Yesterday morning, Eugene Peterson—famed author and pastor—entered into his heavenly reward. In his honor, then, I think it reasonable to reflect on his pastoral heart as reflected in The Message.
The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.
The Story behind The Message
In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”
In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.
His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.
His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”
He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.
The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”
His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”
Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”
So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.
Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.
Thus began his work on The Message.
The Heart behind The Message
It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.
So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.
And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.
Source: “God’s Secretaries,” in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006), 121–36.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
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