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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Posted by Matthew Emerson

Matthew Y. Emerson (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dean of Theology, Arts, & Humanities at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.


  1. I wrote a similar piece a few years ago revolving around Yoder and Mark Driscoll.

    I think we need to include living theologians and teachers in this discussion because thinking about only the dead removes the on going impact of sin on people that are still around.

    I do think there is a difference in evaluating those that are living and those that are dead.

    Yoder, for instance, is known to have used his theological perspective of non-violent submission to authority as a means to either abuse women, or when confronted, to repress the confrontation against him through a variation of Matt 18 where he demanded the ability to confront women who were accusing him directly (attempting to intimidate them in recanting).

    So I think there is some evidence that Yoder’s theology was either influencing his sin, or his sin was influencing his theology.

    I don’t know enough about Barth to speak about how his theology may have been influenced.

    But I think, as a people that believe that all people are corrupted by sin, we can’t reject all sinful theologians. But not all theologians are sinful in the same way. So I do think we should inspect theologian for weaknesses in their theology that correspond to weaknesses in their personal life.

    I think there is probably a tendency to reject systems of theology because of individual theologian’s sin. That may be valid in the long term. But I don’t think we can say, ‘Yoder used his pacifism to abuse women, so pacifism is an invalid theological system’. Hauerwas is also a pacifist, but did not abuse women.

    Theologically I think there are others that often have similar theological insights that have different personal sins and the insight that comes from reading widely in an area can help give insight to the way personal sin and theological implications interact.

    This is one of those areas where we really need academic theologians and historians to work together. Individual pastors and readers can help here. But we will need the work of those that can devote significant energy into reading widely in ways that most of us can’t do.


    1. It might not be prudent to put Mark Driscoll’s name too close to the word theologian.


      1. When it wrote it, Driscoll and his church were imploding. It was relevant at the time. He was really just a discussion point about how we need to think differently about those that are still alive and producing new work compared to those that are not.


  2. The publication of the Tietz article and the reaction to it reflect just how shallow our thinking is on the topic of marriage and sexuality.

    First, there is no evidence that Barth had a sexual relationship with von Kirshbaum. It’s common in fundamentalist circles, especially those centered around SBTS, to assume that all human affection is simply a disguised desire for sex. That’s something of Freudian lie, but it’s one that’s widely held by New Calvinists and other fundamentalists whose Gospel centers around gender roles and sexual hierarchy.

    Second, there is nothing necessarily Christian about the romantic-Freudian view of marriage that pervades the evangelical subculture. Our present “Christian” view of marriage owes far more to post-Enlightenment romanticism and Freudian social theory than it does to anything particularly Pauline. Moreover, Protestants have historically viewed marriage as civil institution, whose contours are defined by pragmatic considerations. Barth’s conduct may have violated the precepts of Freudian familialism. But there is nothing to suggest that it was unethical.

    At best, this shows that Barth was not a good fundamentalist Baptist of the American stripe. And as much as folks associated with SBTS may believe that their institutional embodiment of Christianity reflects the only true way to be Christian, I hardly see why the rest of us are bound to accept that. And is it any surprise that a product of Mohler Mart finds fault with Barth, a theologian that most SBTS types already viewed as a heretic.


    1. Mohler Mart. This is LOL worthy. Are you married, hoosier_bob? If so, ask your wife if a relationship like this is perfectly appropriate.


      1. My point–although made indirectly–is that Barth was a man of a different time, and “marriage” often meant something different at the time. In Barth’s era, it was common for professional men to “marry down,” and to select wives for pragmatic reasons more than for romantic reasons. This remained true among most upper-class families in the US until the 1960s. Neither of my grandparents shared a close interpersonal relationship. Both of my grandfathers’ closest female confidantes were their oldest daughters, not their wives. That’s because their oldest daughters were closer to being their intellectual equals. In this case, I think it’s reasonable to view von Kirschbaum as akin to an adopted daughter.

