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What’s Wrong with Red Letter Bibles?

By October 30, 20213 Comments

Recently, a dear friend of mine and I were discussing a topic in the news and I mentioned that I felt we needed to take a biblical position on the issue, not merely a cultural one. She responded by saying that she was more of a “red letter” Christian, and since the Lord Jesus had not addressed this issue, she felt free to take a position different from the rest of the Bible. (By the way, the issue doesn’t matter here, just her response to my statement.) This woman is a faithful and kind person whom I love very much. But is her view right? Are the words of the Lord Jesus, the red letter portions of the gospels, the only inspired parts of Scripture or maybe are they more inspired than the rest of the Bible? What does the Bible say about its own inspiration?

To begin, the Bible claims that it is inspired in its entirety. The key verse, from Paul’s letters is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired” (2 Tim. 3:16). The normal meaning of the English word “inspired” has to do with “breathing in” but that’s not what the original Greek word used here means. It combines two words, which together mean “God-breathed.” This shows that inspiration refers not to God breathing into human writings, making them exceptional, but rather to God breathing out the Bible. Another way of saying this is that God produced the Scriptures.

A few Bible translations have expressed this phrase as “every inspired Scripture has its use . . .,” as for example, the New English Bible does. This seems to indicate that only some, but not all, of the Scriptures are God-breathed. While it may be possible to translate the first word as either “all” or “every,” it’s mistaken to translate this as “every inspired Scripture.” The reason is that this translation violates the natural parallelism of the text. The subject of the sentence (“all Scripture”) is described by two adjectives joined by the word “and,” making the correct translation “all scripture is inspired and profitable.” To translate this as “every inspired Scripture” mangles the syntax and ignores the conjunction. Paul is maintaining a holistic approach, seeing all the Scriptures as God-breathed.

But what did the Lord Jesus say about the rest of the Bible, the parts written in black ink?  To begin, when praying for His disciples in John 17:17, the Lord asked the Father to set apart His followers in the truth and then declared, “your word is truth.” In saying this, the Lord Jesus was affirming the inspiration and inerrancy of the whole Bible, not just His own words. In fact, His statement agrees with the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “The entirety of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160).

Some might object that perhaps the Lord was only referring to the Old Testament because the New had not yet been written. However, in the same section of the Gospel of John, the Messiah Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach and guide His apostles and even disclose the future to them (John 14:26; 16:13). Here the Lord Jesus was promising more inspired revelation to come, referring to an inspired New Testament as well. The Messiah Jesus believed the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, were the inspired and authoritative word of God. He would object to anyone saying that only His own words were authoritative.

How about the New Testament? Does it view the words of Jesus as having a more special form of inspiration or does it see itself as entirely inspired? In the letters of the New Testament, both Paul and Peter consider the New Testament to be authoritative Scripture. For example, the apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 5:18, quotes two verses, Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, calling them both Scripture. Clearly, Paul included the New Testament Gospel of Luke in the Scriptures. And the apostle Peter stated that Paul’s letters were “hard to understand” causing some untaught and unstable people to distort them “as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). In this way, Peter included Paul’s letters in the Scriptures. It’s safe to say that once the New Testament was complete, its writings were understood by itself as belonging to the inspired Scriptures.

Many people find the words of the Lord Jesus to be more special than the rest of the Bible and so they love their red letter editions of the Scripture. Nevertheless, they still believe in the full inspiration of the whole Bible. But the danger of red letter editions is they might cause some people to only value and obey the words of Jesus or maybe to treat them as more authoritative than the rest of the Bible. To do that would disagree with what the Lord Jesus actually said. That’s why, both my wife Eva and I have always read Bibles that were not “red letter editions.” We believe that all scripture should be considered the inspired words of the Lord Jesus. The only red letter edition we’d like is one that has every word, from Genesis to Revelation, with red letters—but that would be too hard on the eyes. We agree with the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever (Isa 40:8).”

3 Comments

  • I would actually prefer to see a Bible that highlights not only the words of Jesus in red, but those of Yahweh as well. And while I recognize that all scripture is inspired, I tend to pay close attention to the discussion words spoken by God.

  • Avatar Jorge Francisco Trimboli says:

    Excellent article!
    I also was expecting you to write something about the verses added later in some manuscripts, that the NASB marks in brackets. Are those inspired also?
    I asked this question live on the radio show, but the time there is limited to expand more.
    Your answer in the radio matched with my thoughts, but you expending more on this topic will be very helpful.

  • Avatar Joel Hoobyar says:

    Dr. Rydelnik, I had a wonderful class on Genesis with you in the mid 2000s and always love your insight. It has bothered me too to hear some people treat the red letters as the main guiding principles for their life. To do so would be to severely limit oneself.
    However, I can think of two possible uses for red letter Bibles. The first is in sharing the good news with Muslims. There are only 11 alleged quotes of Jesus in the Qur’an. If Jesus is so important in Islam (as is indicated in the Qur’an), why is there so little of his teachings contained therein? The Muslim must go to the Gospels to discover sufficient teachings of Jesus. It may be useful in conversations with Muslims to be able to pull out a red letter Bible and show at a glance how many teachings of Jesus are contained in our Gospels, offering them a complete canonical version of what Jesus wanted to communicate to us today.
    The second use would be for Scripture memorization. I am currently on a mission to memorize the Gospel of Mark and have decided to write it out in a notebook as I memorize it. I was trying to decide whether to write Jesus’ words in red when I landed on this article. I think I will still choose to do so since having two colors will assist my brain as a mnemonic device. Or maybe I should go wild and use blue…

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