Thursday, September 6, 2012

Divorce and Remarriage Book Survey, Part 2 of 3

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

Soon after Heth and Wenham’s book came out, William Luck Sr. felt the calling to respond with Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View (1987, 2nd Edition 2009). It made little impact at the time but Luck felt the need to revive the book 22 years later. The preface reveals a man who has had a lifetime of pastoral experience in dealing with divorce and he has come through with a perspective that would behoove many a church leader to gain. In the preface he writes: “We must not be so long on ethics that we cannot let truth kiss mercy” – Amen! God help us when we insensitively lay down the law at the expense of the suffering. This gives him the perspective that divorce in fact may be the best option and that there are acceptable circumstances that warrant divorce and carefully considered remarriage.

Subsequent to an excellent preface, Luck painstakingly (almost painfully), carefully, and methodically works through every word and clause in the OT and NT that is significant to the discussion. At many junctures, he levels some very perceptive criticisms against those who are “long on ethics”, including Heth and Wenham. This includes noting that “leave and cling” in Gen. 2:24 are moral imperatives, not ontological facts. Indeed, this is precisely what Jesus is getting at in Mark 10:7-9 and parallels – not that they can’t be separated, but they shouldn’t. Secondly, Luck rightly criticizes Heth and Wenham for their family bond idea of marriage. Marriage is in the same social category as family, but it presses too far to claim it’s an indissoluble blood kinship. He also explores the possibility that the middle participle in Mt. 5:32b and Luke 16:18 could refer to a treacherous divorce by the woman (see Part 4 of my posts on divorce and remarriage).

Sadly, however, I find the book riddled with flawed logic, including overstatements and false disjunctions. One of the main reasons his book never took off is his defense of polygyny - not polygamy: many spouses are ok, but rather, many wives are ok. This is actually something that doesn’t put me off very much, as this is something I’ve explored and find almost defensible … almost. While I think Luck is almost 100% correct that the OT can be read as accepting of multiple wives[i], he gets into trouble when he reads preconceptions of the OT Law into how Jesus handles it. For Luck, the Law is an absolute. This isn’t surprising since he acknowledges Walter Kaiser as his OT instructor. Kaiser is certainly a deservedly well-respected theologian, but I find his handling of the Law to involve some very unwarranted assumptions about its priority and how it does or doesn't carry over into the new covenant. Luck faithfully follows in Kaiser’s footsteps, finding that Jesus only brings out the “true and full meaning” of the Law. Jesus doesn’t overturn the Law’s acceptance of polygyny.

Sadly, Luck doesn’t find that in the Law the woman is actually assumed as inferior to the husband, whereas Jesus equalizes their status. And the Law assumes that the men may have multiple wives, but Jesus (and Paul) sees otherwise. It is to be two that become one flesh (Mt. 19:6) and they are both slaves to each other (1 Cor. 7:3-4). Note that the Law assumes, it doesn’t direct in these matters. It doesn’t positively accept certain poor practices; it simply works within the cultural confines. Luck’s argument for polygyny isn’t helped by his peculiar form of complimentarianism, which he mentions in Chapter 1, nor is the argument of the book helped when polygyny, something that should be rather subsidiary, works its way into almost every chapter of the book.

This is but a mere sampling of the many ways in which Luck goes astray or simply misses the point and it’s difficult to sift out the good for the bad. This is one that will remain on the shelf.

Thankfully, Craig Keener has come along with a much better handling of the New Testament texts with And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (1993). Like William Luck, Keener has had a lifetime of regretful experiences with how the church has handled divorce and remarriage, as he explains in Chapter 1. Almost the rest of the book is spent giving a cultural analysis of the relevant texts in the Gospels and Paul’s letters. With penetrating insight, Keener distinguishes Jesus’ sayings from case law. Jesus stands more in the line of a prophet and teacher, conveying more wisdom or proverbial sayings and prophecy, rather than giving legal pronouncements. When Jesus does present law, it is more like “apodictic” law rather than detailed case law. Thus no one would have been surprised if Jesus’ broad principles would have had to have been qualified for special cases. Keener also gives very insightful cultural analyses to Paul’s letters as well. In the end Keener finds that it is the church’s responsibility to use wisdom and discernment to apply the divorce and remarriage exceptions that are mentioned in Scripture to those that may be exceptions not mentioned in Scripture.

However, while one can learn volumes of very helpful cultural data from Keener, one eventually grows tired of the endless historical information without close analysis of and sensitivity to the Scriptural text itself. While the bible cannot be separated from history, nor should it be bound by it as it came into existence precisely to transform history. The bible has it’s own voice that speaks of transformation and renewal that transcends what history has to offer. In the end, Keener’s book is very useful, but I think falls short.

Three of the previously mentioned authors came together to discuss their differences in the Counterpoints series by Zondervan: Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views (2006), edited by Paul Engle and Mark Strauss with Wenham, Heth, and Keener sitting in to represent the 3 major viewpoints. Gordon Wenham represents the ‘No Remarriage After Divorce’ stance. William Heth, since co-authoring a book two decades ago with Wenham arguing for no remarriage, has migrated to arguing that remarriage is acceptable only in the cases where the spouse has committed adultery or desertion. Craig Keener essentially argues for the same position as in his own book in 1993.

There isn’t much new from Gordon Wenham if one has already read his book listed above. Somehow, the overwhelming opinion of the Church Fathers still demands to be reckoned with. Mark and Luke’s accounts are absolute as well as Paul’s in 1 Cor. 7:10-11. And Matthew needs explaning. A very heavy emphasis is placed on the necessity to understand the Greek syntax and grammar and also on the need for semantic sensitivity. However, Wenham’s argument, in my opinion, never gets beyond what is possible, let alone probable. Nevertheless, Wenham’s apparently harsh position of no acceptable remarriage is not to be judged too harshly. For him, marriage has become throw-away in this culture. With this, everyone should agree.

William Heth spends some space reviewing how his view of Genesis 2:24 and Deut. 24:1-4 has changed since first writing his book. He acknowledges that covenant language does not imply that the covenant can’t be broken. Moreover, Deut. 24:1-4 has become for Heth evidence that there are both justifiable and unjustifiable reasons for divorce. In all of this, Heth reveals a heavy dependence on personal dialogue with David Instone-Brewer (see the next review). When he reaches the NT, the typical analysis is found regarding Jesus’ sayings in the gospels and Paul’s word in 1 Cor. 7:15 with the result that divorce and remarriage is permissible for desertion and adultery. In my opinion, Heth’s weakness rests in reading the bible as comprehensive case law.

Craig Keener manages to condense the 100 pages of material from his book into 6, which requires referring the reader back to previously written books a few times. He then spends twice as much space considering numerous examples and exceptions requiring serious reckoning from the “hard stances”. Keener falls flat to some degree in failing to provide any argument on the exegetical level, though, in part he can rest on some exegesis provided by Heth earlier, and on his Matthew and Corinthian commentaries.

The best part about this book is seeing all three interact in very kind, pastoral ways about a subject on which they disagree, realizing that all of them love people no matter where they’re at and care deeply for the manifestation of the decrepitness of this world in the state of divorce in this culture.

[i] Jesus’ quote of Genesis 2:24 uses the LXX translation: “the two shall become one flesh”. In the Hebrew, it’s simply “they shall become one flesh”, which hardly implies monogamy if you’re coming from a polygynous culture.

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