Dec 23, 2007

divorced from context?

A while back, my brother linked, without comment, to this Christianity Today piece on divorce by David Instone-Brewer. The author addresses Jesus's and Paul's teachings on one of the most contentious of theological issues, focusing in particular on Matthew 19:3-12, where Jesus seems to flatly condemn divorce except in cases of "marital unfaithfulness." Instone-Brewer describes an ivory-tower epiphany:
But does the literal text mean what we think it does? While doing doctoral studies at Cambridge, I likely read every surviving writing of the rabbis of Jesus' time. I "got inside their heads" enough to begin to understand them. When I began working as a pastor and was confronted almost immediately with divorced men and women who wanted to remarry, my first response was to re-read the Bible. I'd read the biblical texts on divorce many times in the past, but I found something strange as I did so again. They now said something I hadn't heard before I read the rabbis!

The texts hadn't changed, but my knowledge of the language and culture in which they were written had. I was now reading them like a first-century Jew would have read them, and this time those confusing passages made more sense.
Instone-Brewer's article is worth reading in full, not only for its fascinating and defense of a liberal view of divorce, but because it brings to light a hermeneutic crisis.

Look at Instone-Brewer's summary of his thought process:
Reading the Bible and ancient Jewish documents side-by-side helped me understand much more of the Bible's teaching about divorce and marriage, not all of which I can summarize here. Dusty scraps of parchment rescued from synagogue rubbish rooms, desert caves, and neglected scholarly collections shone fresh light on the New Testament. Theologians who have long felt that divorce should be allowed for abuse and abandonment may be vindicated. And, more importantly, victims of broken marriages can see that God's law is both practical and loving.
And compare some of his readers' responses:
Alain Maashe
[W]hat David Instone-Brewer proposes goes beyond illumination of the text and turns into an exercise of reading between the line and mind reading well beyond what is revealed by the text itself. He lacks internal evidences to cast the exchange that Jesus had with his audience against the proposed background. Even if one grants the distinction between "divorce for 'any cause,'" and "divorce for any cause" that he proposes, his reading of the text still does not account the very negative reaction of the disciples in Matthew 19:10 "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." (a passage conveniently ignored).The response of Christ also confirms the difficulty of the teaching and the fact that only few will accept it. Why would the disciples react like that if there still remained a variety of reasons to divorce?

L. James Tieszen
The exegetical technique used here is dreadful. Non-biblical ancient documents should be used to help us understand the words of the text. But, non-biblical ancient documents must not be used to change what the text actually says. Jesus allowed only adultery to be used as as a legitimate reason for divorce. To make decisions about how Jesus was interacting with the customs of his day is an attempt at mind reading and results in guesswork. How dare we reframe the meaning of Jesus' words with guesswork.

Following Mark Galli's 9/7 piece "A Hidden Treasure" about how "there's a divine reason" that the church mirrors our culture's depravity, this furthers CT's sad trend toward unbiblical "scholarship" masquerading as Truth. First, I'm confused how the man-made opinions of rabbis in Jesus' day are relevant to the question of what the BIBLE teaches about divorce! Clearly, Ex 21:1-11 has no bearing at all on modern divorce/remarriage and in no way justifies the author's "abuse and neglect" exemption. Moreover, 1 Cor 7:10-11 says "the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried ... and that the husband should not divorce his wife." Paul goes on to write that if one has an unbelieving husband/wife who "consents to live with" him/her, then he/she cannot initiate a divorce. Where are the supposed exceptions? "What therefore God has joined together, let no MAN separate" (Matt 19:6). This is another misguided attempt to rend Scripture to suit the culture.

God hates divorce is a good and clear statement and all christian couples need to obey this command. Finding clauses to excuse one's behaviour is a cop out. God is the final judge.

Eric P.
It is a real shame that people continue to twist the word of God into supporting their own man-made theories. What do you mean the early Church "forgot" what Jesus' teaching were on divorce? I take this to be a denial of the Holy Spirit working in the early church.

You haven't really let the text speak for itself within the whole of Scripture. (Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18.) Certainly separation is necessary for anyone whose safety is in danger--divorce and remarriage are difficult, I would say impossible, to justify with the Lord's words.

Don't want to be unfair, but it does seem the Rev. Instone-Brewer is parsing the words of Jesus in the same way he says the Hillelites were parsing the words of Moses. His argument is an evasion of what Christians have generally understood is the plain meaning of Christ's teaching on marriage. That the early Christians forgot the true teaching of Christ on something as central to life as marriage, and that this was finally cleared up two thousand years later by a scholar "doing doctoral studies at Cambridge" is a cause for wonder. The social chaos in today's society is clearly tied to the breakup of the family. As sincere as Rev. Instone-Brewer is in attempting to reaffirm marriage, his effort falls short.

I suppose that I should not be so frequently astounded when "scholars" discover (by means of the most obscure sources) that the Bible "teaches" exactly that which the contemporary world wants to hear.

Thanks for pointing out the continuity of Bible/OT-NT! The Bible really is it's own interpreter.

Lance E
The Author needs to do some praying and more studying. While a person may at anytime and for any reason get a secular divorce, they remain married until death or sexual infidelity. But, one won't know this without spiritual revelation. (It is in the scriptures)
The diversity of critiques is fascinating. Instone-Brewer is attacked from all angles: mind-reading, cherry-picking, context-ripping, missing "plain meaning," echoing the wider culture, daring to use outside sources, and, perhaps most pointedly, failing to pray enough.

So: who's right, if anyone? Do we have to put ourselves in a 1st-century mindset to properly understand the Bible? Is that practical, or even feasible?

Sidebar: Ever since words first stained a page, humans have pored over texts for authoritative answers to life's big questions. Now that the tyranny of texts is waning, and the power of Google is waxing, what will be the first Internet-based religion? (And no, a parody like Flying Spaghetti Monsterism doesn't count.)


M.T. McLaughlin said...

It's Pastafarianism, fool.

Jim Anderson said...

I invite you to read the canonical text.

"I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence."

The two names are not in conflict, friend.