Back to Luther and Calvin!” Many readers will, no doubt, recall this striking slogan with which Karl Barth began his amazing career as a militant theologian about forty years ago. Though still greatly influenced by theological humanism, neo-Kantian negativism, Kierkegaardian existentialism, Ragazian religious socialism and other anti-biblical trends of his day; and though still under the spell of Ritschl and Schleiermacher, he judged it necessary to skip the whole century of bankrupt theology that lay behind him and return to the writings of Luther and Calvin to gain a firm footing for his dialectical methodology. With his strong Calvinist background and his assiduous study of Luther, he found that to recover a theology worth listening to he had to re-examine the fundamentals of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and utilize basic religious premises which had largely been overlooked by later European theologians.

Today, when Barth has passed the age of seventy and has virtually flooded the religious book market with his pronunciamentos, we may well gauge the result of his new theological research. His type of theology, accepted in its major premises by Brunner, Thurneysen, Gogarten and many other followers, has been termed, quite expressively, “neo-orthodoxy.” But the new orthodoxy of the dialectical school is agreeable neither to liberals nor to conservatives. It is not new since it goes back to Kierkegaard, nor is it orthodox in the sense of the Protestant Reformation. For his theological insights and guidelines Barth went back neither to Luther nor to Calvin; and much less so did Brunner, whose theological orientation has been rather toward Anglo-Saxon liberalism.

The Failure Of Neo-Orthodoxy

That does not mean that Barth has not evinced some paramount religious emphases which wholesomely affected modern theological thought. He applied the dialectical method with great skill to demonstrate the “wholly-otherness,” or transcendence of God over against the humanists’ conceited and overbearing deification of reason. At the same time he proved finite man’s total helplessness in the realm of the spiritual. God is in heaven and man on earth. That means that God is so far removed from man as heaven is removed from earth. Therefore, even the greatest intellectual titans can never storm heaven and dethrone God despite all their frantic endeavors. On the contrary, sinful man must humbly and penitently put his trust in the sovereign God, though he cannot comprehend the transcendent Lord. He must have faith even if that faith means for him a jump into a vacuum. In that sense Barth, in his dialectical way, emphasized the reality and necessity of divine grace.

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Basis Of Impact

In a world lost in theological nihilism and religious despair, these three basic truths readily received a hearing. There was something positive about them and what is more, there was something distinctively Calvinist in them. With the help of these three Genevan fundamentals Barth built up a religious system in which the dialectic method was decisive, but in which also theology became a religious philosophy. Its very method brought about the fall of neo-orthodoxy into heterodoxy. It turned Barthian theologizing back again into the old rationalizing liberal channels of which the world long before had become weary. It took from it its alleged newness and made it old in the sense that it was essentially only a repetition, though in another form, of what Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Hermann, together with many others, had said before Barth. So also it turned Barthianism away from the orthodoxy of the Reformation, for it deprived Christendom of its message of the sola scriptura and the sola gratia. That may appear as a very severe indictment of neo-orthodoxy, and such indeed it is; nevertheless, it is true. Neo-orthodoxy, in the final analysis, has neither a sure, divine foundation on which the Christian believer may rest his faith, nor has it the infallible Biblical redemptive message on which the distressed penitent soul may firmly fix its hope of a sure salvation. Neo-orthodoxy ultimately has words only—learned words, unintelligible words, confusing words—with no clear and unmistakable meaning for those desiring assurance of salvation. In that sense Barthianism is a bit of theological Barnum.

Neo-Orthodoxy Has No Sola Scriptura

What the Reformers of the sixteenth century so earnestly contended for against the hopeless confusion of Romanism, was a firm divine foundation on which the believer might rest his faith. This they found in the Bible and only in the Bible. They discarded the Apocrypha as human writings, though Luther was ready to grant them the dignity of listing them as profitable reading for mature believers, which of course they are only in part. Luther also accepted the ancient church distinction of biblical homologumena and antilegomena, i.e., books universally acknowledged as of apostolic origin and such whose apostolic authorship was contested.

