How and Why I Still Read Karl Barth

I continue to read Karl Barth; you might wonder why (or you might not). After I wrote those series of posts—that created a firestorm directed at me—the posts that spoke to Barth’s relationship with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum for most of Barth’s married life, you might have thought that after that I would finally give up on Barth; I intimated I might in my first post in that series. In case you’re wondering what I am referring to just go back and read those posts (which I’ve hyperlinked above), and you’ll be filled in. In summary, Barth and Charlotte held what I would call (cause I don’t think you can call it anything else) an adulterous relationship right in Barth’s own house alongside his wife and kids. This became the “accepted” new normal for Barth’s wife, Nelly, and she apparently grew to accept Charlotte as part of the family. So Barth lived in this relationship in unrepentance most of his married life; you can see why this caused me consternation.

I have essentially devoted most of my theological readings to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance since 2006 (although I’ve read more widely than just them), and endearingly thought of Barth as ‘Uncle Karl.’ Once I really found out the details of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte this caused some real heart-ache, and I mean to the point that I felt physically sick. It might be like finding out a family member was something other than you’d come to know them as over a period of a sustained amount of time; an earth-shattering type of event. This revelation, as I internalized it, was deeply personal; I don’t think some could appreciate that, others could. And so I’ve been sitting with this ever since then, and allowing the Lord to do his work; allowing the Lord to provide his perspective, and I believe he has.

One issue I had to think through was the relationship between someone’s personal holiness (as participants in God’s in Christ), and how that impacted the way they know God. Did Barth’s unrepentant sin negate the possibility for him to accurately know God; or is it possible for someone to live in an actively sinful lifestyle and even in the midst of that have a sensitivity to who God is in Christ, and within that sensitivity still be able to theologize in such a way that a genuine knowledge of God can be articulated for the edification of the church? My conclusion (using something of the principle of ex opere operato from the Donatist controversy; loosely appropriated) is that someone, like Barth, could have the capacity by the Spirit to speak about God, and speak to God in such a way that an accurate (albeit proximate) knowledge of God could be had. I think that what Barth had going for him, that many other theologians don’t, is that his theological methodology was intensively Christ concentrated; I believe that his deep focus on Christ in all things, all the way down, despite his overtly sinful relationship with Charlotte gave him an edge up on other theologians who were more speculative and less christocentric in the intensive way that Barth was. As a result the objective reality of Barth’s focus, Jesus Christ, was still able to break through in ways, even in the midst of Barth’s unrepentant (had to be rationalized) sin that he was able to bear witness to the Lamb of God in ways that went beyond the breaking point of Barth’s own lifestyle.

As I have continuously reflected on this over the last many months (more than half a year at least), and as I have surveyed the theologians I know of in the history of the church (premodern or modern), I know of no one else (except his student TF Torrance) who offered the church such a resiliently Christ concentrated theology. Has my elevation of Barth waned somewhat, in personal ways? Yes. Have I come to some sort of dénouement in regard to the deleterious impact Barth’s relationship with Charlotte must have had on Nelly and the kids (even if that impact only had sub-conscious consequences)? No. So this remains a real and ongoing issue, but what continues to stand out about Barth’s theology is that he spoke and wrote of someone who transcended his own bad choice when it came to his relationship with Charlotte. This is what makes it too difficult to simply write Barth’s theology off; his theological witness of Christ, despite his unrepentant sin, far outpaced Barth’s own ability to apply the implications of his witness to Christ to his own life in certain and significant (glaring) ways.

Do I sin continuously? Yes. Do I have sins that I seemingly live with, in personally systemic ways? Yes, I think I do. Do I live in an unrepentant adulterous relationship with that adulterated woman in my house alongside my kids and wife (I’d be a dead man if I tried because my wife would scratch my eyes out)? No. So there is a very complex picture painted here. We are all sinners, indeed. We all live with sins in our lives in an ongoing basis even if we’re unaware of some or many of those. Yet, this does not get Barth off the hook, per se. He clearly lived in the sort of sin that God said disqualifies people from being teachers in his church; but the reality is that Barth still taught. And Barth produced a mammoth amount of theological material that continues to this day to be gifting to the church. What makes this whole thing even thicker is that it is probable that Charlotte, as Barth’s ‘secretary’, contributed heavily to the development and writing of his Church Dogmatics; and she did other things like translation work so on and so forth for Barth. So Charlotte’s impress is all over some of Barth’s most significant productions. Even knowing all of this I have concluded that Barth’s work, at a theological level, remains seminal for much of my own thinking. In some ways this creates dissonance for me, and for the reasons enumerated thusly. But I have to say, I have never read a theologian who brings such freshness to the Gospel greater than Barth does; he brings an excitement, a joy and zeal that is lacking in almost everyone else I have read. His formal and material constructions, whether that be from his Trinitarian actualism (and analogy of faith/relation) or his Christ conditioned doctrine of election are magnificently imaginative, and I think Gospel-catching and articulating in such ways that I cannot fathom finding other versions of such formations and materializations as rich as his (in principle).

So I will continue to read Barth with some trepidation and prayerfulness before God. I think you might be able to tell that even as I write this I’m still struggling with this; I don’t anticipate that struggle to ever go away. I pray to the Lord that my reading of Barth’s theology will be of the sober type, of the sort wherein compromise or accommodation to any sort of unholiness will be quickly recognized and repented of. The thing is, as you read Barth and this is the irony, you don’t get any sort of impression of unfaithfulness to God, or some sense of pervasive rationalization about sin; instead you get just the opposite, with a focus on the risen Christ, and the Triune God made known for us therein. I know some people think, probably, that I’m still a moralist for having these types of thoughts and issues; but at the end of the day I know that above all else, and everyone else, I stand before a Holy God, and so at the very least I must wrestle with such things. Pax Vobiscum

3 thoughts on “How and Why I Still Read Karl Barth

  1. What about his dead end eschatology? Where does Barth have us all end up .Shakespe
    are said:
    “”all’s well that ends well”. Barth not so much it seems.

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  2. Barth held to life after death and/or the eschaton. Indeed, he was premil. I’m not sure who you’ve been reading; maybe Wyatt Houtz over at the postbarthian or some Bultmannians. But Barth believed, orthodoxically so, in the bodily resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of all the saints.

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