A Moment in Church History

When one stops and looks at the church of Jesus the Christ, one does not have to look hard to realize that it, at several points along its’ existence, has gone astray in the realms of orthodox theology and thought. From the earliest outset of the church one will see that the people of Christ are striving constantly to establish a sound series of principles that will aid Christians in their worship of God.

Inevitably, mankind strays from sound theology. Neo-Orthodoxy is one of these movements that managed to stray from sound theology. The purpose of this post will be to examine the beginnings of the system of Neo-Orthodox theology, the famous theologians who helped create it and held to it, the theology that typifies the system, and the contributions it has made to the church to date.

The purpose of this will be to understand some of the theological ideas that still affect the church today, why they did what they did, and to understand that what they did was not all bad.

Neo-Orthodoxy can be defined as the middle point of traditionalist orthodoxy and the subjective abstract nature of liberalism. Some would even consider it to be a double-negative of sorts in theology. It is a reaction against the liberal reaction against traditional orthodoxy (Smith 1992, 27). It did not acquire the name Neo-Orthodoxy until the belief actually hit North American shores. In Europe it was know as crisis, or dialectical theology (Ibid.). This basically meant that proponents of this system sought truth in a paradoxical fashion.

Neo-Orthodoxy did not accept the traditional orthodoxy of the church, in fact, they kicked against it rather hard. Liberalism failed to satisfy them too. Therefore, they decided to blend the opposing ideas together in order to find an adequate amalgamation of truth (Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 18). In part, it is this constituent nature of Neo-Orthodoxy that must receive considerable praise from Christians. The strong rejection of liberalism is something to be admired (Smith 38).

While some scholars will pinpoint the birth of Neo-Orthodoxy with Karl Barth, a case could be made that the beliefs began with the existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard (Ibid, 321). That being said, the life of Karl Barth and his contemporaries is where Neo-Orthodoxy began to really gain favor in the world. The ultimate success of Neo-Orthodoxy can be summed up in understanding that it rejected liberalism and cheap Christianity. Its greatest failing is that it failed to do exactly what its very name implies—remain orthodox. What Barth and his contemporaries left Christianity with were extravagant words with little purchase and vague definitions (Ibid, 39).

Anytime there is a movement that changes the overall scope of Christianity in the modern world, it is important to look at who the key people were who helped found the movement. The key people involved with the development of Neo-Orthodoxy were Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Barth was predominantly a student of Adolf von Harnack, and Frederich Schliermacher. He began to leave the movement of Liberalism when World War I broke out. 93 German pastors had decided to side with the Kaiser. Barth refused and began to study Scripture again with a friend of his with renewed passion. From his published commentary on Romans he gained notoriety and acclaim. He became a key player in theological circles as he taught at key universities in Germany for 10 years. Barth penned the Barman Confession, which was signed by 200 leaders who stated that obedience to Jesus Christ was more important than to Hitler. He ended up being expelled from Germany for refusing loyalty to Hitler (Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 19; Bacik 1992 103-114).

Brunner received his Th.D from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and was a professor of systematic and practical theology at the University of Zurich. He published several books, totaling almost 400 in all, and contributed his educated mind to several journals (Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 21; Bacik 1992 103-114).

Niebuhr graduated from Yale and abandoned his liberalism during his pastorate in Detroit. He was the professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary for over 30 years. He was a social activist, and helped establish the New York’s Liberal Party (Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 22; Bacik 1992 103-114).

Bonhoeffer was a student of Barth, and became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. Bonhoeffer became renowned for preaching out against the liberal church’s reliance on “cheap grace” or grace that demanded nothing of the recipients. Bonhoeffer preached that salvation requires costly grace. He was involved in an assassination plot to kill Hitler, but failed. He was imprisoned for his treason, and hung shortly before the war ended (Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 23; Bacik 1992 103-114).

As one can see, these men were by no means incapable of intelligent thought. Each and every one of these men were incredibly gifted in their abilities to understand the warfare going on around them, and put into action a solution that they thought was surely the best route to take. Now that the mainstays of this theological movement have been discussed, it is necessary to understand what exactly these men believed doctrinally, and why they have caused so much controversy in so many evangelical circles.

When it comes to their understanding of the doctrine of revelation, they often do not refer to the word of God in their writing. Because the Bible is written by humans, it cannot be inerrant. The Bible itself is more of a witness to Christ through an existential experience with Christ. Thus, salvation is an experience. Their view of Scripture divides the word into two separate categories—story and history. Story refers to the significant moments in time when God physically reveals Himself to mankind (e.g. Incarnation), and is therefore errorless and eternal. History, however, is nothing more than description of these incredible events and contains flaws. They are not worried by this because what matters is not the details of the story, but the truth associated with it (Smith 1992, 37).

