My Current Thoughts on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: On Being Human Before a Gracious God

I sort of set off an online firestorm a few months ago after I decided to post some of my thoughts on Christiane Tietz’s journal essay on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. My blog had never received so much traffic prior; it became a genuine ordeal. An ordeal not because I was excited about all the attention, but because I was genuinely attempting to work through—at that moment—the idea that one of my favorite of all time theologians, Karl Barth, had actually lived in what I would still call an ongoing unrepentant adulterous relationship with CVK. Even me stating that now will not sit well with many people, but it is still how I see it; if you are interested in reading the posts I wrote during that time, and listen to a podcast I produced, then click here for an index.

The reason I wanted to revisit this now was because I have been sitting with this since the end of September when that all started for me. I lost some online connections because of that, but that’s okay in the end. Maybe some of those connections can be remade again, but maybe not. I digress: what I wanted to simply note here was that some of the dissonance that the reality of this Barth/CVK relationship created for me as a reader and partaker of his theology hasn’t ultimately gone away. What has happened though, even over these last three or four months is that I have been able to re-engage with Barth, and continue to learn from him as a thinker. I think what the Lord has been reinforcing in my mind about this is some of the stuff I already initially knew; i.e. that there is an ex opere operato character about the works of God, and about the theologians who attempt to work out the works of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The key, or principle itself, is something, ironically, that is pervasive, that is probably the thematic of Barth’s whole theological prolegomena (theological methodology); the theme that I think allows people to continue to learn from Karl Barth is the idea of ‘bearing witness.’ We think of Balaam’s ass; God was able to use a creature that normally couldn’t even speak to bear witness to the reality of God’s presence in Balaam’s life; in ways that Balaam did not have eyes to see. Now, I am not comparing Barth to a donkey, instead I am comparing all of us, in God’s economy, to a donkey. The inherent worth of our lives is not whether or not we sin (we all do), not whether we live in unrepentant sin or not (we probably, at some level or another always do), but the inherent worth of our lives is contingent upon God’s Word as he provides value to our lives through the value of His life for us. This does not excuse sin, or give us license to live in unrepentant sin, but it does identify the reality that our sin is not greater than the Witness of God’s Word in our lives. As such because God has included our lives in His confronting Word to us and for us in Christ, we always and miraculously have the capacity to bear witness to Jesus Christ in spite of ourselves. God has the capacity to use a donkey, a Barth, a Bobby, or anyone else He wants, to bear witness to the greatness of His reality and grace and mercy for us.

Something else I have been thinking about (all things that were in my mind even back when this all started, and things others floated towards me as well—often times in cavalier ways, or at least that’s how it felt) is that the realization that Barth was an unrepentant sinner involving a serious issue has the capacity to humanize Barth and magnify the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, any temptation to want to idolize, not just Barth, but any pet-theologian quickly loses luster precisely because this kind of dissonant reality remains in the background. In Barth’s case it is the reality that he lived in the type of relationship that he did. I still can’t square any of that with any sense of rationalized good will, I still can’t escape the malaise this places me in as I reflect upon it for too long; but I have come to the conclusion that Barth, somehow, was used by God to communicate about God in Jesus Christ that I have never encountered in any other theologian in the history of the church. So this makes Barth unique, but not unaccountable before God for his chosen lifestyle.

Something else that lingers is the question of the relation between personal holiness and theologizing. Augustine places a real emphasis upon this; the author to the Hebrews places a real emphasis on this; and so I’d be foolish to not place great weight upon this as well. Hebrews 12 says ‘that without holiness no one will see God.’ I take this as not just an eschatological reality, but a present and existential reality that impedes upon my daily life as a Christian. With this in mind, for me, what Barth was able to accomplish, while only a proximate offering (as any theology can only be this side of beatific vision), is pretty astounding. I can only imagine what could have been produced if maybe he had chosen a different route in regard to his relationship with Charlotte.

So this is where I’m at. Not really altogether figured out exactly. But I live with a dissonance, and continue to learn and benefit from Barth (prayerfully before God). Any tendency I might have had to elevate Barth too high in the past has been repented of, but not just in regard to Barth but in regard to anyone person or teacher I may have tended to do that with (unawares at points). This reality will always be a reminder to me of how broken we all are as humans, and how gracious and merciful God is to love us so much to be willing to stoop down and meet us where we are that we might be where He is, with Him for all eternity. maranatha.


13 thoughts on “My Current Thoughts on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: On Being Human Before a Gracious God

  1. Thanks for sharing this Bobby. When I think of the majesty of Barth’s ideas and the worship they evoke in me and then of a life that did not adorn the doctrine it espoused it causes me great sadness and i feel a pain in my chest. It sadly threatens (rightly or wrongly) to undermine the authority of the teaching. I think of Paul’s comments in Philippians regarding the motivations of some of those who preached the gospel out of wrong motives. At least he could rejoice that the gospel was preached and in that Christ would be glorified. This is perhaps where we must find solace.


