Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bonhoeffer on Marriage

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.


Anonymous said...

The Bonhoeffer sermon is great - I remember ripping it off the first time I spoke at a wedding. At 39, B. had greater insight and understanding than those twice his age. Another excellent little book is 'Life together', written when B. was running a 'seminary in exile' in Finkenwalde(?) - wonderful observations on prayer and fellowship.

Father Ron Smith said...

Tell me, Peter; is the term 'Marriage' exclusive to the Christian context, or not? And are all human beings bound by the supposedly 'Christian' view? If not then surely the Church has no prior right to determine what other people make of the term marriage.

Civil governments normally - in a true democracy - do what is best for the people they serve. And if they choose to offer a 'different' view of what marriage may be for a majority in the community, why should the Church be entitled to reject that?

Undergroundpewster said...

Great sermon, it is hard to get young lovers to see this more mature perspective.

I bet somebody will find a way to twist this sermon to in some way include the blessing of same-sex couplings.

Suem said...

I like Bonhoeffer's ideas about marriage and have long believed it is in the nature of a vocation to the other person. However, I don't see that we can offer it as a blueprint for marriage in a secular society - if that is what you are doing? As you say,

"Bonhoeffer's challenge is to receive marriage as something defined by God as its creator and sustainer."

But that concept of marriage is nonsensical to an atheist couple? Are we to say then that atheists don't really believe in marriage? Is what they are entering into not a marriage on the basis that Bonhoffer's definitions are nonsensical to them?

Our theology as Christians - and we all have different theological understanding(!) is distinct from what the State offers. The State simply offers "marriage", it does not discriminate on the basis of whether the couple:
Believe in God
Are "in love"
Enjoy a particular theological understanding of marriage
Have been previously married (as long as it has been legally dissolved.)

Bonhoffer's ideas might be interesting to discuss in Christian circles, but why should they have any weight for a secular society deciding to allow same sex marriage?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron and Suem,

In a democracy the church is entitled to put forward its views, as are individual Christians. Surely (Ron) you are not saying that any member of parliament who puts up a proposed new law/change to current law is exempt from alternative views being put forward?

Bonhoeffer's views are not important per se; but they are important if and when they offer true insight into the divine origin of marriage. At that point we are not simply talking about 'interesting' views on marriage, but what we understand the will of God to be for humanity. A government with secular character is entitled to ignore the will of God, but Christians/the church is entitled to speak out for God's will.

The weight of theology here for secular society is simply that if something is true it is true. A society which ignores, avoids or contradicts truth is likely to face consequences down the track which it did not foresee.

liturgy said...

I once read a fascinating RC document totally reversing Christ’s “drink this all of you” to have it argue that only the priest drink. If Bonhoeffer’s text were the start of a rethink of our church’s position and practice on divorce, that might make some sense – that the anonymous Underground Pewster can see how it can be directly applied to committed same-sex couples is less surprising.



Suem said...

But that's not good enough, Peter! You simply can't impose your view of what is true on the rest of society and insist it is true because the church says so or because you say it is the will of God - end of story! Not unless you are the Taliban or live in a fundamentalist theocracy.

Peter Carrell said...

To be frank, Suem, I do not understand your comment!

I am not attempting to "impose" anything, not least because I know I cannot (neither as a democrat nor as someone who has not got a gun!).

I am attempting to argue for the truth. I am even implying that truth is truth and, in the end, it is in the nature of truth itself that it imposes on us (and does not need ourselves to try to impose it).

But perhaps you do not ascribe to the possibility that there might be truth. Just a range of views endlessly jostling for adherence by the majority?

Andrei said...

You simply can't impose your view of what is true on the rest of society and insist it is true because the church says so or because you say it is the will of God

Aren't we having gay "marriage" imposed upon us? It would seem that way to me. Mankind has continued without gay "marriage" from the beginning up until the present day and indeed marriage as we have always understood it has been the very basis of our continuation. It has provided the safe nursery for the raising of the young by their bonded biological parents and their blood relatives to a lesser extent in many cases.

I have come to the conclusion we have a new state religion - its called secularism and the non god of secularism is a jealous god and brooks no dissent. And while secularism makes lofty statements about religious freedom what this means in reality you are free to go to your church of choice, sing your hymns and pray your prayers to your deity of choice, but when it comes down to a conflict between your heart felt convictions and the commandments of the non god of secularism it is to the non god of secularism you must offer your pinch of incense or else pay the penalty as written in the book of secular law

Anonymous said...

Truth comes from God, not the majority vote in a democracy.

That does not mean "imposing" anything. Though I note that progressive liberals are happy to use democracy as an excuse to impose Liberal dogma on others, and happy to use the blunt force of the State to force others to conform via "human rights" legislation, hate speech laws and restrictions on the right to voluntary association.

The Liberal Taliban is alive and well and in control of the State.

Anonymous said...

