The Importance of Being Right: Comments on Eugene Peterson’s The Message

By Rollin Grams July 18, 2017

rollin

Oscar Wilde’s hilarious play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ focuses our attention on a particular virtue.  But being earnest does not hold a candle to being right!  Being sincere counts for nothing if one is sincerely wrong.  This, in a word, captures the problem with Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  Personal perspectives on Scripture simply cannot replace careful Bible translation and interpretation any more than they should guide pastoral care based on the truth.

the message

Eugene Peterson has been in the news this past week about a flip-flop on his views on homosexuality, and then a simple wave of his hand at the issue—a major embarrassment for anyone in either pastoral ministry or theological education, let alone both.[1]  Yet his error goes deeper—even to altering the Scriptures themselves.  His opinion on homosexuality is actually not important to the Church, though his ramblings will, no doubt, injure some people’s faith.  An individual scholar’s opinions, though, are simply not relevant to the Church’s unchanging witness through the centuries to the truth or the authoritative teaching of Scripture on an issue.  Consider how Peterson’s Biblical paraphrase, The Message, handled key New Testament texts that deal with homosexuality.

Romans 1:26-27

The Message

  • Romans 1.26 Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either – women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men.  27 Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men – all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it – emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.

The New Revised Standard Version

  • Romans 1:26-27 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,  27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Peterson’s rendering of the text obscures the issue of lesbianism in verse 26.  In verse 27, he focuses the problem on abuse and lust rather than the acts themselves.  Even the NRSV’s more literal translation is not as helpful as it might have been.  It translates ‘natural use’ with ‘natural intercourse.’  This is a decent translation, to be sure, but the word ‘use’ is actually an important part of Paul’s point, since he is talking about the use of sexual organs according to their natural purpose.  Whether or not we might believe that the NRSV needs improvement, Peterson’s paraphrase totally misses the point.

1 Corinthians 6:9

The Message

  • 1 Corinthians 6.9 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….

New Revised Standard Version

  • 1 Corinthians 6.9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites….

The two words that address homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6.9 are ‘malakoi’—‘soft men’—and ‘arsenokoitai’—‘men going to bed with men’.  The first word, ‘malakoi’, fits into a major discussion in ancient philosophy about people who lack self-control, particularly in sexual matters.  It was also further used in reference to men with a homosexual, feminine orientation.[2]  This is how Paul uses the word in a list of three sexual sins: adultery, soft men, and men having sex with men.

The second word appears to have been Paul’s own creation—a compound of the words ‘men’ and ‘bed’ (a euphemism for sex in Greek as in English).  The word essentially means ‘men bedders’ and focusses on the act of homosexual intercourse rather than, as malakoi, on the orientation and its consequences for a person’s whole disposition in life.  The correct translation of these words has escaped translators far too often, sadly.  The English Standard Version, for example, simply collapses the two terms into ‘men who practice homosexuality’.  The New Revised Standard Version limits ‘malakoi’ far too much.  It is possible to understand one example of ‘soft men’ as those men who receive sex from another man, and some of these people were male prostitutes.  Yet the word is far broader than this single category, and it could lead some people to think that the issue is really about prostitution when ‘prostitute’ is not in the Greek text at all!

The second term, ‘arsenokoitai,’ is translated as ‘sodomites’ in the New Revised Standard Version.  ‘Sodomites’ is a term for homosexuals with a lengthy history, since the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 sought to engage in homosexual sex with Lot’s visitors.  The problem with this translation in 1 Corinthians 6.9 is that it brings Genesis 19 into focus, whereas this is not the case.  Moreover, some interpreters of Genesis 19 have tried to understand the passage to mean anything but homosexuality!  While these alternative understandings are certainly wrong, use of ‘Sodomites’ in 1 Corinthians 6.9 could lead a reader who is familiar with these mistaken views on Genesis 19 to think Paul is talking about something other than homosexuality.  Again, he does not say ‘Sodomites’ but ‘men having sex with other men’ (with no distinction between those receiving or those giving the sex, as some interpreters have suggested for these two words in this passage).

These problems with translations pale, however, when one turns to The Message.  The rendering of the verse is completely botched.  The two words under discussion that capture aspects of homosexuality are totally obscured: the reader does not even know the subject of homosexuality is in view.

1 Timothy 1:10

The Message

  • 1 Timothy 1.10 sex, truth, whatever!

The New Revised Standard Version

  • 1 Timothy 1:10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching…

As with Peterson’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6.9, one is not aware in 1 Timothy 1.10 that Paul is presenting a sin list.  Persons needing to see that the early Church and New Testament authors opposed the slave trade will not see this in The Message’s paraphrase of the verse.  Nor will they see that this verse affirms what was said in the sin list of 1 Corinthians 1.9 about homosexual men going to bed with one another.  Paul uses the same complex word, arsenokoitai, as in 1 Corinthians 6.9.

Jude 7 

The Message

  • Jude 7 Sodom and Gomorrah, which went to sexual rack and ruin along with the surrounding cities that acted just like them, are another example. Burning and burning and never burning up, they serve still as a stock warning.

The New Revised Standard Version

  • Jude 7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

As with his handling of Romans 1.26-27, Peterson focuses on sexual excess in his rendering of Jude 7: ‘burning and burning’.  He catches the connection between Sodom and sexual immorality, but he misses the ‘unnatural lust’ picked up by the New Revised Standard Version.  The word ‘lust’ is not in the Greek, but the New Revised Standard Version does point the reader to the issue of the unnatural act of homosexuality by its translation of ‘other flesh’ in the Greek.[3]

Conclusion

Thus, we see a consistent re-interpretation of New Testament texts on homosexuality by Peterson in the New Testament.  The problem begins already with the choice to produce a paraphrase rather than encourage people to use a translation.  One of the most distressing things to see is a ‘seasoned’ Christian walking around with a paraphrase like The Message.  This suggests an ignorance of the difference between Bible translations and paraphrases.  The Message is not a Bible translation and should not be used for Bible reading or Bible study.  A paraphrase is closer to being a commentary.

Even so, Peterson’s handling of key New Testament texts on homosexuality suggest that his personal views come out in his paraphrase.  It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Peterson intended to undermine the meaning of the text in his paraphrase and, perhaps, thereby indicate his rejection of the text of Scripture.

[1] See, e.g., Jake Meador, ‘Eugene Peterson Shrugs: Why Theological Indifference is Worse Than Progressivism,’ Christianity Today (July 13, 2017); online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/july-web-only/eugene-peterson-shrugs.html?start=1 (accessed 18 July, 2017).  Meador’s article points out another aspect of the importance of being right.

[2] S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., 2016).  See ch. 15.

[3] To his credit, Peterson does capture the focus of the parallel text of Jude 7 in 2 Peter 2.  He does not opt to focus on sexual excess in this passage but renders verse 7’s reference to Sodom as ‘sexual filth and perversity’.  (The New Revised Standard Version has ‘the licentiousness of the lawless’.)

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