Ever wondered why some Bibles emphasize Jesus’ words in rubric (red lettering)? Who originated this tradition? For what purpose? What about the impact of this practice on our reading of the text? As a writer, I was certainly curious about this typographical feature, and so set out to uncover the meaning behind those infamous red-letter editions.

It all started with Louis Klopsch. He was a German-American journalist, publisher, and young editor of the notorious publication The Christian Herald. He was a worldwide philanthropist, friend of D.L. Moody, and the originator of those red-inked Dominical words. But where did the idea come from?

It was June 19, 1899. Klopsch was working on an editorial when his attention turned to Luke 22:20: “In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” ” (NIV) Arrested by the imagery of Christ’s blood, he was struck with the idea of printing the Lord’s words in red to represent the blood sealing the new covenant. Klopsch and a team of scholars began work with the first complete red-letter edition published in 1901. Klopsch would go on to publish thousands of copies, and the rubricated Bible is still adorning pews today.

In the printing of the new edition, Klopsch’s expressed intent was to highlight Christ as the focal point of all history and revelation; in that he meant well. Yet the red letters are unnecessary to serve this purpose as all scripture points to Christ. All history is redemptive history. As Christ is the Redeemer it necessarily follows that He is the Bible’s explicit protagonist.

In the Red Letter Bible, more clearly than in any other edition of the Holy Scriptures, it becomes plain that from beginning to end, the central figure upon which all lines of law, history, poetry and prophecy converge is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Louis Klopsch

It is famously told that when presented with the idea, Dr. Talmage, a prominent pastor of the day and mentor to Klopsch, replied: “It could do no harm, and it most certainly could do much good.” Was Talmage right in this assertion? Is there truly no harm in tinkering with the text? We recognize that ours is a culture of meddlers and manipulators, particularly when it comes to truth and the reading of Scripture. But even if our culture had a proper view of God’s Word, are such stylistic revisions appropriate?  

There are two main problems underlying Klopsch’s red-letter edition:

  1. It elevates certain passages as being of more value than others, undermining Jesus’ own teaching about the importance of all Scripture. (2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 4:4, 22:29).
  2. It assumes Scripture requires modern updating and improvement to be powerful (Hebrews 4:12; Isaiah 40:8).

In our time, the Red Letter Bible has ushered in the Red Letter Christian movement, a false Christianity seeking to slash away at Scripture until only the red letters remain. The motive is political in nature−shocking, I know−the intent to soften the edges of Scripture. You see, Jesus never explicitly condemned abortion or homosexuality in any of those red letters, and so they seek to form a theology on technicalities.

The gospel is not about… pie-in-the-sky when they die. … It is imperative that the up and coming generation recognize that the biblical Jesus was committed to the realization of a new social order in this world…. Becoming a Christian, therefore, is a call to social action.

Tony Campolo, Leader of Red-Letter Christian Movement

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:34-39, NIV

While those within the movement are divergent in their positions, the common thread is the molding of a false Jesus to suit the desires of men. There is no attempt to understand the principles of Scripture, or even the principles undergirding the teachings of Jesus. Forget that Jesus affirmed the rightful model of one man and one woman in His citing of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (Matthew 19:4-6), He didn’t explicitly use the word ‘homosexuality’. Can’t you hear the teenage tone? “I know you said I was grounded, but you didn’t say I couldn’t have friends over.”

The problems with Red Letter Christianity warrant a tome of their own, but the primary issues are these:

  1. Jesus is divorced from His Messianic historical and theological context. Without foundation for fulfillment in the person of Jesus, redemptive history is rendered meaningless. We’re left with an emasculated view of who Jesus was−a nice Jewish man who spoke wise words. Only the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah, the God-Man can save, and we only know of this person through revelation. Revelation is complete in reading the entirety of the Old and New Testaments as one history.
  2. Jesus’ words are separated from His works. Narrative sequencing is important in storytelling, particularly when the narrative illustrates the twofold obedience of Christ. He both kept the law perfectly in the course of His life and willingly paid the penalty of sin on the cross, enduring the wrath of God on our behalf. His miracles, particularly His resurrection, are necessary in understanding His work and person.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12, ESV

Do you know that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος, God-breathed? As Christians, we not only believe in sola Scriptura, Scripture as the supreme and infallible authority in doctrine and practice, but also in tota Scriptura, the revealed Word of God in its entirety. We are beholden to the whole counsel of God. Red letters or no, we cannot pick and choose which passages to accept or reject. Well-intentioned as it might have been, it is unwise to go fiddling with the text in the way Klopsch did. The Word of God does not need a face lift.

Until next time, salutations & selah.

Oh, and here are a couple of strange facts for the curious:

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Louis Klopsch’s memorial service was held at the New Masonic Temple in New York City. (Make of that what you will.) He is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. Yes, that of Washington Irving fame. It’s quite a beautiful cemetery if you ever have a chance to visit. They often host nighttime lantern tours of the famous residents.

One thought on “Should We Use Red-Letter Bibles?

  1. A very interesting article. Although the title asks the question “Should we use Red-Letter Bibles?”, I think the real question is, “Why does mankind insist on misusing the Word of God?” I don’t think the red-letter Bible is either more or less valuable than the black-and-white version. The Word of God contains power beyond our comprehension even if it were to be written with a crayon. Unfortunately, fallen man will always look for ways to rebel against the Creator. The Red-Letter “Christian” movement is yet another example of the Me-ism that leads the unwise to their spiritual death. However, I don’t think we want to go all “Fahrenheit 451” on the red-letter Bibles, either! ;o)

    Like

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