Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dem Bones Dialogue Series: Marriage and Domestic Violence III

Tripp is a progressive evangelical and just started his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Claremont. Like Kent H, he is also an ordained minister.
How can a Biblical literalist get out of a physically abusive marriage? This article tells about a few rouge fundamentalists are attempting to craft a Biblical logic that will permit the abused to divorce the abuser. For every person who protects themselves or their children by leaving a marriage because of this new logic I am grateful. The thing is, I imagine God is exceedingly grateful as well. Domestic violence in relationship to the marriage vows is just one example of how a shortsighted understanding of scripture, combined with people and power, creates a tragedy.

The question being raised in the article reveals a much larger system that is, at best, silently complicit in the abuse of spouses and children. A number of perspectives that leave the victims at the hands and in the homes of the abusers are mentioned. For example, Bruce Ware is a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is said to have ruminated on the way a wife's insubmission can be the cause of domestic abuse or how the abused women are reminded that 'love is a choice rather than an emotion' as they are encouraged to put themselves back in the violent situation. Repeating or even tolerating these lines leads to abused women and children. If that is not the complete opposite of what the God revealed in Jesus wants for the world, I have no idea what is. In fact, as a minister, I would suggest we run from any justification of such acts of violence and betrayal used in the name of God. Why should we have to fight the Bible or craft some new literalist reading of selected texts to do what is good, life-giving, and hopefully Christian?

To those of you who could not imagine the horrible situations described in the article, I would like to suggest that this is not simply about Biblical fidelity. Instead, I think the primary issue at stake for those supposed 'literalists' is really their rabid insecurity about the marriage mythology of conservative Christians. In order for conservatives to continue to pretend marriage has always been between one man and one woman and insist to everyone in the public square that this should be the foundational part of society's bedrock - which cannot be challenged or all hell (hopefully metaphorically) will break loose - they must even assert the marriage mythology in the face of domestic abuse. Most any Bible reader knows that polygamy is the Biblical norm, and there are probably about as many life long single people as there are monogamous couples. In addition, women were often treated as property, denied their full humanity, Biblically divorced and left out alone by their husbands. Oddly enough, the idea of 'separation' which is proposed throughout the article by fundamentalists is neither advocated nor practiced once in scripture. Jesus spoke into this notably patriarchal culture and prohibited divorce. In doing so he advanced the rights of women in that context, not allowing the husband to move towards younger pastures on a whim. In Jesus' rejection of past 'Biblical' reasoning for a more life-giving one on behalf of the marginalized, I believe we see a logic and we receive a mandate, as Christians, to continue this trajectory today. Our context is different - so the prescription is different - but our diagnosis is the same. Especially when it come to domestic abuse.

Any legit New Testament Scholar will tell you that the exception for Jesus' complete prohibition of divorce in the Gospel of Matthew (the Mathean Exception) is more than likely a later, historical addition to Jesus' words. Why then would a community feel like they should add on to the words of Jesus when the teaching is so straight forward? Why would it add adultrey as an exception to the complete prohibition of divorce? I am sure that you, like myself, can imagine a situation where this exception made perfect sense. When one is an adulterer, they have broken the marriage covenant, and it is hardly a protection of marraige to require a spouse to live with someone who lays with someone else. I would like to assert that in the case of domestic abuse that the marriage covenant is abandoned by the abuser and trashed by the abuser the moment violence enters the marriage and the spouse becomes a victim. The one committing this violent act - an act worthy of divorce - is not the victim, but the violator.

This isn't odd once you begin to see covenants as primarily a way of relating, and in the case of marriage, modeled on and nested within the God who is Love. No one and no marriage is perfect. For a marriage to flourish it needs a reservoir of grace but also a foundation of trust and responsibility. Many cases of abuse are even rooted in psychological and chemical issues that require more than a forgive, forget, and submit response to a genuinely repentant spouse. Clearly first century thinkers were not aware of the powerful effects a toxic subconscious can have, but we are and we cannot justify ignorance and complicit violence with God, Jesus, or the Bible today.


aznew said...

