Español Français Português 中文(简体) 中文(繁體)
Historical Precedents
> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Historical Precedents > Family > Adultery & Fornication > "Dangerous Liaison: Karl Barth" -- [1886 – 1968]
> Category

Dangerous Liaison—Karl Barth (1886 – 1968)

Charlotte von Kirschbaum, the lifelong “companion” and assistant to Karl Barth, was buried in the Hörnli Cemetery in Basel, Switzerland, on July 28, 1975. Her body was placed in the Barth family grave alongside that of Karl Barth, whose death some seven years previously marked the end of an era for Protestant theology. Her presence with the Barth family in death was a tragic memorial to the painful situation that Barth allowed to develop throughout the course of his life.

The tragedy was compounded because, as Christopher Ash has demonstrated, Barth’s influential teaching on the purpose of marriage has been widely adopted in evangelical circles.1 Barth maintained that marriage is intended primarily for companionship—to rescue from loneliness. Yet a more biblical explanation of the purpose of married love is that it is to serve as a means for extending God’s Kingdom in the world—marriage is about discipleship. It seems obvious that Barth allowed his life to shape his theology of marriage, rather than the other way around. His emotional needs led to a dismal moral failure.

Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirshbaum first met in 1924, when he was thirty-eight years old and she was twenty-five. Barth and his wife Nelly had five young children and the marriage was “troubled and unhappy almost from the start.”2 In late 1925, Barth moved from his position teaching theology at the University of Göttingen to the University of Münster. His wife and family were unable to make the move, and, living without his family for almost six months, he began a relationship with Charlotte that shaped the remainder of their lives.3 Even George Hunsinger, a sympathetic theologian at Princeton Seminary, acknowledges that “we do not know exactly what happened between Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum in that fateful encounter of 1926, we do know that from that point on they were in love with each other.”4

In October 1929, Charlotte moved into the family home in Münster. Her mother and many of their friends were appropriately appalled. Georg Merz, the pastor who first introduced Karl and Charlotte, regretted that he had ever brought them into contact. Barth’s decision to invite Charlotte into the family home brought enormous difficulties for all concerned. Charlotte became more than Barth’s personal assistant; she was, as he expressed it, “his companion.” Though there is no evidence of a sexual affair, for thirty-five years she worked at his side for ten hours a day and traveled with him on his lecture tours and his sabbatical retreats. Her room in the Barth house was accessible only through Barth’s study. Commenting on twenty years of work with von Kirschbaum, Barth said, “I know what it really means to have a helper.”5

Barth was obviously blind to the reality of his situation. He was not only emotionally unfaithful to his wife, bringing into his family a woman who enjoyed the affections that belonged only to his spouse, but his theology of marriage was contorted to reflect his own circumstances.6

Emotional infidelity is all too common in the secular workplace as men and women find affirmation from their colleagues and charms they miss at home. Unfortunately, this seduction is also a real threat in the ministry, where flattery, intimate disclosures, and helpful teamwork can turn the heart toward inordinate affections. Before he knows it, a pastor can find himself entrapped in an unholy relationship, which threatens his marriage, undermines his grasp of divine revelation, and leads to ministerial shipwreck. Such is the peril for an unguarded heart and an unguarded mind.


For Ash’s discussion of Barth see Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 115-117.


Suzanne Selinger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 6. The statement is based on a personal communication with E. Busch who served as Barth’s theological assistant and major biographer.


There is no evidence that the relationship was sexual. Indeed, in declaring their mutual love for one another they were clear that the integrity of the Barth marriage must remain paramount. Yet their later conduct only served to increase rumors of marital infidelity. Selinger, 5.


George Hunsinger, review of Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: 
A Study in Biography and the History of Theology,
by Suzanne Selinger, Center for Barth Studies: Princeton Seminary Website, (accessed, December 15, 2005). Hunsinger asserts that Karl and Nelly “experienced a reconciliation” when Charlotte left the Barth family for a nursing home.


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3: xii-xiii cited in Selinger, 1. One of the most revealing comments about their relationship comes from Rose Marie Barth, his daughter-in-law, who said that: “Eduard Thurneysen, then pastor of the cathedral in Basel . . . advised me . . . not to meddle in that which was the responsibility of the older generation. By this he meant the situation in which Mama and Papa Barth lived together under one roof with “Aunt Lollo.” He told me that the relationship among these three persons was unique, something that had developed over the years, and I should simply accept it as such without question . . . At the time I had only a vague idea of what he was talking about, but I soon learned that he was right and his advice was good. The less that gossips in Basel, and especially elsewhere, knew about the house on the Albanring, the more they found to talk about. None of them had any idea how much suffering there was under the roof of that house. . . . It was obvious that Karl Barth needed her urgently, not merely as a competent secretary . . . but who was first and foremost the companion of his busy life.” Renate Köbler, In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum, trans. Keith Crim (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1989), 16. Bold added for emphasis.


Christiane Tietz, "Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum," Theology Today 74(2): 86-111.