I Love My Black Letter Bible

With the way some Christians talk, you might be forgiven for wondering why the canon includes more than four books. Sure, the Old Testament is useful in tracing the development of human reflection on the divine, and the New Testament in conveying the thoughts of some of Jesus’ earliest followers. But if you really want to know what God thinks about something, you hear today, you’ll need consult the recorded thoughts of Jesus. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to stick to the “red letters.” In other words, flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (or that less traversed terrain, Revelation 2-3) and stay put.

To be sure, I understand the impulse. It makes some sense in light of the differences between the sinless Son of God (on display in the Gospels) and the bona fide sinners who penned most of the rest of New Testament (unbelieving James and Jude, denying Peter, blaspheming Paul, and so on). Dubious résumés, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Christians have always recognized the God-breathed character of their words. The miracle of inspiration means the whole Bible is the voice of God. While central and foundational, the fourfold Gospel witness is no more true or reliable or relevant or binding than the black letters that precede and follow. Indeed, when we treat the red letters more seriously than the black ones, we muzzle the Son who speaks in all of them.

The Pages in Black Fulfill the Promise in Red

It’s foolish to downplay the Bible’s black-lettered pages if for no other reason than they’re fulfilling a red-lettered promise. Consider Jesus’ words to his apostles:


I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, emphasis added)

Now ponder the words of Paul:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12, emphasis added)

Did you catch the parallel? Christ’s promise finds fulfillment in Paul’s teaching. The ministry of the Savior marches on in the ministry of the apostle. Jesus said that he had more to say. He promised further revelation of truth to his apostles through his Spirit. Paul is just Exhibit A.

As John Murray put it:

Prior to his ascension, Christ’s teaching was directly by word of mouth. But afterward he taught by a different mode . . . by the ministry of appointed witnesses and inspired writers. The New Testament, all of which was written after Jesus’ ascension, is not one whit less the teaching of our Lord than that delivered verbally during the days of his flesh. How utterly false it is to set up a contrast between the authority of Jesus’ spoken words and the authority of the New Testament as Scripture. The latter is the teaching of Christ given in his own appointed way after his ascension. . . . The guiding of the Holy Spirit into all truth does not suspend Jesus’ own speaking. (Collected Writings, Vol. 1, 40)

The apostle Peter goes so far as to say the prophetic word of Scripture is a revelation “more sure” than even Christ himself in transfigured glory (2 Pet. 1:19). That’s a stunning claim! He then exhorts us to recall the ”commandment of our Lord and Savior through [the] apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2; cf. Acts 2:42). No wonder Paul enjoins his protégé to heed the ”sound words you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13) with no less urgency than the ”sound words of our Lord Jesus” (1 Tim. 6:3). Or elsewhere claim his instructions are “the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:15) imbued with heaven’s authority (2 Thess. 3:14).

When I write, the result is a tweet or a blog post. When Paul wrote, the result was holy Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).

Is the church’s authorized foundation, then, Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11) or the Bible (Eph. 2:20)? Yes.

The Word of God: Jesus or Scripture?

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2; Heb. 1:1-2; Rev. 19:13) and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12; 13:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

Jesus Blinders

I recently heard a remark that only in Jesus do we see God “as he is.” While this statement may sound profound and even have a ring of truth—Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3) and the point of the biblical story (Luke 24:27, 44)—it is finally misleading since it does not reveal the whole picture. The Lord’s self-disclosure was not exhausted by the Son’s earthly life. Jesus’ appearing neither nullified the revelation that came before (Matt. 5:17-18) nor rendered redundant the revelation that followed after (John 16:12-15).

On the surface, “Jesus shows us what God is really like” language appears pious and even Jesus-exalting. In reality, it betrays a tragically truncated view of the Jesus of the Bible. We see God “as he is” by gazing with the eyes of faith on the pages of his Word—all of them.

One day, our faith will vanish into sight, and we will at last behold the king in his beauty. Until then, however, we live and move and have our being in the age of the ear. “For now,” Augustine taught 1,500 years ago, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”

If you love Jesus, you’ll love his voice wherever it appears—even in the black letters.

