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A Charge to Keep I Have

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Written by Basil on 09/12/2003 1:14 AM. Filed under:

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Recently, the subject of scripture translations came up, and someone I know mentioned a version for which I have very little respect: The Message by Eugene Peterson. Although in that same conversation an Orthodox friend defended the Reformers’ removing of books from the Bible when it didn’t agree with their novel opinions — an outrageously unorthodox opinion in itself — that has not consumed me in the intervening weeks. Rather, it is articulating what bothers me about Peterson’s version that has gnawed at me.

In the prefatory material of his Bible, Peterson explains that he does not wish to replace serious Bible study. He only wants to make the Bible readable. I sympathize, of course, with the desire to make the Bible readable. In fact, there is a great tradition of saints who desired the same — Jerome, Cyril, Methodius — plus a host of others who have not been glorified — Erasmus, Wycliffe, Tyndale, the translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version). Many of these suffered for their desire to make the Scriptures readable for their people. It is especially sad that their suffering was at the hands of other Christians and that it became — out of sinful pride in both the Romans and the Reformers — an occasion for further schism and fragmentation.

However, translators of the Scriptures have always tread a fine line between translating and paraphrasing. It is especially important to be mindful of this distinction when dealing with passages which have a direct theological bearing on the everyday life of the Christian reader.

Compare, for example, two passages with a direct bearing on the life of the Christian, John 6.51-58 and 2 Peter 1.4. I will quote first from a fairly literal translation, the NASB:

“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
“For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.
“As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.
“This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (Jn 6.51-58 NASB)

Compare that with this, the same passage from the The Message:

“I am the Bread—living Bread!-who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”

At this, the Jews started fighting among themselves: “How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?”

But Jesus didn’t give an inch. “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always.” (Jn 6.51-58 MSG)

You can see that the paraphrasing in this crucial passage skews it toward a Reformed understanding of its content. Look at the first verse. Instead of “This bread is my flesh,” (NIV, NLT) Peterson tells us that what Christ really said was, “This bread is my self.” While it is indeed true that we do partake of the entirety of Christ in the eucharist, softening the passage like this removes the stumbling block of offense for Protestants. Then, the offending phrase is fully weakened by making it a kind of English idiom, “…my flesh-and-blood self.” When the Jews argue among themselves and say, “How can this man serve up his flesh to eat?” it is we, the modern readers, who are confused: We have no idea why they should get mad. There’s nothing left to be angry about. And, by opening this way, the clear language of the rest of the passage has been reframed as a metaphor. When the disciples leave over this “hard saying” which is not so hard anymore, we almost expect to see Jesus say, “You weren’t listening. I wasn’t really talking about my flesh, I was talking about my self, this flesh-and-blood self. See? Are we cool now?”

Now, let’s look at another passage that has vast implications for the life of Joe Sixpack: 2 Peter 1.4. We start again by looking at the NASB:

For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2Pt 1.4 NASB)

And again, Mr Peterson:

We were also given absolutely terrific promises to pass on to you—your tickets to participation in the life of God after you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust. (2Pt 1.4 MSG)

It must be admitted at the outset that this is a difficult passage to translate. There is some dispute about how the clauses interact. However, no translation save Peterson’s paraphrase exchanges the technical term “nature” (physeos/φυσεως) for some other word that the translator fancies more. Perhaps because this word is stained with blood. The Church, through martyrs and saints, fought to defend the reality for which this word stands. Perhaps because it was so central to the universal Church gathered together in a little town called Chalcedon, where the doctrine of the Incarnation was saved from oblivion at the hands of heretics.

The Church has ever prized understanding in her members. But the Word of God is expressed in precise, theological words over which our spiritual fathers have fought and bled, receiving tortures, being mamed, and even tasting death. In making it easier to understand, do not under such a pretense thereby whitewash over the bloodstains on our doorposts. Wake up! The Word of God is not your private property! It belongs to the whole people of God, from every moment up until this very hour — and it includes our children and our children’s children, until the end of time. As a colaborer with God, you hold in your hands a sacred treasure; you must take care to guard it.

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23 Responses to “A Charge to Keep I Have”

  1. James Says:

    Wow, The Message is a scary book.

  2. Christopher Jones Says:

    Spot-on, Basil. I very much agree with – and am very impressed with – this post. I’ve tried to address this in the past on my weblog, but not as well.

    I hope you don’t mind that I have linked to this outstanding post from my weblog.

