Karl Barth: Woman’s purpose is to be a wife

By Heather W. Reichgott

It’s safe to say that Karl Barth is one of the most respected Protestant theologians today. Theology curricula regularly give Barth pride of place.

Barth is known for rehabilitating Reformed theology’s emphasis on the transcendent otherness of God, God’s initiative in relation to human beings, and Jesus Christ as the representative of humanity in salvation and election. People from hard-line Calvinists to mystics have been profoundly influenced by his theology. In addition to an influential Commentary on Romans and books of essays, Barth published the multivolume Church Dogmatics, which sets out in exacting and sometimes repetitive detail his beliefs on each and every one of the traditional theological topics.

Given Barth’s intelligence, depth of thought and verbose style, one might be surprised by his theology of gender. In the 387-page volume of the Dogmatics, which comprises part one of Barth’s doctrine of creation, gender takes up just 29 pages. Barth’s doctrine of creation describes God’s free gift of existence to humanity, and our fitting response which is faith in Jesus Christ; the ongoing relationship between God and humanity takes place in the form of covenant.

This is the meaning of God’s creation of humanity in general, that is. When discussing women in particular, though, Barth says some very different things. Using Genesis 2 with occasional reference to the Song of Songs, Barth presents an argument that while humanity is created for relationship with God, women are created for marriage to men. God creates women because man as a solitary creature is not a fitting covenant partner for God. (Dogmatics III.1.290-298) Woman is “the part of him [man] that is lost and found again”. (III.1.301) She is made to be man’s crowning glory “and it is her glory to be his glory.” (III.1.302) While Barth says this is without detriment to her independence, he also says she has no choice in whether to be the sexual counterpart of man. (III.1.303)

Women have no purpose as human beings outside of their marriages. “Being herself the completion of man’s humanity, she has no need of a further completion of her own. … His recognition and acknowledgment imply hers as well.” She is the “elect” of man (of man! not of God!) and does not exercise choice. (III.1.303) “The only real humanity is that which for the woman consists in being the wife of a male and therefore the wife of man.” (III.1.309)

When this lovely harmony is disturbed Barth envisions the problem as both an excess of male domination and an excess of female emancipation. It is wrong for women to try to seek selfhood outside of sexual relationships with men. (III.1.310)

Why does Barth back off from his usual definition of humanity as represented in Christ when it comes to women, and instead offer this view of women as sexual appendages to men? Why go counter to his usual argument about the complete otherness of God to humanity, in favor of a Roman Catholic-style analogy between divine-human hierarchy and a male-female hierarchy?

We cannot even excuse Barth by his place and time. This volume of the Dogmatics was published in 1958. While women’s suffrage would not become national law in Barth’s native Switzerland until 1971 (more about that process here), in Germany, where Barth spent much of his academic career, women had had the right to vote since 1919, and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights had called for universal suffrage in 1948. Women’s “emancipation” was hardly a strange and exotic thing in Barth’s world.

What do you think, readers? Is this a fair assessment of the humanity of women? If not, does it sour you on Karl Barth altogether, or do you have a way to explain his sexism, or do you find a way to work with the ideas of Barth that are helpful and to jettison the rest?


7 responses to “Karl Barth: Woman’s purpose is to be a wife

  1. Wow. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. It turns my stomach.

    Aside from my initial reaction of disgust and disappointment, I do think this is in a similar category to me as Wagner’s anti-semitism, or Calvin’s authoritarianism, or Jefferson’s slave-holding… everyone has blind spots and seemingly the brighter the genius the darker the blind spot. I can enjoy Wagner’s music knowing he had a serious failing… I think I can continue to enjoy aspects of Barth’s theology knowing he had this severe limitation. It does color my understanding of him a tad differently, though.

  2. Hi Heather. This is an interesting post. But it’s not true that “gender takes up just 29 pages” in Barth’s doctrine of creation. You just need to read the next volume (III/2), where the whole notion of “imago Dei” is organised around the theme of sexual differentiation. (In fact, Barth is sometimes criticised for placing too much emphasis on sexuality in his doctrine of creation!)

