Luther’s Christocentric and Biblical Theology of Marriage

What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Eerdmans, Spring, 2010). Since I have elsewhere made my sharp and fundamental critique of the draft Social Statement and its accompanying Recommendations on Rostered Ministry. I am thankful to Kaari Reierson for the invitation to submit some words on Luther’s doctrine of marriage, i.e. the confessional source from which the draft Social Statement should have taken its bearings. – PRH]

[1] The theological grounding of marriage in the divine mandate spoken in Genesis 1:26-28 is universal in Christian tradition. Within this wide tradition, as Heiko Obermann once remarked, Luther’s particular iteration of it had wide, indeed world-historical influence. For complex historical reasons that need not detain us,[1] it entailed culturally a new conception of the human and its good which overthrew the antecedent cultural-religious idealization of virginity. Opponents among the monks “argue that chastity is a thing of incomparable worth and its equal is nowhere to be found.”[2] But Luther, himself still living as a monk, replies, “if anyone is unable to keep his vow of chastity and takes a wife, confident of God’s mercy, as he grows in this faith he will discover a merciful and understanding Father… that is what God’s mercy is like. In no sense does God attribute sin to the conjugal rights of married people…”[3] Whatever other problems the Wittenberg professor of Old Testament notoriously had with rabbinic Judaism and its exegesis of the same Scriptures on which he too labored, Luther recovered and reasserted the Hebrew Bible’s celebration of the monogamous heterosexual union which, in the words of the conservative Jewish cultural commentator Dennis Prager, had worked through the centuries to force “the sexual genie into the marital bottle. [The Torah’s original sexual revolution] ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women.”[4] Prima facie, Luther’s affinity with the Torah’s reformatory program in world history is obvious[5] as should also be his sourcing of it in the same Bible shared with Judaism.

[2] Significantly, he concluded the scripture readings in his reformed liturgy for the wedding service with this blessing pronounced by the pastor, based upon the imago Dei text of the first creation story: “[T]his is your comfort that you may know and believe that your estate is pleasing to God and blessed by him, For it is written: ‘God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he them; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion… And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good’ [Gen. 1:27-28].”[6] Luther’s purpose in reiterating this text in the marriage liturgy is not merely polemical, i.e., to attack the reign of the antecedent ideal of virginity in the conscience of people. It is also performative: the pastoral repetition of the blessing from Genesis evokes and informs faith in the newlyweds that their marriage is a work of God under His blessing and command. So the liturgically climactic pronouncement of God’s blessing upon the new couple reveals and puts into effect the true good of their sexual union by promising God’s approbation and care; thus they may believe with Christian faith in their marriage in this specific way and conduct themselves accordingly.

[3] But what is that true good for Luther? It is always, in part, a negative good, a “remedy against sin,” a wall against polymorphous perverse. But as early as 1519, Luther’s preaching about marriage identified its “real fruit as children, whose rearing was the special responsibility of the married estate… In the raising of children one obtains the greatest indulgence. Children brought up correctly are the good works… which one leaves behind, and which shine in one’s death and thereafter.”[7] This good of marriage in children is a leading motif in Luther, from which he never departs. Sammeli Juntunen advances the following definition of marriage from his study of the Luther texts: “Marriage is a divine and legitimate union (coniunctio) of a husband and wife in the hope of children, and in order to avoid fornication and sin, to the glory of God. The ultimate goal is to obey God, to avoid sin, to call on God for help, to ask for children, to love and raise them to God’s glory, to live with the wife in fear of God and to carry the cross.”[8] This fuller and more complex definition of marriage and its true goods reflects the larger story of Genesis 1-3, i.e. taking into account the dissonance introduced by the disobedience of the first couple and the sinful concupiscence which now fills the vacated place of love of God in forming the chaotic desires of the human heart. The new situation of life in exile from paradise makes marriage necessary, not only as divine mandate or as command (Genesis 1:26-28) spontaneously assented (Genesis 2:23), but now also as social institution and legal demand, as duty imposed with its legal constraints and threats (Genesis 3:16-19). Now married life is also the duty to procreate and the wall against sinful fornication. Luther therefore also included readings from Genesis 3 in his reformed wedding liturgy to tell about “the cross laid upon this estate” and realistically to indicate this post-paradisiacal marital community in suffering as well as in joy.

