By now, you’ve heard of what happened with Eugene Peterson, the 84 year old pastor/professor/writer when asked what he believed about gay marriage and gay relationships. I don’t want to get into all of the details of that, give links, and make arguments that have already been made. But, I do want to focus in on something I haven’t seen many talk about. His statement affirming gay marriage came out on Wednesday in an article. On Thursday, he released a retraction. He recanted. And, there are three statements that he made here that are particularly worth exploring and should consider:
- “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” Here, Peterson submits his statement released on Wednesday, which was based on his personal views of gay people and their spirituality, to the authority of the Word of God – on everything. He moved back away from his own view formed by sentiment and observation and back to what he recognized as God’s will as revealed in the Bible – the better way of Jesus. “A biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” I’ve seen conservative evangelicals criticize this as not genuine or a strong enough statement. I’ve seen people say that this is insufficient. But, it seems to be the strongest of statements possible. He submits his will and thinking to the Bible. On everything. He lets us work out the rest of what that means.
- “When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that.” Some have said that Peterson has had this view for some time and that he clearly articulated a view affirming gay marriage. Then, they attacked him for this statement and said it wasn’t genuine. But, let’s back up. He admits to saying something that he now says isn’t true. He perhaps shouldn’t have blamed the interviewer and his question here, I admit. He is responsible for his own statement. But … he says that he thought it through and wants to retract. When do we see this? He rethought his position and changed his mind.
- “We are saved by faith through grace that operates independent of our resolve or our good behavior. It operates by the hand of a loving God who desires for us to live in grace and truth and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.” In context, he is speaking this about gay people and is saying they can be saved apart from their works because of God’s grace. Now, let’s turn that view toward Peterson himself. I read some people who said that because Peterson was in error here on Wednesday, that his soul was in danger of hell because he affirmed what God rejects. Then, he repented, but there were still concerns about whether he was clear enough. But, let’s just consider the man for a moment and not the arguments. He looks to a God who saves us by faith through grace operating independent of our resolve or good behavior, desiring us to live in grace and truth, and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth. That is important. In other words, Peterson isn’t putting his faith in his right beliefs at every moment. Rather, he puts his faith in God who saves even when Eugene errs and never tires of turning us away from ourselves and back toward him. We are prone to err and wander. God never tires of coming after us and turning us around. This sounds like good news.
Peterson potentially demonstrates something rather remarkable here for a major Christian leader and scholar, in my opinion. He shows submission to God and His Word rather than what makes sense to him. The focus here isn’t what makes sense to Peterson. It is what God has revealed. And, even though he was going off after what made sense to him for a time, this episode possibly jerked him back to God as the authority on this. I responded to a comment on Facebook with this observation …
You know what we possibly see here? It could be the deepest kind of repentance. In other words, he isn’t saying what “HE” believes. He is saying what God says and says that isn’t what he would want to do or what he thinks should happen on his own, but after reflecting further, he will affirm what the Bible says and God’s Way of marriage being one man – one woman. Maybe in the interview we got what Eugene, the man, thinks is fair based on his own understanding and observation. After reflecting and seeing his own words, he relents and says, “But, God …” and resubmits himself to Scripture and God’s character. I don’t know, but when do we ever see this? I hear what preachers think and believe. Rarely do we ever see the struggle. Rarely do we see a man like Peterson want to go one way, get started down the road, and then get jerked back by the Bible and Spirit of God and that all happen in front of us. People with the stature of Peterson always seem to be the authority – never the pilgrim. Why attack him? Perhaps this is his greatest lesson for us? You might want to go one way on your own, but when it comes to the God you love, you are arrested by the Spirit, you relent, you submit, you humble yourself, you reengage in that “long obedience.” Isn’t that the real story for all of us?
I don’t know Peterson’s heart. I can’t look inside his soul. And, it isn’t my place to justify him. That isn’t my point. But, when have we seen this? When have we seen a significant leader say, “I think this because it makes sense to me based on what I’ve observed …” and then after it is made public and he reflects on what he said, he says, “I retract my statement. I submit to God’s Word and God’s Way”? When do we see a man say “I was wrong” and it be because he prays and resubmits himself again to God’s Word? It happens in our churches every day. I rarely see it among leaders at this level.
Here’s the thing: If we can’t err and retrace our steps and come back again to God – if we can’t repent of trusting in ourselves and resubmit to God’s authority – then what are we actually believing? What are we preaching? I’m not saying that Peterson is perfect and should be totally affirmed and “followed.” Obviously. But, no one should. No one’s beliefs or actions are perfect and without any kind of error. Only God and His Word is. We are all in process. We all err. We all fail. We all desperately need grace every moment of every day. But, when we stumble, can we then look to Christ? Will we? He calls out to us – each one of us no matter where we are.
Peterson is now retired. He is 84. He will no longer speak publicly or write. This was the last episode of a long life of service to God and His people and the world. Perhaps, this is his greatest lesson of all. He erred and then recanted. He resubmitted to the God who “does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.” It was messy and all unfortunate. But, in the end, he affirms God’s truth. That seems to be the very best way that any of us could leave the public stage. Perhaps God was holding him all along and didn’t abandon him because his beliefs were wrong.
This will happen a lot more. But, how can we help people reconsider? How can we affirm God’s truth in a way that allows people to change? Perhaps this was Peterson’s final lesson for us encapsulating a lifetime of journeying with God. Maybe this was the deepest kind of repentance – from his own way back to God’s way, even when it might not have been what made sense to him or what he would have chosen on his own. Maybe that’s where grace intervenes and saves us from ourselves apart from ourselves? Maybe.
The final chapter of Peterson’s story is perhaps that he never stopped being a sojourner with God. I’m glad.
“I affirm a biblical view of everything.” ~ Eugene Peterson