Monday 16 October 2006

Barth's encounter with Calvin

In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare the lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin – and he even cancelled his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on Calvin. He was overwhelmed by the strangeness and power of what he found in Calvin’s theology. In a letter to his closest friend, Eduard Thurneysen, Barth expressed his astonishment:

“Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”

—Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 8 June 1922; in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 101.


Anonymous said...

Certainly a great quote!

Barth struggled with accepting the post at Gottingen because he felt inadequate. It is also interesting that in 1921 when faced with the prospect of the appointment he felt he was moving rather toward Lutheranism. His commentary on Romans (second ed) has far more citations from Luther than Calvin, and his only real engagement with Calvin in the commentary is critical. I guess he felt some responsibility to engage deeply with Calvin having accepted a chair in Reformed theology.

Anonymous said...

Well, well, there's a quote that rather applies to the opus of Barth himself, don't you think? And the sheer rhetorical pounding of it!

Anonymous said...

I take quotes like this to be evidence that if one wants to truly understand Barth, one must know Calvin inside and out.

With reference to the relation between Calvin and Luther in Barth's mature thought, it seems to me that Calvin was the more dominant figure. But, Barth took with utmost seriousness Luther's simple insistence that what we know of Christ should control what we know of God, and with this Archimedian point moved past both Calvin and Luther into what some would argue is the most pure form of Reformation theology yet produced.

Kyle said...

Ew, gross!


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Well, as an Anabaptist, I always find Calvin "strange and mythological."

PresterJosh said...

My sentiments are similar to Michael's above, though from the RCC perspective. :-)

Anonymous said...

It's always been a mystery to me, a layman, not (yet) formally trained in theology, just why I am so drawn to Barth, and yet so not drawn to Calvin. Perhaps because when my Calvinistic immersion (ha!) ended, I had become so jaded by Piperisms and Sproulisms, that I failed to see the beautiful nugget of Augustine, alive and well in Calvin, which I seem to remember finding in Barth.

Possible? Or maybe it was because Barth had a penchant for his grad students? :)

Anonymous said...

A penchant for his grad students?

Anonymous said...

I think it easy to get turned off of Calvin by the later writers who laid claim to the name Calvinist. If one picks up the Institutes and ecnounters Calvin himself, I think one finds a totally unexpected and engaging theologian. Yes, from time to time one has to trudge through the muck of Calvin's contemporary theological disputes, but it is worth it. Within the Institutes, I encountered a Calvin that I found to be faithful, insightful, and very often uplifting.

Anonymous said...

Rumor has it that Barth was known for Or was that Tillich?

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Jake, it was Tillich who slept around, but Barth did have one very long affair with his secretary, whom he even moved into his HOUSE with him!

Rev. Hansen, I do find the Institutes better (by Lightyears!) than later Calvinists, but I find Calvin's biblical commentaries better still. Of course, there are still these huge stumbling blocks that we Anabaptists have to get around: attitude toward government, double predestination, infant baptism, killing heretics, etc. Minor little details.

Anonymous said...

jake, it was tillich that shook the foundations.
as for calvin, i went through a "calvin is bad" stage in response to calvinism. however, try reading CALVIN without forcing him into categories later set. for instance, his talk on sin and depravity is far more complex than a sketch of total depravity. a remember, the point of the institutes is not the institutes, but the Bible.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, it was definitely Tillich rather than Barth who was famous for sexual affairs! (Barth was in love with his long-time personal assistant, but there is no evidence that their relationship was a sexual one.)

As for Calvin: I reckon Michael's right about the value of Calvin's commentaries. Even Jacobus Arminius (who was hardly biased in Calvin's favour!) said:

"After the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate, more than any other works ... I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read.... For I affirm that in the interpretation of Scripture Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers -- so much, that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above most, indeed above all, others."

Anonymous said...

I read Calvin faithfully when I was in my "I'm seeking sound DOCTRINE" phase. I realize it sounds a little bizarre to call that a phase, but Calvin, at the time that I was reading him, hit me at a very immature phase of my intellectual appreciation of the Christian faith. So, I thought I had him pinned down (ha! how great to be 21 and SO smart...), but then, like many of you have said, getting really bugged by Calvinism, and then feeling like the baby was the reason the bathwater was so dirty.

So, perhaps I'm still at that point. I appreciate these thoughts of yours, collectively.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Ben, I hate to burst your bubble, but Barth's affair with Charlotte ("Lollo") von Kirschbaum was an open secret for many, many years. It was even confirmed, reluctantly, by Marcus Borg, who said he grew up thinking he had two mothers.

Barth would take Lollo on vacations with him and leave his wife, Nelly, behind--even when he said he was doing no theology and only taking along detective novels.

People ranging from T. F. Torrance to Dietrich Bonhoeffer were shocked and scandalized by the live-in arrangement.

Nelly Barth, who was all but pushed on Karl by his parents when he was very young, had little education and no ability to understand her husband's work. Charlotte was not only 13 years Barth's junior and extraordinarily attractive, but was brilliant, a theologian in her own right, and this goes some way to explain (but not excuse) Barth's vulnerability to temptation. (Not that I am casting Charlotte as temptress. There was a power differential that was abusive on his part toward her, too.)

A major mystery out of this time is how much of an influence von Kirschbaum had on Barth's Dogmatik.

For more info. see the following:
Renate Koberl and Keith Crim, In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum (1989); Eleanor Jackson and John Shepherd, eds., The Question of Woman: The Collected Writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum (1996); Suzanne Selinger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology (1998).

All our idols have feet of clay.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Err, in the first par. above, I meant Marcus BARTH, of course. OOPS.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Michael -- no problem, you're always welcome to "burst my bubble"!

