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Brunner on Marriage
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The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Saturday, June 30, through Saturday, July 7, 2012, is scheduled to consider, among other things, redefining marriage.

Surely people are studying the Bible, The Book of Confessions, and the Book of Order in preparation for this decisions. It has occurred to me that we might also usefully consult what some of the historic theologians of the Reformed tradition have said about the definition of marriage. 

Brunner on Marriage


"The Christian Faith bases the validity of its demand for monogamy . . . on the Divine Order of Creation. Even Jesus Himself, when He speaks authoritatively about marriage, appeals to this order. But what does this 'order of creation' mean?

"We have to discover . . . the indication of the will of God the Creator in something which already exists, in something which is already present, apart from, and even against the will of man (in fact, in something given), in such a way that in that givenness, in that indication, faith may be able to perceive the divine order of creation, and thus discern the reason why one man should be united to one woman in wedded love. . . .

"The first fact is this: that every human being is irrevocably the child of one man and one woman, that every father, with this woman, and every mother, with this man, is, irrevocably, the father and the mother of this child. By this I do not mean the mere biological fact that every living creature has arisen out of an ovum fertilized by semen, but I mean something which does not take place outside the human sphere, namely, that a subject, an 'existent' . . . is united with two other subjects in this unparalleled and unique man, and not only that this is so, but that this 'subject' knows it. The unique element in this human relation is this: that my existence--not my physical existence, my existence as an object, but my human existence--is thus bound up with two other existences. I, as a child, owe my life (not my physical but my human life) to these two persons. And I, as father or as mother, with this woman or with this man, have given to this person his--human--existence: I, with this woman, or with this man, have taken part in the divine miracle of creation. Not a body but a real corporeal person (subject), a human being, now stands there alongside of me as that which has come into being as the result of being united with this woman. Were this being simply an object, once the thing was done, we could dissolve the partnership and each go our own separate way. But since this being is a subject, just as I am a subject, that is, since this process lies beyond all mere causality and objectivity, since I, the father, as well as the mother and the child, know irrevocably that this fact is irrevocable, then we three persons are bound together in a way in which no other three persons have ever been bound together, in an unparalleled and indissoluble relation. . . .

"This is the one given fact, which, as such, every one knows; in some way or another, every one is dimly aware of its profound significance. This fact is not the same as the far more obvious one, namely that the child needs his father and his mother for the sake of human development; that human 'structure of existence' is independent of the actual presence or absence of children in a marriage. But this secondary empirical fact of the need of the child for maternal care and paternal guidance emphasizes and accentuates this primary truth. It is not for nothing, but it forms part of the essence of human nature, that the human young need their parents so much longer and so much more than all other young in the animal creation; this obvious fact shows most clearly how contrary it is to the whole meaning of life for wedded partners to separate; this, however, is not the basal fact of the argument; it merely points in the same direction. . . .

"The meaning of the divine order of creation in marriage is this: it is life in community with two persons of different sexes, a community which is complete, based upon the natural foundation of sex love, but only fulfilled in the recognition of the fact that by divine appointment they belong to each other; through whose created distinctiveness the Creator maintains the human race, and through which the sex nature of man, which is disposed for community, can and should realize its personal character. Marriage is in a special sense a proof of the Divine wisdom of the Creator, since in it the natural is so 'directed' that at the same time it leads both to the personal character of intimate life in community, and to the universal purpose of the human species; at the same time, however, it only realizes its real meaning in ever-renewed responsible action. Marriage is the 'school' of community, created by God, in which man can 'learn' that he cannot live as an individual, but only in so far as he is bound up with the other, as also that each one of us has received his or her own life from such a connexion between two persons."

Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics, translated by Olive Wyon (London: The Lutterworth Press, 1937), pp. 345-347, 350, emphasis added.

Certain questions arise: Do the voices urging the church today to change the definition of marriage come from theologians who are smarter, brighter, better, and more faithful theologians than Emil Brunner? Do they provide us with good, sufficient, and compelling reasons to abandon this part of our theological heritage?

Dr. James C. Goodloe IVGrace and Peace,
Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, Executive Director
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