For the generation before World War I, “Protestantism” almost came to be synonymous with “progress.” Although the majority of pastors and parishioners may well have been basically conservative on theology, an optimistic, progress-oriented liberal theology dominated the theological faculties and came to prevail in many of the most fashionable pulpits.
World War I with the carnage and the worldwide upheavals it brought changed all that. There was a reaction against the unrealistic platitudes of liberal theology and a revived interest in the Bible as the Word of God. People talked about doctrine again and worked to recover the adulterated Reformation heritage. Among the scholars and teachers who became prominent in the years following World War I, there was a cast of intellectual giants such as has seldom been seen at one time on the stage of church history.
The most eminent name is that of Karl Barth, but there are others of similar stature such as Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as less prominent but also significant figures: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cut off by a Nazi execution, H. Richard Niebuhr, Karl Heim, and Anders Nygren, to name but a few. With the exception of the “demythologizer” Bultmann, who will soon be ninety, all of them have passed from the scene. Their direct influence has waned, though their works will continue to be studied for decades. The renewal of “biblical” theology that neo-orthodoxy seemed to augur in the inter-war years has not come from the great faculties where those men taught. Barth and Brunner gave us elaborate dogmatic systems, while Tillich spun a pantheistic dream out of his own new terminology. Bultmann’s program, which has remained influential longer ...1
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