I knew that Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, had a decades-long affair with his personal assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. But I didn’t know some of the details. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and the details were deeply disappointing.
As the author of the recently released Karl Barth: A Biography for Evangelicals, I was anxious to read the latest revelations about the relationship. I had briefly discussed it in the book, noting the pain it caused his wife, Nelly, especially when Barth not only admitted to his wife his love for Charlotte but also insisted that Charlotte move into the family home to help him with his workload. Based on the work of Barth scholar George Hunsinger, I tried to set the relationship in the context: A younger Barth had fallen in love with a woman his father forbade him from marrying; his marriage to Nelly was in some sense arranged. So Barth was an emotionally lonely man. But I concluded that even if it was merely emotional adultery:
Husbands of much lesser stature have recognized that when such a relationship sabotages the very integrity of one’s marriage and becomes a burden to the family, it may suggest a duty to sacrifice one’s desires for the sake of one’s vows.
Then I read “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum” by Christiane Tietz in Theology Today, which discusses recently released personal letters Barth wrote to von Kirschbaum from 1925–1935. I was stunned. It wasn’t merely that Barth had committed adultery or that a great theologian was shown to be not so great in his personal life. As church history shows time and again, sin is no respecter of persons, no matter how great.
No, it was the details. I had not thought all that deeply about the relationship; I had read much speculation, but I didn’t have access to much solid information. This dimension of Barth was more or less abstract to me. What floored me now was especially the rationale Barth used to justify the relationship.
Any of us who have looked up to a Christian teacher only to find out afresh how flawed they are will probably understand my reaction. What are we to make of everything they taught if their lives exhibited anything but what they taught?
The Problem with Barth
Let me explain a little more deeply why the revelations about Barth are such a problem. Because it’s not a matter of him being confirmed as a sinner. That would not suggest the depth of the problem.
One of the major points of my book was that Barth can help us ground our theology in the revelation of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture—and not in our subjective experience. That was a problem with the 19th-century liberalism Barth reacted against. It was that subjectivism that defined religions as “the feeling of dependence” and which got swept up in a patriotism that equated that euphoria with the will of God. This is what prompted liberal theologians—many of whom had taught Barth—to support the German war effort in World War I. This so rattled Barth, he was compelled to rethink theology from the ground up (or better, from the revelation of God down).
But it is that very subjectivism that Barth fell into himself, more or less saying that his relationship with von Kirschbaum felt so good, so right, it had to come from God: “It cannot just be the devil’s work,” he wrote Charlotte. “It must have some meaning and a right to live. … I love you and do not see any chance to stop this.’’