Interview with Mark Galli
Author of Karl Barth:
An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals
An essay by Christiane Tietz, published this summer, sheds new light on Karl Barth’s relationship with his secretary, Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. Recently released letters between Barth and Von Kirschbaum reveal “that Kirschbaum and Barth loved each other; more than that, they were lovers; more than that, Barth brought her to live in his own home with his wife and five kids. Barth was not willing to give Kirschbaum up, and it almost … came to divorce between Barth and his wife Nelly; but for some reason…, Nelly stayed with Barth in this intolerable situation.” (quoted from Bobby Grow’s summary of the Tietz essay).
In light of these new details, I had the opportunity to ask Mark Galli, author of a new biography of Karl Barth, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Eerdmans 2017), what they might mean for Christians, and especially those who identify as Evangelicals.
ERB: I appreciate that your new book encourages evangelicals to familiarize themselves with Karl Barth and his theological work. In light of the details above, and that evangelicals generally have strong convictions about traditional, monogamous marriage, does the case you are making become a tougher sell?
Mark Galli: Probably not in this respect: most evangelicals familiar with Barth would have already known about the affair and either dismissed him or learned to live with it. The recent revelation only shows some details of Barth’s justification, which for someone like me, is most troubling because I know his theology pretty well and have spent some time with him (figuratively speaking) writing the biography. It’s hard to hear how he justified the adultery when he otherwise was such a thoughtful theologian.
ERB: With cases like that of Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder, who sexually abused a disturbing number of women, how should we treat the theological work of men like these? I suspect from the gist of your book, you don’t think we should avoid their work altogether, but what sort of critical lenses should we use in reading their work light of these egregious sins? Should we read their work any differently than that of other theologians that were afflicted with more mundane sins, or whose sins have not yet come to light in the same way?
MG: Paradoxcially enough, I think we might want to read their work even more carefully if their behavior is so inconsistent with it. Take Barth for example. His theology was a repudiation of the subjectivism of 19th liberalism, where religion was defined as “the feeling of dependence.” Barth struggled mightily to insist that what’s going on inside us is not nearly as important as the Word of God who comes to us from outside us. He wants to ground theology and ethics outside of human emotion. And there he was saying that his adulterous relationship with his assistant could not be of the devil because it felt so good and right. His behavior demonstrates how easily we succumb to emotion, even when it clearly leads us to violate a clear command of God. So in this respect, his theology is more important than ever.
ERB: One of the most disturbing things about Barth’s extra-marital relationship, from my perspective at least, is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of remorse or repentance. We are all sinners, of course, but the Christian tradition has typically understood the faithful response to sin as confessing and turning from it. Does this seeming lack of repentance have any impact on how we read Barth’s theology?
MG: I interpreted some of the comments revealed in the recent article as being a kind of repentance. He admits, I think, that he stands under the judgment of God at the same time he is doing this. But of course, that is not real repentance, because there is no attempt to turn away from sin and walk in light of God’s gracious commands.
What this lack of full repentance means for me is this: Barth seemed blind to the full import of what he was doing, and this makes one very sad. Then again—and this is not to excuse Barth by any means—who of us doesn’t have sins to which we are blind? What Barth shows is that moral intelligence does not correlate precisely with theological intelligence. The human heart, as Jeremiah said, is desperately wicked; who can understand it?
ERB: What are one or two ways that Barth’s work, in spite of his infidelity, speaks compellingly to the present situation of Evangelicals?
MG: First, the subjective is very much part of evangelical faith; we are pietists, who experience a warm faith in Jesus, with whom we have a “personal relationship,” as we like to say. This is an important part of our faith and I wouldn’t want us to deny it. Barth’s theology calls for us to remember that the revelation of Jesus Christ comes to us not from within but from without, that what’s most important is not what happens inside us but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. That’s a great check on our subjectivism, which as even we acknowledge, can sometime run wild in our movement.
Second, Barth’s life suggests checking unhealthy subjectivism is not as easy as simply studying good theology! Nor is it a matter of just getting one’s theology right. There is a reason God has also given us prayer, the sacraments, preaching, and fellowship, among other gifts, to help us grow to maturity in Christ. A full orbed Christian life includes wise theology but so much more.