Should We Use Eugene Peterson’s The Message?

I recognize The Message for what it is, with all its strengths and weaknesses. This week's controversy has not changed that.

By Michael Brown Published on July 14, 2017

In the aftermath of Eugene Peterson’s controversial remarks about homosexuality, followed by his retraction, many have asked me if they should still use The Message. My answer remains the same today as it has always been: The Message is not a translation and should not be used as your primary Bible. However, as a very free paraphrase, it is sometimes powerful and brilliant while at other times it is seriously off target.

When The Message Gets it Right

We can get a glimpse of the strengths and weaknesses of The Message by looking at how Dr. Peterson treated a number of key verses dealing with homosexual practice. This is a useful place to start, given the controversy currently surrounding this popular, 84-year-old Christian author.

Let’s look at Leviticus 18:22, first in the ESV, a conservative evangelical translation, then in The Message. The ESV reads: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The Message reads: “Don’t have sex with a man as one does with a woman. That is abhorrent.”

Nothing is watered down here, and the paraphrase is close and fair. And the word “abhorrent” is as good a rendering of the Hebrew as is “abomination.”

Next, we’ll compare Romans 1:26-27. The ESV reads:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

The Message reads:

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. 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.

Dr. Peterson’s paraphrase here is vivid and powerful, with nothing watered down or weakened, describing the most debased aspects of homosexual practice in stark, clear terms. (For the record, Paul was not saying here that homosexual couples are incapable of love or that all homosexuals are sex fiends. He is emphasizing how these same-sex acts are flatly contrary to God’s design and also explaining how, historically, the human race was given over to idolatry and sin.)

When The Message Gets it Wrong

When it comes to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, The Message is not clear at all, but I don’t think it’s because Dr. Peterson was trying to water down the two Greek terms used for homosexual practice. Instead, he became way too cute with words in general, taking away from the clarity of the original and even introducing some foreign concepts. This displays The Message at its worst, and it’s another reminder as to why we should never use it as our primary Bible.

As translated in the ESV, Paul wrote, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

In The Message this becomes, “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, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.”

So, The Message does speak about those who “use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex,” but what in the world does that mean?

The Message is not a translation and should not be used as your primary Bible. However, as a very free paraphrase, it is sometimes powerful and brilliant while at other times it is seriously off target.

If you’re reading the ESV (or most other translations) and you’re sleeping with your girlfriend or committing adultery with your neighbor’s spouse or practicing homosexuality, Paul’s words will hit you between the eyes: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality … will inherit the kingdom of God.”

If you’re reading The Message, it will go right over your head: “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.” In fact, you might even turn to your partner as you read the verses together and say, “That doesn’t describe us! We love each other, and we’re not using or abusing each other.”

This, again, is a great weakness of The Message: It sometimes produces beautifully phrased lines at the expense of the truth of Scripture. And notice also the reference in The Message to those who “use and abuse the earth and everything in it.” When did Paul write this? He didn’t.

Use With Caution

Of course, I could cite hundreds of brilliant renderings in The Message, and sometimes, when preaching, I’ll cite one of them, since it powerfully drills home the point. I’ve even cited The Message in some of my academic, biblical commentary writing.

But, to repeat: It should never be used as your primary Bible, since it is not a translation of the Bible but rather a free paraphrase of the Bible. And whenever I see people carrying The Message into church services, I groan, since I assume that, for those people, it is their Bible.

Use it, then, in a supplemental way and, where it really nails things or clarifies things, learn from it. But use it with caution: It is, by design, a very free paraphrase.

In sum, my view today of The Message is the same as it has been for years, unchanged by the controversial events of this week. I appreciate the years of effort that were put into it, and I recognize it for what it is, with all its great strengths and great weaknesses.

For a fair assessment of Dr. Peterson’s comments and retraction this week, see Bill Muehlenberg’s article here.

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  • Mike

    … a little poison is not safe for the body; how much more the soul.

    Besides, why waste tine trying use some thing that misrepresents and eaters down God’s sacred word in a number of ways?

  • Gary

    Yes. Use it to start fires. That is all it is good for. If you want to read the Bible, read the King James Version.

