A Dialectical View of Marriage: Love Comes Us, Marriage Comes from God

Marc Chagall, "Wedding" (1918)

Charged with “subversion of the armed forces,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was placed in the Tegel military interrogation prison in 1943. From his prison cell he wrote a beautiful sermon for the wedding of his best friend Eberhard Bethge. As a Christian humanist, Bonhoeffer offers a dialectical vision of marriage that stirs me to the core, in which love (the yes between man and woman) belongs to the couple while marriage (God’s yes to their yes) belongs to God.

On the human yes:

A couple is entitled to welcome and celebrate their wedding day with a feeling of incomparable triumph. When all the difficulties, impediments, obstacles, doubts, and hesitations have not been brushed aside, but honestly faced and worked through – then both have indeed won the decisive triumph of their life. By saying yes to each other, they have freely decided to give their whole life a new direction. They have in joyful certainty defied all the doubts and reservations that life raises against any permanent bond between two people, and by their own action and responsibility conquered a new land for their life. Every wedding must in some way resound with the jubilation that human beings can do such great things; that they have been given such unimaginable freedom and power to take the helm of their lives in their own hands. The happiness of the couple must include the sense that the children of this earth are properly proud of the privilege to be masters of their own destiny. It is not good to speak here all too quickly and submissively of God’s will and guidance. It is first of all, simply and unmistakably, your thoroughly human will that is at work and celebrates its triumph here. The path upon which you embark is first of all very much the path you have chosen yourselves. What you have done and do is first and foremost not something pious but something thoroughly of this world. This is why you yourselves and you alone carry the responsibility for it, a responsibility that no one can take from you. More precisely, you, Eberhard, have been given the entire responsibility for the success of your undertaking, with all the happiness that such a responsibility entails; and you, Renate, will help your husband and make it easy for him to bear this responsibility and in doing so will find your own happiness. It would be an escape into false piety if today you did not have the courage say: it is our will, it is our love, it is our path. “Iron and steel they may decay, but our love will ever stay.” You long to find in each other the earthly bliss that consists, in the words of the medieval song, in comforting each other in body and soul. This longing is proper both in human and in God’s eyes. 

On the divine yes:

Today God gives his yes to your yes, God’s will consents to yours, and God grants you and affirms your triumph and jubilation and pride. But in so doing, God is also making you instruments of his will and plans for you and for other people. Indeed, in unfathomable generosity God speaks his yes to your yes. But in so doing, God does something entirely new: from your own love – God creates holy matrimony.

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy institution through which God wishes to preserve humanity until the end of time. In your love you see only each other in the world; in marriage you are a link in the chain of generations that God, for the sake of God’s glory, allows to rise and fade away, and calls into God’s kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness; in marriage you are placed and given responsibility within the world and the human community. Your love belongs only to you personally; marriage is something beyond the personal, an estate, an office. Just as it takes a crown to make a king and not just his will to reign, so it takes marriage and not just your love for each other to make you a married couple both in human and in God’s eyes. Just as you first gave the ring to each other and now receive it once again from the hand of the minister, so your love comes from you, and your marriage comes from above, from God. As God is higher than human beings, so the sacredness, the rights, and the promise of marriage are higher than human beings, so much greater is the holiness, warrant, and promise of marriage than the holiness, warrant, and promise of love. It is not your love that upholds marriage, but from now on it is marriage that upholds your love.

Letters and Papers from Prison

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