  • d camp

    I share your concern, but this train is a lot further down the tracks than that. In much of the Christian world, neither the black or red letters matter much, it is all about the holy hunch.

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  • MSS

    I love this. I have the same feelings about the modern tendency to preach “love your neighbor as yourself” to the exclusion of all else; or to be even more specific, the modern disease of teaching orthopraxy at the expense of orthodoxy instead of including the two in tandem as they were meant to be. I have debated with people before about the fact that the “WWJD” philosophy – judging all actions by the litmus test of “What Would Jesus Do?” – is really a very weak practice for Christians as far as correctly working out the will of God for their own lives. Sometimes, we have to look beyond “What would Jesus do?” and also deal with “What did Jesus say/teach/demand?” – when we live by the WWJD philosophy, we reduce Christ to a mere (though perfect) example where in fact he was both example and instructor simultaneously. We can’t learn as much from example as we can learn from example combined with exposition.

  • Simon

    I’ve heard many Reformed arguments railing against the “canon within the canon” approach of the “red letter” Christians. However, if you look at the historical practice of the Church, the book of the Gospels has a special place in the liturgy. Look even at the Anglican liturgy where the Gospel is paraded to the center of the Church for its reading. Clearly historical Christians venerated the Gospel in a special way. Similarly in Judaism, the Torah had a special place in their worship that the rest of the OT never had. Clearly for Christians, the Gospel (by that I mean the accounts written by Matt, Mark, Luke and John, not the abstraction from St Paul Reformed believers mean by “Gospel”) was central to how we interpret the rest of Scripture.

    • John Kr

      You lost me at “abstraction”.
      In a red letter passage, Jesus calls Paul a “chosen instrument of mine.” And Jesus’s main disciple Peter called Paul’s writings Scripture. In another red letter passage, Jesus says there is much more to tell people, more than they can bear, but the spirit would guide them into all truth.
      The red letter movement may be a good overcorrection at best to possible neglect of Jesus’s teachings in favor of Paul. I have little respect for Wallis and Campolo as theologians, but they provide a good counterpoint on helping the poor that the RR often neglects. The question is whether their view on homosexuality is one of emphasis, or having different beliefs altogether. Campolo has stayed orthodox (barely) on the issue of morality the last I heard, but I don’t know about Wallis. And McLaren has definitely jumped the shark on the issue, and he’s certainly in their circles

      • Simon

        What I was referring to is that the term “Gospel” means the accounts given to us by Matt, Mark, Luke and John. This is a historical observation. It does not mean the doctrine of imputation that Luther derived from St Paul. I agree that the epistles and the rest of the NT is inspired and has equal status as Scripture. I was just making the observation that the Gospel books have a special role in worship and theology for traditional Christian communions.

        • Sojourner

          You were not “just” making an observation of how the four Gospels had been used liturgically. You were implicitly deploying an argument that downplays Pauline testimony on the good news. John Kr and I are pointing out that such an approach directly contradicts the “red letters,” and so as Christian practice self-destructs, not even by “reformed’ standard, but by “red letter” standards also. You make lots of big sweeping statements, but are a bit lacking in considering the details.

          Also historically, “Gospel” meant more than just the four books in the canon. Jesus calls us to believe the “gospel.” Considering that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had not written anything yet, he probably meant something else.

          Even if we grant the particular veneration given to the Gospels in the early church, it’s terribly non-sequitur to jump from that practice to “Martin Luther was wrong” and “St. Paul taught an abstraction.” I’ve worked with broken families, violent schizophrenics… all of whom have found peace and refuge in what you flippantly dis as abstraction. Do you have a particular pastoral goal in telling those who have stared long into the sheer horror of their own sin that Paul is abstract when he says that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

          • Simon

            St Paul didn’t teach an abstraction. Far from it. His definition of “Gospel” is this:

            “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ”

            This is not an abstraction. What is an abstraction is what the Reformers said St Paul said. In other words they misinterpreted him.

            I was not denigrating what St Paul has to say! Far from it. I give his writings contained in the NT full status as Scripture and of utmost importance for the doctrinal formation of the Church. However, it is very clear that the Gospel accounts, being our primary witness to Christ whom we worship, are afforded a special place in liturgical practice. We worship the Word made flesh. The Gospel reading is particularly venerated in worship because it is the primary witness of him! Now because the Traditional communions worship the Christ who is the Truth personified and not a systematic theology, we can differentiate properly between books of Scripture without in any way denigrating either the OT or the Epistles.

