Update (July 13, 2017, 3:30 p.m. EDT): In a retraction published by Christianity Today, Eugene Peterson affirms a biblical view of marriage.
“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, 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. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”
This week Eugene Peterson—pastor, translator of The Message, author of numerous books—revealed in an interview with Jonathan Merritt that he now embraces same-sex marriage and has abandoned the historic Christian sexual ethic. I can’t say that I am surprised. Peterson, after all, has remained in mainline Protestantism, fairly comfortably, even after the last embers of orthodoxy on marriage matters in these communions have burned out. Still, I cannot overstate just how disappointed I am, as one who writes this next to a shelf full of highlighted, book-flag-adorned works by Peterson.
As a matter of fact, just this week, I finished reading what I said to almost everyone around me that I believe is his finest book yet, a collection of edited sermons titled As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Word of God. In this volume, Peterson did what he does best—cast the Bible in terms of what he calls an “incarnational imagination,” a moral imagination awake to the literary meaning of the canon.
As I read the book, I would text various lines to a friend. I sent along where Peterson points out, for instance, that the Revelation to John has 404 verses in total with 518 references to earlier scriptures, but all in allusions or echoes, none in direct quotation. In fact, Peterson argues that the Revelation references every book, without exception, of the Old Testament canon. Could be (though I find it hard to find Ezra or Esther in there). “Here is a pastor who is absolutely immersed in Scripture and submits himself to it,” Peterson writes of John the Revelator. “He does not just repeat, regurgitate, or cite proof texts. He first assimilates Scripture, then lives and preaches the Scripture he had internalized.” I follow along with Peterson’s practice of reading a Psalm aloud, one assigned for each day of the week, as part of my devotions, after I heard him recommend it in a radio interview.
If we are not clear on what sin is, we cannot be clear on what God’s grace is.
And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?
This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.
What We Can Learn
So can we still learn from Eugene Peterson?
I probably wouldn’t now give his books to a brand-new believer, seeking to find a starting place in discipleship, for fear the new brother or sister might embrace the whole package—as some of us did with whomever it was that was influential in our early Christian lives, whether C. S. Lewis or J. I. Packer or John Stott or John Piper. That’s especially true, given our sexually confused culture where the definition of marriage is what’s used to tear away at a Christian anthropology. I wouldn’t now have him speak at my church or event—for the same reasons and for the fact I would never want to confuse anyone about the call to repentance.
Confusion here is a sin not just against God’s righteousness but also against God’s mercy. If we are not clear on what sin is, we cannot be clear on what God’s grace is. If something is not sin, it needs no forgiveness. Consciences know better, however we try to rationalize them away.
But that doesn’t mean we should throw away our Peterson (or Berry) books.
Peterson is wrong about a huge issue, with massive implications for the eternal lives of people and the witness of churches. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were wrong on the sin of human slavery. We never read anyone who is right on everything, except within the covers of our Bibles. Everything else we ought to read with a certain level of skepticism and discernment, including (maybe especially?) the things we write ourselves.
Sometimes even the big doctrinal errors of some of our teachers can, in God’s providence, teach us the very things those teachers once imparted to us.
I first heard the gospel with clarity from an evangelist who was later revealed to be an adulterer. Would I check out carefully anything else I ever heard that evangelist say? Yes. Would I have him preach for me, or send anyone else to his church? No. Was the gospel I heard from him any less than the power of God unto salvation, whatever his personal sin? Not at all.
I am not equating the situations; Peterson has lived a long life that is morally above reproach. I am saying we can learn from one who has been in grievous error at some point or other. We can sing the hymns of someone who turned out to be doctrinally heterodox (looking at you, “God of Grace, God of Glory”). But as we do, we must be honest about where such voices held fast to, and where they deviated from, the Word of God.
Sometimes even the big doctrinal errors of our teachers can, in God’s providence, teach us the very things those teachers once imparted to us. Peterson has warned for years about the kind of preaching that appeals to the consumer instincts of a crowd, rather than to what Karl Barth called the “strange new world of the Bible.” And now, Peterson—like so many others—tells us he’s changed his views, not because of some new insight from Scripture but because he’s met people who reject an historic Christian sexual ethic, and they are good people.
There is much I’ve learned from Peterson, and much I am sure I will learn in the future. But one of those things is this: if a wise man who has translated and written commentaries on the prophets, on Romans, on Revelation, can make that sort of turn, with that little revelatory authority behind him, then I could easily talk myself into some error too (1 Cor. 10:12).
Eugene Peterson is a wise, gentle Christian. He may well rethink this, and I hope he does. Christian teachers have made errors before—sometimes massive ones (think of the Simon Peter of Galatians 2). The church still stands. The Message marches on, whether The Message does or not.