Bonhoeffer is a bit of a hero to folks hereabouts. He was heroic in the role he took on as a German who disputed that Hitler was fulfilling a divine appointment as Fuehrer, and he paid with his life for that heroism. As a theologian he has been a bit tantalising with his writings. Some of what he wrote is capable of bearing different readings, so varying theological factions claim him as their own. Personally I have not read much of what he wrote but as a teenage I read The Cost of Discipleship and that made a huge impact on me as Bonhoeffer dug away the soil of moderation around Jesus' teaching in order to expose the its radical demands.
On marriage Bonhoeffer had a few things to say. Not all of them would cut today's mustard. But some of them bear consideration as we think about what marriage is. For instance,
"God is guiding your marriage.
Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time.
In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom.
In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office.
Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.
As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
God makes your marriage indissoluble. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6). God joins you together in marriage; it is His act, not yours.
Do not confound your love for one another with God. God makes your marriage indissoluble, and protects it from every danger that may threaten it from within and without; He wills to be the guarantor of its indissolubility. It is a blessed thing to know that no power on earth, no temptation, no human frailty can dissolve what God holds together; indeed, anyone who knows that may say confidently: What God has joined together, can no man put asunder.
Free from all anxiety that is always a characteristic of love, you can now say to each other with complete and confident assurance: We can never lose each other now; by the will of God we belong to each other till death." (full sermon here, printed text in Letters and Papers from Prison)
Two questions (at least) follow as we engage in a church-wide and nation-wide debate about marriage (for proposals concerning same sex 'marriage' raise the question 'what is marriage?'):
What does it mean today that marriage is a 'status, an office'? This would appear to be something we have lost sight of, both in church and in society.
What does it mean for us that 'God makes your marriage indissoluble'? In raising this question I acknowledge that Bonhoeffer has given us, so to speak, a 'hard saying' in a contemporary world of 'quickie divorce', but setting that aside for a moment, and noting the biblical underpinning through the words of Christ himself, if God joins a man and a woman together in marriage, by what argument do we imagine God joining a couple which is not 'a man and a woman' together in marriage (as a status, an office of the great responsibility Bonhoeffer teaches)?
Bonhoeffer challenges us to engage with the theology of marriage by considering marriage as something which is not defined by our personal experience of love for each other and this constituted as a celebration and recognition of that love. Rather, Bonhoeffer's challenge is to receive marriage as something defined by God as its creator and sustainer. As a responsibility taken up by a man and a woman joined by none other than God, marriage is received from God in order to fulfil God's ordinance (to perpetuate the human race to the end of time) and to anticipate our heavenly home (characterized as the place of Christ the groom and church the bride). In both these aspects marriage as the fusion ('one flesh') of difference (man and woman) both models and sustains human society as the one body of many people which is God's plan for creation (Ephesians 1).
It is on this basis of this kind of theology that we cannot jump to embrace same sex 'marriage'. If marriage were simply and essentially what was defined in the sermon I cited yesterday, there would be no reasonable objection to same sex 'marriage': 'For me, that is what marriage is. It is not about children (even though we have a child), it is not about property, and it is not about something magical being bestowed upon us from on high. It is simply acknowledging that I love this person and want to live more deeply into that experience.' Who could deny any couple of any constitution the simple acknowledgement of the love between them and the wish to live more deeply into that experience?
But is this preacher's personal definition of marriage ('for me') out of his own experience, the height and summit of the theological definition of marriage?
For further food for thought re marriage, linked to or highlighting aspects of this sermon, go here, here, and here.
Sidetrack: On the irony of what post Nazi Germany has become, see this.