Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feet of clay

In the last few weeks there has been a lot in the air about Karl Barth and his relationship to his 'secretary' Charlotte von Kirchsbaum.  It has long been known that this relationship created difficulty in Barth's marriage, and that Barth's decision to have von Kirchsbaum move into the family home was a source of great pain to his wife.  Of course there were rumours that this was a sexual affair.  Recently various private letters have been translated into English and published, which have effectively confirmed that this was indeed an illicit affair - whether sexual or not (I'm still not sure it's clear) - and represented a significant failure on Barth's side to keep his marriage vows.  To put it more bluntly, Barth's family life was characterised by his own sin, of which he never (it seems) repented.

I wasn't personally particularly rocked by these revelations; I think I'd always assumed that the rumours were true, so I've factored this in to my thinking about Barth already!  Others were really shaken.  The thing with Barth, for those of us who love his theology, is that he often feels like more than just a writer.  We feel like we've thought alongside him, grown up through his help.  It's tough to realise that this man who has meant so much to us was compromised so completely.

So what do you do when you are let down in this way?

1.  First, you check your heart.  Have I, in fact, made an idol of this person, of their teaching or their life?  Have they perhaps been exalted to a place that ought to be occupied only by the Lord Jesus?  It won't always be easy to tell - to be genuinely grieved and shaken by the defection of a mentor or the sin of a teacher is to a certain extent appropriate, and if that person has been particularly helpful to you the grief can be strong.  I've appreciated Bobby Grow's series of reflections on this in relation to Barth (first article linked, but read on through the next few posts on his blog to see the progression).  Working it through is fine, and indeed essential, but at the end of the day you weren't meant to be putting that much faith in this other human being; they were only the ones who pointed you to The Other Human Being.  Get your heart right.

2.  Second, you check their doctrine.  If a teacher has fallen into gross sin, that does not necessarily imply anything about their teaching - but on the other hand, it might.  Was there always some idea, some misconception or untruth, lurking in this teacher's theology which proved to be the doorway, or the justification, for wickedness?  With regard to Barth, I'm not convinced there was.  The one spot where I want to do some more thinking is around whether Barth took seriously enough not only God's wrath - this he treated very seriously! - but the possibility of this wrath being visited on actual unrepentant sinners.  Is it possible that Barth's wide hope for salvation was connected to his own moral failure?  There's no real way to know, but it bears some scrutiny.

3.  Third, you acknowledge that every human teacher is a two-way signpost.  A Christian teacher, if they understand what they are about at all, seeks to be a signpost to Christ - a finger pointing in his direction.  But all Christian teachers are also sinful human beings, and so there will always be something in their teaching or life which points the other way.  Where sin is exposed, and it becomes apparent in exactly what ways a particular person has pointed away from Jesus, we can use even those failures as warning signs.  For me, Barth is both the person who has taught me more about Jesus than any other uninspired author, and the person who has shown me that everything can so easily be undermined by sin.  That latter can be as useful to me as the former if I take notice of it.

4.  Fourth, you say 'there but for the grace of God...' - and you pray.  "Watch your life and doctrine closely", says the apostle.  When we see a hero fail, whether in an area of life or doctrine, there is a temptation to become bitter - see how I have been failed!  But we know - surely we know - that there is nothing in us that makes us better.  This doesn't mean that we have to brush over the hero's failure; we ought to take it seriously.  We ought to condemn it strongly.  It is no false moralism to condemn what God condemns.  But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that unless God keeps us, we too will fail and fall.  And then we need to ask him to keep us.  Keep us from sin that will undermine our teaching.  Keep us from error that will point others away from Christ.  Keep us, keep us, keep us.

I will keep reading Karl Barth and benefiting from his insight.  I am determined also to benefit from his failure, as odd as that sounds.  I will be redoubling the watch on my life and doctrine, and I would encourage you to do the same.


  1. 'It is precisely the fact which is the greatest earthly blessing given to me in my life which at the same time is the strongest judgement against my earthly life... I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become.'

    Doesn't that illustrate pretty concretely the symbiosis of Barth's theology and life? God's absolute No and Yes spoken to humanity, taken too far, doesn't leave much need or concern for holiness, regardless of other things he may have said about the matter. In other words, was Barth's Jesus the one who says 'I never knew you - away from me, you workers of lawlessness?'

