The latest edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology looks incredibly helpful (especially Peter Gentry’s essay on the covenants):

One highlight from SBJT is often D.A. Carson’s contribution to their Forum. In this issue he is asked “What are the most common errors that people make when it comes to understanding and proclaiming the kingdom?” He lists several, the final one being the tendency to make “‘kingdom’ an adjective that blesses whatever I want blessed” (e.g., “kingdom ethics”). In particular, he applies this to the so-called “red letter Christians”:

A particularly virulent form of this approach is hidden behind what Tony Campolo now approvingly calls “red letter Christians.” These red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they take the words of Jesus especially seriously (they devote themselves to the “red letters” of some foolishly printed Bibles) and end up being more concerned than are other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a “canon within the canon” to bless my preferred brand of theology. That’s the first of two serious mistakes commonly practiced by these red letter Christians. The other is worse: their actual grasp of what the red letter words of Jesus are actually saying in context far too frequently leaves a great deal to be desired; more particularly, to read the words of Jesus and emphasize them apart from the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection, not only has the result of down-playing Jesus’ death and resurrection, but regularly fails to see how the red-letter words of Jesus point to and unpack the significance of his impending crosswork. In other words, it is not only Paul who says that Jesus’ cross and resurrection constitute matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3), and not only Paul who was resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:1–5), but the shape of the narrative in each canonical gospel says the same thing. In each case the narrative rushes toward the cross and resurrection; the cross and resurrection are the climax. So to interpret the narrative, including the red-letter words of Jesus, apart from the climax to which they are rushing, is necessarily a distortion of the canonical gospels themselves.

Some of the gospel passion accounts make this particularly clear. In Matthew, for example, Jesus is repeatedly mocked as “the king of the Jews” (27:27–31, 37, 42). But Matthew knows that his readers have been told from the beginning of his book (even the bits without red letters) that Jesus is the king: the first chapter establishes the point, and tells us that, as the promised Davidic king, he is given the name “YHWH saves” (“Jesus”) because he comes to save his people from their sins. Small wonder for its first three centuries the church meditated often on the irony of Jesus “reigning” from a cross, that barbaric Roman instrument of torture and shame. And it is Matthew who reminds us that, this side of the cross, this side of the resurrection, all authority belongs to Jesus (28:18–20). These constitute parts of the narrative framework without which Jesus’ red-letter words, not least his portrayals of the kingdom, cannot be rightly understood.

Update: You can read Carson’s whole response here (HT: Rod Decker).

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20 thoughts on “Carson on Red-Letter Christians”

  1. Gucci Little Piggy says:

    Another brilliant piece by Dr. Carson! Thanks Justin for this very insightful and helpful post.

  2. Stan McCullars says:

    I am thankful for Dr. Carson’s ministry.

  3. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Great post JT. I love how D.A. Carson graciously exposes the error of the hermeneutical orthopraxy of so-called “Red-Letter Christians.

  4. Brad & Melissa says:

    Heaven forbid people actually run around doing what Jesus said.

    What a convenient way to defend the nonsensical tenants of American denominations.

    I understand that the gospel story needs to be taken as a whole.

    But until we start living our lives according to what Jesus said, what’s the point?

    You stick with rationalizing why Jesus didn’t mean what he means, I’ll stick with being overly concerned for my fellow man.

    -Brad
    http://www.SimplyOneLife.org

  5. JT says:

    Brad,

    Do you really think that’s a fair and legitimate response to Carson’s post?

    JT

  6. Richard Lucas says:

    JT,

    Just a minor typing correction, but you left out the first word of the title of the essay by Peter Gentry. It should read “Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image.”

    Thanks

  7. steve says:

    Brad wrote: Heaven forbid people actually run around doing what Jesus said.

    Carson never forbade such.

    I understand that the gospel story needs to be taken as a whole.

    Exactly Carson’s point–and the red-letter Christians are not doing this.

    But until we start living our lives according to what Jesus said, what’s the point?

    Though we are commanded to do good and to help others, our good deeds in and of themselves have no power to bring true transformation into people’s lives. Apart from the gospel itself, apart from preaching Christ crucified, our good deeds are no good. Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” That’s where the real power is, that’s where the real transformation is made possible.

    You stick with rationalizing why Jesus didn’t mean what he means, I’ll stick with being overly concerned for my fellow man.

    Carson did not rationalize why Jesus didn’t mean what he means. Rather, he pointed out the necessity of looking at the whole picture, not just a part of it, as you are.

  8. MSC says:

    B&M said,
    “I’ll stick with being overly concerned for my fellow man.”

