Neo-orthodoxy emerged as a theological force in Europe in the 1930s, and in America in the 1940s and 1950s. It never really took root in America and was already in decline in the later 1950s. The American version of neo-orthodoxy actually incorporated many liberal motifs, and in its purer version it found only a few supporters, e.g., William Hordern, Arthur Cochrane, Kenneth Hamilton, Philip Watson, Paul Lehmann, and Joseph Haroutunian. Of these several are Canadian and one is English.

By neo-orthodoxy I mean that great theological movement in Europe, beginning after the First World War, which emphasized the biblical revelation and the uniqueness of the mediation of Jesus Christ. In its earlier phase it was known as the dialectical theology and the theology of crisis. At one time Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich were loosely associated with it, though they properly belong in the category of neo-liberalism. Its most noted exponents in Europe were Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Others who moved in its sphere of influence were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hendrik Kraemer, Edward Thurneysen, Helmut Gollwitzer, J. K. S. Reid, Daniel Jenkins, and Thomas Torrance. Anders Nygren and Gustaf Wingren might also be mentioned, though they belong more to the neo-Lutheran camp. In America the Niebuhr brothers were identified with the new mood. Reinhold Niebuhr himself should perhaps be seen as a chastened liberal who had one foot in orthodoxy, particularly in his doctrine of man.

Neo-orthodoxy reaffirmed the faith of the Protestant Reformation and took issue with both Protestant scholasticism and neo-Protestant liberalism. It criticized the naïve optimism associated with the belief in progress and the perfectibility of man. It called the Church back to the authority of the Word of God and with the Protestant Reformers stressed the sovereignty of divine grace and the historical particularity of revelation. In contrast to fundamentalism it accepted the principle of the historical criticism of the Bible but insisted that critical methods cannot give us the Word of God. The Word of God is known only as God gives himself to be known in the Scriptures.

Jacques Ellul and Thomas Torrance are perhaps the best-known representatives of this movement today, though they are admittedly minority voices and some of their emphases indicate new departures. Moltmann and a few of the death-of-God theologians were influenced in their earlier years by neo-orthodoxy, especially Barthianism, but they have veered in very different directions. Pannenberg with his emphasis on reason before faith represents a quite different orientation from the mainstream of neo-orthodoxy.

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That neo-orthodoxy is now in decline is attested by the fact that theological students are generally no longer familiar with the writings of Barth and Brunner. Reinhold Niebuhr is known principally through some of his early ethical writings, and Bonhoeffer’s continuing though waning influence rests on his Letters and Papers From Prison. In his Biblical Theology in Crisis Brevard Childs laments the fact that Barth and Brunner are virtually ignored in the circles of biblical theology. The new emphasis on the spiritual life and the experiential and mystical dimensions of the faith has propelled men like Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin to the fore, but there may again come a time when the neo-orthodox theologians will be recognized and appreciated.

Its Weaknesses

Every movement has built-in weaknesses that contribute to its demise. For a time neo-orthodoxy was able to recover the truths of the Protestant Reformation, but its break with the Enlightenment was not complete. Though critical of the biblical-classical synthesis that characterized medieval theology, the neo-orthodox theologians too sought to come to terms with the modern world. Even Barth, who tried to regain the integrity of theology and its independence from philosophy, was influenced to a high degree by such philosophical movements as Platonism, Kantianism, and existentialism.

The universalistic tendency, which is very evident in Barthianism and somewhat evident in Bonhoeffer and the Niebuhrs, blurred the moral dualism in the New Testament with its contrast between faith and unbelief, the Church and the world, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. For Barth, every person is a child of God by virtue of being adopted into God’s family through the universal atonement of Christ. For him the whole world is in the kingdom of Christ, and this means that the state is now also in the order of redemption. He admits that the logic of his position leads to the assertion that the very body of Christ includes and unites all men. In Bonhoeffer’s view there are no longer two kingdoms but one, since “the whole reality of the world is already drawn into Christ and bound together in Him.” The dualistic perspective of the New Testament is still to be found in the writings of Emil Brunner, though he calls into question the idea of a twofold destiny for man.

