Karl Barth: Did his adultery affect his theology?
Karl Barth is an interesting creature (a favorite term of his). He led the German church’s resistance to the Nazi takeover of the Protestant church. He was removed from his teaching position, and deported from Germany when he refused to sign the loyalty oath to Hitler. After the war he returned to Germany, where he helped restore the church. He was the most influential theologian of the twentieth century (though I think I’ve said this about a couple of other theologians). Barth was on the cover of Time magazine on April 20, 1962.
God as the opposite of man
Barth is best known among theologians for his book on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and Church Dogmatics. The latter is over six million words long, in five volumes. It was incomplete at the time of his death.
Barth was a great critic of liberal theology, the reigning theology of the day. Liberal theology said that the claims of Christianity must stand in continuity with the highest moral ideals of a culture. If no continuity exists, the gospel will be morally unintelligible. Basing Christianity solely on revelation, said Adolf von Harnack, erases the history of Israel and the church (Reader, p 56).
Barth’s opposition to liberal theology is influenced by his own historical experience. If theology is not rooted in scripture alone, then it’s too easy to move from judging scripture by creaturely needs, as he puts it, to judging scripture by the needs of the Führer. It is not difficult to read the history of the German church this way, which ended up accepting a bishop approved by Hitler, and a ban on converted Jews.
To avoid this problem, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture must be the criterion by which every theological claim must be measured. (Johnson, Reader, p 353)
The question, of course, is who gets to interpret scripture, and by what standards, using whose interpretation of the Greek? I don’t believe Barth ever satisfactorily answers these questions; nevertheless, one can see development in Barth’s thinking.
In Barth’s early work, God is defined as the other and opposite of man. The trouble with this way of thinking is that God risks becoming alien to man, so alien he can have nothing to say. In his later work, Barth holds to a position closer to Catholicism, even though he would have probably denied this affinity. For Catholics, God gives man reason by which he can know God’s law, and the grace by which follow his law. For Barth, the ability to know God’s law, as well as the desire to follow it, are both gifts of God’s grace. It’s a difference, but not a chasm.
In an essay written when he was over 70, Barth relaxed, and began thinking in terms of a covenantal (or partner) relationship between God and man, moving from talking about the absolute otherness of God to “His togetherness with man.”
In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. (Humanity; Reader, pp 99-100)
In the beginning was the word, and the word was embodied in Jesus Christ, so that humans might know something of the companionship of God.
Much misunderstanding of Barth would be cleared up if critics distinguished more clearly between the early Barth from the late Barth. For the early Barth, scripture is all. For the late Barth, God and man are bound in a covenant fulfilled in Jesus. It’s a big difference, one Barth never fully elaborated.
For almost four decades (37 years) Barth lived in an adulterous relationship with his wife Nelly, and his secretary and lover, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. For most of that time they lived together in the same house. Nelly was never happy with the situation, as you might imagine; neither was Charlotte.
Lots of people who have made major contributions to public life have failed in their private lives. Thomas Jefferson had a child and a long-term relationship with one of his slaves. A slave cannot consent. Yet, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which for all its flaws and omissions is a noble document. Can’t we just say the same thing about Barth? A flawed personal life does not devalue his theology. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Barth rationalizes his adultery in a way that runs counter to his theology. Perhaps not just Barth’s life, but his theology, were both flawed.
Barth, as I’ve argued, asserted that we must ground our theology in the revelation of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. This was his argument with the Enlightenment. Subjective experience not only doesn’t count; it is the enemy. But in his letters to Charlotte, most of which have been preserved, Barth justifies himself entirely in terms of subjective experience, saying in effect that their relationship felt so good and so right that it had to come from God.
It cannot be the devil’s work. It must have some meaning and a right to live. … I love you and do not see any chance to stop this. (Christianity Today).
As Christiane Tietz, who published an article based on his letters, puts it,
The letters of those years show a sensible, insecure Barth . . . which stands in some contrast to the theological Barth with his clear judgment and harsh opinion. (Tietz, p 99)
Barth writes in what has rightly been called a magisterial style, as though his work was some sort of addendum to the Sermon on the Mount. Barth’s letters, on the other hand, are written in a whiny ‘why can’t it be easier for me?’ tone.
Barth explains that he does not want to flee the cross of an unfulfilled marriage. But why should God not allow us to take the cross on the other shoulder? (Tietz, p 104)
Is he really comparing himself to Christ? Did Christ get to drag his cross in a more comfortable position? What does taking the cross on the other shoulder even mean? That he gets to have two wives?
Conclusion: Barth comes to recognize his harshness
I have taken away from many people many things (namely beautiful and dear and high things!), because I pointed to the question, to the claim, which is posed to human beings, to the judgment to which they are subject and to which they have to submit themselves. I certainly think I very often spoke too strictly, too securely, having to sacrifice concretely only very little myself. (Tietz, quoting Barth, p 108)
I would like to think that the increasing humanity of Barth’s theology in later years, in which Jesus becomes not only our judge, but also our companion, “man’s loyal partner,” as Barth puts it, was the result of his struggle to come to terms with his own “complicated” existence.
P.S. Charlotte had a nervous disorder, and died at a relatively young age. It was Nelly, Barth’s widow, who made sure she was buried in the family cemetery plot.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 5 volumes. T&T Clark, 1957-1988.
Karl Barth, The Humanity of God. John Knox, 1960, pp 39-46.
Mark Galli, What to make of Karl Barth’s steadfast adultery. Christianity Today, Oct. 20, 2017. www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html
Keith L. Johnson, ed. The Essential Karl Barth: Reader and Commentary. Baker Academic, 2019 [Reader].
Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today, 2017 (vol. 74, #2, 86-111).