Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: My Response

Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

I just read a disturbing, I mean for me personally, earth-shatteringly disturbing essay by Christiane Tietz about Karl Barth entitled: Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. As most of us know, who have spent any amount of time with Barth’s theology, his “secretary”, Kirschbaum was rumored to be more than a secretary; that she was a mistress. But this, at least for me, was always in the rumor mill, and I’d never seen any substantial or decisive confirmation of this; until now.

Tietz’s essay works through some letters sent back and forth between Barth and Kirschbaum; they are letters that Barth’s own elderly children, not too long ago, felt compelled to share with the public. What they reveal is that Kirschbaum and Barth loved each other; more than that, they were lovers; more than that, Barth brought her to live in his own home with his wife and five kids. Barth was not willing to give Kirschbaum up, and it almost (it should’ve, in my opinion, and would’ve in any kind of normal situation) came to divorce between Barth and his wife Nelly; but for some reason (I’d guess for the kids), Nelly stayed with Barth in this intolerable situation. Tietz’s essay offers much more disturbing detail than I have only quipped at here, but even what I’ve noted should be enough to cause alarm.

What impact does this have on me personally? I mean we’ve moved from rumors to fact and reality. As I read Tietz’s essay I actually had a physical response; my head was literally spinning, and I felt sick to my stomach. I’ve been a very vocal proponent for Barth’s theology, online, for many years now, and this news leaves me feeling disillusioned (that’s really an understatement). As I process this news, this substantiation of rumor (about the love relationship between Barth and Kirschbaum), part of that processing includes the idea that indeed, we are all sinners. And this is true, of course; every theologian any of us will ever read are deeply flawed complex people who need the grace of God in their lives every moment of every day. But the situation with Barth is different. Initially he and Kirschbaum knew their relationship was wrong, but that didn’t ultimately matter to either of them. Instead they learned to rationalize their situation, and even used theological and biblical concepts to do that; to the point that Barth and Kirschbaum felt comfortable and motivated enough to move Kirschbaum into his house with his wife and five children. This is not right. Beyond that, Kirschbaum actually was Barth’s secretary/researcher/academic assistant,  and so as I read his Church Dogmatics, or many of his other writings, what is now in the back of my head is the idea that all of these writings were written in the context of his relationship with Kirschbaum; indeed it was fostered and given impetus by his relationship with her, as he bounced and worked his ideas off of Kirschbaum in his study and elsewhere.

What this means for me is that I am going to have to step back from Barth for the time being. I’m going to have to process all of this further, and maybe this will be the moment where I have to move clean away from Barth for good. I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s warning of “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” When I look at Barth’s life there is no love here, there is rebellion towards God’s call to fidelity and the marriage bed. There is no love here towards his wife, Nelly, or his five children; there is only self-love where he put himself and Kirschbaum before his own wife and kids. His two kids’ response to this situation (the children who shared these letters) was that it was an “unreasonable situation” (so they understate). This means something to me. Like I noted, none of us are perfect, and we are in ongoing battles with ongoing personal struggles and sin. But what Barth did, how he chose to live his whole life, was to simply give into the battle; he didn’t ultimately fight it, he willingly and intentionally succumbed to it; and he went so far as to rationalize it all by appealing to a theology of suffering and other theological categories (that actually are warped in the context of his and Kirschbaum’s usage). Here are two small quotes (these aren’t the actual letters [to Kirschbaum], but Barth’s reflection on his situation [in letter form to some others; i.e. other than Kirschbaum]):

The way I am, I never could and still cannot deny either the reality of my marriage or the reality of my love. It is true that I am married, that I am a father and a grandfather. It is also true that I love. And it is true, that these two facts don’t match. This is why we after some hesitation at the beginning decided not to solve the problem with a separation on one or the other side.[1]

And something he wrote to a pastor he knew, back in 1947:

It is precisely the fact which is the greatest earthly blessing given to me in my life which at the same time is the strongest judgement against my earthly life. Thus I stand before the eyes of God, without being able to escape from him in one or the other way [. . .] It might be possible that it is from here that an element of experience can be found in my theology, or, to put it in a better way, an element of lived life. I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become.[2]

So I am really sad, at the moment. I know some people will be mad at me for writing this, but I feel burdened by this right now. My response here is genuine (I’m not just trying to write some sort of provocative blog post for hits or something). I endearingly, in the past, would call, with others, Karl Barth: Uncle Karl. But this news, for me, has changed that perspective. As of right now I can no longer in good conscience promote Barth’s theology. As close as I can get will be mediated through Thomas Torrance. Sad.

See This: An Index to the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum Posts: And Some Closing Thoughts on the Whole Ordeal

[1] Karl Barth, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxii n. 3, letter of 1947 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 109.

[2] Karl Barth, BW. Kirschbaum I, ‘‘Vorwort,’’ xxf. n. 1 cited by Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74(2), 111.

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27 comments

  1. Bobby – Though I’m not a reader of Barth, I feel your pain in this article, and I can relate to it from some of my own past disillusionments. The fallout from this is likely, I think, to be great in the world of theology. It raises all sorts of questions about how our sinfulness affects our theology, and whether the inconsistencies that sinfulness inevitably causes invalidate our work.

