My Final Post, Ever, on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum

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

Okay, this will be my last post in regard to Karl Barth’s and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. I’ve heard enough from people I respect, don’t respect, and folks in between. In case you’re wondering what I’m referring to, it’s the content of this post (which weirdly went “viral”). I am going to approach this from a few different angles; I will talk about my approach to blogging; then about the reality of the lifelong affair between Barth and Kirschbaum; then I will discuss what I believe the Bible teaches about teachers, and how that applies to Barth, or not; and then I will offer a conclusion.

Transparency in Blogging

If you have followed me at all through my theo-blogging career (circa 2005) you will know that I use my blog, often, to simply think out loud; in very transparent ways. This means that when I put things on my blog they are usually ideas and thoughts that are on the way and in processing form; my post on Barth/CvK is no different. As I have already noted in my last short post, my first post was simply written from a raw and surprised perspective. So this fits my mode of blogging; I’m transparent to a fault I think. In other words, I think I open myself up to people who I shouldn’t,  much too often; people who don’t know me, and don’t care to really know me (and honestly that’s a vice versa situation in many cases). If you did know me, though, you’d understand how impacting Barth’s theology, at a material level, has been upon me; particularly over the last twelve years. So I wrote my first post from within, not without a relationship to Barth; a relationship that depended at some level on an element of me trusting him. This should help to explain the surprise component.

What transparency brings: it brings people into your life who you never would normally allow to speak with you in a serious way; and this is a flaw that I will remedy going forward (it’s one reason I’ve implemented moderate on blog comments). On this particular occasion I’ve received all kind of response (as you can imagine); mostly on Twitter and Facebook. The responses range from: you’re a legalist, you’re naïve, “if I followed his ‘logic’ I’d have to quit reading all theologians,” thank you for standing up on this issue, I agree with you, you need to take this slow, and then this gem in my comments here at the blog (it’s too good, I’ve got to share it):

“only thing this proves, is that you have been very foolish, 1. for wasting your precious time reading/studying/devoting yourself to the life/teachings of this false teacher, 2. for consigning to “rumour” what has been known about this apostate all along, and 3. for being “sick” about all this; so, go puke your guts out in disgust at your “hero”; perhaps this will be a “first step” for you, to get your head out from the sand, and start truly studying…” (signed lovingly) -James Roy

I realized, actually, when I posted my first post that I was indeed opening myself up to the variety of responses I received. The sense of anonymity built into online engagement (even if you use your real  name) works against its value; I realized that once again in this situation.

Barth and Kirschbaum

I already summarized the Christiane Tietz essay on Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s in my first post (what caused all of this). But some of the push back I have received wanted me to show where Tietz ever said that the nature of Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s affair was intimate and sexual in nature; she doesn’t explicitly say that. As Tietz recounts Barth’s mother calls it an “adulterous” relationship, and just the reality that they love each other and took trips to a cabin for months at a time together is very suggestive. Someone I know on Twitter recounts hearing this from one of his professors at Princeton about Barth and CvK:

“When I was at PTSEM, Migliore recalled that during KBs visit to the US with CvK he requested only 1 bedroom. So it was not really hidden”

Tietz never explicitly says that Barth and Kirschbaum had sex, but the intimation is there. I can’t explicitly say that their relationship was sexual either; all I can say is that by way of appearance it doesn’t look good.

The Biblical Conflict

For me, this is what caused the most conflict; i.e. the biblical standards. I take the bible as an authoritative and normative reality in my life, and read it in that way. When I read of the details of Barth’s and Kirschbaum’s relationship, as this was all substantiated for me (beyond rumor), I immediately tried to think about how this would work for anyone of us today; anyone of us who happens to be a pastor or teacher of theology for the church of Jesus Christ. Here’s one example, and the primary example of what the Bible considers the standard for an overseer (and I see this as applicable to any teacher in the church of Jesus Christ):

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full  respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. –I Timothy 3:1-7

So this represents a standard; it’s not something any one person will be perfect in achieving, but it provides a character and aim that the pastor/teacher is to meet. Barth’s lifestyle violated some key aspects of this (obviously the aspect of being “faithful to his wife”). I’ve been told that I am a legalist because I’m trying to see how Barth fits into this scriptural paradigm.

There are other passages we could refer to, but I’m sure most of you know what those are, and what the conflict is here. And here’s the reality: Barth didn’t meet a very important aspect of the qualifications for what it means to be a teacher/preacher in the church. His infidelity in marriage (whether it was sexual or not) should have disqualified him for a time; but apparently there was nobody to hold him to account in this way. So he continued in his teaching role, and produced the mammoth bulk of theological literature that we know him for today. This is the conflict for me.