    • Charles Burge

      Because that’s what Jesus and the apostles carried around with them, right?

      • Psimitar

        Actually, Jesus and the apostles carried around the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Old Testament of which Jesus quoted from it frequently. The King James (and pretty much any english translation) uses the Masoretic text that wasn’t put together until 2nd Century AD. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the New Testament since their actually wasn’t a New Testament back then. But, as the four Gospels were recorded and Paul’s and the other epistles were distributed, they, along with the LXX, were the Bible of the 1st century Christian.

        Now the King James Version without a doubt, has some translation problems, but we’ve had 400 years to figure them out so those problems are well documented. Much more so than more modern translations such as the NIV that used the more recent Alexandrian Codices and the Codex Sinaiticus which we are discovering were tampered with by the Gnostics.

      • Gary

        Jesus used the Old Testament, probably written in Hebrew.

  • Paul

    Michael, it is sad to see you’re actually part of the problem. Why on earth would you suggest Christians read it even in a supplemental way? Who is there to instruct them in real time when it is trash? Read Galatians 5:7-10, 2 Timothy 4: 3-4, Acts 20:28-30, 2 Peter 3:16-17, Titus 1:10-11; 2 Peter 2:1. It’s time for your own retraction.

    • Kevin Quillen

      “Who is there to instruct them in real time when it is trash?”
      Ever hear of the Holy Spirit? You might want to read Jer 31:31-34

      • Paul

        Yes, I’m well aware of Holy Spirit as was the apostle Paul. It is he who instructs us to turn away from false teachers and yet here Michael acknowledges the Message book contains falsehoods and persists in advising people to read it.

  • Bryan

    Dr. Brown, I have to ask how many of the people who follow you are asking the question about the Message in light of recent events? It does not take a genius to realize that the Message isn’t a translation so much as a supplement or complement to the original scriptures. It says as much in the Preface or Forward of the book!
    Dr. Brown is absolutely right in his analysis of the passages above and the book as a whole. It’s wonderful, especially when reading the Psalms, for additional word pictures or additional insight into scripture that we can miss in a strict English translation. This can be especially true where the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic doesn’t have a direct corollary in English.
    And when it’s off, the original scriptures are still the authority. You can always refer back to the NIV, ESV, NKJV, etc. to confirm that what’s coming from the Message is what’s actually in scripture.
    I feel like asking, what happened to well reasoned, responsible, critically thinking adults? Why is that we Christians act like the world when someone stumbles. If Mr. Peterson really believes homosexuality is ok, he needs to get himself straight with God. If he doesn’t, great! Let’s move on. There are plenty of other things worth more effort and he’s said he plans to refuse further public interviews. Why do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
    God has created man in his image, with his likeness which means with the ability to reason, create, infer, analyze, synthesize, and so on. To some He’s even given the ability to communicate that which they’ve reasoned, created, inferred, etc. to the rest of us so that the process can continue. If this weren’t the case, we would have very little reason to gather for corporate worship other than to hang out with people who believe the same things as us.
    Or take marriage itself for example. Isn’t it described as a mystery in scripture? Then by simply reading scripture once, can we understand it fully? Of course not! But we don’t just give up on understanding even if in this life we know we can never fully understand. The same thing applies to God himself as well.
    Mr. Peterson’s book is a helpful tool. Just like any tool, it has the power to help or hurt depending on the user. And in this case it’s not a perfect tool. But we use a tool to help us, not because it will fix the problem on it’s own.
    Like Professor Kirke says to Peter and Susan, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

    • Paul

      I feel like asking, what happened to following the scripture?

      Romans 16:17-18 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions
      and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away
      from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own
      appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the
      hearts of the unsuspecting. (NASB)

      or if you prefer ‘the Message’

      One final word
      of counsel, friends. Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and
      pieces of the teaching that you learned and then use them to make
      trouble. Give these people a wide berth. They have no intention of
      living for our Master Christ. They’re only in this for what they can get
      out of it, and aren’t above using pious sweet talk to dupe unsuspecting
      innocents.

  • Robert Hightower

    The Spirit of G_d guides you through His Word. Without that spirit all study is pointless. The Adversary knows the Word better than many of the Lord’s followers. Those in authority in Jesus day strangled, His Word, it for all it was worth. One must know the difference between interpretation and a translation.

