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

Tuesday, January 16, 2001

A Response by Ron Thomas
To Al Maxey's Last Post

I appreciate Al's response to what I've said. I also appreciate Al's vigorous defense of his approach. Men who approach whatever field of study they are engaged in ought to think through things as thoroughly as they can. People who do such will also give thought to those that might oppose them and some of their objections. I believe that is occurring here. Al is not unfamiliar with the objections I'm offering him. Neither am I unfamiliar with Al's position (I may be unfamiliar with some specifics, but not the general course of approach). For the benefit of those that might desire a serious investigation of the issue(s), a gentlemanly debate is warranted. This is occurring here. I appreciate that.

Al said: "...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."

I would be happy to acknowledge the possibility of a single reference having more than one meaning (or application) if it was warranted in the passage under discussion (as Matt. 5:32 & 19:9), but it is not.

Al said: "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."

What I'm saying is that "double talk" would apply if the word used, in this context (fornication), were to have more than one meaning. The dictionary defines "double-talk" as a speaker using deliberately ambiguous language (as part of its definition and application). Which meaning of the word would one choose? Words have meanings it is understood. That words could be applied or understood differently in different contexts few would dispute. But to say that Jesus is using a word that would not be clearly understood makes understanding Jesus questionable.

Al said: "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!"

You are correct in that I did not emphasize that fact. I did not need to do so because the point of emphasis is that the word has an "ordinary" (or primary) meaning. Merely because a word is used more in one sense than another does not mean it is to be applied with BOTH senses in a single passage. Question: Does the word porneia ever have an exclusive or literal meaning in Holy Writ (i.e., where one meaning will apply and the other will not)?

Al said: "One should at least be open to the possibility that a meaning and application other than the literal might be in view, at least to some degree."

This is also true. However, neither should one try to be too willing to apply metaphorical meanings to words when, in the context, the literal meaning will do exceptionally well! Here it is required.

Al said: "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, and (2) when interpreting a passage of Scripture where this word is found, one should at least consider these various aspects of the word in question before settling upon an interpretation."

In a general sort of way this is fine. The difficulty came (comes) when a particular context eliminates a metaphorical meaning and demands the application of the literal meaning. Consider the word theos. It has a specific meaning, but the application is contingent upon the context. Or, how about the Greek word that gives us our English word baptism? It has a specific meaning, but its application is determined by the context.

Al said: "My only hope is that Ron will not discount out of hand the possible significance of the more frequent biblical occurrence of this term in those specific passages. My sense, and I may be wrong here, is that Ron has decided that the ONLY possible meaning of this term in the Matthew 5 and 19 passages is the literal."

I, in no way, discounted "out of hand" the possibility of an extended meaning here in the passage under consideration. What I did do is apply simple rules of hermeneutics to the understanding of this passage, nothing more. Have I decided that the only meaning of the word porneia is its literal application? I did, but because the context demands it.

Al said: "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, Ron, at this juncture, 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."

Al, I have not closed my mind to what you have offered, thus far, and neither will I close my mind to what you will offer. But you have a pretty tall order (in my estimation) in front of you. I will admit of skepticism, but I'll let you offer your evidence. Up to this point your "evidence" has not been convincing at all.

Al said: "In the 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."

I have no difficulty with this comment from your reference. Albert Barnes made use of a phrase that I have found useful over these many years. He said, when discussing a passage, "the natural interpretation of the passage is..." (or words to that effect). What I'm saying with respect to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is the natural interpretation.

Al said: "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.'"

Again, there is no difficulty with this principle. If a reader has good reason to narrow the use of the word, in a specific context, then he is to do so. That is exactly what I'm saying is demanded in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. The word porneia means "illicit sexual intercourse" (Thayer). Al, does Dr. Lockhart give a list of such words and their references?

Al said: "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. I think it is safe to assume, 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 meaning and usage. The latter would be more a practice of what Dr. Milton Terry characterized in his work: '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."