"What is true, just and beautiful is not determined by popular vote. The masses everywhere are ignorant, short-sighted, motivated by envy, and easy to fool. Democratic politicians must appeal to these masses in order to be elected. Whoever is the best demagogue will win. Almost by necessity then democracy will lead to the perversion of truth, justice and beauty." --- Hans-Herman Hoppe in 'Democracy: The God that Failed.'

Suem said...

I don't think you have special and unassailable access to some definitive truth any more than I do, Peter. I am thoroughly post modern and think we all have truths to offer each other if we are prepared to listen and consider.

Andrei's comment offers an interesting "truth"/ perception which I think has a lot of validity. There IS a danger that society/ secularism can itself become a religion or God - if by that you mean a tyrannical power (which I certainly think religion or State can be.)

But how angry those would wield that sort of tyrannical religious power become when they find that their power no longer holds sway. Then, oh-so- ironically, they begin to inveigh against the tyranny of secularism.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Surely (Ron) you are not saying that any member of parliament who puts up a proposed new law/change to current law is exempt from alternative views being put forward?" - Peter -

Not at all, Peter. What I AM saying, though, is that there are other views than yours/mine that deserve to be considered, along with others.

"Aren't we having gay "marriage" imposed upon us?" - Andrei -

How is it being 'imposed' on you, Andrei? You are not being forced to marry a same-sex person - unless you feel you have to marry one - because of a change in the law that would allow that to happen.

What a law change in this direction would mean is that two same-sex persons who want to be legally recognised as a monogamous couple - on the same basis as any other non-procreative couple who want to 'tie the knot' - may do so, under the law of the land.

Andrei said...

Dear Fr Ron;
            If it is, as we are endlessly told, that we approve of this innovation then why isn't this radical proposition put to a referendum?

The answer is of course, it would loose, and substantially. As it has every time it has been put to the voters.

And our masters cannot allow that, we are mere serfs you understand, not enlightened beings such as they.

So we will get "gay marriage" whether we like it or not.

It is not something I fear for myself, you understand because I will most likely be gone before the real damage to our society and culture fully kicks in.

But for my children, who will bear the consequences.

Anyone who is half aware can see the great damage done by that earlier travesty "no fault divorce" to our society and culture.

And this is just the next step. The real goal isn't "gay marriage" it is the elimination of the concept family and of strong family bonds which stand in resistance to the brave new secular world our masters are trying to bring into being.

Read Karl Marx, or Antonio Gramsci if you doubt this

Andrei said...

Suem John 14:6

Suem said...

Christ is the truth to Christians, he embodies the truth because he is God. But God cannot be defined, pinned down or fully comprehended - and nor can truth. God is ineffable and we can only grasp a tiny part of God and imperfectly. I sometimes think one of the reasons there are so many views of God is that he is too big for any single human to comprehend. And so, yes, we need many "truths" to contribute to our knowledge of God.

But at the same time, I can't see that having a faith gives me the right to expect that my truths about God/ marriage/ whatever will hold weight with a secular person or society. I can try to share them but I can't see that we can say that a theological understanding of marriage (and anyhow Christians differ on their theology) should be the basis for marriage in a secular society.

Father Ron Smith said...

"It is not something I fear for myself, you understand because I will most likely be gone before the real damage to our society and culture fully kicks in. But for my children, who will bear the consequences."

And what sort of consequences would they be, Andrei? Would they be forced to marry a same-sex person against their will? I think not!

Civilisation won't be going to hell in a hand-cart - just because Gay people have a chance of settling down to a life-time monogamous relationship, for goodness sake!

There's far too much abject fear in the Church on this issue. There is much more to worry about in this world than the fear of 'frightening the horses' on Same-Sex Marriage.

Andrei said...

Civilisation won't be going to hell in a hand-cart - just because Gay people have a chance of settling

down to a life-time monogamous relationship, for goodness sake!

Fr Ron;
      While you chortle away in semi mockery of my concerns the

entire Western world is facing a crisis. A crisis which had its genesis in the 1960s with the sexual

revolution. The children of which are just now reaching retirement age.

In the past decade in this country alone we have aborted enough children to populate a city the size of

Hamilton! Can you grasp the long term econmomic implications of that?

The population is aging, because we have not been raising enough children, not only because we abort

them but because we have contracepted them into non existence in the first place. And as the population

ages the percentage of working age people in relation to the elderly declines and the resources that are

transfered from former to the later increases - not rocket science.

The real crunch hasn't occurred yet though it is starting to bite. According to Treasury estimates in a

mere thirteen years there will be 2½ working age adults for every superannuant to pay for super

annuation and health costs for the later group.

Our political class, the most shallow and vapid of all time and whose vision extends to one electoral

cycle instead of dealing with this as it has been developing have kicked it into touch by borrowing

money we will not be able to repay
. This is true across the Western world.

Our cultural malaise arises from the fact that we prefer iPads and holidays in Bali to children - and

indeed de

nigrate the very concept of Motherhood as a noble calling
. Super orgasms being a worthwhile thing

to strive for it seems.

Anonymous said...

I fear Andrei's points are indeed true, for much of the western world. Mounting debt, an aging population and falling fertility are combining to create pressures that no politicians want to face. Demographic change is coming via immigration, and that is altering the character of nations. Along with this, the prospects that today's rising generation will be poorer than their parents.