    As for me, I often pray that God, in His supernatural power, will not cause my work (my theology, ministry, raising my kids, etc) to come to naught because of my extreme brokenness and weakness. I want you to know that I am praying for you, that you find peace in this tough situation. God bless you, brother.

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  2. Sorry to hear this. It is always a blow when one of our heroes and role models is stripped of the honor we gave them. While you are correct that everyone has something they carry as their cross, you are also correct, I think, in your assessment of Barth’s soul and mind.

    I have only been passingly interested in Barth through Torrance, and this only in dialogue with Nesteruk and the Orthodox tradition, but what I have seen in my life, and it made me very cynical about theology in general, was the tendency even in academia to push political or moral agendas through theology. Theology is no longer something that is knowledge of God, prayer, humility, self-criticism and reflection; it is a tool for power.

    I have since come back from that cynicism and my theology is in some ways more existential but firmly grounded in the incarnation and cross as a result.

    I hope you can find your way back – if you ever need to talk about something this devastating, there are people out here who feel the same way about other theologians. It helps put the Psalm into perspective: “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to his earth, on that very day his plans perish.” All of us will have our deeds and works tried in fire…what is left is how we have built the Church for we are living stones. Not everything Barth said is wrong…it will just take discernment to separate the roses from the thorns.

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  3. Bobby, I am truly sorry to read about what you are experiencing regarding the revelations about Barth. I will pray for you as you process your thoughts and grieve. I understand why this is tough for you. let me know if yo need someone to chat to work the issues through. God bless.

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  4. Very sorry to read that these rumors have been proved true, Bobby. What sprang to my mind was Romans 3:3-4 (NLT)
    True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? 4 Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,
    “You will be proved right in what you say,
    and you will win your case in court.”

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  5. I read this, this morning, from Thomas a Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ” Book 1 Chapter 1 (edited byJames N. Watkins):

    “What does it profit us to engage in deep discussions about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if we lack humility and are displeasing to God? Truly, deep and profound words do not make a person holy and upright, but a good life is what makes us dear to God. I would rather experience sorrow for my ungodly thoughts and actions than simply be skillful in defining “repentance.” If we know the whole Bible and the teachings of all the philosophers, what does all this benefit us without the love and grace of God? It is completely futile unless we love God and serve only him. This is the highest wisdom: to put earthly values behind us and to reach forward to the heavenly kingdom.”

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  6. Thank you for the comments. I will be writing one more post on this in the days to come; not sure when exactly, I’m going to process a bit more and allow the shock and surprise of the details to sink in and wear off a bit first. I can say, here, that I have always advocated for the idea of ex opere operato when it comes to theological speech; and that includes Barth. So my post here was me thinking out-loud, albeit about an emotive and evocative topic. I’m sure that Barth’s insights will still end up playing a profound role in my theological development, personally, but there are some things I still must work through in my relationship to him. If any of you have followed my blog, then you will know that I have been a very vocal proponent of Barth online for years and years. So to me this is not some sort of abstract thing; I see Barth as family, as weird as that might sound, and so what I’ve found out about him is only magnified that much more precisely because I love Barth and don’t hate him.

    So, roll with me a bit, and realize that what’s going on here, for me, is a process of thinking this through; and doing so in a way where blogging is integral to that process. Don’t take anything I’m saying in my first post here as ultimate and absolute, take it with the realization that when I wrote that I was in total shock and surprise.

    For some reason some people (on Twitter and FB) have jumped to the conclusion that if they follow the logic of what I’ve said in my post then nobody could read any theologian; because every theologian is a complex person. But I am sure I addressed that in my original post. What I am trying to do is sit with this realization about Barth, personally. This is not an abstract thing for me, as I’ve noted; he’s not just some theologian “out there” for me. If people can’t accept that about me then they aren’t honestly engaging with me; and I will have to reject that.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments, and just know where I’m at with all of this. And realize this is a personal blog of someone who has been a serious proponent and even defender of Karl Barth over many years. In the end I’m sure I’ll still be able to learn from him, it’s just that my approach to Barth will be that much more realistic.

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  7. Bobby, for me also this has concrete real world implications. Of course we all fall daily in some areas of our lives. “I am the chief of sinners”. But as a one time enlistee in the US Navy, I was separated from my family for long periods even though I never went overseas nor did I go to sea. But consider the plight of the young man steeped in testosterone, away from wife.
    If an academic or pastor at home with his wife and children can not control his passions, what hope does a young soldier, sailor or marine have on long deployments?
    The grace of God certainly aided me as I would be away only a few months at a time, and available to those who are away for longer deployments, and even now as we have more of a co-ed military.
    Reminds me of the treason scene in Henry V:

    “If little faults proceeding on distemper
    Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye
    When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and digested,
    Appear before us?”

    Sadly as regards church ministers, church elders, these are high crimes as you noted Paul’s counsel.

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  8. Duane,

    Yes, we are all screw ups, and except for the grace of God we all fail in every area; and we still do, I suppose that’s the point. But then the conflict for me, the whole time has been the “stricter judgment” part—which I got at in the post.

