Critiquing “The Message” Bible

There’s no doubt that The Message Bible has been popular since the NT portion was released in 1993. The contemporary and poetic language has captured the attention of millions, but does it really convey the true Gospel message? While many have appreciated The Message, many others have denounced it as an accurate translation (or rather, a paraphrase of Scripture). Others even call it heretical. I have never really used this version for study or devotions, but I’ve seen it used by pastors and other Christians on Facebook, and I’ve even heard from some Seminary staff and students that they have used this version (at times) for sermons and lessons. It’s all about making Scripture easier to understand, or is it? I decided to do some research and find out what Eugene Peterson (the author of The Message) has to say about his version of Scripture.

Through my research I’ve discovered that Peterson has written many books and seems to be (or was at some point) a contributor to Christianity Today. He has also been the subject of a number of interviews concerning new books he’d written, including The Message, and his life as a pastor. The best way to find out Peterson’s views and intentions behind his writing is to hear/read it from the man himself. I’d like to share with you some of what he’s shared publicly. I will also include a list of the sources I read at the bottom of the post so you can verify what I’ve written here.

In one article entitled “The Joyful Environmentalists,” Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris were both interviewees who shared their convictions about conservationism. When Peterson was asked about Scriptures that teach about creation (besides Gen. 1-2 and Rom. 8:22), he responds with the plagues in Egypt:

“Those 10 plagues are all exorcisms of specific aspects of Pharaoh’s control over the world. For eight months, the whole country of Egypt was turned into a theater of exorcism, item by item by item. Pharaoh was unable to do what he had done to creation, and the evil was exorcised by the command of God…Then out of this highly technologized world of Egypt—the pyramids, the statuary, the temples—[the Hebrews] go into the wilderness, which is supposed to be empty. Yet they are all provided for, and they live by the providence of God in a most unlikely place. You can bet that they gained an appreciation for the fertility of the world they were living in—that they did not need all of Pharaoh’s technology to be provided for. That’s a great environmental text, even though I don’t think it’s ever been used that way.”[1]

I believe Peterson’s interpretation is a misrepresentation of the text for a couple of reasons. First, it wasn’t fertile in the wilderness. This is why God Himself had to provide for the Israelites in miraculous ways. They actually wanted to go back to Egypt, and their griping and complaining resulted in God’s wrath. Second, the plagues on Egypt had nothing to do with Pharaoh’s control in the world (in Egypt really), but rather because he would not adhere to God’s command. Peterson’s answer is a bit of a stretch (which he admits that he’s probably the only person to interpret the passage in this way), but this gives us a clue into how he interprets Scripture and how that interpretation gets inserted in his paraphrase of The Message.

While the previous article was written years after the completion of The Message, this next article was written by Peterson around the time when the NT portion of The Message was published (1993). In this article entitled “Spirit Quest,” Peterson asserts that the two essentials of human fullness are intimacy and transcendence.  He defines intimacy as “we want to experience human love and trust and joy” and transcendence as “we want to experience divine love and trust and joy.”[2] He explains that spirituality is a fusion of intimacy and transcendence, but North Americans usually don’t find these in the right places because we live in a secularized culture. As a result, Peterson writes, “Contemporary spirituality desperately needs focus, precision, and roots: focus on Christ, precision in the Scriptures, and roots in a healthy tradition. In these times of drift and dilettantism, evangelical Christians must once again serve the church by providing just such focus and precision and rootage.”[3] I pretty much agree with this statement; however, I’m confused that Peterson desires for the precision of Scriptures, but he himself writes an Americanized paraphrase of Scripture. He also provides “five items of counsel in matters of spirituality for all who hunger and thirst after intimacy and transcendence.”[4] I will only mention the first item since it applies to the discussion on The Message. This item of counsel is “Discover what Scripture says about spirituality and immerse yourself in it.” He provides an explanation of how to do this: “This is not a matter of hunting for a few texts, but of acquiring a biblical imagination—entering into the vast world of the Bible and getting a feel for the territory, and instinct for reality.”[5] The idea of acquiring a biblical imagination makes me pause. My hesitancy is also coupled with some of Peterson’s words in the introduction to the NT portion of The Message: “This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the Message current and fresh and understandable in the same language in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak”(Bold print added for emphasis).[6]  So why the need for such contemporary language and biblical imagination? Peterson explains that too.