    This may be a revealing comment. When we are not overly concerned with the centrality of Christ, the cross and the glory of God our gospel can become very man-centered. A gospel that is focused on exalting the cross and the glory of Christ causes a greater concern for repairing men’s souls than repairing their soles (so to speak).

  9. pduggie says:

    “graciously”?

    [Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a “canon within the canon” to bless my preferred brand of theology]

    For all that bluster, Carson doesn’t illuminate the RLC’s actual views enough to know if his criticism hits the mark.

    On the face of it, there’s a good case to be made that RLCs ARE looking at the central narrative of Christ reigning from the cross to a concern for, say, being anti-war or pacifism. That connection is fairly obvious.

  10. Matt says:

    D.A. Carson does his best Mark Driscoll…

  11. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Pduggie questions my use of the word “graciously” to describe Professor Carson’s post.

    For example, pduggie cites: “Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a “canon within the canon” to bless my preferred brand of theology.”

    I think being clear is a mark of graciousness. Obfuscating so as to make people wonder what you’re really saying is rather unhelpful to clear communication.

    In sum…. Tell it like it is, D.A.!!!

  12. Stan McCullars says:

    Brad,
    Are you having a bad day?

    Was that post meant for a different blog?

    An answer of “Yes” to either(both) question(s) could help explain how your rant ended up here.

  13. Paul says:

    I think Dr Carson misinterprets these so called “red letter Christians” – they are not adhering to the (red) words of Jesus to the complete exclusion of the rest of the gospels and the Bible. Of course they read the words as Jesus as part of the entire narrative. Rather, with a renewed emphasis on following the commands/teachings of Jesus, they are seeking to redress a profound deficiency in the modern church – care for the poor, hungry, or oppressed. Too often the church has been singularly concerned with saving people’s souls while completely neglecting these other crucial elements of Jesus’ mission for us. I’m afraid the only result of Carson’s post is a maintenance of this status quo. Learn from the prophetic message these people have for the church rather than rejecting them out of hand because of a misguided label that they have been given (personally I dislike the term “red letter Christians” but I understand the point of it)

  14. donsands says:

    “Too often the church has been singularly concerned with saving people’s souls while completely neglecting these other crucial elements of Jesus’ mission for us.”

    If the Church is genuinely concerned with saving people’s souls, which is far, far more expedient, then this same Church must be concerned for the poor, the orphans and the widows.

    Who is this church that you are speaking of? Could you mention a leader or two.

    Also, Carson mentions Tony Campolo as an example to the RLC, and Tony is a dear guy, but he has a lot of unbiblical ideas.

  15. A. B. Caneday says:

    Paul,

    You stated, Learn from the prophetic message these people have for the church rather than rejecting them out of hand because of a misguided label that they have been given (personally I dislike the term “red letter Christians” but I understand the point of it)

    Two things: (1) Carson does not reject them out of hand. The idiom “out of hand” indicates immediately, without consideration, or summarily. Carson has not rejected them without consideration. He has given them considerable thought, just as many readers of this blog have done. (2) No one put the label “Red Letter Christians” onto Tony Campolo, et al. That is the designation that Tony Campolo has given himself and those who follow him.

  16. A. B. Caneday says:

    Pduggie,

    You stated, Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a “canon within the canon” to bless my preferred brand of theology.

    Would it have been better if D. A. Carson had written, “Oh σκύβαλον. . . ?” See Philippians 3:8.

  17. Peter M. Head says:

    I have had an attempt to defend the principle of ‘red letter Bibles’ over here: http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2008/05/in-defence-of-red-letter-bibles.html. Judging by the comments the reaction is mixed!

  18. pduggie says:

    I can’t stand much of Campolo or his politics, but Carson’s response is foolish and misdirected.

    And, when Paul gets harsh with someone who deserves it, I don’t call it “gracious”, though it’s just and righteous.

    For Carson to counter an emphasis on the sermon on the mount in Christian ethics with a claim that Paul just focusses on the cross in 1 Corinthians is NONSENSE.

    Paul uses the cross as the basis for all kinds of emphatic teaching of all kinds of Matthew 5 ethical matters that the Corinthians are flubbing (including treatment of the poor!)

  19. pduggie says:

    “(1) Carson does not reject them out of hand. The idiom “out of hand” indicates immediately, without consideration, or summarily.”

    Actually he does.

    His first comment is “this is just more of the same”

    But is it? has he shown reflection which demonstrates that? No. He has not.

  20. The Hawk says:

    It is so entertaining to watch some Christians run away from the life, teachings, and example of the one they call “savior.” You would almost think they really believed that they have no responsibility here on earth; just waiting around until there turn comes up in heaven. It’s no wonder Christianity is so watered down and ineffective in today’s world.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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