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Other signs of neo-orthodoxy’s accommodation to the modern world view are its devaluation of the supernatural and the miraculous (even Barth wavered), its de-emphasis of the sacraments, and its underplaying of the inspiration of Scripture (revelation is in events, not in words or ideas). We also should take note of its deep reservations regarding religious experience. For Barth, Christianity signifies the abolition of religion, and Bonhoeffer sought to give a nonreligious interpretation of the faith. Not surprisingly, neo-orthodoxy minimized the spiritual disciplines of devotion, though Bonhoeffer certainly made a place for them in his Life Together.

In short neo-orthodoxy was not sufficiently evangelical primarily because it embraced a universalistic soteriology, and as a result the imperatives of the Christian mission to a lost world were eclipsed. In this same universalistic approach it was not able to maintain the Reformation doctrine of sola fide, though all its spokesmen affirm this concept.

Nor was it sufficiently catholic. By playing down the sacraments and the authority of the Church, it lost sight of the visible means and aids by which the Holy Spirit comes to us. By insisting that all share in the wider ministry of Christ it failed to do justice to the special, apostolic ministry of the Word and sacraments. Its criticism of natural-law ethics was to be expected, but in its reaction ethical principles it was unable to avoid a subjectivism especially in the realm of personal morality. What is required is an evangelical casuistry that will apply the absolute norm to the concrete situation, but casuistry was a bad word among all the neo-orthodox luminaries.


Praise him loud and praise him lowly.

Sidewalks echo to his feet.

Praise him fast and praise him slowly,

Alley, avenue and street.

Praise the honking horns and whistles

Blaring forth the unknown God.

Praise the violets and thistles

Watered green by heaven’s blood.

Praise him in the subdivisions.

Praise him in the city slum.

Praise him in the murdered redwoods

And the beating rains that drum

On the rooftops of our terrors

And the windows of our hopes.

Praise him in our truths and errors

And the ceaseless watch he keeps.

Praise him in the wolf and rabbit,

In the cockroach and the rat.

Praise him in the force of habit,

And the fires that level flat

All the suburbs of the manger

Till the kneeling kings are seen

Circled round the sleeping stranger

And the city streets blaze green.

London Bridge is falling down, down,

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Empire State is lying flat.

All the works of hands and hammers

Lie in judgment at his feet.

Mortared stone in which we trusted,

Shafts of reinforced concrete

Prostrate on the earth before him

And the sky one crimson shout.

Shout of terror, shout of yearning

Rising from each city street.

Runways cracked and smoke from burning

Jets dissolving in their heat.

He is with us. Christ defend us

From the Christ of this return

Savior, save us from your double,

From this Christ of burn, burn, burn.

See the sky’s polluted evening

Washed to blue by crimson dyes.

See his hand that grasps the trowel,

See the rivets of his eyes.

In the debris of his judgment

Hear the fading moans and groans.

Rise into the air to meet him.

Be his temple’s newfound stones.


Its Strengths

In my estimation the strengths of neo-orthodoxy counterbalance its weaknesses. It succeeded in recovering for a time the transcendence of God, though Barth in his later writings no longer referred to God as the Wholly Other. It also reaffirmed the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God, the divine Lordship over all the powers of the world. Such an emphasis is surely needed today, when God is seen as superior to man but not as omnipotent, as efficacious but not as infinite. Admittedly, in some strands of neo-orthodoxy God is portrayed more as an Absolute Subject than as the Active Agent in history, and this means that other dimensions of God’s being are perhaps slighted.

Neo-orthodoxy also reminds us of the fallacy of rationalistic apologetics. With the Reformers it maintained that reason cannot prove or buttress the truths of revelation, though some theologians, notably Reinhold Niebuhr and Brunner, followed Kierkegaard in holding that we can use our reason to show the limitations of reason and to expose the ambiguities and inconsistencies in secular thought.

Again the neo-orthodox theologians rightly pointed to the fundamental difference between theology and philosophy, though they did not always carry through their insights in this area. Only Barth constructed a theology of the Word of God and saw that theology has its own peculiar methodology—faith seeking understanding. Reinhold Niebuhr stood closer to Schleiermacher when he defined theology as an “explication” not of divine revelation but “of man’s faith.”

