The Message is Not a Bible Translation: Peterson’s Philosophy

By on 4-13-2012 in Bible Study, Book Review

The Message is Not a Bible Translation: Peterson’s Philosophy

Prologue

Before I get into the heart of my review of The Message, I want to offer an important comment regarding Eugene Peterson the man. Despite my concerns about the theology he inserted into The Message under the pretense of “translation”, I have no reason to doubt Peterson is a brother in Christ Jesus. Peterson has made some serious mistakes in his book, but he is a brother nonetheless. I also have a couple good friends who have spent time with Peterson in his cabin in MT. Everyone who has met Peterson describes him as a generous and genial person… and of this I have no reason to doubt.  Therefore, the following critique is focused solely on the substance of Peterson’s work in the Message and not his eternal relationship with God.

Preface

To give a bit of context, following is a short video of  Eugene Peterson wherein he discusses his philosophy of Bible translation for The Message. This video is from the 2007 Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA.   You can watch the full interview @UC TV, but for the sake of brevity, I have included only the part of the interview related to his translation.

Since the full release of The Message in 2002, Eugene Peterson’s work has certainly captured the attention and passion of many readers. Almost immediately I noticed kids in my youth group and adults in my church turning to The Message as their primary translation. I also observed pastors, including the popular teacher Rick Warren, using The Message as their primary text for preaching. As a man given the responsibility to teach God’s Word, I responded by beginning my own investigation of Peterson’s work so that I could give the proper spiritual direction to the people who look to me for guidance.

In the past five years, I have written and talked numerous times about my concerns over The Message. I have made a good faith effort to expose what I perceive to be the deceptive marketing techniques employed by NavPres (NOTE: it is hard to tell how much, if any, of the marketing can be put on Peterson.  This article may hold some deeper insight) . In this same time sales of The Message have soared. Emboldened by the growing market, publishers have developed entire curriculum that depends solely upon The Message as the primary text. Given these trends, I find it necessary to publish again a simple and clear exposition showing why readers must use caution when reading The Message.

This post will lay out some areas of concern that all pastors, teachers, and followers of Jesus should take very seriously. In future posts I will offer both guidelines on how to select a reliable Bible text and offer some of my own guidelines for what makes a good translation.

The vision for Peterson’s work is expressed well in this direct quote

“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.’”

Before I post some of the problems with the actual text of Peterson’s Message, I think it is important to give a quick survey of some of the underlying problems with his approach.

Problems With Peterson’s Philosophical Approach

1. Peterson’s assertion that the New Testament was written in the “street language” of the day is misleading.

Arthur L. Farstad writes:

As a Bible translator and editor myself, I must disagree. Yes, God did use the koine or common Greek dialect of the first century. However, it was written by men whose minds were saturated with the truth and beauty of the OT Scriptures. Also, who would say that the Sermon on the Mount, the Upper Room Discourse, Romans 8, First Corinthians 13, the Book of Hebrews, or Revelation 5—to choose a few famous texts—are in “street language”?(Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Volume 9: vnp.9.2.71)

By “updating” the Scripture in a modern “street” language, Peterson removes the historical and religious context resulting in a book far removed from the day and culture in which it is written. This qualitative decision may give some readers a fun reading experience, but it will not give a realizable understanding of the Scripture.

2. Peterson has confused the mission of a Bible translator with the mission of the Holy Spirit.

As Peterson moved from seminary teacher to pastor, he encountered a congregation that had little interest in reaching the Scripture. In the introduction to The Message he writes:

“The first noticeable difference was that nobody seemed to care much about the Bible, which so recently people had been paying me to teach them. Many of the people I worked with now knew virtually nothing about it, had never read it, and weren’t interested in learning. Many others had spent years reading it but for them it had gone flat through familiarity, reduced to clichés. Bored, they dropped it. And there weren’t many people in between. Very few were interested in what I considered my primary work, getting the words of the Bible into their heads and hearts, getting The Message lived. They found newspapers and magazines, videos and pulp fiction more to their taste.” (The Message, Introduction)

Peterson’s concern for the spiritual life of his congregation is admirable. His hope was that The Message would serve as a tool to get people interested in reading the Bible. Peterson’s underlying assumption is that his “translation” can do something the Holy Spirit is unable to do – give people a passion to read The Word. In reading The Message, I am drawn to the conclusion that Peterson has a diminished view of the Holy Spirit. The Message often eliminates the personhood and ministry of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity who is given by Jesus as the beginning and source of our faith.

Galatians 3:2–4 (ESV)

2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?

 

Galatians 3:2–4 (NIV11)

2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?

