This post has long been in the pipeline (no pun intended). In fact, I had written the first draft only a day before John Piper wrote about David Instone-Brewer’s work on divorce. Then Andreas Kostenberger added his voice to the discussion. So I wish to state I am not jumping on the bandwagon, merely carrying on with what I was intending to do anyway.
Quick Summary of John Piper’s Argument.
John Piper’s path to his present position on divorce and remarriage began from his desire to take Jesus’ words in Luke 16:18 seriously. I appreciate that desire. Unfortunately, his foundational assumption is that Jesus’ statement is absolute, i.e. any remarriage after divorce is adultery, with no exceptions. It is that understanding that became the controlling thought for his exegesis. That means that when he approaches other texts, Dr. Piper is not trying to find out what they say so much as how they fit into that initial statement. That also means: prove an exception and the argument fails.
Now this is not an illegitimate way to study the Bible. The idea that there is an overall consistency in the teaching of the Bible is an important part of evangelical studies. However problems come if your understanding of one verse or passage blinds you to what other passages are actually saying. This is what seems to happen when Dr. Piper approaches Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12. His intention is to try to find the chinks in these Matthean passages in order to fit it into Luke 16:18 and the like. The result is an interpretation that does not faithfully communicate Jesus’ words in Matthew.
These passages state that divorce and remarriage is adultery except in the case of porneia. Many people have translated porneia as adultery, but Dr. Piper points out that moicheia is the Greek word that is consistently translated “adultery” in Scripture, not porneia. In fact, Dr. Piper continues, moicheia and porneia are used side by side in a list found in Matthew 15:19 and therefore the two words cannot mean the same thing, i.e. porneia cannot mean “adultery” in Matthew 5 and 19.
In addition to this, Dr. Piper points to John 8:41 where the Pharisees imply that Jesus was born from porneia and draws the conclusion that Matthew is using porneia to mean sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period i.e., that Mary slept with someone other than Joseph during their betrothal period and Jesus was the result. In those times the only way to break a betrothal was to divorce your intended. Therefore, when Jesus says that divorce and remarriage is adultery except in the case of porneia he means, “except in the case of sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period”.
Summary of why I don’t agree.
Porneia and Moicheai.
This all seems to make sense to us unfortunate Greek illiterates until you translate porneia into English. It’s close English equivalent is ”sexual immorality”, i.e., a wide range of sexual sin, including fornication, incest, bestiality, marrying your close relative and so on. Let’s look at the pertinent verses again using the ESV which correctly translates porneia as “sexual immorality” and moicheia as “adultery”.
Matthew 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 19:9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Matthew 15:19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
John 8:41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”
Unless you were committed to the belief that Jesus allows no exceptions to his prohibition on remarriage after divorce, like Dr. Piper is, no native English speaker would say that the phrase “sexual immorality” in these verses means ”sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period”. Instead of limiting the meaning, English speakers would broaden it. And the same is true of the Greek.
Think of the discussion between a native English speaker (NES) and an Adherent to the Piper Position (APP).
NES: See, Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 says that sexual immorality is an acceptable reason for divorce.
APP: Ah, but Luke 16:18 gives no exception and neither does the parallel passage in Mark 10:11-12.
NES: So, I guess Jesus was making a general statement in Mark and Luke and included an implied exception in Matthew.
APP: No, I don’t think so. Jesus’ statements in Mark and Luke sound absolute. I think Matthew included that exception to explain how Joseph could be called righteous for considering divorcing Mary in Matthew 1:19. In fact, Matthew 15:19 indicates adultery and sexual immorality are two different things and John 8:41 shows the Pharisees using “sexual immorality” to refer to Mary’s supposed sexual unfaithfulness during her betrothal period. So, obviously, when Jesus said, “except for sexual immorality” he was really saying, “except for sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period”.
NES: But it doesn’t say, “sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period”. It says, “sexual immorality”.
APP: Don’t you think sexual immorality includes sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period?
NES: Sure, it can include it, but it’s not limited to it. Why wouldn’t Jesus say (or Matthew write), “except for sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period” if that’s what he meant? He clearly says here “except for sexual immorality”. If he meant to limit the exception the way you think he did, he went a funny way about it.
APP: You just don’t understand Greek.
Now, Dr. Piper has acknowledged that porneia can mean adultery occasionally, but still uses Matthew 15:19 to imply that adultery is not intended in Matthew 5 and 19. It seems unlikely, however, that moicheia and porneia cannot mean “adultery and sexual immorality (including adultery)” in Matthew 15:19 when the last two words (in English) are ”false witness” and “slander”. Is Dr. Piper saying that false witness can never be slander, and someone cannot slander another by being a false witness? Even more telling is Revelation 2:20-22, where porneia and moicheia are used in a manner that strongly implies a degree of interchangeability.
Dr. Piper has another problem, however. His argument is based on the belief that Jesus allows no exceptions for remarriage after divorce and yet even his interpretation has Jesus allowing an exception for ”sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period”. This means that at least in some sense, even in Dr. Piper’s interpretation, Jesus’ words in Luke 16:18 are not absolute.
Another observation. In Matthew 1:19 Joseph is said to be a righteous or just man and for that reason “resolved to divorce her [Mary] quietly”. This is why, according to Dr. Piper, Matthew included the “exception clause”. But Jesus’ statements in Mark and Luke do not forbid divorce, they forbid remarriage. Therefore there is no actual quandry that Matthew needed to fix up by adding an exception clause as limited as the one Dr. Piper champions. Instead, it makes far more sense that, if he had Joseph’s righteous intention to divorce in mind, Matthew expanded the exception from moicheia (adultery) to porneia (sexual immorality) to include the situation Joseph thought he found himself in!
I have deep respect for Dr. Piper and what God has done and is doing through him. I by no means intend this to be an expression of disrespect for him. All I wish to say is that in this instance, John Piper has been misled by a presupposition that Jesus’ statements wereabsolute and as a result has read a narrow and completely unlikely reading into the Matthean texts on divorce. In short, he is wrong on this one.