Eugene Peterson and the Post-Christian Left *UPDATED

Update:

About 24 hours after the Peterson headline hit the fan, he issued a retraction through an interview with Christianity Today. I’m going to leave the original article up (below), while offering a few more unfiltered thoughts on these recent developments.

1) I stand by my general assessment of Peterson’s writings below, and I think the entire issue should continue to inspire urgency in Christians to never assume orthodoxy and remain accountable to precision in handling the Scriptures.

2) Confirmed: the post-Christian left is fishing. As I said yesterday, getting a guy with Peterson’s credentials was a major victory that they are now decrying.

3) Confirmed: Peterson is nothing if not sincere. He’s also 84 years old, and has recently stopped speaking and writing for public consumption. He turns 85 later this year. When you read the original interview and the retraction interview in CT, you get the feel that he was setup a bit in this. His sincerity and pastoral sensitivity led him to say some things that didn’t read well—when he read them in print. Some could argue that the potential hit to his books sales motivated the retraction. I doubt that, having read a lot of Peterson over the years. I’m doubtful he’s thinking about book sales at 84 years old, with the track record he has. I think he’s thinking about another account for which he will answer in the coming days. I don’t think it is a stretch to surmise that a number of close friends within Peterson’s echelon of the Christian world also reached out to him over this—thus his quick retraction.

4) The post-Christian left lives for this stuff. The retraction will likely be blamed on the patriarchy, the establishment, or Peterson losing his will to fight for their agenda.

5) I’m grateful for Peterson’s humility in this. I think Preston Sprinkle nailed this issue when he wrote:

“As I reflect on this whole fiasco—not so much the interview, but the ways in which it was hyped up by both the right and the left—it’s clear that we have much to improve on in how we go about the LGBT+ conversation. I’m all for dialogue. I’m all for friendly debate. I’m all for rigorous, thoughtful discussion. I’m all for combing through and weighing arguments on both sides, listening to people, trying hard to see things from the “other side”—whichever side that might be—and letting sound reasoning rule the day. But using a precious man of God well into retirement who’s given his life in serving millions of people around the globe as a pawn in a rhetorical power play—whether we make him into our latest hero or our latest villain—does nothing to advance this dialogue. At best, it’s irresponsible. At worst, it’s unloving.”

Headline: Message Bible Author Eugene Peterson: “Homosexuality not wrong.”

I’d love to spend some real time on this subject at this point, since it is fresh. But a myriad of factors, including an office remodel that has my library strewn throughout 5 different rooms, won’t allow me to put forward a fuller response to the recent developments regarding Eugene Peterson.

I own many of his books. I’ve read a handful of them. In a perfect world, I could pull them all off my EP shelf and peruse the highlights to gather quotes which would illustrate my points. Instead, I’m going to have to settle for a “sense” of what I’ve gathered from his teaching over the years, as I spell out the multiple reasons that I’m saddened, but not surprised, by his recent affirmation of the revisionist movement.

If you’re new to these dialogues, let me orient you to the key players. The revisionist movement is a tribe within what I call the “post-Christian left.” The goal of this tribe is to revise the historic teaching of the church (and the Bible) regarding sexual ethics. Homosexuality is the key flash point, though every area of sexual ethics is addressed in their teaching. Those within this camp refer to themselves as “affirming” rather than “revisionist,” in order to position their opponents (those who adhere to historic Christian doctrine) as “non-affirming.”

I call this group the “post-Christian left” because despite what they claim (that they are simply Christians who disagree on secondary issues), their embrace of the liberal theology purported in the West for about the last two centuries has changed their views on numerous core historic Christian doctrines. These include, but are not limited to, the authority and nature of the Scriptures, marriage, the nature of mankind, regeneration, sanctification, and the doctrine of Hell. Many Christians wring their hands over this group, because there are some really influential personalities who claim Christ and who are counted among their ranks. If you are one of those who stresses over how many Twitter followers this tribe has, just read Christian history and the New Testament. You will find out that every age of the church has included doctrinal battles. The call of the Scriptures remains the same.  Those faithful to Christ and the gospel are to contend for the faith, watch and guard doctrine closely, and pass on the truth to their kids. Jesus will build His church.

