There are two tendencies right now in our society when it comes to highly regarded theologians from the past.

The first is hagiography—to crown heroes with halos and look at forefathers and mothers in the faith through a fuzzy lens that airbrushes their mistakes, sins, and evils, leaving the impression their insights and achievements outweigh any nitpicky “flaws” today’s historian might point out.

The second is the cancel-culture impulse to write off anyone from the past whose views or actions are now deemed “problematic” and wave away any appeal to what could be helpful or beneficial in their work because their sins discredit or cancel out any goodness or virtue.

Neither of these tendencies serves the church well. Neither reckons sufficiently with what the Bible teaches about the nature of humanity or the parasitical nature of sin’s intertwinement with goodness or the unevenness of sanctification. Both tendencies need a larger dose of complexity. The problem is, in a world that swings from simplistic hagiography to the quick rush to cancel heroes, we wind up treating theologians the same—either writing them off immediately and minimizing their contributions or embracing their contributions uncritically and minimizing their sin. We can do better.

We can either look down on past theologians for their sins or we can look deeper. Looking deeper requires us to consider different kinds of sin, how those sins might affect the outlook of the theologian, and what treasures we may still receive, with wisdom and discernment, from flawed forebears.

The Karl Barth Dilemma

It was a jarring experience for me a couple years ago to encounter Christiane Tietz’s extraordinary biography of Karl Barth at the same time as I was reading books on how most of the church fathers approached the task of theology.

Barth is perhaps the most influential Christian theologian of the last century, rivaled only by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). And yet as hidden aspects of Barth’s life have come into the light, we now know he lived in an adulterous relationship with his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, and even arranged his living conditions around this sin, to the detriment of his wife, Nelly. What’s worse, he made twisted and bizarre theological justifications for persisting in unfaithfulness.

Samuel Parkison recently tackled this dilemma head-on, asking how it even makes sense to say something like “It’s a shame he was an adulterous and unfaithful husband, but he sure was a great theologian and a gift to the church.” Parkison has read and agrees with the church fathers on the role of virtue in the life of a theologian, that “high-handed and habitual unfaithfulness” cannot help but negatively influence one’s theology. Gregory of Nazianzus claimed personal piety was essential to the task of theology; only the pure in heart can take in the brilliant brightness of God. Theology isn’t an abstract, purely academic exercise. Even Barth acknowledged this reality in a letter in which he wondered how his and Kirschbaum’s sinful “experience” might affect his theological ruminations.

Theologians and Purity of Heart

Should we require moral uprightness from scholars in the past? Is there anything we can learn from theologians whose lives frequently fell abominably short of biblical fidelity?

If instead of looking down on the past we look deeper, we can agree with the church fathers and uphold a high standard of an “ever-increasing purity of heart” among those who seek to plumb the depths of God’s mysteries. At the same time, we can consider how biography shapes theology and how theologizing is always in some way affected by sin.

The answer isn’t to cordon off issues of personal holiness as if we do theology as an Enlightenment systematician or scientist. Our character makes a difference in how we theologize, interpret Scripture, or make applications. The church fathers were right: we’re wise to pay attention to how the presence of persistent sin affects the way we think of God.

Right now, many believers shy away from considering how one’s theology is affected by sin, because this raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions regarding theologians from the past (especially those implicated in various forms of white supremacy). In reaction to a cancel-culture mentality that’s often too quick to dismiss our forebears in uncritical “all or nothing” terms, we might find it easier to slip into the Enlightenment mode of keeping academic study and personal piety separate than to heed the premodern church fathers on this matter.

This is the wrong move. No, I’m not advocating cancel culture for important theologians, not even Barth. Instead, we ought to think more carefully and critically about how the sins of influential theologians may have negatively affected their theological reasoning and conclusions. As historian David Steinmetz said, “The study of history gives the church freedom vis-à-vis its past: freedom to appropriate past wisdom, when it can, and overcome its faithlessness and sin, when it must.”

3 Types of Sinful Theologians

To this end, we should delineate between different types of sinfulness. Some Christians resist this idea, preferring to think of all sins as the same since any sin—large or small—separates us from God.

But the Christian tradition has always held some sins are “more heinous in the sight of God than others,” as the Westminster Larger Catechism says (Question 151).

Sins can be aggravated in circumstances when the sinful person is older and seen as an example, or when the sins are more directly blasphemous toward God, or when the sin breaks out of its conception in the heart and becomes a series of scandalous words and actions without repentance. The Catechism also mentions sins against nature, going against conscience, and the deliberate and presumptuous breaking of vows.

In light of this discussion, we see different variations of sin among past theologians.

