Eugene Peterson, beloved author and Seattle Pacific alumnus, dies at 85

Eugene Peterson delivers a lecture at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, at a 2009 event sponsored by Image Journal. Image courtesy clappstar via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugene Peterson ’54 has gone home.

The famed pastor, theologian, and author died today at age 85 due to complications related to heart failure and dementia, a week after entering hospice care. According to his family, he was smiling and joyful throughout his last days, with “Let’s go” among his final words. “During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven,” his family wrote. “We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise.”

Peterson wrote more than 30 books, including The Message, a paraphrased Bible translation that has sold more than 20 million copies to date. SPU’s 1995 Alumnus of the Year, he also received the Denise Levertov Award in 2009 from Image, the quarterly arts journal housed on SPU’s campus.

As a Seattle Pacific undergraduate, Peterson studied philosophy and English. “I didn’t have much exposure to art until I went to college at Seattle Pacific,” said Peterson in a 2011 interview with Response magazine. “There, it was mostly through literature.” Serving as editor of the Tawahsi yearbook was his “first experience getting a feel for art, working with the publisher and with a photographer who took a lot of pride in his photography — he was an artist.” During his senior year, Peterson served as president of the student body and wrote a column for The Falcon student newspaper.

Peterson went on to earn degrees from New York Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins University. In 1962, he helped found Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland, which he pastored for nearly three decades. Over the years, he returned to his alma mater several times, continuing to encourage and inspire students and faculty. In 2017, he visited SPU’s campus as an alumni speaker at the 125th Anniversary Gala Celebration, where he talked about his time at SPU and shared what inspired him to write The Message.

Peterson began writing The Message — a 10-year undertaking — after retiring from the pulpit in 1991. Working directly from ancient texts of the Old and New Testaments, Peterson sought to translate the Bible into the common vernacular. “When people read or hear the Bible in the idiom in which it was written, they are stopped in their tracks: the holy Scriptures, God’s Word, God’s love in my language!” he wrote in a 2002 Response article. “The reason that new translations are made every couple of generations or so is to keep the language of the Bible current with the common speech we use, the very language in which it was first written.”

The paraphrased text’s popularity soared. It was the second title in the history of NavPress to sell more than 1 million copies, according to Christianity Today. “Overwhelmingly, The Message turns out to be a love message, a love story — God loves us,” Peterson wrote. “But God doesn’t force it on us: God’s word is personal address, inviting us into the story. God doesn’t bully us. We are given space and freedom to enter the conversation. The Message is God’s written invitation to participate in the work and love and company of God.”

Response has covered Peterson extensively through the years. Read more about his experience writing The Message, his thoughts on the tricky question of church unity, how understanding art can help the Christian understand faith better, and Peterson’s personal pastoral history as recounted in The Pastor.

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