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  • Steven Chapman

Red Letters And Missing Verses

Blog Red Letter

I’m proud, as well, that I have been able to pass the love for books on to at least one of my children — I don’t know what illness has befallen my other children that they would not enjoy a love for books.

Each time my shelves fill, and am tortured by the gut-wrenching realization, I must part with some of my books to create space for more. A couple thousand have passed through my hands, some of which I have been able to place into the hands of others who would love and use them as I would myself.

Of the thousands of books I have read, one still remains my all time favorite … so much so that I have 32 different copies (make that 33 for I added another today) that I can reach from my desk, and another 4 a short walk across the office. As a matter of fact nearly all of the 2000 volumes in my office have a significant connection to this most cherished of books.

I’m sure you have guessed what it is. I am a vocational minister after all.

“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God. The B-I-B-L-E!”

Over the last two months the FCC Chicago family has been cultivating a love for God’s word as members have participated in a 90-day challenge to read through the entire Bible. Being so closely connected with the Bible during this reading has also made me more keenly aware of what is being said by others about this “good book”.

Alarmingly, the Bible is under serious attack. Over the last two week, two particular streams of attack have caught my attention. Interestingly, they come from divergent extremes on the cultural and religious spectrum; one comes from a quite liberal persuasion, the other an extremely conservative one.

However, both viewpoints have the capacity to deceive those ill-equipped to defend the veracity of the Bible. The effect then is to embrace a lie that erodes their faith by undercutting trust in the authority of God’s word.

One side proposes a low view of the authority of most of scripture, a view that is culturally conditioned. The other has too high a view of a single translation’s authority, raising questions about the authenticity of all other translations and thus the reliability of God’s Word.

Let me mention the two issues, and give a response to each:

1) Weighted Authority Driven by Agenda

One of the complications obstructing a meaningful discussion for Christians of differing theological persuasions in the gay debate, as well as some of the other cultural issues, is that we appeal to a different Bible. Well, it is not literally a different Bible. It is that the two sides attribute different authoritative weight to different texts.

In response to my recent blog post on the FCC webpage, “ The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same“, which addressed the constants that were not changed by the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS opinion, I received a provocative email response. Here is the relevant quote:

“Your biblical references quoted in this article are all advice directed toward the early church. This is NOT THE WORD OF CHRIST. There is a marked difference between Christ’s actual words and inclusive ministry, and the exclusive behavior advised by certain early leaders of the Church …”

Do you see a problem with this response? According to this respondent, my blog presented an erroneous position since the texts quoted or alluded to throughout the piece came from the pens of the apostles, and not from the mouth of Jesus. Words spoken by Jesus then penned by a disciple or his associate are considered more authoritative than words penned by one of the disciples alone. Only Jesus’ words carry cultural transcending authority.

Did you notice in the above quote the insinuation that the apostles’ letters are bigoted? Jesus was inclusive. Paul was exclusive (never mind that the two texts which may say the most about the inclusivity of the church were penned by Paul — Romans 15, and Ephesians 2:11ff).

Yet, it would be a mistake to believe that this approach to the New Testament is new. In fact, it has been developing over the last 30-40 years. It didn’t originate with the “gay hermeneutic.” It’s seeds were actually spread in the development of a “feminist hermeneutic.” Over the last decade it has become known as “Red Letter Christianity.”

How did people arrive at this view? Quite frankly, an agenda drew them there. Both the feminist and gay movements promote this “Red Letter” approach to Biblical authority, where Jesus’ words are considered authoritative, while other Biblical texts get relegated to the cultural waste can, because Jesus seems to be a better advocate for their cause than Paul, John, Peter or James.

However, the rationale that advocates of this selective authority hermeneutic must face puts them in a catch-22:

1) This first rationale is at best fanciful … “I can’t accept what a disciple wrote as authoritative, but I can accept what he wrote that Jesus said is authoritative!”

The logic is dizzying or mind-numbing or both.

Obviously, there is the belief that there are at least two levels of Biblical inspiration and/or authority. What Peter, Paul, John and James wrote was only useful to a specific church within a specific context, be they churches in Rome, Greece, Asia or Palestine. They have concluded that 2000 years later, whether the text speaks to contemporary issues or not, it is not longer relevant for us.

However, Peter affirms the equal authority of Paul’s writing with the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).

It appears not to dawn on the “Red Letter” advocates that Jesus was also speaking to a first century crowd. A crowd of Jews, quite unlike ourselves. How do we deduce that words spoken to a Jewish audience are relevant, while dismissing words written to a European church?

Further, if I can’t trust the authority of letters written by the apostles, how can I trust the apostolic record of what they say Jesus said?

The Jesus Seminar which was convened in 1985 by atheist Robert Funk asked that vital question. Their response was to vote by placing colored marbles into a bowl based on the “certainty” that each of the statements of Jesus were indeed authentic. When the marbles were assessed it was determined whether or not each statement had enough votes to be considered authentic or not. Their completed findings were printed with nearly 75% of the words attributed to Jesus being found inauthentic based upon their own arbitrary criteria: (1) short, catchy statements; (2) impossibilities; and (3) trust in God. Anything that Jesus might have said about himself, such as “I am the way, the truth and the life”, were looked at suspiciously. You see, the Jesus Seminar’s answer was basically you can’t trust the disciples’ record, either.

2) Which brings us to the next rationale – “While I advocate for the authority of Jesus’ words, I actually practice a selective acceptance of Jesus’ teaching.”

We have been thoroughly bombarded with these two phrases: “Do not judge,” and “Love your neighbor.” (Needless to say, these phrases are also misinterpreted and misapplied). Further, the “Red Letter” crowd loves texts that advocate for the poor and the oppressed.

However, there is a curious absence of quotations by “Red Letter” advocates on the morality, discipleship and holiness teachings of Jesus. Absent are: “Not everyone who calls to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but him who does the will of my Father’,” or “You will know them by their fruits.”

I believe that “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be fully equipped for every good work”. God has not given us the authority to do a cut-n-paste Bible that only includes the texts we approve.

Yet, in some ways the third is the most perplexing.