In 1991 (Pre-The Message), Peterson wrote an article called “Listen, Yahweh,” which explains his desire to pray the prayers of Psalms. However, from his perspective, the way most English translations relay the messages of the Psalms is not quite right. He explains,

“In English translation, the Psalms sound smooth and polished. Elizabethan rhythms and diction dominate. And as literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in instants of anger and praise and lament, these English translations miss something. Grammatically they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right: The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language. And so in my pastoral work of teaching people to pray, I have for a long time wanted to translate the Psalms into what I think of as ‘American.’”[7]  (Bold print added for emphasis)

I don’t know about you, but when I read the Psalms (I choose to read the NASB, which I’ll explain later), I understand that the writers had reverence for God, and yet were also quite open with Him. Do their prayers not reflect our own when we feel like God is not around? Do we not express our disbelief as to what is allowed to happen in this world? Do we not hold onto hope that God is still sovereign and the Rock upon we which stand? I think it’s a common misconception that the Israelites (or even in the Greek-speaking world of the NT) were some sort of ancient hillbillies who couldn’t communicate with beautiful and elegant speech. How can various scholars’ translations with the Psalms be grammatically accurate, superb, and devout, yet still miss the “real” meaning and sound of the Psalms? To me, that accusation seems quite arrogant. To give you an understanding of where I’m coming from, let’s compare The Message version of Psalm 2 with the NASB version:

1-6 Why the big noise, nations?
Why the mean plots, peoples?
Earth-leaders push for position,
Demagogues and delegates meet for summit talks,
The God-deniers, the Messiah-defiers:
‘Let’s get free of God!
Cast loose from Messiah!’
Heaven-throned God breaks out laughing.
At first he’s amused at their presumption;
Then he gets good and angry.
Furiously, he shuts them up:
‘Don’t you know there’s a King in Zion? A coronation banquet
Is spread for him on the holy summit.’

7-9 Let me tell you what God said next.
He said, ‘You’re my son,
And today is your birthday.
What do you want? Name it:
Nations as a present? continents as a prize?
You can command them all to dance for you,
Or throw them out with tomorrow’s trash.’

10-12 So, rebel-kings, use your heads;
Upstart-judges, learn your lesson:
Worship God in adoring embrace,
Celebrate in trembling awe. Kiss Messiah!
Your very lives are in danger, you know;
His anger is about to explode,
But if you make a run for God—you won’t regret it!” (Psalm 2 MSG)

1 “Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
‘Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!’

He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
‘But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.’

‘I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”

10 Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
11 Worship the Lord with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
12 Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Psalm 2 NASB)

From what I can tell, Psalm 2 is in reference to Christ and His authority on the earth. Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 both attest to this. Acts 13:32-33 says, “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.’” Hebrews 1:1-5 speaks reverently about Christ: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You’? And again, ‘I will be a Father to Him And He shall be a Son to Me’?” (Bold print added to emphasize the Psalm 2 reference). Scripture itself testifies to the meaning of Psalm 2, and I believe reverence is lacking in the MSG version. But you can make that decision for yourself. One reviewer (Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.) of Peterson’s The Psalms at Prayer comments:

“Is bringing the language of Holy Scripture down to the level of common American discourse a worthy goal to begin with? Lovers of the Hebrew Psalter will agree with C.S. Lewis’s observation that the Psalms evoke both raw emotional intensity and high liturgical sublimity. They conjure up in our imaginations not only the cries of elemental human passion but also the voices of an Anglican boys’ choir…The Hebrew Psalter is intense but not pedestrian…Being earthy and rough may feel psychologically authentic to us modern people, but Bible translators should risk sounding remote when biblical beauty demands it. It then becomes the responsibility of pastors to lift modern people up to the level of Scripture, so that they can love higher and grander things than modernity has conditioned them to expect or even desire.”[8]

This same reviewer also asks a challenging question that relates to our current culture:

“At a time when American Christianity is rapidly adjusting to popular culture, when just about the only thing left that might rescue us from its banalities is the Bible, is it helpful to put a spin on the biblical text that accommodates popular culture even further? The problem with our more formal versions of the Psalms is not that they cannot help us to pray, but that they call us to a depth of prayer that our modern superficiality has habituated us not to identify with.”[9]

