Karl Barth’s Flip-Flop on Homosexuality

(Updated on June 6th, 2016: Karl Barth's source letter
has been translated and added as an appendix.)

Karl Barth is infamous for his statements against homosexuality in his Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/4 (CD III/4) where he called it a "malady" and a "physical, psychological and social sickness" and a "phenomena of perversion, decadence and decay" and other colorful phrases. Near the midway point in the Church Dogmatics, there is a small print section of CD III/4 that contains these strong denunciations of homosexuality (quoted below) and is frequently cited to oppose homosexuality today. However, this is not Barth's final word on homosexuality (according to the renown Barth scholar George Hunsinger) because Barth changed his mind on this controversial subject (near the end of his life after abandoning the Church Dogmatics) due to his discussions with medical doctors who provided Barth with modern scientific research on homosexuality that Barth thought should be considered when interpreting the plain sense of the scriptures. First, I will review Barth's No and Yes to Homosexuality.

Karl Barth's infamous rejection of homosexuality in CD III/4

CD III/4 is the final volume in Karl Barth's Doctrine of Creation and is devoted to Ethics—in other words, it explains how Barth's Doctrine of Creation should be applied to the Christian life and it includes many fascinating ethical loci, such as his rejection of capital punishment, and discussion on self-defense, suicide, prayer and marriage. Barth's strongest statements against homosexuality are located here in a small-print paragraph in the middle of a problematic section of CD III/4: §54 Freedom in Fellowship 1. Man and Woman.

Students of Barth have said that Barth's views of women in CD III "needs to be corrected" and "his views of women in volume three are not essential to his project" (for example) and I believe this is justified based on what Barth said about women in this volume. Therefore, I believe that many people who cite this small-print section against homosexuality would at the same time reject Barth's view of Man and Woman that are the foundation of this small-print section. How then shall we cite this small-print section to dismiss homosexuals and yet criticize Barth's opposition to women's rights? At this point, I am unable to resist criticizing Barth as well, because I do not believe that the Church Dogmatics would dwell in the same ivory tower as the Summa Theologica if Charlotte Von Kirschbaum (CVK) had followed the ethical imperatives of CD III/4 and had remained in the proverbial kitchen as CD III/4 directs instead of contributing to the Church Dogmatics as she did. Barth invited CVK to participate in the Church Dogmatics in a time (late 1940's to early 1950's) that women were rarely allowed to do more than secretarial work in seminaries.  So anyone who stands upon this small-print section against homosexuality is stumbling.

For full disclosure, here are Barth's colorful criticisms of homosexuality from the controversial small-print section referenced above:

These first steps may well be symptoms of the malady called homosexuality. This is the physical, psychological and social sickness, the phenomena of perversion, decadence and decay, which can emerge when man refuses to admit the validity of the divine command in the sense in which we are now considering it. In Rom. 1 Paul connected it with idolatry, with changing the truth of God into a lie, with the adoration of the creature instead of the Creator (Rom 1:25).

"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the man, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one towards another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was meet" (Rom 1:26-27).

From the refusal to recognize God there follows the failure to appreciate man, and thus humanity without the fellow-man (CD III/2, p 229ff). And since humanity as fellow-humanity is to be understood in its root as the togetherness of man and woman, as the root of this inhumanity there follows the ideal of a masculinity free from woman and a femininity free from man. And because nature or the Creator of nature will not be trifled with, because the despised fellow-man is still there, because the natural orientation on him is still in force, there follows the corrupt emotional and finally physical desire in which—in a sexual union which is not and cannot be genuine—man thinks that he must seek and can find in man, and woman in woman, a substitute for the despised partner. But there is no sense in reminding man of the command of God only when he is face-to-face with this ultimate consequence, or pointing to the fact of human disobedience only when this malady breaks out openly in these unnatural courses. Naturally the command of God is opposed to these courses. This is almost too obvious to need stating.

It is to be hoped that, in awareness of God's command as also of His forgiving grace, the doctor, the pastor trained in psycho-therapy, and the legislator and judge—for the protection of threaten youth—will put forth their best efforts. But the decisive word of Christian ethics must consist in a warning against entering upon the whole way of life which can only end in the tragedy of concrete homosexuality.