        Such marriages are rare today. Most people marry people who are their intellectual and emotional equals. That’s often true even in the “complementarian” world of SBTS. So, expectations in marriage today are quite different from what they were 2+ generations ago. Also, at that time, there wasn’t as much suspicion surrounding platonic relationships. And people generally maintained platonic friendships with people besides their spouses, and did so without believing that such relationships were masking an underlying urge for genital contact.

        I make this point for three reasons.

        First, marital practices among Christians–even Protestant Christians–are far from the unchanging norm that fundamentalists at SBTS would have us believe. By ignoring this reality, it blinds people to the degree to which their own construals of marriage are culturally situated and conditioned. That’s why fundamentalists have experienced so much difficulty addressing same-sex marriage in any kind of cogent way. After all, its logic proceeds on many of the same romantic and Freudian assumptions that underwrite the view of marriage most commonly practiced in fundamentalist circles since the 1960s. Neither of my grandfathers would have understood the term “emotional adultery,” as they inhabited a world in which emotional connections were seen as something more worthy than as disguised desires for sex.

        Second, we need to revive the practice of platonic friendship in Christian circles. When I inhabited the world of fundamentalism (PCA), I found it to be fairly difficult to form platonic friendships with other men and women. On more than a few occasions, friends got married, and immediately dropped the friendship for fear of succumbing to “emotional adultery.” Having close friendships outside of marriage generally makes marriages stronger, not weaker. And we need to stop acquiescing to the Freudian lie that supposes that an emotional attraction to someone is nothing more than a disguised desire to hop into bed with that someone.

        Third, the fundamentalist attacks on Barth in recent weeks are fairly disingenuous, and reflect the general practice of character assassination in the world of fundamentalism. I saw this occur on many occasions during my years in the PCA. Fundamentalists generally engage in a number of protective strategies to ensure that fundamentalist views remain free from challenge. As Molly Worthen noted in her book, inerrancy was never about protecting the integrity of the biblical text, but was instead about protecting fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible–particularly in the socio-political realm–from criticism. While I have my objections to Barth’s theology, his criticisms of fundamentalism are rather cogent. In fact, a number of younger fundamentalists have discovered Barth in recent years, and are rethinking the unchanging truths pronounced by the self-elected Evangelical College of Cardinals that sits in Louisville. So, it becomes imperative to smear Barth. People wonder why folks in the SBC and other fundamentalist denominations embrace Trump with such fervor. Perhaps it’s because Trump’s tactics are no more dishonest than the tactics they’ve seen displayed by the likes of Al Mohler, Denny Burk, et al., from their perches of power. After all, the SBTS crowd had no difficulty whitewashing C.J. Mahaney’s checkered past. If fundamentalists can get past C.J. Mahaney’s former conduct, then surely they can get past the fact that Barth had a platonic relationship with a female colleague. That’s not to say that Barth exercised the best wisdom under the circumstances. He probably didn’t.

        As a postscript, I write this as I reflect on Alan Jacobs’ recent interview in The Atlantic concerning his new book, “How to Think.” Jacobs strikes me as a man of Christian integrity who understands that knowing “truth” is a messy business. Coming to an increasing knowledge of truth is something far richer than blind adherence the tribally defined, boundary-marking “truthiness” that we see coming from the SBTS crowd. Then, again, that’s why this former evangelical is now an Episcopalian. To be honest, I don’t believe that “evangelicalism” exists these days, at least not to any substantial degree. In the 1990s, it seemed that it would break free from fundamentalism and strike out on its own. But that never happened. Thus, one is often left to choose between the smugness of mainline Christians and the wrathfulness of fundamentalists. I wish that there were a viable alternative. There isn’t in my locale. So, I’ve chosen the former.


        1. Wyman Richardson October 17, 2017 at 9:29 pm

          I’m curious: was Barth’s mother a fundie SBTS grad?


        2. i agree with most everything you say.


    2. Barth’s mother called it adultery. His wife begged him to end it and he refused. He called it, to friends, his great source of judgment before God. His defense was not that he was innocent but that he had “never preached morally.” Kirschbaum referred to their union as a marriage. If you think this represents platonic, brother-sister friendship, then I’ve got a bridge you might be interested in purchasing.


    3. “The publication of the Tietz article and the reaction to it reflect just how shallow our thinking is on the topic of marriage and sexuality.”

