How “Red Letter Christianity” misunderstands the Trinity

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Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor from Liberty University and a research colleague of mine via the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written a helpful perspective on the popular “red letter” interpretation of Scripture. Christians who identify themselves as “Red letter Christians” argue that the recorded words of Jesus deserve special attention and/or status of interpretative control in reading the Bible. Unlike a more traditional evangelical hermeneutic, red letter interpretation does not begin with the assumption that all of biblical canon is authoritative, but imparts authority to non-Jesus texts to the degree that they appear consonant with the “message” of Jesus.

Dr. Prior’s piece lays out a few of the problems with this interpretative approach. Excerpt:

Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.

Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.

“Contempt for context” is well-said. The “red-letter” hermeneutic unwittingly creates an internal dissonance within the biblical narrative. One cannot logically receive the claims of Jesus’ divinity without also receiving His claim that He fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, a claim that is incoherent unless one believes that the entire biblical canon is already authoritative and divine by the time Jesus comes to fulfill them.

Yet this isn’t the only problem with the red-letter approach. In fact, I would argue that the disregard for context, while a serious problem, is tertiary compared to the difficulties it creates in Trinitarian theology.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches not only that God exists as One in three distinct Persons, but that those distinct Persons relate to one another in God’s redemptive work. Thus, the Father sends the Son to redeem humans by paying the penalty for sins back to the Father (Romans 3:25). Even more, the Father raises the Son from the dead to in order to vindicate the Son’s claim to be one with His Father. He raises the Son BY the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Son gives to those adopted into Him by the Father (Romans 1:4, 8:11). So each Person of the Trinity serves the Others in an eternal, God-glorifying mutuality of redemption.

Now red-letter Christians would agree that the Holy Spirit inspires the words of the Bible. But by privileging the words of Jesus as some sort of hermeneutic control over the rest of the canon, they obscure the relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Son. The Spirit that inspires the writing of Scripture does so in service of the Son. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all Jesus had told them and would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

This means that when Jesus speaks, He speaks by the Spirit, and likewise the Spirit speaks the words of the Father and the Son. So what Jesus says is true and trustworthy and eternal not primarily because He is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Son, but because He speaks by the Spirit the words of the Father.

So that leaves with us an interpretive choice to make. Either the Spirit has spoken by the Old Testament prophets and by Paul, James, Peter, etc, or He hasn’t. Either the Holy Spirit has inspired the whole Bible, or it hasn’t. We may choose to believe either way, but we cannot believe in some Holy Spirit inspiration for certain Scriptures and less of it for others. Being genuinely Trinitarian in our theology and our worship requires humbly acknowledging the incredible way the Persons of the Trinity speak and act in harmony and accordance with one another. When Jesus speaks by the Spirit, He speaks the words of God. When Moses and David speak by the Spirit, they speak the words of God. The only way to get around this is to say the Spirit did not inspire these other writers, which of course leads to a total collapse in any rational confidence in the Bible.

A much better course is to affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit from the Father and of the Son, spoke through the authors of Scripture in an authoritative way for every context. The fulfillment of all inspired Scripture happens in the person and work of Christ. So all of the Bible points to Jesus, not because His spirit is distinctly true apart from the other Persons of the Trinity, but because the Triune God uniformly speaks the truth about Himself. Rejecting “red letter Christianity” is necessary if we are to properly understand the nature of our Triune God, and worship and trust Him as He desires.

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