Christiane Tietz's lecture on "Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum" from the Karl Barth Society of North America 2016 meeting was published in Theology Today's July 2017 edition, and in recent weeks, this essay has invoked many unhelpful moralistic and voyeuristic responses to it—despite Tietz's extensive warning. The relationship constellation (as Tietz calls it) between Karl Barth, his wife Nelly Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum has been known to the Barth academic community since its beginning, and has been extensively studied. Tietz's essay caused a controversy in the blogosphere this week, because she included English translations of Karl Barth's private letters in it, that were not easily accessible beforehand, and this invoked a firestorm of responses from bloggers who were not informed of the bleaker aspects of Barth's personal life and familial relationships. Many people have asked me to comment on this essay and the reactions to it, so here are my thoughts on this matter.
Moralistic and Voyeuristic Reactions to Tietz's Essay
In her essay, Christiane Tietz says (for good reason) that "I was afraid of getting into two different, but both wrong perspectives: into voyeurism on the one side and into moralism on the other. I asked myself . . . how am I able to look at them [Karl Barth's private relationships] not with a voyeuristic view, in which I enjoy sneaking in their privacy . . . ? How would it be possible for me not to judge them in a moralistic manner?" . The dual errors of moralism and voyeurism are apt descriptions of how the blogosphere has reacted to her essay, and include opponents who are anxious to look into Karl Barth's bedroom through a peephole, so to find any reason to reject Karl Barth's monumental theological achievements; and other critics who are too Pharisaical to consider the moral dilemma of this difficult situation that none of the people involved understood for themselves.
Here are some examples of responses that have not heeded Tietz's warnings against moralistic and voyeuristic wrongful perspectives: "I can no longer in good conscience promote Barth’s theology" ; "His infidelity in marriage (whether it was sexual or not) should have disqualified him" ; "Barth used his theology to justify and even bolster the unethical behavior . . .and that his wife and children had suffered from the cruelty it brought to their family"; "this was an adulterous relationship, almost certainly sexual in nature" ; "Terms such as 'adultery' and 'affair' don’t seem to do full justice to what Barth was up to. Perhaps 'functional bigamy' is a better descriptor"; and so on. Perhaps, I'm most disappointed by the Barth bloggers who made these comments, because the others were never interested in Karl Barth regardless.
These private letters, shared by Barth's children, are like reading personal emails or text messages, that were written in a context of trusted confidence, and are not to be interpreted like commonly published theology. If we are all honest, we have all written things, or thought things, that we would not wish others to read, because they do not truly represent reality or the full truth of a situation. I understand why these private letters were published, but beyond the original intention of Barth's children (which I will describe next), I question whether anyone may rightly judge Karl Barth based upon these letters alone. Tietz explains this well at the opening of her essay.
Tietz writes, "Barth writes to von Kirschbaum, 'how different are human beings mirrored in the eyes of the other, and how good is it that this in the best case leads to a photograph ‘somehow’ not inappropriate, while it is up to nobody to see [...] the whole film.' 
If we decide that we may read these private letters between Karl Barth, Nelly Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum, we should read them with grace and compassion, and every attempt at understanding a difficult situation, from which we are far removed. The letters contain intimate details, in which those people involved were trying to understand themselves. If any conclusion may be made, it should not be one of moralism or voyeurism, like the examples I quoted. In a clarifying comment, Tietz writes, "Actually, it is the letters themselves which help avoid both, voyeurism and moralism—if you read them carefully and with an open-mind." 
Barth's Children Wanted the Rumors to End
Karl Barth's theological achievements have been unmatched, especially his Church Dogmatics, but being the best, means you have many opponents—and if a person's theology cannot be defeated, then that person's character is attacked instead. Christiane Tietz explains that Karl Barth's children published these private private letters, to bring Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum out in the open, for the purpose of stopping malicious rumors.
Christaine Tietz explains with a quotes from two of Karl Barth's children: Franziska and Markus Barth that the children's purpose in publishing the letters was that "they wanted us to know the whole story, because they wanted the rumors to end and to make visible how the relations actually were" and because "we thought the time has come to bring the bright and the bleak aspects of that very special and unique love in which our father was bound to our 'aunt Lollo,' out into the open." . Notice that the children call Charlotte von Kirschbaum "aunt Lollo", and mention the bright and the bleak aspects, indicating that Barth's family life cannot be described as "cruelty". The children were also made legal heirs of Charlotte von Kirschbaum, showing that the situation was not bleak alone, but also had brightness. The children wished that father Karl Barth and 'aunt Lollo' would be vindicated from the rumors that are still harming the Barth family to this day.
