A Feature Review of
Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict
Reviewed by Robert D. Cornwall
Karl Barth was the pastor of a church in Safenweld, Switzerland when his newly published Romans commentary hit the scholarly world like a bomb. With that publication, which led to his academic career, a new theological movement was born. Often misrepresented as Neo-Orthodoxy, this new dialectical theology challenged both liberal and conservative theological movements within Europe. Even to this day, Barth remains an important voice in theological circles as new generations discover his massive corpus of writings. For some, including me, Barth provided a way forward out of a narrow evangelicalism (see my small book The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age: Some Help from Karl Barth, Energion Publications, 2014). While Barth was one of the premier theological voices of the twentieth century, he was also a complicated figure. That is true both of his theology and his personal life. So, who is this man who made such an important mark on the theological world?
While there are numerous studies of Barth’s theology, there are very few true biographies. Although he did not die the martyr’s death as did his contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth’s life story intersects at many points with Bonhoeffer’s life story. That story raises important questions about how one lives one’s life and how that impacts the way we read their theology. We do have the biography written by Eberhard Busch, Barth’s final assistant, which was based on Barth’s letters and autobiographical memoirs. What we have not had to this point is a scholarly, critical biography. That changes now with this magnificent biography written by Christiane Tietz—Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict.
Tietz is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Institute for Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Zurich. In addition to this biography of Barth, she has written on the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This includes her short biography Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press, 2016).
Speaking as one who has read Barth and found his theology helpful in my own journey, to know and better understand the story behind his theology is quite valuable. That is, learning about Barth’s life, warts and all. Tietz offers us a rather complete picture of Barth’s life, including intimate details about Barth’s personal life that have scandalized some. What many suspected over the years, is laid bare here as Tietz shares with the reader the details of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who served for much of his life as his assistant, who not only typed his manuscripts but served as a dialog partner in writing the Church Dogmatics. What had been the subject of much speculation, is now fully revealed decades after Barth’s death and that of both Kirschbaum and his wife Nelly. While this information may change the way Barth is viewed, knowing the truth rather than relying on rumor and innuendo may prove beneficial in the long run. So, does knowing the truth mean rejecting the massive contribution Barth made to the world of theology? Or do we now better understand the circumstances that led to a rather odd arrangement, and use that information to interpret this work by Barth? As for me, Barth’s theology is too important to my journey to reject based on this information. However, I now have a better understanding of the complicated nature of his life and context, and so I can use that information to read and understand his message.
Tietz’s biography takes the reader from Barth’s origins as the son of a church historian in Basel to his death in the same city some eighty-two years later. We learn something about his ancestors, including a grandfather who was himself a pastor as well as being a descendant of the Pietist leader Johannes Burkhardt. His father, of course, was a pastor and church historian, teaching first at Basel and then Bern. Like his father and ancestors, Barth studied theology and became a pastor. We learn that his father wanted him to go to Halle, but Barth wanted to go to Marburg, which is where he finally ended up. Barth’s journey didn’t lead to a doctorate, but he gained wide exposure to the theological world upon which he built his career. Before going to Safenwil, he served an assistantship in Geneva, where he continued to read Schleiermacher and of course Calvin. It was while he was in Geneva that he met Nelly Hoffman, who was one of his confirmands and later his wife.
What many forget is that Barth was politically engaged. In fact, during his time as pastor in the village of Safenwil (1911-1921), he was known as the “Red Pastor” because of his socialist views (yes, Barth was a Socialist) and activities on behalf of the workers who made up a large percentage of his congregation. While at Safenwil, World War I broke out, and Barth was scandalized by the embrace of the German war effort on the part of his teachers, including Harnack. That along with a deep dive into scripture necessitated by his preaching led to a break with theological liberalism and eventually the publication of a commentary on Romans that launched a new theological movement. Tietz provides a helpful introduction to the production of this commentary and what it meant to the theological world and Barth’s career path. What made his new commentary so important is that he not only recognized its place in history, but its message for all ages. He affirmed the discoveries of the historical-critical method, and it is the theological component that he wished to emphasize.
