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What Do We Do with Karl Barth?

October 17th, 2017 | 10 min read

By Matthew Emerson

I’m pleased to publish this guest post from Dr. Matthew Emerson.

Recently, Christiane Tietz’ Theology Today article, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” was a hot topic in one small corner of the internet, occupied mostly by academic theologians. Tietz’ essay contains the first English translation and publication of letters written by and to Barth, Kirschbaum (his secretary), Nelly Barth (his wife), and Barth’s mother, all of which speak to in some way the relationship between Barth, von Kirschbaum, and Barth’s wife.

It is clear from the letters that Barth and von Kirschbaum were in love, and, although none of them speak explicitly about sexual intimacy between them, it is difficult to imagine that they were not intimate with one another. The letters also make clear that Barth both refused to give up either his mistress or his wife and also excused this ethical indecisiveness via his own dialectical theology. As many already knew, von Kirschbaum moved in with the Barths, and the three lived the rest of their lives in what Tietz and the letters describe as a tense and sad situation.

In the essay Tietz also discusses how that web of relationships impacted Barth’s theology, both materially and conceptually. Materially, Barth at least dictated much of the CD to von Kirschbaum, and the letters and Tietz’ essay seem to suggest the further possibility that von Kirschbaum wrote some portions herself, probably the excursus sections (the best parts!). Conceptually, it seems that Barth may have excused his indecision and his continued (at least emotional) adultery via his own emphasis on dialetic theology.

Part of what spurred this flurry of Twitter conversations and blog posts was a response by Bobby Grow, in which he expresses disillusionment and even despair over this revelation. As Grow notes, the relationship between von Kirschbaum and Barth has been rumored for decades, but until now the English-speaking world, at least, has been relatively sheltered from the truth of those rumors. Grow’s post may represent other theological students in the USA who, studying Barth but unfamiliar with his personal life, are now disillusioned by his entire theological project.

I confess that, as someone who is decidedly not a Barthian but who still has appreciated some of what Barth has to say, my initial reaction was also visceral; my first thought was, “I want to go throw my CD set in the trash.” I also wondered how e.g. Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the qualification for elders applies to our appropriation of particular theologians’ teachings, as well as how the ethical failures of particular theologians effect our evaluations of their theologies.

The question of “what do we do with Karl Barth?” thus has a larger context, one in which we have to decide what to do with the theologies, the teachings related to the good deposit the Church is to pass on, of individual theologians, particularly ones which have gross moral failures.  To be honest, I haven’t quite decided where I finally land on what to actually do with these theologies. Nevertheless, the following are what I think are helpful guidelines in evaluating theologies constructed by those with serious moral failures.

Remember the Donatist Controversy.

My friend Luke Stamps has pointed out a number of times that rejecting a particular theological program purely on the basis of the author’s unethical behavior or problematic thinking about ethical issues smacks of Donatism. This teaching from the fourth and fifth centuries said that the sacraments administered and teachings pronounced by unethical ministers were invalid. In other words, the truthfulness and effectiveness of ministry, prayer, and the ordinances was tied directly by Donatists to the purity of the minister.

Something similar is at work in rejecting any theological conclusion or program simply based on unethical acts of the writer. What opponents to Donatism, including Augustine, realized is that truth is truth even when it is spoken by someone acting contrary to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. John uses Caiaphas to make a similar point in his Gospel; even Balaam’s donkey spoke blessing on Israel when his master wanted to utter a curse. Truth is truth no matter who or what the mouthpiece.

Don’t Cherry Pick.

The latter has to be the case since, as Solzhenitsyn says, “. . . the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Or, with Paul, “no one is good, no not one.” If we affirm with Luther that Christians are still simil iustus et peccator, and that, while the pursuit of holiness is commanded by Christ, the indwelling presence of sin will not be eradicated from us completely until the eschaton, then each of us engaging in the theological task (i.e. every single person) is necessarily tainted by sin in their conclusions. This is of course not an excuse for sinful actions – μή γενοῖτο! – but rather a simple acknowledgement that not even the best of us are perfect.

