Given the penchant for so many of the seeker-driven types to read from Eugene Peterson's 'The Message' in services as if it were a Bible version, I thought you might be interested in a potted version of British Methodist scholar Neil Richardson's article "Should Eugene Peterson's 'The Message' be Read in Church?" from the November 2009 issue of the Epworth Review. Richardson concentrates on Peterson's rendering of Paul's Epistles. The Message as published carries a mixed message, of course - is it Peterson, or the Bible? Peterson, of course.
The great question is; is it accurate? Hearing The Message, a congregation, "Will hear something comprehensible, but unless they compare it with a translation which is closer to the original Greek or Hebrew, they can't assess whether it is an accurate interpretation or not."
Richardson identifies nine classes of problems in The Message.
1. Inaccuracies of translation. There are many places where, though a direct equivalent of a word should be used (lists in particular), Peterson gives a less-than-equivalent rendering. So in Galatians 5:19-21, Peterson renders Paul's description of 'The Works of the Flesh' as: "It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on." It would be difficult to find the equivalents for some of these in the original text or indeed in a decent English translation. In Romans 1:18 Peterson writes that, "But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate". The original word here is apokaluptetai, which means "is being revealed", and is significantly the same word used in the preceding verse of God's righteousness. For the sake of a striking metaphor, Peterson has actually abandoned what Paul wrote. Romans 8:35 is another example of a list where Peterson has significantly amended what Paul wrote, "Bullying threats" is not a satisfactory equivalent to the more accurate 'danger' in the ESV. In Romans 8:38, rather than the accurate (and sublime) "neither life nor death", Peterson has "Nothing living or dead."
2. Misleading readings. These are paraphrases that misunderstand Paul. The first example Richardson gives is Romans 2:10, where The Message reads, "if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs". The context shows however that Paul's perspective is the future, the Second Advent, not the present. In Romans 8:26, we read, "If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter". The words "it doesn't matter" have no antecedent in the Greek at all. At times Peterson is trying to smooth out Paul's style, which is never a good idea. Romans 5:10 in The Message reads: "If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!" Even if "While we were at our worst" is accepted as a half-way decent rendering of the Greek, "now that we're at our best" is by no means an acceptable rendering of what should be translated "now that we are reconciled."
3. References to Jews and Judaism. Peterson is not a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. He is however far too ready to overplay the legalism of Pharisaism, so that in Romans 7:6, instead of 'Letter', we have, "oppressive regulations and fine print". The rendering of 2 Corinthians 3:15, "Whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds," as "Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can't see through it" is simply awful. Then there are such gratuitous additions to the original as "all their talk about the law is gas" in Galatians 6:13.
4. Colloquialisms and anachronisms. In Romans 8:3 The Message reads, "God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son." Really? The image may be striking, but seems unwarranted by the original text. There are some places where a colloquialism obscures the meaning of the text, such as 2 Corinthians 7:13, "That's what happened—and we felt just great." Which is all very well, but the original literally reads, "Because of this, we have been comforted." The anachronisms include a reference to sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11:33.
5. Additions. A paraphrase is bound to be longer than the original, but Peterson is guilty of addition for the sake of addition in many places, and many of these are misleading and distort rather than clarify Paul. For example in Galatians 6:14-15 we read, "I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate." Gone is Paul's striking image of the world crucified to him, and in its place is this long 'explanation' of the idea of Paul being crucified to the rold that explains nothing.
6. Disappearances. Paul's 'And the world is crucified to me' is certainly not the only omission. What is striking in fact is that the phrases that are missing are often ones that are somewhat difficult; one cannot avoid the impression that where Peterson did not understand what Paul was saying and knew that he did not, he just left that bit out. The phrase "God will destroy him" is lacking in 1 Corinthians 3:17. In Romans 12:20-21 Paul's striking metaphor of heaping coals on an enemy's head by kindness is excised. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 the phrase "These things happened as examples for us" has been replaced with the rather bland, "the same thing could happen to us."
7. Blandness. Though in places Peterson has introduced striking metaphors, overall The Message tends in the opposite direction, replacing Paul's striking language with bland platitudes. So in Romans 5, where Paul wrote, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded far more", Peterson renders it, "When it's sin versus grace, grace wins hands down." "Abba! Father!" at Romans 8:15 becomes, "What's next, Papa?" At Romans 8:18, "The revelation of the children of God" becomes "what's coming next?" Roams 8:37, instead of "more than conquerors" we have, "None of this phazes us." The rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:8 completely eliminates Paul's biting sarcasm. In 1 Corinthians 7:29 an escatalogical reference becomes, "Time is of the essence", and worst of all, in Romans 2:4, "the riches of his kindness" becomes, "because he's such a nice God."
8. Unnecessary. There are places where some of the additional material is quite unnecessary; Peterson seems to have let himself go and often paraphrased for the sake of paraphrasing rather than just where it makes the text clearer. There is no need to paraphrase where the original is clear enough already. So why add "How can they render justice if they do not believe in the God of Justice?" to 1 Corinthians 6:6? That has nothing to do with Paul's point, and the text is clear enough without it. And of course "The Message" is not an adequate, or clearer, substitute for "The Gospel."
9. Reductionist renderings. Richardson explains, "By this I mean paraphrases which reduce or remove the extraordinary, eschatalogical, counter-cultural nature of Paul's writings." Peterson does not always do this, of course, but he does it a lot; "affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity" are just not adequate replacements for, "Love, joy, peace" in Galatians 5:22, and the list of the fruit of the spirit gets worse from there. "Be cheerful" is not the same as "be joyful" (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
So what is to be done? The Message is obviously not a Bible translation, or even a terribly good paraphrase. Rather than allowing the Bible to expand his understanding, Peterson has often contracted the Bible to fit his own ideas, omitting those bits that he cannot fit, and adding his own material in far too many places. With the aim of making the Bible and the Gospel comprehensible, he has actually done something quite different; he has made them manageable, which is not to be done. While paraphrases can be useful, they must be faithful to the original material, and that is precisely where The Message falls down. To read The Message in Church as if it is a Bible translation is misleading and wrong. When The Message is read, the reader must be aware that he is reading what Eugene Peterson thinks God meant to say, not what God actually said. The charge may sound harsh, but it is quite accurate.
In the name of our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Gervase Nicholas E. Charmley
"I know I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour." -- John Newton