Eugene Peterson and the Imitation of Culture

I read an article by Jonathan Merritt, who happens to be controversial in his own right concerning moral issues, but he wrote an article on the bestselling author Eugene Peterson changing his mind about gay marriage.

In the article, Merritt quotes Eugene Peterson saying, “I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” He goes on to say, “It’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” As far as performing same-sex weddings, he says, absolutely, “Yes,” that would be something that he would do.

Now, when I read this article, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Changed his mind? Are you kidding me?” More than twenty years ago, he published The Message (MSG). It has been a cottage industry within the evangelical Christian community. In that paraphrase of the Bible — I’ve said this many times over the years on the Bible Answer Man broadcast — Peterson attempts to squeeze the New Testament into the mode of today’s politically correct culture. In other words, instead of being a change agent, being an initiator, we become politically correct and imitators.

As cultural imitators, of course, we cannot correct or rebuke, for that would not be politically correct. We should not argue with anyone in the family of God who thinks hell is a myth. Think Peterson’s endorsement of Rob Bell and the book Love Wins, which denounces hell as little more than a fantasy or a myth.

Cultural imitators, above all, do not mention homosexuality. Better yet, they take it out of the biblical text, which is precisely what Peterson does in 1 Corinthians 6:9, where he refrains from mentioning homosexuality, as opposed to the Greek text. Here is how Peterson puts it: “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex” (1 Cor. 6:9 MSG). Obviously, someone who is in the gay lifestyle, someone who is a homosexual, would not have a problem with Peterson’s text in the least in that they do not consider sodomy an abuse of sex. In their view, homosexuality is simply an alternative lifestyle.

As significantly, I think we should ask, “On what basis does Peterson have the temerity to replace a sin not mentioned in the biblical text ‘use and abuse the earth’”? (1 Cor. 6:9 MSG). That is gratuitously inserted into the text as a substitute for homosexuality. So, he replaces one sin with what he considers to be I guess a greater sin.

I find it strange that so many people are making a big deal out of this now. I find it ironic. Sixteen million copies later. Long ago, Peterson showed his colors and despite the fact that he has tampered with the text in a substantial way, the Message, continues to be popularized and glorified in the Christian world.

There are many examples of problems with the Message I can give. It is not just— as egregious as the example I just gave — it is not just that. Think about what he does with the Lord’s Prayer. Here is how Peterson renders it in the Message: “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.”

The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer, and every word of that prayer has incredible significance. For example, did you notice in Peterson’s version, there is no “Hallowed be thy name”? When we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” it is an incredibly important part and petition of the prayer. It is to put emphasis on God first, exactly where the emphasis belongs. Our daily lives ought to radiate far greater commitment to God’s nature and holiness than to our own needs; therefore, to pray “Hallowed be thy name” is tantamount to praying that God be given the unique reverence that His holiness demands. That His Word be preached without corruption or without alteration. That our churches be led by faithful pastors who do not perform same-sex marriages because now that is the politically correct thing to do. That our churches be preserved from false prophets. That we would be kept from language that profanes the name of God. That our thought lives remain holy. That we cease from seeking honor for ourselves and seek instead that God’s name be glorified.

I loved what Augustine said about this, it is memorable: “And this is prayed for, not as if the name of God were not holy already, but that it may be held holy by men.” In other words, that God may so become known to them, that they shall reckon nothing more holy, and which they are more afraid of offending” (Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, 2.5.19). The glorious truth of this petition is that while we were once impotent to hallow His name, God has hallowed us through the sacrifice of the very one who taught us these words. Once His light shining into our darkness would have been terrifying, but thank God, for like Isaiah, He has touched our lips with a burning coal, and whispers through our pain, Your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.

