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Perhaps only a few potential readers are interested enough in an essay titled “The Continuing Relevance of the Donatist Controversy” to begin reading it immediately (or ever). Others may be pleased to learn that only gradually will we make our way to thinking about the controversy that troubled the church of North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries.

We begin, instead, with Karl Barth, who was perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the twentieth century. After several false starts, Barth determined his theological approach with the publication in 1932 of the first volume of his massive Church Dogmatics. It is of some importance for my concern in this essay to note that this turn to the approach that marked the rest of Barth’s life-work occurred only after Charlotte von Kirschbaum became his co-­worker, sharing in the project of producing the Church Dogmatics. She handled his correspondence and record-keeping, and she assisted with his research, gathering material that he would use. At one point, for instance, she read all of Luther’s sermons in order to gather relevant material from them. She became Barth’s primary theological conversation partner, providing the sounding board he needed to develop his thought. We can see pictures of the two of them at work in Barth’s study, sitting across from each other at a desk, passing pages back and forth as he wrote, questioning each other as, together, they probed the theological ideas being developed in the Church Dogmatics.

As we now know, of course, she was more than a co-worker; she was a life partner. Barth had married his wife, Nelly, in 1913, but his world changed when he met and began to work with ­Charlotte in the mid-1920s. Soon after, they ­realized that they had fallen in love, and he began to spend his research summers with her. In 1929, after ­difficult conversations between Barth and Nelly, ­Charlotte moved into the Barth home, remaining part of the household until 1966, when, because of advancing dementia, she was moved into a clinic, where she could receive needed care. “­Until his death,” ­Christiane Tietz writes in her recent biography of Barth, he “visited her every ­Sunday.”

Barth’s family members—and many of his friends and acquaintances—knew of this living arrangement, which was, it is clear, a torment to Nelly Barth and their children. Barth’s daughter-in-law, Rose Marie, wrote that there was “much suffering . . . under the roof of that house.” Nevertheless, Tietz writes, “the option of returning to his marriage to Nelly without Charlotte” did not seem possible to Barth. His desire to have ­Charlotte at his side left him “helpless.” It was, he thought, beyond his power to alter that troubling familial arrangement. Inevitably, this meant that the relation between his private life and his theology was complicated. On the one hand, although he considered divorce, he realized that such a step might, in Tietz’s words, undermine “his authority as a theologian.” On the other hand, it is ­also true that “his private experience ultimately ­influenced his theology.”

A possible instance of such ­influence is my interest here. Barth has an extended discussion of marriage in volume III/4 of the Church Dogmatics. It is a lengthy defense of fidelity, permanence, and exclusivity in what he calls the “life-partnership” of marriage. “There can be no third person alongside them.” If the bond is really to be permanent, its ground cannot simply be love. On the contrary, marriage becomes a duty and a task. Nor can this task be grounded solely in the commitment of the man and the woman, any more than it can be grounded solely in their love for each other. Something more than a “human undertaking” is needed—namely, the command of God. For the norm here is “the faithfulness (in the sense of constancy) of the gracious God to his covenant-­partner.”

Marriage must, therefore, be an exclusive and permanent covenant. Because the bond that unites husband and wife “rests upon the command of God and therefore upon his calling and gift,” it is not within our power to dissolve it, however much we may wish to do so. To put it in biblical language, what God has joined together we may not put asunder. It would be hard to find a stronger affirmation of the traditional Christian belief in the need for permanent, faithful commitment in marriage than Barth offers here.

Then suddenly Barth asks a question that jars us out of our sense that he is saying nothing more than what countless other Christians have said. Yes, to be sure, if God has joined this man and woman together in the life-partnership of marriage, it is not within our power to “unjoin” them. But, he asks, “has God really put together [these two people] in this irrevocable way?” After all, they are dealing with God, and hence, “they cannot control or even know the divine basis of their marriage.”The fact that they have solemnly pledged covenant faithfulness to each other in the rite of marriage cannot automatically mean “that God has joined them together and that permanence and ­indissolubility attach to their union.” Perhaps from the very outset of their relation God has not actually called them to this marriage. Hence, even a believer should not deny the possibility that “the ­marriage has no divine basis and is thus dissoluble.”