Father Ron Smith said...

For those on this thread who are fearful for the future, here is a rather encouraging charismatic chorus we used to sing:

"Fear not, rejoice and be glad;
The Lord has done a great thing;
Has poured out His Spirit on all
humankind - on all who believe
in Him!"

Of course, to sing that chorus with any credibility you really have to 'believe in Him' and His power to redeem!

Anonymous said...

With every radical change promoted by liberalism we have been told not to worry, Western civilization won't end, nothing bad will happen.

And yet as others point out, the West IS dying, largely because of the changes liberals have wrought.

In fact every single change brought about by the childish insanity of liberalism has been a disaster. Marriage is in decline, the traditional family under attack and increasingly under the control of the liberal State, millions of innocent children incinerated for the crime of being inconvenient, and increasingly even the most basic freedoms of religious practice and free speech are being revoked to satisfy the liberal fascism of gay rights activists.

Ron's claim therefore that we have nothing to worry about is laughable.

Whenever a liberal says "don't worry" it is time to panic.

Anonymous said...

Yes Ron, you have to believe in the God who calls homosexuality an abomination, who defines marriage as one man with one women, who promises to bring to nought civilizations that consistently rebel against Him, and who has the power to redeem homosexuals from their sinful lifestyle.

Quoting hymns at us does not hide the fact that your siding against Christ's Church in favor of the secular liberal State, and promoting Godless immorality.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Shawn,

I like it when you say, "Whenever a liberal says "don't worry" it is time to panic."

One might point out that liberalism has not actually done a lot for the health and strength of the church in the West.

Father Ron Smith said...

"One might point out that liberalism has not actually done a lot for the health and strength of the church in the West." - Dr.Peter Carrell -

A little bit facile here, Peter! Could not this have been said about the liberality of Jesus by His opponents, the Scribes & Pharisees?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
By any measure Jesus was an evangelical (believing in the authority of Scripture, substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins, need for a personal relationship with himself), and a conservative one at that (supporting as he did the purification of the Temple, the Law of Moses, the highest of standards on sexual morality, and the paying of legitimate taxes).

His liberality was no more or less than the gracious and kind behaviour one would expect of a conservative evangelical towards sinners. (He was not a sinner, so I have omitted the word "fellow" from the expected phrase for the rest of us, "fellow sinners.")

Father Ron Smith said...

" the highest of standards on sexual morality," (Of Jesus)
- Dr. Peter Carrell -

Ah. But would the Keepers of the Law, the Scribes and Pharisees have thought that - in the incident of the woman 'taken in adultery? They would have her stoned. Jesus was much less rigorous! In fact, Jesus did not condemn her - but rather, those who would have stoned her.

Jesus was tougher on self-righteous hypocrisy than on sexual sins.

Anonymous said...

Those who claim Jesus is a liberal need to show where in Scripture he advocates easy divorce, abortion, unlimited sexual freedom or homosexual marriage.

No, it is that claim which is facile, as is the claim that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was between a liberal and conservatives. As Peter points out Jesus was in fact a conservative evangelical.

A better analogy for the conflict would be the Reformation, with the Pharisees as the moral corruption of the Renaissance Church, with it's man made traditions (Ron's "new" revelations) and works righteousness, and Jesus as the defender and promoter of moral reform and the five Sola's: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and all for the glory of God alone.

Anonymous said...

In fact Jesus did affirm that she was a sinner when He told her to go and sin no more.

The reason why he did not condemn her to death was because the Law stated clearly that both parties involved in the adultery has to be punished. Yet only the woman is present. (see Leviticus 20:10)

Thus Jesus was in fact strictly upholding the Law, not being lenient.

Moreover no witnesses are brought forth to confirm the accusation, another requirement of the Law.

The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus and Jesus will have none of it. He recognizes that they are violating God,s Law, and refuses to play their game.

So this story is NOT an affirmation of sexual sin, nor does it portray Jesus as less strict than the Pharisees, quite the opposite in fact.

Jesus was certainly opposed to heartless legalism, but He was no liberal either, and to use the woman caught in adultery as a basis for accepting homosexuality is both facile in the extreme and the very same kind of self-serving abuse of Scripture Jesus critiqued the Pharisees for.

Anonymous said...

"So this story is NOT an affirmation of sexual sin, nor does it portray Jesus as less strict than the Pharisees, quite the opposite in fact."

You are correct, Shawn; it is a tiresome caricature from the 1960s that Jesus was some kind of morally relaxed hippy preaching peace and love. Anyone who reads the Gospels (cf. Matt 5.17-20)carefully will see that Jesus both *intensified and *interiorized the demands of the Law. 'Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the sctribes and Pharisees ....' Tertullian at least got this right, although he lapsed into legalism, not understanding the sacraments and the gospel of grace. Jesus taught both astonishing grace and forgiveness, along with the urgent call to holiness. Very many Chrisitans since have been unable to hold the two together.