I know what I am saying is not popular, probably not even with my audience. The politically correct thing is to laude a paraphrase of the Bible that has sold sixteen million copies. It is a cottage industry in the evangelical Christian world. But, I think these things ought to be said, and the reason they ought to be said is when we start to take God’s words and alter them not only in a slight way but in a dramatic way, we become our own pope. We start to pontificate to people what we think is right in an ever-changing culture. In other words, we want to keep up with the size and scope of the latest lobby group, and truth is, therefore, is in a constant state of flux. Politically correct or not, I feel that these things need to be said. I would be remiss with my platform, which is not a platform seeking popularity or to be politically correct, I would be remiss with this platform if I did not mention that, after reading an article like the one I just read.

I think it is homophobic in the extreme not to tell people the truth about the principles and precepts of Christ, about the teachings of the Bible in their unadulterated clarity. That is not the way to treat other people. It is not the way to love other people. It is not the way to be kind to people. My doctor has told me the truth about my condition. Had she not told me the truth about my condition, I would not be taking the chemotherapy that I am taking now. The drugs that I am taking now. She told me the truth because she wanted to cure.

A lot of people will ask the question, and I think gratuitously in some cases, “Well, do you not think homosexuals are going to heaven?” That is a misplaced question. It is asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether a homosexual is going to go to heaven, it is a matter of whether or not a homosexual or a heterosexual or any person on the planet wants to follow Light — The Light of creation, the Light of Christ, the Light of conscious — and as they do, they will learn more and more about the King of kings and Lord of lords, and the parameters He sets around our lives and learn that He does so not because He is a cosmic killjoy but He does so that our joy might be complete.

Imagine now the person in a lifestyle that robs them of joy, encountering the text in an adulterated fashion. You have to ask, “Does that help or hurt?” It is sort of like if my doctor gave me a therapy that was not really a therapy for my particular disease. Again, the point is this: as we learn more and more about the principles and precepts of Christ, of our Father who is in heaven, we follow them. But, it is hard to follow them, when there are now all kinds of people who are pontificating different messages. That is the problem when you have a cottage industry that proliferates this stuff and when you have just about anybody being able to hang up a shingle today and then — think about the temerity of this — taking the text of Scripture and altering it in light of Deuteronomy 4:2, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you” (NIV84). If that is not enough, Proverbs 30:6, “Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (NIV84). Or Revelation 22:18–19, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (NIV84). These are sobering words.

Dr. Adolph Saphir says this about the Lord’s Prayer, or what I call the Prayer of Jesus:

It is a model prayer and, as such, commends itself to the most superficial glance — approves itself at once to the conscience of man. It is beautiful and symmetrical, like the most finished work of art. The words are plain and unadorned, yet majestic; and so transparent and appropriate that, once fixed in the memory, no other expressions ever mix themselves up with them; the thought of substituting other words never enters the mind. Grave and solemn are the petitions, yet the serenity and tranquil confidence, the peace and joy which they breathe, prove attractive to every heart.
The Prayer is short, that it may be quickly learned, easily remembered, and frequently used; but it contains all things pertaining to life and godliness. In its simplicity, it seems adapted purposely for the weakness of the inexperienced and ignorant, and yet none can say that he is familiar with the heights and depths which it reveals, and with the treasures of wisdom it contains. It is calm, and suited to the even tenor of our daily life, and yet in times of trouble and conflict the church has felt its value and power more especially, has discovered anew that it anticipates every difficulty and danger, that it solves every problem, and comforts the disciples of Christ in every tribulation of the world.
It is the beloved and revered friend of our childhood, and it grows with our growth, a never-failing counselor and companion amid all the changing scenes of life. And as in our lifetime we must confess ourselves, with Luther, to be only learning the high and deep lessons of those petitions, so it will take eternity to give them their answer.

It is the model prayer, and Jesus made every word count. Words of the prayer He taught us to pray are treasures of incalculable value lying deep beneath the cobalt waters of a vast ocean. Like the siren call of the mermaids, His words beckon those snorkeling with burnt backs in shallow tide pools to dawn scuba gear to descend into the prayer’s glorious depths there await unfathomed resources and riches that can scarcely be described to those living on the surface. While the prayer of Jesus is not a prayer mantra, it is a prayer manner, as such it has been eloquently described and used by the church throughout its history. This is precisely why it is for me a very serious matter to tamper with the Word of God.