When, decades ago, I first read this discussion of marriage in the Church Dogmatics, I assumed that these comments simply reflected Barth’s firm commitment to the freedom of God, who may command in ways we cannot necessarily understand or predict. After all, for Barth even the most careful and prayerful ethical reflection can provide no more than “instructional preparation” for the “ethical event” that confronts us with the divine command. God always remains free in the moment to call for obedience in ways we could not have anticipated or predicted.

Even then I was not entirely persuaded—neither by Barth’s understanding of ethical reflection as no more than instructional preparation for the ethical event, nor by his suggestion that spouses might not be able to say with confidence that it was truly God who had joined them in marriage. Back then, however, this seemed to me nothing more than a puzzlement about whether Barth’s general understanding of ethics as divine command—and its particular application here to marriage—was convincing.

More recently I have come to read his discussion of marriage in volume III/4 somewhat more skeptically. In particular, it is worth attending to several passages I had not underlined years ago but that now seem of greater significance. Suppose a man and woman come to believe that God has not actually joined them together indissolubly in marriage. This need not mean, Barth says, that those who reach such a conclusion must dissolve their marriage. “There may be ­serious reasons for not taking this path in spite of the recognition.” (Perhaps even such a reason as that this path might undermine one’s authority as a theologian?) And just as a man and woman may be formally united in a marriage that has no actual divine basis, even so “it may happen that two people are not married and yet in their precarious way live under the law of marriage.” They may truly love each other, and we cannot ignore the significance of that love. For however highly we praise the life-­partnership that is marriage, “let it not be forgotten, there is genuine, strong and whole-hearted love even in relationships which cannot flower in regular marriage, but which in all their fragmentariness are not mere sin and shame, and do not wholly lack the character of marriage.” I picture Kirschbaum and Barth facing each other across that desk as he wrote those lines, and it is hard not to sense deep undercurrents in what I am reading.

Moreover, Barth notes, perhaps those who live in such “fragmentary” relationships are not so different from the rest of us. Even those whose marriages seem to be marked by faithful commitment can hardly be considered righteous—at least not if we give adultery as wide a range of meaning as Barth (drawing on Matthew 5) does. It is “all thinking and speaking, action and conduct, which is inconsistent with and destructive of marriage.” Who then can be said to be a faithful husband or wife? “In the sphere of the relation of man and woman,” the simple truth is that “all are transgressors.” When Jesus tells the woman taken in adultery that she should sin no more and that he does not condemn her, he calls her—“even within the limits of what is beyond her power to alter”—to live as one beside whom Jesus stands, seeking to do the best she can “in virtue of the promise made to her.” Fundamentally, then, both those whose marital bond is permanent and exclusive and those whose fragmentary commitments “cannot flower in regular marriage” are, in the end, alike. All are simply transgressors. And that, of course, may at times be a comforting thought.

To be sure, these theological assertions may all be true. It is no concern of mine at the moment to evaluate their truth or falsehood. What interests me—and what I did not know decades ago when I first read these passages—is that Barth’s theological treatment of marriage here begins to read almost ­autobiographically. In a sufficiently skeptical mood, one might even read it as an exercise in self-­justification. What then? What do we then make of this treatment of marriage from the pen of one whom I called perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the ­twentieth century?

This is the sort of question that gets a lot of scholarly attention these days. How, some will ask, are we to read—and, still more, to teach—material such as Barth’s treatment of marriage? So, for example, in an article in Studies in Christian Ethics, Sarah Shin writes of “the challenge posed by problematic biographies in theological inheritance.” Barth’s is one, though hardly the worst, problematic biography that she considers. Her worry is that in teaching such a theologian, we may transmit something rather like “problematic DNA.” If we reply that a particular theologian’s work is too important, too valuable, to be set aside, Shin fears that we perpetuate “a valuing of the perpetrator over the victim.” Deep within the fabric of a theological system there may be attitudes and ideas that can infect generations of theological thought and practice. How can we hope to transmit theological truth through the work of one whose practice falls so short?