Neo-orthodoxy also vigorously upheld the primacy of Scripture—over religious experience and the church tradition. Yet it invariably appealed to a norm higher than Scripture. This itself is not inadmissible provided that this higher norm is given in Scripture itself and does not conflict with the written testimony of Scripture. Luther appealed to the transcendent norm of justification by faith by which he ought to clarify and interpret all of Scripture. For Barth the absolute or “dogmatic” norm is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Niebuhr referred to “the law of love” and “the mind of Christ.” Yet a great many of these men felt free to disregard certain biblical tenets that did not fit into their existentialist or dialectical systems. Barth flatly denied the biblical view of demons as fallen angels, contending that this belongs to the marginal area of the Bible. Niebuhr and Brunner both disavowed the doctrines of the virgin birth of Christ and his bodily resurrection from the grave, even though these are plainly affirmed in Scripture and also in the very early traditions of the Church.

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Another solid contribution of neo-orthodoxy was its recovery of the unique Saviourhood of Jesus Christ. In Emil Brunner’s early work The Mediator he showed how the very significance of Christ is lost when we see him primarily or essentially as teacher and example rather than sin-bearer and mediator. The doctrine of the substitutionary atonement became very important in the right wing of neo-orthodoxy, though sometimes attempts were made to show that this did not mean a propitiation of the wrath of God.

The Reformation doctrine of sola gratia also was given prominence in the circles of neo-orthodoxy. The attack upon moralism and legalism was as pronounced in Barth and Brunner as in Reinhold Niebuhr. At the same time Barth’s view that God’s grace is everywhere present and that there is only one kind of grace—redemptive grace—signified a marked departure from the traditional Reformed conception of two kinds of grace, redeeming and preserving grace. To contend that grace is universal and that all grace is saving seems to blur the crucial decisiveness of Christ’s atoning work on Calvary.

Finally, neo-orthodox theologians recaptured the dynamic character of revelation. They rightly contended that revelation is not a static deposit of rational truth but an event by which God’s Word penetrates the mind of man and pierces his heart. In this event God remains the master of his Word, and man can only submit and receive but not control. Except for Barth the neo-orthodox movement did not sufficiently acknowledge that revelation is conceptual and propositional as well as experiential and personal, since what is revealed is a divine message as well as personal presence.

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Relevance Today

In the period of pronounced religiosity in which we live there is a fascination with religious experience and charismatic gifts. Mysticism and occultism are now in vogue. Life and experience are valued over doctrine; even in some supposedly evangelical circles a theology of interpersonal relations has superseded a theology of the Word of God. Theologians like J. A. T. Robinson, Daniel Berrigan, and Harvey Cox seek to unite social concern and spirituality in a secular mysticism.

The warning of the neo-orthodox that religiosity is not true piety is very timely today. I have often said that neo-orthodoxy did not do justice to the mystical dimension of the faith, but its strictures on mysticism must nevertheless be taken seriously. The human spirit is not the Holy Spirit, and mystical awareness is not yet the experience of faith.

With its stress upon the historical objectivity of revelation, neo-orthodoxy also challenges the rampant subjectivism in much contemporary theology. Frederick Herzog rightly complains of the lack of norms and rules in theology today, and we must ask whether there can be an authentically Christian theology that is not anchored in Scripture. The emphasis today is on the “Now” and the future but not the past. We need to reestablish continuity with the past not only by a return to the infallible norm of our faith, the holy Scriptures, but also by a rediscovery of the ongoing commentary on Scripture in the history of the Church. We need to wrestle not only with the teachings of the Reformers but also with the insights of the church fathers, the schoolmen, the Protestant scholastics—and, we should add, the leading lights of liberal theology. Barth himself was able to come to his biblical position because he took seriously the challenges of such intellectual giants as Schleiermacher and Ritschl, and we must do the same. We should also by no means neglect the contributions of the Christian mystics, the Pietists, and the Puritans who are still viewed with misgivings especially in the circles of social activism. The mysticism that is fashionable today is not the Saviour mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux but the immanental, this-worldly mysticism of Alan Watts, Kazantzakis, Sam Keen, and Teilhard de Chardin.

Again, neo-orthodoxy is a welcome antidote to the visionary idealism and utopianism that seem endemic to the theologies of liberation and revolution. When theologians seriously think that the kingdom of promise can be realized through violent social revolution, something is amiss somewhere. We can learn from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, in which he sharply distinguished the kingdom of God from a this-worldly paradise but at the same time saw its relevance in the ongoing fight for social justice. He recognized that the pure agape love of the kingdom is not a simple possibility within history. Nonetheless he saw it as an ideal or standard that can guide men in their efforts to achieve a more equitable and righteous society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, too, unlike some of the secular theologians, perceived that the higher righteousness of the kingdom of God must never be equated with the civil righteousness attainable within history. Moreover, it was his judgment that the laws of the kingdom of God could never be made into laws of the secular order or else society would fall into chaos.

