Man with a Message
Eugene H. Peterson served as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Md., for 29 years and as professor at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, for six years. But he is best known for The Message, a contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events and ideas in everyday language. The paraphrase, completed in 2002, has been read by more than 10 million people in its various editions. Peterson, 71, recently chatted by phone from his Montana home with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
PE: How did you manage to translate the entire Bible in a little more than a decade?
PETERSON: I really spent 40 years doing this. I taught the biblical languages early on at seminary. Then I spent my life as a pastor. I was always thinking how to say, teach, preach or interpret Scripture in the language of the people with whom I lived. I was a new church developer and many of the people were new converts. They knew nothing about the faith. They didn’t know who Moses was. They only heard the name Jesus in the locker room. They had never read the Bible and weren’t interested in learning it. I started on the Psalms to help my people learn how to pray. I translated the way they sounded to me in Hebrew — rough, raw — to try to get people to understand that praying wasn’t being nice before God, but being honest with their anger, their doubt, their praise. Then I did it more deliberately with the Book of Galatians, which I preached for a year.
PE: I understand you were reluctant to do more.
PETERSON: A NavPress editor had pasted the pages together that I had done for my church and said, “How about doing the whole New Testament?” It took me two years just to do Galatians! But I decided to retire after nearly 30 years and just write. It took me 18 months to do the rest of the New Testament, and another nine years to do the Old Testament. But by that time I was a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, so I couldn’t work on it all the time.
PE: Did you expect such favorable reviews and the huge sales response?
PETERSON: No, I thought NavPress was just silly. When I finished the New Testament I was really tired, but the response was so positive they asked me to do the Old Testament. It took six months of prayer and conversation with my wife, Jan, for me to agree to do it, but I finally realized this was meant to be my work.
PE: Your background as a professor of biblical languages and a pastor certainly helped. But how did being a butcher’s son facilitate writing an everyday language paraphrase?
PETERSON: I worked in my father’s butcher’s shop and slaughterhouse growing up in Montana. I wasn’t the only one who learned how to translate there. When Martin Luther was translating the Bible he was determined to get into the life of the people. One time he spent a whole day at a butcher’s shop just watching the butcher. He wanted to get a good feel for what was going on in Leviticus.
PE: You want The Message to be more than a good read.
PETERSON: One of the recurring elements I hear is from people who say they just didn’t think they could read the Bible before. But the whole point is to change lives.
PE: You don’t believe Christians should segregate their spiritual life from their secular life.
PETERSON: There is no secular life. We don’t live in two worlds. The most important thing as a pastor was for me to convince people that everything in the Bible can be lived from the inside out. What I tried to articulate in The Message is that Scripture isn’t just something we think; it’s a way of life.
PE: Even though some learned pastors read The Message from the pulpit, you don’t recommend it.
PETERSON: I really don’t. I’m a traditionalist. In the worship service there needs to be a familiarity and continuity.
PE: Some question whether passages in The Message are too vernacular. Do you think the book will be as relevant in 50 years?
PETERSON: I’d be happy if it lasted another 20. Translation has to be done constantly.
PE: What are you working on now?
PETERSON: I’m writing a five-book series on Christian spirituality in which I’m trying to ground everything in Scripture with a Trinitarian structure. So much of Christian spirituality has nothing to do with Scripture; it’s experiential. But it must be lived out of revelation, not emotion.
PE: What did pastoring a church for almost 30 years teach you?
The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language
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PETERSON: I started out being a professor. I didn’t know how to be a pastor — and here I was starting this new church. I realized there was no way I could be a pastor except in a small place. I had to know the people — their names, their lives. I was deliberate in staying small. Pastors of large churches can do wonderful things, but they can’t be pastors. To get people to live the things in the Bible you don’t just say it from the pulpit. You have to live with them and know their lives.
PE: You have Pentecostal roots.
PETERSON: My mother was an Assemblies of God pastor virtually all of her life. She was in that early generation when women could do anything and she was ordained at 45. The first thing I ever had published was in the Pentecostal Evangel [April 29, 1956]. The title was “Incurably Pentecostal.”
PE: Is that still your view?
PETERSON: In essentials. I really haven’t changed at all.
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