There are few more harrowing words that have been uttered from America’s pulpits than these: “according to the Message translation of the Bible.”
Be clear about this: the Message is not and never was intended to be a translation of the Bible. As the story goes, the author of this “version,” Eugene Peterson, wanted to bring the passion that he felt for the text to those whom he was teaching. He saw with frustration people sitting and listlessly stirring their coffee with total apathy for the Scripture. Beginning with the book of Galations, Peterson began to phrase by phrase put the meaning he read into the Bible to help its hearers understand his own passion.
Seriously, the book should have a disclaimer printed on the front: “read at your own risk.” While Peterson actually did base his writing on the original Greek, he undoubtly did so in a very isegesical (“to read into”) way rather than a scholarly, exegetical (“to read out of“) way. What this means is rather than getting the original intention of the original authors of the biblical text, we have what Peterson thinks was intended.
Paved with Good Intentions
While his intentions may have been to bring awe and passion back to the text of the Bible, the nature of the expression of the text in this way does leave some concern. As anyone who takes such liberties with the Bible, Peterson brings his own perspective to what the Bible actually says and then, perhaps unwittingly, adds his own experience and bias to the Word of God. No doubt it is common for a person to read their opinions into what the Bible says, but with diligence and objectivity this can be limited. Actual translations of the Bible are done in committee, to help to ensure that the Bible is speaking for itself, rather than through any singular person’s bias. In the case of the Message, however, Peterson has worked alone, and other than his editor, made all the final decisions on the text.
To be fair, even NavPress says that it was not intended to be a “study Bible” but rather it was published as a “reading Bible.” The implication is that it was written to bring the spirit of what was written to contemporary ears. Not to be taken as a final word, it is a “translation” of passion from the original writers to a modern audience.
Can Bible paraphrases be useful? When the intention is to simplify concepts of the Bible and to take on wide sweeps of text, paraphrases may be useful not only in saving time but because they can provide a simpler interface, they can lend a perspective to see the forest more easily, in spite of the trees. In fact, as Brian Chapell, president of Covenant Seminary, explains, many paraphrases began as a way to teach the Bible to children. The simplicity of the language can be very helpful in keeping their short attention spans while giving them solid truths taught by Scripture.
Once again the problem is how these tools are used. While it is foolish to use a hack saw to cut down a tree, using The Message in serious Bible study or as the basis of a sermon is irresponsible, a statement that I hope Peterson himself would agree with.
When the Narrow Way Becomes the Inner Path
With the exuding of personal passion for the biblical text, Peterson also exudes personal bias. A self-identified contempative, he writes this view into the text, even in places where it is quite a stretch to do so.
When addressing mysticism, it may be helpful to specifiy what that means. In essence, mysticism is the working of different spiritual disciplines on a trek toward truth. In that sense there is little wrong with it, especially as we consider how the Bible teaches practices of prayer, solitude, fasting, and others. However, the emphasis of the mystic is to seek an “inner path” and this journey implies the search within for divine knowledge.
One classic text is called Interior Castle written by Saint Teresa of Avila. The premise of the book is that if Jesus said “in my Father’s house are many mansions” then it must be that if Christ lives within the human heart that this is a reference to the inner life, and that we can search for God there. Mansions, in the mind of St. Teresa, could not be contained within a single “house,” so the only explanation must have been a mystical one in which the further in the journey takes us, the larger the world that opens. However, as a basis for the book, the King James Version of the Bible make an odious error: the Greek here is more accurately rendered as “rooms” as testified by many modern translations including the New International Version and the English Standard Version. Therefore, mysticism had to be read into (isegesis) the text.
Peterson also takes steps toward Gnosticism, which is the idea that there is some sort of secret knowledge that within it lies special power. While most scholars contend that Jesus taught the Old Testament Law and brought to it additional weight and significant to it, Gnosticism suggests that he told stories to embedd secret knowledge that the wise could decipher and then extract their powerful truths. One notable place that Peterson includes this bias is in the Lord’s Prayer:
| Matthew 6:9-13
“Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best –
As above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you
and forgiving others.
Keep us safe
from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Peterson changes the proclamation of the holiness of God (“hallowed by Your name”) to a completely different concept of a revelation of secret knowledge that God has apparently kept to Himself, even from Christ. There is a sharp distinction between offering praise to God, which we find in the translation, and asking God for special revelation. Other places show how Peterson attempts to remove the power of sin and temptation and replaces it with a notion of safety, comfort, and stability that implies that with this secret revelation we are protected by some celestial force field from evil, if evil actually exists for Peterson. Mysticism comes with the concept that the physical world is evil, and that only the spiritual realm holds truth and holiness. In changing Jesus’ words from “do not lead us into temptation” to “keep us safe,” Peterson causes Jesus to suggest that there is a way to completely remove ourselves from temptation, removing us from the connection to the material world in this life.
One of the hallmarks of Gnosticism is the way it shapes the relationship between Jesus as the Son of God and God the Father. Christian orthodoxy teaches that the three Persons of God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) are of the same essence and are one in the same. In the Lord’s Prayer, Peterson has Jesus asking God to reveal secret knowledge, suggesting that there are things that the Father knows that the Son does not. John 14:9, 10 makes the orthodox teaching very clear as Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In the following examples it is easy to see the distinct changes that Peterson has made in the nature of that relationship:
“I and My Father are one.”
“I and the Father are one heart and mind.”
“…My Father is greater than I.”
“The Father is the goal and purpose of my life.”
Rather than saying that Jesus and the Father are of the same substance, Peterson’s paraphrase implies that they are only in sync. If this is the case, it makes Christ only a recipient of secret knowledge, but not the divine Son of God. Not being uniquely divine, it makes Jesus one of many who have a divine spark within them. Gnosticism suggests that all we have to do is remember that we have a piece of God within us and when we are able to rediscover that hidden knowledge we will be reconnected to God as all His pieces come together.
The Bottom Line
To be clear: this is not what the Bible teaches. Peterson has had to take quite a few liberties with his “paraphrase” to make the text say this.
Even without the problems with Peterson’s own overt bias, it still stands that this is in no way a translation of the Bible and should not be given the weight as if it were. When pastors carry their copies of this volume to the platform and read from it as if it really were the Bible, it is misrepresenting the Word of God and does a blatant disservice to those who trust their teaching. I would be so bold as to say that even if a pastor were to quote from an actual translation, then follow it up with “…and I like the way the Message says it,” they are still positioning this paraphrase in a way that is irresponsible for a proprietor of the Word.
As Christians, we must take seriously efforts to undermine the message of the Bible, even if those deceivers are within our own ranks.