      Have you read the Tietz article? Do you know anything about her? Have you any idea where she is writing from? Was the article published in a journal that evangelicals frequently read, much less publish in? Your she’s somehow expressing a view of such things from a location like SBTS says more about your own willingness to reduce everything to your own presuppositions and framework about evangelicals than it does about Barth, or this subject. Tietz’s talk was first given at AAR–not exactly a haven for SBTS-type scholars–and it dropped like a bombshell. Google Tietz and figure out whether she fits the paradigm you’re so eager to place us all in. Here’s a hint: anyone who can be a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary almost certainly doesn’t fit the story about Freudian neuroses evangelicalism inculcates that you so frequently tell, and tell again here.

      For that matter…have you read Barth’s ethics of marriage? Have you considered whether Barth’s relationship with von Kirshbaum violates his own standards of marital fidelity? I’d commend the question to you.


      1. I was referring to the reaction, not to the original article. Sorry for the lack of specificity.

        And, as I conceded below (which I posted before you posted this here), Barth likely did not exercise the best wisdom in handling this relationship. Even so, “emotional infidelity” is something of recent concept, and results from the fact that today it’s more common for people to marry those who are their emotional and intellectual equals. But I see no reason to suggest that the relationship must have been sexual, as the author does here. Nor do I see any reason to question the merits of Barth’s critiques of inerrancy.

        Yes, this is surely a positive political turn for SBTS folks and other New Calvinists, who’ve had a tough go of things recently. The adulation heaped onto C.J. Mahaney at their annual conference didn’t go over so well, and the whole Trinity dispute has revealed them as folks who seem to care more about gender-role hierarchy than the nature of God. The Nashville Statement was a supposed to help shore up support and rally everyone around something on which “real evangelicals” are supposed to agree. It backfired due to its overreach. So, it’s not surprising that these folks are happy to have something around which to pivot and get some wind in their fundamentalist sails.

        Yes, there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had here regarding the wisdom of Barth’s relationship with Kirschbaum. But when concern regarding Barth’s conduct is coming from folks affiliated with SBTS, it looks a lot more like “concern trolling” than anything else. And it probably is. After all, as you note, Tietz’ work was featured in contexts that SBTS and New Calvinist types would generally ignore.


        1. I mean I guess Matt is loosely “affiliated” with SBTS as a fellow Southern Baptist but he never attended and holds no degrees from there. It seems like an odd diversion toward your own biases, as the other Matt noted.


          1. Sorry, I didn’t notice that his Ph.D. was from a different SBC school. Still, I don’t understand the need to get Ph.D degrees from such schools. I have a hard time seeing such degrees as on par with a Ph.D. from HDS, YDS, DDS, PTS, and the like. It’s akin to getting a Ph.D. in chemistry from a school that specializes in the phlogiston theory.

          2. Bob, I’m curious where your Ph.D. is from? Given that you’re posting your condescending jabs at Matt and the SBC from the safety of anonymity, I really think we ought to know your credentials. That way we can evaluate whether we should be taking them as seriously as anybody else’s here. I mean, for all we know you could be unsuitably credentialed to take up a fake name and be this dismissive. I mean, we might be tempted to think you’re just a bitter ex-fundy venting spleen from behind the safety of a pseudonym because someone questioned one of his sacred cows, instead of a thoughtful interlocutor whose points ought to be considered with care.

          3. My point is that the piece is little more than concern trolling, which is dishonest. The author received his Ph.D. from a school devoted to promoting the conservative Southern Baptist theological tradition, i.e., from a tradition that generally views Karl Barth as a heretic. After all, the Southern Baptist seminaries were purged of all non-fundamentalists several decades ago. Thus, it strikes me as a disingenuous effort to suggest that Karl Barth’s alleged theological errors (i.e., rejecting biblical inerrancy) are somehow the fruit of alleged immoral conduct. In fact, the author speculated that Barth engaged in sexual infidelity, although there is no evidence to that effect.

