Concerns about “The Message”

Members of my church recently asked what the best version of the Bible is. I discussed with them some excellent translations such as the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and Young’s Literal Translation (YLT). When they asked if there are any bad versions, I told them about some of the problems with the New World Translation (NWT), created by and for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But I decided to research the matter some more and put together a lesson on the 25 most common English Bible versions available today. During my study, one version caught my attention: The Message. No doubt most readers will be familiar with Eugene Peterson’s Bible paraphrase, The Message. It has become an incredibly popular work, even in conservative Christian circles. But the more I look into The Message, the more troubled I become by the license which Peterson has taken in his paraphrase.

Obviously a paraphrase and a literal (word-for-word) translation are different by definition. But even a paraphrase should reflect the meaning of the work it is paraphrasing. Sometimes, though, people can take so much license in putting something into their own words that the paraphrase obscures or contradicts the meaning of the original. I fear that this has happened with The Message.

Surveying The Message
The Message sounds so much different from other versions of the Bible, that I turned to some familiar passages to see how Peterson rendered them. Some of these passages shocked me. I compared these passages to the same passages in literal translations (KJV & YLT) and checked the questionable areas against the Greek.

Then I decided to compare these problems in The Message (MSG) to the same passages in the New World Translation (NWT). My thought is, if Christians reject the NWT over renderings that are questionable at best and heretical at worst, why do so many strongly endorse The Message if it contains the same renderings…or worse yet, errs where the NWT gets it right?

Research issues
I want to be clear about a few things. First, I am not a KJV-onlyist, and this review of The Message is not driven by a vendetta or bias against other translations.

Second, I did not cherry-pick these verses to support my comparison with the NWT. I compiled my original list of questionable passages in The Message before I thought about the NWT.

Third, I am not endorsing the NWT or trying to make the case that it is a safe translation.

Fourth, I am not accusing Peterson of being a heretic or of deliberately distorting the Bible. I know almost nothing about him. If I say that a passage sounds pantheistic, Pelagian, or anti-Trinitarian, I am speaking of the passage, and saying that it sounds that way to me; I am not accusing him of holding those views. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt about his intentions, but his intentions do not absolve us of the responsibility to closely examine his work.

Fifth, I understand that these passages represent but a small fraction of the text in The Message, and readily admit that I have not read the whole thing. I don’t claim that the whole paraphrase is filled with these errors (though it may be). My purpose in writing this is to encourage readers to carefully examine The Message and use it only with great caution. It is only a paraphrase (a questionable one), an interpretation, and you should not blindly accept Peterson’s interpretation of the Bible anymore than you should blindly accept mine or anyone else’s.

Finally, I am not a trouble-maker. I am not a contentious or confrontational person. I am not writing this to stir up trouble, but, as the title of this post indicates, out of concern: concern for the truth, and for others’ spiritual well-being. I hope that it will be taken in that spirit.

Passages

Matthew 5:14

  • “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” (KJV)
  • “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept.” (MSG)
  • “YOU are the light of the world. A city cannot be hid when situated upon a mountain.” (NWT)
  • “Ye are the light of the world, a city set upon a mount is not able to be hid […].” (YLT)

There is nothing in the text that says or implies the term “God-colors.” Peterson added that himself. Furthermore, the passage in context (see Matthew 5:13-16) teaches that we are to reflect God’s light to the world–not to illuminate the “God-colors” already present in the world as The Message indicates. This phrasing has a pantheistic ring to it, indicating that God is already present in everyone and everything. Even the NWT does not take this license with the text.

John 1:18

  • “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (KJV)
  • “No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.” (MSG)
  • “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is in the bosom [position] with the Father is the one that has explained him.” (NWT)
  • “God no one hath ever seen; the only begotten Son, who is on the bosom of the Father — he did declare.” (YLT)

Calling Jesus Christ a “one-of-a-kind God-expression,” The Message seems to question the deity of Christ and the Trinity of God in an Arian manner. He is no longer the only begotten Son, but merely a unique expression of God. This is a step further than even the NWT, which omits the word “Son,” but at least implies it through the use of “begotten.” Contrary to any rendering in The Message or the NWT, Jesus is not an expression of God, nor is He a separate god; He is the only begotten Son of the one true God!

John 3:16

  • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)
  • “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (MSG)
  • “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” (NWT)
  • “[F]or God did so love the world, that His Son — the only begotten — He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.” (YLT)

The Message gets it wrong three times in this verse. First, the beginning of John 3:16 does not indicate “how much” God loves the world, but in what way. The NWT misses this one as well. Granted, this error is relatively small compared to the others, but it is a misrepresentation of the text nonetheless.

Second, Jesus is not God’s “one and only Son.” The Greek word indicating that something is absolutely the only one of something is monos (as in John 17:3). Yet the Greek word here is monogenes, indicating that He was not merely the only Son of God, but that He was the only born Son of God. John 1:12 indicates that all those who receive Christ become the sons of God. All true believers are the adopted sons and daughters of God. Jesus is not the only one, just the only begotten one. The rendering in The Message contradicts our adoption by God. Surprisingly, while The Message misses the meaning of the text, the NWT gets it right.

Third, there are two potential renderings of the word apollymi: one is destruction, the other is death. Other passages give context to this passage by speaking of Hell, and punishment for the wicked. The souls of those who die without Christ enter Hell; they are not simply destroyed, and do not cease to exist. As those who produced the NWT are Annihilationists, (they do not believe in an eternal Hell) they render this word “destruction.” This rendering, and the related beliefs, are echoed in The Message as well.

John 10:30

  • “I and my Father are one.” (KJV)
  • “I and the Father are one heart and mind.” (MSG)
  • “I and the Father are one.” (NWT)
  • “I and the Father are one.” (YLT)

When Jesus claims that He and the Father are one, the statement is made without reservation. No qualification is given, such as, “one…in X, Y, or Z.” In the text He states that They are one…period. In the previous verses He is talking, not about their nature, but their work together. In verse 30, He says they are one. In verse 31, John narrates the Jews’ reaction to Jesus. There is no addition to the description of their unity, and no justification for adding the phrase “heart and mind.”

The Message states that the Father and Son are “one heart and mind.” The text says they are one. There is no qualification to that statement in the text, and no justification for adding one in The Message. Either the Father and Son are one, or the Son is not truly God. The fact is, they are not simply in agreement. They are one.

Romans 5:1-2

  • “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (KJV)
  • “By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.” (MSG)
  • “Therefore, now that we have been declared righteous as a result of faith, let us enjoy peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have gained our approach by faith into this undeserved kindness in which we now stand; and let us exult, based on hope of the glory of God.” (NWT)
  • “Having been declared righteous, then, by faith, we have peace toward God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have the access by the faith into this grace in which we have stood, and we boast on the hope of the glory of God.” (YLT)

This passage in The Message contradicts what is taught in earlier chapters of Romans: that no one, left to himself, desires or seeks God. We do not seek God first; He seeks us and we respond when He enables us. Christians can (and do) debate whether or not He enables everyone to respond, but the Bible is clear–in our natural state, on our own, we do not seek reconciliation with God. This rendering, present in The Message yet absent in the NWT, reflects the idea that man desires salvation and fellowship with God just as much as God desires to bestow them. These ideas are key components in the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

‘Scripture’ taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Passages cited as NWT taken from online New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures Copyright © 2006, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.