Neo-Orthodoxy can also refer to a form of Orthodox Judaism following the philosophy of "Torah im Derech Eretz", and can additionally refer to the ideas of late 20th century Eastern Orthodox theology, e.g. chiefly by Christos Yannaras

Neo-orthodoxy, in Europe also known as theology of crisis and dialectical theology,[1][2] is an approach to theology in Protestantism that was developed in the aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918). It is characterized as a reaction against doctrines of 19th-century liberal theology and a reevaluation of the teachings of the Reformation, much of which had been in decline (especially in western Europe) since the late 18th century.[3] It is primarily associated with two Swiss professors and pastors, Karl Barth[4] (1886–1968) and Emil Brunner (1899–1966),[1][2] even though Barth himself expressed his unease in the use of the term.[5]



There is a strong emphasis on the revelation of God by God as the source of Christian doctrine. Natural theology, whose proponents include Thomas Aquinas, states that knowledge of God can be gained through a combination of observation of nature and human reason; this issue remains a very controversial topic within Christianity to this day. Barth totally rejected natural theology. "So far as theological content is concerned, Barth's argument runs like this. If the God whom we have actually come to know through Jesus Christ really is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in his own eternal and undivided Being, then what are we to make of an independent natural theology that terminates, not upon the Being of the Triune God -- i.e., upon God as he really is in himself -- but upon some Being of God in general? Natural theology by its very operation abstracts the existence of God from his act, so that if it does not begin with deism, it imposes deism upon theology."[Torrance 1] Brunner, on the other hand, believed that natural theology still had an important, although not decisive, role. This led to a sharp disagreement between the two men, the first of several controversies that prevented the movement from acquiring a monolithic, homogeneous character, unusual given the tendency of theological systems to produce conformity to precepts established by a revered founding figure (but somewhat akin to the relationship of Sigmund Freud to his disciples).

Transcendence of God

Most neo-orthodox thinkers stressed the transcendence of God. Barth believed that the emphasis on the immanence of God had led human beings to imagine God to amount to nothing more than humanity writ large. He stressed the "infinite qualitative distinction" between the human and the divine, a reversion to older Protestant teachings on the nature of God and a rebuttal against the intellectual heritage of philosophical idealism. This led to a general devaluation of philosophical and metaphysical approaches to the faith, although some thinkers, notably Paul Tillich, attempted a median course between strict transcendence and ontological analysis of the human condition, a stand that caused a further division in the movement.


Some of the neo-orthodox theologians made use of existentialism. Rudolf Bultmann (who was associated with Barth and Brunner in the 1920s in particular) was strongly influenced by his former colleague at Marburg, the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Reinhold Niebuhr and (to a lesser extent, and mostly in his earlier writings) Karl Barth were influenced by the writings of the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was a critic of the then-fashionable liberal Christian modernist effort to "rationalise" Christianity, to make it palatable to those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher termed the "cultured despisers of religion." Instead, under pseudonymous names such as Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard maintained that Christianity is "absurd" (i.e., it transcends human understanding) and presents the individual with paradoxical choices. The decision to become a Christian is not fundamentally a rational decision but a leap of faith, Kierkegaard asserted. Opponents of Kierkegaard's approach and neo-orthodoxy in general have termed this fideism, a blatant refusal to find support for the faith outside its own circles[clarification needed]. For the most part, proponents rebut that no such support exists, that supposed reasons and evidences for faith are fabrications of fallen human imagination, and in effect constitute idolatry, a grave sin condemned in the Bible. Some neo-orthodox proponents have gone so far as to claim greater affinity with atheists in that regard than with the theological and cultural trappings of so-called "Christendom," which Kierkegaard venomously denounced in his later works. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" and the later secular theology also reflect similar conclusions.)

Sin and human nature

In neo-orthodoxy, sin is not seen as mere error or ignorance; it is not something that can be overcome by reason, intellectual reflection, or social institutions (e.g., schools); it can only be overcome by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Sin is seen as something unholy within human nature itself.[6] This amounts to a renovation of historical teachings about original sin (especially drawing upon Augustine of Hippo), although thinkers generally avoided forensic interpretations of it and consequential elaborations about total depravity, as was favored by past generations in formulating dogma and—by extension—hierarchical systems of ecclesiastical domination. The means of supposed transmission of sin is not anywhere as important as its pervasive reality, to neo-orthodox minds. As such, the association of original sin with sexuality produces nothing but moralism, a rectitude that is overly optimistic and quite delusional about human capabilities to resist the power of unfaith and disobedience in all areas of life, not just sexual behavior. This core conviction about the universality and intransigence of sin has elements of determinism, and thus has caused considerable offense to those holding that human beings are capable of effecting their salvation wholly or in part (i.e., synergism). In other words, neo-orthodoxy might be said to have a greater appreciation of tragedy in human existence than either conservatism or liberalism, a point emphasized by a latter-day interpreter of the movement, Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall.

