The Message is Not a Bible Translation: Peterson’s Philosophy
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.
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:
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.
- Part 1: Peterson’s Philosophy
- Part 2: Problem Passages
- Part 3: More Problem Passages
- Part 4: Mistranslation of “Spirit” (w/FREE PDF document)