The past year has not been a gentle one for influential Christian leaders. Last summer, Muslim-turned-Christian apologist Nabeel Quereshi succumbed to stage IV stomach cancer at the young age of 34, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Just months later, famous theologian and teacher R.C. Sproul died of respiratory difficulties at the age of 78. And this past March, renowned evangelist Billy Graham passed away just months short of his 100th birthday.
Joining the ranks of these great cloud of witnesses last week was retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson, whose devotional writings made him a household name among evangelicals even years after retiring from the pulpit. Peterson passed away due to increasing dementia and heart complications, and he is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren, and his writings. Christian publications from Christianity Today to The Gospel Coalition took to the web to pay their tributes to the esteemed Christian writer.
A Biographical Sketch
Peterson was among those (like myself) that have been holding the ground among the “mainline” denominations by contending for historic Christian orthodoxy against the tide of secularism and postmodernism. Coming from a Pentecostal upbringing in his childhood years, Peterson would later find himself at home in the supposedly confessional tradition of the Presbyterian Church USA. But he had never planned to be a minister. He had earned a graduate degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University, and was pursuing a life in academia teaching at seminary, when his denomination approached him about planting a church in Bel Air, Maryland. Peterson was caught off guard. It seemed that God had other plans. As The New York Times puts it, “he took the plunge.”
In 1962, he and his wife planted Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, where he reportedly liked to be called “Pastor Pete”. Almost three decades later, he stepped down from the pulpit in 1991. He had spent his whole career ministering to the people of Bel Air. He returned to academia teaching theology at Regent College until retiring in earnest in 2006. It was only afterward in the early 2000’s (when he was well in his 70’s) that his books began to garner recognition from the wider evangelical community.
The New York Times, again, writes:
For most of his life Mr. Peterson was a small-town pastor and college professor who spread the Gospel with paperback books and with his sermons and ministrations to a few hundred parishioners.
Admittedly, my first few impressions of Peterson weren’t the greatest. As a zealous, young Christian firebrand passionate about God’s Word, I scoffed at The Message, not realizing that it was never meant to be a translation but a devotional paraphrase. Then last year, Peterson seemingly gave his approval for sexual unions outside of historic Christianity and orthodoxy before retracting and clarifying his statements.
I’m still not crazy about The Message. But I’ve warmed up to Peterson. And just in time to offer him a sincere and genuine tribute of my own. A closer look at Peterson will reveal a man whose deep, intimate love for God and for others led him to pursue a life of discipleship and obedience to Jesus Christ, his Savior. And as a pastor-in-training, I believe that there are many things that young, aspiring ministers like me can learn from his example.
Here are three.
1. Keep yourself immersed in Scripture
Say what you want to about The Message or any of his other writings, one thing is for sure: Peterson was immersed in the Scriptures. And not just in a cerebral way.
Though trained as an academic, Peterson knew that Scripture is not merely a tool for intellectual curiosity or an object of study. Rather, it is how the living God speaks to us and transforms our heart and soul over a lifetime. Peterson’s writings echoed the deep, heartfelt sentiments of our Savior when He said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), which itself is a quote from Scripture. Truly, the Bible was like daily bread for Peterson’s hungry soul. And he was not alone. In his wisdom, he found no one better to imitate in that regard than Christ Himself.
Fleming Rutledge, Episcopal priest, once quoted a radio preacher who said that if you want to know what was going in the mind of Jesus, read the Hebrew Scriptures. And it was Timothy Keller who once said that Jesus practically “bled Scripture”. Jesus knew the Old Testament like the back of His hand, and it showed throughout the Gospels and their accounts. Time and time again He would quote Scripture to His followers and would-be detractors. He lived and breathed Scripture. And it was Scripture that Jesus would turn to during His most painful, emotional, and agonizing moments of His human life here on Earth (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:46).