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But both Wittenberg and Geneva attested with one accord that the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament are the divinely inspired Word of God and as such the objective divine truth and the divine infallible source and norm of faith and life. In this positive confession they followed the witness of Christ, his apostles and the post-apostolic Christian Church till the induration of Romanism at the Council of Trent and, in the Protestant area, till the blight of crass rationalism. Romanism added the Apocrypha and tradition to the biblical canon, while crass rationalism totally denied the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Both dethroned the Bible as the only divine and infallible source and norm of faith and life.

It Is Written

At the time when Christ, our divine Lord, was about his prophetic ministry, the Old Testament canon was complete, and that biblical canon was precisely the Old Testament which orthodox Jews and Christians use today, consisting of the Law and the Prophets, or to use the term employed in the synagogue, the Torah, the Nebiim, and the Ketubim. It is significant that both Christ and his chief Jewish opponents, the Pharisees, accepted the Old Testament Scriptures as God’s Word and, therefore, as divinely authoritative. In that sense our Lord quoted Gen. 1:27; 2:24 when, in Matt. 19:3ff., he rebuked the Pharisees because of their marital infidelity. Nor did these learned scribes contest these passages; they rather admitted them as fully valid to serve as proof texts. Even Satan, when tempting Jesus, submitted to the authoritative value of the Old Testament Scriptures which our Saviour quoted against him (Matt. 4:1ff). Precisely so, St. Paul quoted the Old Testament Scriptures as, for example, in his letter to the Galatians, where he cited them against the Judaizers in this defense of the sola fide. Nor did the Judaizers contest his Old Testament Scripture proof. They too accepted the Old Testament Scriptures as God’s infallible Word.

In the New Testament St. Paul quotes his own apostolic writings as “the commandment of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). In Ephesians 2:20 he places the writings of the New Testament apostles of Christ on the same high authoritative level as those of the divinely inspired prophets of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:16), just as does St. Peter in 1 Pet. 1:10–12. Thus from the time of Christ and his apostles till the Romanist defection from Scripture and the rationalistic repudiation of Scripture, the Christian Church has always regarded the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament as the Word of God, and so as the divinely established source and norm of faith and life. Just so today thousands of Christian believers esteem the sacred Scriptures as God’s inspired Word and the objective divine truth upon which believers in Christ may safely rest their faith. To every Christian believer, for example, John 3:16 is the divinely inspired Word of God, not in the sense of Barthianism nor in that of Modernism, but in that of the Bible’s own teaching and testimony. And just that was the biblical viewpoint of the Protestant Reformation.

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Where Neo-Orthodoxy Fails

It is claimed for Barthianism that it takes seriously what is meant by the “Word of God.” This statement of E. L. Allen in his brief overview of Barthian theology, A Guide to the Thought of Karl Barth (p. 10), has had the support also of conservative writers. According to Allen, Barth believes that “the Bible is the record of what God thinks about men, not of what men have thought about God” (ibid.). But he adds: “This return to Calvinism is not a return to Fundamentalism. The Word of God teaches us through the Bible, but is not bound thereto. God is free to speak as, when, and to whom he wills” (p. 13). “In the Bible we have the witness of the apostles of Jesus Christ and also, though in a somewhat different sense, that of the prophets: this is always a human witness and as such is never infallible, but is always conditioned by the circumstances of the time” (p. 14). Those who have read Barth’s voluminous works must admit that these statements correctly present Barth’s view of the Word of God. In fact, they are understatements rather than overstatements. Barth has repeatedly and emphatically favored the “murderous” method of the destructive higher critics. Let them tear the sacred Scriptures to pieces as much as they like, the Bible still remains the Word of God, not indeed in the objective sense of traditional Christian theology, but in the subjective sense of dialectical theology, namely inasmuch as God speaks to an individual through the fallible word of man, either in the Scriptures or outside them.