  3. Chris J. Davis Says:

    You wouldn’t be referring to me would you? I don’t recall defending the removal of material from the Holy Scriptures… but I was there for a conversation that involved this topic.

  4. Karl Thienes Says:

    Excellent post! … About 3-4 years ago, I was given The Message as a gift: I had it recycled.

  5. Joshua Coolman Says:

    hey man, wow, outstanding, and excellent have already been taken, so I’ll just say -good word. Very good word.

  6. sockmonk Says:

    Very well said. I think this is why the religious articles on Wikipedia make me so upset. I think I’m about to give up the fight over there so I have time for other things, like trying to find peace in my own heart.

  7. alana Says:

    They used to make us read The Message in Seminary-yech!

  8. Mr. Hibbity Gibbity Says:

    First of all, I’m not going to really comment, because as Chris Davis can attest to, I wrote a response yesterday, one that he heard and we discussed, but it was lost before I was able to post it.

    Initially, in response to your comments, I’ll use your own words: “Wake up! The Word of God is not your private property! It belongs to the whole people of God, from every moment up until this very hour — and it includes our children and our childrenÂ’s children, until the end of time. As a colaborer with God, you hold in your hands a sacred treasure; you must take care to guard it.”

    At the same time, I feel that you’ve grossly misrepresented Mr. Peterson by selecting only those sections from his introduction which substanciate your claims.

    However, since these are only the comments and not the actual post, I too will refrain from posting the entire introduction, but will offer up a better context in which to judge the text which Basil used as examples.

    “A striking feature in all this writing is that it was done in the street language of the day, the idiom of the playground and marketplace. In the Greek-speaking world of that day, there were two levels of language: formal and informal. Formal language was used to write philosophy and history, government decrees and epic poetry. If someone were to sit down and consciously write for posterity, it would of course be written in this formal language with its learned vocabulary and precise diction. But if the writing was routine – shopping lists, family letters, bills and receipts – it was written in the common, informal idiom of everyday speech, street language.
    And this is the language used throughout the New Testament. Some people are taken aback by this, supposing that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be elevated – stately and ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus – his perference for down-to-earth stories and easy association with common people – gets rid of that supposition. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping he might approve when he sees how hard we try.”

    Further on he writes,

    “This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the Message current and fresh and understandable in the same lanuage in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak.
    In the midst of doing this work, I realized that this is exactly what I have been doing all my vocational life. For thirty-five years as a pastor I stood at the border between two languages, biblical Greek and everyday English, acting as a translator, providing the right phrases, getting the right words so that the men and women to whom I was pastor could find their way around and get along in this world where God has spoken so decisively and clearly in Jesus.”

    So to paraphrase Mr. Peterson, Christ used the common tongue. The first letters, which were later compiled into what we know as the New Testament, were also written in the common tongue.

    Throughout history, when the current form/translation of the scriptures has reached a point where they are no longer accessible by the common man, or as you so colorfully put it, ‘Joe Six Pack’, there is a ‘revolution’ of sorts that, once again, makes them accessible.

    Or perhaps, what it truly does, is that the scriptures are once again made accessible to a world that so badly needs them – while the rest of the ‘church’ argues and bickers over nonsensical issues – and no, we’re not going to have a discussion over what is nonsensical and what is not.

    So that’s fine if you read a different translation of the Bible. If that’s what gets you closer to God, then fine. But to dismiss ‘The Message’ without recognizing that God could, can and does work through it, is wrong.

    My bet is that your Bible further separates you and your church from the rest of the world – the same world that we’re called to witness to.

    So since we can’t seem to fulfill that simple calling, ‘The Message’ attempts to make it easier for ‘Mr. Six Pack’ to find it on his own.

  9. basil Says:

    The problem is that the Bible was written for and by the “household of God, which is the Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1Tm 3.15) The whole point is that it does not exist as an object in and of itself. Although the Holy Spirit does use it out of the blue in extraordinary circumstances to lead people to the Church, it is in the community of the Church that it finds its only true context.

    The Message ignores a great deal of Church teaching with regard to the meaning of the Bible. These two passages are merely two examples. Of course, this also comes down to whether people can ignore the teaching of Christ as it has been passed down to us from the Apostles. That’s the real issue.

    Has the people of God continued to teach Christ’s word? Does the Church have the authority of Jesus Christ? That’s the real question. If so, is it possible to have a dozen contradictory versions of the truth within the Church? Or was Christ right when he promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against her?