  • Patmos

    Stay far away from Bibles that try to explain it for you, rather than just translate it. On top of that, get into the original languages if you can, because scripture simply doesn’t translate well into English in some cases. After time you should know the good news and what it is The Apostles were and are trying to tell everyone. In truth that message, the real message, isn’t that complicated or scholarly. Though it is Spirit inspired and thus imbued with power from on high. That power is what has kept it going all these years, and it’s what will keep it going through the end. For heaven and earth shall disappear, but God’s word will never disappear.

    • Kevin Quillen

      “For heaven and earth shall disappear,”
      A bit of irony here. Look at the word “elements” in 2 Pet 3:10 in reference to Heaven and Earth passing away. Error, or does not mean what is commonly thought? Same word Paul uses in Gal 4:3 and 9.

      • Patmos

        Not sure what you are getting at. The word in 2 Peter and Galatians means rudimentary parts, and can be applied to different things because it is a generic noun without any sort of specifics, though the Greeks used it to specify the actual elements.

        Which brings up another point, even Strong’s Concordance or other guides like it can be misleading if you focus too much on minute details. It’s why it’s good to remember the good news of Christ is a relatively simple. As Jesus said, “I thanks thee Lord of Heaven, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto infants.” He also said that without the humbleness of a child you cannot enter into the kingdom.

        It’s honestly probably my favorite part about the gospel, that is, the removal of the stress of having to know.

        Paul wrote that God’s ways are past finding out (Romans, if my memory serves me) and that the love of Christ (his love for you) passeth knowledge (Ephesians 3).

        • Kevin Quillen

          I referenced Gal 4 because it certainly makes the point that it was the “law” that was burning up, i.e. being destroyed by Christ coming. Also, “heaven and earth” refers to covenant and people. The law ended and the Jews and the old cov was replaced by the new cov and new people. Eph 2:14-16. One race, no more Jew and Gentile. New Heaven was new cov, new earth was new people.

          • Patmos

            Neither Galatians 4 nor 2 Peter makes any reference to the law being burned up. The law never ended. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets, not replace, and Paul said we are grafted in. Jesus was and is a Jew.

            Sounds to me like you’re a victim of replacement theology.

          • Kevin Quillen

            If heaven and earth have not yet burned up then we are indeed still under the law. Do you keep the law? All of it? What does “fulfill” mean. Does it not mean to bring to an end? If we fulfill the terms of a contract made between us, is the contract still in force? No! The contract’s obligations have been met and it is null and void. Such is the Law. Jesus replaced the Law with a new covenant. Intent over action, love your neighbor as yourself. Do you keep the Sabbath? What day is it? Paul said in Romans 14 that there is liberty. One man esteems one day, one man another. Let each one be persuaded in his own mind. Was this option available under the Law? I do not like the term “replacement theology” but I do believe that there is no longer any Jewish nation relationally to God. God divorced them and married another. The Jews have to be saved just like you and me. There is only one race–Eph 2:14-16. We(believers) are the New Jerusalem, the city of God. Living stones and pillars in the Temple not made with hands.
            We are in the eternal state now.

            Peace brother,
            Kevin

          • Patmos

            You are ignoring a boatload of scripture. Paul goes over it extensively, more than any. His stature as a Pharisee is my guess as to why God chose him, so that the church would not turn grace into license (which many did anyways).

            I don’t know what else to tell you. Keep reading I guess. Maybe one day you’ll see that law and grace can and do coexist. Truth be told, his law was his grace.

          • Kevin Quillen

            just out of curiosity; does the “rebirth” of Israel have any significance for today?

          • Jim Walker

            From my simpleton knowledge of the Bible, my understanding is Jesus is not here to abolish the law but to fulfill it, by giving us the Holy Spirit in which the gifts of the spirit, that is, Love Joy Peace Patience Kindness Goodness Faithfulness Gentleness Self-control. When Christians have these gifts and practice them freely, there is no need for law to govern us. The law will still exist for non-believers, of which is corrupted and will lead to death.