    Perhaps it would have been better for him if he'd never 'grown out' of Kierkegaard...

    1. Well, I think most of the relevant themes were already in place before Barth wrote this letter. So I'm not sure the connection is as obvious as all that. I suspect what he's saying in the letter is just that he has been prevented from becoming as judgemental as he might otherwise have done. As I mentioned in the post, I do wonder whether there is *some* connection at this point. It bears remembering at least as one wades through the CD.

      Barth in his Kierkegaard phase is pretty weird Barth. There is nothing to stand on. I think Kierkegaard-Barth was good for stirring up the complacent liberalism of the 20s, but could hardly have withstood the German Christians in the 30s.

    2. I'm referring more to Barth's opinion of Kierkegaard as good to read, but someone you grow out of, to paraphrase. And I mean less Barth's actual early thought, more that Kierkegaard's rather bracing challenges to live uncompromisingly for God to even be a Christian cuts against Barth's self-justifications.

      I do see this in certain modern Barthians... i.e. making a lot of noise about being orthodox in terms of the Trinity and the resurrection, etc., but more or less abandoning Biblical ethics in key ways as things extraneous to the gospel.

    3. Yes, that happens. Some of the responses from Barth fans to people who have been upset by this have been awful - calling people 'moralists', implying that wanting to see Biblical morality lived out means you don't believe in justification by faith etc. Bobby Grow, whose posts I linked to, has been on the receiving end of a lot of this.

      I would only say that these Barth fans are not following the example of Barth - at least, not in his theology, which is full of ethics. For Barth, the gospel is also law.

  2. Thank you Daniel. I'd no idea.

  3. Two random thoughts on this news (having first read about it elsewhere) your response and the comments above. This is me thinking out loud, and not final thoughts:

    1. Is there a danger that we draw too sharp a line between doctrine and life when evaluating teachers? It seems quite a modern idea to think that ideas can be divorced from their source. NT writers often encourage the rejection of teachers based on their unrepentant public sin in life alone. For them we are to follow the example of our teachers and reject the teaching of those whose lives we should reject.
    It is obvious in preaching, but it is also the case in books (and esp books like Barth's which are quite preachy) that teaching is (in part) an expression of a personality. It is more than just ideas. It is something far more personal.
    If there is gross sin in a person's life, can we still treat their teaching as authoritative? Of course, we are not banned from reading their books, just as we're not banned from reading non-Christian books. We can still benefit from them, but maybe they should have a qualitatively different role in our lives than from those teachers whose authority we accept.

    2. I am reading Kierkegaard's "for Self-examination" at the moment. I have often wondered, and particularly wonder now, whether Barth's criticism of Kierkegaard's alleged legalism is more a reflection of him than of Kierkegaard. I remember reading that he thought Bonhoeffer (a more devoted reader of Kierkegaard) was sometimes too legalist as well.
    I know this is a very subjective point, but I have often found Kierkegaard’s books (and very odd life) good for the soul to learn from. In contrast, while I have found Barth stirring, I have usually been more impressed by his genius than the content.

    1. Hi Dave - wanted to comment because much of what you've written resonates with me.

      As far as the first point goes, I do think there is a strong connection between life and doctrine throughout the NT - 'blind guides', etc. It's almost getting to the point for me that, if a theologian didn't live a fairly consistent life of holiness and hardship in some sense - rejecting or rejected by worldy wealth, power, and prestige as Jesus called us to (e.g. Lucan Beatitudes), I'm not going to be too bothered about their theology. This has led me to value such pre- and alt-reformation groups and figures such as the Waldensians, Wycliffe, the Lollards, Peter Chelcicky, and the Anabaptists over the likes of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Reformed Scholastics, Barth, and so on. Not to say the former lot got everything right and the latter everything wrong, but the latters involvement with the mainstream establishment had many disastrous results. And many of the mainstream's insights can be found in the less well-known groups writings anyway - as well as insights the mainstream never got to. Chelcicky might be the pinnacle of that.

      As for Kgaard and legalism... one man's legalism is another man's holiness, isn't it? But I do agree that Kgaard grasped the need for 'fear and trembling' in a way that Barth didn't, as far as I can see. To make our 'calling and election sure' we need to seek the increase of godly knowledge and goodness in every area of life, as the preceding verses say - and if we're at least on that journey, we 'will not fall', however much work is left to do in our ignorance - our saving faith in Jesus as *Lord* is shown to be true in our attitude. Kgaard got that and did take 'Woe to you when all speak well of you' seriously, so I have a lot of respect for him in a number of regards (not all!). His 'Training in Christianity' is a must-read on this topic, btw, as well as 'Purity of Heart'.