  2. The Donkey reference reminded me of this marvelous poem by GKC.

    The Donkey by G.K. Chesterton

    When fishes flew and forests walked
    And figs grew upon thorn,
    Some moment when the moon was blood
    Then surely I was born.

    With monstrous head and sickening cry
    And ears like errant wings,
    The devil’s walking parody
    On all four-footed things.

    The tattered outlaw of the earth,
    Of ancient crooked will;
    Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
    I keep my secret still.

    Fools! For I also had my hour;
    One far fierce hour and sweet:
    There was a shout about my ears,
    And palms before my feet.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Bobby,

    I appreciate your thoughts on Karl and Charlotte. I was not so shaken by the correspondence between them as you were. Perhaps because I am still uncertain about the the exact relationship between them and with Nelly. Perhaps, too, because I experienced a shock somewhat earlier over CS Lewis and Jane Moore, and have more or less gotten over it. (Not to mention every other unfortunately or untimely relationship I have heard about.)

    I have heard that we Americans are much more concerned with “hot-blooded” sins than are Europeans. And that we don’t have much to say about “cold-blooded” sins. I suspect this may be true. Think of the way we lionize Martin Luther. Not only did he kick off the Protestant Reformation, his theology is important and accessible, he was an engaging personality, and he married, had children, and was (as far as we know) faithful to his wife. We write about him, preach about him, study his commentaries, etc. What we haven’t done very well with Luther is come to grips with his virulent anti-semitism.

    At this point in my life, if I had to choose between a theologian whose writings had great personal meaning to me, but who loved one woman and was already married to another one, but who couldn’t see abandoning either one, and a theologian whose writings were also highly influential, but who encouraged the oppression of Jews and urged his “princes” to violence against them, and whose stance on Jewish matters has formed the backbone of Protestant anti-semitism ever since, I choose the former. If sin can be “rated” surely KBs is of a lesser stature than Luther’s.

    I’d love to see your blog and the other folks involved in KB studies and dialogue about him and his work examine his thinking in light of Jewish anti-semitism. Let’s agonize where it might do some good.



  4. Paul, no, I don’t agree about the gradation of sins here. Barth’s sin was utterly serious and a travesty. And yes, Luther’s was too. I haven’t forgotten about Barth’s unrepented of relationship with CVK. I’ve had correspondence w/ people who knew Barth’s son and worked with him, and he told them the nature of the relationship was sexual. I don’t know what more evidence someone would need; coupled w/ the letters etc.

    So I’m a bit confused by your comment. I haven’t taken your approach at all w/ Barth. And I reject this type of ethnicization of how people approach sin; it’s not a relative ethnic thing; it’s a holiness reality that transcends race etc. It seems maybe you’ve misread me in my post.


  5. Bobby,
    Thanks for the response. Your thinking about such matters has been extraordinarily helpful to me. Not just on KB and CVK, but on many other matters, as well. Please understand that I am a novice compared to most of those who follow you, so you may need to make an allow for me here and there. 1) The “gradation of sins” comment was meant to be snarky on my part. Not a serious comment, but a provocative one. However, Reinhold Niebuhr said that there must be relative differences between sins, else why would there need to be a “judgement”? 2) I have never before seen in print that the relationship between KR and CVK was sexual. That clarifies matters for me.
    3) I absolutely agree that sin is a holiness reality that transcends race. That does not mean, however, that “on the ground” perceptions of sin do not vary. 4) There is still the matter of anti-semitism: was KB part of a long line of Christian thinkers who, in the end, did real damage to the relationship between Christians and Jews? Disinheriting the Jews began early in Church history and, in many quarters, still continues.


  6. You dont really have to. I’m not trolling or trying to start an argument. I think I better sit the rest of this one out.


  7. Paul,

    As far as Luther’s anti-Semitism (in his later writings and life), this ought to be given some perspective by his early views and writings on the Jews. Some people suggest that Luther, in his anti-Semitic writings, was at that point in his life suffering from an onset of dementia etc. If we compare some of Luther’s early writings with his later on the Jews this might help make sense of the dissonance.

    But, really, the bottom line for me (i.e. the motivation for my post) was to simply note that I haven’t been able to resolve the issues surrounding Barth’s infidelity, and who he is as a theologian. But at the same time what I am noting is that even in light of that I am still benefiting from the witness bearing to God that happened in his thinking towards God even in spite of the unrepented of sin. That’s really the basis of my whole post, and recognition in regard to Barth. I haven’t seen it in anymore softer terms (as far as the gravity of the sin), and I don’t think I need to in order to still benefit what God was able to accomplish through Barth. So I live with this dissonance, and it’s real.


  8. Thank you. The entire conversation around KB and CVK reminds me of my graduate school days (Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University) when some of the undergraduates learned of CS Lewis’ relationship with Jane Moore. There were book burnings. How sad. Sad for us all.
    I like the way you put KBs failure with CVK, as “dissonance” between who he was as a theologian and how he lived in blatant infidelity. A good thing to ponder as we enter Lent. We carry dissonance with us until we are made new in the Kingdom of God.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.