Those who have just started reading the blog recently may not be aware of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with GotQuestions.org. They have an article about annulments which grossly misrepresents the Biblical evidence, in my opinion. If you want the full backstory, I’ve added a GotQuestions tag.
Because it’s been a while, I’m going to give a quick reminder of what the whole dispute with GotQuestions was all about. The argument is centered upon Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, which say that “If a man divorces his wife except in the case of porneia, he causes her to commit adultery (moicheia).” In the parallel accounts, in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, there’s a total ban on divorce and remarriage. So the question is three-fold: (1) what does porneia mean in this context? (2) can a person divorce and remarry for any reason? and ( 3) How is Matthew’s account reconcilable with Mark and Luke’s?
Porneia refers to some sort of sexual sin, everyone agrees on that. But that’s where the agreement stops. The traditional Protestant reading of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 say, “If A and B are married, divorce/remarriage is barred unless A cheats on B with C.” The Catholic reading of those same verses says, “If A and B are married, divorce/remarriage is barred unless A & B aren’t married in the eyes of God, and are just committing fornication.” Examples of this would be a forced marriage, gay marriage, incestual marriage, etc. Decrees of Nullity (annulments) simply declare that A & B, in fact, were never married in the eyes of God. A civil divorce may still need to take place. I used the example last time of one partner in a gay “marriage” converting, and not wanting to be in the homosexual relationship anymore. He’d need a civil divorce, but a divorce in such a case wouldn’t be a sin.
The traditional Protestant interpretation runs into two major problems.
- First, it equates porneia with adultery, but it cannot mean that. Moicheia is the term for adultery, and even in the above verses from Matthew, we see him distinguishing in Greek between porneia and adultery.
- Second, it creates an impossible tension between the texts. Put it this way: imagine a person hears through word of mouth that Jesus spoke on the issue of divorce and remarriage. He’s just discovered that his wife has been unfaithful and wants to know if he can divorce her and remarry. If he picks up Mark or Luke’s account of the event, he’ll get a clear-cut no. But if he picks up Matthew’s, he’ll get an equally clear-cut yes, if the Protestant interpretation is correct. Not only is this irreconcilable, but it’s compounded by the fact that different groups of early Christians had different Gospels: so Jewish Christians with Matthew’s interpretation would believe one while, while Gentile Christians with Mark’s would think another. This interpretation causes a split along Jewish/Gentile lines (although, fortunately, none of the actual Greek-speaking Christians in the first centuries, who knew what porneia meant, seem to have held the modern Protestant position).
If you want a more in-depth discussion of this, I tried to do that here. Anyways, GotQuestions had published an article presenting the Protestant view without answering these tensions, and claiming that Catholics could only hold their belief in annulments by intentionally mistranslating the passages in Matthew. This argument wasn’t based off of any analysis of the Greek, or any other uses of porneia in the New Testament, but off of the fact that all the major Protestant Bible translations agreed that porneia meant adultery, so the NAB must be up to something sneaky by not agreeing. The tone of the article wasn’t a defense of the Protestant view, it was an attack on the Catholic view as being Biblically untenable and held in bad faith. In other words, GotQuestions thought you couldn’t hold the Catholic view based upon the Bible, as if annulments arose for some other reason. Since I think the weight of the evidence falls very strongly on the Catholic side (and have never heard a Protestant apologist defend the apparent contradiction, only attack the Catholic view), I responded, and some back-and-forth has ensued where I presented problems and they sort of avoided answering anything too directly.
Now, with that background out of the way, let’s get to the update. In my June 8th post, I mentioned that Shea from GotQuestions had said “I will commit to reviewing/editing the annulment article this week.” Well, that never happened. I checked periodically throughout June to see if anything had been done to fix the problems which I had pointed out. Finally, this past Friday, I got an e-mail letting me know: “We published some revisions to our “annulment” article. You will no doubt still strongly disagree with our conclusions, but we revised the wording to address the concerns you raised.”
That was all the detail that Shea went into, but I’d saved an old version of the article on my computer, so I was able to “Compare Versions” (thanks, Microsoft Word!), and it showed me what was different between the two. Essentially:
- Minor grammatical changes.
- The claim “An annulment works like a military court” was removed. It was a strange sentence sitting by itself, a sort of blurted prejudice which didn’t advance the argument, unless by “advance the argument” you mean “inspire Inquisition fears in anti-Catholic readers.” I hadn’t complained about it, but I suppose it’s good that they cleaned it up.
- They removed the Biblical passages which discussed marriage. Remember that it was because their interpretation of Matthew disagreed with the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke that I was able to present their apparent error. Their response seems to have been to remove the evidence.
- The word adultery was changed to “sexual immorality” and/or “marital unfaithfulness.”
It’s quite possible that these revisions have made the problem worse. The reason is that the GotQuestions’ authors are still conceiving of porneia as A cheating on B with C. And by broadening it from adultery to any form of “sexual immorality” or “marital unfaithfulness,” they’re opening the doors to divorces in all sorts of cases. A husband who views pornography is engaging in sexual immorality, and arguably a form of marital unfaithfulness, but few people who call that divorcable adultery. Since an overwhelming number of American marriages (unfortunately) contain some form of sexual immorality at some point, this new interpretation comes pretty close to a carte blanche exception that swallows the rule. Why not just say, “you can’t divorce unless you have a really good reason for divorcing”? It’d be effectively the same thing. Anyone contemplating a divorce could find shelter in this overbroad definition.
In the process of “fixing” the article, they have responded to the fact that porneia can’t mean adultery (moicheia). They have not responded to the fact that their interpretation contradicts Mark and Luke’s Gospels — in fact, they’ve broadened the contradiction.* Instead of correcting the article so it comports with all the Gospel accounts, they’ve just omitted any reference to Mark or Luke in the article. While I can’t tell what their motives were for removing the paragraph which actually presented the Biblical view, it looks like the very sort of underhandedness they were accusing the NAB of.
*Now, an individual who hears that Jesus has spoken on the issue of divorce and remarriage and wants to divorce and remarry based on a much less grevious spousal sexual sin will have contradictory Biblical messages, if they believe GotQuestions’ presentation of the issue.
P.S. One additional thing I should note: some Bible versions, both Protestant and Catholic, use the term “fornication.” This term is accurate as long as it’s understood that A & B are fornicating with one another, not with third-parties. Since fornication usually means pre-marital sex, it’s the closest English equivalent to porneia, but without an explanatory footnote, it’s unfortunately vague (which is why the NAB used the phrase “unlawful marriage” to explain what porneia meant in context).