            I’m not suggesting that the author lacks intelligence. I’m simply pointing out that his Ph.D. is not from a standard academic divinity school, not even a conservative one like Yale, Duke, or Princeton. It is from a seminary devoted to promoting certain theological views, and where criticism of those views is punished severely. Consider the mass purging that occurred at SBC seminaries several decades ago, and the firing of Pete Enns and Douglas Green from WTS. Thus, I’m simply introducing evidence relevant to the author’s credibility. Given his academic pedigree, it is quite likely that he already possessed a negative view of Barth and has a material interest in discrediting Barth. Therefore, his opinion of Barth must be given less evidentiary weight (says this former business litigation attorney).

            I have no academic degrees in theology, but I do have two doctorates in unrelated fields (physical sciences and law), and read rather broadly. I follow this website mostly for its commentary on anti-LGBTQ themes. I think I first came across it by way of Matt’s critique of one of Michael Hannon’s pieces in First Things. I’m also interested in the project of trying to reinvent fundamentalism, along the lines of coming up with a neo-neo-evangelicalism. I’m not favorably disposed to that project, but I’m interested to see where it may lead. After all, neo-evangelicalism has collapsed into white nationalism. It will be interesting to see what real estate remains within the evangelical movement for those who want to continue promoting most theological distinctives of fundamentalism (e.g., inerrancy, hierarchical gender roles, young-earth creationism, etc.) but without the white nationalism. I feel like Protestantism has largely run its course, and that our time is better spent considering possible replacements. I’m not sure that attending a graduate program devoted to promoting a certain narrow theological vision is going to provide the broad exposure that the task at hand demands.

  3. I get the comparison to the Donatist controversy, and it’s a helpful starting point. But I don’t think it’s necessarily “Dontastic” to decide to shelve someone’s theology/teaching because they’ve disgraced themselves, given that sacraments and teaching are two very different things.

    Donatism (as far as I know!) was about the validity, and therefore efficacy, of the sacraments. Given ancient attitudes towards both sacraments and clergy, Donatism threatened to undermine a person’s Christian identity at a soteriological level: “if I’ve never been TRULY baptised, or TRULY received the Lord’s Supper, or TRULY given confession, am I TRULY a Christian?” However, because of the nature of sacraments, there is no valid reason to be concerned. A sacrament is a sacrament; it bears no imprint of the presiding minister.

    However, teaching isn’t just teaching – it is inescapably coloured by the teacher’s personality. That might be simply by association, or because it contains trajectories which we can link to their eventual downfall (think Driscoll or Tchvidjian), or because it was blatantly used to abuse people (Yoder). Yes, there will be true lines or thoughts in the work of a disgraced theologian, but it strikes me as naive to think you could ever really separate that out from their public disgrace. For some, that means a real emotional challenge to their faith, if they were particularly indebted to a certain teacher. For all, it means using wisdom to discern whether you continue to read someone’s work and whether you reference it to others (the latter applying to leaders especially).

    The nature of sacraments means that the integrity of the minister is irrelevant. The nature of teaching, however, cannot escape the relevance of their integrity, whether we like it or not.

    Also, I think there are some historical qualifiers worth mentioning: Donatism began in the wake of the Great Persecution, when Donatists denounced the ministry of those they said had been traitors. Everyone already knew the very public “dirty laundry” of the ministers concerned. Usually these days, with Barth now and others, these conversations come up when some previously hidden scandal is unearthed, which changes the flavour of the problem. If a revelation is sudden and shocking, it may be very wise to indefinitely distance oneself from a certain leader.


    1. Well put, Rhys! I had a similar objection stewing as I read this, and you hit it on the head. The “Donatist” application is pretty limited here; I think the questions at the end of the article, along the line of “Does teaching X (especially if the teaching is a novelty or untested by time) incline one towards permission on (teaching Y) or (practice Z)?” is more relevant. I spent a few years captivated by the postmodern-Christian teachings of the Emergent group; now, it’s pretty clear that a foundation of postmodern assumptions doesn’t recover orthodoxy so much as incline one away from it.

      That doesn’t mean that everything from a disqualified teacher is equally disqualified; but it should cast suspicion on the projects. Anyone can be a simple hypocrite, but if a sub-Christian life is paired with novel teaching, that teaching should get a very close look.