And now, at last, we begin to make our way toward the Donatist controversy. In the fourth century, the Church in Africa was deeply troubled by a schism whose origins lay in the Diocletian persecution early in that century. Facing threats even of torture or death, some believers had compromised and handed over the sacred Scriptures to their persecutors (and hence were known as traditores). When persecution eased, their continued good standing within the Church—in particular, the standing of clergy who had lapsed—was challenged by others, who believed that such compromise was incompatible with the holiness required of Christians. From that perspective, sacramental acts such as baptism or ordination carried out by one who had been a traditor were necessarily invalid; for their validity depended on the worthiness, the holiness, of the one who administered them.

Divided for at least a century by this dispute, the Church in ­Africa eventually determined that the grace bestowed in sacraments must be understood as God’s gift. Hence, it cannot depend on the personal worthiness of the minister. Although it was sacramental acts that were at issue in the Donatist controversy, we might by extension suggest that the efficacy of the words of a preacher—or, even, of the author of the Church Dogmatics—does not depend on his personal character. Disillusioning as it may be to learn that one from whom we learned of the grace and will of God has failed to live in accord with what he himself taught, that does not mean it could not in fact have been his words through which that grace became effective in our lives. It is “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” that is, St. Paul says, the “treasure.” The fact that those who convey this treasure to us are mere “earthen vessels” simply shows “that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” Hence, we have reason to struggle against the disillusionment that comes so naturally to us.

Considering that the Donatist controversy may have continuing relevance for us today is not a way of suggesting that Barth’s treatment of marriage—and, in particular, of fidelity and ­monogamy—in ­volume III/4 of the Church ­Dogmatics is correct in all its particulars. Nor is it intended to allay our wondering whether his teaching there might even be, as I suggested earlier, an exercise in self-justification. It is simply to suggest that Barth’s own manifest failings cannot themselves demonstrate that his treatment of marriage is mistaken or that we should not read or teach his work. Even an exercise in self-­justification may sometimes be true, and there may be much to learn from Barth’s discussion of marriage.

That may seem obvious to some, but it is by no means obvious to all. We live in a world that regularly seeks to eliminate public recognition of those who, though perhaps great in some ways, also had faults that may lead some to believe we can (or should) no longer learn from them (or honor them). And, as Barth’s marital failures have gained attention, it becomes increasingly easy to write off what he has to say about sexuality and marriage—to write it off as inevitably marred by troubling biographical facts. To be sure, “the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” But if we take this fact as a reason not to read, discuss, or teach an author, we may soon have little to read. And, of course, the mingled yarn of our own lives may mean that we are far from being trustworthy readers.

Our task then—as it was the Church’s task during the Donatist controversy—is to distinguish clearly between the “life” and the “works” of those we read. That the “life” falls short, perhaps very short, in important ways, does not mean that the “works” cannot communicate God’s truth to us. We look through the eyes of the author; we do not look at the author. And what we want when we look through his eyes is a truth that is not, finally, his. The truth we seek comes from the One whom the Letter of James calls “the Father of Lights,” from whom comes every good and perfect gift. And at the heart of the Church’s rejection of Donatism was its conviction that these gifts of God can come to us even through the mediation of those whose moral failings are evident.

So, then, should we read—and, through our teaching, invite others to read—what Barth has to say about marriage in the Church Dogmatics? I should think so. We should consider whether he might not be mistaken to suppose that those who ­marry cannot know whether God has r­eally joined them together “in this irrevocable way.” And if we decide against him on that question, we may also want to ask whether the freedom of God means that we can never know in advance what God would command, that all our moral reflection is merely a kind of “instructional preparation” as we wait for God to command. Perhaps Barth is mistaken on these counts. And yet, perhaps even in his discussion of marriage, the gift of God’s truth can be mediated to his readers—as, for example, when he writes that the life-partnership that is marriage “does not know any third party . . . in the mystery of that element of life and joy which forms the centre of the whole.”

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor of Theology at Valparaiso ­University.

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