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

Saturday, January 13, 2001

A Response by Al Maxey
To Ron's Comments on Porneia

It would appear, if I have understood Ron correctly, that he opts for the view that porneia refers exclusively to an illicit sexual act in Matthew 5 and 19, and that he therefore may not be willing to acknowledge even the possibility of any other meaning or usage of this word in those passages. If this is not his position then he can correct me, but that is the impression I received from his latest post. Thus, I need to make a few observations in the hope of bringing us closer together on this point.

In response to my statement, "To limit this word to a sexual application only, is in my view far too restrictive," Ron exclaimed, "This is remarkable to me. This suggests that Jesus applies 'double-talk' to what He is saying." What Ron means by this, he explains, is that I have suggested that the word porneia may well have more than a single biblical meaning and usage, and therefore I am forcing Jesus to use "double-talk." The simple fact of the matter is, however, many of the words employed in Scripture have multiple meanings and applications. That is just the nature of language .... any language. It is hardly "remarkable" to note this fact, nor does it impose "double-speak" upon a biblical figure to suggest this linguistic reality.

Even Ron himself acknowledges this fact with respect to the word porneia. He stated, "'ll note that the word is applied in TWO ways: metaphorically or literally." Additionally, he wrote: "I grant that there are 'non-sexual' contexts in which the Hebrew word (translated porneia in the LXX) is found." He also quotes the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature as saying, "In Scripture this word occurs more frequently in its symbolical than in its ordinary sense." This agrees with his previous statement above with regard to multiplicity of meaning. Ron emphasizes the fact that this word has "an ordinary sense," thus laying groundwork for the view that it should always be understood in this "ordinary (i.e., literal) sense." However, what Ron fails to emphasize is the fact that in his quote the point is also made that the symbolical (or figurative or metaphorical) usage is the more common biblical usage!! This is not a minor point!

If a particular author, for example, has a tendency to use a certain word in his writings more frequently in its figurative sense than in its literal sense, then that fact should not be lightly discounted when seeking to interpret a passage from his book. The same is true with regard to biblical interpretation. If, as is admitted in the quote above, the more frequent use of porneia is the figurative, then one should not be too quick to assume the exclusive use of the literal in some passage. One should at least be open to the possibility that a meaning and application other than the literal just might be in view, at least to some degree.

This was the only point I sought to make at this juncture in our discussion. I merely sought to establish:

  1. The word porneia does indeed have a rich and varied background of meaning and usage in the Scriptures.

  2. When interpreting a passage of Scripture where this word is found, one should at least consider these various and varied aspects of the word in question before settling upon an interpretation.

I do not in any way discount the significance of the literal, ordinary meaning of this term in the passages in question. My only hope is that Ron will not discount out of hand the possible significance of the "more frequent" biblical usage of this term in those same specific passages under consideration by us. My sense, and I may be wrong here ... and I hope I am, is that Ron has decided that the ONLY possible meaning of porneia in the Matthew 5 and 19 passages is the literal. My only request is that he not close his mind just yet to the possibility that the word in these passages just may have a broader significance. If he will at least be open to that possibility, then that would be of great benefit to our discussion.

Ron quotes from several major authors in the field of biblical hermeneutics. Milton Terry's and D.R. Dungan's works are classics. I have both of them, and have read them and marked them up thoroughly. I do not discount any of the quotes Ron has given. In fact, I agree with them. I have taught biblical hermeneutics several times, and have used those same quotes myself in my classes. However, as anyone who has done extensive work in this field will tell you, these are at best scholarly guidelines and principles, and certainly not divine LAW carved in stone. In other words, exceptions to the rules are possible. I'm not necessarily suggesting such is the case with regard to the passages relevant to our debate, I'm merely pointing out a vital aspect of this field of study. Thus, one must be extremely careful about declaring something too dogmatically. To suggest, for example, that the word porneia MUST be understood literally in a passage, when there is legitimate reason (as I will seek to demonstrate in later posts) to suggest that the "more frequent" biblical usage is at least a possibility, is far too restrictive, exclusive and dogmatic. All I'm asking at this juncture, Ron, is that you not close your mind just yet to the possibility of a meaning and application in these passages which is other than the "ordinary" usage. After all, there IS a "more frequent" usage of this term in Scripture, and Jesus just might have had that partly in view in these passages as well.

In their book An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (by Walter Kaiser and Moises Silva), the authors note: "Students are advised to check how a particular word is used throughout the Scriptures." They state this is sound advice, "for such a method helps us to determine the 'semantic range' of the word in question; that is, if we are aware of the possible uses of a word, we are in a better position to decide which specific use occurs in the passage or passages that we are studying." Ron, this is all I was suggesting. When approaching the passages in question, and the word porneia specifically, one must NOT discount the wide range of biblical meaning and usage when seeking to make an interpretation. I was merely seeking to determine how open you were to such an approach, or if you would reject out of hand any application and interpretation of the word porneia other than your own.

Dr. Clinton Lockhart, in his classic work Principles of Interpretation, notes that some words have a broad, comprehensive meaning associated with them. With regard to such words, he states: "The reader, accordingly, will suppose the meaning broad, unless he knows some good reason for regarding it as limited." After some lengthy discussion of this principle, he concludes with this rule: "Choose the broad meaning of a term, unless it be restricted."

As you can see, Ron, there is much debate, even among scholars, as to which principles should apply in the evaluation of words and phrases. It is hardly the exact science some would pretend it to be. I think it is safe to presume, however, that an approach which takes into account the full range of meaning and usage of a word is a far more rational approach than one which will only consider a single, narrow meaning and usage. The latter would be more a practice of what Dr. Milton Terry characterized in his work: "a dogmatic exposition of the Bible." Frankly, I think God's Word is worthy of a nobler approach than that, and I hope you will concur.

