Maxey - Thomas Debate
An Examination of a Proposition
Relating to Divorce and Remarriage

Thursday, January 11, 2001

An Examination by Al Maxey
Of the Greek Word Porneia

It appears that Ron and I are in agreement with regard to the major concepts involved with the terms "marriage" and "divorce." We both have a very high view of the covenant of marriage, and believe God to be an integral part of this relationship. We also bemoan the many failures to achieve His IDEAL for marital bliss, and believe that although God recognizes such failures, He certainly doesn't approve of them. Indeed, they grieve Him greatly. Thus, there is no real need for us to spend further time on these two aspects of our proposition. We both stand pretty much on the same foundation.

As we consider the proposition before us in this debate, the next area which requires greater analysis is the term "fornication." The proposition states: "A married person who divorces his or her spouse for any reason other than FORNICATION, and marries another, is a person who keeps on committing adultery." It is obvious that a clear understanding of this word is necessary before further consideration of the other aspects of the proposition can be undertaken. Indeed, some of the conclusions and applications specified in the proposition are generated by this term. This makes an understanding of it critical.

Ron, in his initial affirmation statement, dealt briefly with the word "fornication." I would like to comment on his observations, and then make a few of my own (to which he is then invited to respond). The Greek word in question here, by the way, is PORNEIA. Our English words "pornography" and "pornographic" are derived from this original Greek word; also such slang words as "porn." There is quite a diversity of meaning to this word, however, as is evidenced by the wide variety of translation.

Notice the numerous ways in which this word is rendered in various versions of the Bible just in the Matthew 19:9 passage:

With regard to the meaning of porneia, Ron quotes W.E. Vine (An Expository Dictionary of NT Words) as suggesting "it is used of illicit sexual intercourse and it includes adultery." Ron also points out that Vine states the term may be used literally or metaphorically, and that in the latter case the word "is to be understood as idolatry." In references from several other sources (see his post), Ron understands the meaning of this term to be: "prostitution, unchastity, fornication, every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse."

It obviously is a very general term and covers a wide range of sexual misbehavior. Further, it can even refer to spiritual unfaithfulness, such as idolatry. It is used in this way quite a number of times in Scripture. According to Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 6), it is used of "all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse ... and unnatural vice." It also refers to "apostasy from God." It additionally was used, according to Kittel, in the following way: "In the early period, especially in nomadic life, it was customary for a young girl to be married in her own tribe. Sometimes young men might break the custom and marry girls from a neighbouring tribe." Thus, this word "is used for the woman whose husband does not belong to her tribe." In a similar vein, in a footnote in the NAB (New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition), we read: "A growing number of scholars consider this to refer to Christians who, prior to their conversion, had married within the prohibited degree of blood relationship as stated in Lev. 18:6-18."

Not the following excerpt from Chapter Six of my book Down, But Not Out in which I briefly allude to the wide range of meaning and usage of this term:

Thus, when we speak of "fornication" (porneia) in our proposition, we are actually utilizing a biblical term with an extremely wide range of possible meaning and application. It behooves us, therefore, not to overly narrow our focus with regard to meaning or usage. There could be any number of unacceptable, illicit types of behavior in view here which could lead to the breakdown of a covenant of marriage. There is even the distinct possibility that actions and attitudes other than sexual indiscretion may be included in this general term. Most strict traditionalist interpretations restrict the meaning of porneia to a SEX ACT, but that is far more restrictive and exclusive than is warranted by the word itself.

I would be interested in knowing the views of Ron with regard to this matter, and just how restrictive his interpretation might be with reference to this word in our proposition. In other words, when he declares "a married person who divorces his or her spouse for any reason other than FORNICATION, and marries another, is a person who keeps on committing adultery," what exactly does he mean by "fornication," and what specifically would he include or exclude with regard to meaning and application? For example, would Ron include or exclude the idea of idolatry here? Would Ron accept only the literal meaning of the term, or would he be willing to accept a spiritual, figurative, or metaphorical meaning as well? Such questions really need to be addressed before we can proceed to the other points of our proposal.

Let me state my own position for the record. As stated in the above quotation from my book, I would hesitate to limit the meaning and usage of this term to only one of its many meanings and applications when there is no indication in the text itself that Jesus has done so. With no specific contextual direction in the matter, the principles of hermeneutics dictate that the general is to be preferred over the specific, limited and restrictive use.

Therefore, I personally would not exclude spiritual unfaithfulness, for example, as a valid interpretation and application of porneia in our proposition. As is indicated in I Corinthians 7, this too can be the cause of marital breakdown, and it is at least possible our Lord had this in view here to some degree. To limit this word to a sexual application only, is in my view far too restrictive.

I hope this rather brief overview of porneia will serve to encourage others to further study of this word as it is used in God's Word. I also eagerly await Ron's further analysis, and the answers to my above questions.

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