I’ve stated before that I regard Craig Keener to be the world’s greatest New Testament scholar as it concerns the first-century background to the New Testament.
Craig has just released a new book with his wife Médine called Impossible Love.
I rarely endorse books, but I endorsed Craig’s new book. Here’s what I wrote:
“What happens when the world’s greatest New Testament scholar pens his incredible story with his wife in riveting prose? You get Impossible Love. Captivating and candid, this is a sobering narrative on the merciful power of God to restore and bless in the face of insurmountable obstacles and suffering.”
I recently caught up with Craig to explore the issues in his book.
Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”
Craig Keener: The most important takeaway that we want is God’s faithfulness even in hard times. That’s what many of the endorsers found too: a deeper revelation of God’s heart. In the stories of our lives, as in the Bible, we often see God’s heart by observing how He works more than by talking in abstract terms.
I believe that this unadorned story of how God has worked in our lives—in situations such as witness or war—preaches far more compellingly and invitingly than I could have with a how-to book.
Sooner or later, everybody who lives long enough faces hard times. This book can encourage those facing hard times and can help prepare those not yet going through them. But most of all, it is meant to show us God’s heart. We plan to give copies to nonbelievers as well, because we are trusting God to speak through the book.
Why did you write the book?
Craig Keener: Médine’s experience as a war refugee makes an exciting story, and more Westerners need to hear these stories, both for the sake of current refugees and for our own sake. But one of the other reasons we wanted to tell the story was that God had shown us so many things that I couldn’t communicate in my usual academic books.
Here we can simply share what He was showing us as we were going through the times. There are key moments in the book when God speaks. He was speaking to us in real situations, but I believe that in most cases these are also moments when our readers will experience God’s heart as well.
One of the thorny issues you discuss in the book from your own painful experience is the issue of divorce. Tell us a bit of your story and how Christians treated you as a result.
Craig Keener: My first wife ran off with her best friend’s husband, an affair that broke up two families. I fought divorce for two years (the maximum allowable under that state’s laws), trying to get her back, but she didn’t return. I was so broken and fearful of experiencing such rejection again that it was fifteen years before I remarried.
Some Christians were very supportive, but some others treated me like a leper. Some said that I must have done something wrong to merit such circumstances. One couple who knew the situation only secondhand basically excommunicated me. I could only humble myself under God’s hand, embracing the suffering and trusting that if He willed, someday He would lift me back up.
Some Christians today assume that if a person is divorced, they have automatically sinned, regardless of the circumstances (including if they were divorced against their own will). In addition, in 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul says that people who are divorced in certain circumstances are free to remarry. As one of the world’s most respected New Testament scholars, what does the New Testament really say about this matter?
Craig Keener: I should mention first that my answer would have been roughly the same before I suffered divorce myself—the only difference being that I hate divorce a lot more having been through it. Also, this isn’t the subject of Impossible Love.
I address divorce, remarriage and related questions more fully in a separate book about divorce and (better written) in my essay in a three-views book about remarriage; one can also find the basic summary in the relevant passages in my New Testament background commentary (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament).
But summarizing briefly: 1 Corinthians 7:15, addressing a nonbeliever abandoning a believer (believers aren’t supposed to break up their marriages) uses the exact language used in ancient divorce contracts for freedom to remarry: “not bound.”
The partner’s infidelity constitutes grounds for divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9—though some churches are harder on the person who divorces on these grounds than they are for the partner’s adultery!
Four of the six divorce texts in the New Testament make explicit exceptions, especially for the wronged party (explicitly for adultery and abandonment; I personally believe that an analogous case would be abuse).
Sometimes people’s marriages are broken against their will: In Mark 10:11, Jesus speaks of casting off one’s wife as sinning “against her”—that is, Jesus was defending the innocent party. He criticized his opponents as hard-hearted for using Scripture to justify casting off a wife (10:5), but today some people twist Jesus’s own words to hurt the very people He was defending.
It’s true that no spouse is perfect, and it’s also true that sometimes both partners are breaking up the marriage. But it’s also true that one partner may be innocent of breaking up the marriage, no guiltier of the specific offense (in this case, breaking up their marriage) than a rape or murder victim would be.
Why would we assume that someone who is acted against must have done something to deserve their situation? Isn’t that what was wrong with Job’s comforters? The Lord Jesus’s point is that we’re not allowed to break up our marriage; His point is not to punish those whose marriages are broken against their will.
A related question: When discussing local overseers in 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul says that an overseer should be married to one woman. Some have taken this to mean that an overseer cannot have a divorce in their past. Others have even gone so far to say that an overseer cannot remarry if their spouse dies because that too would violate the “married to one woman” standard. What was Paul really speaking about in those passages?
Craig Keener: 1 Timothy uses a Greek expression meaning a “one-woman man” in a way parallel to its later use of a “one-man woman.” The latter phrase often appears in ancient inscriptions for a woman so faithful and devoted to her husband that he never divorced her. The former phrase should be understood in the same way, as a reference to marital fidelity.
It is not talking about past divorce, say, before one’s conversion or when one has been abandoned; it’s addressing marital fidelity, something that today does remain a live issue.
