Saturday, September 1, 2012

Divorce and Remarriage Book Survey, Part 1 of 3

This is an extension to my series on the biblical perspective of divorce and remarriage. The posts can be found here:

There are quite a few books today on divorce and remarriage and what the bible has to say about it. I didn’t read all of them. Some are obvious they’re not worth reading. No doubt a few Christians are trying to find a decent book or two in search of some answers. My search was generally not for the how-to manuals for marriage/remarriage but rather those that (at least attempted) to contribute something to how one understands what the bible says on the matter.

John Murray’s Divorce (1953, 122 pp.) is the classic starting point for exploring divorce and remarriage in the bible. Published originally by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Murray explores “The Old Testament Provision” (Dt. 24:1-4), then “The Teaching of Our Lord” (the gospel passages), and then “The Teaching of Paul” (1 Cor. 7:10-15 and Rom. 7:1-3). He closes with an exploration of “Practical Cases”. His method for understanding Scripture is straight grammatical-textual exegesis with little eye on cultural/historical matters. He finds that in Deuteronomy the Law simply tolerated but did not sanction divorce. Consistent with standard Presbyterian thought of the day, Jesus sought the true intent of the Law over against the misapplication of the Law by contemporary Jewish leaders. He does find the Greek passive construction in Mt. 5:32 to be notable and finds the passive in John 8:4 to be revealing in determining the meaning of the passive in Matthew 5 and, after a survey of most other significant biblical passages, finds that “it is not feasible to exclude from the word moiceuqhnai [moicheuthenai] actual involvement in the sin of adultery”[i]. Murray is quite even-handed with his approach to 1 Cor. 7 but falters at Rom. 7 in not recognizing that “law” refers to the Mosaic Law in all instances. His attempt at the end of applying the text to “practical applications” has striking resemblance to a law code rather than actual practical considerations of various circumstances. Overall, he finds the two standard Reformed exceptions to divorce equaling adultery: sexual immorality and abandonment.

Gordon Wenham and William Heth teamed up in Jesus and Divorce (1984, Updated 1997, Republished a million times) to challenge the standard Reformed position that there are 2 exceptions to divorce equating to adultery, which they dub the “Erasmian” position. The first 2 chapters survey and analyze the Early Church Fathers’ views on the matter. They usefully summarize the Church Fathers who are determined to be a practically united voice that does not allow remarriage after divorce, while making minor oversights like quickly dismissing Clement of Alexandria as going beyond Paul and make no comment about Origen’s reading of 1 Cor. 7:8-9. For Wenham and Heth, the church ignores the apparently unanimous voice of the Fathers at it’s own risk. Though they quickly and repeatedly distance themselves from it, one can’t help but read them as relying more on their reading of the Church Fathers’ stance than on a fair analysis of Scripture, especially given how dismissive they are of the criticism that many Fathers held their stance on remarriage no doubt because celibacy was elevated. Chapters 3 and 4 very usefully survey the early and modern defenses of the so-called Erasmian position. Chapters 5 and 6 critique the Erasmian viewpoints from the OT and NT respectively. Then they spend 4 more chapters very usefully surveying and critiquing more modern approaches to Jesus’ divorce sayings.

In considering the OT, Heth and Wenham argue, per Gen. 1 and 2 and Lev. 18, that marriage creates a bond whereby the spouse really becomes one’s “flesh and blood”, a member of the family. Thus a spouse cannot cease being your marriage partner just as a sister cannot cease being a sister. That relationship simply cannot be severed. They then argue that that is what causes the abomination to the Lord in Dt. 24:1-4 – to remarry the woman is like remarrying a sister! All of this seems a bit strained. Besides the faltering logic in their analysis of Dt. 24, they seem to forget that in the OT a family member could actually be cut off if the circumstances warrant doing so. Moreover, their analysis really makes trouble of the levirate marriage system required by the Law. If the wife becomes a sister, surely the brother would be having sex with his sister after his brother dies! Thankfully, Heth has come to abandon this thinking.

When they consider the NT, Heth and Wenham consider Mark’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ sayings as absolute, requiring a lengthy explanation of Matthew’s exception clauses. The exception clause, they argue, only applies to the divorce side of the equation. Divorce is adultery except with marital unfaithfulness, and remarriage is always adultery. To do this requires 2 rather tenuous claims: 1) the Greek word order for Matthew requires this reading and 2) the Greek word for  “divorce” shifts its sense between the Pharisees’ question and Jesus’ response – divorce for the Pharisees entailed a certificate and certainty of remarriage and for Jesus entailed only a separation of sorts. Too many commentators have responded to point 1 – the Greek word order can hardly be put any other way to make sense. For the 2nd point, their defense is simply unconvincing; more explanation would have been required by Jesus for his hearers to understand a new sense to “divorce”.

The appendix is the biggest reason to get the revised edition for in it the authors lighten up a bit on some of their strong claims. 13 years after the first edition they admit that there may have been a minority among the Church Fathers who took an “Erasmian” position and that perhaps the “abomination” in Deut. 24:4 does not refer to a type of incest. As with the entire book, the appendix is a very good resource for its comprehensive survey of varying positions.

[i] See p. 21, n. 2


  1. Did you know that some years ago Heth changed his mind from what he wrote with Wenham.
    He joined the evangelical consensus that divorce is allowed for adultery and for desertion by an unbeliever, and remarriage is allowed innocent party in such cases. You can read Heth's change of mind here:

    Some years after Heth published his 'change of mind' paper, he read my book "Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion" and said "This book took the scales from my eyes and brought me face to face with the plight of victims of domestic abuse." You can read his full comment on my book here:

    1. Thank you for directing attention to your book - now on my Amazon wishlist! - and to Heth's paper. See my next post for a review of the book where Heth writes an essay mentioning his change of mind. I was quite relieved to find him shifting position to being more sensitive to the need for a better biblical ethic on divorce and remarriage. His endorsement of your book seems to indicate that he's shifted a little more to include abuse as potentially acceptable grounds for divorce and remarriage. Do you know if that's indeed the case?


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