    2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Dave. I think on your point 1, yes, 'life and doctrine' go together. And yet... I have to stand up most Sundays to preach with the knowledge that my life is not a worthy reflection of the gospel. From chatting to others, I know I'm not alone in thinking that. So there is a sense in which we have to draw a line: no human life is a reliable indicator of the gospel, but human words spoken in reliance on the Holy Spirit can be. Perhaps?

      On 2, I struggle with Kierkegaard. I often find him penetrating, but from what I've read at the end of the day he doesn't understand the gospel. (Big claim!) What I mean is that he doesn't seem to see the way out of the law very clearly. He is always on the rack. As I said in a previous comment, great for shaking a complacent Christendom out of its slumbers, but not in the end liveable. His ethic is just perfectionism, as far as I can see. Having said that, I freely confess that my reading in K has been limited, so I may have missed things.

    3. Thanks Daniel. Sadly I don't get the time to read and comment on blogs very often these days.

      I understand your feeling about standing up knowing that your life is not a worthy reflection about your Gospel. I am not sure I have the answer about exactly where the line is to be drawn and these are my musings on that theme, rather than a definite position. However, I think the Bible demands that we draw it somewhere because it does consider that human life is an "indicator of the gospel". Not an infalible one, maybe not a reliable one, but certainly an indication.

      I think we have to have space to judge a teacher on the basis of his life as well as his words... that is if we are going to be faithful to NT teaching (Matt 7, 1 Tim 2, etc).

      Barth of all theologians knew how interconnected doctrines are. I don't think it is enough to judge a theologian's invididual doctrines in isolation (as you seem to suggest in your post), or even their entire doctrine in isolation from their life. I think it may be more Biblical and more realistic to FIRST assess a theologian (life and doctrine) as a whole and assess whether they should have authority. Of course that is not enough because good theologians lives and doctrines can be flawed and we should not follow uncritically everything about anyone, so there should be a SECOND stage when we consider the individual doctrines or aspects of their life (c.f. Peter in Antioch). Does that work?

      I suppose the concept of authority is a key one and I'm not sure whether you think Barth has authority for you. Maybe you don't.

      I think that was what I was trying to say when I suggested there be two kinds of books/people, both of whome we may "benefit from". One is those with authority and the other kind is those that don't (because they are disqualified by life/doctrine) and those two kinds of books/people have "a qualitatively different role in our lives".


      I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "human words spoken in reliance on the Holy Spirit can be". Do you mean these words are a reliable indicator of the Gospel, or that they can be a way of judging whether to accept a teacher's authority, or something else?


      I have to disagree with you on Kierkegaard. I think that only an unsympathetic and superficial reading of Kierkegaard would lead someone to think he didn't understand grace. But I don't blame you because Kierkegaard almost invites that misunderstanding about grace, as he invites misunderstanding with many of his more philosophical works. As a writer he is not afraid of being misunderstood, which is an unusual characteristic. I am far from properly understanding him, but I do think he is imbalanced and he is an unsophisticated theologian (he is more of a very bright layman in his approach).

      Murray Rae's book "Kierkegaard and Theology" is very good on Barth's objections and many other things if you wanted some secondary reading.

    4. Although it may be too "law and Gospel" for you, here is a quote from Kierkegaard (following on from a typical section of him "shaking Christendom Christendom out of its slumbers") that I think shows what he was trying to achieve:

      "And what does all this mean? It means that everyone for himself, in quiet inwardness before God, shall humble himself before what it means in the strictest sense to be a Christian, admit candidly before God how it stands with him, so that he might yet accept the grace which is offered to everyone who is imperfect, that is to everyone. And then no further; then for the rest let him attend to his work, be glad in it, love his wife, be glad in her, bring up his children with joyfulness, love his fellow men, rejoice in life. If anything further is required of him God will surely let him understand, and in such a case will also help him further; for the terrible language of the Law is so terrifying because it seems as if it were left to man to hold fast to Christ by his own power, whereas in the language of love it is Christ that holds him fast. So if anything further is required of him, God will surely let him understand; but this is required of everyone, that before God he shall candily humble himself in view of the requirements of ideality...
      if the Christian life is something so terrible and frightful, how in the world can a person get the idea of acepting it? Quite simply, and, if you want that too, quite in a Lutheran way: only the consciousness of sin can force one into this dreadful situation - the power on the other side being grace. And in that instant the Christian life transforms itself and is sheer gentleness, grace, loving-kindness, and compassion." (Training in Christianity, pp.61f)

