Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers

Jim Newheiser, P&R Publishing Co., 2017, 336pp, £12.94 (£7.72 Kindle)

In the recent deluge of marriage books by conservative evangelicals, one might cringe at the sight of another. But Newheiser isn’t offering another evangelical take on marriage, and there is no saccharine anecdotal advice. Neither is it a “how-to” on marriage counselling. Dr. Newheiser is very much attempting to present the Bible’s teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage. And his counselling background means he is well acquainted with the human condition and the pastoral devastation of failing Christian marriages. 

As director of the Christian Counselling program, and Associate Professor in Practical Theology, at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), Dr. Newheiser has been involved in marriage counselling for over thirty years. His book consists of forty questions and answers in the form of forty brief chapters. He starts with the biblical foundations of marriage, such as: What is marriage? Is polygamy forbidden by Scripture? What are the responsibilities of husband and wife, and the permissibility of cohabitation. He then moves onto the foundations of divorce and remarriage: What is divorce? Why does God hate divorce? Why does he permit divorce? Should a Christian initiate divorce? And, of course, the teachings of Jesus and Paul on divorce and remarriage. From here he explores the controversies, particularly the “exceptive clauses” in Matthew 5 and 19, and unpacks the use of porneia, developing the argument that the biblical grounds for divorce are adultery and desertion. Remarriage is permitted only under these terms. In pastoral sensitivity and gospel optimism, however, Newheiser always seeks reconciliation (177) and offers some guidance on this (chapters 16-20). 

Does biblical divorce exist?

Newheiser’s contribution is really in his biblical handling of divorce from Deuteronomy 24, Malachi 2, Matthew 5 and 19, and 1 Corinthians 7, in response to many of the differing situations and painful complications of marital and sexual sin. Although it is impossible to address every scenario, Newheiser does an impressive job. He is all too aware of the uniqueness of each individual couple – so he is not prescriptive. And while there is perhaps a hint of proof-texting, Newheiser interacts with Scripture with refreshing clarity and thought. More should have been made of the Ephesians 5 marriage paradigm of the union between Christ and the church, but generally Newheiser presents God’s design for marriage in a helpful and stimulating way.

Newheiser’s high view of the marriage covenant means he is slow and careful in dealing with divorce. In witnessing the painful and destructive nature of marital breakdown it is, in sympathy and broken-heartedness, tempting to encourage divorce and/or separation. Yet, Newheiser counsels us to remain faithful to Scripture, calling for reverence and biblical wisdom, for it is better for a millstone to be tied around our neck and drowned in the sea than to lead someone into an unbiblical, sinful divorce (Matt 18:6. Cf. Jas 3:1). Newheiser writes,

God hates divorce because it violates the two great commandments – love God and love your neighbor. Divorce is a defiant sin against the love we should have for God, who joins husband and wife in the marriage covenant and calls them to remain committed and faithful until death parts them. Divorce is also a sin against our neighbour, whom we are to love as ourselves (187).

Interacting with the Permanence View

In line with the Westminster Confession (see 24:5-6), Newheiser believes that God permits divorce on the grounds of adultery and desertion. He does interact with those who adhere to the permanence view and overlook the “exceptive clauses” of Matthew 5:32 (John Piper and James Montgomery Boice), as well as the opposing position of David Instone-Brewer who overemphasises the clause. Newheiser demonstrates flaws in their argument succinctly and with grace. This is helpful to those who are uncertain of the interpretative differences amongst evangelicals and haven’t yet formed their own opinion.

Weaknesses and recommendation

The work’s main weakness is in the brevity of its chapters and the breadth of its subject area, the inevitable gloss over many areas where depth and development is really required. For example, if you are looking for a detailed exposition of the biblical texts, then Stephen Clark’s Putting Asunder: Divorce and Remarriage in Biblical and Pastoral Perspective would better serve the reader. There is also need for further discussion on the subtleties of emotional and psychological abuse as grounds for divorce. However, I would certainly recommend this book to pastors and pastoral workers. It offers biblical clarity to those preparing for marriage or in marital difficulty, as well as those considering or pursuing divorce and/or remarriage. Simply, Newheiser’s work is a worthy addition if your library suffers from a lacuna in this critical area.

Natalie Brand
Part-time lecturer, Union School of Theology


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