What About The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language?

The NEW Friday feature of the Worldly Saints blog is an opportunity for blogging about anything. Unlike the other days of prescribed themes, this day is for blogging about an issue that I couldn’t fit anywhere else or couldn’t wait until next week to write.

 

“What do you think about The Message?” That was a question recently asked of me and it’s not the 1st time I have been asked about using that book for your own edification or even as your primary Bible “translation?”

A Brief History of It’s Compilation

Eugene Peterson is the “author” of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (first published in 1993). Along with being an author, Peterson has served as a Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Colombia and the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.

Peterson’s explanation for why he created The Message – “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly, When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked. I began with the New Testament in the Greek — a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.

It’s “Translation Theory”

The MessageThere is no “translation theory”, per se, because The Message is not a translation. It’s really not even a paraphrase of the original languages. It is simply – as stated above – Peterson re-writing what he sees in contemporary language and following no rules of translation that all other major translations (e.g., NIV, KJV, NKJV, ESV, NAS) use.

It would be like me reading John 3:16 and then writing it this way – “God loved the world. He showed us His love with Jesus, who is His one and only Son. And if there is anyone out there that wants to believe in Him, you can do so. If you do, you won’t go to hell; you will go to heaven.”

Now, nothing I wrote is wrong, but to suggest that any Christian should read 66 books of that style and call it the Bible is ridiculous.

When you read The Message, there are no traditional numbered verses, which reflects Peterson’s theory of how he composed The Message. This allows for leaving our words or phrases he deemed irrelevant to a modern culture. Thus, as come claim, The Message reads more like a novel than a Bible.

Sample Verses from The Message

  • Matthew 6:9-13 – “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!” There are statements here Jesus never made and the holiness of God’s name is omitted.
  • John 14:28 – “The Father is the goal and purpose of my life.” That is a foggy distortion of the unity between the Father and the Son.
  • Romans 15:13 – “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” Uh, I don’t know where to start. Who is the God of green hope anyway?
  • Galatians 5:19-21 – “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 religions; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved…. ugly parodies of community. I could go on.” So nothing is actually sinful? That’s what the original text says – these are acts of the sinful nature, not a life that is pursing pleasure.
  • I Peter 3:1, 7 – “The same goes for you wives: Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs … The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals.” The feminists must love this paraphrase! Who needs to submit?

I suppose I could more and just simply give a running commentary on every “verse,” but you get the point.

The Good

#1 – It’s fun to read. But read it like a novel – kind of like one of those kids’ books you read that summarizes the story of the O.T.

#2 – Peterson’s motivation seems good. He wants to help more people – Christian and non-Christian understand the Bible. He has seen the apathy that we all see for God’s Word and he wants to do something about it.

The Bad

#1 – It is impossible to cross-reference using The Message. Because the traditional verses are not referenced, you can never use it as a Bible-study tool for cross-referencing and it is even difficult to compare it with other translations.

#2 – When one author, in this case Peterson, decided what needs to be written down, the authorial intent is easily lost. It can become “Peterson’s Bible” and not God’s Bible. Peterson writes what he thinks it should say, regardless of how distant the meaning really is. By his own admission he told Christianity Today – “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 ten minutes. And all of a sudden I realized this could work.” I am not sure admitting playfulness when translation the most important Sermon preached is very helpful.

#3 – There are distortions, additions, and deletions in The Message. The Bible forbids such things (Deut 4:2; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:19). I will grant a difference of interpretation on some matters but when God Himself is deleted from the text that is a significant deletion and causes the entirety of The Message to fall under suspect.

#4 – His whole “translation theory” suggests that the Bible cannot transform lives as God intended it to be communicated. Every other translation misses things from time-to-time, but even that is pretty rare. When entire meanings or deletions are made, you don’t have a Bible any longer. God intended His Word to be preserved, not re-written.

A Final Word

No, I would not use or nor would I counsel anyone to use The Message as their primary diet of Bible consumption. I would not encourage a new believer to start reading the Bible by reading The Message. I would not encourage a church member to bring their copy of The Message to church to use while they are listening to a preacher. And I would not refer to it as a translation.

At best, it is Peterson’s paraphrase, that he gets right and helpfully illustrates at times, but mostly misses and runs the risk of dishonoring God more often than not by his twisting of Scripture and letting his own thinking influence it’s meaning. Reading The Message is reading a commentary or paraphrase and calling that God’s Word.

For more on Peterson’s view of his philosophy of Bible translation, you can read Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.

 

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