This statement was written 19 years ago, but I think it is even truer today. What is also interesting is that Peterson claims that trying to be relevant is really irrelevant. He supposedly doesn’t agree with relevancy. Let’s see what he said in his interview with Mark Galli (“Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons”) about his book series on spiritual theology. In response to a question about the church, Peterson replies,

“What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand the naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it. Frederick von Hugel said that the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism. In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation—what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible—none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?”[10] (Bold print added for emphasis)

All I can say is “Wow!” The church is dead? The church is not supposed to be an institution, but rather the body of Christ. While we are all sinners, sin is supposed to be confronted and rebuked in love within the church. The comparison to being the bark of a tree makes no sense. Is the body of Christ dead? Surely Christ was raised, so why is His body compared to death? If the church is the bark (dead) what are we keeping alive? What is the tree? The Scriptures? The same Scriptures that say we are alive in Christ and we should have the utmost joy for what He’s done for us? Peterson says that there’s no idealization of the church in the Bible, but Paul and other apostles and disciples provide a number of instructions so that the church can be holy and set apart. We live in a sinful world, but that doesn’t mean we let sin thrive within us individually and in the church.

Within this same interview, Galli asks Peterson, “Many Christians hope to speak to generation X or Y or postmoderns, or some sub-group, like cowboys or bikers—people for whom the typical church seems irrelevant.” Peterson responds, “When you start tailoring the gospel to the culture, whether it’s a youth culture, a generation culture or any other kind of culture, you have taken the guts out of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the kingdom of this world. It’s a different kingdom.”[11]

I agree with Peterson’s response. The gospel shouldn’t be tailored to culture. So how does The Message, which strives to accomplish the very task that Peterson is against, fit with his philosophy?

Another interview demonstrates that his views about relevancy seem to be contradictory. In this interview, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” in which Peterson’s paraphrase of Philippians is copied, Peterson answers some questions about his paraphrase. When asked “Whom is The Message for?” he replies,

“People like Tom, the trucker and furniture mover who transported our belongings across the country. He left parochial school in the eighth grade and hasn’t been back to church since. But his ears pricked up when he heard about this. I wrote for people like him who don’t think they can understand the Bible or ‘churchy’ language. I also hope it helps Christians who are tired of the world, of the biblical phrases. They’re not bored when they talk to their friends and gossip over the back fence. I tried to use the same vernacular. I hope they’ll pick this up and be surprised.”[12]

So instead of helping people understand Scripture in its original context, Peterson chooses to make it relevant to people in the current culture partly because they’re bored of the usual. Does this not seem inconsistent with previous interview? As another clear demonstration of being relevant, Peterson is asked, “The Word ‘dwelt among us’ in John 1 became ‘moved into the neighborhood.’ Why did you overhaul such metaphors?” His response was that “‘Dwelt among us’ was likely something people said in the first century. But I’ve never heard anybody say that except when they’re quoting the Bible. ‘Moved into the neighborhood’ is something we would say. I wanted to use a phrase that came out of people’s experience. Jesus was a master at doing this. His listeners didn’t have to read a commentary to figure out what he was saying.”[13]

Actually, even Jesus’ disciples were often confused with the meaning of Jesus’ parables. They usually needed to be explained even to His closest followers. Yes, Jesus used metaphors that related to the people of the day, but it was all to convey spiritual truth. It is our job to understand those metaphors, not make up our own (for translation). The concept of Jesus, the Son of God Himself, coming to earth to dwell among us is quite an amazing thought. He chose to leave His throne to be with His creation, a creation He knew He would die for. The idea of “moving into the neighborhood” does not convey that same idea. At least, not to me. Peterson also admits that he made ambiguous language in Scripture less ambiguous. His reason is that the original message wouldn’t have been ambiguous and wasn’t with Paul and Jesus; therefore, Peterson “felt liberty to be as clear as I could within the bounds of evangelical theology.”[14] That means that Peterson’s paraphrase is written through a particular lens, that of evangelical theology. While other scholars and translators feel the need to leave ambiguous passages as they are, Peterson seems to believe he has more insight into their meaning.