  4. Matt! What a pleasant surprise to come across a post from someone I “know” (from years past) on a blog that I regularly read.

    Nice article. My immediate thought as I started reading was about all the scripture written by David and Solomon, which is no less true despite their well-documented moral failures. You made this point in the middle section, with plenty of other great examples from Christian history, from Biblical times to modernity. “Truth is truth no matter who or what the mouthpiece” – because unless it comes directly from the mouth of God, any human is going to have some level of moral/ethical failure. That’s the Gospel – even the “best” Christians are sinners saved by grace. The key conclusion: “We would be left with very few theologians if the bar for their theology’s truthfulness was their own ability to remain above reproach.”

    At the same time, I agree that the life and actions of a teacher may help illuminate the truthfulness of their teaching (or lack thereof). This seems especially worth considering if the teaching has a very specific focus or novelty. Of course, for living and active church leaders there are clear scriptural requirements and limitations on their actions as they remain in office. But especially for a dead teacher or writer, you’re ultimately looking more at their ideas than their life. To put it another way, life and actions matter tremendously (for all of us), but they don’t necessarily negate the possibility that something useful can be gained from someone’s teaching.


    1. Hey Steven, what a small world it is, even on the Internet! Thanks for commenting – I think you’ve captured well my intent for the post.


  5. If anyone interested in this hasn’t read this piece by Hauerwas on Yoder, I think it is very relevant. Posted today.



  6. It’s interesting to think along with this post while keeping the “zombie Driscoll” post in mind as well. Maybe it’s because while the recent phenomenon of mass-media propagandist pseudo-Hollywood pastor is relatively recent (circa Billy Graham), the charismatic and/or authoritative leader aspect is not. Whatever you think of Luther’s ideas, he was a self-promoter of an enormous scale. His “thus says Dr. Luther” approach attempted to legitimize scandalous, even vile, behavior: telling Henry VIII, as well another prince, to contract a bigamous marriage, praising the “sacking” of a nunnery (where both escape and kidnap were likely involved), his extreme pendulum swings from “better a turk to a papist” to advocating the wholesale slaughter of peasants. While certainly lacking Luther’s charisma, there’s a certain authoritative glow around Barth, the brilliant professor. This problem is conjoined to concerns about how Church Dogmatics emerged out of/for no particular church. As a successful academic circling the West, he was generally unaccountable.

    This problem was the same for Yoder, who, even though he was reluctant, actually submitted to the mechanisms of Mennonite church discipline. Of course, as others have adumbrated, the proceedings were hardly just or effective. Yoder’s presence was too powerful, whether or not he was genuinely contrite for his actions. It’s akin, in a far less dramatic way, to how the Parliamentarians tried Charles I or how the National Assembly tried Louis XVI. Can such a man, if we dare call him such, be tried in such a mundane fashion? How can the small-time church court of the sleepy Indiana Mennonites dare to pass judgement on their greatest theologian of the century? Yoder was too big for his peers, and the trial, and his own awkward bullying, was proof.

    This brings me to suggest that repentance ought to be the key element in thinking through a theological legacy. Because Barth’s theology was what it was and the man was who he was, he never submitted himself to the judgement of another. Who did he owe himself to but God in the final judgement? And what did it matter? There were no repercussions as long as he didn’t break any civil laws or blacken his own name in the academic circuit. The article’s equivocation on sins, though uneasy at that, cheapens the main point. Yes, David sinned and wrote holy Scripture, but Saul did as well and did not. What separates David from Saul? John quoting Caiaphas as speaking prophetically didn’t result in the early Church enrolling as students of the high priest. All the Apostles abandoned Christ in His hour of need, but there is still a significant difference between Peter and Judas.

    PS. Why did the author reference the Cappadocians? I’m unaware of any noteworthy moral failings from them (Basil’s politicking is the most I can think of).