Hi Tripp -- I have a question, with the proviso that I'm not trying to offend you, so apologies in advance if I do.
You write: "Any legit New Testament Scholar will tell you that the exception for Jesus' complete prohibition of divorce in the Gospel of Matthew (the Mathean Exception) is more than likely a later, historical addition to Jesus' words. Why then would a community feel like they should add on to the words of Jesus when the teaching is so straight forward?"
I'm curious about this. Is this merely a civil teaching capable of amendment by a "community," or is it a divine teaching, and if so, how can the needs of a community, no matter how reasonable from a human perspective, override it?
Of course, you ask and answer this question yourself, sort of. You state, This [amendment of Jesus' teaching] isn't odd once you begin to see covenants as primarily a way of relating, and in the case of marriage, modeled on and nested within the God who is Love." I actually agree with this statement, insofar as it pertains to the covenants that comprise marriage, 100%. But I recognize this as merely an interpretation, and it doesn't really seem to explain, within the NT itself, the civil override of what I presume is a divine command.

jhimm said...

I'm curious if anyone is interested in re-attempting this exercise without the assumption that the abuser is male and the abused is female? Does the literalist interpretation change when the "submission" piece is flipped on its head? If so, how can the literalist justify such a disturbing double-standard?

Darren Staley said...

This digresses a bit from the dialogue, but I need to ask: if the Bible is to be taken literally, which is the true Bible?

The original Hebrew, the KJV, the NKJV, the original canons, Luther's German version? I don't ask this to be snarky, just to know what a literalist considers the true Bible.

Tripp said...

Hey aznew, I guess one could ask the same question as to why one would remove the exception in two of the three attestation of the saying as well. Since its presence or absence is clearly a substantial difference on the literal level, meaning either Jesus rejects divorce completely (Mark, Luke) or gives an out (Matthew), what I was offering was a way to see the development in the Gospel of Matthew as coherent with the intention of Mark (the oldest Gospel and a source for the author of Matthew) and presumably the historical Jesus and the presence of the living Christ in the community of faith. So yes this is a divine teaching and primarily a relational one. Both of these I think are affirmed when the Matthean exception is seen not as an alteration of the substance of a teaching of Jesus, though literally it is a clear alteration, but instead an expansion of the spiritual substance expressed in the teaching of Jesus in a new context.

The other options appear to be
1. either pretend there is no substantive difference between the two versions of Jesus' teaching on divorce (an option you will see Paul and other Apostolic Fathers NOT doing)
2. assume they are contradictory, but just as literal historical statements, but Matthew simply records the teaching once when Jesus left his traditional answer OR Jesus changed his mind about the issue.
3. Postulate that all the textual evidence we have of the Gospel of Matthew that gives witness to this exception was not in the 'original' version of the text.

There may be other ways of getting around the problem, but I like mine the best and the others I have mentioned go against much of what I have learned about the NT and the early Christian community.

I hope that helps provide clarity. Thanks for the question.

Tripp said...

jhimm, I completely agree with your question. The article we were responding to assumed a male to female movement so I actually changed my gender neutral language thinking I should avoid the necessary words to explain the choice. For a non-literalist and progressive Christian like myself, I would not want the discussion to be limited to just heterosexual marriages as well. My use of covenant language and expansion of 'violence' to include extramarital affairs creates a relational matrix than can be employed in more situations.

Good Point. Thanks.

Tripp said...

Hey Darren, I have no answer to your question because I am not a literalist but it does bring up a distinction I would like to make. A literalist interpretation assumes the Word of God is containable within some series of human words about God. Regardless of how your question is answered I think you have to be very suspicious of the answer, because of what is being said epistemologically (the study of knowledge). In a sense the literialist is admitting the Word of God can fit into human words about God. That is idolatry to me for two reasons.
1. The social sciences are clear that human language is a creation of human society over time, a human product, so to say the Word of God can be literally any collection of human words is deifying a human text.
2. The Bible actual attests to Jesus being the Word of and from God and Jesus did not take up words but flesh, living, friends, eating, BMs, BO, confrontations, outcasts, etc. The Word of God came and took up flesh and even death in the flesh couldn't contain God's Word but God's Word of Love to and for all the World is not dead, absent, or possibly contained in any series of letters, words, and symbols but alive and present today in the world - reconciling it to Godself.

This should not be a threat to biblical authority because scripture's authority is derivative from the history of God working in the communities is speaks of (Israel and church). Its authority is not something to be established by postulating perfect original manuscripts or attempting to objectively prove reported events contained within its pages, no its authority remains derivative and must be demonstrated by the believing community as it gives living witness to its power when it lives and shares in love.

