Jeff Gissing:

Since we just started a series on Jesus’ teaching on divorce, here are some older thoughts on the nature of marriage as it relates to procreation.

Originally posted on Jeff Gissing:

As I’m writing this, it’s ten till seven on a Sunday morning. The kids are playing in loudly in their bedroom. I’m on my first cup of coffee and trying to get at least three hundred words written before making breakfast, showering, getting the kids ready for church, and heading out the door.

I opened the tab on my browser where I store pages that I’d like to read later and landed on a post from Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Blog, “The fruitful callings of the childless by choice.”

The post asks its readers to reconsider how the church treats those who choose not to have children. The deeper question is whether or not procreation legitimates marriage. Is marriage compromised by not having children? 


The Scriptural basis of the church’s teaching on procreation is found at the very beginning of the Scriptural canon:

So God created man in his own image…

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Dictionary definition of divorce

Dictionary definition of divorce

The issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage have caused much debate within the Christian community and are of significant pastoral weight. Until recently, the locus of this discussion has been on whether and when a divorce between husband and wife is permitted. Of late the discussion has shifted to the very nature of marriage: whether Christian marriage may be redefined to include same-gender relationships.

Many progressive interpreters of Scripture appeal to changing views on divorce as evidence for the ways in which our scriptural understanding may evolve over time. Attitudes certainly shift over time, but whether the shift is meaningfully connected to a shift in interpretive approach or simply ignorance or indifferent to Scripture and tradition is less easy to discern. The vast majority of evangelical Christians–those who profess a high view of Scripture, among other markers–have capitulated to the concept of no-fault divorce and, perhaps more insidiously, have successfully removed the church from speaking into these sorts of issues in the lives of its members. This bracketing, while understandable, also denigrates the theological purpose of the church as a school of virtue in which members are shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of course, affirming the authority of Holy Scripture is easy when one understands–or thinks one understands–clearly what the Bible says. However, when the teaching of the Scriptures is more obscure, a diversity of opinions arises and conflict is likely not far behind.

How then do we make sense of what Jesus says about divorce in the Gospels?

A fundamental presupposition to a helpful discussion is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant.

A discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce must focus on the four sections of the Synoptic Gospels that deal with the subject: Matt 5:31ff., 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18.

These four accounts, episodes if you will, can be synthesized to provide a single coherent and consistent teaching on the subject of divorce that  appeals to the Old Testament.

We can then compare Jesus approach to the Hebrew Scriptures with that of the two, well-documented schools of interpretation found in first century Judaism: the schools of Shammai, and of Hillel. As we compare the different approaches to interpretation both with one another and with that of Jesus, we will be able to delineate the ways in which Jesus’ approach varies from the dominant Jewish approaches of the day.

This is the second post (read the first here) in a series about competing understandings of the Scriptures found in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am tracking the discussion found in the 1983 position statement, The Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture (.pdf available here) which was adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and carried into the creation of the newly-formed PC USA in 1983.


The central point offered at the beginning of the document is an acknowledgment of the variety of understandings of what the Bible is and how the Bible is to be used both in the life of the church and the life of the individual believer:

Since Holy Scripture is the principal criterion of judgment in taking positions and making decisions, radical differences among us in the way we understand and use Scripture as the rule of faith and practice can weaken our ability to live and work as a community of faith. Especially in the case of theological and ethical decisions that the courts [i.e., councils] of our church [i.e., denomination] must make corporately, the diversity has become an important source of difficulty in deliberation and agreement.

The plurality of views has, if anything, widened since 1983.

In the last post we explored the first four differing views from the list of eight found in the document:

  1. The inerrancy view
  2. The supernatural book view
  3. The infallibility view
  4. The critical view
  5. The biblicist view
  6. The record view
  7. The political view
  8. The doctrinalist view

Let’s now turn our attention to the remaining positions.

The Biblicist View

I’m not certain that I am clear on what the framers have in mind. I assume that they’re describing what might be called the liberal baptist view: “I have no creed but the Bible.” Or, it could be a view of Scripture that lends itself more to Biblical theology as set over against the historical tendency of presbyterians to engage in systematic theology. Traditional presbyterianism is Calvinist in nature and the highest expression of that tradition is the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms. These standards exclusively informed the theology of the Presbyterian churches from the time 17th Century until the 20th. A Confession and creeds are systematic summaries of the witness of Scripture according to topic or heading. Some presbyterians feel that the project of systematic theology makes the Bible do something it wasn’t meant to do, which is provide a systematic description of what we know about God. I disagree.

The Record View

This view holds that the Bible is “one of the revered documents of the church” but “does not seriously expect it to be illuminating or determining for important issues of faith or life in the present day.” This is a troublesome view which, in my opinion, is the predominating view of Scripture I have observed in my interaction with ministers in two presbyteries of the PC USA. The Bible, we are told, captures the reflections of ancient people as they encountered God–it is their record of the revelation of God rather than revelation itself. This is a seriously deficient view of the Bible, which is a product more of European Romanticism than Scripture Christianity. It produces statements such as “the Biblical writers could not possibly have known [xyz] therefore what they said outdated or does not control…” This view marginalizes Scripture to an inspirational book rather than a rule for faith.

The Political View

Some on both the left and the right seem happy to use the Bible to advance their political agendas. On the left, the Bible has nothing to say about homosexuality but virtually anything said about immigration in any passage is held to be controlling for the church today. On the right, issues of personal morality are focused on sometimes to the neglect of social and structural sin.

The Bracketed View

This view holds that the Bible is our source for religious knowledge alone and ought not to be consulted for anything other than learning doctrine. Frankly, I’m not sure that I know anyone who holds this view but I am sure that it exists in certain hybrid forms with others of these views.

Each of these views has something unique to it and something that it offers to the church. However, each of these views results in a (sometimes vastly) different conclusions as to belief or practice in the church, as we’ll see next week.

I highly recommend this short video on Biblical interpretation. In three minutes you can get an overview of the Bible’s purpose and some guidance in how to properly use the Scripture. Check it out!

Since Holy Scripture is the principal criterion of judgment in taking positions and making decisions, radical differences among us in the way we understand and use Scripture as the rule of faith and practice can weaken our ability to live and work as a community of faith.

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