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When Calvinists go bad: Karl Barth

While I had to stop listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast, one of the many positive things I took away from it was understanding just how jacked-up Calvinism truly is.

I don't think about it much, but First Things recently had an article on a controversy that continues to roil the Calvinist faithful.

The short version is that the leading theologian of the 20th Century, a Swiss German by the name of Karl Barth, was not as clean and pure as the wind-driven snow. He was hugely influential in Protestant circles, helped rally the Confessional Church against the Nazis, preached against Communism and wrote a massive multi-volume work called Church Dogmatics that attempted to adapt Calvinist (or Reform) theology to the modern world. He was a fierce opponent of the liberal theology (not to be confused with liberal politics) which was all the rage in German circles and posited using reason and "deconstructing" the Bible to find truth.

All well and good and Church Dogmatics and his other works are required reading in most Protestant seminaries. Or at least it used to be.

You see, Herr Barth had a secret that his family managed to preserve for three decades after his death in 1968: he was an adulterer. I don't mean he had a passing affair as a young man or maybe a series of dalliances, the guy kept a mistress in his home with his wife and children.

Way back in the 20s, when he started his magnum opus, he fell passionately love with his secretary and could not quit her. His wife threatened to divorce him, but they had five children, and the scandal would have been epic. After years of back-and-forth debates, the solution was to give "Aunt Lollo" her own room in the family home, which was conveniently located adjacent to his study. There the happy lovers spent decades writing Church Dogmatics and trashing his marriage covenant, traumatizing his wife and children in the process. He was fully aware that if his sinful living arrangement were known, no one would give damn what his theology was, so it was carefully shrouded in secrecy.

Thus, he went to his grave a revered and admired religious figure.

In 2000, his surviving kids decided that whatever his will said, the truth was more important, and they started releasing his private correspondence. It continues to trickle out and there's been some delay in it reaching the US because it's all in German and some of the formulations are esoteric. (In German, one can make up words by ramming concepts together, even creating oxymorons, and Barth did a lot of this.)

All of which is to say that the Protestants apparently got to experience the scandal twice: first the revelation of adultery, later the sordid truth of how blatant and selfish it was. This is why a story from 1933 (or 1968 when he died) or 2000, when the first letters came out, is still churning away. The latest revelation is troubling because it shows that Mr. Theology's inner circle knew what was going on and when they rebuked him, he conjured up a religious justification for what he was doing, arguing that God had made him fall in love, and his work was super-important, therefore it was okay.

That latter big is particularly jarring to his fans because it calls all of his work into question.  It's pretty much a given that almost all top-end athletes are womanizing egomaniacs but no one cares because we're paying to watch them play, not serve as life coaches.

In Barth's case, we have letters in his own hand declaring that God has sanctioned his sin, and therefore it's okay.  He actually makes the claim that love can never be wrong.  Yet at the same time, he carefully hid this arrangement from the public so he wouldn't have to acknowledge his hypocrisy.

I think this highlights the core failing of Calvinism, which created the concept of The Elect who where chosen by God before time began. This toxic sense of divine sanction has poisoned the American body politic since its foundation and right now it's worse than ever because the current elites no longer even bother with considering the will of God and just assume that whatever they do is perfect.

At its core, predestination posits a very cruel God who created people just to condemn them, denying them any chance of salvation. Calvin justified this by saying that God was purely good and his intellect surpasses human comprehension, so who are we to judge? This of course flies in the face of the fact that nowhere in scripture does God tell people to go ahead and sin, it's cool, he's got their back.

Barth's logic prefigures the argument that so many contemporary Protestant churches use to legitimize sin, whether or not they formally embrace Calvinist doctrine.


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