8.05.2008

Bonhoeffer on "the right of life that is to come into being"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say in his Ethics [1940-1943]:
"Marriage involves the acknowledgment of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison ... To raise the question whether we are here concerned with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder." [emphasis mine]
Of course the subject he was writing specifically against abortion, but his logic applies equally to the subject of contraception. His words echo those of Augustine:
"Marriage, as the marriage tablets themselves proclaim, joins male and female for the procreation of children. Whoever says that to procreate children is a worse sin than to copulate thereby prohibits marriage; and he makes the woman no more a wife but a harlot, who, when she has been given certain gifts, is joined to man to satisfy his lust. If there is a wife there is matrimony. But there is no matrimony where motherhood is prevented; for then there is no wife." [The Morals of the Manichees 18.65 PL 32:1373]

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This raises questions regarding pastoral care. For example, if we take seriously that "there is no matrimony where motherhood is prevented" and that such a marriage "ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison", what ought a conscientious pastor to do when a couple approaches him requesting marriage yet announces during counseling that they will use contraception to avoid or postpone children (which is virtually everyone)? If they don't desire marriage in the sense that God has instituted it, can it be said that they truly desire marriage at all? If a pastor presides over their ceremony, over what exactly is he presiding?

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Indeed, good questions. My answer is that if two people do not desire marriage in the sense that God has instituted it, a pastor should under no circumstances preside over the ceremony.

This would have been the assumed Lutheran answer (at least publicly) prior to the time CPH published Rehwinkel's Planned Parenthood in 1959. That was the turning point in Lutheran history on these questions.

As evidence, let me share the following excerpts from the standard Lutheran textbook for pastoral care published 14 years earlier, Pastoral Theology by John H. C. Fritz [CPH, 1945]:

"Disgraceful conditions should not be made, neither such as conflict with the essence of marriage... as when a man makes it a condition that his wife use preventives against conception; if made and accepted, they render the 'engagement' invalid, Gen. 1:28; 2:24...

"Impotency disqualifies a person from marrying... If, however, such impotency be the result of sickness or accident after marriage has been consummated, it would not be a cause for divorce...

A husband and a wife should according to God's will become the father and the mother of children. One of God's purposes of marriage is the propagation of the human race. God says: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,' Gen. 1:28; Ps. 127 and 128; Fourth Commandment. The one-, two-, or three-children family system is contrary to Scriptures; for man has no right arbitrarily or definitely to limit the number of his offspring (birth control)...

"...the advocates of birth control say that the sex urge is a purely biological process, and every man and woman has the right to gratify it, especially since suppression of the sex urge is unnatural and harmful. While this is true within the limits of married life, it is no argument in favor of reducing the holy estate of marriage to the mere gratification of carnal lust, 1 Thess. 4:3-5, nor in favor of preventing conception..."


[pages 156, 157, 161, 162, 163]

Rehwinkel's work changed most of this thinking in 1959, but I should point out that even he did not initially go as far as to overtly state what his logic in Planned Parenthood necessarily leads to. Obviously not being ignorant of the standard pastoral advice of the time quoted above, he wrote in Planned Parenthood:

"...to fix the size of a family at the very outset, at one, two, or possibly three would be a presumptuous arrogating to themselves prerogatives that belong to God. In the first place, they must remember that they are not alone in this but copartners [sic] with God himself. It is God who creates new lives. Husbands and wives are merely the agents through whom God performs this miracle. We confess in the explanation of the First Article of the Apostles' Creed: 'I believe that God has made me and all creatures.'"

Indeed! But unfortunately once you accept the lie that birth control is not sinful, ultimately you must not condemn limiting family size to any degree. Rehwinkel failed to see his hypocrisy in the above statement. A half-way position is hardly possible, as Rehwinkel ends up rightly noting in his conclusion:

"My only plea is that the reader, whoever he or she may be, follow the argumentation calmly and without prejudice to the end. If he does so, one of two things is bound to happen. Either he will be convinced that the position here presented [i.e. birth control is not sinful] is reasonable, sane, and in harmony with Christian ethics, or he will be confirmed more than ever before in the view that birth control in every form and under all circumstances is an evil and must therefore be opposed to the bitter end. A half-way position hardly seems possible."

Thursday's Child said...

"Impotency disqualifies a person from marrying... If, however, such impotency be the result of sickness or accident after marriage has been consummated, it would not be a cause for divorce..."

So if 2 people wish to marry, knowing that sexual relations would be impossible or that they would not result in pregnancy due to infertility issues, they shouldn't be allowed to marry? I find that rather appalling. (I hope I'm misunderstanding that.)

I know a couple who married several years ago. His condition prevents them from having children of their own. (It may possibly prevent even sexual relations.) However, they haven't let that stop them from having a daughter. They adopted her a few years after their marriage. Together they're providing her with a loving, Christian home.

Not all families are biological. Nor should they be.When people are want to marry in spite of an inability to have natural children, they should not be prevented. They should be encouraged.

Having children is not the only reason for people to marry (although they're a wonderful reason). God did say it wasn't good for the man to be alone. He didn't qualify it with, but only if he can father children. ;)

Please tell me I was misunderstanding Fritz.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I'm not sure if you are misunderstanding Fritz or not. But, please remember the old adage that "exceptional cases make for bad law."

As for interpreting Fritz, his point certainly is not that marriage must in every instance result in children. He agrees that marriage satisfies other purposes as well. I understand his main point to be simply that the procreative purpose of marriage must not be intentionally frustrated.

Impotence is more than just an inability to have children. It is physical dysfunction making it impossible for the marriage to be consummated. Marriage is not simply an intimate lifetime friendship between a man and a woman. It is by necessity a one-flesh union that is consummated at the marriage bed.

Where there can be no marriage bed, there is no marriage. Of course, Fritz points out that if "such impotency be the result of sickness or accident after marriage has been consummated, it would not be a cause for divorce."

I don't know from what you said whether this couple knew of the man's dysfunction before they took their wedding vows. If individuals are chaste, there are few ways of knowing these things ahead of time. But if the marriage cannot be (or for some other reason is not) ever consummated, the marriage can be considered to have never occurred.

Things get very messy once we begin opening up the definition of marriage to include relationships that cannot ever be the intimate, one-flesh union God defines as marriage and bids be fruitful and multiply according to His will.

Your comment basically comes down to the question of who should be allowed to adopt children. Should a man and woman who are life-long friends and live in the same house adopt children? How about an impotent man and his spinster sister who live together? The list can go on and get quite ugly... in fact is has gotten quite ugly in our society.

Scripture knows of no such thing as a marriage that is not consummated. Marriage is the physical one-flesh union of a man and woman. There are a lot of people in this world who think that is very unfair, but they should take their argument up with the One who instituted marriage.

GL said...

Erich,

Great quotes from Bonhoeffer and so very applicable to our day. It reveals, in fact, the inextricable link between the widespread Christian acceptance of the indiscriminate use of contraception and the growing movement toward same-sex marriage. Divorce marriage and marital sexual intercourse from procreation and the argument against same-sex marriage rings hollow. As Bonhoeffer wrote:

Marriage involves the acknowledgment of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison.

The indiscriminate use of contraception by Christian couples has caused marriage to be viewed by the unregenerate world and, sad to say, even many Christians as a "mere liaison." And, as such, why shouldn't two men or two women be permitted to marry each other or, for that matter, one man and two or three women or two men and two women, etc.? Either Christians return to the understand that marriage is, among other things, for the procreation of children or the widespread acceptance of same-sex "marriage" and polygamy is inevitable.

God is not mocked. As Christians, we are reaping what we sowed.