    5. Good quote, thanks. I freely confess that my reading in K has been very limited, and more inclined toward the big philosophical works. It may be just that K is a Lutheran and I find Lutheranism to rest on a wonky understanding of the gospel, especially as it impacts daily life. (There's a huge and sweeping statement for you, which I can't unpack here, but I think we've probably interacted on it in the past!)

      I take your point on the interconnectedness of doctrine (certainly didn't intend to imply otherwise in the original post), although of course people can be inconsistent, such that one glaring error does not necessarily affect everything else. Although one should look carefully.

      When it comes to life and doctrine - yes, please don't hear me as saying life doesn't matter or doesn't in any way point to the truth of the gospel. (That, incidentally, is what I think early Barth might say, unless I seriously misread his commentary on Romans). But the connection will always be a bit muddy. I read a useful thing recently by Alistair Roberts, contrasting Barth and Yoder. Yoder used his theology to justify sin; Barth clearly felt his sin to be condemned by his theology. That distinction is pretty crucial to me, and allows me to still see Barth as in some sense an authoritative teacher.

    6. Only time for a brief reply, but I think we've come to a helpful place to conclude.

      You're better read than me, but I think k's philosophical works have to be read in light of his explicitly christian works under his own name (they're also a lot easier to read!) I love his lutheranism, but as you say we've interacted in this before.

      I think alastair Roberts point is significant too.

      Good to interact.

  4. Ben, I find it odd that you'd class Luther, Calvin, Barth as mainstream figures - they were all marginalised and reviled by the establishment for much of their lives! The same would be true of, for example, the English Puritans, but they definitely stand in the Magisterial Tradition...

    I want to resist anything that smacks of perfectionism, or of an over-reaching eschatology here. I see a lot of that in the Anabaptist tradition. It expresses itself regularly with a definite 'holier-than-thou' flavour, which of course is also such a huge part of Kierkegaard (even when expressed as 'much-less-holy-than-thou', in that paradoxical way in which he often writes).

    Bonhoeffer, by the way, is excellent - his 'Ethics' is to my mind just what we need.

    1. Hi Daniel - perhaps a bad or inexact choice of words from me. What I meant was more the Magisterial Reformers eventual alliance with the state and monied powers to various degrees, and the use of that coercive power to advance their church's projects. In my view, that was repeating the Roman Church's major error all over again. So becoming part of 'the establishment' in a local sense after initially defying it in a broader sense. Even many of the Puritans had theonomic designs at heart, which they put into practice when given the chance... e.g. Cromwell (and John Owen as his chaplain during the Irish slaughter), the Scottish Covenanters, New England...

      No doubt Kgaard overstated many things. But his Discourses at Holy Communion clearly show he did grasp the joy and necessity of God's forgiveness. And yes, the Anabaptists could and do tend towards the legalistic... but their errors are largely extra-Biblical legalism (e.g. you must wear a black hat) rather than desire to obey God to demonstrate the truth of their faith.

      Let me put it this way: on the one hand we have 'it is by grace you are saved' and 'there is no condemnation' - on the other 'work out your salvation with fear and trembling', 'whoever breaks the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same...' 'away from me you workers of lawlessness.' I'd suggest holding the two poles of the dialect is of paramount importance: too much to the left and you end up with various forms of easy-believism and unholy living; too much to the right and you end up in despair with no assurance. Both need to be held to... Paul wasn't shy of language like 'I beat my body', 'make every effort', etc., to encourage holy living that will be judged righteous. And yet, we will never be able to say it was us, but Christ's Spirit who did the works through us as the result and evidence of faith, as Kgaard himself affirmed. But Biblically we still make the effort as if it was us, to confirm the election and call.