    And although you’re right to notice that Barth is not a proto-feminist, you’ll still find that the account in III/2 complicates some the criticisms that you’ve sketched here (especially since the passage you’re referring to is a summary of the Genesis saga rather than a positive development of Barth’s own understanding of gender — his emphasis in the passage you’ve cited is simply on how “the writer” understood the male/female relation).

    You might also like to check out The Question of Woman, a collection of essays by Barth’s close companion and assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. These essays have the closest possible affinity with Barth’s understanding of gender, but with an explicit proto-feminist edge. Since von Kirschbaum was so closely involved with the writing of CD III/2, I think her essays should really be taken into account in any critique of Barth’s view of women.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to sound heavy-handed in this response. For what it’s worth, I myself also think that Barth makes some grave mistakes in his work on sexual differentiation — but I also think you’ve misunderstood this (exegetical) passage from III/1, and that any solid critique has to be based primarily on the (doctrinal) account in III/2.

    Hope that helps!

  3. Aric,
    Thanks for sharing the “yikes” reaction…

    Oops, there are a few pages in III.2 that I neglected in this post. Thanks for your comment and for catching that omission. However, I don’t see any difference in Barth’s argument in III.2, nor do I find more than a few pages here either. What I find is only from pp. 289-324, where Barth argues (1) that human existence equals existence in a male-female relationship, and (2) that that male-female relationship is an earthly copy of the “marriage” between God and Israel, as depicted in the Prophets. If you have found something else that I’m missing, though, I’ll certainly entertain it.

    I don’t think that Barth would have presented his argument in III.1 without comment if it differed from his own view–he didn’t flag the passage as purely “exegetical”; on the contrary he presents it as forming the basis for his doctrine of creation as covenant. If it differed from his own view so sharply why not use, say, Genesis 1 instead, which describes creation of male and female at the same time, and not necessarily for the purpose of (hetero)sexual relationship?

    Also, the term “proto-“feminist is a little anachronistic when it comes to Barth, who is writing 170 years after Wollstonecraft, 110 years after Seneca Falls, 39 years after women’s suffrage in Germany, and some decades after women had begun receiving M.D.s, Ph.D.s and M.Div.s. The term “feminist” was common parlance by then at least in English (I’m not that familiar with women’s movements in the German-speaking world) so we could have expected Barth at least to have a more moderate view on the status of women.

    I am interested in the Kirschbaum book of essays–I hadn’t heard of it before, thanks for the suggestion. There’s also a book out about the relationship between Barth and Kirschbaum that I’ve been meaning to read. I’ve long been interested in the relationship between Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr too–it’s not quite a parallel since it was rather less scandalous and didn’t offend anyone’s family–but it does throw a different light on Balthasar’s theological writing about women.

  4. EDIT
    “didn’t offend anyone’s family”–unless you count Speyr’s family’s antipathy to her conversion to Catholicism, but now we’re really getting off-topic.

  5. I am a Christian woman and I thank God for the feminist movement. It is shocking that Barth could think the way he did in 1958! St. Paul can be forgiven for some of his thinking because of the time he lived in. I think St. Paul was misunderstood anyway. Some say St. Paul was a misogynist but I disagree. What man who hated women would tell men to love their wives like they love their own bodies and give up their lives for them if necessary and to die to their own selfish desires to please their wives. I love St. Paul.
    I think K.B. was influenced by the Evil One in order to create animosity,strife
    and division between men and women. God wants men and women to love and respect each other, to look upon another as equals and accept each others’ differences. Vive la difference! What I would say is what feminine woman would not want to be a wife? Don’t we all yearn for love, sexual fulfilment and a lifetime of campanionship and protection from a husband. That said, there are other things in life. One might as well say ‘ the only purpose for a man is to be a husband!

  6. Reblogged this on Who GOD is Not and commented:
    International Women’s Day is March 8.
    Time to remember why religion still has so much bias against women.

    Women have no purpose as human beings outside of their marriages. “Being herself the completion of man’s humanity, she has no need of a further completion of her own. … His recognition and acknowledgment imply hers as well.” She is the “elect” of man (of man! not of God!) and does not exercise choice. (III.1.303) “The only real humanity is that which for the woman consists in being the wife of a male and therefore the wife of man.” (III.1.309)”

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