The Question of Woman: The Collected Writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Tr. John Shepherd. Ed. and with an Introduction by Eleanor Jackson. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1996. x + 202 pages. $16 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
Those who read Eberhard Busch’s biography of Karl Barth, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, had to wonder about the relationship between Barth and his assistant and secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The young woman moved into the Barth home, spent the summer months alone with Barth in a chalet in the countryside, and was his sole traveling companion on various lecture tours. Busch acknowledged that the relationship between Barth and von Kirschbaum brought “unspeakably deep suffering” into the Barth home, estranged some of his children, and inflicted shame and grief on Barth’s hardworking, faithful wife, Nelly.
In the long introduction to this collection of von Kirschbaum’s writings, the editor, who is sympathetic to von Kirschbaum and her relationship to Barth, admits that there was a “romantic involvement” of the married Barth with the “strikingly beautiful” von Kirschbaum.
Such was the open intimacy between Barth and his assistant that officials of the World Council of Churches were offended by Barth’s living arrangements with von Kirschbaum at the meeting of the WCC in Amsterdam in 1948.
There are two astounding aspects to the open, illicit relationship between the renowned theologian and his co-worker. The first is that Barth’s wife tolerated the relationship to the point that she was willing to share Barth’s arms with von Kirschbaum on the occasion of a public ceremony honoring Barth on his seventieth birthday and that she had von Kirschbaum buried with herself in the Barth grave as Barth desired.
The second is the silence of the neo-orthodox and evangelical scholars who are disciples of Barth. Why does none speak out in condemnation of career-long, unrepented adultery? Does theological fame blot out gross violation of the seventh commandment? A church that exercised the discipline required by Christ would have deposed Barth from office and excommunicated him, and von Kirschbaum, from the kingdom of heaven on the ground of gross public sin.
If the first section of The Question of Woman is a testimony to a scandalous life, the second section propounds erroneous doctrine. In five chapters, von Kirschbaum sets forth the significance and place of a woman in the church in the light of Scripture. Chapter one examines the woman’s place in marriage in light especially of Ephesians 5. Chapter two discusses Christ’s redemption of the woman with specific application to marriage, although single life is also considered. Chapter three deals with the issue of the ordination of women as preachers. Chapter four investigates the biblical teaching about Mary, the mother of Jesus. The excursus attached to this chapter is a comprehensive description of the Roman Catholic dogmas of Mary. Chapter five is mainly a critique of the existentialist thought on woman of Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex. An appendix returns to the issue of the ordination of women to the preaching office in the church.
von Kirschbaum argues that gifted women should be permitted to be preachers and rulers in the church. Basic to this position is her rejection of “any concept of office” in the New Testament. As for the opposition to women’s teaching and ruling in I Timothy 2, this is explained away as a reaction to “a particular tendency toward arrogance on the part of the women at Ephesus.” Opponents of women preachers are dismissed as guilty of “a legalistic use of isolated passages” and of “all too human ‘prejudices.'”
This is not to suggest that there is nothing worthwhile in von Kirschbaum’s treatment of the “question of woman.” As her collaboration with Barth indicates, she was an able theologian. Her description of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary is helpful, and her analysis of this heresy is penetrating.
von Kirschbaum is by no means the most radical of feminists. Indeed, she shames present feminists in the Reformed churches. She readily recognizes that headship in Ephesians 5 is “a position of superiority” to which “governing” belongs. She also acknowledges that the submission of Ephesians 5 is due, not to sin but to God’s ordering of creation.
Marriage, she contends convincingly, is a “bond” that in its essence is “indestructible and therefore indissoluble.” She has good, even profound, things to say about the marriage of a man and a woman. Barth too has a moving description of marriage in the Church Dogmatics.
This strikes an orthodox Reformed Christian as exceedingly odd, in view of their own continuing subversion of Barth’s marriage in life and deed.
No doubt, a neo-orthodox theology of paradox results in an equally paradoxical “Christian” life.