Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth

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A recent and significant article about Karl Barth’s personal life is making some waves.  Christiane Tietz, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Zürich, examines the relationship between Karl Barth and his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, on the basis of recently published correspondence between Barth, his wife Nelly, and Charlotte.  Tietz’s findings were presented at the 2016 meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America, and that paper has now been published (Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 74/2 [2017], 86-111).

The nature of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte had long been hinted at.  Barth’s biographer and student, Eberhard Busch, came as close as any to acknowledging that Barth and Charlotte were lovers:

There is no question that the intimacy of her relationship with him made particularly heavy demands on the patience of his wife Nelly. . . Barth himself did not hesitate to take the responsibility and blame for the situation which had come about.  But he thought that it could not be changed. It had to be accepted and tolerated by all three.  The result was that they bore a burden that caused them unspeakably deep suffering.  Tensions arose which shook them to the core.  To avoid these, at least to some extent, was one of the reasons why in further Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum regularly moved to the Bergli during the summer vacation (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts [Fortress, 1976], 185-186).

Now, however, with Tietz’s article we have clear evidence of the nature of the relationship between Barth and von Kirschbaum, and the extraordinary pain it brought to Barth’s wife Nelly and to their children.  Worth noting is the fact that the surviving Barth children had decided to make the correspondence available in 1985, though the materials were not actually published until 2000 and 2008.

The article itself, with copious quotations from the letters of the principals, is excruciating to read.  Barth first met von Kirschbaum, who was fifteen years younger than he, in 1925 at the home of a friend and by early in 1926 they knew they were in love.  In September of 1929 Barth moved von Kirschbaum into his home, and from that point on the theologian lived with two women.  The picture of Barth that emerges from these letters is that of a man who recognized the awkwardness of his situation but who was steadfastly unwilling to give up his relationship with a mistress who, unlike Barth’s wife, was both a physical and intellectual partner.

The article also details the cognitive bargaining in which both Barth and von Kirschbaum engaged in order to justify this Notgemeinsschaft zu dritt (“union of necessity and trouble as a threesome”).  Barth himself rejected the admonitions of friends and family, and his own mother asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” (Tietz, 107; cf. pp. 103-104).  As Tietz (p. 102) summarizes Barth in one of his letters, “The necessity lay in this: He wants to keep the outer order of marriage but also to be true to his love to Charlotte.  He confesses his guilt: that in a situation where he was still immature, he had asked Nelly to become his wife, that he was not what a man should be for his wife, and that he finally was unable to remain faithful to her.”  Yet, while recognizing a personal failure toward his wife Barth seems to have denied any moral failure, declaring that he had “never preached morally,” and, writing to von Kirschbaum, “it cannot just be the devil’s work, it must have some meaning and a right to live, that we, no, I will only talk about me: that I love you and do not see any chance to stop this” (pp. 107, 109).  Even von Kirschbaum was convinced that her relationship to Barth was a “marriage” and that it was a “responsible relationship” before God (p. 110).

All this is, frankly, disturbing in ways that challenge the capacity of language to describe.  Terms such as “adultery” and “affair” don’t seem to do full justice to what Barth was up to.  Perhaps “functional bigamy” is a better descriptor, but the level of chutzpa and hubris evident in Barth’s behavior and his disregard for the feelings of his wife Nelly are truly astonishing.

Then there’s the question of Barth’s theology.  This is the man regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century (and there’s a case to be made for that assertion).   Some will argue that Barth’s behavior thoroughly discredits his theology, particularly in that his theology was used to justify the behavior, and I’m sensitive to the emotional power of that argument.  But Barth’s appalling behavior notwithstanding, I’m uncomfortable using this issue as a decisive theological criterion. The question of the rightness or wrongness of Barth’s theology should be decided on the merits.  But in order to examine these merits, we need to see how we got to this point.