 

Galatians 3:2–4 (The Message)

2 Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? 3 Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? 4 Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

 

Notice that in verse 2, Paul says we received the Spirit by believing in the Gospel. In Peterson’s “translation”, we receive “new life” — not the Spirit —by believing. And for no reason found in the Greek, Peterson removes the Spirit in verse three.  So, according to Peterson, the Christian begins their life in Christ, not by the person of the Spirit, but by “God.”  Again, this is not an issue of selecting a varient translation, it is simply Peterson’s opinion and, for whatever reason, he does not want to mention the Spirit in this passage and so Peterson removes all mention of Him.

I will explore this issue of Peterson’s mishandeling of the Greek term for Spirit in greater depth  later in Part 4 of this series.

3. Peterson believes the Bible, without his interpretive skills to modernize it, is insufficient to transform lives.

Peterson writes, “There is a sense in which the Scriptures are the word of God dehydrated, with all the originating context removed—living voices, city sounds, camels carrying spices from Seba and gold from Ophir snoring down in the bazaar, fragrance from lentil stew simmering in the kitchen—all now reduced to marks on thin onion-skin paper” (Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading: 88).

The first problem is that Peterson’s solution is to eliminate the rest of the context; religious, historical, and spiritual, and we are left not even with the onion-skin.

The second problem is voiced will by Tim Challie on his blog:

“While this is true, at least to some extent, what Peterson fails to mention is that this is exactly how God intended to give us the Scriptures. God never refers to His Word as “dehydrated” or in any way deficient. Yes, we need to invest time and effort in knowing, studying and understanding them, but we do so knowing that the Scriptures, exactly as they are, are just what God desired that we have. Any fault we perceive in them is a fault within us.”

4. The Message utilizes a form of Mystical Liberalism

My contention in this series of posts is that Peterson divorces the Scripture from its historical context and strips the Bible from its ultimate meaning. In the hundreds of comments I have received over the years regarding this series, not a single defender of Peterson’s work contests the facts; they only argue that, despite the evidence, The Message has had a profound and personal impact on their “spiritual life”—how they define these terms is beyond my understanding.  Nonetheless, no one has shown concern for the dissolution of historical context, but seem only to care that they have had a spiritual catharsis when reading The Message.  With this in mind, I was reading through Francis Schaeffer’s book, “The Escape From Reason” and ran across the following statement which connects the dots between Peterson’s philosophy of ‘translation’, the impact on modern readers, and the Mystical Liberalism of the late 20th century.  Here is what Schaeffer says about that movement.  He asserts that radical liberal theology can be set out like this:

Francis Schaeffer's view of Upper Story Mysticism

Francis Schaeffer’s view of Upper Story Mysticism

Upstairs [above the line] with the vacuum we have been talking about, the radical liberal theologians have no idea that there is anything that really correlates with the connotation borne along by the word god.  All they have is a semantic answer on the basis of a connotation word.  Up above, the radical theology is left with the philosophic other — the infinite, impersonal everything.  This brings us in Western thought into proximity with the East.  The new theologian has lost the unique infinite-personal God of biblical revelation and of the Reformation.  Much liberal theology of the current thinking has only god words as a substitute.

T. H. Huxley has proved to be a discerning prophet in all this.  In 1890 he made the statement that there would come a time when men would remove all content from faith and especially from the pre-Abrahamic scriptural narrative. Then: “No longer in contact with fact of any kind, Faith stands now and forever proudly inaccessible to the attacks of the infidel.”  Because modern theology has accepted the dichotomy and removed the things of religion from the world of the verifiable, modern theology is now in the position grandfather Huxley prophesied. Modern theology now differs little from the agnosticism or even the atheism of 1980.

So then, in our day, the sphere of faith is placed in the nonrational and nonlogical as opposed to the rational and logical; the unverifiable as opposed to the verifiable.  The new theologians use connotation words rather than defined words — words as symbols without any definition, in contrast to scientific symbols that are carefully defined. Faith is unchallengeable because it could be anything — there is no way to discuss it in normal categories [emphasis mine].

Schaeffer, Francis A. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian Worldview. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996.

As you read each of the posts in this series take note of the words above which I have emphasized in bold.  Knowingly or not, Peterson’s ‘translation’ paradigm reflects the concerns expressed by Schaeffer.  Peterson’s translation approach seems to fit with the idea that contextualization of the Bible, even to the exclusion of the historical context, is of utmost importance so that the reader can personalize the message.  Words, in Peterson’s paraphrase, are given a connotative meaning devoid of a denotive absolute and consequently the reader is better able to understand the words Peterson uses, but they are hindered from understanding their historical meaning and insulated from external verification.