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We need to go through neo-orthodoxy and beyond it; it would indeed be a mistake simply to return to it. What is required is a full recovery of orthodoxy in the best sense if the Church is to regain the integrity of its message and mission. I am not advocating a retreat to a hyper-fundamentalism, however, which, according to Edward John Carnell, is a cultic expression of orthodoxy. A rigid biblical literalism that virtually denies the human element in the Bible and the very principle of literary and historical criticism signifies a deviation from the spirit if not the content of historical orthodoxy.

Neo-orthodoxy gave contemporary recognition to the contribution of the Protestant Reformation, but there is also need for a renewed appreciation of the catholic heritage of the faith. To be sure, Scripture is the primary and definitive source of theological insight; but should not church tradition and the experience of faith be treated as important secondary sources so long as they do not contradict Scripture? If evangelicalism wishes to abide by the whole of Scripture as received and attested by the whole Church, then it should make a place for the doctrine of the saints, asceticism, religious communities, and the sacraments. Much of what is referred to here is the very thing now under attack by neo-Catholicism, which, like neo-Protestantism, has substituted contemporary experience for the revelation in the Bible.

Karl Barth has said that things would look bleak for the Protestant Church if it were not more Protestant to speak of freedom than of authority. Yet a freedom cut loose from the authority of the infallible Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, who is at the same time the ultimate author and content of Holy Scripture, can lead only to theological confusion and anarchy. Barth himself sought to relate freedom to the authority of the biblical Word, but should it not also be related to the voice of the living Christ as we hear it in the Church?

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Finally, if the contribution of neo-orthodoxy is to take lasting root in the Church, there is need to re-examine the spiritual movements of purification after the Reformation—Pietism and Puritanism. Neo-orthodoxy itself owes much to these movements, though it was compelled eventually to turn against them because of their penchant for subjectivism. Emil Brunner’s remark in The Mediator surely strikes one as Pietistic: “Salvation is neither doctrine nor conviction concerning a doctrine, but the Word of God in Christ as it speaks to us in the heart. Brunner has acknowledged the indebtedness of the dialectic theology to two great figures of Pietism: Kierkegaard and Christoph Blumhardt. Barth in his later years called for a rediscovery of Zinzendorf with his Christ-centered emphasis.

In addition to the atoning work of Christ and the response of faith, which neo-orthodoxy emphasized, we must also give attention to the sanctifying and energizing work of the Holy Spirit, an emphasis found both in Catholic mysticism and in Protestant Pietism. This note is also present in the later Barth, though it is the revelatory work of the Spirit that, not surprisingly, proves to be his overriding concern. Again, we should give proper recognition to the visible means and aids that the Holy Spirit uses—the Word and the sacraments.

In neo-orthodoxy the primary mark of the Church is the Gospel proclaimed by faithful pastors and obediently heard by their congregations. The Reformation included the sacraments as a hallmark of the Church (and some neo-orthodox theologs would concur); at least one of the Reformers, Martin Bucer, spoke of a third mark—church discipline. A catholic evangelicalism will surely point to two additional marks of the true Church—the fellowship of love (koinonia) and mission. Bonhoeffer touched upon the former in his books Sanctorum Communio and Life Together, and Brunner did so in The Misunderstanding of the Church; yet we need also to stress the importance of evangelism, particularly in this time when the missionary force is being depleted in the main-line churches and when money previously designated for foreign missions is being channeled to other causes including social welfare and political action. The true Church will indeed be a servant church, and this is why the new theology strikes a responsive chord; at the same time it will also be a missionary church. Emil Brunner was right when he declared: “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”

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Will the Church today have the foresight and courage to admit that it has lost its way and listen to some of its prophetic voices of several decades ago? Will the Church today be willing to discard its grandiose schemes for liberating the world and wait upon the living and almighty God, who will bring in his kingdom in his own way and time? I am arguing not for quietism but for discernment: only a church that searches the Scriptures will be able to read the signs of the times. Only such a church will be able to render a spiritually credible and socially relevant witness in our day.

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