‘Red Letter Literalists’ by Pastor Mark C. Chavez

Red letter literalists

Mark C. Chavez, vice president  of Word Alone network

August 4, 2009

When I was a child I thought Bibles that had Jesus’ words printed in red in the New Testament were really neat. The red letter editions made it easier to find Jesus’ parables and other sayings. I was surprised as an adult to hear some Lutheran and mainline Protestant clergy and theologians disparage red letter edition Bibles and those who use them.

Those critics said that red letter edition Bibles made Jesus’ sayings appear more important than all the other words in the Bible. The critics rightly pointed out that the whole Bible is God’s Word, so the sharp distinction between Jesus’ red letter sayings and the rest of the Bible was said to be misleading.

The critics also derogatorily labeled those who used the red letter Bibles as “fundamentalists” and “literalists.”

I was reminded of the criticisms of “fundamentalists” and “literalists” this spring when I heard a Lutheran professor confidently and gleefully proclaim in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synod assembly, “Jesus never said a word about homosexuality.”

I had heard other ELCA clergy and theologians make similar assertions in assemblies and other settings over the years. This spring, as on previous occasions, people in the room chuckled in approval. The professor and those who agreed with him seemed so confident that he had made the definitive, irrefutable argument in the great debate about homosexual behavior.

As I heard the professor this spring, I realized that his approach to the Bible on the issue of homosexual behavior was no different from what was disparagingly said about the allegedly simplistic “fundamentalists” and “literalists.” He might as well have said, “There are no red letter words about homosexuality in the Bible.”

The assertion that Jesus never addressed homosexual behavior makes sense only if one separates Jesus’ quoted words in the New Testament from the rest of the words in the Bible. This approach raises many questions. If the Biblical words that do address homosexual behavior and consistently forbid it are not connected with Jesus’ words, then whose words are they? Just God the Father’s words? Or the Holy Spirit’s? If so, then what are we to make of an approach to the Bible that pits one person of the Trinity against another?

Or do those who assert Jesus never addressed homosexual behavior believe the biblical words that address homosexual behavior are just human words written by ancient authors who were trapped in homophobia or ignorance? Maybe they don’t believe the ELCA confession of faith that states all of Scripture is “the inspired Word of God.”

What does the professor and those who agree with his assertion believe about John’s Gospel, which says that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh in chapter 1? Do they believe Jesus is the eternal Divine Word made flesh or not?

The orthodox Christian confession of faith, including the ELCA constitution, is that Jesus “is the Word of God incarnate.” Therefore the red letter words of Jesus should always be connected with the black letter words in both the Old and New Testaments.

As I listened to the professor speak this spring, I was also struck by his literalistic approach to the Bible. Because Jesus didn’t literally speak about “homosexuality,” the professor asserted that Jesus had never said anything about it. It was one of the most literalistic readings of Scripture you would ever hear.

If Jesus expresses the positive standard for what people ought to do, it doesn’t mean that He says nothing about behaviors that are to be avoided.

Suppose in response to the rich young man (Matthew 19:18-19), Jesus had just said, “Honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and hadn’t prohibited murder, adultery, stealing and bearing false witness. It would be ludicrous to assert that therefore Jesus said nothing to the rich young man about murder, adultery, stealing or bearing false witness. The positive standard, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” carries with it a whole boat load of prohibited behaviors, whether they’re spelled out or not.

Jesus’ response to the question about divorce in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, when he quotes from Genesis, is just such a positive expression of what God intends for people. God’s intention for a sexual relationship is that a man and a woman are to marry for life. The positive standard is stated in the first book of the Bible. The later commandments that forbid all other sexual relationships follow from the positive standard.

The biblical words that proscribe homosexual behavior are words from the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are united. They speak and work in concert.


Pastor Mark C. Chavez is vice president of  Word Alone network http://wordalone.org/index.shtml

Thank you, Pastor Chavez and Word Alone network for allowing us to use this article.

How does what Pastor Chavez describes square with your understanding of Holy Scripture?

Can we place issues that are not spoken of explicitly by Jesus into another level of understanding, even though there are certainly specific references to that issue made by other writers in the Bible?


15 Responses

  1. “Scripture interprets scripture is the Lutheran interpretation of the Bible.

  2. This is an excellent article. I would have also added Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17-18:

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

    Based on simple logic, this should be construed as Jesus’ affirmation of the entire content of the Old Testament in general.

  3. What an interesting article. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Scripture interprets scripture is the Baptist interpretation of the bible.

    Jesus spoke in red. And His words ARE more important. All the other words exist only to glorify those. This is Jesus we are speaking of!

  5. I have a red lett Bible (one among several). I mostly got it because I wanted the NASB translation, and I needed one with larger print. I’ve found a few places where the black should be red and the red should be black. So, you still have to be discerning when you read. One thing is for sure. Every Word should be read.

  6. Hmm, I remember somewhere where God said that ALL Scripture was breathed by Him. He must have forgotten to mention that the red letters were more important.

  7. Jesus spoke in red?

  8. How does one speak in red? I would like to try.

  9. Jesus “spoke” the entire Scriptures, He is the Word. The whole Bible should be red… and read.

  10. It’s good to have read the words in red by the Word made flesh. The words in black are those of the Word as well.

  11. The assertion that the Bible rejects homosexuality is wrong. So, no red letter words in any sense.

    Jesus of Nazareth never said a word about this Modern to late Modern category, nor did any of the autors of the OT, NT.

    The 6 or 7 terror verses are mis-translated out of Gnosticism and Neo Platonism, the Academic tradition of the West coming from Ancient Alexandria – all that the Bible was assembled to refute.

  12. Goran koch-Swahne,

    Sorry, but you are wrong. The Bible clearly states that homosexuality is an abomination before the Lord.

    You may not like that, or agree with that…but that is what the Bible says.

    The true test if something is really good or not, is to apply it to all people. If everyone were homosexual civilazation would cease to exist.

    The way things stand now, we are facing subjugation by the Muslims because we are not reproducing ourselves like they are.

    If and when that happens, the homosexual communities can pat themselves on the back for the role they played in losing our way of life to the oppressors. And by the way, the homosexuals will be amongst the forst that the Muslims wipe out.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    – Steve

  13. Steve,

    You said, “The way things stand now, we are facing subjugation by the Muslims because we ae not reproducing ourselves like they are.”

    I think the greater reason for this than homosexuality is abortion.

    BTW, there are a couple of well-known Protestant pastors who have said that masturbation is ok because it is not mentioned in the Bible.

    Come to think of it, neither is coccaine, LSD, or a myriad of othe substances. And I’m sure we can add MANY things to this list.

  14. Darlene,

    I think you are right. Abortion is a large part of that as well.

    I guess people (even those in the church) will resist God’s Word in favor of their own agends.

    Thanks, Darlene!

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