Does the New Testament Approve Remarriage after Divorce? -- By: Gordon Wenham
SBJT 6:1 (Spring 2002) p. 30
Does the New Testament Approve Remarriage after Divorce?
Gordon Wenham is Professor of Old Testament, University of Gloucestershire, and is known internationally for his scholarship. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including the two volume commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary series. His most recent book is Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically. He is also the co-author of the book Jesus and Divorce.
“A text out of context is a pretext” is the slogan of all those who try and teach the art of preaching and exegesis. It is my contention that, in their original context, all the Gospel divorce texts should be understood as condemning remarriage after divorce. The full arguments for this view are set out in Jesus and Divorce.1 In this article I wish to address the issue more concisely by considering the various contexts in which the divorce texts may be read: first, the broadest context, the early church’s understanding of the gospel texts; second, the narrower context of the whole New Testament witness to marriage; third, the context in Matthew’s gospel; and finally the context of the debates of first-century Judaism within which Jesus was arguing. By way of a coda I shall then consider whether the dominical condemnation of divorce and remarriage necessarily means that it is excluded in a society that calls itself Christian. The analogy with Jesus’ teaching on violence does, I shall suggest, give a model for behaviour in a world where the new creation has been inaugurated but is not complete.
The Early Church Context
Modern Protestants have by and large forgotten that their forefathers, the magisterial reformers, placed great store by the interpretations of the early church. Postenlightenment scholarship has developed a great hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to reading the church fathers: the automatic assumption is that they have distorted the primitive gospel and its associated practices into a corrupt Frühkatholismus (early Catholicism). This was not the reformers’ view, nor of course that of the early Christian writers themselves. They believed in an essential continuity between the witness of the early church and the teaching of the New Testament. At the beginning of his Institutes Calvin claims that if he wanted, he “could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their (i.e. the Fathers’) approval.”2 It may be that at last the antipatristic tide is turning, among evangelicals at least, with the publication of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which shows how the Fathers understood...
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