Neo-orthodoxy

A loose term used to designate certain forms of twentieth-century Protestant theology which have sought to recover the distinctive insights and themes of the Reformation. The latter are seen as relevant to our modern predicament and as an essential part of the church's witness. Nevertheless, they require some restatement in the light of modern knowledge. The term is generally used by those who would not identify themselves with such a theology, either because it seems to deviate too much from the orthodoxy of the Reformation theologians and the classical Protestant confessions of faith, or because it is too narrowly orthodox.

The term indicates a reaction against the liberalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with its reduction of Christian faith to general human and religious truths and moral values, and its relativization of Christianity through historical criticism and theories of the history of religions. By contrast, Neoorthodoxy represents an attempt to recover biblical perspectives. Stress is laid (in varying degrees) on the transcendence of God, man's responsibility as a creature, sin and guilt, the uniqueness of Christ as mediator of revelation and grace, and personal encounter with God in revelation.

These themes were sounded by the Dialectical Theology* or Theology of Crises of the twenties and thirties. They were given almost classic expression in Barth's* commentary on Romans (1919). God is seen as the Wholly Other who is not to be identified with anything in the world. He breaks into our world like a vertical line intersecting a horizontal plane in the person of Jesus Christ. But even so He remains incognito, for to encounter Jesus on a merely human level is to know only the man. God is hidden in Him even in the act of revelation. Full revelation occurs only in the risen Christ. Its truth is not perceived on the level of historical investigation, but through encounter by faith. Christ's coming is also the crisis of judgment of the world. It is both the revelation of God and the revelation of man's sin. This act of judgment is also the means of grace.

A Catholic theologian described Barth's work as a bomb falling on the happy playground of the theologians. The liberal historian Harnack* regarded Barth's teaching as unscientific theology. Nevertheless, Barth found himself at the head of a theological revival in Europe. He soon, however, modified his position and eventually abandoned Dialectical Theology. He spoke of the Kantian-Platonic crust which had encased his teaching. After various revisions, he felt his views of the 1920s were still too much influenced by Kierkegaard* and existentialism.* His stress on the difference between God and man was replaced by a doctrine of analogy, albeit one that could only be known by faith through revelation. At the same time Barth continued to distinguish his view of revelation from that of Protestant orthodoxy. He felt that the latter stressed revealed truth and the verbal inspiration of Scripture, whereas he wished to stress that revelation is essentially God revealing Himself in Christ, even though this is human only through the witness of the biblical writers. In his later teaching, especially in the Church Dogmatics, Barth paid particular attention to the exegesis of Scripture and the great theologians of the church.

The teaching of Emil Brunner* tended in a similar direction, though their latent differences came into the open through their dispute over natural theology in 1934. Brunner accused Barth of going too far in denying that man had no knowledge of God apart from that mediated by Christ. He urged that man must have some knowledge which would serve as a ready-made point of contact for the Gospel. He saw grounds for this in the image of God in man and man's awareness of such divine institutions as the state and marriage. Brunner pleaded for a new, reformed natural theology, but his case remained unconvincing in view of the concessions he was willing to make to Barth. Brunner's teaching on revelation focused on the element of divine, personal encounter and attacked even more strongly than Barth the concept of objective, revealed truth.

Also associated with Dialectical Theology were Rudolf Bultmann* and Friedrich Gogarten.* But whereas Barth and Brunner developed theologies which had a framework of biblical theism, Bultmann and Gogarten sought to reinterpret biblical themes in terms of an existential philosophy. The former were primarily concerned with exegesis, the latter with a radical demythologizing hermeneutic. Paul Tillich* has also been considered to be Neoorthodox. His sermons, in particular, are often concerned with biblical themes. But his Systematic Theology makes it clear that the basis of his thought is his existential ontology. In the USA, Reinhold Niebuhr* has been regarded as Neoorthodox in view of his use of biblical categories in his moral philosophy and interpretation of history. But in their different ways both Tillich and Niebuhr are more concerned with what they conceive to be the underlying principles of Protestantism than with a modern restatement of a corpus of doctrine.

E. Brunner, The Theology of Crisis (1929); J. Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (1939); H. Bouillard, Karl Barth (3 vols., 1957); P.K. Jewett, “Neo- Orthodoxy” in Baker's Dictionary of Theology (ed. E.F. Harrison, 1960); T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth: an Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-31 (1962); J. Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (1963); H. Gollwitzer, The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (1965); J. Moltmann (ed.), Anfänge der dialektischen Theologie (2 vols., 1966-67); P.E. Hughes, Creative Minds in Comtemporary Theology (2nd ed., 1969); W. Nicholls, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, vol. 1 (1969); J. Pelikan (ed.), Twentieth Century Theology in the Making (3 vols., 1969-70); C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (2nd ed., 1971).