Those faithful to Christ and the gospel are to contend for the faith, watch and guard doctrine closely,… Click To Tweet

The poster boy for the post-Christian left is Rob Bell. The most influential book on homosexuality from this tribe is God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. Some of the other key voices in this crew include Rachel Held-Evans, Sarah Bessey (author of Jesus Feminist), Jonathan Merritt (writer for Religion News Service), Vicky Beeching, and Jen Hatmaker. I know there are some major voices from this tribe that I’m excluding, but these are just the ones that I’ve personally read and studied. What you find when you dive into the content created by the post-Christian left is that they are wonderfully creative people, but the leaders of their tribe are bloggers, artists, and journalists, not pastors, scholars, or theologians. They don’t need to be led by theologians or scholars, because they don’t take their cue from exegeting Scripture, but from exegeting culture. They merge cultural fluency with biblical illiteracy.

This is why the recent development regarding Eugene Peterson is a big deal for this tribe. Peterson undoubtedly represents the most accomplished and widely read member of their ranks.

Here are my (unfiltered and initial) thoughts on the Peterson developments:

1) The post-Christian left is fishing for converts. The Peterson get, like that of Jen Hatmaker last October, was reeled in by Jonathan Merritt in an interview for RNS. Don’t be alarmed when other well-known authors, artists, or ‘pastors’ respond to Merritt’s stock questions on sexual ethics with “brave answers” that win them the approval of almost everyone everywhere.

2) When you settle for a loose understanding of the supposed “essence” of Scripture, rather than a detailed and precise reading of the text itself, you lose your bearings. This has been one of my critiques of Peterson over the years. I’m not a ‘hater’ of The Message or anything like that. It’s a cool idea, but it’s a paraphrase of the text, not a faithful biblical translation.

3) Churches, pastors, and Christians who settle for a paraphrased Bible and paraphrased preaching will pass on a paraphrased faith to their kids. Research evangelicalism in the West over the last 70 years, and you’ll find that when we began to replace the defense of historic Christian doctrine and the authority of the Scriptures for a false sense of unity with anyone who claimed the title “Christian,” we began to lose our soul. One of the key marks of evangelicalism in our day is theological vacuity. There is a lot of squishy space and shallow sentimentality in our ranks. For pastors and preachers who are grieved by the Peterson sellout, there are appropriate times to lament. This is a lamentable moment from a guy who should know better. But after a prayer of lament, let this development inspire you to develop a biblical precision in your reading, preaching, praying, and serving.

Christians who settle for a paraphrased Bible and paraphrased preaching will pass on a paraphrased faith… Click To Tweet4) The popular Christian market stinks. The historic faith once for all delivered to the saints doesn’t sell well. Yet the Christian market is booming. People are singing, writing, speaking, leading, and blogging their way to solid cash-money. This market will continue to pump out whatever sells. More than ever, true Christians need to be watchful, careful, and prayerful about what content we give platform to within our ranks (meaning, our families and churches).

5) Sincere people can miss it. Peterson is nothing if not sincere. But he has missed it badly here.

6) Selling out doesn’t happen in a moment. As I said above, I’d love to quote lines from Peterson’s books that I have read which have made me wonder over the years. He is an amazing mind and I have been impacted by some of his writings, but the major critique in my mind has always been settling for a ‘supposed biblical sense’ rather than ‘sound biblical precision’ as the basis for his theology.

7) I need to continue to grow and lead within a community that holds one another accountable under the authority of the Scriptures. We can never assume orthodoxy. We should keep our Bibles and solid, sound teachers close.

We can never assume orthodoxy. We should keep our Bibles and solid, sound teachers close. Click To TweetOn the sexual ethics issue, here are some great biblically faithful resources and thinkers who have responded to the revisionists with clarity and compassion:

Sam Allberry Is God Anti-Gay?

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?

Rosaria Butterfield The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Tim Keller in his review of Matthew Vine’s book. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]