Al, with all due respect, I don't think it is safe at all to apply meanings when the context makes clear that a single meaning is that which is warranted. And no scholar (not even one) that I have come across has suggested or even intimated what you think could be a possibility in Matthew 5:32 or 19:9. Do you know of one that I might check out their work?

There is nothing inherently wrong with being dogmatic about a particular passage or teaching of Scripture. That which makes dogmatism wrong is when the approach and conclusion is wrong (just as Dr. Terry said on page 171). I concur with your "rational" approach to the understanding of Scripture. But I object to allowing the figurative to apply when the literal is demanded.

Al said: "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.... 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.' 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 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). 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."

Al, you have made my point. In these examples the context sets forth the parameters. The context of Matthew 5:28 is clearly telling us where adultery starts, in the heart. Whereas "adultery" was thought of by some to not occur until the act, Jesus is making clear that it actually starts in the heart before it ever results in the act.

Also, the meaning of the two words ("lust" and "adultery") are not related, in and of themselves, except by the context. The words "fornication" and "adultery" are very much related. The Greek word you referred to can have a positive and negative application --- as you've stated. Another point worth noting: the word epithumeo does not have, inherently, any sexual connotation. But the result of using the word (or the application) of the word is applied to a sexual context. Question: Does the Greek word porneia have both a positive AND negative application?

Al said: "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?!!"

This is true, but as I said, the context makes clear how the word is to be understood. In the context it is tied to a sexual application.

Al said: "There is nothing in the text which absolutely demands the word be interpreted in a sexual sense ONLY."

Yes there is! There is nothing in the context that will allow for anything other than an understanding of a sexual application. What, in the context of Matthew 5:28-32, will allow for the word to be understood in a non-sexual way?

Al said: "If his deep, intense longing for her led him to want her more than he wanted his 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."

You are "straining" very hard here it seems to me. Will God grant a divorce based purely upon what is in the heart of a person? If adultery is a justifiable reason for divorce and remarriage, and you have cited (according to your view) at least one reference where adultery is non-sexual (though it is very much related to the sexual context), will you teach a person that once their spouse has lust in their heart (regardless of what they are lusting after, be it a thing or a person) that a divorce is therefore scriptural?

Al said: "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 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?!"

Yes, we must be open to the possibility. But the application is either granted or eliminated based upon the context.

Al said: "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 rule 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."

Will the literal meaning of the word porneia (in any sense at all) apply in John 8:41; Revelation 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2?

Will the figurative meaning of porneia (in any sense at all) apply in I Corinthians 5:1; 6:13, 18?

Will both applications of the word apply in all the referenced passages?

Al said: "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."

I have taken note of what you have said and neither did I say you were trying to do this. But I did say that your application of the word suggests a double meaning. Yes, I can agree that one should not exclude an application of a word when it applies. But, it clearly does not apply in the passages under consideration. If you are exegeting the passage in include the application of porneia in a metaphorical way --- I suggest you are doing a poor job (I intend no disrespect when I say this). What Greek expositor contends as you do (on the possibility of porneia having both its literal and metaphorical application) on the passage of Matthew 5:32 or 19:9? Henry Alford has said, with reference to Matthew 5:32 (The New Testament For English Readers, Moody Press, p. 32, n/d), "the figurative senses of fornication cannot be admissible here, as the law is one having reference to a definite point in actual life; and this, its aim and end, restricts the meaning to that kind of fornication immediately applicable to the case."

Al said: "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."

You may think so, but I do not think it smacks of desperation at all. My objection to what you have offered is true with respect to the passages under consideration. It is not possible for one to know which one to apply --- it is purely whatever one may decide to do.

Al said: "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."

I have attempted to clarify myself and question your approach. I believe this will encourage the discussion along. Hopefully, as you read this, you'll feel "inspired" to respond vigorously. I think that will be helpful to those that read this. As you write in a "hard" way to what I have said, I'll not assume that you intend any disrespect, only that you are defending what you believe to be correct.

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