Some have said that we’re all sinners. Yes we are. But that misses some of the point that the biblical conflict produces. This response, to me, makes it sound like these folks aren’t committed to the biblical standards set out for teachers/preachers in the church; it sounds like they are willing to soften or minimize what all of that entails from an orthodox perspective. The fact that we are all sinners doesn’t change the fact that there are still requirements to be met in order to hold a teaching office in the church; requirements that involve morality so on and so forth. They aren’t requirements that mean the person will be perfect; but they do ask, at the very least, that someone’s life is characterized by the characteristics that the Apostle Paul, et al. envisioned for what it meant to be a teacher/overseer in the church. And of course there is more to all of that than simply fidelity in marriage, or the entanglements that surround sexual or male/female relationships. But in this instance the issue revolves around fidelity in marriage.

But we have two separate things going on here, and this is how I’m trying to navigate the conflict. On the one hand we don’t want to simply soften or forfeit the biblical teaching of what it requires for a person to hold a teaching or pastoral office in the church; on the other hand we have Barth who wasn’t held accountable to that in his life, and so we ended up with a body of theological teaching anyway, that in itself can have an objective ex opere operato value to it insofar as it really does bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Barth is a sinner as we all are. Barth should have been held accountable for his actions and chosen lifestyle, and yet wasn’t. He did not actually meet the biblical standards for what it means to be a teacher/pastor in the church of Jesus Christ. Yet he produced a body of theological material that is rather revolutionary in regard to how it engages with the tradition of the church. I believe, as noted, that it can be critically interacted with at an ex opere operato level (meaning that the material reality of what he produced can potentially stand in an objective way insofar as what he communicated correlates and actually does bear witness to the Gospel reality of God in Jesus Christ; see Philippians 1[1]).

Going forward: I will still engage with Barth, to one degree or another; I will just be more realistic about the engagement and under no illusion that the way he chose to live his life met with the standards of what it meant or means to be a teacher/preacher in the body of Christ. I recognize we are all sinners, and then many of our theological heroes and teachers are deeply flawed individuals; as deeply as we all are. I think for me this was just the wakeup call that I needed in regard to keeping things in perspective; particularly with reference to one of my heroes, Karl Barth.

I think we need to try and think about all of this at multiple levels, even dialectically, and try not to lose sight that there still are standards for what it means to be a leader/teacher/pastor in the body of Christ. We all fail, and God’s graciousness is there to pick the repentant heart up. But I don’t think we want to too quickly gloss over things simply because all people are sinners. We should be realistic about the realities, and take things, as we learn of them, on a case by case basis. This is how I am approaching Barth going forward; I still think his teaching on election, natural theology, and his theological method in general are revolutionary in regard to the theological landscape. And I can’t imagine that I’d ever really give any of that up. The reality is, is that there is a whole After Barth tradition that has developed, and my favorite teacher in that tradition (and yet I will say he is his own man) is Thomas Torrance. Torrance is who ever really brought me to Barth, and Torrance remains my go to guy in so many ways (bearing in mind that TFT was not perfect either, but again this all needs to be thought of with care and important distinctions). Yet, within this new critical mode for me, in regard to Barth, I cannot deny that Barth’s teaching can be engaged with, as I’ve already noted ex opere operato).

What this whole situation does, is that it invites for further exploration in regard to how, as the church, we believe the teacher and the teaching relate. Is there a relationship between someone’s character and what they teach? Is there something to the idea proffered by the author to the Hebrews ‘that without holiness no one will see God’ (we know Augustine thought so)? These are questions worth exploring in and of themselves; and they are questions I will be pondering in the days to come.

P.S.

It might appear that I have come to some sort of resolution. I think if I have come to any resolution it is that the body of Christ is an absolute mess, including all of her teachers, leadership, laity, all across the board (which of course I’ve known my whole life, this is just a new reiteration of that); and through the centuries into the present. The only thing that makes any of this worthwhile is Jesus Christ; otherwise we might as well go eat, drink, and be merry.

And let me leave with this barb: I realize we all have opinions, reactions, and responses to all types of things; and that the online climate allows us to say things we normally wouldn’t in person; just bear that in mind (and I will too).

 

[1]15 Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: 16 The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; 17 but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:15-18 I.e. the one proclaiming the Gospel does not need to be perfect, God can still objectively use the proclamation of the Gospel, no matter who it comes from, in an edifying an positive way relative to the Kingdom. This is indeed, good news for all of us.

