The Taser's Edge


Karl Barth and Marriage

Kind of interesting to some, maybe.  Basically a summary of Karl Barth’s theology of marriage in Church Dogmatics III/4.  I post it because I wrote it.  Don’t get too excited.  I didn’t have space for spiritual monogamy within polygamy.

“Life-Partnership”: Karl Barth’s Theology of Marriage

Karl Barth’s theology of marriage is found in his Church Dogmatics III/4, but it must and can only be understood as building on the basis of his theological anthropology in Church Dogmatics III/2.  In that earlier section, he describes a striking portrait of humanity in which human individuality is formed and defined in relation to the other.  Humans are truly human only when they know and are known by the other (251).  At the most basic level, the human encounter is one of seeing and being seen, of looking the other in the eye and of being looked in the eye.  Unfortunately this leaves too much to assumptions.  Sight is lacking because it does not have the component of giving oneself to the other (250-253).  Speech begins to remedy this shortcoming because speech is a form of self-revelation.  Speech is also a form of vulnerability, of offering oneself to the other despite the good possibility that the other will be want to be left alone (254-257).  It too can fail, because people can both talk and hear past one another (259).

Barth sets up a tremendous tension in his description of human identity, insisting that being truly human is impossible apart from relationship with other humans and that only within relationship with other humans is one’s own individuality possible.  Barth works hard to retain mutuality as essential even as he emphasizes that individuality is not lost but enhanced in that shared community (262-263).  The healthiest human relationships thus rejoice in both the distinctness and the mutual existence of the I and the Thou: “Humanity lives and moves and has its being in this freedom to be oneself with the other, and oneself to be with the other” (270, 272).

Although Barth writes in III/2 that this anthropology is not descriptive of Christians alone but of all humanity, when he begins in III/4 to write of marriage, he is writing of something distinctly Christian.  This is true despite the fact that his introductory definition of marriage is one which could be applied to marriages beyond Christianity: “Marriage may be defined as something which fixes and makes concrete the encounter and interrelation of man and woman in the form of the unique, unrepeatable and incomparable encounter and relationship between a particular man and a particular woman” (182).

Barth’s discussion of human relationships in III/2 was not gendered (despite his use of male pronouns), but it is clear from this basic definition that his understanding of marriage is gendered.  Not only must marriage be between a man and a woman, but Barth retains an order of the sexes, putting man before woman at several points, and he defends himself by saying that this order is primarily lived out in the man taking “initiative both in matters of freedom and matters of fellowship” (193).  “Matters of freedom” are part of this self-giving, which is a process of emancipation and liberation of the other in terms of each person’s individuality and obedience to God (190, 192).  “Matters of fellowship” have already been touched upon in the description of anthropology-the encounter of man and woman in marriage is one in which both are giving themselves freely to the other and freely receiving the other.  This is the work and purpose of marriage to a degree beyond other relationships, a degree which Barth describes in very ‘serious’ terms which border on frightening in their intensity:

“[Entering marriage] ‘In all seriousness’ means experiencing all this in the succession of unforeseeably many days of twenty-four hours and unforeseeably many years of fifty-two weeks, with the intimacy of an everyday and everynight companionship which discloses everything on both sides, in which each very soon gets to know the other with terrifying exactitude, and in which the greatest thing can become astonishingly small and the smallest thing astonishingly great…to have become a collective, a We, a pair, and to live as such, not merely outwardly, but inwardly as the only possible basis of the outward, and not merely in the life of mutual relations, but in the thinking, willing, and feeling of both participants upon which these relations must rest if they are to be tenable.” (187)

For Barth, as the above quote makes abundantly clear (although it is a bit hyperbolic-Barth does not believe that humans can actually entirely know themselves or one another) marriage is a ‘life-partnership’ and a serious one.  Marriage partners enter their marriage mutually, by choice, due to love, and in freedom, which is found in obedience to God’s call (214).  If there is not mutuality in the founding of a marriage, then the mutuality required of a marriage relationship in its constant self-giving and other-receiving will not be possible.  If marriage is not by choice, then it has not been entered out of obedience to God’s command.  If a marriage is not due to love, then there can be no strong foundation for it.  Finally, a marriage is a partnership in which a common obedience to a common calling is lived out.  While all true Christian marriages seem to have obedience at their heart, Barth hints that some marriages (and one assumes, not others) are “the matter of a supremely particular divine vocation” while others may not be (183).  And there are of course some marriages which are entered into with no thought of obedience to God (208).