The interviewer also asks Peterson “How did your interest in poetry help your translating?” Peterson responds,

“When you love words, you want them to sound fresh. When a word becomes a cliché, it’s not working anymore; so you tend not to use it. Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that poets are the shepherds of words. As a shepherd, you’re not just trying to get the sheep to the market and get the best price for them. You’re taking care of them along the way. I’m trying to reach disaffected outsiders and bored insiders. I hope The Message becomes a means by which a lot of people who’ve never read the Bible read it. And the means by which many who’ve stopped reading will start again.”[15]

Again, it seems that the focus of The Message is to cure boredom or one’s disconnect with Scripture through an overhaul of fresh words. Yes, such an approach has led many to read The Message like any other book, but have they gained spiritual understanding? Or have they found just another “cool” way to say something that was supposedly outdated?

I have one more article to discuss, and I think this one needs the most attention. This is another interview with Peterson, but it focuses entirely on his work with The Message. It initially explains that Peterson wrote a paraphrase of Galatians for his congregation because they didn’t seem to be connecting with Scripture. NavPress saw this paraphrase and approached Peterson about writing the entire NT this way. The interviewer (Doug LeBlanc) asks, “Was there a breakthrough moment when you became convinced that you should expand your work from Galatians to the rest of the New Testament?” Peterson replies,

“I was a reluctant participant in this. I really didn’t think that I could do it or that it could be done. But I agreed with my editor, John, that I would. In some ways Paul is easy. There’s a lot of challenge to Paul, but the gospels are something quite different. There’s a kind of clean, lucid clarity to them, and I just didn’t think I could do that. But I agreed to do 10 chapters of Matthew and then let John decide whether he thought we could do this. And so it was just as bad as I thought it would be. It was very wooden, and it just wasn’t working. I just kind of let go and became playful. And that was when the Sermon on the Mount started. I remember I was down in my basement study, and I did the Beatitudes in about 10 minutes. And all of a sudden I realized this could work.[16] (Bold print added for emphasis)

I don’t quite think “playful” is the right kind of attitude to have when translating or paraphrasing Scripture. The next question is quite thought-provoking for anyone who reads or teaches from The Message. LeBlanc asks, “Do you sometimes use The Message for your own devotional reading?” Peterson surprisingly responds, “My wife does, but I don’t. Actually, I don’t want this to sound wrong, but for most of my adult life I have read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. I still do that. When I finished the New Testament, I really couldn’t read The Message. It was like I lived in that world, and I didn’t know if it was going to be accepted. I just put it away. But occasionally now I’ll pick it up and remember what I was doing.”[17] I am wary to read or use a Bible translation/paraphrase that even the author himself doesn’t use. In Peterson’s interview with Timothy Jones (“Letter from a Roman Jail”), he says that “While we are calling what I’ve done a paraphrase, I’ve also often had the feeling that it is a true translation. I sometimes made wild jumps in terms of word order or metaphor, but I was still trying to work out of the original setting and speech.”[18] If that is the case, why does he have trouble reading his own translation? Something to think about.

Continuing on with his interview with LeBlanc, Peterson is asked what the challenges are when translating Scripture into street language. Here’s another important response:

“It’s very different than trying to give a literal translation. With a conventional translation you’re trying to be as close to the original culture and grammar and Greek syntax and Hebrew syntax as you can be, and invite the reader to enter that world and understand it in those terms. When you’re doing a paraphrase translation like I’ve done, the demand is not on your demonstrating that world, although you kind of do that, but there’s more of an imagination and poetic aspect to it, because you’re trying to recreate those rhythms or those images and metaphors in this culture. I don’t think I could have done this if I wasn’t a pastor.”[19] (Bold print added for emphasis)

Again, there’s mention of imagination and poetry as well as the lack of intention to help people understand the Bible in its original context. Even though he supposedly tries to recreate those rhythms, images, and metaphors in our current culture, I think the original intent is often lost in translation.