Relation to other theologies

Neo-orthodoxy is distinct from both liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism, but it cannot properly be considered a mediating position between the two, although some interpreters have tried to press it into that role. Neo-orthodoxy draws from various Protestant theological heritages (primarily Lutheran and Calvinist ones) in an attempt to rehabilitate Christian dogmas largely outside the restraints of Enlightenment thought. However, its adherents saw no value at all in rehabilitating tradition for its own sake, unlike confessionalist or fundamentalist reactions to subjectivist, individualist approaches (past or present) to the Christian faith. The doctrinal heritage of Protestantism's past is used only to the degree that said tradition affirms the living Word of God in Jesus Christ; propositions in and of themselves, whether from the Biblical text or from human statements of faith, are not sufficient to build theology upon, in their eyes. Also, in the political pursuit of social justice and intellectual freedom and honesty, the neo-orthodox, unlike the conservatives they were accused by detractors of resembling, often made practical alliances with liberals, as both groups shared a deep hostility to authoritarianism of any kind, in both church and state.

The broadness of the term "neo-orthodox", however, has led to its abandonment as a useful classification, especially after new emphases in mainline Protestant theology appeared during the 1960s. These included the "Death of God" movement, which attacked the linguistic and cultural foundations of all previous theology, and a renewal of interest among Biblical scholars in the so-called "historical Jesus," something which neo-orthodox theologians largely dismissed as irrelevant to serious Christian faith. However, some of the movement's positions and worldviews would inform later movements such as liberation theology during the 1970s and 1980s and postliberalism during the 1990s and 2000s, although distinct theologically and ethically from both (i.e., liberationist use of Marxist conceptual analysis and narrativist dependence upon virtue theory, none of which is found in most older neo-orthodox thought).

Influence upon American Protestantism

From its inception, this school of thought has largely been unacceptable to Protestant evangelicalism, since neo-orthodoxy generally accepts biblical criticism and has remained mostly silent on the perceived conflicts caused by evolutionary science, and in espousing these two viewpoints, it retains at least some aspects of 19th-century liberal theology.[7] This is in keeping with its stated aim not to commit to specific theories of verbal inspiration of the Bible, seeing them utterly subordinate (if important at all) to the transformative event of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.[citation needed]

Although a few evangelicals have sought a rapport with neo-orthodoxy, most notably the Americans Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm, they have convinced very few on either side that the two positions are compatible enough to form a working relationship.[citation needed] One reason for this is that evangelicalism, in keeping with its aims to produce conversion experiences, is far more concerned with the accessibility of its ideas to a large audience, as opposed to the primarily academic approach (i.e., paradox, irony), and thus intellectual difficulty, neo-orthodoxy espouses.[citation needed] In fact, some neo-orthodox thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr have accused evangelicals of over-simplifying biblical interpretation and complex doctrines in order to intimidate hearers into accepting the faith.[citation needed] In so doing, they are accused of often totally ignoring aspects of the Bible not immediately related to soteriology or personal morality, such as the prophets' denunciation of Israel's pride and spiritual complacency and the Pauline understanding of the human predicament, of human inability to measure up fully to the standards of divine righteousness and justice.[citation needed]

The movement achieved its greatest receptivity in the U.S. during the mid-20th century, primarily within denominational traditions stemming from Reformation heritages such as those bodies of Presbyterianism and Lutheranism not professing strict confessionalism, and, to a lesser extent, the predecessor denominations of the present United Church of Christ. It was less influential among mainline Protestant groups with an Arminian theological orientation, such as the Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Northern Baptists, with many pastors in these denominations opting to continue the traditions of American religious liberalism (while others firmly took their stands with evangelicalism).[citation needed] Generally speaking, it had a far greater following among ministers than laypeople, and within the clergy ranks, primarily among theological educators.

Recent critical scholarship

German scholars since the 1990s have warned English-speaking (i.e., "the Anglo-American world") scholarship against too serious[clarification needed] an application of neo-orthodoxy as a theological paradigm, calling such use a "neo-orthodox reading" or "neo-orthodox misreading" of a theologian's work, especially that of Karl Barth.[8] Viewing Barth, his predecessors, and his contemporaries' work in terms of historical forces and in relation to various earlier, shared, or later theological movements (e.g., theological paradigms) has, however, been and remains a valid method of scholarship.[9][clarification needed]

Important figures of the movement


  1. ^ Torrance, Thomas (2001). The Ground and Grammar of Theology. Great Britian: T&T Clark Ltd. pp. 89. ISBN 0-567-04331-2. 

Further reading

* Ford, D. (2005). The Modern Theologians, 3rd Ed. Blackwell Publishing ISBN 1-4051-0277-2

* Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (2000). An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000 ISBN 0-567-29054-9

* Busch, E. (1976). Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 0-8028-0708-9

* Hall, D. J. (1998) Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of "Neo-Orthodoxy". Louisville, Westminster John Knox. ISBN 0-664-25772-0

* Hauerwas, S. (2001). With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, Brazos Press. ISBN 1-58743-016-9

* Hordern, William. (1959). The Case for a New Reformation Theology. Philadelphia, Westminster Press.

* McCormack, B. (1995). Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. New York, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-826337-6

* Sloan, Douglas (1994). Faith and Knowledge. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 0-664-22866-6

* Tillich, P. (1951). Systematic Theology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

* Tracy, D. (1988). Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. San Francisco, Harper & Row. ISBN 0-8164-2202-8

See also

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