The Sad, Disturbing Case of Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson is famous for his (very) loose paraphrase of the New Testament, The Message, first published in 1993. He eventually completed his paraphrase of the entire Bible in 2002.
Now as far as they go, paraphrases are harmless and may even be helpful. Pastors paraphrase Scripture every Sunday when they use their own words to explain the meaning of the text. As long as a paraphrase explains and doesn’t obscure the meaning of the text, it’s fine. But once it is used to substitute the author’s own ideas for God’s, it becomes dangerous. The Scriptures must always serve as our guide, never a paraphrase of the Scriptures.
While the publisher of The Message advertised it as a “translation from the original languages “that “accurately communicates the original Hebrew and Greek” and brings out “the subtleties and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages,” it is anything but. It is a free-wheeling paraphrase of Scripture in which Peterson freely and frequently inserts his own interpretation of the text and glosses over any inconvenient truths he finds.
Well over 10 million copies of The Message have been sold, and it frequently appears on top five lists of annual sales of the Bible. It has been endorsed by many evangelical luminaries.
But caveats are in order. For instance, on the controversial subject of homosexuality, compare a literal translation of passages from 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 with The Message:
Literal Translation : 1 Cor 6:9-10. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
The Message : Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.
Literal Translation: 1 Tim 1:9-10. “…realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and enslavers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.
The Message : It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!
You would not know from Peterson’s paraphrase that homosexuality was even specifically addressed in either of these passages.
The word translated “effeminate” in the literal translation of 1 Corinthians 6:10 above literally means “soft” and describes the homosexual who is on the receiving end of the sexual act, while the word “homosexual” refers to the active and insertive participant. Thus Paul clearly and unambiguously rejects the normalization of the entire act of homosexual sex. In Timothy, he makes it clear that prohibiting sex between members of the same gender is a proper matter of the law, just as prohibiting the slave trade is.
All of this is washed out and washed over in Peterson’s work. He’s not too bad on Romans 1:26-27, although there he slyly leaves open the possibility that homosexuality is okay if it is a matter of “love” rather than “lust:” “Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love.”
The original New Testament version of the The Message was published in 1993 so it appears, to this observer at least, that Rev. Peterson has been compromised on the subject of homosexuality for a long time.
Thus it comes as no surprise that in a recent interview with the Religion News Service Peterson readily admitted that he would happily perform a same-sex wedding if asked:
RNS: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?
Earlier in that same interview he spoke proudly of his church hiring a homosexual to serve as its worship leader, and praised his church for being so accepting:
One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a
really good musician.
When the evangelical world quite rightly erupted, he immediately tried to backtrack. “On further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that,” he said in a statement. and virtually accused the interviewer of ambushing him, putting him on the spot, and catching him off guard. But his response to the interviewer’s question shows no hesitation, no sense of coercion, no sense of being pressured into saying something against his will.
In a follow-up piece, the journalist – Jonathan Merritt – pointed out that Peterson had had a full week to clarify his comments before the interview was published and did not do so: “…[I]t is also important to note that in the week prior to the publication, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.”
It, in fact, was only when LifeWay, the largest chain of Christian bookstores in the country, threatened to pull his products from their shelves and their website that he scrambled to undo the damage. LifeWay carries 135 titles with Peterson’s name on them, and has 2.7 million customers annually. Peterson has his final book coming out soon, and although we cannot read his mind, it’s impossible that he did not see dollars disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Peterson quickly issued an abject statement in a vain attempt to put out the fire: To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.
It looks, to an objective observer, that Peterson’s sudden reversal is not, to put it bluntly, a matter of conviction but of greed. Regardless, it is a sad epitaph for his career that a man of his stature has been forced to resort to such groveling. He has gone to ground and is no longer doing interviews or even accepting public speaking engagements. We may have heard the last of Eugene Peterson.
The lesson here is simple: either the Bible is the word of God or it isn’t. If the Bible is the word of God, then the man of God must affirm its plain teaching about marriage and homosexuality. Eugene Peterson didn’t.
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