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Red letter literalists

Mark C. Chavez, vice president, WordAlone Network

August 4, 2009

photo of Pastor ChavezWhen I was a child I thought Bibles that had Jesus’ words printed in red in the New Testament were really neat. The red letter editions made it easier to find Jesus’ parables and other sayings. I was surprised as an adult to hear some Lutheran and mainline Protestant clergy and theologians disparage red letter edition Bibles and those who use them.

Those critics said that red letter edition Bibles made Jesus’ sayings appear more important than all the other words in the Bible. The critics rightly pointed out that the whole Bible is God’s Word, so the sharp distinction between Jesus’ red letter sayings and the rest of the Bible was said to be misleading.

The critics also derogatorily labeled those who used the red letter Bibles as “fundamentalists” and “literalists.”

I was reminded of the criticisms of “fundamentalists” and “literalists” this spring when I heard a Lutheran professor confidently and gleefully proclaim in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synod assembly, “Jesus never said a word about homosexuality.”

I had heard other ELCA clergy and theologians make similar assertions in assemblies and other settings over the years. This spring, as on previous occasions, people in the room chuckled in approval. The professor and those who agreed with him seemed so confident that he had made the definitive, irrefutable argument in the great debate about homosexual behavior.

As I heard the professor this spring, I realized that his approach to the Bible on the issue of homosexual behavior was no different from what was disparagingly said about the allegedly simplistic “fundamentalists” and “literalists.” He might as well have said, “There are no red letter words about homosexuality in the Bible.”

The assertion that Jesus never addressed homosexual behavior makes sense only if one separates Jesus’ quoted words in the New Testament from the rest of the words in the Bible. This approach raises many questions. If the Biblical words that do address homosexual behavior and consistently forbid it are not connected with Jesus’ words, then whose words are they? Just God the Father’s words? Or the Holy Spirit’s? If so, then what are we to make of an approach to the Bible that pits one person of the Trinity against another?

Or do those who assert Jesus never addressed homosexual behavior believe the biblical words that address homosexual behavior are just human words written by ancient authors who were trapped in homophobia or ignorance? Maybe they don’t believe the ELCA confession of faith that states all of Scripture is “the inspired Word of God.”

What does the professor and those who agree with his assertion believe about John’s Gospel, which says that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh in chapter 1? Do they believe Jesus is the eternal Divine Word made flesh or not?

The orthodox Christian confession of faith, including the ELCA constitution, is that Jesus “is the Word of God incarnate.” Therefore the red letter words of Jesus should always be connected with the black letter words in both the Old and New Testaments.

As I listened to the professor speak this spring, I was also struck by his literalistic approach to the Bible. Because Jesus didn’t literally speak about “homosexuality,” the professor asserted that Jesus had never said anything about it. It was one of the most literalistic readings of Scripture you would ever hear.

If Jesus expresses the positive standard for what people ought to do, it doesn’t mean that He says nothing about behaviors that are to be avoided.

Suppose in response to the rich young man (Matthew 19:18-19), Jesus had just said, “Honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and hadn’t prohibited murder, adultery, stealing and bearing false witness. It would be ludicrous to assert that therefore Jesus said nothing to the rich young man about murder, adultery, stealing or bearing false witness. The positive standard, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” carries with it a whole boat load of prohibited behaviors, whether they’re spelled out or not.

Jesus’ response to the question about divorce in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, when he quotes from Genesis, is just such a positive expression of what God intends for people. God’s intention for a sexual relationship is that a man and a woman are to marry for life. The positive standard is stated in the first book of the Bible. The later commandments that forbid all other sexual relationships follow from the positive standard.

The biblical words that proscribe homosexual behavior are words from the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are united. They speak and work in concert.