So my reaction to this essay, and the other private correspondence between Karl Barth, Nelly Barth, and Charlotte von Kirschbaum, is to read them with the intent to end rumors, end speculation, and look at this difficult set of relationships through the eyes of grace and understanding—as Barth's children wished they would be read. This is of foremost importance, because Barth's children understand this situation first hand, and did not share these private letters to incite condemnation by moralistic or voyeuristic bloggers today.
Backstory: Why Now the Controversy?
In Barthian academic circles, Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum has been known for decades. Speculative rumors were silenced when the Karl Barth's correspondence with Eduard Thurneysen from 1930-1935 was published, which contained private letters from Karl Barth, Nelly Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. So after 2000, the "constellation" (as Tietz called it) of Barth's relationships, was generally well known, and the 2008 publication of additional private letters by Karl Barth's children further confirmed what was already widely accepted in academic circles.
There are many published books that discuss Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum: An excellent summary of Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte is available online in George Hunsinger's review of Suzanne Selinger's Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology (Penn State Series in Lived Religious Experience) (published 2008). Additionally, Eberhard Busch discusses it in Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (published in 1977) and also see Renate Kobler's In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte von Kirschbaum (published in 1989). All these books demonstrate that Barth's constellation of relationships was well known among Barthian academics all along (and if you only read one of these, start with George Hunsinger.) So anyone who has studied Karl Barth for years, would not be surprised by the details of Barth's relationships in Tietz's essay.
So why now the controversy? The private letters between Karl Barth, Nelly Barth and Charlotte von Kirshbaum have been published since 2008, but English translations have not been easily accessible before Christiane Tietz's essay Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum was printed in Theology Today in July 2017. Tietz read her essay "at the Meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America at the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, November 18, 2016."  However, the academic audience was already acquainted with Barth's bright and bleak constellation of relationships, so it was not until bloggers accessed a copy of it in the past weeks, and were able to read direct English translations of key private letters, who then wrote dramatic reactions to them, that this essay erupted in controversy.
The "Triangle" of Karl Barth, Nelly Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum
Christiane Tietz recalls a symbolic moment when Charlotte von Kirschbaum accompanied the Barth family on their Harz mountains vacation, and this happened before Charlotte had moved into the Barth household in Münster. Tietz is correct that Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum loved each other, not long after they had met. So it wasn't a love that slowly happened, due to working in close proximity. Karl Barth and Charlotte had mutually "declared their love for each other"  in the winter of 1926, almost two years before this vacation.
Tietz writes, "In August 1927, Charlotte joined the family for vacation in the Harz mountain range. In this situation Nelly as well as Charlotte had the feeling of an Either–Or. But on a walk, Karl held the hands of both. Thurneysen later took this scene as a symbol for the problem of the ‘‘triangle’’ as the constellation was called by them: This triangle for Nelly was ‘'the impossible possibility,'’ because Nelly understood this holding of hands as other than Barth. She could not accept that Barth held the hand of Charlotte different than her hand. This is why Nelly kept feeling betrayed." 
Tietz describes Karl Barth holding hands with his wife Nelly and Charlotte as a "triangle", and she says the three of them at times referred to their own relationship as a "triangle" as well. According to Tietz, "Barth makes clear that he never thought of an isosceles triangle, with an equal relation of him to both women ". Barth did not love both Nelly and Charlotte in same, or even comparable ways, and not in terms of bigamy (as other have exaggerated).
People hold hands for many reasons, and a married man holds hands with his wife and another women in the benediction of most Presbyterian Church services. So this event retold does not certainly prove Karl Barth's sexual infidelity to Nelly and or prove he had sexual relations with Charlotte, and doesn't prove Karl Barth was having an emotional affair in itself, either. So it's not helpful, to cite this event as certain proof that Karl Barth and Charlotte were sexual lovers (like some recent bloggers have stated). Remember, that Barth's children published these letters to stop rumors as such.
