Karl Barth is viewed by many as being one of the 20th Century’s most important theologians.The chief reason for this is the renewed focus on Jesus Christ that he brought back into all aspects of theology. Barth’s approach to Jesus Christ and the Bible, involved letting Jesus Christ and the Bible approach him. He “let the Bible speak for itself.”
I see a great deal of humility and joy in that approach. Not only do I aim to savour every bit of time I set aside to read Barth, I aim to let Barth’s approach to theology be an example, which I can borrow from in my own journey towards an ever maturing theological education.
So it’s with some reluctance that I outline and seek to explain my three core criticisms of Karl Barth. From the outset it’s important to point out that these criticisms are not in regards to persevered contradictions in his theological conclusions. The goal here is to work from the ground up, covering aspects of his work which provide certain difficulties for his students today.
My first criticism of Karl Barth is his extramarital affair with his secretary and primary researcher, Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. Second is his reluctance to criticise the brutal nature of Communism and third is the question about whether Barth did enough to avoid his work descending into a closed community; a kind of pious and esoteric, Barthian social club.
My first criticism is straight forward. Barth found himself between two loving women, but he crossed lines. This was something his family was silent about, until recently, when they opened up access to correspondence between Karl, Nelly (Karl Barth’s wife and mother to his five children) and Charlotte (his secretary/fellow researcher and theologian in her own right). Up until this time, Barth’s extramarital affair had been quietly mentioned by biographers, but was always footnoted as conjecture.
The positive take away from their letters is that they show Nelly Barth, hurt, but still shining the light of Christ through her reactions and responses. Nelly presents an example of resilience, determination and faith in difficult and trying circumstances.
In addition, Karl Barth wrestled with his situation and choices. He never publicly boasted about his relationship with Charlotte. The extramarital relationship reminds us that Karl Barth was just a man. He was susceptible to the same issues as every other man, no matter how great they are. As others have pointed out, his own theology speaks it’s own criticism of his decisions. He wrestled within himself and with his own theology. Any accusation Barth used his theology to justify his spousal abuse is inconsistent with what is encountered in Barth’s words and work. What we encounter is a man who was constantly confronted by the contradiction between his own theology and the consequences that stemmed from the decisions he made. None of this, however, removes Karl Barth from being accountable for engaging in a relationship that he would have known was a betrayal of his wife, Nelly.
My second criticism is not so straight forward. Barth was an outspoken anti-Nazi theologian. So much so that he was deported from Germany for refusing to take the Hitler oath, unless changes were made, whereby the ideology and its leader were not deified. Unfortunately, when it came to Communism, Barth refused to show the same fierce consistency. He is silent about Marxist killing fields in Asia, and about its oppressive totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe.
Two possible reasons exist for this. Reason number one was Barth’s age and circumstances. He wasn’t in the position he was in when living in Nazi Germany; being a lot older he probably considered the fight against Communist terror to be well covered and didn’t want to lend support to an ever-increasing hysteria or phobia of the Russian people. If that protest is well established and achieving its goals, why add your voice to the “howling of wolves”? To do so would have been more about self-promotion, than promoting awareness about the suffering of others.
Reason number two is the possibility that Barth figured his theological statements and work, would stand for itself as a restrained critique of Marxism. In view of Church Dogmatics 3:2, it’s probable that Barth saw his theology, particularly his “Nein” to natural theology, as being also an inherent nein to Marxism. Barth’s anthropological theology in 3:2 contains a subtle rejection of Marxism’s deification of class war, social division, the state, subjugation of theology (into the service of an ideology), the reign of terror and potential global reign of terror attached to it.
One example of many is this statement which is contra to Marxist historical materialism/determinism:
‘Man & woman’s historical determination is that God wills to be with them and they with God.’
(Karl Barth, CD. 3:2:427)
It’s naïve to suggest that Barth was simply ignorant of the oppression and violence faced by those living under Marxist rule. Just as naïve would be the assumption that Barth did know, but simply brushed it off as a “capitalist conspiracy.” While it’s possible that Barth took the same approach as the French Communists in their denial of Gulags, purges and the fear of the Cheka, it’s unlikely that Barth was so deliberately dismissive.