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17 comments

  1. Thanks for writing what seems to be very balanced, heart-felt, and transparent. I had the same experience with a Christian leader many years ago. It is hard to get to the point of accepting the good in their writings and theology with knowing of some horrendous acts in their lives.

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  2. This is really helpful wrapping up of where you’re at – thanks. I do think that, for me, the way Barth wrote theology has meant that I’ve always felt reading him as if I were travelling with him, and so there has seemed to be a relational element to my engagement with him. And you’re right, that makes it harder to realise that he had failed in such a dramatic way.

    The comment about whether they were physical lovers seems hardly relevant, to be honest; there are ways to betray your marriage vows without touching another woman, and the picture of Barth that comes across in the essay is certainly one of betrayal.

    The church is, indeed, a mess – and of course we are all part of that mess. So, Jesus. There’s a ‘hero’ who won’t let us down. And paradoxically, I feel I know him much better because of the work of Karl Barth, sinner (and crucially, apparently unrepentant sinner) though he was.

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  3. Thank you for your thoughtful posts on this. Barth played a very important role in my own theological development, and I am grateful for that, even if I am not, at this stage, a “Barthian”. Growing up in a borderline sectarian, almost fundamentalist, tradition, when much of that came falling down (just before I went off to a very good evangelical college), it was my encounter with Barth that kept me, perhaps, from becoming a theological liberal (I was “ripe” for it at the time!). Interestingly enough, it was Barth who became my doorway to Calvin and the Reformed tradition in general. In many ways, I am more Classically Reformed that Barth, though Barth has played a role in that move for me. I have abiding concerns about certain aspects of Barth (his “incipient universalism, as many have called it, as well as what his doctrine of election leaves open; his rejection of General Revelation–or at least it seems to be that, given his polemic of anything smacking at all of “natural theology,” etc.). But I have learned much from him.

    At the same time, I agree with you. What the letters reveal is a “big deal”, one that has bothered me for years. The particular citations from the letters you included in your initial post also trouble me, because Barth seems to allow some sort of “contradiction” or even unresolved “dialectical” quasi-justification for his behavior, or at least comes near to that (Barth was always a very “subtle” man in so many ways…..). I also think that in our sexually unhinged world, Barth has left us without some of the tools that he otherwise could have given us in dealing with it (I still think that the Reformed Tradition needs a serious, evangelical understanding of Natural Law, once again, in order to deal with some of the issues of the day…). Barth’s example (or lack thereof) will be used against those of us who still maintain the view of Scripture and church office that you speak of. Barth lived out his life and ministry in an erstwhile “Reformed” denomination that had lost any sense of personal accountability and church discipline. So, like you, I do think this is a big deal. It is certainly a rejection, by Barth, of a major piece of Christian morality.

    Thank you for your post.

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  4. Daniel,

    Yes, I think the sexual part is irrelevant and for precisely the point you highlight. The Lord has used Barth to point me to Christ; for me personally, at least presently, I think I’m still rather conflicted on all of this. If I return to Barth—directly—it won’t be for a long time. At the moment I don’t see that happening. I’m also just as upset with those around Barth who didn’t even try to hold him accountable, apparently. Thank you.

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  5. Walter,

    Thank you for sharing your story, and own journey (I hate that word 😉 ) with Barth. Interestingly the things, doctrinally that trouble you with Barth are the things that attracted me to him. Although I’m not a Christian universalist, nor was Barth, but he definitely leaves things more open that way. I’m still a fan of natural theology, and I think Barth’s doctrine of election (although it’s not exclusively his, he got some of that from a French theologian) is the best I’ve ever come across. But that said, folks can go through Thomas Torrance for all of that, and then also get a more Athanasian approach as well. So that’s my fall-back here; and it’s not really a fall-back, TFT is indeed my go to guy even more so than Barth was.

    But that said, there are some real issues with folks not wanting to follow the clear teaching of Scripture on this. Church discipline is a thing in the Bible, and the history of the church. Sexual morality is a definitely a thing in the Bible. Fidelity in marriage is very important in Scripture. There is no way around that except to disregard it and rationalize it away. I cannot and will not do that for anyone, ever.

    Anyway, thank you for your comment. Blessings.

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  6. Wyatt,

    No, you actually wrote a post that completely ignored the intent of my original post (and then the subsequent), and the process I’ve been in. Your post attempts to smear anyone who takes issue with the Barth situation from a biblical perspective. I’ve already received feedback on the post, and it’s obvious to them as it is to me what you’re attempting to do. In the end I think it’s silly. And at worst it engages in smear. I’ll be deleting the link to your post here in this thread.

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