Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Carson on “Red-Letter Christians”

D. A Carson has a theological wallop for the Red-Letter Christianity promoted by the likes of Tony Campolo. In the most recent issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Carson writes:

“I’m suspicious of anyone who uses ‘kingdom’ only as an adjective, for usually it is merely a theologically posh way of approving one’s current theological and ethical agenda. If we like some ethical course, we label it ‘kingdom ethics’ and bless it with a text, and epistemology is satisfied.

“A particularly virulent form of this approach is hidden behind what Tony Campolo now approvingly calls ‘red letter Christians’. These red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they take the words of Jesus especially seriously (they devote themselves to the ‘red letters’ of some foolishly-printed Bibles) and end up being more concerned than are other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a ‘canon within the canon’ to bless my preferred brand of theology.”

I could not agree more with Carson’s protest of Red-Letter Christianity. The approach tends towards pitting the words of Jesus against the apostolic authors of the New Testament. The NT itself won’t allow this hermeneutical procedure, not least because the writers of the NT teach that faithful Christian discipleship means obedience to the “black letter” words of the apostles (e.g., 1 John 4:6 “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us”).

Carson’s remarks in this regard appear in the “SBJT Forum,” which also includes contributions from Barry Joslin, Everett Berry, and yours truly. Here is the table of contents for the entire issue:

Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2008 

Editorial: Stephen J. Wellum
“Reflecting on the Kingdom of God”

Graeme Goldsworthy
“The Kingdom of God as Hermeneutic Grid”

Peter J. Gentry
“Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image”

Jonathan T. Pennington
“The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew”

Brian Vickers
“The Kingdom of God in Paul’s Gospel”

Russell D. Moore and Robert E. Sagers
“The Kingdom of God and the Church: A Baptist Reassessment”

Todd L. Miles
“A Kingdom without a King? Evaluating the Kingdom Ethic(s) of the Emerging Church”

The SBJT Forum

[Carson’s essay]

Book Reviews


  • Matt Svoboda


    I don’t really see how he was ‘slandering’ anyone of the Red Letter Christian group. He was merely showing what he thought wrong in that movement. Do you not see anything wrong, hermeneutically, with putting more emphasis on one part of Scripture than another? Isn’t ‘all Scripture breathed out by God?’

    I think Carson is right that people who put more emphasis on one part of Scripture that they are pushing their own ‘theological agenda.’ This not only goes for Red Letter Christians, but also Calvinists, Armenians, legalists, etc… It is equally wrong and destructive in every case! If we over emphasis where Scripture talks about Sovereignty we usually are lazy when it comes to our responsibility. When we emphasis our responsibility over Sovereignty it becomes man centered, etc…

    I like what Carson said and I think all groups should take heed. We must always practice good biblical theology and let all of Scripture speak for itself AND interpret the rest of Scripture.

    In love

  • Brett

    Hey Matt, thanks for the response. Perhaps I need to extrapolate a bit on my previous comment to help you better understand where I’m coming from.

    Carson quickly points out how others push their theological and ethical agendas and futile exercises to bless one’s preferred brand of theology. I must suppose by his comments that he believes himself to be exempt from these accusations. I mean, surely he never pushing his theological and ethical agendas does he? Surely he doesn’t go to his favorite proof-texts and passages to bless his preferred theology does he?

    The truth is Matt, all people do this, and Carson is not an exception (by any means mind you, I have read him). For the reformed theologian such as Carson, certain passages and verses are highlighted more and given more emphasis (proving God’s sovereignty, etc). Arminians do the same, as do Greek-orthodox, as do open theists. None of us are exempt from Carson’s accusations.

    While what Carson says may sound nice and pious, he is simply the pot calling the kettle black.

    Do I see anything wrong, hermeneutically, with putting more emphasis on one part of Scripture than another? Isn’t ‘all Scripture breathed out by God?’

    I would agree that all Scripture is God-breathed. And, yes, problems arise when we put emphasis on one part of Scripture verses another. But let me ask you, when was the last time you heard a preacher preach through the first several chapters of Chronicles? What about the genealogies in “Luke”? Contrast that with how many sermons you have heard that have used a text or passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. So ya think there maybe a little bit more emphasis evangelicals tend to put on Pauline literature as opposed to genealogies and OT homiletics? Like I said before, this statement sounds nice and pious, but nobody really lives by it.

