Bibles, red and green

A recent post by periphery alerted me to the existence of the new Green Bible – a bible made from recycled materials and with passages relating to creation and environmentalism printed in green.  Particularly for those seeking to up their hipster cred, it seems like part of the appeal has got to be its hipster redux of red-letter bibles. One wonders, then, if we can learn something about what’s going on here from the red-letter predecessor.

The English Standard Version blog has an article on the origins of red-letter Bibles here.  They date from 1899, the idea of Louis Klopsch, editor of the Christian Herald magazine.  In his version (The New Testament… With All the Words Recorded Therein, as Having Been Spoken by Our Lord, Printed in Color) OT passages referenced directly by Christ were marked by a red cross and prophetic references to him are marked by red stars.  A couple of quotes from Klopsch on his project:

Here the actual words, quotations, references and allusions of Christ, not separated from their context, nor in a fragmentary or disconnected form, but in their own proper place, as an integral part of the Sacred Record, stand out vividly conspicuous in the distinction of color. The plan also possesses the advantage of showing how frequently and how extensively, on the Authority of Christ himself, the authenticity of the Old Testament is confirmed, thus greatly facilitating comparison and verification, and enabling the student to trace the connection between the Old and the New, link by link, passage by passage.

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. He expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself and the Divine plan for man’s redemption, and the Red Letter Bible indicates and emphasizes this Divine exposition and personal revelation at each successive stage, making them so clear that even the simplest may understand. It sheds a new radiance upon the sacred pages, by which the reader is enabled to trace unerringly the scarlet thread of prophecy from Genesis to Malachi. Like the Star which led the Magi to Bethlehem, this light, shining through the entire Word, leads straight to the person of the Divine Messiah, as the fulfillment of the promise of all the ages.

Modern Christianity is striving zealously to draw nearer to the great Founder of the Faith. Setting aside mere human doctrines and theories regarding Him, it presses close to the Divine Presence, to gather from His own lips the definition of His mission to the world and His own revelation of the Father… The Red Letter Bible has been prepared and issued in the full conviction that it will meet the needs of the student, the worker, and the searchers after truth everywhere.

I found some blog-based discussion of these Bibles as well.  A standard critique can be found here; essentially, the whole Bible is inspired, if anything is red, it should all be. (The author’s identification of red-letter Bibles as friendly to the development of liberal theology via their failure to treat all Scripture as equally inspired, however, seems off the mark to me, for reasons I will discuss below, and because Klopsch was a great friend and benefactor of D.L. Moody and his Bible Institute.)  This writer gets a little closer to the point, I think, at the very end of his post.  Here a blogger for Christianity Today raises some concerns about the Green Bible; he asks the right question in his comment, i.e., putting feelings about environmentalism aside, whether highlighting themes is a good or bad idea in general. (Most of the post’s comments discuss the Bible via the appropriateness of green concerns.) Apparently a movement is afoot as well for “Red-Letter Christianity” (here’s a piece describing it by Tony Campolo, and his book of the same name; Jim Wallis is involved as well).  The Bible-coloring suggestions for the Emergent church movement here are entertaining.

Most of the commentary I’ve found on the red-letter bible is, I think, off target.  In fact, I’d say Klopsch himself better understands the import of his edition than the subsequent commentators. In the first two quotes above he presents a pretty clear picture of how he intends the form of his edition to highlight a message, to affect how it is read. I wish I knew more about editorial theory to speak more informedly here, but its framework seems like the better way to approach colored-letter versions of the Bible. The levels-of-inspiration arguments are beside the point, for example – we need, regardless of Bible edition choice, an understanding of how different parts of the Scripture lay claim to our lives (OT vs NT to begin with, but there are plenty of other questions) that goes far beyond just saying that the whole thing is inspired. We should instead approach these editions by trying to understand how editorial choices affect our reception of the text.

Questions for a red-letter edition include how determining which verses should be treated as quotation (even John 3:16, for example, is unclear) affects our understanding the Gospel writer as narrator/commentator (though this problem already exists with the addition of quotation marks). We should observe how Klopsch’s identification of prophecies predicting the Messiah seriously restricts the range of readings these verses can sustain and promotes, as he understands, his desired christocentric reading. The issue that strikes me most strongly about such editions is that the emphasis on the spoken words of Chirst alone is an editorial choice interpreting Jesus primarily as a moral teacher, and the central substance of the Christian life as a decontextualized set of moral principles and teachings. When this happens we have a major problem with theology and ethics. My favorite description of the framework for ethics in which these decontextualized moral principles naturally live is due to Bernard Williams; he calls it a “midair” stance*.  Moral issues can be addressed from midair, the actor having stepped back from the problem, used abstract principles to work from a relatively objective position, likely with feet about six feet off the ground, and the properness of his ethical reflection can be read from the accuracy of his manipulation of these quantities.  I think this is a seriously mistaken approach for the Christian, and indicates a problem that the red-letter bibles are likely based in and likely promote. For another example of a theological position encouraged by the editorial choice, see the third quote from Klopsch above. For a simple argument this is not the way the faith ought to operate, consider only that if red letters is what the church fathers had been after, we would be reading the Gnostic and not the Synoptic Gospels.

There’s no ridding ourselves of a multitude of editorial choices when reading the Bible. Therefore, what I want to suggest here is that those looking to use the Green Bible should consider the red-letter editions and their impact. Not having access to a Green Bible myself, I can’t analyze its presentation of the text; rather, I want to suggest a framework for thinking this through. I’m arguing that concerns around the relative importance of red versus non-red verses or the details of which verses should be regarded as quotation should be secondary to a consideration of how this editorial choice has shaped our theological and ethical reading. In the same way, a defense of the appropriateness of green concerns for Christians and the details of which verses ought to be green might need to be secondary to a careful account of how the editorial choice of the green lettering reflects and shapes theological concerns and ethical reasoning. I suspect it does so in a direction quite different from that of the red-letter Bibles, but maybe in the end no more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: I, unfortunately, only know Williams’s description via Hauerwas’s presentation of it, which I assume is accurate enough.  I’m working here from Ch. 2 of The Peaceable Kingdom.

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