I want to say something outrageous, but I need a moment to set it up.
A number of years ago I heard a speaker quoting Eugene Peterson to the effect that there was something deficient in John Calvin’s theology, as evidenced by the fact that he was capable of writing all that high level theology in Geneva without ever once describing the glory of the Alps right out his window. This seems like a plausible objection as raised by pomo types, until we realize that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John never once described the azure sky above the sea of Galilee. What’s with that? Nor did they tell us what the lakeside zephyrs gently did to the long grasses on the slopes above the lake. I don’t know what the deal was. Maybe they had other things on the mind.
And Eugene Peterson is an interesting case. He is now something of a celeb among those who like his Tell It Slant or Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. At the same time, Peterson was responsible for The Message, which, in its poetic sections, is about as tone deaf as it gets. Don’t ask me why, but I recently read The Message New Testament, and am currently reading four books from the Old Testament — Psalms being one of them.
“The wicked snub God, their noses stuck high in the air. Their graffiti are scrawled on the walls” (Ps. 10:3-4).
“Don’t they know they can’t get away with this—treating people like a fast-food meal” (Ps. 14:4).
“Now [God’s] wrapped himself in a trenchcoat of black-cloud darkness” (Ps. 18).
There is something like this every third or fourth verse or so, and it is hard to know what to make of it. Peterson is a very competent prose-smith, and he does have a gift for a well-turned phrase, a gift he exercises in his prose (and which shows up from time to rare time in his poetic stuff, all lonely like). But when it comes to his rendition of what needs to be high poetry, he has an ear like three feet of tin foil.
And while I am on this subject, let me share a poem with you all that I once wrote, as I was meditating on the deep imponderables of poetry.
A poem is a thought
That comes out sounding good.
And lingers awhile,
But it doesn’t have to rhyme.
(Though it could.)
See what I mean?
So this is the set up. I have been accustomed, for many years, to hear the poetasters of evangelicaldom sniff at the dry and turgid stuff of Reformed scholasticism — so far, far away from the spirit of the New Testament. And I have defended the scholastics by observing that the world is a big place and we need schematic drawings by engineers for a bunch of things, and why not theological engineers? In the appropriate place, of course.
But here is the outrageous thing. I recently picked up an audio recording of the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, which I have been happily listening to in my truck as I toodle here and there. I mean, what could be better than that? But as many times as I have read the Westminster, and taught through it, something odd began to settle in on me as I listened to it for the first time. This sounds an awful like . . . like the Bible, like an epistle. I have listened to a lot of Bible, and the resemblance here was uncanny.
Switch it from third person plural to second person plural, and eighty percent of it is right out of the epistle to the Laodecians. And then it hit me later — many of the folks who are urging us to speak biblically don’t. And many of the folks who defend the use of systematic language do. There were once two sons who were told to work in the vineyard. One of them said, “Sure thing, daddy-o.” Which one was he?