We know that in its early stages it may have an appearance of particular beauty and spirituality, and even be redolent of sanctity. Often it has not been the worst people who have discovered and to some extent practiced it as a sort of wonderful esoteric of personal life. Nor does this malady always manifest itself openly, or when it does so, it obvious or indictable forms. Fear of ultimate consequences can give as little protection in this case, and condemnation may be as feeble a deterrent as the thought of painful consequences in the case of fornication.

What is needed is that the recognition of the divine command should cut sharply across the attractive beginnings. The real perversion takes place, the original decadence and disintegration begins, where man will not see his partner of the opposite sex and therefore the primal form of fellow-man, refusing to hear his question and to make a responsible answer, but trying to be human in himself as sovereign man or woman, rejoicing in himself in self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency. The command of God is opposed to the wonderful esoteric of this beta solitudo [blessed solitude]. For in this supposed discovery of the genuinely human with woman, or as a woman with man. In proportion as he accepts this insight, homosexuality can have no place his life, whether in its more refined or cruder forms. [1]

A small criticism of this very small-print

What then are we to say about these things? (c.f. Rom 8:31) Why has Barth said "natural" so much here and now? Has Barth reverted to a Natural Revelation in this section due to his appeals to "nature or the Creator of nature" and humanity's "natural orientation"? In Barth's magnificent refutation of Natural Revelation in CD II/1, he boldly rejected the appeal to Romans 1:20's use of the word Θειότησ ("divine nature") because it was an hapax legomena (i.e. a word used only once in the bible). Why wasn't Barth as careful in this rejection of homosexuality based on Romans 1 as he was in his rejection of Natural Revelation based on Romans 1? Many have used the plain sense of scripture to assert that the theiotas of Romans 1:20 proved Natural Revelation.  Barth is certainly not affirming a Natural Revelation, but what may we make of Barth's 'natural' arguments without jettisoning CD II/1 (which Hans Urs Von Balthasar considered to be the best volume in the entire Church Dogmatics!) I believe this criticism is not insurmountable (and may be addressed by a loyal Barthian reader) but is worth identifying.

In Barth's defense, his project in CD III/4 titled "fellowship in freedom" is on the right track, despite his missteps due to the time and place where he lived. I don't wish to refute Barth, but only refute those who assert that these comments definitively demonstrate that Barth was opposed to homosexuality.

Barth's change of mind according to George Hunsinger

George Hunsinger is a world renown Karl Barth scholar, and has written several articles on homosexuality such as  There is a Third Way, Thinking Outside the Box: (Part 1/4), (Part 2/4), (Part 3/4), and (Part 4/4)as well as a helpful chapter on the ordination of homosexuals in his book The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep The Feast. Although this is a summary of Barth's Offene Briefe 1945-1968), this summary is essential to the future discussion of homosexuality in the PostBarthian context.

"Thielicke criticizes Karl Barth (and rightly so) for the position he took on homosexuality in Church Dogmatics. However, like many others, Thielicke was unaware that Barth later changed his mind. In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists, Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge. (Barth and Thielicke, by the way, both played a role in decriminalizing homosexuality in German society.) (Barth, Offene Briefe, 1945-1968, Zurich, 1984, pp. 542-43.)". [2]

UPDATE: June 6th, 2016


As an appendix, I have provided an English translation of Offene Briefe (1945-1968) to substantiate George Hunsinger's quotation. Based on my reading of Hunsinger, in general, he is a reliable witness to untranslated Barthianisms! Therefore, anyone who quotes CD III/4 to oppose homosexuality without mentioning Barth's letter in Offene Briefe (1945-1968) has put forth an irresponsible hermeneutic. Has such a person tried to understand Barth here and now, or are they gathering ammo for an a priori prejudice that which to oppose?

