Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Regarding Red Letters

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There is a heretical attitude, indulged by certain Christians, that the words of Christ, or of the four gospels as a whole, have special priority in the Bible. These are considered more important than the rest of Scripture because they describe the words and actions of Jesus, who is God himself. In certain churches, for example, it’s customary to stand for readings taken from the gospels, but to sit for readings taken from elsewhere. Views and customs of this sort are colloquially called the “red letter mentality”, since in some Bibles the words of Christ are printed in red so as to make them stand out; and these words are then given special attention.

Now, I myself use a red letter Bible. It’s sometimes quite useful to be able to distinguish Jesus’ words at a glance—so I’m not criticizing red letter Bibles themselves. However, the manner in which they’re commonly used certainly does deserve much criticism.

At face value, it may seem quite reasonable, or even sensible or necessary, to hold the words of Jesus in higher regard than the words, perhaps, of Paul or Ezra. Obviously, the incarnation is of superlative interest to us as Christians, and should be given special attention. But there is a difference between honoring Christ, and honoring the gospels above other parts of Scripture. In giving priority to Jesus’ words, or to the gospels as a whole, one is at the same time necessarily implying (if unknowingly, or at least silently) that the rest of the Bible is of less importance and less authority. Two things ought to be observed in regards to this:

Firstly, when we talk about Jesus’ words, what we actually mean is the words written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus did not write them. He did not even say them exactly as recorded, since verbatim quoting was not something used in ancient near-east culture. As with every other book of the Bible, the gospels record the word of God; they just happen to record his verbal revelation in Christ, rather than his verbal revelation through a prophet, or some other means.

Secondly, then, who is the author of John? Apart from John as the actual physical writer, of course, God is. And who is the author of Ezra? God is. Who is the author of Romans? God is. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is breathed out by God, without distinction; and that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Again, no distinction is drawn (here or anywhere) between the usefulness or importance of one part of Scripture or another—and naturally so, since how could one thing that God says be of less importance or authority than another?

Now, you might protest that knowing about the life of Jesus is more important than knowing the genealogies in Genesis. But if all Scripture really is breathed out by God, and profitable to make one wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15), then this protestation must be invalid: rather, knowing about the life of Jesus, and knowing about the genealogies of the patriarchs, are equally important for any Christian. I myself know of someone whose testimony is based on a reading from Genesis 5: during the course of hearing this genealogy, God opened his heart to understand that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23); and saved him through a part of Scripture considered by many to be boring and of little consequence.

Of course, this man would hardly have been saved without also hearing the gospel revealed in the New Testament; but this simply illustrates the point. While we may think that certain passages are more important to know than others, God does not. In introducing the Bible to someone, we might choose to first start with Romans, because it contains a comprehensive theology covering most aspects of the faith. This is quite appropriate. Or we might start with John, because it’s an evangelical gospel. But this doesn’t mean that John or Romans are more important or more authoritative than other parts of the Bible: merely that they are more useful to us for certain purposes. But God can use any passage to draw a person to salvation—and frequently does.

To give special reverence to the gospels, then, or to the words of Jesus, betrays a tacit belief that the rest of the Bible is not worthy of special reverence. Stated most simply, it is a form of unbelief. To think that what Jesus said is of greater importance than what Moses said is actually to think that one part of what God has said is less important than another part of what God has said. Taken to the extreme, this sort of foolishness destroys the unity of the Bible, resulting in the possibility of Jesus “correcting” some other part of Scripture. For example, some very poor commentaries on the sermon on the mount suggest that Jesus is correcting the law of Moses in the Old Testament. But the whole Bible is God’s word, and the whole Bible is Jesus’ word; and the whole Bible is a unified, coherent whole testifying to Jesus himself (John 5:39).

If we don’t believe this, then we have no basis for theology. If we think that Jesus’ words are the most authoritative or the most important, then we are implicitly assuming that the rest of the Bible is not authoritative or important at all; because it is either God-breathed and therefore completely authoritative and important; or it is not. There is no matter of degree possible: either all Scripture is God’s word, in which case all Scripture is equal; or it’s not.

And if it’s not, then what reason do we have to assume that the gospels are God’s word? The fact that Jesus is recorded as saying something in them is no guarantee of their authenticity, for if not all Scripture is the word of God, then our assumption that the gospels are (as opposed to, say, Nehemiah or 1 Peter) is entirely arbitrary. Therefore, either all Scripture is God’s word, or none of it is. And if all Scripture is the word of God, then we cannot give special precedence to the gospels any more than we can elevate John above Luke, or Mark above Matthew.

Therefore, we must take Scripture as a unity: it is all God’s word, all equally authoritative, and therefore all equally worthy of our study and of our obedience.

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