When asked what advice Peterson would give to anyone who attempts a paraphrase, Peterson says, “I think if there’s any counsel for this kind of translation work, you just have to be immersed in the everyday. You don’t go off to an ivory tower someplace and surround yourself with dictionaries and grammars. Although you’ve got to know those things, those are a presupposition; that’s not the world you immerse yourself in.”[20] So even though it’s necessary to have knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and the ancient cultures, it’s more important to be immersed in the everyday. It’s becoming clear that this paraphrase (even though previously Peterson called his work a true translation) was not intended to communicate the original context. While I believe Scripture can and should be applied to our modern context, I don’t think it should be translated as if the events took place in our modern context.

But wait, there’s more! LeBlanc asks Peterson, “Do you think The Message will be well suited for reading in worship?” We would think Peterson would be on board with pastors and leaders using his translation at the pulpit. After all, isn’t it written for those who have become disconnected with Scripture? But Peterson replies with the opposite response, “When I’m in a congregation where somebody uses it in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, ‘Hear the Word of God from The Message.’ But it surprises me how many do. You can’t tell people they can’t do it. But I guess I’m a traditionalist, and I like to hear those more formal languages in the pulpit.”[21] Why would he want to hear the more formal languages when his translation communicates the meaning behind the Scriptural text? The next response is just as contradictory as this one.

The interviewer asks, “You have said that if you dig your wells deep enough, relevancy is pretty much irrelevant. What sorts of hazards await a translator who focuses on relevance?” Here’s that relevance topic again. Let’s take a look at what Peterson says:

“The hazard is just triviality. Relevance is relevant for about 10 minutes in the kind of culture we’re in. I never thought of relevance. I was thinking of my congregation. I was thinking of these people, the lives they lived. I didn’t want to be cute; I didn’t want to just get people’s attention. So I was always working very closely with those Greek and Hebrew texts, trying to get underneath them and get into them, and then let it come out as the kind of language that we’re using. And I wasn’t trying to make it easy. I was astounded when I learned about some of the new versions of the Bible that are being published by companies that spend thousands of dollars trying to find the vocabulary level of the average person and exclude all the words that don’t fit into that grid. I think you do the best you can with the language you have. The fact is, the Bible is hard. It’s not an easy book. I don’t think we should compromise accuracy of the Bible just for the ease of reading.[22] (Bold print added for emphasis)

Ok let’s break this down. Peterson says he wasn’t trying to be relevant, but he was thinking about the people and the lives they lived. He already admits in other interviews that his congregation seemed to be bored or disengaged from Scripture so he wrote a paraphrase of Galatians to make Scripture more real and understandable to them. To apply to them. That is being relevant. Also, he mentions how he was always working very closely to the Greek and Hebrew texts, yet he encourages people who want to write a paraphrase to not surround themselves with grammars and dictionaries, but to be immersed in the everyday. The idea of trying to get underneath these ancient texts seems to indicate that the intended meaning was not on the surface, that it needs to be drawn out. This is where interpretation can become dangerous. Peterson is trying to get the feel behind the text (something that is supposedly hidden) and somehow translate into our modern language with all of its (unrelated) idioms. Peterson then mentions how the Bible is hard, and it shouldn’t be made easy to read just for the sake of ease. Why is the Bible so hard?? I think he and others think this because they’ve lost the focus on the original context. They have their own preconceived notions about who God is and if the God of the original context does not fit their notions then something is amiss. Rather than blaming themselves for their own misunderstanding, they blame the text. In the ancient Israelite culture and in the first century, God is a no-nonsense God. Christ was and remains to be the greatest gift we could ever receive because He took the Father’s wrath upon Himself. But that doesn’t change the nature of God. Our culture wants a fluffy, warm God who just loves, loves, loves in a way that we think of love. Scripture presents a different picture. God hates sin. Period. Every human needs to be made right with God because we all sin. The story of God’s redemption of mankind is no longer a mystery. The Messiah came as the OT Scriptures prophesied, and Christ will come again as the NT testifies. If the Bible is hard, we made it that way. I think Peterson completely contradicts himself when he says “I don’t think we should compromise accuracy of the Bible just for the ease of reading.” Isn’t that exactly what he did with The Message? He himself says it was written for people like Tom the trucker because he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. If you take a brief look at comments on Amazon you’ll see that many people like The Message in all its forms because it reads with ease.

