Stop Using the Message Bible to preach!
When reading the introduction to “The Message Bible”, we’re told that it’s essentially updating the bible into modern language. The author, Eugene Peterson, writes: “I decided to strive for the spirit of the original manuscripts—to express the rhythm of the voices, the flavor of the idiomatic expressions, the subtle connotations of meaning that are often lost in English translations.” And that “Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language.” He goes on to say that that he went straight into the Greek without looking at the English language, and rewrote it in a new fresh way, in the language “in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners.”
Though I have not been a fan of The Message Bible for several years, I usually don’t think about it much. This is mainly because I tend to see it for what it is- one man’s re-interpretation and re-imagining of the biblical texts. I think it’s fairly poetic, and interesting to read, and there are instances when it rightly re-configures certain biblical text with rich contemporary language, which add a new power and interest to an already great verse. These instances provide unique or different insights into the culture or language of the time, and for this reason I think there is something to be gained from it. And so I’m not one to say that someone shouldn’t read it, or that it’s some horrible subversive literature that by virtue of it’s exposition will drag souls to hell. Not at all. If you want to read it, then go right ahead. In fact, I would suggest that it may have some legitimate worth as devotional literature, and may be used that way.
That having been said, I have no tolerance whatsoever for the Message Bible being read from and being preached from and exegeted from the pulpit in church. I really, really, don’t like it, and decided long ago that I could not establish myself in a place where the Message Bible, or any other biblical paraphrase is lauded as scripture. It’s just a deal-breaker for me, and it has been for a while. Not because I have anything against a paraphrase, but because I came to church to have the Word of God taught to me and preached to me and unpacked for me, and The Message Bible is not it. Though by virtue of it’s marketing we’re led to believe that this is a legitimate bible, lending credence to the idea that Eugene Peterson has simply updated some of the expressions, thrown in some slang, re-shuffled some of the verbiage, and has for all intents and purposes been faithful to the scriptures.
But that’s often not the case at all. Sometimes he does that, and it’s really good. I’m not denying that he goes through passages and shines some light on them that can add some clarity, but more often than not he simply goes buck-wild with the texts and either waters them down, obscures them, deletes whole sentences, removes controversial subjects, clouds the plain meaning, adds whole sentences of extended personal commentary, or just re-writes them in a way he sees fit. And it’s for those demonstrable reasons that I can’t stand to have it taught, not only to someone like me who knows better, but to other people who may not. It’s not a bible, and it’s quite possibly the freest paraphrase on the market, easily surpassing the CBV, JPB and GNB [and much more so than an NLT, which at least manages to be a meaning driven bible]. But The Message is something altogether different, and I’d like to show a few examples.
1. Acts 19:2 [NASB], “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” is expanded to “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?” [TMB]. Where on earth does the text end and the commentary begin?
2. In John 14:2 [NASB] “…The Father is greater than I.” becomes “The Father is the goal and purpose of my life.” [TMB]
3. Matthew 6:9 [NASB] “Pray, then, in this way:’ Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.” becomes “Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right”
4. Colossians 2:10 [NASB] “…and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.” becomes “You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him…” [TMB]
5. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: [NASB] “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders [sodomites] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” becomes; “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. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start….” [TMB]
6. 1 Peter 3:1 [NASB] “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands…” becomes “The same goes for you wives: Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs… [TMB]
7. Psalm 51:10 [NASB]“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” becomes “God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.”[TMB]
8. Romans 9:27-28. [NASB] “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” becomes “Isaiah maintained this same emphasis: If each grain of sand on the seashore were numbered and the sum labeled “Chosen of God,” they’d be numbers still, not names; salvation comes by personal selection. God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name. Arithmetic is not his focus.” [TMB]
9. John 3:5. [NASB] “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” becomes “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.” [TMB]
Those are just a few examples of a radical re-working and rewording of the text, where things are added, things are deleted, and scriptural references are left all but unrecognizable. And so when a pastor or elder or even a layperson goes up there and starts to preach from a “Message Bible”, I know I’m not getting the word. I’m not hearing the power and sacredness and glory of the scriptures, and instead am getting one man’s interpretation of the scripture, which may be changing the meaning altogether. And I know that if I were to get up there and preach a message and tell the congregation, “Turn in your bible to Titus 2:6. Today, I’ll be reading from the New Germain Version [NGV]” and then proceed to read them my own interpretation, I would be crucified and should be rightly run off the stage.” And yet when reading the IEPB [International Eugene Peterson Bible], no one bats an eye.
You know, I’m not saying that the Message Bible cannot darken the doorsteps of a church or that it should not be read. I’ve already said- it’s all good. But when a pastor uses it to preach, it sends a message loud and clear- that they have a low view of scripture. That’s what it says. It shows that they’re not taking it seriously, because they’re teaching and training their flock from a disingenuous source. Any bible ought to strive to be as close to the original manuscripts as possible and be as literal as possible, not taking liberties to be esoteric and highly subjective. These pastors who have gone off the rail, they’re not “rightly dividing the word of truth” nor are they following the commandments of Paul to Timothy, “I charge you, in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, to preach the Word!” And I can’t help but believe that pastors should know better. You can’t wean your flock off of milk and on to meat with cotton candy. It’s just not good policy. And if you fear that your congregation may not understand certain verses or concepts or language, then it’s your job to parse it and teach it to them. It’s your job to unpack it and work through difficult and tricky verses, opening up the scriptures to them laying out the mysteries of God as they were meant to be understood. I want to hear what Jesus actually said, or as absolutely as close and as precisely as we can understand. We can argue about form-driven verses meaning driven all we want, but a paraphrase?! I don’t want his words left out. I don’t want his meanings altered. I don’t want extra personal commentary, and I certainly don’t want someone pretending that he isn’t doing that when he preaches from the Message Bible.