  10. basil Says:

    Oh, and how do you know whether “my bible” serves to further divide modern people from the Church? My personal favorite translation, The New Jerusalem Bible, is unfortunately not available online. It is perhaps one of the most readable of any translation, and I have always preferred it above all others for liturgical use. It is both eloquent and understandable, rendering both the beauty of God and the immediacy of the original text.

    And, no random interpolations of non-scriptural phrases by the translators. Always a plus.

  11. Mr. Hibbity Gibbity Says:

    And who deemed you worthy of judging what can and cannot be used by God?

    Seems to me that you have a limited view of God’s power.

    And if, as you say, the gate’s of hell shall not prevail against it . . . why not ‘let time be the judge’ and see if it’s truly God-inspired or just another work of man?

    “It is perhaps one of the most readable of any translation, and I have always preferred it above all others for liturgical use.”

    Readable to who? Oh, that’s right, you.

    Once again, since I’ve been told time and time again, that I’m attempting to inadequately judge Orthodoxy based upon my Protestant upbringing, I would have to say the same for you.

    Granted, you converted to Orthodoxy from a Protestant background, but regardless, you’re attempting to fit a square peg ‘The Message’ into a round hole ‘Orthodoxy, or in this case the Bible of your choosing’, so to speak.

    So please, devalue ‘The Message’ all you want. It doesn’t matter, because you’re still doing it from the stance of Orthodoxy.

    And again, I’ve been told that you can’t do that, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

    And I’ll stop with the analogies and metaphors, because . . . I just don’t have any more . . . well . . . sure . . . oil and water, ying and yang, Abbott and Costello . . .

  12. pete Says:

    This all reminds me so much of a discussion on a fundamentalist web page regarding the King James Bible, except that (so far) nobody has claimed that the apostles used the KJV.

    The Jerusalem Bible is as well-rendered a translation as any, but it has many of the same limitations of other translations, such as the NIV or the KJV: it was translated at a particular time in history (in this case 1956-1966) and is thereby bound to be inadequate (as all translations inherently are) and dependent on idioms at use during that time. If you’re going to say that one particular version of the Scriptures is best, the only sure way to do so is to say that the Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic texts are the best. Anything else is necessarily inadequate. The problem, of course, is that this tends to shut down the argument (oh no, we can’t have that) because nobody learns Greek and Hebrew anymore.

    This discussion seems to be degenerating into yet another argument about whether the Orthodox church is the only true church, rather than a discussion of good translation of the Scripture. Does every issue have to become this? I’m not asking from a position of cynicism (yet) – I sincerely want to know whether it’s possible to have real dialogue (not just “I’m right, you’re wrong” “No, I’m right and YOU’RE wrong” ad nauseum) about other issues without reference to the Orthodox/”Heterodox” issue.

  13. Mr. Hibbity Gibbity Says:

    Oh, oh, oh! Look at that! A voice of reason!

    Thank you Pete. My thoughts exactly.

  14. basil Says:

    Pete, well said. Excellent points, all. I guess I should clarify: the NJB is my fave in most (English-speaking) situations. In fact, outside the US, it has the pride of place that the NRSV has here.

    I would add to what Peter said that faithful translations can add nuances that may not be entirely obvious in the original. Fr. Michael Oleksa, in discussing missiological concerns in Alaska, makes the excellent point that every culture has nuances to add to the symphony of the Christian faith.

    I have avoided putting any kind of sectarian terms onto this discussion. Note that the subject heading on this is “Christianity.” However, I will respond to both Pete and Mr. HG that there is not, as yet, an Orthodox English translation of the Scriptures. The Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible are both Roman Catholic translations, of course. I still hold a great deal of affinity with the Roman Catholic Church, as I do with the core of Anglicanism. I believe that English translations of the Scriptures can be faithful to the original without either being sectarian or embracing unwarranted interpolations.

  15. Karl Thienes Says:

    In re: to Pete’s last comment….all truth claims eventually come to their core: by what authority does one claim that [X] is true? In regards to Orthodox vs Heterodox discussions of ANYTHING, this issue must at some point touch on the Authority Issue. Otherwise we just shout Scripture verses, or philosophical syllogisms, or whatnot back and forth totally befuddled as to why the other person “just doesn’t get it.”

    From our POV, this is a waste of time. We might as well get to the real issue: How do you *know* that what you believe is true? Etc….Carry on….

  16. James Says:

    MHG, it’s reason only if you agree with it? The whole Church decides how to read the Bible, not individuals like Martin Luther or Eugene Peterson, or even Basil or myself.

