Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Bonhoeffer on Marriage: is marriage a 'given'?

By some odd irony, I was starting a marriage prep group at roughly the moment the gay marriage vote happened in the House of Commons. We use the excellent (if slightly posh) Marriage Preparation Course from Holy Trinity Brompton, and it includes part of this quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

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.

Beautiful stuff. And it's this idea of marriage as an office which is at the core of my struggle with the commons vote. Ultimately, is there something 'given' about marriage, as with a vocation, or is it something we construct entirely ourselves whether as a society or as two individuals? Pragmatic post-modern society doesn't have much time for 'givens', things don't have intrinsic value, they must be justified, reasoned for, have cost/benefit analyses done upon them. And if there are no givens then we can redefine and recast whatever we want. 

So the fundamental question is; is this the way the world is? Do we live in a world with certain human and creation 'givens', or not?  There are two discussions to be had here (and often they go on at once without us disconnecting them). One is between the Christian and the atheist/agnostic over whether there is a God at all from whom God-given things can be said to come. The other is between Christians over what is and isn't God-given. 

Final thought: the definition of marriage above is something that can't be encapsulated in a secular marriage ceremony. Two committed Christians who are getting married are doing something that is both identical, but at the same time very different, to the marriage of two non-believers. So how a secular state define marriage can never be sufficient to satisfy a Christian. 

and if you haven't already had enough of this, there's a good piece on God and Politics reflecting on the vote.


  1. Interesting and challenging: thank you. As for me, I see marriage not so much as a "given" as a "taken" - something that we humans have developed but which God has taken and blessed ... rather like the bread and wine in the eucharist, another sacrament: God takes the work of human hands, that which we build out of his raw materials, and transforms it — transfigures it, even — into something beautiful...

  2. It strikes me that Jesus takes the meaning of marriage back to Creation as a temporal, not eternal, state. Looking through my postbag what it comes down to is one of two views of homosexuality. It is either (a) an anomaly against the created order or (b) a minority phenomenon within the created order. Most people these days take position (b). I don't quite understand how there can be an absolute link between marriage and procreation. If it were so, presumably, unmarried people wouldn't be able to procreate, and all married people would. Looking at the testimony of creation, it will persuade people one way or the other depending on which view they take between (a) and (b) above. Exactly the same kind of issue applied to slavery which some pre-Victorians saw as a part of the natural order attested to in Scripture, and others as an offence against it ...