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 i