The need to eat – to chew and digest – the Scripture is surely different from just reading it as head knowledge. Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book by , as clear as its title says, has done an incredible job on expounding this much needed habit.
I loved how Peterson quotes Bonaventure’s statement, “To know much and taste nothing – of what use is that?” Too often, we read, and what we read remains in our brain; nothing enters into our spirit and soul. But as Peterson says, John, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all “ate” book metaphorically. “This is the kind of reading named by our ancestors as lector divine, often translated ‘spiritual reading’, reading that enters our souls as food enters out stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.” says Peterson (pg. 4).
To Peterson, Barth was an example who showed that, a writing that is “revelatory and intimate rather than informational and impersonal” must be done by a reading “that is receptive and leisurely instead of standoffish and efficient” (pg. 6). Below are some great insights from Peterson concerning eating the word of God:
On the Importance of the Scripture
Peterson writes, “Christian spirituality is in its entirety rooted in and shaped by the scriptural text. We don’t form out personal spiritual lives out of a random assemblage of favourite texts in combination with individual circumstances; we are formed by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the text of Holy Scripture. God does not put us in charge of forming our personal spiritualities. We grow in accordance with the revealed Word implanted in us by the Spirit.“ (pg. 15)
In other words, we need both the text and the Spirit. We cannot have one without another. Either extreme can lead us to the two dangers proposed by Peterson: on the one hand, we may encounter the Bible as an “intellectual challenge or moral guidance or spiritual uplifts without receiving any revelation from the Lord”. On the other hand, “we may read the Bible without submitting ourselves under the authority of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “ (pg. 15)
On Bible Being a Grand Narrative
The Bible is one grand story, “a narrative that is immense sprawling and capacious” (pg. 40). Through reading it, we are drawn into the reality of God; we are invited to participate in His story.
But sadly, as observed by Peterson, we live in an “unfortunate time where this grand story has been reduced to mere illustrations, testimonies, or inspirations”. We often understand God as mere information, be it doctrinal, philosophical, or theological even though “our God cannot be reduced to a formula” (pg 41). Meanwhile, some “extract truths to turn them into ‘principles’ that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion” that often end up as a slogan or motto sitting on the desk (pg 48).
How urgent is it for us to recover the narrative of God’s story?
Peterson points out the importance of learning to listen, which include knowing the way it is said – form, and how it is said – content (pg 43). Exegesis, in his word, is “an act of love”: it “loves the one who speaks it enough to want to get the words right” and loves God enough to “stop and listen carefully to what He says” (pg. 55).
On Resurrecting Dead Letters
Words written are dead word, for “the letter kills” (some may argue the “letter” refers to the O.T. law, but in general I agree with Peterson that any written word in the scripture, without being read under the guidance of the Spirit, are dead letters). “All the words written, confined in the books of the world, buried in the libraries of the world, are dead words. But it is not as bad as that: these are not just dead words but dead words awaiting resurrection, for ’the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). “ (pg. 84) Without the Spirit who guides us into all truth, the words are lifeless.
Another reason why our reading should be marked by life is because “our spiritual reading of the Holy Scriptures signals a recognition of an organic union between the word ‘read’ and the word ‘lived’.” (pg. 113)
“Life originates in Word. Word makes Life. There is no word of God that God does not intend to be lived by us.” says Peterson, “All words are capable of being incarnated because all words originate in the Word made flesh.” (pg. 114)
Peterson also marvels at how God decided to reveal Himself through the “ambiguities of language” despite mathematics is the most precise language we have. “But then,” writes Peterson, “you can’t have ‘I love you’ in algebra.” (pg. 93)
On Pretentious Language
Pride as a result of reading the word is dangerous, “Sometimes we read and take the text to graduate ourselves into a superior class of Christians.” (pg 57). Such an act builds walls and not bridges, “Pretentious language is just a violation of sacred text.” writes Peterson, “We use them to keep others out of our neighbourhood.” (pg. 138)
He also makes an observation which I have experienced many times in my life, that we often defend the word rather than receive, submit to, and pray the word (pg. 140). Personally, I’d even go further to say that many are obsessed over defending the word (or the Word) rather than to express it (or Him). (To avoid confusion: I believe what the “defense” looks like today resemble little to what Paul had in mind.)
On The Message Bible
In this book, Peterson also talks about the formation of The Message. While many love this translation, it is often saddening to see some’s despise or nonchalance towards this work which Peterson had spent ten years on. However, Peterson’s own recount of the journey shows pure humility.
Peterson first translated the book of Galatians, which was later passed on by many and had helped many. Eventually, his friends encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament and then finally the Bible. Initially, he thought this was an impossible task, for he had used two years to translate Galatians. He also believed there were already enough translations and paraphrases out there.
However, Peterson’s editor insisted. Looking back, Peterson believed it’s simply the Holy Spirit doing the work through him. People who do not know this translation and this man often accuse Peterson of twisting the Scripture but here he is, saying that this translation is meant to supplement, “The Message was born out of a specific time in the American culture, and is not meant to replace but rather supplement the other excellent translations.”
There are a few pastoral figures whom I have never met in my lives yet, from reading their written work, watching their interviews, and meeting the people whom they have personally pastored, I can sense nothing but fragrance of Christ filled with grace and humility. Among these is Peterson. Like Russell Moore, I find myself ended up having more highlighted parts than unmarked ones when reading Peterson’s book. I look forward to read more by this now 84-year-old servant of the Lord.