The deficiency of ‘red letter’ Christianity
Published: 5 December 2020 (GMT+10)
N.D., who requested his location be withheld, asks:
My question is regarding why the writings of the apostle Paul are considered inspired/authoritative? I recently had an encounter with a borderline ‘red letter believer’ and I did not feel I had a sufficient answer for him. He believes the words of Jesus in the Gospels and Revelation are authoritative. But, indicated that the epistles may not always be. As you may know, many in this group feel that dietary laws, sabbath keeping, etc. were done away with by Paul but practiced and endorsed by Jesus.
Lita Cosner, CMI–US, responds:
Thank you for this interesting question, which gives us the opportunity to consider the nature of the inspiration of Scripture.
First, we have to consider the Scriptures that came before the ‘red letters’. There are certainly words of God directly quoted in the Old Testament, but there are many historical accounts, poetic songs, proverbs, and other writings not directly attributed to God, but to human speakers. The simple ‘red letter’ answer would be to similarly say that the words of God in the Old Testament are inspired, but not necessarily the other parts. But the problem there is that the New Testament authors, including the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus, don’t differentiate in that way! If it’s Scripture, it’s authoritative and correctly referred to as God’s word, regardless of whether it is also attributed to a human author or speaker.
So, the question we have to ask is, “Are the epistles Scripture, and thus authoritative?” Paul saw his own writing as binding on the people to whom he wrote (which was originally specific churches in the Roman world, but more widely to all Christians), and the contemporary Apostles saw them as Scripture too. In 2 Peter 3:15–18, Peter says (emphasis added):
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
Also, the entire church for 2,000 years has affirmed the Gospels as Scripture. While fallible humans can of course err, the unanimity of the entire church everywhere at all times is powerful evidence of the true inspiration of the epistles.
Many people like to invent a division between Paul and Jesus regarding the Law, but Jesus seemed to go out of His way to break the Pharisaical accretions around Sabbath-keeping (as opposed to following the Law, which He did perfectly). He also laid the groundwork for abolishing the food laws in Matthew 15:10–20. Also, part of the apparent (but not actual) disagreement between Paul and Jesus comes from the fact that Jesus’ life and ministry took place prior to His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, which fulfilled the Law. The New Testament is clear that Christians living in the light of the resurrection and Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the Law have freedom in regard to food and cannot judge another’s actions regarding these things (Colossians 2:16).
Whole books have been written about this issue, and so these few thoughts can only scratch the surface, but I hope they are helpful.