[4] As duty to procreate and remedy against sin, the institution of marriage after Eden does double duty. It defends externally by erecting a legal wall of separation against wayward desire as well as internally through that cross-bearing, which according to Luther’s theologia crucis, is a tool of the Spirit for our redemption from the power of sin: “it is a precious and noble work… to endure much misfortune and many difficulties in the person of wife, children, servants and others… he who believes it and rightly understands it, sees how good it is for the soul, although it is an evil for the flesh and its lusts.”[9] Luther’s meaning here, so offensive to William James’ ‘healthy-minded religion’ of progressive Protestantism, is that community in suffering as also in joy morally purifies and so sanctifies desire. It does this by giving each partner to care for the other in the inevitable troubles that their united form of life entails. Marriage takes such a form in the frustrated creation, fallen and groaning under the power of sin.[10] But this is its true good for human beings who learn in this “real religious order”[11] compassion, patience and trust in God.

The Christological Reading of Genesis 1-3

[5] But obviously, in one sense, a married person can just walk away, tear asunder, disregard or repudiate what God has given in the life’s partner. The story of the fall already indicates this possibility in principle: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.” Luther comments: Adam “does not say, ‘Lord, I have sinned; forgive me, my debt; be merciful;’ but he passes on the guilt to the woman.”[12] In spirit, Adam walks away from her. His desperate act of self-justification before God is at the same time refusal of the community he assuredly has with Eve in guilt and in suffering the threatened punishment. Their community of love has in fact become a community of guilt and a community in suffering. But Adam does not want that for himself. So he breaks faith with Eve. Before God he divorces himself from her. So according to Luther, it is not until after the conclusion of the “trial” before God in Paradise with the promise of the coming Redeemer from Eve’s seed, that the couple is spiritually reconciled and reunited. This happens when Adam names Eve “mother of all living,” indicating the restoration of communion with her. This reconciliation can only happen now, for “unless grace comes, it is impossible for a man to act otherwise than to excuse his sin and to want it considered as righteousness.”[13]

[6] What has intervened between Adam’s recrimination of Eve (and of God who gave Eve to him) and his new embrace of Eve as “mother of all living” is the promise of the “forgiveness of sins by the Seed of Eve.” Luther writes: “He calls her Eve to remind himself of the promise through which he himself also received new life, and to pass on the hope of eternal life to his descendents. This hope and faith he writes on his wife’s forehead by means of this name, as with colors…”[14] The renewed marriage is thus, in Luther’s reading, an act of Christological hope. To answer the question posed above then: 1) they do not walk away from each other because of the divine promise of forgiveness; 2) they cannot divorce before God because in fact they share inseparably in a common guilt; 3) they receive one another anew as the spouse whom God has given –even in face of moral betrayal– in an act of messianic hope for their descendents. Their renewed community in suffering as in joy is a form which the Beloved Community assumes under the post-paradisiacal conditions of exile and hope.

[7] What is the alternative? Sexual desire which wants to be infinite, that will not yield time and place to the new generation, becomes a demonic desire that devours finally also the devourer. Indeed, I write these words in a ‘sexually liberated’ nation which is not accidentally casting upon future generation a crushing, catastrophic load of debt because it will not make the sacrifices needed today for justice in society and peace in the world, beginning with the sacrifice of infantile polymorphous perverse sexuality in order to grow up to that and creative love for the definite spouse and the definite children whom God gives. The difficult argument I am making here with Luther as resource is written in anticipation of the painful encounter with the white hot wrath of God in store for this wicked and adulterous generation, when the coming generation who will pick up the pieces from its sins will have to learn this community in joy as in suffering, if only to survive.

Community in Suffering as in Joy

[8] The linkage between sex and children is not for Luther the typical bow nowadays to the sheer biological fact of heterosexual fertility, since that relation between sex and babies can be rationally managed by abstinence, contraception and other technologies, other formations of family (polygamy, serial monogamy), or the treatment of children as chattel (our property, clay in our hands, an artistic project). In these ways and others, the linkage is managed quite apart from marriage as Luther has defined this holy union of human partnership in God’s creative work, i.e., not only to make babies but above all to raise them to the glory of God and for public service to humanity in its dire situation of exile and hope after Adam’s fall. The reflection is surely true so far as it goes that biologically “the presupposition of the history in which human nature is enacted is the provision of new humans in succession” and that by dint of “sheer plumbing… the vagina and the penis are made for each other.”[15] But neither of these undeniable facts as such entails the community of marriage. There are other ways to manage fertility, including unholy ways, as in the abortion industry with its cohort of shameless theological apologists, just as there are other ways to deploy vagina and penis.

