The “Red Letter” Guys’ “Jesus Lens”

Andrew WilsonAndrew Wilson, a pastor and theologian in the UK, recently sat down for a series of debates/discussions with Steve Chalke about the Bible, in particular Chalke’s recent proposals to rethink the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy. Wilson blogged yesterday about Chalke’s frequent appeal to read the Bible with a “Jesus lens” and his reflections are worth considering:

“… for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text — say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger — figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to” [emphasis mine].

Wilson then cites many passages of scripture (from the Gospels only) that clearly do not quite fit “the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer” paradigm. He concludes:

“That’s just a sample, of course. As such, I don’t think Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and co are reading the Bible through a Jesus lens, as much as they are reading Jesus through a selective, progressive postmodern lens, and then reading the rest of the Bible through that. The end result, ironically, is that while the Jesus we find in the Gospels fits well with the rest of the scriptures – as you might expect, given that he inspired them – neither the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Bible, fit particularly well with the pastiche of Jesus that the Red Letter guys want to promote. When all is said and done, the biblical Jesus cannot be squeezed thorough the fine mesh of the progressive Jesus tea-strainer. Given the choice, we’re probably better off with the biblical one.”

I think that Wilson is right on. My only augment to Wilson’s argument is to remember that there are more of Jesus’ words in the New Testament than we find in the Gospels. While many rightly focus on Jesus’ pre-crucifixion words in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament records many of Jesus post-resurrection and even post-ascension words (e.g. Acts 9:1–16; 10:1–16; 18:9–11; 22:17–21; 23:6–11; 26:15–18; 2 Cor 12:1–10). In particular, Jesus’ words in John’s Revelation would not fit the Jesus tea-strainer of the “Red Letter guys”. There are some “red letter” words of Jesus at the end of Revelation chapter 22 that would most certainly make the “red letter Jesus lens” guys squirm. (For a little more on Jesus’ words in Revelation see here).

Elements of Chalke’s recent proposals are troubling but are not entirely new. He seems to be parroting McLaren for a UK audience. More on Chalke’s (and McLaren’s and Bell’s and Campolo’s et al.) proposals of the Bible to come.


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