You're right, of course, that Barth's relationship to Lollo was well known, and that the live-in situation created a great deal of scandal (Lollo was even alienated from her own family as a result). And it's well known that they travelled together, took holidays together, etc.

But the most important thing to highlight is the deep ambiguity of their relationship. Eduard Thurneysen described the relationship as a "troika", something utterly unique and without parallel. Even some feminist biographers of Lollo (who are rather hostile towards Barth) have concluded (with some surprise) that it's really impossible to be sure whether their relationship was a sexual one.

The most striking thing about their relationship is precisely its ambiguity -- and it seems that even Barth and Lollo themselves didn't fully understand the nature of their own relationship. But it's clear that they did think that it was possible to have male-female relationships that were both non-sexual and profoundly intimate. There are some moving passages about this in the Church Dogmatics and in Lollo's writings.

So anyway, I'm not motivated here by an attempt to idealise Barth's personal life. But I think it's important to emphasise the complexity and ambiguity and singularity of the Barth-Lollo relationship, and to resist reducing this relationship to the all-too-obvious categories of Hollywood sexuality!

Anonymous said...

A "troika" indeed - in death as well as life: I believe that Karl, Nelly, and Lollo are buried together.

Lollo, it should be said, was no mug as a theologian herself. In Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology (2004), Kurt Anders Richardson, noting that Karl and Lollo had adjoining desks in Barth's study, writes: "We can be assured that there is nothing of the CD and the other writings that lack her hand in their substance and shape. . . In view of this, it must be said that the work of Karl Barth is the product of not one but two theologians."

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Yeah, Kim, I heard Robert McAfee Brown (a Barthian before he was the North American advocate for Gutierrez) once claim that Lollo knew Barth's thought better than Karl!

Funny how this topic is more fascinating that Barth's relationship to Calvin, huh?

Anonymous said...


Yeah, religion and sex - they make the world turn and the spheres sing! Its their combination that makes Updike such a fascinating novelist.


Anonymous said...

Wow, not a bad contribution from a first time poster, eh...

Patrick McManus said...


I hate to burst your buble, but Marcus was a life long friend of my professor's and categorically denied that the relationship between his father and Lollo was a sexual one. That it was an intellectual/emotional affair is beyond doubt.

While it was a scandal, I agree with Ben that we must be careful about the nature of the relationship. There is no evidence that it was a sexual relationship.


Anonymous said...

I'm almost finished reading Institutes now and I couldn't disagree with Barth more. I don't feel like I'm getting anything out of Calvin. Did anyone experience the same thing?

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

It's possible that Marcus Barth said different things at different times because he was uncertain himself. Christoph Barth, as far as I know, always refused to discuss Lollo.

What are we to make of Karl's bringing Lollo into the house AGAINST Nelly Barth's objections? If the relationship was not sexual, why would Lollo and Karl go on vacation together WITHOUT Nelly? They weren't working on the KD by Barth's own admission, so why would he need a secretary? Did he think Nelly needed no vacations?

I submit that IF, against all reason, we think that this relationship was not sexual, we must nevertheless conclude that it went beyond the boundaries of male/female friendship where one party is married. Barth at least EMOTIONALLY cheated on Nelly for whatever reasons. After all, we would not approve of him emotionally neglecting her to "be with the guys" all the time. Nor, if Lollo had married (something the Troika made impossible), would we approve if she and Karl went off on vacations and left BOTH their spouses behind.

This relationship was inappropriate. It was, at the very least, an emotionally adulterous affair, and I find it very difficult to believe that the adultery stopped short of the physical. I have many female friends, some very close. I don't invite them to take up residence in my house against Kate's objections, nor travel with them while leaving Kate behind. If I did, every one of you would (rightly) conclude that I was being unfaithful to my marriage vows, even if I never had sex with anyone else and could convince you of that.

I think our huge admiration for Barth's work leads us to bend over backwards for excuses for this completely inexcusable behavior.

Petter Ö said...

Alex, what is it with the Institutes that disappoints you? I've, so far, only read Calvin through Barth and other second hand choices. My experience is that Calvin, in a systematic way, combines exegesis with profound theological thinking and reflection.

Anonymous said...

With reference to Barth, it is enough for me to say that the Word of God is always communicated to us through imperfect human instruments - why should Barth be any different?

With reference to Calvin, if the Institutes are leaving you dry (which I can hardly believe is possible), then try the commentaries. I have a series on Calvin's commentary of 1 Peter going on my site (sorry for the shameless plug). In any case, Calvin is at his best when doing exegesis.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I agree with both WTM's comments. I continue to find Barth's theology wonderful and he is hardly the only one of my heroes with feet of clay: Yoder sexually harassed several women and had to go into counseling--having his Mennonite minister's credentials suspended for several years while he was disciplined. We all have feet of clay.

And while I find the Institutes to be less than helpful, Calvin's commentaries are superb.

byron smith said...

Didn't know that about Yoder...

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Unfortunately, Byron, the beginning of the suspension and mandatory counseling made both the secular and religious press, including The Christian Century and Christianity Today. Meanwhile, John's cooperation with the disciplinary process, restitution (as far as humanly possible) to the women he had harassed over the years, and his final restoration both as a minister and a member in good standing of Prairie St. Mennonite Church did NOT get much notice--even though they stood in marked contrast to the many evangelist sex scandals of the time in which the guilty party refused discipline.

We all have weaknesses and Yoder's hurt his family and many others, but I was glad that he lived by his theology and submitted to church discipline--the rule of Christ as he called it--and glad that his church exercised it so redemptive a manner. I wish this were not the exception in such cases.

Nick Barrett said...

We do well to remember, contra the Donatists, that God's agency through us, whether it be priestly or theological, ought to be understood as ex opere operato.

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