        • MichaelA

          “What I was referring to is that the term “Gospel” means the accounts given to us by Matt, Mark, Luke and John. This is a historical observation.”

          Not exactly. Its a working definition that you formulated for the purpose of this debate (which is fair enough) when you asserted the following earlier:

          “Clearly for Christians, the Gospel (by that I mean the accounts written by Matt, Mark, Luke and John, not the abstraction from St Paul Reformed believers mean by “Gospel”) was central to how we interpret the rest of Scripture.”

          I am not at all sure that this assertion is correct. I don’t think it should just be accepted uncritically as a starting point. What evidence do we have that any of those four books were considered more authoritative, or more “primary” if you like than others?

          The Church Father Tertullian writing at the end of the 2nd century doesn’t seem to have distinguished between “gospels” and “other books”. On the contrary – if a book is of apostolic authorship then it is equally authoritative for the Church of his day, whether a gospel account or not:

          “On the whole, then, if that is evidently more true which is earlier, if that is earlier which is from the very beginning, if that is from the beginning which has the apostles for its authors, then it will certainly be quite as evident, that that comes down from the apostles, which has been kept as a sacred deposit in the churches of the apostles. Let us see what milk the Corinthians drank from Paul; to what rule of faith the Galatians were brought for correction; what the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Ephesians read by it; what utterance also the Romans give, so very near (to the apostles), to whom Peter and Paul conjointly bequeathed the gospel even sealed with their own blood. We have also St. John’s foster churches. For although Marcion rejects his Apocalypse, the order of the bishops (thereof), when traced up to their origin, will yet rest on John as their author. In the same manner is recognised the excellent source of the other churches. I say, therefore, that in them (and not simply such of them as were founded by apostles, but in all those which are united with them in the fellowship of the mystery of the gospel of Christ ) that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people, and to none whatever is it known without being at the same time condemned.” [Contra Marcion, Bk IV, Chap 5]

          In any case, I do wonder if it is wise to define “gospel” as meaning four books for any discussion. This is not the way the Christian church has used the term over the millennia – our expression “the gospel of John” is just shorthand for its correct name, “the gospel according to John”. That is a healthy reminder that, to the Christian church, “the gospel” always meant primarily Christ’s teaching, or Christ’s doctrine if you will.
          It is not surprising that the Church would use the term “gospel” in this way, since Christ himself did:

          “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”.” [Mark 1:14-15]
          I suggest that the “abstraction” which the Reformed call the gospel is actually a truly catholic means of expression!

          • Simon

            You don’t have to take it from me. Simply go to an Anglican service. Why is it that the Book of the Gospels is particularly venerated? The Gospel reading takes place in the center of the Church, the whole congregation stands while it is read and the priest kisses the Gospel book at the end of the reading. Why is this so? Why is the Gospel reading singled out for particular veneration? This must symbolize something. Look at the worship of the Fathers. Tertullian may not have distinguished between books in his writing, but in his worship he most certainly would have!!

            Furthermore, I said above that all Scripture is recognized by the Church as equally inspired. The epistles were very very very important to the formation of doctrine. Where did i deny this? However, the Fathers used a Christocentric interpretation of Scripture. Reformed use a historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture. The Fathers start with the Gospels. This is symbolized in the liturgies of all ancient Christian communions (i.e. all pre-Reformation Churches). As to the meaning of “Gospel” – This is simply the incarnation, the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ. This is why the Gospel accounts are called just that by the Church. They are categorized as “Gospel” because they tell the story of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us and dying for us. Could this be any clearer? And I was railing against the novel Reformed usage of that term.

            The Word become flesh, not paper. We do not follow the Bible, we follow Christ. As NT Wright once said, “Christ said all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me, not the books you chaps are going to write!” He was right. The Scriptures witness to a reality outside of itself. The Scriptures are venerated for revealing Christ to us in all Traditional Christian Communions. They are not deified as they are in many Protestant churches.

