Divorce and apostolic hermeneutics

More from Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today. Last Sunday we had a discussion on marriage, cohabitation, and divorce. One of the passages discussed was 1 Cor 7.10-16, where Paul permitted divorce if the unbelieving partner asked for a divorce. This is a situation which was not dealt with by Jesus when he answered the question on divorce by the Pharisees (Mat 19.3-12). The Pharisees asked about the lawfulness (what else) of divorce. So naturally the question was discussed in the realm of the law of Moses (and Jesus answered the question beyond what was required in the Torah).

But Paul was dealing with a new situation, where now a believer found herself/himself to live with a unbeliever husband/wife (naturally, the believer became believer after they got married). So he wrote, “I say, I, not the Lord.” This saying is not meant to pit Paul against Jesus, as some do, but precisely to underline the apostolic authority of Paul. This is an explicit instance where Paul exercised his apostolic authority when he couldn’t get it directly from the tradition of sayings and deeds of Jesus (which what he did on 7.10: “Not I, but the Lord”).

To dwell on the matter further, perhaps it could help us in trying to answer those questions, contemporary questions that we faced now, 21st century questions which were not dealt with by Jesus nor Paul. To follow Paul means to exercise some kind of apostolic authority in dealing with these questions. Where, then, could we find such apostolic authority? In the Scriptures and in the church. Scripture itself is a collection of apostolic witness, and we believe in a holy catholic apostolic church. Thus the endless dialectic between the church and the Scripture. The church must converse with the Scripture (and the Great Tradition, since the church is a historic church!), and the Scripture is used appropriately within the context of the faithfuls.

And hence the hermeneutical freedom that the church has when it needs to deal with new questions, for it can give new answers to new situations which were not dealt with in the Scriptures. Paradoxically, it can go beyond Jesus and Paul and yet faithful to both of them.


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