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  9. I m not a Barth follower, but some of his theology did have some influences on me. I never want to spend my energy on such an erudite scholar, that is, not until now. I believe, most theologies have been formed out of the vacuum of Western logics, void of the mundane, human reality of contradictions and sins. I know those theologies are not for me, an ordinary Christian mired in the pettiness of daily sins. I naturally have a distrust of such theologies, fashioned in the illusion of lofty, human, moral purity. Therefore, i am in fact a bit glad to hear of the flaws of my neglected theologian. Perhaps, he has something insightful to offer someone like me. I am not looking for a heroic image to make up for my own sense of insecurity and imperfection, so a flawed theologian like Barth would be fine. Thanks.

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  10. Barth had a fallen human nature; meaning his whole nature was corrupted by sin. God’s word teaches that sin is any lack of conformity to God’s moral law or transgression of that law. When Barth committed adultery with his secretary, he transgressed God’s moral law, which prohibits sex outside of marriage.

    However, Barth’s adulterous relationship with his secretary, his subsequently lying to his wife, and his continued transgression of the moral law over decades are all only symptoms of a far greater sin. Barth sinned against the holy God, whose moral nature is perfect and absolute. Indeed, scripture reveals that God’s holiness is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. So, Barth sin was massive. All sin is massive.

    But the sinfulness of Barth’s sin is truly massive, since he was a teacher with an enormous influence over many, many, people, in many generations. What’s more, Barth has had a tremendous influence in the thoughts, practices, and beliefs of many pastors, elders, and scholars — who themselves have had influence over countless scores of people. He was a intellectual four star general whose command extended over a vast army of people.

    Now that his adulterous affair has been made public, and confirmed by written evidence supplied by his own family, no less, he is a notorious sinner. Everyone now knows he was a sinner. His bad reputation is known publicly.

    For all these reasons, the seriousness of his sin is almost beyond calculation. As a teacher of pastors, who was given the gift of a truly brilliant intellect, Barth had greater responsibilities than most of us. He was given the all-important charge of training thousands of men for the ordained ministry. He played a major role in defining orthodoxy in the 20th century. His work became church doctrine over much of the Protestant world.

    And the entire time that he was a pastor, scholar, and public intellectual, he was carrying on a sinful sexual relationship with his secretary. He lied to his wife and then forced her to live in the same house as his mistress. He lied to his colleagues, he lied to the church, and most egregiously of all, he lied to his God. He continued to sin, and so, spurned the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. He spurned the righteousness of Christ imputed by grace and received by faith alone. He refused to mortify the flesh, with its sinful desires.

    God is merciful and covers over a multitude of sin.

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  11. Robert,

    You’ve said things in a way I might not. But in the main I don’t disagree with you. Yes, the seriousness relative to Barth’s position in the church is very troubling indeed. Something else that is troubling to me is that those around him, the church’s he was invited to, the seminaries he taught at, none of them thought they had the place to hold Barth to account, apparently. It’s really a sad situation and failure. Yes none of us are perfect, but there are still standards that we are all called to not by people but by God; and to me that’s what is lost in much of this discussion. This is not about how sinful all humans are, of course we are; this is about what God has called us to, in particular expected of teachers/leaders in his church. Yes, all of this is after the fact—as I’ve mentioned in one of my posts—but for me personally that doesn’t change the problematic nature of this whole scenario. The conflict, as I’ve noted, is that Barth was not held to account, he did produce what he did, and what he produced, in my view, has a material and positive reality to it, relative to the Gospel that transcends Barth, per se. But even so: even if I have all knowledge but not love, what does that even mean?

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  12. An excellent, and I think correct review of the book and view of what happened between Karl Barth and Charlotte Von Kirschbaum is here: http://barth.ptsem.edu/index.php/Book_Reviews/Book_Review/charlotte-von-kirschbaum-and-karl-barth. Also, for what it’s worth, Markus Barth told my father (over the course of a number of years) that Karl could not throw Charlotte out of his life, nor could he divorce his wife Nelly, because both actions would have been unutterably cruel. Hunsinger alludes to some of the reasons why this would be so; may I humbly suggest to you it was not a lack of love that created this tense situation in the Barth household?

    Perhaps I should also add that my father was under the impression that Karl and Charlotte had had but one passionate encounter. Now, my father is a very gentle and upright man and perhaps this is what he wanted to believe; nevertheless, these are his remembrances.

    I hope this helps.

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  13. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve read Hunsinger’s review previously, and it is helpful. I’ll read that book in full at some point. My observations have been made in response to the Tietz essay. Who is your father? And the problem isn’t for lack of love; indeed that may well be a big part of the problem in this scenario.

    And your father’s recollection of Barth and CvK is interesting.

    Thanks again for commenting.

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  14. I’m so sad about this. Constantly over the years of my walk and ministry, I have had to face up to the way in which so many ‘heroes’ have turned out to be anti-heroes in one way or another. That Barth was such an adulterer, but Martin Luther King Jr was also. That Martin Luther incited people to persecute Jews, and many other aberrations… it’s gutting. And all we can do is determine to live for Christ, no matter who else does what else.

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