1. Willful Rebellion

We start with Barth, who belongs to the category of theologians who persisted in willful sin knowing it to be sin. Paul Tillich would be in this category as well—a man whose extramarital exploits were renowned even in his day. These are the most egregious examples of sin, when a theologian engages in illicit activity in a habitual way and doesn’t appear interested in repentance or restoration.

2. Culpable Blindness

A second category would include pastors and theologians who in varying degrees were complicit in sins, evils, and injustices of their times. Their sin was the result of culpable blindness. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic views and writings would fit here, as well as Jonathan Edwards’s defense of and involvement with slavery (even as he condemned the slave trade!). Ironically, in these cases, both Edwards and Luther would urge us not to remove or reduce their moral accountability. They would insist that even if they didn’t see their sin as such (and were, in this sense, spiritually blind), they were still culpable for that state of blindness because often there are truths the heart doesn’t want to see.

3. Sinful Struggle

A third category would include theologians whose lives were marked by sinful struggle, and yet they were known to be striving against sin, confessing their sin within the context of the church, and seeking to turn from sin even as they sometimes fell backward. We shouldn’t minimize sin in any form, as it always negatively affects our lives and the lives of those around us. But in this case, the desire of the theologian is to reject sin and be free from it. Read the confessions of some of the Puritan writers or, further back, Anselm or Augustine, and you see a striving for holiness amid the muck of this fallen world. Yes, sin remains. But the theologian seeks to grow in Christlikeness.

Complicating the Categories

I admit the categories I’ve supplied have several limitations. First, we tend to “freeze” a person at a particular point in time, when there can be movement away from or toward sin over time. Willful rebellion in one season can turn into sinful struggle in another, with sprouts of repentance breaking through the barren ground. On the other hand, culpable blindness can harden into willful rebellion, especially when there were those who called out a theologian for complicity in injustice.

Second, even if we agree willful rebellion is perhaps the most serious and egregious category, the effects of theologians in the culpable blindness category can be just as devastating and sometimes worse (think of the Nazi appeals to Luther in the years leading up to the Second World War, or later American theologians who continued the evil of slavery in the wake of Edwards). The third category, however, probably describes the majority of theologians—those who fall short of purity of heart and yet struggle against sin, in agreement with God and his Word.

Third, the sins we believe “instantly disqualifying” often depend not on the Scriptures but on how we read the Scriptures, as conditioned by our culture and times. (Consider why some African Christians believe getting a tattoo to be a more serious offense than adultery!) Many biblical characters—Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jonah—provide windows into both egregious sin and glorious salvation.

On occasion, some pastors and theologians, while not perfect, live in ways that beautifully match their theology. The ancient church often called them “saints,” and even in traditions without official “sainthood,” we recognize when the beauty and glory of a person’s life corresponds to their confession of faith and theological study. As a general rule, we have good reason to see as more trustworthy the theological musings of someone whose life is marked by godliness, both in the personal and public spheres.

Ask Deeper Questions

Treating theologians as “all or nothing” isn’t the way to go. It’s not wise to tar and feather past theologians or uncritically embrace them. Sinful forebears still have something to teach us.

The impulse on social media is to put everyone in quick and easy boxes so we know instantly who the “heroes” and “villains” are, but real life is gloriously complicated. Some of those we might call “villainous” had heroic traits of virtue, while those we might call “heroes” had villainous streaks of sin.

Instead, looking deeper requires us to carefully reckon with sin’s distorting effects in the theological outlook of past theologians. Onsi Kamel recommends we “look at the specific loci of thought and the particular sin, and then investigate in particular how the thought was noticeably impacted by the sin. And then discount or warn about or treat carefully those dimensions of thought.”

We should wonder . . .

How did Luther’s vicious anti-Semitism affect his approach to the Old Testament? Did his view of the Jews shape his sharp distinctions between law and gospel or his two-kingdoms approach to society?

How did Edwards’s slaveholding affect his understanding of mercy and justice? How did it alter the way he understood the Bible or his view of God? How did it shape his view of how society is to be ordered or his doctrine of humanity? Does the fact Edwards’s son became an ardent abolitionist complicate these questions?

How might Barth’s adultery have influenced his views on sin and grace? Did his willful rebellion and theological gymnastics diminish his understanding of God’s judgment? Did they play a part in some of his semi-universalistic musings?

Sanctification is often uneven, and I understand if this article complicates the issue and stirs up more questions than answers. That’s why we need more debate about past theologians, not less. More complexity, not simplistic answers. Truth isn’t served by hagiography or exalted biographical sketches that minimize the sins of theologians from the past. Neither is truth served by the impulse to see only the sins and not the signs of sanctification in the lives of influential thinkers.

We’re better off acknowledging the complexity of the human condition, recognizing where even the most respected theologians may have harbored sins or blindness that affected their theological vision, and then recommitting ourselves to seek the holiness without which we cannot see the God we long to study and adore.

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