There’s one final question and response that I’d like to add this discussion. LeBlanc asks, “Do you consider it one of the unique qualities of Scripture that it can be translated into so many forms and still retain such spiritual power?” Peterson responds,

“An African theologian, [Kwame] Bediako [author of Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of Non-Western Religion], says that every time the Bible is translated it releases new meanings. And he was talking about African languages and African dialects. Every time the Bible is translated, you enter a culture and a language system that is unique. And the Bible is true and gets into those rhythms and those idioms and there’s more truth there. So the truth is kind of endless, and each culture, dialect, and language gives a new chance to express something nobody has ever quite done this way before. The comments of appreciation that mean the most to me are from Wycliffe translators. They’re doing this, and they understand immediately what I’m doing, and they love it.”[23]

I’m all for translating the Bible into different languages, and I love languages myself. However, I have a problem with the idea that Bible translation leads to additional new meanings of Scripture. This leaves room for any interpretation to be inserted into the text. I believe the Bible is for all people in all cultures, but we cannot neglect the original cultures involved. How can we fully understand the necessity of Christ’s death if we have no knowledge of the Israelites’ command to offer sacrifices for their sins? There’s a reason why God chose Israel initially, but then He extended salvation for all people. Scriptural truths are immutable; however, application of Scriptural truths is endless. There is a difference. If truths multiply and change with every culture, how can we be rooted in these same Scriptures? The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and we are able to grasp the truths in English. Why do we think that other cultures and languages can’t understand these same principles without compromising the original context? The same Scriptural truths should be gleaned from the text, and then these truths can be applied differently to various cultures, including our own. All that to say, if someone proclaims that they’ve discovered a new meaning in Scripture which has never been found before, be wary of such a person. It is quite arrogant to assume that over thousands of years no one else understood such a truth.

Choosing a Translation

I’m not writing all of this to shame anyone who reads The Message. Rather, I think this version has been encouraged by many Christians (even well-known leaders and writers), but I don’t think it should be. I’m writing this post to not only make you aware of Peterson’s intentions, inconsistencies, and beliefs, but also to challenge everyone to research a Bible translation before they use it for personal study or teaching. If you are seeking to understand Scriptural truth, I highly recommend not choosing a paraphrase because the goal of a paraphrase is not to explain the original context. I will also say that no translation is perfect. As much as we want to have an exact translation, the number of Bible versions out there indicate that an exact translation is impossible. Why is this? Well, whenever we translate from one language to another (especially ancient languages), an amount of interpretation is involved. Sometimes cultural concepts or idioms are incomprehensible unless we do adequate research. Even then, some phrases may get lost in translation. Also, whenever interpretation is involved, subjectivity goes along with it. As much as we try to remain objective when reading (or translating) Scripture, we’re still impacted by our own cultures, languages, morals, church traditions, theological positions, etc. This is why having a group of editors and translators is important for writing a new Bible translation. A group of people can keep each other in check whereas one person has little to no accountability. A group can debate on more “difficult” passages whereas one person can only offer his/her opinion and interpretation on a given passage. While Peterson admits to having five scholars check his work for doctrinal integrity[24], I think it’s safe to say that he was mostly left to his own creativity.

I mentioned above that I personally choose to read the New American Standard Bible (not to say that others aren’t adequate). I read this version because it’s the closest translation I’ve found to the original languages (although I admit that I’ve only studied Greek, and plan to study Hebrew someday). Also, it was written by a group of editors and translators beginning in 1960 and has been through many revisions, the latest revision published in 1995. The Foreword to the NASB conveys, “The purpose of the Editorial Board in making this translation was to adhere as closely as possible to the original languages of the Holy Scriptures, and to make the translation in a fluent and readable style according to current English usage.”[25] The Lockman Foundation, the original publisher for this version, also provides its fourfold aim with its translation: 1) These publications shall be true to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; 2) They shall be grammatically correct; 3) They shall be understandable; and 4) They shall give the Lord Jesus Christ His proper place, the place the Word gives Him; therefore, no work will ever be personalized.[26] This version provides introductory notes that explain what the NASB is based on (both the ASV and KJV), who was involved in the process, why they used some English idioms for clarity in certain passages, and how they indicate these changes within the textual notes. I currently use the Study Bible version of the NASB which is published by Zondervan, but I’m not inclined to use the commentaries very much. Actually, I encourage everyone to be careful when reading commentaries (whether those in your Bibles or those independent of a specific translation). Commentaries can be useful, and they’re often encouraged in higher education; however, it is important to remember that they are written by men and women who all have their own biases and interpretations. Scripture itself provides the context you need to understand it. Commentaries can help fill in the gaps where culture and history are concerned.