Equally unlikely is the implication which stems from this, that suggests Barth was dedicated to protecting a political party and its toxic ideological platform. Although Barth refusing to ”howl with the wolves”, was him simply refusing to add to the hysteria of the mob, his absence from genuine criticisms of the crimes of communism is inconsistent with his stand against Nazism.
My third criticism is split between Barth and his students. On Barth’s side, there’s an effort to detach himself from becoming an idol, but did he do enough to avoid people reading his work before the Bible? On the student’s side there’s a tendency to idolise Barth and turn his theology into a rigid systematic method; or support a rigid oppressive system, rather than view Barth’s theology as a helpful travelling companion.
Trying to grasp Barth’s theology is like to trying to hold water in cupped hands. The water can’t be easily grasped, and is even harder to hold. This lends itself to explain the problem when people try to build their own systems around Barth’s theology. The biggest example of this is found in what I would call a pompous, Barthian Gnosticism.
Whilst this definition is not definitive, it’s the best description I can find for the closed community, which has built up a dam like castle from which ordinary people are prevented access. Barth is only reachable for an elect few. Everyone else is doomed to hearing Barth through their lens, or the lens of their choosing. Consequently, we hear more from theological journalists, than we hear from Barth.
Whether intended or not, there are ‘towers of Babel’ built up around Barth. Like the not so easy to grasp Church Dogmatics, it’s difficult to contribute or participate in a Barthian realm. The tower is defended by those who often proudly identify ideologically as “Leftists or progressives”.Some of whom are are “privileged”, Ivy League scholars, who tend to blurr the line between Karl Barth and Karl Marx; as they take to the perch of Marxism to preach a kind of Barthian social gospel. Anyone with a different view is viewed as a threat, and the offender is subsequently dealt with.
Hence the pompous Gnostic nature of the closed community, they only let in those who choose to conform to the agreed upon special knowledge they might claim to have found in Barthian theology, or become subservient to the prevailing ideology that is built up around it. For this elect few, knowledge of Karl Barth is special, and only available to those deemed worthy of being able to hold it. Therefore it’s perceived to be a given that a conservative cannot be a Barthian, but a Barthian must be a progressive or a socialist.
The Socialist hold on Karl Barth comes from the fact that he was a member of the Social Democrats. Another part of this socialist hold on Karl Barth is that he was called the “Red Pastor” during his ten-year tenure as Pastor in Safenwil. However, he wasn’t a sold out fan. He distanced himself from the rhetoric and movement; and “Red Pastor” was fed partly by suspicion, partly by frustration, but is mostly sarcasm. This is to be taken more cum grano salis, than as a literal description of Karl Barth’s political and ideological allegiances. The title “Red Pastor”, to my knowledge, was a title that Barth never wore with pride, let alone promoted or wanted promoted.
Herein rests the crux of my criticism. If this socialist cementing of Karl Barth as a Marxist hero goes unanswered, he will become more unreachable for the average lay person. The closed community that surrounds Barth is under lock and key. Like the hysterical hounding which surrounded Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, access to Barth would be denied to the “working class”. Metaxas, a conservative, entered a modern liberal world, and invited the masses to hear about an important historical figure. It was more Metaxas’ conservatism than the content of his book, which led largely left leaning academics to reject it. It seems that only those with permission from Leftist academics, and who can prove that they have the “correct” political leanings, can comment on or write about subjects that Leftist academics think they own, or have been granted a kind of divine special knowledge about.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, but this similar lens is applied to Barth. His works and words are encapsulated in a kind of sacred Leftist packaging. Everything which differs from the political narrative built up and forced onto Barth is downplayed, mocked or rejected.The perpetual Marxist war between an “us & them” ejects conciliation, as it propels the elect few into rejecting-without-just-cause all opposing viewpoints from anyone outside the socialist paradigm. Without examination, opposing viewpoints are met with suspicion written off as tainted, ignorant or worse. The exceptions to this include some of the more balanced aspects of Princeton’s Centre for Barth Studies, authors such as John Webster, Daniel Migliore, Ebherhard Busch, Frank Jehle, and the Social Media site Karl Barth for Dummies.
The impression I received when trying to engage in the Barth community is that the elect few read Barth, and cheer others on, as long as the material justifies their own ideological positions. They take ownership of Barth and become guardians of a mythos that the closed community has built around him and his theology. This is something Barth refused to cede to the conservative evangelicals of his day. I believe he would be of the same mind, with regards to socialists and progressives today.