    1. PPS. I should say I like much of what Yoder wrote. One thing constant was his embrace of the mid 20th century’s liberational fervor. He lacked an awareness of sin, which many times in his work he reduced to structural injustices. His defense of his behavior reminds me of Tillich’s complaint that Americans were too much like their Puritan forebearers, prudish and fearful, unlike his Lutheran Germany which was sensual and life-affirming. Despite his hatred for the man, Yoder could’ve profited from Augustine, who might have shown a mirror to his naivety and willful self-deception.


  7. […] according to Dr. Matthew Emerson, theology needs to be evaluated on it’s own merits and not based upon a person’s […]


  8. I’m sure someone on the comments thread has mentioned this already, but it’s important to note that biblical authors like David and Moses repented of their sin (adultery, murder, anger) and turned back to God. Of course, they also had moral blind spots — sin problems that they struggled with throughout their lives — on which God didn’t call them out directly even though they struggled with these issues their whole lives. This calls for an interesting distinction, I think. We can similarly expect any Christian to struggle with particular sins throughout their lives (like Luther’s anti-Semitism), especially when they are part of a cultural context that approves/accepts that particular sin (again, like Luther). We are still fighting the “old man’s” predilection for sinful behavior, and this makes it difficult, even with the Spirit’s guidance, to fight unbiblical ideas that we’re constantly immersed in.

    Of course, there is a difference between struggling with/not recognizing sins because you are in a particular cultural context and sinning while being rebuked repeatedly by other Christians (e.g. Barth’s wife and mother), refusing to repent while acknowledging the sinful nature of your actions over years and years. Unlike Luther, who succumbed to a common theological misinterpretation of biblical teaching on Judaism, Barth wasn’t part of a Christian culture that widely accepted adultery based on misinterpretation of an obscure passage.

    Thanks for sharing this article!


    1. Contemporary Reformers were scandalized by Luther’s later vicious language about the Jews. Luther might not have been wildly out of place with his anti-semitism, but it wasn’t that other contemporary scholars and pastors were not trying to correct him.

      Really, the hero adoration of men, like Luther, can reveal the inability to deal critically with their legacies. It’s historicist nonsense to think we ought to be shy about holding people accountable for their views, even if they were a majority opinion. It’s a hard pill to swallow that, perhaps, Luther was just as vile and evil as his Roman Catholic opponents and can still have done something good.


  9. I clearly live in another theological universe. Personal peccadilloes of a theologian worry me very little – Tillich, for example was a fine thinker but, his wife’s narrative excepted, almost universally known as a serial philanderer. Martin Luther King, anyone? Boesak? Others have mentioned Luther, Calvin, I’ll chuck in Henry VIII (whose influnce on Christianity for good or ill was not insignificant in some circles) … must I check out the sexual and economic and ecological and gastronomic histories of all those biblical and sacramental and political and liturgical and moral and … whatever … theologians (oh, and other faith-writers) I’ve read?

    As a very non- or post- evangelical and very non USA person I know little of the Southern Baptist milieu (SBTS), but have never moved in circles that judged a person’s mind or spirit by their flaws. John Powell, the charismatic Jesuit, John Yoder, now Karl Barth … Henry VIII … goodness, flawed human beings form a rather long chain. Or maybe it’s a sliding scale … I am angry with Powell, disappointed by Yoder, somewhat uninterested in allegations about Barth …

    Last time I checked I’ve done a few things wrong too. And most of us might need to do a bit of pleading and sorry saying when we drift into the eternities of God.

    You see I think I once saw, somewhere, some writings about stones and casting them. Can’t remember where. I’m a sort of sacramental Moltmanian Anglican so fine details of biblical exegesis often escape me, and I know it wasn’t in the 39 Articles or Theology of Hope. But if I recall that story correctly it suggested it wasn’t good to throw stones in glass houses. No, maybe that was somewhere else?

    So I approach these thinkers and 144,000 others on merit. Did some deep human flaw detract from their perfection? I walk in their shoes. Hopefully they touched, by the mercies of God, a few lives, inspired a few stumblers on the journey of cross-bearing, or perhaps even just imago dei bearing, and performed their earthen-vessel-bit in proclaiming the mysteries of the God of Cross and Resurrection.


