“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11; TNIV)
The Denver Post had a cover story in its “Lifestyle” section recently on how older, long-married wives are increasingly divorcing their husbands. “Unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart are among the reasons more boomers are single than any previous cohort of 40-60 somethings” (Sheba R. Wheeler, “A gray area for women” [July 21, 2010], section D, page 1).
Debates over divorce and/or remarriage in Christian circles have tended to focus on the meanings of what have come to be known as Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 19:9; divorce and remarriage can be considered in the case of adultery) and the Pauline privilege (1 Cor. 7:15-16; if a non-Christian partner wants to leave). Some Christian exegetes and/or therapists have argued for other similar worst-case scenarios to provide acceptable grounds for divorce—serious physical abuse, prolonged unrepentant addictions, life imprisonment, irreversible Alzheimer’s and the like.
Virtually no disagreement has existed, however, over the fact that, from a biblical perspective, mere “unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart” hardly qualify as acceptable reasons for divorce. All of these can be reversed if both partners make a good faith effort. But nothing in this newspaper article suggests these three reasons are limited to non-Christians, and personal experience shows that they are certainly not so limited.
One suburban Denver woman is quoted as saying, “The biggest thing was knowing I was approaching 50 and thinking I didn’t want to live the rest of my life married to someone I no longer loved” (section D, page 10). As is so endemic in our cultures and our churches, “love” is used here to describe a feeling. If you can fall in love, then you can fall out of love (or at least climb out of it)! If love, as in the Bible, is a choice, a commitment, then there is no falling. There is nothing that just happens to us outside of our control. Little wonder that cultures with arranged marriages (like many in biblical times) have microscopic divorce rates. The partners understand that it’s about how you behave toward one another, not about how you feel, that is most foundational to a marriage.
One might ask why this is “news” for the Denver Post. The article makes that answer clear also. Graying-haired men have been divorcing their wives in record numbers for some time now, often for “trophy wives”—noticeably younger, more attractive women who apparently care more about what their new, older partners can provide economically or socially in the short term than anything else, since second marriages on average dissolve faster than first ones. (Funny how in all the alleged interest in family values in the last presidential election, conservative Christians made next to nothing of the fact that this was precisely what the nominee of many of those voters’ choice had done years ago, whereas the other candidate had proved an exemplary husband and father. Guess the race really was about politics after all—which is probably what it should be—let’s just be honest about what we’re doing. But I digress.)
It’s not news either that most marriages that are going to end in divorce do so within their first eight years. What made this article worthy of publication was that the last bastion of faithfulness is falling. With younger men, younger women, and older men all leaving their spouses in record numbers for reasons far beyond anything remotely biblical, the only category of people left to join the bandwagon are older women. And now they have jumped on board.
It’s time to return to basics. Love is a commitment, not a feeling. Feelings follow from godly actions, not vice-versa. Wedding vows are promises: “till death do us part.” A divorcee by definition is a promise-breaker. Occasionally, it is impossible to keep promises no matter how much one wants to do so, because “it takes two to tango.” I cannot stay married if my spouse refuses to do so. But taking the initiative to divorce, and for no better reason than lack of personal fulfillment, simply cannot by any stretch of the Christian imagination ever be right.
I remember being shocked as a young adult by some Hollywood wedding (a true story) in which the traditional vows were replaced with promises to be faithful “until the death of love parts us.” That’s really what has become the norm today, even if we’re not honest enough to admit it. How many Christians getting married [now] would be prepared to go through with the wedding if those were the words they were told to repeat? Those who would be so prepared should save their money and skip the ceremony altogether. Especially for those already living together, wedding vows add nothing to what already exists unless they promise permanence. Might as well just keep “shacking up” with each other, to use some slang from my father’s lifetime, because it doesn’t take a promise to be faithful when good feelings are present. As C. S. Lewis put it years ago in objecting to shotgun weddings, why compound the sin of fornication with the sin of perjury? The whole point of wedding vows is to seal the relationship for the hard times.
