Repost: What Are Theologians For?
Updated: Feb 11
This is good. Repost from the Gospel Coalition we discuss further on episode 126 of our podcast.
What Are Theologians For? The Case of Karl Barth’s Adultery
“It’s a shame he was an adulterous and unfaithful husband, but he sure was a great theologian and a gift to the church.”
Is this sentence intelligible? Might it be regarded as capturing the complex reality of indwelling and ongoing sin for theologians, or is it simply oxymoronic? Part of how we answer the question depends on additional information. Was this adultery a single occasion or a persistent reality? Does this theologian out himself in broken and contrite confession and repentance, or does he justify his actions and remain habitually unrepentant?
I’d imagine most of us would instinctively conclude that if the “theologian” in our thought experiment engaged in high-handed and unrepentant habitual adultery, the descriptor “adulterous and unfaithful husband but splendid theologian” is nothing more than an oxymoron.
And we haven’t been thinking about a hypothetical figure; we’ve been thinking about Karl Barth, who is regarded by many as one of the most important theologians of the 20th century.
Karl Barth and the Handicap of Habitual Sin
Most theologians and historians have engaged with Barth’s work without having to address the question of his relationship with his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, for the simple reason that no one could confirm whether their relationship was anything more than professional. With the recent discovery of Barth’s private correspondence with Kirschbaum, the ongoing romantic affair has become incontrovertible.