With the publication of the commentary on Romans bringing him to the attention of the larger theological world, he was invited in 1921 to take up a position teaching Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen. It was there that he took up his first attempt at Dogmatics, a work that would eventually define his career and life. We learn that his relationships with his colleagues were difficult, especially his relationship with Emanuel Hirsch, who would go on to become a leading Nazi-affiliated theologian. It was while he was at Göttingen that the second edition of the Romans commentary appeared. It was during this period that the Dialectical Theology that was connected to him began to emerge in conversation with other German and Swiss theologians, including Bultmann and Brunner. We follow Barth to Münster (1925), where he continued his theological career and made a name for himself.
It was also during this period that he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who would become his assistant and lover. In fact, she was the love of his life. That relationship remained cloaked in secrecy until very recently. What makes this story unique is that Kirschbaum would live with Barth and his wife Nelly almost to the end of their lives. We learn much about the relationship, its difficulties, and the attempts to manage the situation. What is also important to the story is that Kirschbaum assisted Barth in the production of the Dogmatics, playing an important role in their delivery. When Barth moved from Münster to Bonn, she went with the family. I don’t know how everyone will come away from this conversation, but I do think that one will have some sympathy for all three persons. In another era, Barth would have divorced Nelly, and all would be fine. Such was not the possibility at the time, though divorce was often on the table.
Of course, it was while Barth was at Bonn that Hitler rose to power, which in the end forced him to leave Germany for Basel in Switzerland. Barth’s involvement with the Social Democratic Party, his refusal to allow the Nazi salute in class, and his unwillingness to swear loyalty to Hitler all made his place in Germany untenable, but not before he participated in the creation of the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church. Again, it was during this period that the first volumes of the Church Dogmatics took shape and were published. Tietz, being a theologian herself, has an excellent grasp on all of this work of Barth. While others have written about his theology, she brings it to life. So, we move from Bonn to Basel in 1935. We learn about his work during this period, the honors that accrued to him, and the criticism he faced (often because of his politics). Being Swiss, at the beginning of the war, he was called up to military service. Tietz has a picture of Barth, now in his mid-50s dressed in his military uniform. While chapter eleven takes us from 1935 to 1945, chapter twelve explores his post-war activities up to 1962. While he continued to be an important theological figure across the globe, he found himself at times facing criticism for his statements on German war guilt and also his silence at points on the situation in East Germany. This chapter also takes us up to his retirement and disappointment that his chosen successor, Helmut Gollwitzer, was rejected by the university because he was considered pro-communist.
While the Dogmatics are a topic of conversation throughout much of the book, Tietz also offers a chapter devoted to the Dogmatics as a monument in itself. She titles the chapter “The White Whale,” in part because the cover of the German edition was white, but also because its creation became an obsession for the theologian. Of course, he never finished the collection. What we have in this chapter is a succinct and extremely helpful introduction to this work that captivated theology for a generation and more.
With the summation of the Church Dogmatics behind us, we walk with Barth through his final years, including his famous visit to the United States, where his son Markus was a professor in Chicago. We learn, of course, about his encounter with Billy Graham and the lectures that became his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. After his return to Basel, Barth settled into retirement. One of the changes that occurred was Kirschbaum moving out of the house in 1965 as she developed dementia. However, Barth continued to visit her each Sunday until her death. While he slowed down in his work, he stayed interested in theological developments, including what was happening at the Vatican, largely through the auspices of Hans Küng. Ultimately, the Dogmatics would remain unfinished, his volume eschatology never coming to fruition.
For those who are looking for a quick read, this is not a biography for you. But, if you wish to understand more fully the complicated life that was Karl Barth and how that translated into his career and his writings, you will find this to be not only informative but enlightening. Tietz is thorough in her portrayal of Barth’s life. It is scholarly in its foundations. Yet, it is readable. I haven’t read the Eberhard Busch biography, but I believe it’s safe to say that this is, to this point, the definitive biography of a theologian whose legacy continues to influence theological conversations. While his influence could be waning as we give more attention to other voices, I believe it is safe to say that even in the complicated nature of his life, his voice will continue to be heard and his influence felt, even if it is challenged. The question still remains, what do we do with his relationship with his wife Nelly and his lover/assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum? Will that make a difference in your engagement with his theology? It hasn’t for me, but for others it may. What this biography does is give us the full story so we can determine the answer for ourselves.
Robert D. Cornwall
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.