhetoric as a slippery slope that would lead, in its extreme form, to an attempt to separate Word from Spirit, Father from Son, head from body. These dangers are all real. But more and more, I see its mirror image, a kind of “black-lettered Christianity,” which is just as perilous.
As with many other things, we tend not to see, as CS Lewis warned us in simple christianity, that the Devil sends errors into the world not one at a time, but two at a time, in “pairs of opposites,” on either side of the truth. At this time, we should see that it is not just the temptation of red-letter Christians to try to separate the Bible from Jesus. Blackletter Christians do it too – and the stakes are just as high, if not higher.
In Jayber Raven, Wendell Berry described Jayber the barber listening to Troy, a waiting customer, complain about rounding up all the communists and having them shot. Jayber stopped, looked at Troy and said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.”
Troy replied, “Where did you find that shit?” When Jayber said, “Jesus Christ,” Troy could only respond, “Oh.”
Jayber reflects, “It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except I didn’t like Troy.”
When I first read this, I assumed Berry was constructing a hyperbolic script, to contrast the authentic Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount with the cultural version we so often see in American life. Over the past few years, however, I’ve seen the exact same scenario in real life – from evangelicals who would all say they believe the Bible.
In recent years, some evangelical leaders and the politicians they support have ridiculed the “weakness” involved in “Turn the other cheek.” If it was just the Bizarro world of cable TV news, I might dismiss it. But several pastors have told me how when they quoted, parenthetically, “turn the other cheek” or “love your enemies,” someone later asked them where their “liberal” ideas came from. .
Another told me that after preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a devotee said to him, “We tried the ‘turn the other cheek’ thing, it doesn’t work; now is the time to fight.
To be clear, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t “work” and it never has—if what we mean by “work” is to see the definition of worldly success on the world’s calendar. Ending up crucified is no society’s definition winner. This is exactly what Jesus meant. It upends all those definitions and expectations.
We can see in many of the scandals that are happening in the church – and the scandals that have not yet happened but are bubbling under the surface – a way in which it is easy for us to think of Christlikeness not just as optional for leadership, but as an obstacle to it. Many (but not all) churches will (rightly) fire and discipline a leader for sexual immorality.
But when was the last time we saw someone held responsible for contention or revenge—things explicitly addressed by Jesus himself?
We can also see this tendency in a kind of preaching that seems suspicious of Jesus’ way of teaching – of history, parable and narrative, a way of teaching that is consistent with the way God speaks in the Bible. Old Testament. A way of teaching that is presupposed by Paul and the other apostles even in their letters.
If every passage of scripture – be it a proverb, a psalm or a parable – is to be turned into an epistle with a point-by-sub-point-by-sub-sub-point structure in order to be preached, then we are not really teaching the Bible but something else: a systematic theology or an ethics manual. We are not saved by Christology; we are saved by Christ.
Thomas Jefferson cut up the Bible, removing all the miraculous parts his scientific mind couldn’t accept, and left only the ethical teachings of Jesus. It’s not Christianity at all. If Jesus is just a moral teacher, he is just another deceased guru. But neither is it the opposite trend – cutting up the Bible leaving all the miraculous but ignoring the teachings of Jesus.
If Jesus is just an abstract way to deliver the systematic category of atonement, not a person who speaks to us and claims lordship, then he is just another point of argument to win an argument or to claim his own orthodoxy. Either way, it wouldn’t be worth tracking.
If all Scripture points to Christ and is interpreted in and through Christ, then that means all Scripture is “profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), as Paul said. When we hear a word of Scripture, then we hear about Jesus, as if he were speaking to us.
The question is whether these prophets and apostles bring a word of their own spirit or a message they bring from their Lord. This has always been the issue, which is why Paul repeatedly says, “I speak the truth; I do not lie” (1 Tim. 2:7). If we believe what the Bible claims for itself and what Jesus taught us about the Bible, then that question is solved. The Bible is black and white and red all over.
But red-letter Christians are right to remind us that when we see Jesus, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the full revelation of the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6). As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey said, “God is like Christ, and in him there is no likeness to Christ.”
The whole plot of the Bible is in one person, the living Jesus of Nazareth. Less clear passages are interpreted by clearer ones – and the clearest revelation of all is that person who said to us, “Come and follow me.”
In other words: Jesus loves me, I know it, because the Bible tells me so.
Russell Moore directs the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.