The term "neo-orthodoxy" refers to a 20th century movement among Protestant theologians -- in the United States and in Europe -- that emerged following the bloody carnage of World War I. The disillusionment that several Christian theologians -- and millions of others impacted by the War -- experienced led to a rejection of the liberal Christian movement which had urged the adaptation of an ongoing sense of optimism that seemed to cling to the literal translation and understanding of the Bible. Some parts of the Bible simply could not be true, according to neo-orthodoxy, and this point-of-view continues today albeit not under the neo-orthodoxy movement per se.
This paper reviews the tenets of neo-orthodoxy and embraces the writings and the philosophies of notable theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Reinhold Niebuhr. These theologians are linked by their understanding of neo-orthodoxy, and by their advocacy of neo-orthodoxy; however, each has a unique way of expressing neo-orthodoxy and those differences will be pointed out in this paper.
It is generally agreed among scholars and historians that Barth was the originator of neo-orthodoxy. Barth raised serious questions about liberal theology which in the 1930s emphasized "God's accessibility and equated humankind's work with God's activity" (von Dehsen, 2013). Among the many positions that Barth took in his writings from his German homeland was his thorough rejection of nationalism and socialism. Author Carys Moseley explains that in order to understand Barth one must be informed as to Barth's writings in the 1930s, when Germany was being taken over by the Nazis and Hitler's main theme was wrapped around the concept of nationalism. Barth viewed nationalism as "a form of idolatry that is contrary to the Christian gospel" and hence nationalism must be "resisted in all its forms" (Moseley, 2013). Barth battled with the German Lutheran church, which cooperated in many respects with Nazi ideology (von Dehsen, 23).
As to Barth's neo-orthodoxy, Professor Douglas John Hall writes that even those that disagreed with Barth had to admit that his "new theology" was indeed new and worth attempting to understand what it entailed. Barth's neo-orthodoxy became "…the cutting edge of Christian thought throughout the first half…" of the 20th century (Hall, 1998). From roughly 1910 to 1960, Hall explains, Barth's views on Christianity and his rejection of so-called liberalism within the theologian community was among the more dominant viewpoints.
Barth's neo-orthodoxy represented the thought that the Bible was "not God's revelation, but the record of that revelation, which was Jesus Christ himself" (von Dehsen, 23). Barth believed that liberal views -- God could be understood through "reason or human religious experience" -- were incorrect; he asserted that "Religion is the enemy of faith" (von Dehsen, 23). In other words, Barth's no-orthodoxy rejected religious dogma and the literal translation of the Bible. This is a valid and believable stance, because the Bible was in fact written by humans, who were subjectively interpreting what they saw and heard and believed
Like Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed with Christian liberals on their views of human nature and their literal translation of the stories in the Bible. In the Introduction to Niebuhr's book, Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen points out that while Niebuhr showed an "unrelenting" opposition to Christian liberalism, ironically, he was "more liberal than neo-orthodox, and he knew it" (Rasmussen, 1981). He was aware, Rasmussen continues, that his attacks against Christian liberalism were not always qualified by the facts, and he was surprised when critics of his theological positions "lumped him with…neo-orthodox theologians like Emil Brunner and Karl Barth" (22).
"…I have never thought of myself in their category…whenever I read them or argue with them, Brunner for instance, I always feel that they are trying to fit life into a dogmatic mold…'" (Rasmussen, quoting Niebuhr, p. 22). In fact even though Niebuhr did have a different approach to neo-orthodoxy than Barth, Niebuhr often expressed "revulsion against acculturated religion" and he rejected the liberal view of "human perfectibility and the inevitability of progress" (Rasmussen, 23).