A person remarried after divorce or a spouse’s death would not have been considered married to two spouses, but only to one—the spouse to whom one was currently married.
At least those who forbid remarriage after a spouse’s death are consistent in how they take “of one wife”; but I think they have not really researched the background carefully enough (again, I treat this in more detail in my book).(Even before we knew about such inscriptions some great heroes of our faith, such as missionaries William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor and others remarried after the death of a spouse!)
I believe that the NIV (2011) communicates the right idea in the 1 Timothy and Titus passages: “faithful to his wife.”
You waited a long time to be married to your wife who co-wrote the book with you. For the sake of those who are single and waiting for God to send them a spouse, share some practical things you learned from the waiting experience.
Craig Keener: This isn’t in the book, but I am happy to share some thoughts. One blessing of a long wait is that it’s certainly harder to take marriage for granted afterward! In terms of finding a compatible spouse, you don’t want to jump the gun; feelings can cloud our common sense.
I always tried to err on the side of caution and that was part of what kept me single for 15 years; it kept me available for Médine at the right time, even though I had many godly women friends, but it also kept me from falling for Médine earlier!
You want someone whose faith and faithfulness have been proved during testing; you also want to be such a person yourself. I am not the best person to give advice about waiting patiently, though; I was pleading with God about this matter daily for years! There are some relational needs that ultimately only God Himself can fill, even once you’re married, so do your best to cultivate that relationship with the Lord now. Friendships with brothers and sisters can go a long way toward helping loneliness.
Sexual desire also diminished over the years the more I was able to control it; reducing stress helped with that, but there were also seasons where I needed to fast a day every week just to keep my heart pure before the Lord.
I understand better now than I did then that we don’t have to feel guilty about natural impulses, which is part of our biology—but it also remains true that we are not to indulge them inappropriately, including impure thoughts that indulge such impulses. I also understand better now that walking by the Spirit—being wrapped up in God’s love for us and others—is the biggest counterforce to our natural desires (Gal 5:16-18).
In some of your other work, you’ve discussed the place of miracles in the Christian life, both historically and presently. What were two or three of the greatest miracles you’ve ever witnessed firsthand?
Craig Keener: “Greatest” could be understood in various ways. The most visibly spectacular was when someone commanded a woman whom I knew unable to walk to rise and walk in Jesus’s name—and from then on she could walk.
Of course in the Miracles book I have many more dramatic accounts, including the raising from apparent death of a number of people we know, including my wife’s sister. If you ask me what is the most important miracle in my life, of course it’s me being born again; I was an unchurched atheist when I first heard the gospel, and the Spirit worked me over so powerfully that I was converted later that day! (That one is in the book.)
If you ask me about the kinds of miracles that I often think about when I think about miracles in my own life, one of the first that comes to my mind is how God provided my exact need many times. Fresh out of my Duke PhD, I was praying for a teaching position, and as deadlines approached and no jobs appeared, I was growing increasingly concerned.
Finally one night I calculated how much I would need to live on that year, and nearly panicked. But the next afternoon, when I was finally desperate enough that I wouldn’t be able to boast about my own faith, an editor from InterVarsity Press called and offered me a contract for The IVP Bible Background Commentary that I had proposed.
He also offered something else: an advance that came to the dollar of what I’d decided the night before I needed to live on that year. That year I wrote the first draft of the commentary, and the next year I had a teaching position. Now the latter two examples I have offered might not count as “evidence” for a skeptic, but they stand out in my mind even more than the healing of my broken ankle or other more “physical” experiences.
What do you hope readers will walk away with after they finish your book?
Craig Keener: I trust that they will walk away with a deeper sense of who God is, of how much He loves us, of how faithful He remains even when we are being tested. Many of those who read the manuscript in advance, each independently of the others, walked away with just such a sense. Rolland and Heidi Baker testify, “This story gripped our hearts as few books have and lifted us higher in Jesus than ever.”
Bestselling author Nabeel Qureshi remarks, “Reading it kindled a flame in my heart to be a greater part of God’s story.” Author Mary DeMuth comments, “This story changed my perspective on the power of God in the lives of His people.” Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Seminary, where I teach, found it “the story of God’s prevailing work in our lives.”
Pastor Rich Nathan said, “This is one of those rarest of books that inspires me to pray to want to know and love God better.” Denominational leader George Wood: “It is an open and welcoming window into God’s grace.”
What else do you want readers to know about your book?
Craig Keener: I think Médine’s story is more exciting than mine. But more of my excitement occurs earlier in my journey (like getting beaten on the street for my witness), whereas more of hers occurs later. So if you think it starts too slowly with my conversion from atheism, me getting beaten, and other stories, I think it gets riveting once Médine is caught up in the war. (These make for great stories now, but I must confess that we didn’t enjoy some of them at the time.)
Also the publisher wisely deemed that most people would rather read a short book than a long one. You know me (and my 4500-page Acts commentary); to get it down to size I had to cut about 45 percent of my original manuscript!
But it’s now much more reader-friendly; every scene in the book is there for a reason. I lived through much of the book, but despite working through the manuscript many times, I myself am still moved deeply when I hear God’s resounding faithfulness, especially toward the book’s end.
Other books I recommend by Keener: