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Then he employs his theological method to justify the affair. Rather than a strict logic that moves from point A to point B and then a conclusion, Barth believed deeper truth always stood in a dialectic. One example: Jesus is God and man. Another: God is both judge and savior. These truths are not easily reconciled but are better understood as existing in some tension. Barth used this method fruitfully to explore many mysteries of the Christian faith.

But when it came to his personal life, we see the limits of this method. Tietz summarizes how Barth understood things:

Barth interprets his own situation theologically as standing in tension between ‘‘order’’ and that which ‘‘has come upon us unintentionally out of the mysterious guilty depth of the human,’’ between ‘‘the holiness of the command,’’ and ‘‘that you [Charlotte] and I (I don’t know on which level) are together between the right and the ‘natural event.’”

In other words, he’s saying that he and Charlotte had no choice but to live in this dialectical tension between obeying God’s command about marital fidelity and what felt right to them. I would have liked to have seen the face of his wife, Nelly, when he explained that to her. Parents who hear a child argue, “I know I’m not supposed to steal, but it felt right to take that candy bar from my brother,” rightly send him to his room after explaining that it didn’t matter how he felt. We’re not talking about dialectical tension as much as simple disobedience to God’s gracious command.

Again, my concern is not simply that Barth was a sinner and that his sin was an extramarital affair. Many fine people do stupid things in life. It’s that he justified the affair on the very grounds that substantially contradict his theological project as well as his theological method. And did so year after year after year. What was I to make of his theology now? And could I in good conscience continue to recommend Barth to others if he himself could not follow his own theological path?

Three Almost Obvious Observations

After pondering these questions and discussing them with good friends, I remembered again how utterly common and predictable this whole business is.

First, few pastors and theologians are actually able to live up to their loftiest ideas. In fact, most will acknowledge that the very subjects that most invigorate them are the very ones that make them feel the most vulnerable. If a pastor is spending a lot of sermon time on the evils of gambling, you might bet that he’s likely tempted by gambling himself. When the public hears that a pastor, known for his campaign against pornography, is discovered with terabytes of pornography on his computer, most respond by saying, “What a hypocrite.” Not necessarily: It is likely that this pastor was desperate to do anything to bring his pornography addiction under control; his sermons were directed at himself as much as to his flock.

Barth left very little writing about his inward temptations, but I speculate, with some reason now, that he himself was perhaps sorely tempted by his own emotions, letting them dictate how he understood God’s will. That he fought this battle unsuccessfully in one area doesn’t mean his project was a failure. It just means that allowing the revelation of Christ, rather than our whims and small desires, shape our lives is an enormous challenge. It makes Barth’s theology—which focuses on Jesus Christ first and our religious experience second—all that much more important to ponder.

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What to Make of Karl Barth’s Steadfast Adultery