Marilynne Robinson’s Red-Letter Hermeneutic

Are the "red letter" more inspired than the rest of Scripture?

Jesus appointed Paul to be his spokesman, to “bear His name before the Gentiles.” If the red letters tell us to listen to Paul, then why are the red-letter Christians trying to silence Paul? Does anyone have the right to gainsay Jesus’ selection of Paul? Shouldn’t we obey the red letters and listen to what Paul has to say on Jesus’ behalf?

 

Over the weekend, I read Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s interview with Marilynne Robinson, author of the highly acclaimed novel Gilead. Among other things, the interview reveals that Robinson is no exemplar of Christian orthodoxy. She is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage even as she claims to be a Calvinist. It is an odd mix. On the issue of gay marriage in particular, she writes:

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

Robinson’s remarks reflect a pervasive and popular error in biblical interpretation, and I have a whole chapter in my book challenging this kind of reading of scripture. In a blog post today Wesley Hill rightly challenges Robinson’s red-letter hermeneutic, which sets Jesus’ silence on gay marriage against Paul’s explicit prohibitions on the same. To Wesley’s observations, I would add a few more thoughts.

1. Jesus’ silence versus Paul’s explicit statements regarding homosexuality is completely understandable given their different contexts. Jesus lived and ministered in and around Judea primarily among Jews where there was basic agreement on the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual behavior. That is not to say that there were no homosexuals in Judea. It is to say that there was no great debate at the time about what the Bible taught about it. The apostle Paul, however, lived and ministered among Gentiles scattered throughout the Roman Empire. In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s mission, the Torah was not the norm, and people by and large accepted homosexual behavior. It is no wonder, therefore, that Paul would have mentioned it explicitly (Rom. 1:26-271 Cor. 6:9-111 Tim. 1:10). Jesus’ alleged “silence” on the issue is evidence of his Jewish context not of his endorsement.

2. Jesus did in fact address the issue, even if not in so many words. In Matthew 19, Jesus defines the norm of marriage as a “male and female” institution—one man and one woman in a covenanted heterosexual union. He bases his view of marriage on what scripture says in Genesis 1 and 2. That is why it is a rank error to claim that Jesus had nothing to say about gay marriage.

3. The red-letter Christians tend to be rather selective in their adherence to the red letters of scripture. Does it make sense to pit Jesus against Paul in light of what Jesus has said about Paul in the red letters? Here is what Jesus says about Paul:

He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel (Acts 9:15).

For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you (Acts 26:16).

Jesus appointed Paul to be his spokesman, to “bear His name before the Gentiles.” If the red letters tell us to listen to Paul, then why are the red-letter Christians trying to silence Paul? Does anyone have the right to gainsay Jesus’ selection of Paul? Shouldn’t we obey the red letters and listen to what Paul has to say on Jesus’ behalf?

Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar. He blogs on matters concerning politics, theology and culture. This article is used with his permission.