Denial Of Objective Truth

When we ask how the fallible testimony of man can serve the believer as the Word of God, Barth’s reply is: “Through the fallible witness of man God speaks personally to us and claims us for his service” (p. 14). In C. E. Luthardt’s Kompendium der Dogmatik, the reviser and editor of the 13th edition, Dr. Robert Jelke, puts Barth’s view of the Word of God thus: “God’s word is his address to man (Gottes Wort ist das Angesprochenwerden des Menschen durch Gott). Jelke adds to this: “Barth’s definition deals alone with the formal aspect of God’s Word and totally excludes its content” (p. 53). This means that the fallible witness of the biblical writers becomes the Word of God to a person only when through it God impresses upon an individual his own special Word. And since God’s existential address is not limited to the Bible, he may approach a person through any other agency which he wishes to make for him the medium of his revelation. Barth thus removes from the Christian believer the Bible as the only objective divine truth and the sure foundation of his faith. Ultimately Barth’s theological system leads to an insecure subjectivism and so finally to the denial of all objective divine truth. Neo-orthodoxy does not have the sola scriptura of the Protestant Reformation, in spite of whatever it may declare to the contrary.

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The Cry For Religious Certainty

This, then, is the first point at which neo-orthodoxy fails our despairing modern world, which cries out for religious certainty and full assurance of salvation. The Reformers of the sixteenth century declared the Holy Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and so the objective divine truth. Of this divine truth, they held, the believer is made sure personally through the witness of the Holy Spirit. It has been said that while Luther taught that the Holy Spirit witnesses through the divine Word, Calvin’s claim was that he witnesses in connection with the divine Word. Ultimately both ascribed the certainty of salvation through faith in Christ to the Holy Spirit, working by or with the divine Word. Both accepted St. Paul’s words as true: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Both accepted as divinely true also Christ’s promise: “The Spirit … will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).

It is therefore at this point that all who desire to help our truth-seeking world find certainty of salvation must go back to the Reformation. Let them preach the Word of God, as Holy Scripture sets it forth objectively and infallibly in its full truth, the divine Law for the knowledge of sin and the Gospel for the forgiveness of sin. Then they will assure our perishing world of the divine truth that is revealed in Christ Jesus for the salvation of sinners, for then the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth. The searching soul, hungry for the divine truth and the assurance of his salvation, does not care what Schleiermacher thinks, or what Ritschl thinks, or what Fosdick thinks, or what Barth and Brunner think; he wants a surer foundation on which to rest his faith than the religious philosophy of men. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit he rests his faith only on the glorious Gospel promises of God as they are clearly stated in the divine, infallible sacred Scriptures, which are the inspired Word of God. Cornelius Van Til, after all, was right when he judged neo-orthodoxy to be a new form of liberalism, and he was supported in this view by Charles Clayton Morrison, as we shall show later. The dialectical theology of Karl Barth overthrows the sola scriptura of the Reformation as surely as does Modernism.

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Neo-Orthodoxy Has No Sola Gratia

This proposition may be contested still more than the one that neo-orthodoxy has no sola scriptura. Barth, as has been said emphatically, has gone far to restore the doctrine of divine grace promulgated by the Protestant Reformation. In a way Barthianism has restored divine grace, but in the same breath it has also overthrown it; for it is the very essence of dialectical theologizing to say yes and no at the same time. By the paradox of yes and no the dialectic method seeks to establish the truth. But in theology one cannot say yes and no at the same time. Abelard tried it, and failed, and so all have failed who walked in his footsteps. The fact that Barth is unable to teach the sola gratia of the Protestant Reformation is clear from the fact that he does not accept the New Testament teaching of the Christ of the Scriptures. It is true that at various times he has shifted his emphases and modified his earlier pronouncements, but essentially the Barth of today is still the Barth of the Roemerbrief, for the fundamentals of the dialectic method have remained the same.

Vague On Atonement

In his book, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth makes the statement, “Jesus Christ is also the Rabbi of Nazareth, historically, so difficult to get information about, and when it is got, one whose activity is so easily a little commonplace alongside more than one founder of a religion and even alongside many representatives of his own religion” (p. 188). That Christ of Barth is certainly not the Christ of the Holy Scriptures who declared himself to be one with the Father, and the divine Saviour who laid down his life as a ransom for many. Again, when Barth speaks of Christ’s Atonement, his views are so vague and difficult to understand that Dr. Carl F. H. Henry (in The Protestant Dilemma) is justified in stating that “neo-supernaturalistic thought on the Atonement is a difficult study” (p. 159). Barth, for example, writes: “With the doctrine of the atonement we come to the real center … of dogmatics and church proclamation.… The Word of God and therefore God’s Son Jesus Christ as the Word of atonement is the sovereignty of God asserting itself all the more emphatically and gloriously against the opposition of man” (Dogmatics as a Function of the Teaching Church. 2. The Dogmatic Method, p. 882). The reader asks himself: What does that mean? Does it mean what St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18–21? If so, why does he not say it as clearly as St. Paul has said it?

