As a Bible-believing Christian I will confess to finding red-letter Bibles to be a paradox. Paradoxical, not in their application—words that are written as coming directly from the mouth of Jesus have red text—but in their principle. The implication being that these words and their red lettering should give us pause as we read them because these are really the word of God, spoken directly from the mouth of the Word of God made man. Do the words of Jesus according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John carry a heavier weight than the words of God contained in the letters of Paul or Peter? The red letters might lead us to believe this to be true, but the truth is that both are equally acts of condescension by God to speak to us in a language we can understand. It is the Word of God using the voice of man. It is not just the red letters, but “all scripture [that] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Perhaps the publishers of those Bibles can be forgiven for succumbing to a marketing ploy of sorts, but it also betrays a pitfall that many of us fall into in our use of Sacred Scripture. Notice that I said use and not just read. Why I used the former rather than the latter will become evident momentarily.
If we were to parse some of that red lettering, then something will become rather obvious to us. When the Word of God speaks, things happen. When He commands demons to depart, they leave. When He commands storms to cease, everything is calm. When He commands a crippled man to walk, he grows strong and walks. He even commands the Apostles to “not be afraid” and fear exits. To these we could multiply other examples throughout Scripture starting with God speaking creation into being in Genesis and ending with the creation of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. The Word of God is performative and while this power is earth shattering in the literal sense, it is hardly so in the figurative sense. We already know this—after all this is what makes God, well, God.
What’s In it for You and Me?
Until, however, we go a step further and ask what difference this makes for you and for me. For this, we have to call to mind two very important Scripture passages about Scripture itself. First there is a passage from the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah in which the Sacred Author, operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-12).
This is God reminding us of the power of His speech. But when exactly did He send forth these words of Scripture? Was it back in the 6th Century BC when these words were likely written, or was it yesterday when we heard it as the first reading at Mass? God is speaking from the eternal now so that His words speak to all times and places. When you read these words and I read these words they are spoken to you and to me right here and right now. In inspiring the author of Isaiah to put these words to sheepskin, God in His Providence knew exactly when and how you and I would encounter them. He addressed them to you and me directly, not just in a generically but in a deeply personal sense. Inspiration did not stop in the author but extends to each of the readers. It is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us. This helps explain why we might read the same Scripture passage many times and “get something different out of it” each time. Those words were spoken not just way back when, but here and now. It is also why Scripture scholars usually struggle praying with the Scriptures—they read it only as a theology textbook and assume they have exhausted its meaning without plummeting the depths of its personal message. They may read the Scriptures but fail to use them as God’s preferential means of communicating with us individually.
There is a concomitant passage to Isaiah in the New Testament that helps further illuminate the point. In the Letter to the Hebrews the sacred author says that “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13). Sacred Scripture needs no red letter, nor is it a dead letter, but it is also much more than a read letter too. Recall that when God speaks, things happen—even if that word is spoken to you and me in the Sacred Scripture. When we read and meditate on these Scriptures we are changed, not just because we make great resolutions, but because God’s word changes us simply by being heard. We can easily overlook this but we should expect it to happen. As the Catechism puts it, “Still, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.’ If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures’” (CCC 108).
The Witness of the Saints
History is full of examples of saints who were changed simply by an encounter with God through the Scriptures. The most famous example is St. Augustine. He was a man who, after a long intellectual battle, found the Christian explanation of reality to be true. Nevertheless he struggled with the moral demands, famously praying “Lord make me chaste, just not yet.” One day Augustine was in a garden praying and he heard a voice telling him “Tolle Lege,” that is “Take and read.” He understood it to mean the epistles of St. Paul that he had left in the house. When he grasped the book and opened to a (seemingly) random page, his eyes fell upon Romans 13:12-14—“Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In that moment the saint found the moral strength to fully convert and live totally for the Lord. God spoke, and Augustine was changed.
Augustine himself was moved by the example of another Scriptural convert, St. Anthony of the desert who one day heard the Gospel of the Rich Young Man and knew that it was addressed to him. He sold everything, went into the desert, and was instrumental in preserving the Christian faith during the Diocletian persecution. We could multiply the examples but the point is that these men saw the Scriptures as a medium of communication between God and themselves. They ardently believed that the Scriptures held the power of God’s direct speech. With such a cloud of witnesses, shouldn’t we do the same?