The image of Karl Barth holding hands with both Nelly and Charlotte is a good description of their complicated relationship, showing Barth's love for both Nelly and for Charlotte, and how this caused duress to all of them. Nelly uses the phrase 'impossible possibility', which is Karl Barth's phrase for sin (Church Dogmatics IV/1 §60), demonstrating that they were aware that their relationship was not right, but they were bound together nevertheless, and none of them knew how to correct the situation. This story demonstrates that this irregular triangle was not nearly equal, or even nearly isosceles, because Nelly Barth experienced the most pain and endured the most trauma from being lost in this Bermuda triangle.
What was Karl Barth thinking?
Karl Barth had been married to Nelly for ten years when he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Barth explains that he was happy and loved his wife and family, and so he was not seeking out another, due to discontentment. Additionally, Karl Barth fell in love with Charlotte rather suddenly, and not long after they first met, as soon as he "found" her. Karl Barth's love for Charlotte, was not developed slowly over time, and he was not taking advantage of his secretary due to his unfulfilled marriage. Karl Barth and Charlotte met each other, and fell mutually in love with each other, somewhat because their common passions, but more so because they discovered a mutual love for each other, that neither thought was possible.
Tietz quotes Karl Barth as she summarizes this situation: "Already in this letter from February 28 he realizes that this new reality will be most difficult for his wife Nelly. [Karl Barth said] 'You have seen our family life. The story of our marriage was until now despite all difficulties a happy story. We knew that there are no ‘smooth’ marriages. But we were not prepared for such an incident.' Barth already in this early context also speaks of guilt to his wife and his children." 
Karl Barth explains that he loved his wife Nelly and his family, yet he also loved Charlotte and his work with her, and he could not live without either. His love for them was not an equal love, but they were two loves he couldn't live without. Barth was a conflicted man, and he realized that there was no solution that allowed him to love both of them.
Karl Barth wrote, "The way I am, I never could and still cannot deny either the reality of my marriage or the reality of my love. It is true that I am married, that I am a father and a grandfather. It is also true that I love. And it is true, that these two facts don’t match. This is why we after some hesitation at the beginning decided not to solve the problem with a separation on one or the other side." 
Tietz rightly says that Karl Barth knew that his love for Charlotte was not possible due to his love for his wife Nelly and his children. Karl Barth knew that there was no solution allowing him to love Charlotte, and he felt God's judgment for the situation.
"As a summary, one might take a letter of Barth to pastor William Lachat from Neuchâtel in 1947: It is precisely the fact which is the greatest earthly blessing given to me in my life which at the same time is the strongest judgement against my earthly life. Thus I stand before the eyes of God, without being able to escape from him in one or the other way [...] It might be possible that it is from here that an element of experience can be found in my theology, or, to put it in a better way, an element of lived life. I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become." 
In 1933, after Charlotte von Kirschbaum had lived in the Barth family home for about four years, this difficult situation had intensified into an impossible situation. Nelly Barth had suffered immensely from the situation, suggested a divorce; Karl Barth did not want a divorce at that time, so Nelly rescinded the request. Later, after further consideration, Karl Barth suggests a divorce, but that was rescinded as well. Karl and Nelly agreed that if they were to have a divorce, it would be by mutual agreement, so the divorce never happened. So the situation remained unresolved for over thirty years, while Charlotte von Kirschbaum lived in the Barth family home (it is worth noting that this time period was Karl Barth's most productive theological period, and when he produced his most theological contributions).
The situation finally found resolution after Charlotte von Kirschbaum was hospitalized in 1962 (this also corresponds Karl Barth's ending his work on the the incomplete Church Dogmatics). After Charlotte moved out of the house, Karl and Nelly reconciled at last. Karl and Nelly continued to visit Charlotte in the hospital on a regular basis, and after Karl Barth died in 1968, Nelly continued to visit Charlotte in the hospital, until Charlotte died in 1975. Nelly obeyed Karl's wishes, and buried Charlotte in their family tomb, and a year later, Nelly died as well. All three of them are buried in the same tomb.
Should we approve of Karl Barth?
If we are allowed to read Karl Barth's letters, and conclude that Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum was an emotional affair (and possibly sexual as well), then how does this affect our reading of Karl Barth? First of all, Karl Barth's affair may not be approved, and he may not be excused because of his invaluable theological contributions, and this conclusion is based upon Karl Barth's own theology of marriage in Church Dogmatics III/4, §54.1 Man and Woman, where he defines marriage as a "life-partnership" (and remember that Charlotte von Kirschbaum contributed substantially to the Church Dogmatics, including this paragraph in CD III/4.)