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Brunner Goes Farther

Brunner goes much farther in repudiating the Christian doctrine of Atonement when in The Mediator he writes: “The atonement is not history. The atonement, the expiation of human guilt, the covering of sin through his sacrifice, is not anything which can be conceived from the viewpoint of history. This event does not belong to the historical plane.… It would be absurd to say: in the year 30 the atonement of the world took place” (p. 504). The fact that Brunner totally rejects the Christian doctrine of Atonement in its biblical historical sense, is proved also by his rejection of Christ’s Resurrection as an event in history. He writes in The Mediator: “Whosoever asserts that the New Testament gives us a definite consistent account of the Resurrection is either ignorant or unconscientious” (p. 577). But Brunner, after all, is quite in accord with Barth on this point who writes in The Resurrection of the Dead: “This tomb may prove to be definitely closed or an empty tomb; it is really a matter of indifference. What avails the tomb, proved to be this or that, at Jerusalem in the year A. D. 30?” (p. 135).

But by denying Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection in the historical sense of Scripture and the Christian tradition, Barth and Brunner are unable to teach the sola gratia, i.e., the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, in the sense of the Protestant Reformation. Without the actual, historical, atoning death of Christ and his triumphant Resurrection there is no divine grace for sinners and no assurance of their eternal salvation. To one who compares neo-orthodoxy and its unintelligible, contradictory pronouncements with the clear and simple Gospel message of Holy Scripture, it appears as a blasphemous mockery of the precious Gospel of Christ. (To such as look for a brief and simple, yet reliable guide to neo-orthodoxy we recommend Charles E. Tulga’s The Case Against Neo-Orthodoxy.)

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Back To The Reformation

Karl Barth has not returned to the Reformation, but, using fundamentals stressed by the Reformers, has elaborated them into a new form of liberalism or rather into a new form of liberal religious philosophy. Charles Clayton Morrison stressed this fact years ago when he wrote in Christian Century: “To identify this new theological movement as a revival of the orthodoxy of the traditional creeds represents a failure to discern its most inward characteristics. It is true that neo-orthodoxy comes out at numerous points where orthodoxy came out, but it reaches its goal by routes with which the old orthodoxy was quite unfamiliar.… Virtually all the outstanding exponents of neo-orthodoxy came to their positions by way of liberalism. They were liberals before they were neo-orthodox” (June 7, 1950).

Neo-orthodoxy, with its inherent liberalism and its manifest departure from the Christian doctrine of Scripture and God’s grace in Christ Jesus, has no redeeming message for a world seeking assurance of salvation. But it does teach Christendom an important lesson. Modernism has no solution for the penitent person who cries out, “What must I do to be saved?” It has rejected both the divine Christ and his divine Gospel in toto. But neither can a halfway measure like neo-orthodoxy satisfy the pitiful cry of a sin-weary world, because what is halfway for Christ is not for him, but against him.

The One Solution

The only help for the world in its worst predicament lies in the preaching of Christ and him crucified and risen, a stumbling block to the Jew and stupidity to the Greek, but to all who believe, God’s power and God’s wisdom. Religious systems built up by men are bound to fail. But the Christ of Calvary and the open grave will never fail those who are weary and heavy-laden. That explains the continued existence of the believing “communion of saints.” That explains also the preaching of the pure saving Gospel of Christ by thousands of loyal followers of our Lord at all times. That explains lastly the many conversions and gains for church membership wherever the Gospel is preached today as St. Paul preached it and as our Lord himself preached it: the simple joyous message of man’s redemption and salvation by the atoning Christ, with all its stumbling blocks and absurdities for conceited human reason, but also with all its divine power to convince multitudes of truth-hungry and salvation-seeking souls that it is God’s wisdom. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).

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J. Theodore Mueller is a Lutheran scholar who served Concordia Seminary (Missouri Lutheran) for a generation as Professor of Systematic Theology and Exegesis. He began lectures at Concordia in 1920 and now, in his 72nd year, continues on modified service.

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