Someone brought to my attention the fact that Christianity Today produced an article entitled, “Actually, Eugene Peterson Does Not Support Same-Sex Marriage,” with the subtitle, “In retraction, popular author affirms ‘a biblical view of everything’ — including marriage.” If he indeed retracts what he said, that would be wonderful. Retracts what he said twenty years ago in the Message. Retracts his tampering of the text in 1 Corinthians 6, starting with verse 9. Retracts his version of the model prayer or the elimination of “Hallowed be thy name.”

What Peterson said according to this article is that he was asked “a hypothetical question: if I were pastoring today and if a gay couple were Christians of good faith and if they asked me to perform their wedding ceremony — if, if, if. Pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in hypotheticals….And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use.” The article notes that Peterson “went on to state, because of the biblical view of marriage, he would not marry a same-sex couple.” So, he said “yes” because “no” is not a word that he would typically use.

“When put on the spot by this particular interviewer,” says Peterson, “I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor.” Good for him. “They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.” I hope he does not mean the Communion table. This is a popular view now within evangelicalism, that regardless of a sin, a perpetual sin, a sin that is a clear violation of the principles and precepts of the King of kings and Lord of lords, you serve them Communion. “Gay or straight, there is no hate here” I think is the manta typically used for the occasion.

There is a further point to be made here. (I do not know if the article goes into this, I only scanned it; I do not think it does.) Peterson’s retraction, his ambiguity as it were about the words “yes” and “no” is not the salient point to begin with. What he said, he said within a context. In the Merritt interview, Peterson said, “I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” On the one hand, he is saying he is affirming the orthodox position, the historic position of the church, on the other hand, he is saying that he thinks that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. He goes on to say in context, “People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” It was not just the ambiguity of substituting a word that he typically does not use, the word “no,” with the word “yes”; there is a full-orbed explanation that precedes it.

Now, I do not want to cast dispersions on anyone when Peterson outright says in retraction that he now affirms the biblical view of everything. The problem here is this: what is the biblical view of everything that he is talking about? Because when I read his version of the Bible, it is not just the things that I have mentioned, it is many other things that he has said as well in terms of changing the biblical text to his particular version.

Think about John 14:28 where he says, “the Father is the goal and purpose of my life.” Where the Greek says, translated into common English, “the Father is greater than I.” Or, John 3:5, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit;” well, Peterson’s version says, “Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life — it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.” Or Matthew 5, I can go on and on about this, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect;” Peterson changes to “Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” These are substantive changes. I understand this is not a translation but a paraphrase; yet, you still have to stay within the range of meaning that is being elucidated by the Spirit of God, you cannot add your own suppositions to the biblical text, “use and abuse the earth” as he does in 1 Corinthians 6, and you cannot eliminate.

I think it is critical that this issue is raised. If Eugene Peterson is confused, I do not know. Certainly, I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but this is not a small issue; this is an issue on the front burner of civilization.

— Hank Hanegraaff

This blog is adapted from the July 13, 2017, Bible Answer Man broadcast.

2 Responses to Eugene Peterson and the Imitation of Culture

  1. Carolyn Barnett says:

    Thank you for this Hank! I gave my sister a copy of The Message believing it to be a trustworthy interpretation. The wife of one of the pastors at our church quoted from it regularly. I didn’t do the research on it and wish I had. I rely on CRI for guidance in these matters and praise God for leading me to you!

  2. Pastor Fred J. Bartell says:

    I feel sure that you are attending a Baptist, or a Baptist like church, A charismatic church also would not stand with a same sex marriage, a homosexual life style that continues on after the person is supposedly saved. To be saved, I believe one must turn away from that style of living. To learn for the WORD of GOD, and see in Romans chapter one, that it is wrong for men doing with men that which is unnatural. I do believe in giving to bless, and in doing so, you will be blessed, both spiritually, and financially. Please do not throw the baby out with the wash water. examine the WORD and ask GOD to give you understanding and discernment! With LOVE in CHRIST JESUS, Pastor Fred J. Bartell

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