Karl Barth (and Charlotte von Kirschbaum) define marriage more verbosely as "something which fixes and makes concrete the encounter and interrelation of man and woman in the form of the unique, unrepeatable and incomparable encounter and relationship between a particular man and a particular woman." Barth explains that marriage is a life-partnership between two persons that "lasts as long as the life of both concerned" and it is "not partial but complete" because it "extends over the whole area of the human existence of both participants. It is on both sides a total receiving and giving." In other words, marriage is not a part-time job, and does not allow for time-off for either person involved. It requires 100% from each person, from the beginning until the end of their life-partnership, as the traditional vow says, "so long as you both shall live." Furthermore, Barth says that marriage excludes all forms of polygamy, because it is a life-partnership that leaves no room for a third partner. Barth explains that marriage is limited to two partners because it "is not inclusive but exclusive. No third person can share in it. It is not temporary but permanent. It lasts as long as the life of both concerned." (Read more on Barth's definition of marriage here.)
Karl Barth's theology of marriage in CD III/4 is therefore a judgment upon himself, for having an "inclusive" love for Charlotte von Kirschbaum and his love is not "exclusive" for Nelly, and for literally making "room for a third partner" in his family home. So Karl Barth does not approve of himself, so we may not approve either. Karl Barth's theology of marriage, is a judgment upon his own marriage. So any claim that Karl Barth used theology to justify his love for Charlotte and Nelly is unfounded. So if we are to have any caution in reading Karl Barth's theology, due to this constellation of relationships, then it would be in regards to his writings on marriage, and it is in his writings on marriage, that we discover self-judgment, not self-justification.
Any moralistic conclusion that Karl Barth's entire theological works is invalid by this constellation of relationships is an absurd conclusion. Is Karl Barth's contribution to the Barmen Declaration and his important work in opposing the Nazis invalid? G.C. Berkouwer declared that Karl Barth's theology was a 'triumph of grace', is this too invalidated? Consider if this same judgement was made on other theologians. Would Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin be invalidated because he abandoned his wife and kid? Not to mention the moral failures of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and most all theologians. What of our own sins, who is without sin? Tietz expresses this well: "In face of this, how can I judge them? Who would be entitled to be the first to throw a stone at them (John 8:7)?" 
Why we may not approve of Karl Barth
I agree with Tietz's warning about the dual errors of moralism and voyuerism, and I desire to distance myself from recent reactions who have done this to a fault. However, I do not wish to defend all of Karl Barth's actions or to remain neutral on this topic. I'm writing this response, because many people were rightly alarmed by Tietz's essay because of Karl Barth's misogyny is shown throughout it. Karl Barth's theology did not justify his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, however he did wrongly use the importance of his theological work as a power-play to justify a situation that was harmful to both Nelly and Charlotte.
I've already discussed how Karl Barth felt guilty because he knew that Charlotte's move into the Barth family home would take a toll on Nelly and his family, yet he moved forward with his plan nevertheless. Barth desired to hold the hands of both Nelly and Charlotte, even though it was harmful to both women. Nelly resisted Barth's plan to move Charlotte into their home, and Charlotte was also uncomfortable with the move; Karl Barth insists that he is not forcing the situation, but after initial resistance, Charlotte moves into the Barth family home. Tietz describes the tensions in the Barth family household afterwards, by summarizing a letter from Charlotte von Kirshbaum to Eduard Thurneysen in which "Charlotte complains that Nelly and she hardly get through the days; Nelly inwardly protests against the situation, and Charlotte reacts with inner rebellion.". Karl Barth responds to this situation, by using his theological work in a power play to insist that Charlotte and Nelly get over their emotional distress, so he could get on with his theology. Tietz summarizes a letter from Karl Barth to Charlotte that exemplifies his wrongful motives: "He begs her to stop it, otherwise this project of life together will end soon and he will get insane." .
Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum also spent their sabbaticals together, leaving Nelly alone with the family. It's speculative how they conducted themselves on these trips, whether it was purely work oriented, or if they had a sexual affair. There's good reasons to believe that on at least one trip to the Bergli, while the family was moving to Bonn, that they may have had a sexual affair. If this is true, then this may not be approved of as well. However, this is still speculative and unproven. Nelly desired that Charlotte move out of their home, and live close by, and she desired time alone with Karl, and Karl Barth should have honored these requests.
Therefore, we may not approve of Karl Barth's relationship with Charlotte and Nelly because Karl failed to love his wife Nelly according to his own theology of marriage, that is as an undivided life-partnership (CD III/4). Also, and even more so, we may not approve of Karl Barth's misogyny towards Charlotte, and especially towards Nelly, where he domineeringly used his theological work to compelled these women to live in a situation that was harmful to both. Tietz is right that we must avoid the dual errors of moralism and voyeurism, but I also think it is wrong to be neutral, and not disapprove of this harmful situation—it was wrong, and it may not be dismissed lightly.
As I read the private letters from this bright and bleak constellation of relationships, including Karl Barth, Nelly Barth, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, their children and others involved, I first question (as Tietz rightly warns) whether I have the right to read their private correspondences, and if I am able to understand the situation from such a distance, when they are not here to speak for themselves. It is with great trepidation that I approach the situation, and as I consider Barth's children's wishes for making these letters known, that I read these letters for the sake of ending rumors, that have been so hurtful and unhelpful, and seek to avoid the wrong responses of moralism and voyeurism. If I'm allowed to make a judgment based upon these letters, then I follow Karl Barth's own theology (CD III/4) to disapprove of their relationships. Additionally, Karl Barth's used the theological significance of his work, to put Nelly and Charlotte into a harmful situation, and I acknowledge that this misogynistic power dynamic was wrong.
However, in humility, I recognize it was a difficult situation that none of the people involved understood for themselves, and none of them knew the solution to their plight, and so I likewise in humility listen to try to understand, without making moralistic or voyeuristic judgments on a situation that I could not understand from such a great distance. If there is any impact to Barth studies, or considerations extending from their constellation of relationships, it is in the vicinity of Karl Barth's writings on marriage, and in these loci, Karl Barth (with the aid of Charlotte von Kirschbaum) write against the situation lived out in their Sitz im Leben. The world has received a priceless gift in the theology of Karl Barth, especially in the Church Dogmatics, and this gift came at a cost, that Karl Barth, Nelly Barth, Charlotte von Kirschbaum had to pay, that resulted in duress and hardship throughout their lives.
Appendix: A Timeline of Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum
- In 1913, Karl Barth married Nelly Hoffman.
- In the early 1920's, Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum meet for the first time.
- In 1926, was the first time Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum mutually expressed their love for each other.
- 1926-1929, Karl Barth spent his summer sabbaticals with Charlotte von Kirschbaum at the Bergili.
- In 1927, Charlotte joins Karl Barth on his family vacation to the Harz mountains.
- In 1929, Karl and Nelly Barth debate for a year whether Charlotte should move into their house.
- In 1929, Charlotte moves into the Barth home in Munster.
- In 1929, Barth and Charlotte spent his sabbatical together (April-Sept) at the Bergli, while his family moved from Munster to their new home in Bonn.
- In 1930, Nelly protests Charlotte living in their home.
- In 1933, Nelly and Karl Barth consider a divorce, but do not come to mutual agreement.
- In 1962, Charlotte was hospitalized for the rest of her life. Nelly and Barth reconcile after Charlotte moves out of the house
- In 1968, Karl Barth dies, and Nelly Barth continues to visit Charlotte.
- In 1975, Charlotte dies, and Nelly honors Karl Barth's wishes and buries Charlotte next to Karl Barth in the family tomb.
- In 1976, Nelly Barth dies and is also buried in the same crypt.
Sources:1. Christaine Teitz, "Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum", Theology Today Vol. 74 Issue 2. July 25th, 2017. Print. 89.
7. Christaine Teitz. Ibid. 89.
8. Ibid. 89.
9. Ibid. 88.
10. Ibid. 86. [footnote #1]
11. Ibid. 91.
12. Ibid. 98.
13. Ibid. 101.
14. Ibid. 94.
15. Ibid. 109.
16. Ibid. 110-1.
17. Ibid. 89.
18. Ibid. 99.
19. Ibid. 99.
Related: affair, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Christaine Tietz, Karl Barth, Nelly Barth