Those who wouldn’t be prepared to have a wedding with such trivial promises need to think long and hard about what they are promising with the traditional vows. And keep thinking about it every week, month, and year of their lives thereafter.
The organization Bill McCartney founded had it right. It boils down to whether or not we are going to be promise keepers. And if I can’t trust someone in the most solemn pronouncement they will ever make in their lives, why should I trust them in anything else?
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
The more I study middle knowledge, the more I like it. No, I don't expect to see the demise of the Calvinist-Arminian debates in my lifetime. But when a position comes along that both centrist Calvinists and centrist Arminians can endorse, that can be supported by proponents of both libertarian and compatibilist free will, we might just be on to something.
OK, OK, cut the fancy terminology and tell us what you are talking about, you're saying! Right. Here goes. Middle knowledge is a proposed solution to predestination vs. free will, to divine sovereignty and human responsibility, going all the way back to the medieval Jesuit priest Molina (so sometimes it's also called Molinism).
Classic Calvinists, properly concerned to safeguard divine sovereignty, have typically rejected any theological system that bases God's predestining activity on the basis merely of his foreknowledge of how humans will respond to the gospel, because they're convinced that makes human free choice the ultimate determiner. Romans 8:29, of course, does base predestination on God's foreknowledge, but the Calvinist typically argues that the Greek prÅginoskÅ ("foreknow") there begins already to shade over into the idea of election because in the Old Testament the Hebrew yÄdÄ‘ ("know") often appears roughly synonymous with "choose." That would explain why Paul doesn't say just that those whom God foreknew he also predestined, which could be seen as tautologous, but "predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son."
Classic Arminians and Wesleyans, properly concerned to safeguard human freedom and accountability, have typically rejected any theological system that bases God's predestining activity on the basis merely of his gratuitous election, because they're convinced that makes human free choice ultimately a chimera. They often point out that prÅginoskÅ is not the same verb as just ginoskÅ (which the LXX uses to translate yÄdÄ‘ and that in Greek it most commonly means simple knowledge in advance. Thus predestination is based on God's foreknowledge.
Middle knowledge argues for both! If open theism in recent years has diminished divine omniscience more than orthodoxy has classically permitted, middle knowledge magnifies or expands God's omniscience beyond what most people have thought about. But it makes good sense: middle knowledge claims that God's perfect, infinite knowledge must be able to know not only what sentient creatures will freely choose in all situations in their lives but what everyone would do in every possible situation that they could confront. Even more magnificently, divine and unlimited knowledge must be able to discern what all possibly created beings would do in all possible situations (or, as philosophers like to say, all possible worlds).
So far so good, I hope. Now here's the rub. Because there will only ever have been a finite number of humans created before God brings this world as we know it to an end, that means there remain countless uncreated beings that he could have chosen to create but didn't. So God's very choice to create you and me and not various other people he could have is an act of his sovereign election utterly prior to our existence. Calvinists should be happy. But it is based on knowing what we will and would do in all actual and all possible situations. Arminians should be happy. Thus, William Lane Craig in The Only Wise God defends this view from a libertarian Arminian perspective; Alvin Plantinga in a chapel talk at Denver Seminary years ago did the same from a libertarian Calvinist perspective, and Terrance Tiessen in Providence and Prayer does so from a compatibilist Calvinist perspective.
Nor is all this some highbrow theoretical exercise. It has massive, practical pastoral ramifications. You or someone you care about has just experienced an incredible tragedy. How do we deal with it? Is God still sovereign? Absolutely! Did he know in advance this would happen? Yes. Is Romans 8:28 (just one verse before Romans 8:29--you noticed that, right?) still true that "in all things God works for the good for those who love him" (correctly NIV/TNIV, contra KJV's "all things work together for good. . ." [no, they don't!])? Yes, God is in this situation somewhere bringing good out of it. Did God cause the tragedy? No, he is not the author of evil (James 1:13). Why did he allow it? Because it was part of what was required if he was to create a universe with true human freedom and the freedom to allow the consequences of sin, both directly and indirectly (as in "life in a fallen world") without overruling them except on very rare occasions (which is why we call them miracles when he does).
