Now, There’s a New Phenomenon: Black Letter Christians!

Several days ago, J. R. Daniel Kirk, who is now blogging on Patheos, talked about the tension he is experiencing between labeling himself as an evangelical Christian versus a progressive Christian. Here’s how he started one of his most recent posts:

I know this might be rushing things in our relationship. But if it’s going to last I want you to know up front. Day three on the Patheos Progressive channel and I already have to complicate things.

The long and the short of it is this: when backed into a corner, sometimes I own up to the label of evangelical. I think I would describe myself as a progressive evangelical.

Then, near the end of the article, he said this:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Derek Rishmawy rightly challenged him on this, in a Facebook comment, in a response on Kirk’s blog, as well as in an excellent article on his own blog, entitled, “The Spirit of the Red Letters and ‘Progressive Evangelicalism.’” Basically, Derek’s criticism is that despite Kirk’s reference to the fact that Jesus is his ultimate authority, as it turns out, Kirk actually has problems with some things that Jesus says, and disagrees with Jesus on certain points of theology and ethics (in particular, same-sex marriage). As I have said many times on this blog, when you really press the issue, it becomes clear that red letter Christians aren’t all that crazy about the red letters either.

Well, interestingly, the latest I have seen in this interchange is where Kirk responds to Derek by saying this:

First, you need to get rid of the “red letters” v. “black letters” thing if you want to understand how the Jesus story works for me. I talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its (ideal) effects as the measures of the story.

Yes, that will include Jesus’ words, but they are not the lone guide. In fact, I am much more likely to look to his actions as descriptions of what the Kingdom of God is like.

Well, this is a very interesting phenomenon. To me, all this does is demonstrate how confused the so-called progressive Christian or progressive evangelical camp really is. For years, the red letter Christians have argued that it’s the red letters of Jesus that relativize everything else in Scripture. If something in Scripture doesn’t line up with the red letters, then we can safely dismiss what we think doesn’t line up. Now, here is a member of the progressive evangelical camp who declares that Jesus is his ultimate authority. But when pressed on that issue, because he had already expressed disagreement with Jesus on a point of theological ethics, he answers back by saying that for him, it’s the deeds of Jesus, the narratives, the “stories” about Jesus which actually takes priority over the words of Jesus. Translation: “Since I like stories about Jesus more than I like the things that Jesus said, you can’t accuse me of not regarding Jesus as my ultimate authority when I disagree with Jesus theologically and ethically.” I think I just witnessed goalposts being moved.

So, now, we have a new category of progressive evangelicals: Black letter Christians. The black letters are more important than the red ones. And to show how confusing this is, remember that progressive evangelicals, or progressive Christians, or post-evangelicals, or whatever you want to call them, while on the one hand wanting to drive a wedge between Christ and the Bible, and elevate Christ over the Bible, in this move, however, actually end up, at least by the way they themselves have set the parameters of the discussion, elevating the Bible over Christ. The things that the gospel authors say are more important than what Jesus himself says.

The confusion here is a hopeless one. One of the most important concepts I learned early in my own seminary education was that of the relationship between “the redemptive deed and the revelatory word.” The revelatory word always accompanies the redemptive deed. And that revelatory word provides the authoritative interpretation of the redemptive deed. I certainly agree with Daniel Kirk when he says that we have to “get rid of the ‘red letters’ v. ‘black letters’ thing.” But this does not give us license, whenever backed into a corner, to pick red letters over black letters, or black letters over red letters, depending on which set of letters happens at the moment to back up the point we are trying to make. The redemptive deeds of Jesus are important. But the right interpretation, the right slant on those redemptive deeds, is provided by the revelatory word. The right interpretation is not some “ideal” which we set up in our own minds as to the significance of what a “progressive” Jesus did. Rather, we look to the words of Jesus himself, as well as the words of his authorized and inspired prophets and apostles to interpret those deeds for us.

At the beginning of the second book of Luke’s two-volume work, Luke-Acts, the author says this:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2)

And the Gospel of Matthew, in the last verses of the book, provides us one version of what those instructions were:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Red letters? Black letters? I fail to see the difference. They are both authoritative. And they are, indeed, equally authoritative. And, when it comes to the person of Jesus, he is not the ultimate authority for us as he lines up with our ideal progressive vision for how the kingdom of God plays out.  Rather, he is our ultimate authority—period, in all that he did and in all that he said.

Jerry Shepherd
January 20, 2016

3 thoughts on “Now, There’s a New Phenomenon: Black Letter Christians!

  1. Excellent analysis. The whole “red letter” thing seems to be an attempt to get the Bible to justify what one has decided one already wants.

  2. Thanks for this! I was planning to say something about red vs. black letters in my sermon this Sunday, and this was a timely analysis.

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