    1. You probably would’ve found St. Paul an intolerable legalist.


      1. By no means! In the undisputed Pauline epistles alone he makes around 129 references to grace (either charis itself or derivatives of the root) which suggests he was not an intolerable legalist. Then he says things like “by the grace of God I am what I am,” a fascinating statement when the Exodus “I Am” and Paul’s own “no longer I but Christ” are superimposed. But I digress. For Paul, grace trumped law, and I suspect he would say to most of us sinners “welcome home, bro/sis” when he saw Jesus beckoning us through the doors of, er, grace. Even Karl Barth.


        1. Sure, but it was the same St. Paul of grace who was rather stern with the brother who was sleeping with his mother in law. If he refuses to repent, turn him out to satan for the destruction of his flesh and hoping for his return and salvation. Christ says not to judge lest you be judged, but it is for the purposes of judging rightly. And, equivocating sins along the lines of we’re all sinners obfuscates the fact that repentance is crucial throughout the entirety of the scripture.

          The earliest accounts of the church reveal men and women who lived courageously, being hated by many and were willing to bear the scars of reproach. The shock was that filthy and uncouth people (women, slaves, children, barbarians) acted better than the best philosophers. They were earthen-vessels, but ones carrying an unbelievable treasure around in them.

          It’s a long read, but it might be worth checking out John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”. Grace is unconditioned and goes to the least, the people who do not deserve and have little means to pay back, but it does not mean its unconditional.


          1. Michael Godfrey October 24, 2017 at 9:51 pm

            I think there’s a kind of lazy equivalence there. The dude allegedly shagging his mother in law was playing what Eric Berne might call a game, “We’re more saved than you.” Corinth was known for its libertinism, and this dude was doing the whole we’re more free than you *and* we go to heaven and you don’t. This was abhorrent to Paul, yes, and dare I say it rightly so. But I’m not sure we can extrapolate that therefore everything this unnamed individual ever did was thereafter tainted. Paull constantly returns to his “all” sayings.All have sinned. I’m not even sure that there has to be some sort of powerful repentance … some of the pretty ordinary figures in and around the Jesus story become icons of faith without going to the altar rail at some you beaut evo rally.

            Actually the Corinthians seem to go on getting worse, not better, and I think in the end there are signs, as in John 1,2 and 3, that the writer says enough is enough, I’m shaking dust off me feet.

            But with have the letters, and that suggests to me that, if I may paraphrase John Bell, Grace wins.

            Barclay, incidentally, examined my PhD thesis.

          2. The point in the Corinthians reference was not equivocation. Categorically, St. Paul’s way of thinking through Church discipline complicates your lax analysis of cross-bearing stumbles, as if life was a self-deprecating bourgeois sitcom.

            If you think altar rail emotional splurges are representative of powerful repentance, I’m at a total loss.

            Yes, grace wins, which is why I have hope for the “saving knowledge” of Jesus Christ to transfigure and transform. I have hope that it’s not weak, and can begin to alter radically disturbed ways of being and acting. When grace wins, God’s people, at the very least, recognize they have a problem. It’s why there’s a significant difference between Peter and Judas, despite them both being sinners and traitors. The whole point is that figures like Barth and Yoder had little/no interest in actually turning around, despite friends, family, even church bodies pleading. You seem to consign such concerns, in analyzing work post-facto, as handwringing.

            I’m actually a bit shocked about Barclay. At least according to this comment thread,either you don’t understand the basic gist of Paul and the Gift, you reject/modify it substantially, or you don’t care.

  10. Why bother when you lose all that you wrote or someone takes it down indiscriminately?


  11. […] example, see any number of posts about theologian Karl Barth living with both his wife and lover in the same house […]


  12. […] still stands on its merits, people said about those guys, as well as about figures as varied as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m sticking to 20th and 21st century Protestantism […]


  13. […] Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth had a wife, Nelly, and a live-in mistress, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, whom he refused to give up. This article by Dr. Matthew Emerson captures the conundrum of “What Do We Do with Karl Barth?” […]


  14. […] irregular. Although there is no definitive evidence of moral improbity on his part, many have questioned his character and its relation to the validity of his extraordinary contribution to 20th …. More recently similar challenges have arisen following the revelations of abuse by John Howard […]


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