On the subject of love, Barth seems indebted to an almost Romantic conception of love, perhaps under Schleiermacher’s influence.  Love is a mysterious gift of God, given to both people if it is truly love, and Barth riffs on love’s wonders at length (221-222).  There are three different pretenders to love which Barth also discusses-affection, trifling, and flirtation.  Affection is like love, except that sometimes it fails to mature into love.  Trifling has to do with attraction, but it is trying to experiment with love and such experiments necessarily distort both love and affection.  Finally, flirting can be harmless, but it can also share the dangers of trifling.  Its true place is between married lovers.  True love is shown by the fact that it truly desires the lifelong-partnership of marriage (222).

With all these characteristics and requirements, marriage is a good in itself, with its own meaning and its own proper end.  Barth rejects Roman Catholic claims that marriage creates only a larval form of family which must find its fulfillment in producing and raising children (188-189).  He also rejects any end of marriage which does not accord with his understanding that marriage must be a permanent life-partnership in obedience to God.  If it is impermanent, then it is not true marriage.  Still Barth does leave room for the end of a marriage.  When he speaks of “divorce,” he makes it clear that a legal divorce is a legal process connected to the institution of marriage, which is a social entity rather than the marriage which he has been describing (212).    The other way in which Barth discusses divorce is in his exegesis of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Gospels.  Barth focuses on Jesus’ words, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (qtd. on 207).  A marriage is “that which God hath joined together,” and yet Barth knows that there are some marriages which humans join together themselves with no view toward God, obedience to God, true love, or life-partnership.  Such marriages can be “put asunder” by human beings, but for a person to decide whether his or her marriage is God-ordained is not easy; even if it is discerned that a marriage was not founded in God, ending the marriage should not be automatic.  The prospective divorcee “will not [divorce] without asking himself again and again whether he will and can and may and must” divorce (212).  Barth’s understanding of the good end of a marriage is then very much like an annulment, based on the claim that the relationship has no God-ordained beginning foundation.  Leaving a marriage, like entering a true marriage, should be out of Christian obedience.  For some Christians it will even be direct obedience to a command from God, through which they may find healing only after the end of their marriage (212-213).

Although Barth argued that a marriage is an entity with its own internal good, this does not mean that a married couple is an entity separate from the larger community.  When two believers are married, not only does their relationship to one another change, but their relationship to the community also changes, for the community relates to the married couple as a new entity (224).  Concern for the Christian community is played out in several ways, the most common of which being that there should be some level of parental involvement in the decision to marry (227).  Moreover, the responsibility of each marriage partner to each other and their shared obedience to God is lived out in within and in the sight of the Christian community (228).

Barth closes this selection on marriage with a discussion of adultery.  He looks to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount definition of adultery as lusting in one’s heart and then expands it to show that all are guilty of adultery (233).  While his broad definition of adultery captures every kind of sin and disorder in the relations between male and female and thus could be received as pure condemnation, it needs rather to be received within the framework of the mercy of God in Christ, as Barth understands it.  Christ preached on adultery so that every manifestation of it in our lives could be revealed, judged, and forgiven.  God, “on the cross of His Son made atonement for [humanity’s] sin, even for his sin in the relationship of male and female, disclosing and revealing the sin of man by forgiving it” (234).

In this quote one can see that Barth’s theology of marriage is not its own entity but is very closely tied to his larger theology, much as each human is intimately related to her fellow humans and each spouse to her partner.  Christian marriage, a pattern of “life-partnership,” is lived in a pattern of obedience just as any individual Christian life is lived.  Like every individual Christian life, Christian marriage is a sharing in mutuality and an emancipation of one’s individuality through that mutuality.   Like every individual Christian life, Christian marriage is ultimately not meant to perform the work of God flawlessly but rather to rest in God’s promises of redemption accomplished through Christ.  Though we are sinful, Christ’s love, grace, and forgiveness abound all the more, with power to redeem every individual and every relationship.


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