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Revenge of the Black-Letter Christians

Revenge of the Black-Letter Christians


This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

I remember standing in a convention hall once, arguing with an elderly lady about the song “Jesus Loves Me.” Let me first say that I would thoroughly rebuke my 20-year-ago self 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 hairdo. I’ll bet she had peppermints in her purse, too. I was annoyingly polemical, and she would have had every right to pat me on the head, say, “Bless your heart,” and send me on my way.

We were on opposite sides of what was then a big doctrinal schism in my denominational tradition, and we were debating one of the points of contention in that controversy. I asked for her interpretation of a biblical passage dealing with whatever the subject was, and she said, “That’s Paul; that’s not Jesus. Jesus never said anything about that.”

When I turned back to another passage, she said, “That’s the difference between you and me. Your authority is the Bible; mine’s Jesus.” I responded, “But what do you know about Jesus apart from the Bible?” And she said, “I know everything I need to know: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know!’” And to that I said, “… for the Bible tells me so.”

I cringe when I think about how proud I was of “winning” that debate. When this woman walked away, I assumed it was because she couldn’t respond to my retort. Now I know she was probably thinking, Who is this punk, and how do I get away from him? That said, while I better understand the point she was trying to make now, I still agree with the point I made—though not the churlish way I made it.

There was a time when I was really worried about “red-letter Christianity”—which is the idea that the words of Jesus (printed with red ink in many Bibles) are more authoritative than the rest of the Bible and can override theological or ethical teaching found in, say, the Old Testament or the Pauline Epistles.

I still share that concern, and this mentality can be found in many places to this day.

At first glance, a prioritizing of the “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 some point of biblical interpretation comes up, no one will be looking at Nahum if Jesus is there.

The fullest revelation of God is Jesus Christ, and he makes sense not just of the rest of the Bible (Luke 24:27) but of the entire cosmos (Col. 1:17). The problem with this direction is not that it becomes too focused on Jesus, but that it isn’t focused 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 story of Israel, explaining how it is about him. Even when Jesus says, Moses said ___, but I say unto you … , it is never to explain away the hard edges of the Old Testament. Rather, Jesus sharpened those hard edges even further: Moses said no murder, but I say no rage in your heart either.

Jesus also told his disciples that he had more to say, things God’s people weren’t ready to hear just yet (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, such as his letters to the churches of Revelation, comes through apostles he has chosen (in that case, John).

Moreover, without a view of the inspiration of all of Scripture, we don’t have red letters at all. Almost everyone acknowledges that the first writings of our New Testament weren’t the Gospels but some letters of Paul. And the Gospels, when written down, weren’t discovered in a cave. They came through Matthew and John, disciples of the Lord—as well as Mark and Luke, associates of apostles like Peter and Paul.

The Bible claims that all Scripture is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV throughout), that the writers of any Scripture speak for God as they are “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), and that the Spirit doing that carrying is “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:11). If that’s true, then, as I used to tell my seminary students, “Every word of the Bible should be in red letters.”

Many could see in red-letter rhetoric a slippery slope that would lead, in its extreme form, to an attempt to split apart Word from Spirit, Father from Son, head from body. Those dangers are all real. But increasingly, I’m seeing its mirror image, a kind of “black-letter Christianity,” which is just as perilous.

As with many other things, we tend not to see, as C. S. Lewis warned us in Mere Christianity, that the Devil sends errors into the world not one by one but two by two—in “pairs of opposites,” on either side of the truth. Right now, we should see that it’s not just the temptation of red-letter Christians to try to separate the Bible from Jesus. Black-letter Christians do it too—and the stakes are just as high, if not higher.

In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry described Jayber the barber listening to Troy, a waiting customer, rail about rounding up all the Communists and having them shot. Jayber stopped, looked at Troy and said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy replied, “Where did you get that crap?” 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 that I did not love Troy.”

When I first read that, I assumed Berry was constructing a hyperbolic scenario, to contrast authentic Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity with the cultural version of it we so often see in American life. Over the past several years, though, I’ve seen the exact same scenario in real life—from evangelicals who would all say that they believe the Bible.

Over the past several years, we’ve had some evangelical leaders, and the politicians they support, ridicule the “weakness” implied in “Turn the other cheek.” If that were just the Bizarro world of cable television news, I would perhaps dismiss it. But several pastors have told me about how when they cited, parenthetically, “Turn the other cheek” or “Love your enemies,” they had someone ask afterward where they were getting their “liberal” ideas.

Another told me that after preaching on the Sermon on the Mount, a congregant told him, “We’ve tried the ‘Turn the other cheek’ stuff, it doesn’t work; it’s time now to fight.”

To be clear, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t “work,” and it never has—if what we mean by “working” is seeing the world’s definition of success on the world’s timetable. Ending up crucified is no society’s definition of winning. That’s exactly the point Jesus was making. He turns all those definitions and expectations upside down.

We can see in many of the scandals happening in the church—and the scandals that haven’t yet happened but are bubbling beneath the surface—a way in which it is easy for us to think of Christlikeness not just as optional for leadership but as an impediment to it. Many (though by no means all) churches will (rightly) fire and discipline a leader for sexual immorality.

But when is the last time we’ve seen someone held accountable for quarrelsomeness or vindictiveness—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 story and parable and narrative, a way of teaching that’s consistent with the way God speaks in the Old Testament. A way of teaching that is presupposed by Paul and the other apostles even in their letters.

If every passage of Scripture—whether proverb or psalm or parable—must be turned into an epistle with a point by subpoint by sub-subpoint structure in order to be preached, then we are not actually 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, taking out all the miraculous parts that his scientific mind couldn’t accept, and left only the ethical teachings of Jesus. That is not Christianity at all. If Jesus is just a moral teacher, he is just another deceased guru. But neither is the opposite tendency—to cut up the Bible leaving all the miraculous but ignoring the teachings of Jesus.

If Jesus is just an abstract means of delivering the systematic category of atonement, not a person who speaks to us and claims lordship, then he is just another debating point to win an argument or to claim one’s own orthodoxy. In neither case would he be worth following.

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 put it. When we hear any word of Scripture, then, we are hearing from Jesus, just as if he were speaking to us.

The question is whether these prophets and apostles are bringing a word from their own minds or a message they are carrying from their Lord. That’s always been the question, which is why Paul repeatedly says, “I am telling the truth; I am not lying” (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 resolved. The Bible is black and white and red all over.

But the 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 former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey put it, “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.”

The whole plot line of the Bible holds together in one person—the living Jesus of Nazareth. Less clear passages are interpreted by those that are clearer—and the clearest revelation of all is this person who said to us, “Come follow me.”

In other words: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.





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