[9] But what kind of linkage is this community in suffering as in joy to be? Suffering isolates and destroys, we might object; there is nothing creative or redemptive about it. Pain cannot link anything, least of all sexual love and children; it merely isolates. Yes, pain can do that. That is exactly why for Luther, unbelief perceives and experiences the cross as the bitter end of the story of Jesus, something at all costs to be avoided and never to be undertaken. Yet such flight from physical and historical reality is not, for Luther, how the God who spared not His own Son faces suffering. Luther’s unbribable, nonmanipulable God afflicts, yes, but as faith in the risen Christ perceives, in order to heal, casts down in order to exalt, kills in order to make alive, destroys the concupiscientia carnis in order to redeem and fulfill the concupiscientia nuptiarum. Take away this purpose clause, and you have taken away the risen Christ and the faith which after Him and in the power of His Spirit takes up one’s own cross to follow him.

[10] So Luther’s own words of pastoral counsel in this connection attest: “that even married people have mostly unhappiness and misery is no wonder, because they have no knowledge from God’s word about their estate of marriage. That is why they are just as unhappy as monks and nuns. On both sides people live without trust and consolation about God’s being pleased with them. Therefore it is impossible that they could bear external unhappiness and trouble… If they don’t know their estate internally, that it is pleasing to God, then there is already unhappiness… God’s order and way of working has to be taken from his Word. Trust must be put in God’s Word, or the estates will be harmed and become unbearable.”[16] It is faith’s knowledge of God’s good pleasure that makes the marital community in suffering as in joy into a hospice of compassion, where joy can be renewed. But apart from this, marriage is –as frequently we see around us today—“unbearable.”

[11] But why? Why suffering as an integral key to the marital link of sexual love and children? It might be maudlin, though not untrue, to invoke here the grateful sense of self-giving sacrifice that children honor in good parents (as also painfully suffer the absence of in bad parents). We can take a more scientific clue from evolutionary biology. Human reproduction is remarkable for the extraordinarily long dependency of children on parents, which in evolutionary terms provided time and space for development of their equally extraordinary brain capacity.[17] Already in the pre-historical state of nature, it is the infant-nursing, child-nurturing family, in its community in suffering as in joy, covenant between the generations and school of compassion, for which and out of which marriage as the human form of sexual order emerged and evolves until it fulfills the promise of the image of God in human dominion here ‘below’ on this earth. The natural presupposition of the history of salvation and the role in it of marriage is therefore not ‘sheer plumbing,’ but the pre-historical form of human family, as socio-biologists have rightly pointed out. The state of nature is not to be imagined as alpha males fighting for gain and glory, from which violence and anarchy we emerge by social contract, beasts arising from the jungle to civilized life.[18] This Hobbsean narrative reverses the canonical story of the sinful Fall from Paradise into anti-social forms of society, the Augustinian civitas terrena. Locke was surely right to attack this Hobbesian inversion of the biblical narrative of creation and fall and in his political philosophy to insist that the state of nature involves community from the beginning, especially the primal form of the family.[19]

[12] Theologically, the command to be fruitful and multiply is scripted biologically in all living creatures. But the command to marry, i.e. to form the partnership of male and female as the human image of God in dominion over the earth comes from above, as it must, if it is to join sexual love and care of children together in human consciousness as faith’s embrace of community in suffering as in joy. That marriage does so emerge in history, therefore, is no foregone conclusion, any more than in any other respect that we attain to the Beloved Community, “shar[ing] one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). The matter is controverted. The battle for the gospel is not only over proper proclamation in and by the church, but also on behalf of the groaning creation and its liberation from the anti-divine powers of sin and death. Disobedience and unbelief are possible here in the realm of nature as also there in the realm of grace. Fallen nature is wracked with uncertainty about God’s will and so it can rationalize anything. Unfaithfulness may destroy what was well begun.[20] The community in suffering as in joy which married love with its care of children entails has from the dawn of time waxed and waned, as the cultural history of sexuality amply demonstrates. It is through the Word concerning crucified and risen Jesus that this aversion to marriage is met and overcome, even as his death and resurrection is the secret vindication and guarantee of all fragmentary and ambiguous experience of human community in the world, which remains in hope God’s creation on the way to fulfillment in the Beloved Community, in spite of, rather in defiance of sin and death. This is what Bonhoeffer meant when he spoke of Christ the center, albeit hidden, of all of life, also, indeed preeminently of married life.[21] Unveiled by the gospel and appropriated in faith, the suffering love of Jesus who makes the unworthy His own heals and sanctifies every spouse who lives for the sake of its other, however ambivalently.