Though this doubtless would have been surprising to many only a few decades back, we are today in the midst of a significant revival of interest in the theology of Karl Barth.  This renewed interest is especially evident among people who are somewhat to the right-of-center theologically.   This has been facilitated by the strategic release of Barth archival material (which has stimulated much scholarly work on Barth) and by the work of Barth scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary (especially Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, and Stacy Johnson), in the United Kingdom (especially the late John Webster and the late Colin Gunton), and in Germany (Eberhard Jüngel).  It is safe to say that, for better or worse, Barth is now “front burner.”

When I started seminary Barth had been dead for thirteen years, and was generally regarded as “historical theology” because the problems inherent in his work had become evident to people on both the right and left.    For the record, I’ll readily agree that Barth is almost always stimulating, which is why I have a fair number of books by and about Barth on the bookshelves in my office, and that the recent “Barth revival’ has produced some helpful and even remarkable insights into his thought.

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I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was a distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

Are there good things to be found in Barth?  Sure there are.  Here’s a brief and incomplete list:

He has stimulated a lot of people to take the classical Christian tradition more seriously.

He retrieved the classical apparatus of Christological discussion (e.g., the  anhypostasia/enhypostasia distinction of Leontius of Byzantium) to good effect.

He took the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Though his language of “modes of being” has been confusing to many, Barth was certainly not a “modalist” or Sabellian.

He reminded us of the importance of the Augustinian and Anselmian principle of fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).

And finally, Barth reminded us that theology must be shaped by its object.  In the face of the anthropocentric turn of Schleiermacher and his liberal successors, Barth rightly declared, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”

In other words, Barth’s enduring value, as I see it, lies primarily in his retrieval of the classical Christian tradition.  The good stuff in Barth can generally be found elsewhere in the tradition.  But when Barth ventures out on his own, whether it be his view of the imago dei, his view of Scripture, his covenantal “supralapsarianism” and view of election, his dialectical view of history, etc., the results are often unhappy.

In fact, the problems in Barth’s work have long been recognized. First, his view of Scripture as potentially mistaken in matters of religion and theology and the shift in emphasis from inspiration to illumination leave the Christian with little place to stand (see, e.g., Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510). As Church Dogmatics editor and translator Geoffrey Bromiley well put it, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p. 52).  It seems to me that John Webster’s stimulating recent work on the doctrine of Scripture can be read as an attempt to fix some of these problems in Barth.

Second, his implicit universalism (e.g., his contention that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians are outside of Christ but rather that Christians know they are redeemed by Christ) cuts the legs out from under gospel proclamation (see Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1: 92-93, 103). It is safe to say that Barthianism has not exactly been an engine for missionary activity!

Third, there is the failure to take history with the seriousness it deserves.  Here we recall that Barth sought to affirm both God’s redemptive activity and the critical study of history, and so he relegated divine acts to the realm of “suprahistory” (by which he meant that it really happened but it’s not “historical” in the sense of being verifiable).  The problems inherent in this dialectical approach to history seem to lie at the crux of the complaints that theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and N. T. Wright have with Barth.

Fourth, there is Barth’s “objectivism,” which results in a pretty abstract soteriology.  For Barth, Christ not only fulfilled the divine initiative toward fallen human beings but also the human response of faith and obedience.  In other words, all of salvation (the gracious divine initiative and the human response to it) is objectively comprehended in Christ.  But this in turn raises the question of whether we have to do anything and whether transformation of life is at all important.  It is precisely here that we may want to ponder whether there was a connection between Barth’s thought and the messiness of Barth’s life.

Finally, consistent with this objectivism Barth’s ecclesiology and sacramentology, with its view of the church as witness to salvation rather than the sphere of salvation, is disappointingly low in ways that this ecclesial Calvinist cannot embrace.

In sum, then, I still don’t much care for Karl Barth, and for a variety of reasons having to do with both theology and life.  Those wise words of Barth’s mother quoted above to her wayward son should be a salutary word of caution to those of us who seek to do theology: “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

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