Challenge: Compare Translations

There might be some people reading this who are saying, “Hey, I love The Message!” However, I challenge everyone who has an interest in this version (or even if you don’t) to do a translation comparison (www.biblegateway.com is helpful with this) and determine if the message is really the same. I’ve included a few comparisons below, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll give you the NASB version and then The Message (MSG):

“Our Father who is 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 also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

[For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]” (Matthew 6:9-13 NASB)

“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.” (Matthew 6:9-13 MSG)

I believe much is missed with the second version, and it seems quite Westernized with the idea of “three square meals.” What do you think? Now let’s take a look at Galatians 6:1-2:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2 NASB)

“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.” (Galatians 6:1-2 MSG)

I think there are two different messages going on here. In the NASB translation, I believe Paul is telling people to restore a person who has fallen into a sin that he/she can’t seem to get out of. That means that their sin is known, but believers are to help them with a gentle spirit. However, those who are helping this person need to be cautious so that they don’t get caught up in the same sin. When Paul is telling the Galatians to bear each other’s burdens, he’s speaking to the church. In the MSG translation, I have no idea where “Live creatively, friends” comes from (not from the Greek). It also seems to suggest that people should just forgive the person in sin, but nothing else should be said. This is not the message in the NT. The church is called to rebuke as well as encourage and forgive. I’m not suggesting that we should rub people’s sin in their faces, but rebuking in love is necessary. The MSG also adds that we should share the burdens of the oppressed and fulfill Christ’s law. This is not the message Paul is saying. He’s talking to the Galatian church specifically here. The church is supposed to carry one another’s burdens because we are all one body (1 Cor. 12). We are not commanded to share everyone’s burdens. Again, I believe the real message is lost in the paraphrase (MSG).

Here’s another example. This one is really important especially because of the rise of homosexuality and homosexual marriage in Western culture. Let’s compare 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. See if you can note the differences:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will 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, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11 NASB)

“Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in 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. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11 MSG)

There are so many differences I’m not even sure where to start. While the NASB (and Greek) translation lists specific sins (not that these are the only sins that keep people from God, but I think they are listed specifically for the Corinthians and the cultural influences of their day), the MSG conveniently leaves them out. It also adds the idea of using and abusing the earth. This is something not mentioned in the Greek language but represents a modern concern. In my opinion, the MSG version does not want to cause offense by calling out certain sins, but rather desires to present God as warm and fuzzy. Here’s a final comparison that represents this version of God:

“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus…” (Romans 15:4-5 NASB)

“Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next. May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all.” (Romans 15:4-5 MSG)

I’ll let you wrestle with the differences there.

For anyone who has taken the time to read this post to the end, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My desire is for truth to be known and understood. Part of this call for truth is calling out people who I think lead people away from it. Even with the best of intentions, if someone (like Peterson) does not teach the truth of Scripture, he is not doing God’s work.

Bibliography (sources used in this post or consulted)

Burns, Ann and Barbara J. Kenney. “The Message: The New Testament (Book).” Library Journal 128 no. 18 (Nov. 2003): 140.

Crouch, Andy (Interviewer), Eugene Peterson (Interviewee) and Peter Harris (Interviewee). “The Joyful Environmentalists.” Christianity Today 55 no. 6 (June 2011): 30-32.

Galli, Mark (Interviewer) and Eugene Peterson (Interviewee). “Spirituality for All Wrong Reasons: Eugene Peterson talks about lies and illusions that destroy the church.” Christianity Today 49 no. 3 (March 2005): 42-48.

LeBlanc, Doug (Interviewer) and Eugene H. Peterson (Interviewee). “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute.” Christianity Today 46 no. 11 (Oct. 2002): 107-109.

Ortlund Jr., Raymond C. “The Psalms at Prayer.” Christianity Today 39 no. 1 (Jan. 1995): 64-65.