In conclusion, it was with some reluctance that I set out to explain three core criticisms of Karl Barth. These criticisms are core concerns that function as a guide post on how to navigate a community closed to foreigners and theological orphans. These three criticisms include the disconnection between parts of Barth’s theology and his life choices. The sole example of this was Barth’s extramarital relationship with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. Secondly, I made a point of criticism about his silence when it came to the crimes of communism and the suffering of those who live under its regimes. The third criticism is that Barth didn’t intend to create a Barthian school, and discouraged others from creating one, but unfortunately, his silence about communism seems to have worked against this goal. He might have refused to be owned by any faction, but a faction has risen in his name all the same. This shows that Barth was either too trusting or didn’t adequately anticipate the cult like movement that would use him, and his theology, to promote a utopian ideology responsible for the oppression, death and suffering of millions.
Notes & References:
 Examples include: moralism and Marxism (which is, in praxis, a form of moralism in and of itself)
 (Think of the jovial Friar Tuck, flawed Father Mulcahy and the gracious, but assertive paternal voice of Gandalf.)
 This is a tiresome subject and is wrought with holes. Nothing is clear cut, because there are overlaps. This said, for anyone looking to engage in the community of theologians who read Barth, they will come up against a closed community; one that resembles a pious and esoteric social club.
 I will agree that Barth uses a lot of the similar language of Marx. I would not agree that a person needs to be an expert on Marx, to properly understand Barth. Barth was a product of his age. This doesn’t mean his theology itself is written through the lens of Marxism – “us & them” – there is a clear difference. For Barth it’s “God & us” and the unbridgeable divide between proletariat and bourgeoisie in Marx, is for Barth the qualitative distinction “God is God and we are not”. Although other examples exist, the distinction made here between Marx and Barth could not be any clearer.
 I consider myself neither a conservative nor a progressive. I would only own the statement that I currently share in the concerns that conservatives have about the direction of Western society and everything in between.
 As in Barth refused to be a poster boy, much to the dismay and frustration of many who were Social Democrats.
 It’s interesting to note that this was before Trump was elected, but has the same ungracious “resistance” and hate attached to it.
 A set of assumptions and beliefs.
 Those who hold an opposing view or are seen as different and unacceptable because of their ideological/political leanings.
 Placing his profile, as some have done, on a red background next to the Bolshevik leader Lenin, and the like, can be nothing other than a brutal betrayal of Barth.
* ‘Bureaucracy is the encounter of the blind with those whom they treat as blind…It is not the man who works in the bureau, for to some extent we all have to do this, but the bureaucrat who is always inhuman.’ (CD. 3:2:252)
** ‘Those who try to fight the Gospel always make caricatures, and they are often forced to fight these caricatures. Nietzsche’s own (and not all that original), was to equate Christianity with Socialist teaching.’ (CD 3:2:242)
*** ‘Marxism with its exclusively economic view of human affairs and all the theoretical and practical consequences, is a violation of history which in its way is no less bad than [the social Darwinism] which Haeckel and his associates imposed on human nature.’ (CD:3:2:386-389)
**** ‘The New Testament does not look for an amelioration of present conditions or for an ideal state, but for the coming of the Lord – Maranatha.’ (CD.3:2:486-487)
**** ‘Man can owe no creature what he owes to God – himself in his totality. Nothing [created] can claim from humanity, servitude. When a created thing imposes this demand on man, and when man recognises the demand, we have nothing but the invalid claim of false gods. No created thing can substantiate the Creator’s right over [what and who He created].’ (CD.3:2:414)
**** ‘The Church must not allow itself to become dull, nor its services dark and gloomy. It must be claimed by, and proclaim, the Lordship of God in the kingdom of His dear Son rather than the lordship of the devil or capitalism or communism or human folly and wickedness in general.’ (CD 3:4:69)
Header image credit: Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash
©Rod Lampard, 2018
3 thoughts on “Three Criticisms of Karl Barth”
Thanks for the plug. Always glad to swim against the Barthian current.
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Not any easy job 😁 butC Keep Barth close, keep the Bible closer, cannot go wrong. Hope all is well with you, mate.