      Frankly - and I say this as a sympathetic insider - much more of this 'fear and trembling' is needed even in the conservative evangelical church. There are a number of relatively clear scriptural injunctions for the family and the church that are being overlooked or ignored to the great detriment of the church's witness and health. There's a reason the church is so middle class... because we've baptised various modern middle class practices and aspirations without passing them through the acid test of the New Testament. We can't really 'shine like stars' in this corrupt generation because we don't look all that different from them. And in this year of Reformation 500 I can see the mixed legacy of the Magisterial Reformers in many ways at the root of this.

      But of course, the finger then points back at me, and I must check my eyes very carefully for logs...

  5. Benjamin, I just want to say hi to a fellow Kierkegaard fan and not to give the impression I've just ignored your comments. I just don't have anything to add, other than that I'm also a fan of Calvin and Luther!

    1. Hi Dave - and vice versa on Kierkegaard! Great quote from Training in Christianity - had forgotten about that one. He really did write some of the most moving passages about the walk of faith that I've read... they make you inwardly sigh in a bittersweet way, if you know what I mean. The Discourse on New Year's Day particularly.

      I of course think Luther and Calvin had worthwhile things to say, although Luther probably had a skewed vision of what 'Justification by faith alone' is about, and both were horrendously mistaken in their Sacralism. Much gets glossed over or excused in most Protestant church histories. Zwingli in particular was a torturer and murderer, if only in delegation. Having said all that, I'm more or less in agreement with much of what Calvin said, contra the Anabaptist's Arminianism. But Wycliffe and others believed in predestination too, so I wouldn't term myself a 'Calvinist' as such.

      You'd really enjoy Wycliffe and the Lollards writings... 'The Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliff' is a goldmine of material from that era (reproduced from a translation c.1840), so worth picking up.

      Do drop me an email through my profile if you want to geek out more about Kierkegaard or get any more book recommendations about the proto-protestants.

  6. At the risk of stringing this out further...

    I can't see that Barth's attitude was any better than Yoder's. Maybe worse: I'm thinking of the servant who knew what the master had commanded and yet disobeyed, ultimately to be put out of the house, as compared with the one who didn't know and received some lashes (not saying Yoder's intentions were nearly as innocent as ignorance). And even worse, to enfold the sin into his theology as to make it acceptable by one remove, it seems to me.

    Surely the lists of criteria for eldership in the NT establishes that you only have authority if you are living in some level of recognisable holiness?

    For what good was Barth's faith if it didn't lead to holiness in this matter? Was not the 'Church Dogmatics' a hypocrisy in light of the fact that the conditions of its writing completely marred the marriage-picture of Christ's love for the Church? What good is it if a man be featured on the cover of Time magazine yet forfeit his very soul?

    I sound like I'm ranting, but I'm not - just think hard questions need to be asked.

    1. Yeah, I see what you're saying, and I'm not leaping to Barth's defence. His actions are indefensible. To be clear: if he were alive, he would disqualified from the presbytery. Of course, he wasn't actually in ordained ministry for most of his life.

      The problem is, I think the direction your taking would prohibit us from learning from practically anyone. I mean, what good is it to be right about the two natures of Christ if you don't see that the gospel can't be imposed by violent monks? (Cyril) What good to be right about pelagianism if you don't see that you can't enforce orthodoxy politically? (Augustine) What use to recover justification by faith if you don't see that this rules out antisemitism? (Luther)

      I could go on, but you get my point.

    2. It's a blurry line... 'not many of you should want to be teachers,' and I think that the qualifications would hold for anyone in general who'd seek to instruct many. And yet we'll all be held accountable for what we 'teach' even on a personal level. Of course, Barth's teaching ministry was/is pretty much global... and in some ways, anyone with a blog has a pretty responsible platform too.

      Perhaps better to say that, for me, it's a question of *how much* can be learnt of genuine usefulness towards holiness from a given figure. Everything is so interconnected in terms of doctrine and praxis that cracks in one place invariably mean problems elsewhere.

    3. It occurs to me that I think we might have a different understanding of the relationship between teaching and holiness. That is to say, you seem to assume a pretty direct relationship, whereas I think the relationship is indirect. That is to say, orthodoxy matters for holiness, because orthodoxy points us more accurately to Jesus, who makes us holy by the work of his Spirit as we look to him in faith. The distinction might be subtle, but I wonder if it has an impact on our different approaches to this. Or maybe I'm imagining it...

    4. Ha ha. I can't find anything to disagree with in what you've written, so the distinction might be too subtle. But to be honest by this stage of the conversation I'm losing the thread of my own subtleties!