Within the camp of Neo-Orthodoxy there is some split on special revelation. In this regard, Karl Barth is one of the rare figures of the movement to believe that special revelation exists only with Christ. The opposing view is Brunnerian and believes that the created order is the medium through which God speaks (Hughes 1966, 104-107).

In theology, God is often considered in evangelical circles to be transcendent and immanent, that is, He is holy and personal. In Neo-Orthodox theology God is only transcendent. People are only able to know anything about God to the extent that He has revealed Himself. Even after God has revealed Himself, it is not possible to know anything about God until one takes a “leap of faith” (Smith 1992, 38; Elwell 2001, 126-127).

In the doctrines of Christ and salvation, the Neo-Orthodox movement elevated Jesus the Christ as the focus of God’s revelation. As the ultimate symbol of reconciliation between God and man, Christ’s death and resurrection are the fulfilled promise that God has not abandoned humanity to die (Smith 1992, 38).

The importance of Christ is not in the historicity of His life, but in the cross which is the symbol of God’s electing of mankind to salvation. Neo-Orthodox theologians rejected the historical claims of Scripture (Ryrie 1956, 36).

While some of these men did hold to a “wishy-washy” view of salvation which bordered on universalism (which states that everyone will be saved no matter who they believe in), there were some who held to faith in Christ alone. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, wrote often on absolute faith in Christ and the costly grace of what following Him actually meant, and that without obedience it is impossible to believe in Christ (Bonhoeffer 1959, The Cost of Discipleship, 54).

Neo-Orthodox theology also failed to come to grips with the concept of original sin, and in the end rejected it outright. For these theologians, the account of the Fall of mankind in Genesis 3 was nothing more than a tale to relate the sinfulness of mankind to the readers, rather than an historical account of how all mankind became sinful. For most of the Neo-Orthodox theologians, sin was a relation flaw in people because they simply chose to sin. People were sinners because they chose to be sinners, not because of any inherited failing from Adam (Smith 1992, 38).

Neo-Orthodoxy did a great service to the church in the late eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. Neo-Orthodoxy started its movement with an ideal premise in mind—take the orthodox truths of Scripture, and communicate those truths to the people in modern language. Communicate the truth of the Word of God in the vernacular of the people today. This has been the goal of evangelists since the beginning. However, it failed to complete this task. Yes, the movement may have used different words to communicate the truth, but rather than substituting words, Neo-Orthodoxy completely replaced the words with misplaced ideals (Ibid. 39).

The movement failed as a whole because it lacked the most necessary of foundations with which to stand on—a completely inspired and reliable Bible (Ibid.; Norman Baker Class Notes, CBC 18), and a necessary Christ who was radically different from His creation.

Neo-Orthodoxy began as a movement attempting to counter the liberal reaction to conservatism in the 19th century. It sought to explain the truths of Scripture in a modern context, but failed to uphold the truth it wanted to communicate. In the end, Neo-Orthodoxy became the product of theologians who failed to believe in the trustworthiness of the very book that their entire faith was predicated on. Because they placed such a high priority on experience, and spiritual existentialism, they failed to see that a transcendent God had gone to great lengths to make Himself known to mankind, and had done so through His living Word (Jesus the Christ), and His written word (Scripture).


2 thoughts on “A Moment in Church History

  1. Interesting! I wonder if it’s too much to lump everyone into a movement and stick a label on it. For example, you’ve got Barth and Brunner together here, they actually dramatically parted ways, so much so that there is a meme that uses the two this way.

    I was always taught the “Barth=neo-orthodox=bad view of scripture”, and I’m just now reading some of him for myself, and finding it very engaging, and very refreshing. I haven’t got to his take on scripture yet, and when I do, I will be reading with a critical eye.

    I’m finding more and more, that it’s always best to read someone firsthand, then to rely on someone’s critical summary, especially when it is someone of the theological magnitude of Barth.

    • I don’t think there’s a big problem in lumping them together in one group since they’re promoting the same basic theologies. You could lump a lot of the current reformed leaders together (e.g. Chandler, Platt, MacArthur) while still recognizing their differences. Barth and Bonhoeffer were probably the closest to orthodoxy of the bunch, whereas Brunner and Niebuhr and even Bultmann went off the deep end. When you read Barth and Bonhoeffer as I did, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of what I saw here. Does Neo-orthodoxy = bad? Not all the time, but you have to be incredibly wary when reading people who have a low view of Scripture, or interpret all as spiritual. That being said, Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite writers. The Cost of Discipleship is one of my favorite books.

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