  17. Mr. Hibbity Gibbity Says:

    James . . . I refer back to Karl’s post.

  18. Karl Thienes Says:

    Karl the Klueless asks: Which post of mine are you referring to?

  19. pete Says:

    I certainly agree that faithful translations can add nuances not entirely obvious in the original. And in spite of the issues you have with The Message (which in my opinion you are right to have), Eugene Peterson is attempting to do something very similar to what most if not all translators of Scripture do: Make the text more accessible to their audience. J.B. Philips, whose popular paraphrase of the New Testament was originally a series of addresses written to his London church during the blitzkreig of World War II, was doing this, and while he was not an expert in Greek, he was following his calling to care for his congregation as a pastor. Like Philips, prior to becoming a professor of theology, Peterson was first a pastor, and my suspicion is that his intention was similar: to make the Scriptures more accessible to the people under his care. In both cases, people have taken issue with the linguistic choices that were made, and in both cases they are probably right in many instances. But while criticizing these choices for theological correctness is appropriate, it would probably be wise to take a step back and consider the intent of the person doing the translation/paraphrasing.

    In spite of this, I am still concerned about the potential for theological inaccuracy that can arise. Take Augustine, for example: In defending baptism of infants (about which a coherent theology had not evolved prior to Augustine’s time, though the practice itself was widespread), Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin by arguing that all of humanity was actually, totally, and physically present “in Adam’s loins” at the time of the fall. (Medieval science being what it was, this seemed plausible at the time.) The problem arose primarily because Augustine was notoriously bad at Greek, and his primary Scripture translation was the Vulgate, which, while a beautiful expression of the Latin language, takes linguistic liberties much like the source of this entire discussion, the Message. All of which comes to the point I would like to emphasize: Translations, interesting and helpful though they may be, are never a substitute for the original texts.

    I’m not entirely certain I’m following you here. It seems to me that putting all of your theological eggs into the basket of correct ecclesiology is not ultimately a very helpful move, especially if shouting at each other is indeed “a waste of time.” It ends up making your position only marginally different from the KJV-only fundamentalist who ends every argument with “the Bible says so.” Is the opponent of that argument ultimately convinced? Of course not.

    So at what point is theological dialogue possible?

  20. Karl Thienes Says:


    I’ve answered your question in my Sept 19th blog post.…

  21. basil Says:

    It is disturbing to me how “being pastoral” is so often confused with something destructive and used as an excuse for pastors to give their people anything less than excellence, goodness, or truthfulness. Accepting people where they are is one thing; deliberately being fuzzy in theology, goodness or beauty is poor pastoral practice. Imagine a physician who deliberately distorts the instructions he gives to his patients because he believes they will not understand the instructions he should give them. When his patients do not get better, when they even die, we prosecute such a physician for negligence and take away his license. The same is true for physicians in the spiritual sphere, except the consequences for pastoral negligence are more severe.

  22. pete Says:

    You’re more of an evangelical than you think.

    I think that calling the Message and the theology expressed therein “destructive” is a bit of an overstatement. You might not like it, you might not agree with Peterson’s conclusions, and that is fine. You’re in good company, even in Protestant circles.

    But destructive? Spiritually negligent? I don’t know…That still seems a bit severe. Shall we paint St. Jerome with the same brush? Seems like the result isn’t that much different—while Jerome may or may not have been attempting to be pastoral, the ultimate result of his translation was in many ways just as theologically “destructive” as you’re describing the Message.

  23. basil Says:

    I was merely noting that “being pastoral” gets used as an excuse for a lot of sentimentality and a lot of lazy, fuzzy, or just plain bad theology. And I’m tired of it. It’s not pastoral; it’s dangerous.

    However, there are places in The Message where Peterson does stretch his license quite thin. I would think he’s on dangerous ground if he were merely homilizing; since we’re talking about Scripture, it seems that St. John’s warning at the end of the Apocalypse is worth remembering.

    And, yes, I take St. Jerome — or any saint, for that matter — to task where they have committed similar errors. It would appear that a great many problems in modern translations can be traced back to St. Jerome: That’s quite a weighty problem. Further, it is often noted that the Hieronomic mistranslation of Psalm 50(51) led directly to the Augustinian misconception of original sin — and see the damage that has wrought in the Christian West.

    Imagine if The Message catches on in the same way, despite Peterson’s disingenuous protestations. I imagine he will be called to account for both the curses and the blessings.

    We shall, after all, be called to account for every empty word we utter.