  • Matt

    I despise the Message as much as any serious bible student, but I also
    dislike the NIV. A much more accurate translation, but it was just in
    the right place at the right time in becoming the contemporary
    mainstream standard. I have enough humility to acknowledge that the NIV
    has and still does speak to many people, but for modern, easy-to-read
    translations, I have come to prefer the Good News translation by large,
    which is severely underrated. Since then, I cannot go back to the NIV’s
    rather wooden flow. Good News manages to be an excellent easy, modern
    translation that also does not take the amount of liberties as The
    Message. For literal, I prefer the ESV or even the NRSV, but the Holman
    Christian Standard bible has a lot of the same merits as the NRSV in
    terms of bibles that try to be balanced in all aspects. But, my primary
    bible right now is still the Good News.

    • Jim Walker

      NIV’s owner is Murdoch and he sells porn.
      The 1984 NIV version says Jesus to be the Capstone only to change to Cornerstone in later versions.
      It has few missing bible verses and some translations issues with this verse that to me makes NIV as good as wood for my fireplace.
      Isaiah 14:12 – NIV says Satan is the morning star, KJV says Lucifer.
      Unfortunately most modern churches uses NIV.

      • Psimitar

        I’ll go one step further, Jim. The New Testament part of the NIV is based on the greek to english translation of the Codex Sinaiticus which were discovered in Alexandria in the mid 19th century. They became the “preferred” text because they were known to be older than the Textus Receptus (which the KJV used as it’s base for the NT). The Sinaitic Codex were leaned upon heavily by Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort (who were heretics in their own right). Westcott & Hort are well know as the fathers of the modern Bible. But we are discovering that the Codex Sinaiticus was tampered with by the Gnostic sect that had relocated to Alexandria after being run out of Judea and Asia Minor.

        • Bob Johnson

          So to sum up, the oldest copies of the New Testament, the inerrant Word of God, contained Gnostics ideas. Later, editors of the gospels had the better, orthodox understanding and freely modified the text. Today we should use these edited versions of the New Testament as the inspired Word of God.

          • Psimitar

            Not at all, Bob. Prior to 1846, the main basis for any English translations of the New Testament was the Textus Receptus. This was the manuscript that the King James Version was based on. Then, in 1846, one Constantin Von Tischendorf discovered the Codex Sinaiticus at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sinai, Egypt. This codex was believed to be older than the Textus Receptus manuscripts and therefore became a more popular source and was leaned upon heavily when Westcott & Hort published their translation of the New Testament from the Greek. As a result of this, many modern translations including the NIV used the Westcott-Hort translations instead of older translations. Unfortunately, it has recently been discovered that the Sinaitic texts were corrupted by the Gnostic sects. Therefore, my statement was in defense of Jim Walker’s earlier post regarding the spurious statements regarding the NIV. However, my reasons for preferring the KJV as more authoritative than more modern translations such as the NIV (I would never treat an annotated work such as “The Message” as authoritative) are completely different.

          • Bob Johnson

            Still what you are saying is that the oldest known copies were “corrupted,”meaning that the second century AD Gnostic theology did not win the battle to become orthodox. The Church of Rome won and then in the third century AD edited the text to reflex the winning (current) theology.

            It would then follow that the oldest know texts are not the inspired word of God. God’s Word resides in the winning side

      • Paul

        Get ahold of a concordance and look up Isaiah 14:12…. either translation works from heylel

  • jmacgirvin

    What it shows me is that he can paraphrase the word of God without putting his own ideas into it. I would disagree with his personal thought but yet read the message.

  • Paul1234

    Mr. Brown,

    In one paragraph you say that you cite the “Message” in your preaching, and that you use it in your academic, biblical commentary writing.

    In the next paragraph, you say that whenever you see people carrying the “Message” into church services, you groan.

    Does the term, “Get a clue”, mean anything to you ??

  • Len Hummel

    Beware of paraphrase bibles and those that diminish the Deity of Christ.(!)
    There are even “bibles” out there that try to down-play GOD’s condemnation of sin and homosexual relations and practices!

  • Paul1234

    Can someone explain this to me ?? Rom. 15:13 (in the Message) – “May the God of green hope fill you up with joy.”

    Can someone please tell me what “green” hope is ?? Thanks.

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