Sometimes you hear about a Red Letter Day. That’s usually a reference to a special moment that should be remembered: a birthday or wedding anniversary, a graduation, a nation’s victory in battle. The use of this phrase goes way back to Roman Republican times, 500 years before Christ, when red numbers began being used for special days on calendars. During the Middle Ages, European countries built on this practice. When the printing press was invented, capital letters and important words were often emphasized by using red ink. Still today, magistrates in the English High Court and professors in universities wear scarlet robes on days of special commemoration.
The Scarlet Letter is the title of a powerful novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), which is about a red capital A that an adulterous woman was required to wear on her dress as a way of shaming her and making an example of her. Here as well, the red script was used to call attention to its subject, even though, in this case, the red was meant to leave not a positive, but a negative impression. Hawthorne tells his story in a way that shows the woman’s accusers were hypocrites who should have worn their own red letters.
In 1899, a clever publisher developed the first Red Letter Edition of the Bible, in which the actual words spoken by Jesus are printed with red ink, while the rest of the text is printed with black ink. This makes the teachings of Jesus stand out and elevates his unique personality above the surrounding context. Hundreds of thousands of copies of Red Letter Bible and New Testaments have been sold since then. These have helped many readers appreciate the superiority of the new relationship with God that Jesus was announcing, by grace through faith, over the legalism they had been striving to follow.
Recently, a group of Christian activists have begun calling themselves Red Letter Christians. The most prominent names associated with the movement are Jim Wallis (editor of Sojourners Magazine) and Tony Campolo (college professor and author). They come from Evangelical, Bible-believing backgrounds, but they’ve become very impatient with the way conservative Christian leaders seem preoccupied with issues such as abortion, homosexuality and conservative politics, while they avoid dealing with social justice issues, such as racism, unequal opportunity and the increasing gap between rich and poor. They have called upon their followers to become Red Letter Christians first, committing themselves to what Jesus actually taught and did while he was on earth. Without denying the authority of the rest of Scripture, they point out that Jesus’ most challenging and dynamic teachings focused on bringing the values of his spiritual Kingdom into how we deal with our relationships and issues of justice in our society. (Read more here.)
I believe these Red Letter Christians are onto something important. However, I want to make sure I don’t begin devaluing the rest of the Bible, beyond Jesus’ actual words. I’m still guided by the teaching of my seminary theology professor, Dr. Edward J. Carnell. The simple and logical rule of Bible interpretation he taught has never failed me in my own personal study and sermon preparation:
The New Testament interprets the Old Testament
The Epistles interpret The Gospels
Systematic Passages interpret Incidental Passages
Universal Passages interpret Local Passages
Teaching Passages interpret Symbolic Passages
Talk to me if you’d like to discuss this further.
— Pastor George Van Alstine