Kent H said...

Whoa, that's my que.
I will speak from the literalist's point of view now.
I start by stating that I agree in part with Tripp that the Bible does not contain all that can be said or communicated of God. It is a means of revelation that God has chosen Himself. And though in our mind language has its limitations when speaking of God and the divine, that does not diminish God's ability to use human language to reveal Himself. Like the person of Jesus Christ, Scripture is the special revelation of God through human agency to say what God Himself wanted said, right down the very words (verbal-plenary inspiration). This view in fact does NOT deify any book. Calling literalism idolotry is insulting. But the Scripture declares itself to be the very words of God. 2 Timothy 3:16 calls Scripture "inspired" or "God-breathed" (theopneustos). While our use of human language definitely has its weaknesses, God has chosen to condescend to use human language to reveal His word and His will without the mixing of error or weakness.
The Bible, Darren, is that which God Himself actually inspired. The original autographs of Scripture were written by the original authors in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek - by inspiration (God-breathing). The doctrine of inspiration does not extend to any copy or translation. Though the doctrine of preservation does accept that God is able to insure that His word is preserved. Through the academic disciplines of textual criticism and comparison, there are so many copies left over, from communities of faith that valued the Word and its faithful reproduction, there can be little doubt that what we have now is at least faithful to the original manuscripts (though those are lost to time). While it is impossible for us to do a full treatment of the issue of Bibliology, I hope I've helped.

Kent H said...

P.S. By the way, I do whole-heartedly disagree with Tripp on the derivative of authority for Scripture. Authority cannot come from and then back to any community. The derivative of authority must come from an authoritative source. "Stop in the name of the law" is an authoritative statement that comes from the "law" and extends to an authoritative position over the subjects. The authority of Scripture comes from the fact that the source of all authority gave the word for us to obey.

Kent H said...

jhimm - sorry I almost forgot. The article we commented on assumed the wife was being abused. In the event that the abused mate was the husband, the issue does not change. The husband can (and should in cases of actual danger) assume the role that I laid out for the abused wife. You are right, a change in model would be a double-standard. In this event, the wife is obviously violating her marriage commitment and not submitting "one to another."
I would not speak to the issue of homosexual partnerships because the Bible makes no allowance for such a marriage or guidelines for such a union.

Kent H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tripp said...

Kent, here are some distinctions based on your language where I think you say too much about scripture.
- "It(the Bible) is a means of revelation that God has chosen Himself." Instead I would say the book communicates to the believing community that God has chosen to reveal Godself in history and specifically in the person of Jesus.
- "This view in fact does NOT deify any book." My concern is over the near deification of human language.
- "Like the person of Jesus Christ, Scripture is the special revelation of God through human agency to say what God Himself wanted said." Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Word coeternal with God, whose revelation is not just special revelation, but the Self-Revelation of God. A very clear distinction from the very beginning of Christian theology and one that plenary inspiration (in my mind) violates. The self-revelation of God, i would add, comes in history not words. That is a difference between Christianity and Islam.
- I have been reading a bunch of Luther and he uses idolatry very loosely. Sorry to offend. I am actually enjoying the discussion and enjoyed your post.

Kent H said...

Good response Tripp,
All due respect (and you are obviously well-versed) but what you would say of the Scripture and what the Scripture says of itself are very different. I totally agree with your assessment of the Self-revelation of God in Christ -- but not because that is what history tells us. That is what the Scripture tells us (Heb 1:1-2 for example).
The issue is this -- the self-revelation of God in Christ and special revelation of God's word in the Scripture never violate one another. I get very nervous about any theology that declares a knowledge of Christ apart from the written word. Without the objective authority of Scripture, people can make Jesus into any type of "Savior" they want Him to be. Even in your description of Christ, you use language that denotes a Scriptural understanding of the person of Christ. Surely, we don't accept the descriptive language of the Scripture without accepting its other content. The Bible is either God's word or it isn't. This "inspired in spots" business is another way to have no assurances of truth whatsoever.
I cannot deify language, but I do acknowledge God's right and ability to communicate in a way that we can comprehend and in a fashion He so desires. I just have a hard time telling God what He can and cannot do. And His desire is not just community but relationship. That relationship would be impossible without communication and the Bible declares that communication to be in Scripture. I think that the claims of Scripture have been authenticated enough that I don't need to have that discussion here.
Good discusssion.