Reflecting on the Kerfuffle Surrounding Eugene Peterson

It began a few days ago with an email from one of our professors, alerting some of us to Eugene Peterson’s recent interview with Jonathan Merritt. In it, Peterson was asked about his views regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage. When Peterson responded that he would have no problem performing a same-sex wedding, it sent shock waves throughout the Christian community. As Al Mohler put it, Peterson’s response “blew up the Evangelical world like a signal flare.” Shock, disappointment, confusion were the bywords on various posts. Others referred to this moment as the latest defection from biblical authority. The largest Christian bookstore chain said it was considering removing Peterson’s books from its shelves. Some bloggers were merciless. Peterson’s convictions regarding the authority of Scripture were questioned, and at least one wondered about his faith.

Like others, I am grateful Peterson later clarified his statements. He retracted his words and confirmed that he holds to the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman. Unfortunately, this created its own controversy and condemnation. Some have accused Peterson of flipping and flopping, not out of biblical conviction, but out of market motivations. Perusing the opinions in the Washington Post, shortly after his retraction, I was amazed at the cynicism and contempt.

“Ah, the ever elusive XI Commandment: Follow the Money.” “No fool like an old fool.” “Sounds like he prayed to his bank account.”

Here’s my response to this. “Ah, the ever mindless social media, those who are quick to judge, and haven’t a clue what they are talking about.” I believe the writer of Internet Monk may have said it best: “The silly kerfuffle that occurred last week says more about the state of social media and the relentless evangelical rumors/opinion mill than about Pastor Peterson.”

We do have this propensity, given our internet culture, to immediately pounce. We tend to condemn a person as guilty until proven innocent.

Given the deep influence Peterson and his writings have had on my life and ministry, some might say I am being overly generous. Maybe, but I don’t think so. I have read nearly every book Peterson has written. I am working my way through his latest book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, and it is as penetrating as all of the rest. I spent a brief time last summer with him on Flathead Lake, and presented a paper on his pastoral theology at ETS last Fall.

So here’s what I know. Peterson has the deepest regard for biblical authority. Some may not know this, but Peterson could have chosen to become an academic. He did graduate work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, sitting under W.F. Albright. Here, he was taught the practice of thinking, imagining, formulating, and testing for truth. For a brief time, Peterson considered a Ph.D. and a career in Semitics. But he chose to be a pastor, and he took those same disciplines into his pastoring and writing.

I’m not sure I know of another person who is so widely read. You read his books and you realize he has drunk deeply from the well of the likes of Gregory and Bernard, Luther and Calvin. He has been influenced by men like George Buttrick, Harry Fosdick, Karl Barth (the “epitome of a pastoral theologian”), John Henry Newman, Alexander Whyte, and Baron Friedrich von Hugel—and pastoral theologies such as Martin Thornton’s Pastoral Theology: Reorientation (the “sanest pastoral theologian” in the 20th century). All embodied pastoral imagination and contemplation, and all have contributed to the profound breadth you find when you read Peterson.

In Peterson’s responses, I hear him trying to navigate through it all, living in a different age where one’s sexual orientation has become such a dominant subject.

From my first introduction to Peterson (Working the Angles), he has impressed me as a contemporary prophet. In most of his works, he writes with a fierce vigilance. He constantly advocates for a “theologically authorized” church that is free from the world’s allure, a church that unashamedly stands for the gospel. He has written out of a conviction that most pastors have lost their way, hammering out a vocational identity from models given to them from the principalities and powers.

This does not sound like someone who would capitulate to what is popular. If anyone questions his commitment to Scripture, he/she hasn’t read Eat This Book.

Much of his depth also comes from his practice of Sabbath keeping. There is a deep devotion to the work of ministry, the authority of word, and love for God that solitude and prayer and contemplative exegesis has created during his walks. More than once his writings have brought me back to center, especially when I was tempted to commit “ecclesiastical pornography” and run after another more alluring church. Given my love for leadership, there are times Peterson’s words guarded me from capitulating and treating the pastorate as if one is a CEO.

In all of his years as a pastor, Peterson refused to take his cues from the corporate world, reducing ministry to business plans, vision statements, and strategic initiatives—skills for running a church and growing the size of a church. He determined that his parish would be a location for spirituality—not a place to further his advancement. Whatever leadership is required, he would not become a “branch manager in a religious warehouse outlet.”

Does this sound like someone who would be driven by money and self-interest?

In the role of pastor, one must always be guided by truth. But in this fallen world, in which all of us face our own flaws, we must do our best to extend kindness and the love of God. We haven’t had a good record of doing this towards those of different sexual orientations. It is not to condone homosexual behavior or compromise convictions regarding God’s designs for marriage. In Peterson’s responses, I hear him trying to navigate through it all, living in a different age where one’s sexual orientation has become such a dominant subject.

We do have this propensity, given our internet culture, to immediately pounce. We tend to condemn a person as guilty until proven innocent. In this spiritual war we are in, too many in the ministry and the church are casualties as the result of “friendly fire.” Who of us hasn’t misspoke? I know I have, and I am sure I will, especially when I am in my mid-80’s. I can only hope for the grace that will first say—“Maybe I misunderstood. Given his scholarship, personal disciplines, and the life he has lived, maybe I should begin by being generous.”

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

One thought on “Reflecting on the Kerfuffle Surrounding Eugene Peterson

  1. Thank you. I am so weary of the evangelical rush to judgement and the unkindness that is displayed so often via social media. It really is no wonder that people increasingly want nothing to do with Christianity.

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