Similarly for Peterson, Scripture had become part of him. It had lodged itself into his heart and soul. It ran through his veins. His thoughts were flooded by Scripture. So much so that his lifetime was spent “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” And that is what Scripture enables the Christian to do: to think “God’s thoughts after Him”; to peer into the mind and the heart of our infinite, eternal God (1 Corinthians 2:1-16), because these are the very words of God.
For many young pastors or seminarians studying Scripture (myself included), it is easy to fall into the trap of treating Scripture as an intellectual exercise, especially for those of us cerebral and curious types. But as important as those things are, they are only a means to an end, and that “end” is to know God through His word so that we may be more like Him and transformed into His likeness.
This is particularly true for navigating life’s complexities, in which the Psalms can be particularly powerful as an avenue into a prayerful life. In 2016, Peterson was famously recorded in a short documentary film with U2’s Bono, where they discussed the power of the Psalms. Similarly, Pastor Tim Keller wrote a devotional book on the Psalms (“The Songs of Jesus“), calling it the “prayer book” of the Old Testament. And again, it was the Psalms that Jesus would quote during the agonizing moments of His crucifixion.
These men understood the importance of Scripture. Do you?
2. Be a shepherd to your local congregation where you serve.
In many ways, Peterson exemplified what a pastor should be. Not necessarily in homiletics Not as an orator or rhetorician. Not even as a preacher. But as a shepherd. In an age when people can listen to their favorite preachers anytime on their smartphone app, it’s easy to forget that the word “pastor” actually means “shepherd”–someone who actively cares for God’s flock as Peter was called to do in John 21. Many people are gifted preachers. But not all of them are called to be pastors.
Giving up a potentially lucrative career in academia, Peterson decided to role up his sleeves and get involved in the lives of his humble 200-member congregation for three decades. The New York Times quotes him saying, “…in the church, everything was going every which way all the time — dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator, but being in the game.”
It’s not uncommon these days for starry-eyed young preachers or seminarians to be wholly captivated by evangelicalism’s vast production of “celebrity pastor” personalities–even the ones that are truly orthodox, Christ-centered and gospel-centered. It’s easy to idealize the pastoral life. But the reality is far more grittier and grimier than what a half-hour YouTube clip would have you believe. Being called to the pastorate is truly to be called to take up your cross in the name of Jesus; to “count the cost” of following Him. It’s to be involved in the messy lives of flawed human beings (which, unfortunately, include yourself). It’s getting your hands dirty in a life of service. It is far from glamorous and flattering, and far more humbling. Paul understood that. Timothy and Titus understood that. So did Eugene Peterson.
Peterson eschewed the megachurch mentality that aimed to mass-produce saints through the machine of flashy programming and self-help sermons more akin to TED Talks in anything but name. As Christianity Today remarked, Peterson was a minister of the Word who sought “to keep Christian leaders grounded in robust biblical theology amid the din of shallow preaching aimed at self-improvement and megachurch marketing campaigns to ‘do more.'”
Seminarians and aspiring pastors would do well to model Peterson’s life of servanthood.
3. Never lose touch with the awe and wonder of the Gospel.
Finally, it is evident in Peterson’s writings that he always retained a sense of childlike wonder, even in his aging years. He never capitulated to the stark cynicism that many of us give in to during adulthood. This had less to do with a rosy outlook on life, and everything to do with the God that he beheld.
Like David penning the Psalms as a poet-king, or C.S. Lewis writing about Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, Peterson had a deep sense of God’s hand guiding all of life and creation, and the beauty that underlies all of it.
In the trenches of ministry, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. It’s easy to miss the forest for some misshapen and unappealing trees. The world often becomes greyer and bleaker. But when we remember that there is a God behind it all, a divine Author that works everything according to His purpose, suddenly the world becomes flushed with color again.
An Ode to Eugene Peterson
These are just a few things that we can glean from Peterson’s life well-lived. I only knew him at a distance, from his writings. But one day, I’ll have the opportunity to get to know him in earnest. As Christianity Today put it, Peterson has “completed his long obedience” (in reference to one of his books). I’m sure that he was greeted by the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”