Thanks to The Catholic Herald, an article about the long-term adultery with his assistant of the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, came on screen. It is worth reading, not least for its implications in assessing his corpus of theology.
The author, Mark Galli, notes that Barth’s theology was centred on the knowledge of God through objective revelation rather than subjective experience, the great flaw of 19th century liberal theology that still flourishes today. Yet, Galli discovers in the great man’s personal writings, Barth justified his own adultery precisely on subjective terms, overriding the objective demands of morality and the binding nature of the marriage vows he had freely pronounced. Modern liberals might say he was following his conscience in a difficult situation. It is all the more interesting in light of current Catholic controversies.
In fact Barth was engaging in self-contradictory self-justification.
Galli is probably right to conclude that Barth’s sins do not detract from his theological writing. This is so not least because his behaviour was in such contrast to his theological principles. He failed by his own theological standards as well as plain morality. Yet he never compromised his theological principles; his self-justifications were self-contradictory but only in the private forum. He never refashioned his theology to suit his sins.
Looking again at the Reformation and I begin to wonder if often this is precisely what seems to have been a fundamental motivation in some progenitors of the Reformation. Luther’s theology of sola fide—faith alone justifies a sinner—seems to have been the product of his religious scruples and self-loathing. In his new theology he found a way to relieve the psycho-emotional tension that was eating away at him. As he became intoxicated with this new feeling of self-worth his theology became more extreme, more heretical, and his new self-worth turned to hubris.
Henry VIII, while essentially Catholic (and not Lutheran) in his theological beliefs, refashioned not theology but the Church in his lands, to assuage his dynastic phobia. Again, all sorts of theological and ecclesiological gymnastics were performed to justify his destruction of a thriving Church.
In both cases the men were consciously sincere enough in their initial motivation. That is the tragedy. Blinded by the forces motivating them, they both manipulated Church and doctrine to suit their needs, and all the more so as they found opportunists and toadies to encourage them in advancing further down the course they had set their minds to.
Barth did not let his personal weaknesses influence his theology it would seem. For this reason he deserves to retain his reputation as one of the great theological figures of the last 100 years. But as we come up to “Reformation Day” we might bear in mind how greatly he differs from the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, who is truly a tragic figure in Christian history.
Not the most ecumenical of posts is this, and admittedly sweeping in tone, but in no way does it reflect a lessening of respect for those Protestants I know or know of. Yet, I have to be honest, papal gestures notwithstanding, there will be no celebrations in my room on 31 October. I shall mark it with a dirge.