And both Calvinists and Arminians are right in what they affirm about Romans 8:29 and wrong in what they deny. Both/and wins again!
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” (Matthew 25:10-12)
“Judgment in our time may well be the despised doctrine,” writes Klyne Snodgrass, professor of New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and author of a recent magnum opus on interpreting the parables, entitled Stories with Intent (p. 491). All you have to do is read recent non-evangelical feminist and liberationist parable exposition to find examples. Vicky Balabanski, in an essay entitled, “Opening the Closed Door: A Feminist Rereading of the ‘Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (Mt. 25.1-13),” in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, objects to the ending of the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Imagine, half of these naïve young women excluded from the wedding reception for something as innocent as not accurately estimating the amount of oil they needed to have for their lamps for the evening. Exactly what one would expect from the heavy-handed patriarchal God of Jews and Christians. Balabanski insists that we shout back that we do not know such a God. For the Bible to be truly liberating, especially for women, the story must be rewritten so that the foolish bridesmaids are forgiven and welcomed in to the party!
You can imagine what critics from this perspective do to other parables that actually have harsher metaphors for final judgment than just a shut door, such as weeping and gnashing of teeth. Snodgrass is right. In an age of demanding one’s rights, of entitlement, of self-actualization, and even at times of religion that calls itself Christian but centers on me-first rather than others-first attitudes, the idea that God would ever finally exclude someone from his blessings is anathema. Hyper-Reformed formulations and/or misunderstandings of the biblical doctrine of predestination can exacerbate the situation more.
But here is a telling quotation from Ulrich Luz, liberal German commentator on Matthew, leader of many interfaith ventures and hardly a spokesman for soteriological restrictivism. After acknowledging that he longs for God’s love to have the final word in this parable (as we all should if we have tender hearts), he adds, “However, there is also the question whether a story of God’s pure love [such as the ending Balabanski demands] would not cause people to depend on the love in their own calculations and thus not take the holy God seriously. That is indeed what the foolish women have done.” To go a step further, if no beliefs or behaviors can ever damn a person, then there really is no finally compelling reason to pay any attention to God at all.
The wording Jesus has the bridegroom use in this story is telling. He insists he does not know the late-arriving bridesmaids. At the level of a wedding party, this makes no sense. The young couple deliberately chooses attendants who are close family members or friends. At the spiritual level, however, the reply makes perfect sense. These are not naïve young women innocently making a miscalculation; they are those who have claimed to be God’s people without really knowing God. One is reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to those who masqueraded as his followers, even as church leaders: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
It may not be biblical to say, “God helps those who help themselves,” but it does seem to be fair to Scripture to say, “God excludes those who exclude themselves.” Anyone who shouts in God’s face that they will not know him unless he abandons all forms of final judgment should be recoiling in terror of what they are creating for themselves on Judgment Day. Conversely, with Daniel Castelo in the Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (2008: 160), “Fearing God is the only viable theological modus operandi, the only adequate ‘foundation’ that suggests conditionedness, tentativeness, and a terrorizing yet joyful disposition to refuse ‘control’. In this respect, theologians would be wise to follow the example of the two Marys, who unlike the guards, were able to leave the tomb with “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8), and in doing so, they came face to face with Jesus himself along the way.”
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25; TNIV)
In our consumer culture, I shouldn’t be surprised that people treat church like a product. But I confess I continue to be surprised how long time, faithful churchgoers can suddenly “kick the habit” with seemingly little regret! Whether it’s a recent, young Denver Seminary graduate who was training to be a church leader or a middle-aged individual who just got tired of putting up with someone or something undesirable in their local congregation, people are abandoning regular church attendance in record numbers.
