Red Letter Bibles are Bibles with the words of Jesus printed in red ink. This has been a fairly common and popular publishing format since Louis Klopsch printed his first Red Letter Testament in 1899 (or 1900). The terminology has recently been picked up by Tony Campolo in defining the idea of 'Red Letter Christians' as those who pay particular attention to Jesus' teaching: 'In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said.' Campolo attaches this to what might be perceived as a somewhat left-wing agenda. This in turn has prompted Don Carson to complain that basing our theology on such 'foolishly printed Bibles' is basically just another form of having a 'canon within the canon' (summarised here, also printed last week in Evangelicals Now).
Without diving into this particular debate I do want to ask whether printing Jesus' words in red is foolish, or whether it preserves a genuine Christian instinct. As a historical point it is worth noting that in its origin the use of red ink was not actually an attempt to disconnect the words of Jesus from 'the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’s redeeming death and resurrection' (Carson). On the contrary, the use of red ink was intended to connect the words of Jesus precisely with the plot line of Jesus' redeeming death: it was the symbolism of Christ's blood, prompted by Luke 22.20 (“This cup is the new testament in my blood, which I shed for you”) which led Klopsch to print Christ's words in red.
But notwithstanding this important sybolism, the primary reason for treating Jesus’ own words as of particular importance is because this is what Jesus himself says: hearing and doing ‘these words of mine’ are foundational to the faithful life (Matt 7.24ff; Luke 6.47ff); and indeed, allegiance to ‘me and my words’ is announced as a criteria for judgement (Mark 8.38; Luke 9.26). Jesus’ words are eternal: ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ (Matt 24.35; Mark 13.31; Luke 21.33). Since Jesus himself is the Word of God, his own words come directly from God, and so the one who loves Jesus will pay special attention to the words of Jesus (e.g. John 14.23f), abiding in Jesus involves abiding in his words (John 15.7).
A secondary reason is of course that the evangelists themselves place special emphasis on Jesus words - their emphasis is on his words not so much on their own. It is well known that the synoptic evangelists agree much more closely in the wording of the words of Jesus than in the narratives which surround those words. Matthew’s Gospel is particularly insistent on the importance of Jesus’ words (hence the five-fold discourse structure of Matthew), but so in various ways do Mark, Luke and John.
Paul too can be appealed to as treating the words of Jesus as of special importance in early Christian instruction. Although to be sure God’s revelation was not limited to what Jesus himself said, nevertheless he knew the difference between instruction based directly on Jesus’ words (e.g. 1 Cor 7.10; 9.14; 11.23ff) and instruction not based on Jesus’ words (1 Cor 7.12, 25).
So what do you think?