Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Red Letter Bibles Are Dumb

In 1901, Louis Klopsch published the first Bible in which those words "universally accepted as the utterances of our Lord and Saviour" were printed in red—the first "red letter Bible." They've been extremely popular ever since, especially amongst Protestants. Here's the problem with red letter bibles: nothing in the Bible is more or less important than anything else. It's all the Word of God, not just the stuff presented as quotations of Jesus.

Even though the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, and we believe the Apostles were given a special grace to be able to recall all of Jesus' teachings and recount them faithfully (cf. John 14:26), the Gospels aren't word-for-word, moment-by-moment, exact histories of what happened. The Gospels are history, yes, but the Apostles didn't conceive of history in the same way we do. I'm not suggesting that what they say happened didn't happen. I am saying that they're not, nor were they ever intended to be, perfectly factually accurate accounts with exact quotations.

To say that everything the Bible says is the Word of God and absolutely true is not to say that every part of it should be interpreted in the same way. Obviously the Gospels aren't the same kind of literature as 1 Corinthians or Revelation. Different books and sections of the Bible have to be interpreted in light of how they were intended to be read.

For example, when John says that angels in heaven are singing (cf. Rev. 5:8-13) he clearly doesn't mean that literally, because it's not possible. The angels are purely spiritual beings, they have no bodies. A being without vocal cords can't sing. What John is saying is something like: "the angels declare the glory of God and worship him." In order to get this idea across, he likens it to human songs of praise. In other words, it's a metaphor. It's still absolutely and undeniably true. But it's true metaphorically, not literally.

This principle must be extended out over the entirety of Scripture. The question is, How do we determine which parts should be interpreted in which way? Well, there are several answers. First, the Church, carrying on the Apostolic Witness to Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit is custodian to the truth of the Word of God, of which Scripture is the special, written testimony. Second, theologians determine how we must interpret particular passages of Scripture in light of what we know to be true about God and Christ. Third, bible scholars, archaeologists and the like are always coming up with new information about the people and times which produced Holy Scripture, giving us new insight into their culture and, as a result, literature.

To be sure, there are portions of Scripture which it's less crucial to read than others. Someone once suggested a new Christian read the New Testament twice before he ever read the Old Testament. Obviously, every last ceremonial precept in Leviticus and Deuteronomy don't need to be memorized to get the idea. Nevertheless, we ought not to treat the "words of Jesus" in the Gospels as exact quotations. Nor should we devalue the rest of Scripture as any less authoritative (when interpreted properly).


  1. That's very true, but I actually LOVE my red-letter bible, mostly because when I read a version that ISN'T red-letter, I miss the immediate color-coded indication that the Word Made Flesh is speaking. I love being able to focus on what Jesus says, and reflect on His words in my heart. Not to say the sentences JESUS says are more important or more notable, just that Jesus is Lord of all, and I like it that in red-letter bibles, His teachings are set apart. I am very easily distracted, so having eye-catching red-letters helps me stay focused when praying (haha).

  2. See, but that's the thing, it's not just the red-lettered parts that are Christ's teachings, the whole Bible is Christ's teaching, when it's properly understood and interpreted.

    To single out the portions of the Gospels presented as exact quotations of Our Lord is to give them more weight than, say, the writings of St. Paul or St. Peter, even though, in reality, they carry no more weight. The entire Bible is the Word of God, the teachings of the Word Made Flesh.

  3. I wonder if a red-letter Bible would matter more to a Protestant than a Catholic. Maybe it's a way of focusing attention on Jesus' words vs. Paul's.

    Just guessing.

  4. It's definitely a Protestant phenomenon, having originated and caught on there. I would wager that it was only after the Council that many Catholics at all began using red-letter Bibles as a result of the "Protestant-izing" of the American Church that occurred subsequently.

    I don't know if it's to do with an attempt to draw attention away from anything in particular. I do know that red-letter Bibles are a Protestant phenomenon (and particularly an Evangelical Protestant phenomenon) because it's underpinned by a fundamentalist reading of Scripture, based itself on the heresy of Sola Scriptura.

  5. The angels don't sing? Don't have bodies? They were seen and heard by the shepherds. Elijah and his servant saw them surrounding them. Abraham and others saw, spoke, and interacted with them.

    How can we pick and choose what is literal and what is figurative?

    I also think the actual words of Christ DO carry more weight than the rest of the printed words. This does not mean the epistles, etc, or even the rest of the words in the Gospels are not important and true.

    But what Christ said, when push comes to shove, is certainly more weighty than even the words of Paul, inspired as they may be.

  6. "How can we pick and choose what is literal and what is figurative?"

    Here you've hit on the fundamental issue in Biblical exegesis and the chief difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, namely, authority.

    Catholic or Protestant, you must admit that certain passages of Scripture are not meant to be taken literally, as many Fundamentalists claim. Consider Luke 22:19, for example, "This is my body." Most Protestants would vehemently defend their interpretation of this passage as figurative, where Catholics believe it is meant to be taken literally, in a specific sense anyway. But how did they arrive at such an interpretation?

    Scripture is not self-evident; it must be interpreted. The problem lies in the authority one relies upon for that interpretation.

    Catholics rely on the ancient, apostolic, and unbroken tradition of the Church, guaranteed by God himself in such passages as 1 Tim. 3:15, John 14:16, and John 16:13 and lived out in the Church's Magisterium--the collective teaching authority of the Pope and the College of Bishops in union with him.

    Protestants rely on themselves. Whether they claim their personal interpretation relies on their own study or some kind of divine inspiration, it is just that, personal, which Scripture tells us very clearly is contrary to the will of God for his Church in 2 Peter 1:20: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation."


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