    And what about you Matt? Do you put more emphasis on the passages with what Christ accomplished on the cross than the passages about Joshua? Do you put more emphasis on Romans 3 than you do on Genesis 11? Do you put more emphasis on Ephesians 1 than Hosea 5?

    I think you’re probably understanding my point here. In an act of false piety, Carson calls out those who place more emphasis on certain parts of Scripture and acts like he doesn’t do the same. And the tone he utilizes in the excerpt has nothing less than a slanderizing tone (which is why I called it “slander”). Maybe the word was too harsh, but he certainly wasn’t candid or irenic.

    I think we’re probably in agreement for the most part here Matt, I just want you to understand that there is no such thing as an individual who doesn’t emphasize certain parts of Scripture more than others. This does not mean that we should not strive to practice good biblical theology and let our theology be shaped by the whole canon, because this should certainly be our goal. However, the Bible is not a systematic textbook, nor a doctrinal statement. There are certain things said in one context that may be completely opposite something said in another context. In any case, I would be much more prone to give heed to and obey something said by Christ as opposed to something said by Peter or Philip in the book of Acts…would you not?

    I’ll leave it at that for now and see what you have to say. Like I said, I think we’re in agreement for the most part. Carson (and Denny) just frustrate me b/c they act like they are not guilty here, which we all are.

  • Lance

    Seems to me that Carson is not so much slamming those who emphasize one text over another (as we all can do), but that he is exposing those who seek to lessen the authority of any Scripture that is not in red.

    “Paul was decent chap, but the poor fella was off-kilter on some issues, so we need to take with a grain of salt anything he wrote that Jesus did not say.”

    That’s the logic that comes from the red letter crowd, and that’s some perilous logic for those of us who believe in the divine inspiration of 66 books, not just 4.

    Denny’s use of 1 John 4:6 is noted.

  • Truth Unites... and Divides

    D.A. Carson, Denny Burk, Matt Svoboda, and Lance provide good sound arguments/refutations for not adopting a “Red Letter” approach.

  • Kris

    I think we should appoint a BLUE Ribbon Panel to prove that the RED letters are more infallible than the BLACK letters!

    BUT!… they can’t use any translation other than the original ‘infallible’ King James Version, heaven forbid we stray from the old english language of the 1500’s here in the 21st century and cause ourselves to sin.

  • David (not Adrian's son) Rogers

    I’ve preached on the genealogies in Matt. and Luke at least four times in my twelve year ministry. I recently preached out of Genesis 11, and I go sentence by sentence through the Old Testament prophets, even the Minor Ones, as well as doing exposition through the statements of Paul’s letters.

    I am perplexed at the ability of people (e.g. Brett) to read, for example, Carson’s essay and know that Carson thinks that he is above his own critique. Does Brett think that he himself is above his own critique?

    Is any statement that I make automatically hypocritical because I am a sinner and also limited in having absolute perfection in all things? Why should I post any statement anywhere, since I would be a hypocrite? Should Carson cease all writing as well as everyone else?

    I am not a Calvinist, so I am not entirely beholden to Carson’s Reformed perspective. Yes, I think he is flat wrong on some conclusions, but I find his writings to raise legitimate critiques of some movements, and particularly here I think his analysis of “red-letter only” interpreters makes fair points.

    Those who pit Jesus vs. Paul, et al. need to understand that it actually is Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John vs. Paul. The Gospel writers are understood as inspired “prophets” who deliver the word of God as well as Paul who also delivers the word of God. That is the point behind Carson’s critique.

  • Sue


    Here is the very perplexing thing. How could you proof text with the KJV? Proof texting is a very carefully developed skill dependent on one particular English translation being accepted by consensus. The KJV has not been used recently for prooftexting.

    For example,

    1 Cor. 6:9

    9Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

    10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

    But we see in James that mankind means “human beings” those who are by nature human, as the Greek says,

    7For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

    So, if we prooftext from the English of the KJV, we can only say that some abuse themselves with human beings, it appears.

    In fact, the word says “those who lie together as males.”

    No, I don’t think that there are any evangelicals today who would accept the challenge to proof text from the King James Bible.

    This is a tough one for me. Should I agree with the church for taking a stand against same sex blessing, or should I leave the church for blessing a signatory of the ant-TNIV statement. (to my mind a reviler)

    Since there was no one asking for same sex blessing hte church but there were people reviling the TNIV, I left. I took a stand for truth, the truth of the epistles. And I own a lot to Carson for his outspoken stand for the language of the TNIV.

