Is The Message A Dangerous Book?

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
-John 6:63


Confession: I used to be a big opponent of Bible paraphrases. I thought they were an attempt to attribute to God the words of man. If someone in a church service shared a verse from The Message, I’d look at my wife and roll my eyes. I’ve since repented of this foolish sentiment and recently started digging into Eugene Peterson’s The Message.” Before I get to my reasons for digging into it, I first wanted to address my younger, more paraphrase-critical self:

Is The Message too “loose” on its translation? While it is true the translator used a more “thought for thought” method of translating as opposed to the “word for word,” the main problem with this argument is that a good paraphrase generally makes known that it is not “Scripture” but simply one (or more) person’s attempts to contextualize Scripture in a specific time and place.

Usually those who criticize paraphrases using this argument have a wooden/literalistic understanding of Scripture. I understand and appreciate the sentiment that takes the inerrancy of Scripture very seriously (I wholeheartedly embrace this doctrine). The irony is that inerrancy has traditionally taught that the Scriptures are without error only in their original manuscripts. In other words, no inerrancy advocates (at least any worth their intellectual salt) teach that any English translation is totally free from error (KJV-onlyists need not apply. NOTE: I said “worth any intellectual salt”).

So yes, a paraphrase is not the most literal in interpretation, but Eugene Peterson is clear in stating his intent, he is not trying to rewrite the Bible to serve some liberal theological bent.

Why I’m Digging Into The Message

My preference is generally for the ESV. But let me be clear it’s just my preference, there are plenty of good translations. My allegiance comes more from familiarity and tradition (I’ve used it and memorized more verses in this translation than others) than anything else. I don’t tend to prefer paraphrases, but I recently got to a place in my walk with God that made me desire to read a paraphrase. These are the factors:

  1. Familiarity breeds contempt. Simply because I found my devotions and usage of the ESV to have become more routine than relational I wanted to switch things up. I felt I was using Scripture more out of duty than delight, and I wanted to change that, take a fresh look at God, so to speak. I’ve found The Message really helpful in that regard. I’m reading it beginning to end and so far have found some of the ways things are translated to be less than helpful. However, other things have been really helpful. I’m not taking Peterson’s attempt to contextualize Scripture as “Thus sayeth the Lord,” but it has been a helpful tool to reencounter God and his Word anew. I greatly appreciate how he returned the gospel story to a story by removing our post-reformation dependence on verses and chapters. In this way, I’ve found The Message life-giving.
  2. Eugene Peterson is a pastor’s pastor. The other thing I’m loving about The Message is the heart behind it. Peterson was trying to breathe fresh life into familiar stories for a congregation that knew them but didn’t live them. What pastor hasn’t related to that at times? I’ve recently spent some time with a few close friends of Peterson and the way they speak about him has piqued a keen interest in my own heart to learn from a man who spent decades walking alongside others in a slow, intentional way to point them to Jesus.
  3. Time and place are important. While studying the Bible it’s incredibly important that we understand the context (time and place) in which it is written. When doing devotions it’s still important, but less so. When we preach and pastor it’s then important to bridge the over 2000 year difference between our current context and the Bible’s. That was Peterson’s goal when he wrote The Message. Oddly enough, I live about three miles away from the church he was pastoring when he wrote it. I consider it a really wise pastoral choice to familiarize myself with the life work of a guy who spent much of his life pastoring in my neck of the woods. He sought to bridge the gap between the original world of the Bible and the world he (and I) live in by encountering God through his word and translating the general thought into a more contemporary context. We’re wise to find similar ways to do this. Mine is by simply reading his work.

What about you? What are your thoughts on paraphrases? Love them? Hate them? Leave me a note in the comments.


[Photo Credit: suzyhazelwood Flickr via Compfight cc]

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