Hebrews 10, however, takes such a departure very seriously indeed. In the context of growing persecution of Christians in Rome in the early-to-mid-60s, one could almost understand why Jewish believers might want to play down their distinctives as followers of Yeshua and retreat to a form of worship indistinguishable from orthodox Judaism. They would thus retain their unique privilege as a religio licita, and not be forced to offer a pinch of incense in honor of Caesar as “Lord and God” as everyone else had to do. Once Nero unleashed his official, state-sponsored persecution against Christians in 64, they would be immune from imprisonment and martyrdom. Today, one can empathize with believers from North Korea and China to Iran and Afghanistan to Morocco and the Maldives, who might similarly hide their Christian identities and not gather regularly for worship and instruction with other believers, lest they be arrested and/or killed.
Ironically, it is precisely in such contexts where we also hear stories of great faith, great perseverance, and great sacrifice for the sake of Christ and fellow Christians, including for gathering together with them. It’s here in the U.S., in the Western world more generally, where so much less is at stake that we offer up such pathetic reasons (at least I suspect God considers them pathetic) for not joining together with fellow believers on a regular, weekly basis. And almost all of the excuses are anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve in essence reworded the well-known praise song to make it say, “It’s all about me, Lord,” rather than “It’s all about you, Jesus!”
We all know the excuses. We don’t like the style of worship or music. We don’t like the preaching. We don’t like the new time for Sunday School. We don’t like the way the church spends our money. More seriously, we don’t like certain people we have to see when we go. The list seems almost endless. Yet the other irony is that we in the West, especially in the United States, have far more choices of churches than anybody has ever had anywhere else in the history of the world! Before the advent of modern transportation, the two major criteria for why a given person belonged to church x (rather than church y) was because it was (a) the closest church to where they lived (b) in their denomination. Before the Protestant Reformation, only (a) applied, except in those comparatively few places where both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy existed side-by-side. One generally learned to work things out with the same group of people over a long period of time.
Today we are victims of our plethora of choices. Now hear me well. I’m grateful for those choices. There do come times when churches have substantially changed their beliefs or practices that for a person to be faithful to their own basic convictions they must move to a different congregation. If that happens, then move! But don’t just stop going anywhere.
Hear me, too, please, when I say that “church” as the New Testament defines it can be a house-church, it can be independent of all denominational affiliation, and it can take many creative forms and gather at many different times. I’m not saying all believers have to gather on Sunday morning, in a distinctive church building, with one prescribed liturgy or order of service. Not by a long shot. But consider the implied hubris (a fancy Greek word for “arrogance”) implied by the person who claims to be a Christian, claims to be in submission in Scripture, and yet also claims that no existing expressions of Christianity anywhere close to them are sufficiently God-pleasing for them to favor those gatherings with their presence!
Hebrews supplies the key to how to change one’s attitude in such situations. One goes to church not for what one can get but what one can give. Spur one another on toward love and good works and encourage one another. One of the occupational hazards of having studied the Scriptures to the extent that I have, and having visited as many diverse expressions of God’s family of faith worldwide as I have, is that it’s hard for any given worship service to affect me emotionally at the very core of my being with something that fairly jumps out at me and says, “Yes, that’s exactly how we should be doing things.” I occasionally experience a little something along those lines, but I stress the words “a little.”
But it doesn’t take much at all to get me pumped with the idea of going to see friends and acquaintances, and to meet new people, whom I can encourage and love and teach. If I keep track of how much attention, gratitude and concern I am showed in return, I usually go away depressed (except when I’m a guest speaker somewhere, because at least some people have been trained to do such things). But if I remind myself that I shouldn’t be trying to keep track of such things, then I usually feel fulfilled. But even that is an anthropocentric criterion. I need to keep reminding myself that I go and do what I do simply because that’s what God wants and it’s what he has made me for.
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.
In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians and James, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions; Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions; Preaching the Parables; Contagious Holines: Jesus' Meals with Sinners; and Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
For more, visit Denver Seminary.