            So the Gospel accounts, because they are direct witnesses of Christ’s life on earth, are particularly venerated by the Church as seen in all liturgical practices of ancient Christian communions. The Epistles provide guidance for the Church’s doctrine and are held in the highest regard for this purpose. We are not setting the “authority” of one category of Scripture over another. We worship Christ, and venerate the Gospel accounts in a special way in worship because they are the primary witnesses to him.

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  • Jeff

    I understand the author’s point, here – that one ought not to overemphasize the gospels to the exclusion of the other books – and that point is well taken. However, for a place like TGC, I would expect that most readers have a very hard time not overemphasizing all of the other books to the exclusion to the gospels. We never shirk away from expounding the importance of the Law, Prophets, Wisdom of the OT. Christ is there, we must preach Christ from there, if your reading of Leviticus isn’t worshipful then you’re reading it incorrectly, etc. I don’t even need to mention the enormity with which the Reformed tradition in general, and the YRR crowd today, sees the epistles of Paul. All roads, it seems, lead to the Book of Romans; all things in the Bible must be interpreted by Paul’s epistles. If there is a part of scripture that is overemphasized by YRR’s, TGC included, it’s the epistles. The gospel story of Christ’s person and work as contained in the four gospels is the climax of the Gospel. Paul does a lovely job of explaining what that climax means for us, but Paul isn’t the point – Christ is.

    • MichaelA

      That’s a strange way to put it. We learn about Christ through the apostles, and only through them. Paul is no different to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

      Trying to oppose Paul to Christ doesn’t make sense.

      I can’t comment on what you say about “the Reformed tradition” – I’m Anglican and most people who refer to “Reformed” with a capital “R” don’t include us in it. But all I can say is that if there is anyone who emphasises the epistles over other parts of the Bible, then they are just as misguided as those who overemphasise the gospels, or Leviticus, or the Psalms, or whatever.

      The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” [Eph 2:20-21] We therefore should not be surprised to find that there is no inconsistency between the teachings of Christ, or of his Apostles or of his Prophets, as the ultimate author of the revelation is the same in each case.

  • Bereket

    I too find it frustrating to hear or talk with a person who has a “red-letter” view of Jesus’ teachings. This is used particularly to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. I guess we just have to be prepared to show people that we need to know the mind of Christ, not just the words of Christ. We do that by reading all of the Bible.

  • Simon

    I’m not a red letter guy. I do believe all of Scripture is inspired. I was simply making the historical observation that the Gospels have had a special place in the worship of Christians. Furthermore, the Fathers state that all Scripture is to be viewed through the lens of Christ. I believe this is why the Gospel books are particularly venerated in historical Christianity.

    • MichaelA

      “Furthermore, the Fathers state that all Scripture is to be viewed through the lens of Christ.”

      Hi Simon, which passage in the Church Fathers do you mean? [For those not in the know, “Church Fathers” refers to some of the theologians and church leaders who have left us writings from the 2nd – 5th centuries AD].

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  • KentonS

    Jesus “broke scripture” all the time! Read Luke 4 and compare it to Isaiah. Jesus redacts all the “good parts” (The day of vengeance, the part about foreigners working the Israelites’ fields.) A large part of the sermon on the mount is “You have heard (something in scripture), but I tell you (something different).” John 8 deals with a woman that scripture demanded be stoned, and Jesus undermines the whole thing.

    Then there is Peter eating non-kosher foods, Paul saying, “Nah, Gentiles don’t have to get circumcised.”

    Yes, Jesus is revealed to us today first and foremost by scripture, and we need all of the broken scripture to understand who Jesus is. (We need the Isaiah passage to understand the Luke 4 passage.) But let’s be “Christians”, not “Biblians.”

    • d camp

      You can take up the Bible like a research project, many liberal theologians do it. But you can’t be a Christian without being a Biblian. As Jesus Himself gave us the example; “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And Paul took up the same theme in 2 Tim 3:16, 17.

  • prof_emeritus

    Agree, but furthermore, the red print is harder to read than the black, and in my only red-letter Bible, the red print is a poor quality compared to the black..

  • Justin Davito

    Thanks for posting. Great thoughts.

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