Appendix: Karl Barth's letter

Dr. David Congdon has graciously translated the source letter from Offene Briefe (1945-1968) and has given me permission to share his translation! The original letter was written by Eberhard Busch on behalf of aging Karl Barth who was 82years old at the time. Congdon has provided the German source and translation on his website The Fire and The Rose.

This letter confirms what George Hunsinger said in the quotation above regarding Barth's change of mind on homosexuality later in life. It would have been preferable to have a source that was directly written from Barth's own hand in a publish work. If this raises any doubts, remember that Paul's letter to the Romans was written in the same way by his amanuensis Tertius (c.f. Romans 16:22)

Dear Mr. Italiaander!

Professor Karl Barth took note of your letter on June 10 and is pleased that, in your planned anthology on the issue of homosexuals and their social status and recognition, you thought to give space to his voice.

In fact he has already once expressed himself on this issue (Kirchliche Dogmatik III/4, 1951, 184f.)—though in a sense that probably would not be appropriate and suitable for that section of your anthology. Lest you view the predominantly negative attitude toward homosexual relations in that passage in a false or exaggerated way, the following was briefly mentioned:

1) That one has to understand and appreciate what is expressed there—only incidentally—against the background of the whole context of that passage: a context in which Karl Barth interprets the command of God given to human beings as creatures and in their creatureliness under one of several aspects, namely under the “freedom for community.” For him the original form of interpersonal community (not merely “marital” but all natural community) is the counterpart of man and woman.

2) In this context homosexuality in its essence appeared to him as a form of unfreecommunity—namely, as a behavior in which one closes oneself to and withdraws from one’s freedom for community. But you can be sure that his opinion on this point did not and does not imply as such a license for “defamation,” let alone for the (nonsensical) legal “punishment” of homosexuals (at least insofar as they do not “seduce” or “harass” others). For he does not consider them actually wicked but rather he considers it emotional Pharisaism when, on the one hand, there is a degrading of the articles of the law (though often not carried out to the same degree), but on the other hand in contemptuous whispers people take actions against them or create a hostile environment. By no means!

3) With respect to his former incidental remarks—in view of the changes and new discoveries that have occurred since its writing—Professor Barth is today no longer entirely satisfied and would certainly today write them somewhat differently. One may think, therefore, precisely against the background of the context in which God’s command fundamentally wants to be perceived and followed as “freedom for community,” that—in conversation with doctors and psychologists—one could come to a new evaluation and presentation of the phenomenon.

You would naturally now like to hear this from him. But having endured eighty-two years of all kinds of limitations, he now no longer has the time required for this purpose. They say that he should make use of his remaining strength to work on those themes and tasks that presently appear more important to him. We ask for your kind understanding!

Greetings on his behalf,
Eberhard Busch

German text in: Offene Briefe 1945–1968 (Gesamtausgabe 5.15), 542–43. [3]


[^Header ImageSappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063 (Edited)
[^1] Barth, Karl. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics III.4: The Doctrine of Creation. Vol. 19. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 159-60. Print. Study Edition. (paragraph and formatting were added for readability)
[^2] Hunsinger, George. "Thinking Outside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of ‘Progressive Traditionalists’." The Presbyterian Outlook. N.p., 13 Mar. 2002. Web. 05 June 2016. <https://pres-outlook.org/2002/03/thinking-outside-the-box-part-4-the-voice-of-progressive-traditionalists/>.
[^3] Congdon, David. "The Fire and the Rose." : Eberhard Busch to Rolf Italiaander, 1968. David Congdon, 06 June 2016. Web. 06 June 2016. <https://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2016/06/eberhard-busch-to-rolf-italiaander-1968.html>.