Shifting emphasis somewhat, Ron stated: "Since Jesus used 'fornication' and 'adultery' in the same reading it is clear that something sexual (or physical) is in view." I would contend that this is perhaps reading more into the passage than is actually there. One is again assuming that the exclusive meaning of both of these terms is sexual in nature. I do not believe that to be true, especially with respect to the term moicheia (adultery).

Let me try and illustrate this from a passage within the same context as our Lord's Matthew 5:32 statement. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus declares, "Anyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." Using the same logic as Ron used with respect to verse 32, we might well come to the same conclusion that since "lust" and "adultery" are used "in the same reading, it is clear that something sexual is in view." But, Ron, is that true? Let's analyze this statement by Jesus a little more closely to see if your principle of interpretation is valid.

The word translated "lust" is a Greek word meaning "to earnestly desire, to long for, to set the heart upon, to covet." This verb, epithumeo, is neutral in the sense that it can be either positive longing or negative longing; it all depends upon what one longs for, and how it affects oneself and others. Jesus said, "With DESIRE I have DESIRED to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15, KJV). This is the same word. Certainly nothing sexual there. Paul said that elders must DESIRE the work of overseeing the flock (I Tim. 3:1). Same word. In fact, a study of this particular word shows that the "more frequent" meaning and usage in Scripture is NON-sexual in nature.

Therefore, is it just possible, Ron, that the "earnest desire" of the person in Matthew 5:28 may include something other than sexual longing? I think one must at least acknowledge the possibility, don't you?!! There is nothing in the text which absolutely demands the word be interpreted in a sexual sense ONLY. The fact is, people can earnestly desire a relationship with another for numerous reasons other than sex. Not every person who looks upon a woman is anticipating in his heart a sexual union. A man, for example, might believe a particular woman would make a better mother for his children, or a better preacher's wife, or a better cook (many of the Jews of Jesus' time had a "law" that a man could divorce his wife if she burned his bread). If his deep, intense longing for her led him to want her more than he wanted his own wife, then Jesus says that man has "already" committed adultery in his heart. Thus, we see Jesus declaring "adultery" has occurred, and yet sex was never involved at all!! This makes it clear that it is at least possible in some cases for "adultery" to be a NON-sexual event.

This being so, Ron, one can hardly declare the passage just four verses later an obvious case where something sexual is in view, since epithumeo, porneia, and moicheia can all have non-sexual meanings and applications in Scripture. Therefore, we must be open to the possibility at least that Jesus MAY have had something additional or deeper in mind here. I'm certainly NOT discounting the sexual import of the passage. I'm merely suggesting that such may not be ALL that is in view there. Can we at least be open to that possibility, Ron?!

Ron stated that if I tried "to apply some sort of metaphorical meaning to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to the word 'fornication' he ..., well, he has forgotten to apply the rules of hermeneutics as he should." Just the opposite, brother. I am simply refusing to practice "dogmatic exposition of the Bible," to use Dr. Terry's characterization. I am not interested in applying ONLY the metaphorical use, nor am I interested in applying ONLY the literal use. I am interested in applying the BIBLICAL usage and meaning of the term, and that usage and meaning is varied. We must acknowledge this and approach our work of interpretation accordingly. And that is sound hermeneutics.

Please note carefully what I said previously with respect to my approach to the interpretation of porneia in these passages: "Therefore, I personally would not EXCLUDE spiritual unfaithfulness, for example, as A valid interpretation and application of porneia." Note carefully, Ron, that I did not say I would IMPOSE such a view exclusively on the passages. I merely stated that I would not EXCLUDE such a view. There is a big difference. I do not feel one can legitimately exclude an interpretation of a word which is clearly recognized to be one which "occurs more frequently .... than its ordinary sense" (your quotation from your source!!). This being true, that view should not be excluded from consideration as the passage is exegeted. That is my only point, Ron. Surely you can agree with that premise.

Ron wrote: "Al said there is no contextual direction in the matter. Well, if the words 'fornication' and 'adultery' are allowed to have their primary meaning, then Jesus certainly did give us direction." My point, however, is that there is really nothing in the words themselves, nor in the context (as seen in vs. 28, for example), which would DEMAND only one meaning and usage be applied here to the exclusion of all others. Yes, one can impose a single meaning and usage upon these terms, and insist that others accept such imposition, but where there is sufficient lack of contextual direction with regard to one interpretation over another, then such dogmatic, restrictive and exclusivistic selection and imposition is simply not justified. And that is true for either interpretation.

Ron objects to my reasoning because: "Since it has more than one meaning it's not possible for us to know which one to apply." Your assessment smacks of desperation, and it need not. There are many examples in Scripture where statements have levels of meaning and interpretation. It is not uncommon for words and phrases to have more than a single meaning and application. In cases where more than one is possible, and where there may not be a clear means of determining which was originally intended (if indeed the author even intended only one), the interpreter should consider the possibility that BOTH may be in view. My view, Ron, includes the literal interpretation; your view, however, excludes the spiritual, figurative and metaphorical. When there is some reasonable doubt that the literal is the ONLY interpretation possible (and I believe there IS such reasonable doubt here), then it is a "dogmatic exposition of the Bible" which insists upon one view to the exclusion of all others.

All I have attempted to discern in my questioning of you thus far, Ron, is the nature of your approach to the interpretation of these passages. I am hoping that in your response to this post you will clarify your position somewhat, and I am further hopeful that your approach will be less restrictive and exclusive than I fear it might be.

May God richly bless you, brother, as we delve deeper into this study of divorce and remarriage, and the specific proposition before us.

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