5. Finally, even if the Bible is God’s “dehydrated” Word, the solution is not Peterson’s “street-language” commentary.

What we need is utter dependence on the living Water, the Spirit given by the Father, who brings freshness to the written Word so we can drink it into our life. Peterson’ solution to spiritual apathy is to transform the Bible rather than transform people.

Based on all I have read, it seems that Peterson, confronted with a people apathetic to God’s Word, relied on his own ability to transform the Scripture rather than doing the hard work of teaching and allowing God to transform the people. In contrast, compare Peterson’s approach to an actual paraphrase-translation like Kenneth S. Wuest’s “The New Testament : An Expanded Translation”.  His translation is prefaced as follows;

“THIS translation of the New Testament, unlike the standard translations such as the Authorized Version of 1611 and the American Revised Version of 1901, uses as many English words as are necessary to bring out the richness, force, and clarity of the Greek text. The result is what I have called an expanded translation. It is intended as a companion to, or commentary on, the standard translations, and as such it complements them in several important respects.”

Challies writes the following based on his comparison of the ESV. His conclusion stands for both the ESV and Weust’s paraphrase.

“It is interesting and helpful, I think, to compare Peterson’s philosophy of translation to that of the English Standard Version. In the preface to the ESV we read,

The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on ‘word-for-word’ correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”

Note the difference. The ESV seeks, in so far as possible, to bring the original text before the reader. Peterson seeks to bring about the understanding and response of the original reader. The ESV values words while Peterson values response. [emphasis mine]”

In short, even when you choose a paraphrase, select one that values words over reader-response.

With this basic understanding of Peterson’s approach, the next post will move into a direct verse by verse comparison that will demonstrate why The Message functions NOT as a translation or even a paraphrase, but it truly functions, and should only be read, as a commentary.

What makes a good translation?  CLICK HERE to read my suggestions for what it takes to make a good quality Bible.
What translation should I buy? CLICK HERE to discover why you need to read more than one translation of the Bible.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor in Southern California, teaching a variety of courses in Theology and Leadership. In addition, he works as their Digital Media Coordinator and Instructional Technologist. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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  • Pingback: A Bible Translation Paradigm: Part 1 of 3 | More Than Cake

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  • http://twitter.com/jhersey James Hersey

    Interesting write up and you make some intriguing points. I have often thought the Message is like a Bible with commentary built in. I think in the larger context it’s good to recognize that many (most) NT believers didn’t even have Bibles. I also imagine that most “translations” from missionaries to 3rd world people groups include many errors when put under the strict critical evaluation of Bible translators and language experts (many don’t even have words that match up to what we find in Greek). I find with the Message that the primary facts and truth of the Authorized version prevails, but in a much more readable and digestible form. I often will read the Message side by side the King James+commentary and I find the larger meaning of the text (as far as I’m able to understand) to be clear and easier to find with The Message. I think most Christians would do well to read multiple translations including the Message and especially for the NT. On the topic of translations I’ve found some comments by CS Lewis helpful ” the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ‘sacred’, so ‘comforting’ and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many places unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says ‘I know nothing against myself,’ it translates ‘I know nothing by myself’. [I Cor 4:4]. That was a good translation (though even then rather old-fashioned) in the sixteenth century: to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed..” http://biblearchive.com/blog/2007/study/cslewis-modern-translations-of-the-bible/

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      James, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the link to C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on translation was an interesting read as well.

  • Gabriella

    Very interesting post. It is a very big problem to concentrate on reader response rather than original wording, because no one can control this except for he who Peterson excludes from his translation ;)
    Thanks for the post, it has helped me lots!

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi Gabriells, I like your summary. Very well said. Blessings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/themaxclough Max Clough

    Totally agree. Who would think they have authority to change the words of Jesus?

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi @facebook-100001147650724:disqus , thanks for taking the time to read and post a comment. Blessings brother.

  • Terrance

    I personally disagree. The Message Bible is a translation. It’s a translation into a language that most people can relate to. I myself use it in my own Biblical studies and it has helped clarify things for me. I think if anything it get people ready the word and once that has been planted God will give the growth. Wisdom comes from God but if you don’t have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit reading the Message isn’t gonna help much anyway. Just seems like the Body does more harshly criticizing when things don’t go the way we like. The Message Bible is a translation. In fact many people felt the same way about the NKJV and the NIV.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi Terrance, may I ask, did you actually read all 4 posts in the series, or did you just decide to base your conclusion on your personal feelings?

