Why I Am A Black Letter Christian
I’ve noticed over the past few years the growing trend of Believers claiming to be “Red Letter Christians.” Some of these are actually aligned with the movement (redletterchristians.org), others just have this vague sense that claiming such means they’re trying to follow Jesus more faithfully.
While it is encouraging to see people taking seriously the teaching of Jesus (all Christ-Followers should!), there are several concerning aspects to the “Red Letter Christian” movement, most prominently their claim to be committed to “first and foremost doing what Jesus said” and “especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” My concern is that this elevates the teachings of Jesus above other teachings in the Bible, thus creating a “canon-within-the-canon” of Scripture.
So I’ve decided that I’m a “Black Letter Christian.”
Before you gasp and brand me a heretic, yes, I firmly believe Jesus is God, and that all true Christians will strive to take His teaching seriously. Please remember that all the letters in our Bibles were black before the 20th century, red letter Bibles being a relatively recent invention in the Christian publishing industry. In fact, my main Bible doesn’t even have red letters in it. But this blog is not about a technicality in the way Bibles are published. Something much more important is at stake: how we read and interpret the Bible.
Let me ask you a question that get’s to the heart of this issue: whose teaching is more important: Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s teaching, or even Asaph’s teaching in the old testament? (You’re forgiven if you forgot that Asaph was that cymbal-smashing worship leader who wrote numerous Psalms).
Note: I didn’t ask you which person was more important. The answer to that question should be obvious. Colossians 1 settles this question unequivocally for us: Jesus is the Image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the Head of the church, and the One who made peace for us by the blood of His cross. The entire book of Hebrews is dedicated to the fact that Jesus is greater (than Moses, than the angels, than the priests, etc). So the preeminence of Jesus and His diety is not in question.
The question I asked was whose teaching was more important? Or to ask the question another way, what was the source of Jesus’ teaching, of Paul’s epistles, or of Asaph’s words? The Red Letter Christian seeks to follow “first and foremost” the teachings of Jesus. The Black Letter Christian recognizes that God is the source of all of the teaching in the Bible, whether it is in the Old Testament or the New Testament. “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Tim. 3:16) and “No prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Pet. 1:21).
Consider this: Jesus Himself consistently taught that He was speaking the words of God, not His own words:
John 7:17 – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
John 8:28 – “So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”
John 12:49 – “For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.”
In addition, John the Baptist affirmed that the Messiah spoke God’s words in John 3:34: “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God,” and the writer of Hebrews declared “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.”
So if Jesus spoke the words of God, what about Paul? He claimed to be speaking the commands of God (1 Cor. 14:7). The early church recognized Paul’s teaching was from God and Peter considered his letters equal to the Old Teastment (2 Pet. 3:16). What about Asaph? Even Jesus acknowledged that his writing came from God (John 10:34).
The authority for the Word of God is found in the fact that it is the Word of God, not in who the speaker was. Giving preeminence to the words God spoke through Jesus creates a situation that values some words God has spoken above others. As Kevin DeYoung says, “The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this “red letter” nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses. An evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture….All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the parts spoken by Jesus.” (Taking God At His Word, p. 118-119). Clearly Mr. DeYoung is not calling Jesus’ words nonsense, just the approach that elevates Jesus’s words above all others.
“Red Letter Christians” want to focus on the teachings of Jesus. However, I would argue it is impossible to fully understand Jesus’s teaching (the red letters) apart from the teaching of the rest of Scripture (the black letters), particularly the Old Testament. If Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17), how can you possibly hope to understand the mission of Jesus and the context for His teaching apart from the Old Testament?
Finally, none of the above diminishes who Jesus is or what He did. I would never claim that Asaph or Paul were equal to Jesus (that would be ridiculous!). Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is worthy of worship and praise. Because He humbled and Himself and became obedient unto death, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11). All of Scripture, be they words in black or red, testify to this.
Yes, I’m a Black Letter Christian. I follow the Lord Jesus Christ, who was prophesied about in the black letters, who came to fulfill the black letters, and who is magnified and adored in the black letters. I take Jesus’ teaching seriously, because His words come from God, indeed He is the Word! But I also take the teachings of Peter, Paul, James, Jude, and John seriously too, because their teaching comes from God too. So let’s dispense with this notion that one part of Scripture is more “inspired” than another.