  • Sue

    Suddenly I realize that one could think that “mankind” means “male.” I have to chuckle at those who don’t want gender accurate Bibles. They don’t see that James says, “human.” Never mind, some day, people will go back to reading Greek “as a language” but that day has not come.

    The argument is not only about whether one takes a line from the epistles as more important than the gospels, but also about whether one accepts a certain English translation as canonical. That is a graver problem. We cannot even agree on a common Bible in the evangelical community. I say, a million times better, let’s go back the King James and share a common version.

  • MatthewS

    Carson’s opinion is more about method than the people involved. I think the charge of “slander” is unfair.

    Brett, if I get your point, you are concerned that Carson is accusing someone else of prioritizing certain texts while pretending he doesn’t do the same. I don’t think he is doing that here.

    He has two complaints. First, the creation of a ‘canon within a canon’ with a specific purpose in mind.

    His bigger complaint, as I read it, is that the red-letter hermeneutical method is violent to the text. It strips teachings out of their given narrative context and reorients them to a new end, which coincidentally happens to be the evangelical left.

    Finally, he adds an appeal to avoid reductionism.

    It’s true that we all prioritize our reading of some texts over others but I don’t think Carson is naively lobbing a grenade at the red-letter folks for one prioritization while himself using another. Personally, I think his complaints have merit.

  • Matt Svoboda


    “But let me ask you, when was the last time you heard a preacher preach through the first several chapters of Chronicles? What about the genealogies in “Luke”?”

    I am glad that you asked! Right now I am priveleged to be the intern for Dr. York at Southern Seminary… The man will preach anything and everything! A couple weeks ago he did a great sermon on ‘head coverings’ in 1 Corinthians and last week he did a great job on 1 Corinthians 14 on the issue of tongues. I don’t know if you have heard this storyb, but Mohler ‘dared’ Dr. York to preach on the passage that Abraham threw his foreskin at Isaac’s feet and Dr. York happily did just that!

    So I know that not everyone is as blessed as I am to sit under such great, spread out preaching, but I wish that all were. There is another pastor in Louisville named Ryan Fullerton that jsut preached through Joshua and it might be the best sermon series I have ever heard(i listened on the internet.)

    But yes, we are definitely in agreement here. Carson is not exempt and I do wish preachers actually did preach as if ALL Scripture was breathed out by God! I am only 20 and don’t gewt to preach that often, but I do pray that I will not be pastor that camps out in one part of Scripture. I must say that I preached through the books of the OT with my former pastor and it was difficult, but it was also exciting and rewarding!


  • Matt Svoboda

    (Dr, York oreached that message in Chapel! I don’t think Mohler thought he would take that passage in Chapel, but Dr. York certainly is a guy to take any passage in ant setting if it is appropriate!)

  • David (not Adrian's son) Rogers

    Just a correction:

    It was Zipporah (Moses’ wife) who circumcised her son and threw the foreskin at the feet of an unspecified person (the Hebrew is unclear to whom the pronoun refers) either the LORD or Moses.

    Exodus 4:24-26

  • Bryan L

    Just an FYI:
    Two recent major books on ethics took the approach of putting Jesus at the center. One was by Glen Stassen and Dave Gushee called “Kingdom Ethics” and the other was by Richard Burridge called “Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics”

    Burridge’s reasoning for starting with Jesus is quite interesting and builds on his work that the genre of the gospels is ancient biography.

    Check them out if you get a chance.


  • Joel

    I agree with the point Carson is making- not pitting scripture against itself- however, it just doesn’t strike me as very academic to use words like ‘posh’ and ‘rubbish’ when making your points in an academic journal.

  • Kenneth Ross

    I’m 100% with Carson here. Just about every issue we face in contemporary evangelicalism comes down to the authority of scripture. ALL scripture is God-breathed, and we therefore have no mandate to apply a red-letter hermeneutic and then claim we are still being faithful to scripture. I still feel the diagnostic question these guys must always be forced to answer is… do they believe the Bible IS the word of God, or do they believe it CONTAINS the word of God. I think at the end of the day, most red-letter apologists must be forced to concede that they hold the latter view.

  • Ben

    I like red-letter Bibles for one reason:

    It serves as a demonstration to when Jesus is speaking, especially when he is refered to by a name that is not clear.

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