[1]Peter Brown identifies a deep ambivalence in the doctrine of desire, concupiscientia nuptiarum and concupiscientia carnis, behind the Christian tradition of sexual renunciation: “The fatal flaw of concupiscience would not have seemed so tragic to Augustine, if he had not become ever more deeply convinced [from the Bible] that human beings had been created to embrace the material world. The body was a problem to him precisely because it was to be loved and cherished.” The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (NY: Columbia University Press, 1988) 425.

[2] “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows,” (1521) LW 44:346.

[3] Monastic Vows,” (1521) LW 44:376. The sentence continues: “…which is due solely to his mercy, although Psalm 51 refers to it as sin and iniquity in no way differing from adultery and whoredom, because it springs from passion and impure lust.” I take up this ambivalence in Luther’s evaluation of sexual love – in itself apparently sinful, yet mercifully forgiven— in sections of the chapter not here excerpted.

[4] Dennis Prager, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality,” Crisis 11, No. 8 (September, 1993).

[5] Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther Against the Contempt of Women,” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 1989: 2/4) 515-530.

[6] “The Order of Marriage” (1529) LW:53:110ff.

[7] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521 trans. J.L. Schaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 355-6.

[8] Sammeli Juntunen, “Error! Main Document Only.Luther on Sex,” unpublished lecture delivered at Roanoke College (2002).

[9] Cited by, William H. Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 265.

[10] At the beginning of his discussion of the “curses” pronounced in Genesis 3, Luther writes thematically: “But he heals sin, like a wound, with a health-giving plaster, that is, with the promise concerning Christ, while He also applies the harsh cautery which the devil had brought on. Just as health-giving plasters also damage the flesh while their effect their cure, so the curative promise is put to Adam in such a way that at the same time it includes a threat, to serve as a cure for the lust of the flesh. But by ‘lust’ I mean not only the hideous prurience of the flesh, but also that filthiness of spirit… There was need of this harsh cautery to keep this depravity of our nature in check.” “Commentary on Genesis,” LW 1:183.

[11] “Luther on Marriage,” Lutheran Quarterly Vol. XIV, No.3 (2000 ) 338.

[12] Luther, “Commentary on Genesis” LW 1:177.

[13] Luther, “Commentary on Genesis” LW 1:181.

[14] Luther, “Commentary on Genesis” LW 1:220.

[15] Jenson, Robert W., Systematic Theology, 2 volumes, The Triune God (NY & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) II, 89.

[16] Cited by Juntunen, “Sex in Luther,” from WA 10/II, 298:9-21.

[17] Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue (Penguin Books, 1997); Antonia R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Papermac, 1996).

[18] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668 ed. E. Curley (Hackett, 1994) 129.

[19] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government ed. C. B. Macpherson (Hackett, 1980). 88-9. See Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther and Liberalism,” in A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology. A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Benne ed. Michael Shahan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009) 89-104.

[20] John Witte, Jr. From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know, 1997) emphasizes that among other reforms of law, the early Lutherans permitted divorce, beginning with Luther who wrote: “Since people are as evil as they are, any other way of governing is impossible. Frequently something must be tolerated even though it is not a good thing to do, to prevent something even worse from happening” [cited from LW 21:94 ]. Likewise Bugenhagen: “The reality is that some households become broken beyond repair” [cited from Vom ehebruch und weglauffen, folios miii-oiii] (67). Witte summarizes: “By conjoining these arguments from scripture, utility, and history, the reformers concluded that (1) divorce in the modern sense had been instituted by Moses and Christ; (2) the expansion of divorce was a result of sin and a remedy against greater sin; and (3) God had revealed the expanded grounds for divorce from history.” (68) I apply this reasoning to the possibility of church recognition –not celebration nor blessing—of same-sex unions.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. E. Bethge (NY: MacMillan, 1978) 207. This means that marriage is not only a matter of producing children, but also of educating them to be obedient to Jesus Christ (210).

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.