Peterson, Eugene H. “Letter from a Roman Jail: Words of liberation from a prisoner of conscience. A new paraphrase of Philippians by Eugene Peterson.” Christianity Today 37 no. 15 (Dec. 1993): 38-42.

—–. “‘Listen, Yahweh.’” Christianity Today 35 no. 1 (Jan. 1991): 23-25.

—–. “Spirit Quest.” Christianity Today 37 no. 13 (Nov. 1993): 26-30.

Wood, David (Interviewer) and Eugene H. Peterson (Interviewee). “‘The Best Life’: Eugene Peterson on pastoral ministry.” Christian Century 119 no. 6 (Mar. 2002): 18-26.

Additional Internet Sources:

http://www.gotquestions.org/The-Message-MSG.html

http://www.bible-researcher.com/themessage.html

http://www.crossroad.to/Bible_studies/Message.html

[1] Andy Crouch (Interviewer), Eugene Peterson (Interviewee) and Peter Harris (Interviewee), “The Joyful Environmentalists,” Christianity Today 55 no. 6 (June 2011): 31.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, “Spirit Quest,” Christianity Today 37 no. 13 (Nov. 1993): 28.

[3] Peterson, “Spirit Quest,” 29.

[4] Peterson, “Spirit Quest,” 29.

[5] Peterson, “Spirit Quest,” 29.

[6] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language (Colorado Spring, CO: NavPress, 1993), 8.

[7] Eugene H. Peterson, “‘Listen, Yahweh,’” Christianity Today 35 no.1 (Jan. 1991): 23.

[8] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “The Psalms at Prayer,” Christianity Today 39 no.1 (Jan. 1995): 65.

[9] Ortlund, “The Psalms at Prayer,” 65.

[10] Mark Galli (Interviewer) and Eugene Peterson (Interviewee), “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons: Eugene Peterson talks about lies and illusions that destroy the church,” Christianity Today 49 no. 3 (March 2005): 45-46.

[11] Galli and Peterson, “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons,” 47.

[12] Timothy Jones (Interviewer) and Eugene H. Peterson (Interviewee), “Letter from a Roman Jail: Words of liberation from a prisoner of conscience. A new paraphrase of Philippians by Eugene Peterson,” Christianity Today 37 no. 15 (Dec. 1993): 41.

[13] Jones and Peterson, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” 41.

[14] Jones and Peterson, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” 41.

[15] Jones and Peterson, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” 41.

[16] Doug LeBlanc (Interviewer) and Eugene H. Peterson (Interviewee), “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” Christianity Today 46 no. 11 (Oct. 2002): 107.

[17] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 107.

[18] Jones and Peterson, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” 41.

[19] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 107-108.

[20] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 108.

[21] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 108.

[22] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 108-109.

[23] LeBlanc and Peterson, “I Didn’t Want to Be Cute,” 109.

[24] Jones and Peterson, “Letter from a Roman Jail,” 41.

[25] New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), vii.

[26] New American Standard Bible, vii.

© Lauren Heiligenthal

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8 thoughts on “Critiquing “The Message” Bible

  1. Dear sis Lauren,
    This post is very important to me and I do believe will increase my insight and knowledge. Can you allow me to print this out for my personal archive? Thank you very much for sharing this important article. Blessings to you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful for you! Yes, of course you can print it out 🙂 Can you copy and paste it into a Word Document, or do I need to provide a print option on the post? (I’m still learning about how to do things on my blog). I could also e-mail it to you. Let me know what works for you. Thanks!

      Like

      1. Oow it is ok i copy paste directly from your blog post into my Ms office 🙂 about print feature on your blog, it is very good but please consider just in case your writing have copyright. Well you know what, I just thinking that you will become a good sister in Christ and I am so glad if we could keep in touch and could share each other. .here is my email: karina_susanto@ymail.com
        Thank you very much, sis.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m glad the copy and paste worked. When I first started my blog I included the print option, but then changed my mind. However, if anyone finds my posts useful, I want them to use them 🙂 I agree that we will become great sisters in Christ 🙂 From the time I first saw your blog you have been a light and encouragement to me. I am so grateful! My e-mail is lauren_kaye07@yahoo.com. I’ve been meaning to ask how your baby boy and husband are doing? How’s life been for you since becoming a mom? 🙂

        Like

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