  • Dylan

    Personally, I think anyone who has read the Bible has read someone else’s commentary. So if someone wants or needs to read this Bible as an aid to help them understand the Bible but to offer it as a substitute is quite a mistake. I know for me personally, I grew discouraged with the Bible because of its many difference between one and another. I toss religion away because certain churches preached a lesson that was not accurate. I think in order for one to completely understand the Bible and it’s message a person must understand Hebrew and Greek words, It is really easy to open a book like the message and not fully understand the true message! Besides all of this that I’m spouting off about…the greatest understanding of the Old Testament is found in the Hebrew texts!

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Wow, that is a bold statement that all bibles are just commentaries and every one is just as good as the next I suppose then as long as it make some kind of impact on your life. Wow… I don’t even know where to start with such a beginning premise…

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  • Karen

    Laurenz, thank you so much for pointing the Lord’s Prayer out. For months now I have been troubled by the Message Bible being used by so many professing Christians, who, though well-educated, fail to see the occult connection. The Spirit of the Lord pointed this out to me when I was looking through a Message New Testament I was given some years back. Upon reading the Lord’s Prayer in it, my spirit was troubled. So I did some investigating and looked up “As above, so below” online. First thing that comes up is the occult connection. Now, I know the Holy Spirit had to prompt me in that, because I haven’t been to seminary and would have no way of recognizing it otherwise. I believe the Holy Spirit, if we allow Him, will lead us into all truth. I am convinced that Eugene Peterson is a universalist, and that this version is not only watered down but also purposes to mislead society and indoctrinate young people into new-age thinking. It is far from inspired by the Holy Spirit, but rather by the devil.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi @808cc440e31f0c19ad20dc395380824a:disqus, I don’t know anything about Peterson being a Universalist, but I do know from extensive study that The Message is full of theological error.

      Keep serving Jesus!

  • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

    Hi, sorry it took me so long to approve the comment, but anything with a link has to get approved first and I was away on vacation.
    God bless,
    Joe

    • Call For Discernment CFD

      He Joe, no problem. I wish i was still on holidays;) God bless

  • Julie

    Thanks for this! I’m trying to help my friends understand that this “version” isn’t accurate. The only translation I refer to is the KJV :)

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi Julie, there are several good translations that serve different purposes, but The Message is NOT one of them. You may find this page of some help in talking with your friends. http://www.morethancake.org/archives/4915

  • Marcus 56

    Raised as a Catholic, I was discouraged from reading the bible. I was told that the priests would read it and then they would explain it to the rest of us. I was about 10 at the time. I am now 57. I have tried over the years to get through the King James Version of the bible and could never get through more than a couple of passages and found myself asking, what did that mean?

    If it were not for “the message”, I never would have developed the interest which I now have in bible study. I first learned about it at a Christmas dinner reading from Luke 2. It didn’t sound like “behold I bring you tidings of great joy”.

    Since then I have found myself exploring the bible in as many translations as I can find for free on the internet. The biblegateway, olivetree, and bible.com have great resources.

    I don’t think any translation can do justice to the original documents. But any translation which makes the reader understand there is a god that created us, loves us, gave us purpose, and moral rules to govern us, is a good translation in my mind.
    The message did that for me.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi Marcus, I am glad The Message got you interested in reading the Bible. I have friends who were never interested in the Bible, but books by C.S. Lewis motivated them to read it. I would not consider either the works of Lewis or Peterson to be the Scripture, but glad folks are inspired by them to read the real thing. Blessings to you

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  • Diana

    I go to a large Southern Baptist church in NC. In the past year our pastor has been regularly using the Message as scripture. I use the NKJV and try to compare the verses as he reads out of the Message. Most times I can hardly believe he is reading the same verse. I have to say every time he reads from it, my spirit really is troubled. Not sure whether to go to the pastor and discuss this or to just find another church. As for so many comments on here claiming that the Message is the only way they could understand Gods Holy Word, I would suggest praying to God and asking for His guidance in understanding His Word. If you are truly born again, the Spirit of God lives in you and will give you insight into His word. You don’t need Eugene Peterson to do the Spirits job.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Hi Diane, I am really saddened to hear how your pastor is using The Message. Out of respect for him as your shepherd, I do think you should go to him directly with your concern. I have done that myself in the past, and have had some positive response from pastors who really had no idea… they just followed the example of Rick Warren who uses the Message in all the sermons he sells for other pastors to preach.

      I suggest you print out all 4 parts of this series (including the PDF in Part 4 on Peterson’s use of the word “spirit”). It may be helpful to him to read a substantial critique.

      Let me know how it goes. Blessings.