But there is more to be said here. Some of our favorite theologians are not only generically sinners, but ethically compromised in specific and, in some cases, atrocious ways. Who can read of many of the Puritans’ defense of chattel slavery without revulsion? Or, to put a finer point for me, the same issue with respect to the founders of my denomination and our first seminary? Or Luther’s anti-semitism? Or Calvin’s silence with respect to the theocratically-driven execution of Servetus? Or Zwingli’s herem campaign against the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists?

And the list could go on, from Zwingli to medieval popes and monks to Cyril to the Cappadocians to the “traditors” to Peter to David to Moses to Jacob to Abraham to Noah to Adam. Each of these spoke truth on at least one occasion in their life, the latter portion of the list even becoming authors of, or at least speakers of truth in, Holy Scripture. We would be left with very few theologians if the bar for their theology’s truthfulness was their own ability to remain above reproach.

Evaluate Theology on its Own Merits.

Again, this does not excuse sin in the life of a theologian, especially egregious and unrepentant sin. Nor does it mean that certain persons should be disqualified from the office of elder. Regarding the latter, egregious, unrepentant sin like Barth’s should certainly disqualify one from serving as an elder, if they are still living. It does mean, though, that theology should be evaluated on its own merits, and namely its conformity to Scripture.

Here the Donatist error is confronted with sola Scriptura. We should not only look to God’s Word as the primary, ultimate source for our theology, but also as its primary, ultimate evaluator. It is not the life of the theologian that serves as the arbiter of whether or not her or his theology is correct, but rather Holy Scripture. Of course, not everyone agrees on how to evaluate, say, Barth on these grounds. Some are more positive about his theology; others, like me, are appreciative of some elements but ultimately find his theological program wanting in a number of important areas. The point is that these evaluations ultimately rest on our assessment of his (or anyone else’s) theological conclusions as they relate to the biblical authority.

And Yet . . .

I am still left here with the nagging feeling that there must be something we can say about Barth’s theology given Barth’s actions. I wondered aloud whether or not a theologian’s actions can strike at the heart of their theological program. For me, the obvious example here is John Howard Yoder. Yoder labored to convince his readers of a pacifist approach to ethical matters like war and the death penalty, based in large part on his own understanding of Jesus. And he did so while exercising unabated violence and predation against women over the course of his career.

Does this tell us anything about his theology? Does it help us in our evaluation of its truthfulness? Or, to bring it back to Barth, does Barth’s apparent use of dialectic theology to excuse his own adultery and emotional abuse of his wife tell us anything about or help us evaluate his theology?

At the moment, I’m honestly still undecided on how to answer this question. Given what I’ve said above, I’m inclined to say no. But then I remember that ideas have consequences, and ethical ones at that. So perhaps rather than asking whether a theologian’s actions necessitates the repudiation of their theology as untruthful, we should instead ask whether or not a particular theological position or program can, will, or usually does lead to lapses in judgment or unethical actions. I think at this point it is warranted to ask whether or not Yoder’s pacifism contributed to his unrepentant abuse. In other words, did Yoder’s rejection of divine violence lead him to feel excused from considering the eternal consequences of his actions? Or, with Barth, does his use of dialectic as an excuse for indecision and emotional abuse tell us about the ethical consequences of adopting such a theology?

I don’t and maybe never will have an answer to that kind of question. But I think it is worth asking.

Perhaps an even better to question to ask in response to the revelations of Barth’s behavior comes from his mother, who wrote to her son, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

Matthew Y. Emerson (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dickinson Chair of Religion and Assistant Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Along with R. Lucas Stamps he serves as co-executive director of the Center for Baptist Renewal. He is the author of Christ and the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and Between the Cross and the Throne (Lexham, 2015), along with a number of essays and articles.

Matthew is also the co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, and, along with Stamps and Christopher Morgan, the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Baptist catholicity with B&H Academic. His research interests include biblical theology, early Christian interpretation, and Baptist catholicity. Matt is married to Alicia and has five beautiful daughters.

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