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  1. I suppose my puzzlement about Barth here is a little different than you suggest. If I understand rightly, Barth stresses the mystery that each gender presents to the other. At times, I agree with this more than I should!☺ In any case, the specific argument he makes here is puzzling to me because the “other” is always something of a mystery to me, and I to the “other.” One is not “self-sufficient” when one is in a monastery, for example. We always confront the otherness of the other. Our identity always arises out of our “fellow-humanity.” I think a homosexual may well understand an opposite gender better than many homosexuals. I will say that I get Barth’s emphasis on the command of God here. The command is fruitfulness, something a homosexual relation cannot satisfy. The “command” is that they exist as male and female. The argument in Paul that this is “natural” is true in the sense it comes from the command of God related to creation. Thus, I am not sure where natural theology fits into this picture. My final statement would be that we not read too much into conversations of the 50s and 60s through the lens of today. In that time, most psychotherapy viewed homosexuality as largely a malady or sickness arising out of certain types of homes and mother-father relationships. We now live in a time when the matter has become political. Sadly, and you may disagree here, but some people are not receiving the type of mental health care they need because of the politicized nature of this topic. At the same time, I am reminded of Hegel’s statement that every truth has its time. We ought not judge the past too harshly (the usual Progressive mistake), nor lift them up too exaltedly (the usual conservative mistake). This is just a thought that I hope does not veer too far off course.

    • Great thoughts again George. I always enjoy your commentary. My disposition is generally approval toward Barth’s anthropology, including the fellowship in freedom, however, right the path may be, Barth’s conclusions about homosexuality CD III/4 might be a side path due to the time and place that he lived, and if he had to revisit them in the ethical sections (that would have been written at the end of CD IV), he might have said things quite differently, such that there might be no continuum between that and what was written in CD III/4. I believe that this letter in the appendix gives us pause to conclude too quickly that CD III/4’s small print section quoted above is the final word for barth. The appendix letter isnt necessary Barth’s last word, but it leave us with another question mark. But then again, barth always leaves us with question marks.

  2. After reading the excellent translation, I think a “flip-flop” is a bit over the top. The letter does leave open the door that a Barth into his 90s might have changed, but we do not know. However, he is careful to make sure that no ill treatment should occur, even if he continued to think of it as in some way a violation of the command of God.

    • I think Flip-Flop is within the acceptable bound of labeling his change in position. Especially since CD III/4 was such a firm No, and this appendix letter was a “Then again…” So that’s a Flip-Flop as far as politics go. At least it brought you here and got your attention!

  3. Much ado about nothing, no flip flop there !!! Only wishful thinking from our contemporaries.

  4. I’m unconvinced that this is anything more than wishful thinking. But as Barth often said, “why not?”

  5. As one who trusts in Christ yet who is gay, I appreciate this article, and am grateful that Barth was paying attention to what doctors and scientists were saying about homosexuality. I can personally assure you that my emotional and physical longing for another male is not a sign of rejection of the Lord or seeking out my own path as superior; in fact I tried to be straight for decades to no avail. Nor are my inclinations a rejection of community, far from it. I simply experience this as akin to being left-handed, and consider it a natural variation within God’s creation. I know dozens of Christian men who tried for years to be ex-gay, and in no case did they have success. Now, I realize you have readers who try to stuff human beings into rigid categories instead of thinking more deeply about the actual lives of real human beings, but I prefer to recall that Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, healed the sick on the Sabbath, and approved Abiathar giving the holy show bread to David and his men simply because they were hungry, even though strictly that violated the Divine law. But then Christ also touched lepers and embraced outcasts. I suggest that Jesus our Lord valued people over rules, for the purpose of the law was to bless human life, not destroy it, and I assure you from painful experience that a homosexual forced to marry someone of the opposite sex experiences anguish, depression, and despair — consider the opposite scenario and decide whether you would flourish as a straight man forced to marry a man? Anyway, I love our Lord and am in fact a pastor. Again, many thanks for noting that great luminaries like Barth and Thieleke were thoughtful and open to considering the lives of people like me, who so often have been told we are the worst of sinners and have been rejected by family, church, and friends, and told that unlike other human beings we may never know the comfort of a kiss or lying in the arms of one we love.

  6. Probably the greatest non-Barthian American interpreter of Barth is Robert Jenson. See his own statement on the topic as late as 1999 in his Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 93.

  7. The letter in question written by Busch was addressed to the issue of the decriminalization of marriage in the Swiss legal code, and not about the general approval of homosexual behavior that some have tried to make it. Context.

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