What is a Black-Letter Christian?

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).

1 thought on “What is a Black-Letter Christian?

  1. Mike

    The bible was written hundreds of years after Jesus died. Who really thinks there are actual quotes? All part of the exceptional job of brain washing by various denominations. Myth and superstition is what the bible is all about.


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