"Barth has long since ceased to have any effect on my thought," and Barth has become "…irrelevant to all Christians in the Western world…" (Niebuhr quoted by Thomas McCollough, 1963). According to McCollough, writing in The Journal of Religion, Niebuhr was influenced by Barth's theology in "earlier years" but in his later years Niebuhr rejected that theology completely, McCollough explains (49). There is no harm in changing one's position on important matters, so Niebuhr cannot be faulted for an evolving philosophy away from Barth; in fact, very few deep thinkers stay within one philosophical position throughout their lives. That said, it is true that Niebuhr shared viewpoints with Barth when it comes to how liberals perceived the Bible, Christ, God and the Church.
This Swiss theologian was a very influential writer and speaker who -- like Karl Barth -- challenged the liberal leaders of Christian theology. Brunner proclaimed that the Christian faith is based on encounters between humans and God. Brunner challenged Barth on a number of issues, including the question of natural theology. Professor Alister McGrath writes that Brunner believed faith was like "seeing in the dark" and like Martin Luther, Brunner saw the "leap of faith" that Christians had to make a "divine-grounded and divinely supported insight" (McGrath, 2013).
When Brunner wrote that humans will always have a hard time to actually "know God fully and properly by natural means," that reflected his understanding of human sin, as it applies to the question of salvation (McGrath, 48). In taking a stand against liberal Christian thought, Brunner argued that the liberals in the late 19th century were forcing a "wedge between primitive Christianity" and the more traditional understanding of atonement, McGrath continues on page 49.
Like other theologians that embraced neo-orthodoxy, Brunner rejected dogmas, and wondered how a dogma that a given denomination has adopted could possibly provide "theological reflection" (McGrath, 49). In other words, a dogma allows no wiggle room for philosophical or theological discussions about God, the Trinity, the Bible, and how Christ fits into the picture, according to Brunner. In fact Brunner believed that the Trinity (the doctrine of the Trinity) was more of an "historical contingency" instead of a "theological necessity" (McGrath, 53). "The doctrine of the Trinity does not explain anything" according to Brunner, and it was "never intended to"; in fact the doctrine of the Trinity can be seen, according to Brunner, as an attempt to "safeguard a mystery," and it is more likely designed to be something that can never be "fully comprehended" (McGrath, 53).
In a book by John W. Hart, the author describes Barth as having stressed the "divine object" in Christianity while Brunner emphasizes "the human subject" (Hart, 2007). The two theologians represented "two fundamentally different ways" of approaching theology, which is of course perfectly legitimate in the context of theology and philosophy. Brunner was "doing theology in a way that is in fact, doing no theology at all," according to Barth (Hart, 285). The proper articulation of the "God is God and God is God" motif must have a "corresponding 'creature is creature and creature is creature' motif, Hart explains on page 285.
It should be noted that like Barth, Brunner was outraged by the horrors and atrocities of World War I; and moreover Brunner found the "modern, totalitarian, atheistic and collectivist state" even more repugnant than WWI (Aton Institute). Hence, Brunner felt "compelled to formulate a comprehensive system of Christian social ethics" that were biblical, reformed, and very personal (Aton Institute).
In the book 20th-Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, the authors assert that Bultmann was "unlike the other major articulators of neo-orthodoxy" because Bultmann was a scholar of the New Testament rather than a "systematic theologian" (Grenz, et al., 2010). By focusing on the New Testament with an "existentialist interpretation," Bultmann believed (and advocated) that the New Testament was indeed "God's word" that called out to each human being to have faith and believe.
While the two theologians had serious differences, Bultmann did see himself as an ally of Barth in the sense that both challenged liberalism, believing neo-orthodoxy to be the more relevant approach to God and faith. Bultmann believed (as Barth did) that the human person should be the center of theology, not necessarily God. After all, God was a mysterious power beyond the range of human discovery, and people were capable of serious, deep thought and beliefs, and hence, theology should be focused on what God wants humans to do and on how humans can respond to God's revelation (Grenz, 87).
In that context, God's Word was intended for humans to heed, and the New Testament was God's Word brought to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, hence, Bultmann's focus on the New Testament. That having been said, Bultmann went "beyond Barth" by interpreting the divine words of God in "terms of the human situation," which he viewed…