WASHINGTON — The Rev. Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian minister, biblical scholar and author whose writings have shaped the thinking of pastors and church people and whose colloquial translation of the Bible, ‘‘The Message,’’ has sold millions of copies, died Oct. 22 at his home in Lakeside, Mont. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Eric Peterson said.
Rev. Peterson never led a church of more than 500 congregants, rarely appeared on television and seldom made political pronouncements from the pulpit, yet he quietly became one of the most influential religious thinkers of his time.
With a gift for finely turned phrases that could almost be called proverbs, Rev. Peterson wrote several books that are considered classics of the pastoral canon, including ‘‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” In that book, which has sold more than 200,000 copies, he extolled the virtues of humility, joy and a sense of service: ‘‘I decide, every day, to . . . open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.’’
Rev. Peterson spent nearly three decades leading a Presbyterian church in Bel Air, Md., where he sought ways to make the lessons of the Bible come alive for his parishioners.
‘‘I had a congregation of people who didn’t read books,’’ he told the ‘‘On Being’’ blog in 2016. ‘‘And so I started translating the Bible in their language, not knowing what I was doing. And suddenly, they started paying attention to me in a way they never did before.’’
In 1993, he published a translation of the New Testament that was the first entry in his ‘‘The Message’’ series. The books, which Rev. Peterson translated from Greek and Hebrew, were written in a breezy, updated style with psychological insights that made the stories of the Bible almost shockingly modern.
Instead of the traditional opening of ‘‘Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’’ Rev. Peterson’s version of the Lord’s Prayer begins, ‘‘Our father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best — as above, so below.’’
Over the past 25 years, the various ‘‘Message’’ translations have sold, according to Rev. Peterson’s literary agency, more than 20 million copies. His books have been popular with Christians of different traditions, from Catholics to Southern Baptists to members of evangelical churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Eugene Hoiland Peterson was born Nov. 6, 1932, in East Stanwood, Wash., and grew up in Kalispell, Mont.
He graduated in 1954 from Seattle Pacific, then enrolled at what is now New York Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree. He began to see beyond the conservative religious traditions of his youth and joined the Presbyterian Church, where he was assigned to coach a youth basketball team, which he called the ‘‘lucky break’’ that changed his career path.
He later received a master’s degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University, but concluded that ‘‘the church is a lot more interesting than the classroom.’’ In 1963, he became founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air.
He left the ministry in 1991 and later taught at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, before retiring to Montana.
He leaves his wife of 60 years, the former Janice Stubbs, of Lakeside; three children, Karen Peterson of Missoula, Mont., Eric Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor in Colbert, Wash., and Leif Peterson of Whitefish, Mont.; a sister; a brother; and nine grandchildren.