Eugene Peterson beyond The Message - poet, pastor, prophet

Eugene Peterson(Photo: Creative Commons)

The man behind one of the modern Church's most urgent voices passed away last October, Eugene Peterson. When most people hear this name, their minds will no doubt spring to The Message Bible translation, probably the work for which he will be most remembered. Certainly it is the single piece which took him the longest to complete.

The Message is a masterpiece of translation – although it has not been without its (sometimes fair) share of contention. Many complain that The Message is not actually a translation but a paraphrase; that it is too loose with its phrasing and not close enough to the original biblical texts (and by close, read "literal") to be considered valid.

Such complaints probably have an element of truth about them. Peterson is not perfect, and he inevitably gets some things wrong in his interpretation and translation.

But in spite of this, The Message resoundingly achieves what it set out to accomplish. It was never meant to be a drab exercise in formalism. Scholarly accurate? Yes. But jilted in literalism? Not at all. Peterson's work with The Message unshackled the translated words of Scripture and opened them up for a contemporary audience.

A lot of people don't like this. They will say that it is messing with Scripture and not paying it the respect it deserves. This is not a wrong thing to say. Scripture does deserve our utmost respect. It is the Word of God which addresses, directs, and speaks to us, and woe to anyone who would dare alter and abuse it.

Sadly, there are many who do take and mangle the holy words of Scripture. But in my view, Eugene Peterson is not one of them and here's why.

The overwhelming majority of Scripture in the original languages is not comprised of eloquent prose or complex linguistic combinations. It was written to be heard. It is simple and down-to-earth. The New Testament, for example, was written in Koine Greek – "common Greek." It was Greek that everyone from lord to leper could speak, so rather appropriately, it carried the good news of God far and wide. After all, why should anyone miss out on this most incredible message?

Times have obviously changed. Most of us tend not to speak Koine Greek, nor do we trade in quite the same metaphors and images as the Ancient Israelites. Lots of Scripture, then, even if (and sometimes especially if) we translate it as literally as possible, can fly straight over our "culturally enlightened" heads.

Recognising this, The Message sought to offer the Word of God in ways that we could recognise and engage with – just as Scripture had been before. In this way, it does not in my view disparage Scripture but stays faithful to it, saving us from religious pomposity and inaccessible eloquence, and ensures that the Word of God is as it was always meant to be: for everyone.

Yet Eugene Peterson is so much more than just The Message. (It isn't even his book!)

Sitting at the 'Contemplative Pastor' conference recently, I was surrounded by countless others who also recognised this. The conference itself was held in loving memory of Eugene, intending to celebrate his life and work, and continue to convey some of his core messages.

Although The Message may be his most remembered work, the real legacy that Peterson leaves behind is as poet, pastor, and prophet.


Peterson was a master of language. Words bent tenderly to his masterful design as he gently crafted sentence after strophe that carried more force than a whole armoury of nuclear weapons.

His writing is easy. It flows freely and is firmly grounded in reality. Peterson's imagination was rich and flamboyant, letting him tell a story like nobody's business as he flung metaphors through every page and painted thousands of pictures with single words.

Peterson led by example in his insistence that words are important and we should handle them with care. They are the means by which God makes Himself known to us, and the way we reciprocally make ourselves known to Him and others.

Reading Peterson, we are provoked to acknowledge God's word to us and invited to partake in His concrete divine reality, with language as the hallowed ground where God's world and ours collide.


Before his retirement, Peterson served faithfully as a pastor for around 30 years. He had much to say about this pastoral vocation – perhaps the most important being that to be a pastor is to teach people to pray, and to speak God in every situation.

In this way, Peterson has extended spiritual direction to countless millions who have read any one book from his capacious 35-part collection.

From his classics such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places to his lesser-known works like Reversed Thunder or The Wisdom of Each Other, Peterson offers a challenging but sagely voice which is profoundly counter-cultural, urging us to pay attention to God in prayer, Scripture, and creation.


If Peterson was a pastor, then he was also a pastor's pastor. Among his works are several seminal and striking pieces on the pastoral vocation, discussing how pastors may pastor - and pastor well.

You might be surprised, but here we find Peterson at his most scathing. His tone is angry and impatient as he addresses the state of contemporary church leadership.

Like prophets of old, he implores the Church to return to loving God for God's sake. Peterson sought to stymie the effects of "shop-keeping" ministry that runs the church like a business and corrodes its health and vitality.

Repeatedly Peterson calls pastors away from modern, commercial fads and sends them instead back to the heart of the pastoral vocation: attendance to God.

His treatment of pastoral ministry flies abrasively in the face of our contemporary models, radically urging ministers to declutter their schedules and re-prioritise God.

Peterson gives pastors licence to pray again. He reaffirms their pre-eminent calling to contemplation: to seek God in Scripture, prayer, and others, and to conduct their ministry out of the wellspring of life with God, not simply "for" God.

Congregants everywhere should be glad, and pastors of every ilk should take note. A gleaming outward appearance is no match for a cultivated, Christlike inner life; not least when it comes to pastoral ministry. Peterson knew this, and he spent his entire life so passionately advocating it.

Eugene Peterson as poet, pastor, and prophet is encapsulated well by his work with The Message. But he was so much more than this. His influence and voice pervade through the kaleidoscope of contemporary Christianity, exhorting us to nurture a life of faith that is prayerful, grounded, and pays attention to God.

We still have so much to learn and Eugene is an excellent teacher. His exhortation was matched by a bold ministry, and for this we should be very grateful.

Archie Catchpole is a student at London School of Theology.