Neo-orthodoxy is a term of opprobrium applied in various, sometimes contradictory ways to the theologies of a diverse group of Protestant theologians who thrived in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918). Originally it was used to criticize the theology of Karl Barth as unduly conservative, allegedly importing an old orthodoxy into a changed situation in which it was no longer relevant. Later, Roman Catholic critics on the one hand and Protestant fundamentalist critics on the other began to use it as a near-synonym for theological liberalism. More recently, the difficulty of applying the term constructively to any particular theologian has led increasingly to its abandonment as a useful classification.
Problems Identifying Neo-Orthodox TheologiansGerman-American theologian Paul Tillich first used the term neo-orthodox in a Christian theological context, criticizing his Swiss colleague Karl Barth as too conservative for the contemporary situation: "In attempting to derive every statement directly from the ultimate truth... he falls into using a method which can be called 'neo-orthodox,' a method which has strengthened all trends toward a theology of repristination in Europe" (Tillich 1951, i, 5). David Tracy, a Roman Catholic advocate for pluralism in theology, has even called Barth "the neo-orthodox theologian," meaning by neo-orthodoxy a form of liberalism. (Tracy 1988, 27). The identification of Barth with one version of neo-orthodoxy or another is widely taken for granted in Anglo-American theology, but it is increasingly subjected to analysis and rejected. One scholar, who writes of "the myth of the neo-orthodox Barth," reports that German scholarship has reached consensus that the term is useless as a description of Barth's thought (McCormack 1995, 26-28).
Some scholars group Barth under this label together with other theologians, such as Emil Brunner (1889-1966) (Tracy 1988, 27). However, after a brief period of cooperation, Barth and Brunner were deeply critical and even hostile toward each other's work from 1929 until Brunner's death (Busch 1976, 195), raising the question whether the two can meaningfully be grouped together.
This question is heightened when the term is applied to other theologians whose characteristic emphases were even more divergent. Some theologians believe that two brothers, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), represented neo-orthodoxy in America (Hall 1998). However, other recent scholarship has shown that Reinhold Niebuhr's claim to be liberal is borne out by the content of his writing (Hauerwas 2001, 88).
Ironically, Tillich, who deployed the term to criticize Barth, was hoist with his own petard, having been treated as among the neo-orthodox himself (Hall 1998, 27-45).
RevelationThere is a strong emphasis on the revelation of God by God as the source of Christian doctrine. Natural theology seeks knowledge of God through observation of nature or the use of human reason, or both. Barth rejected natural theology. Brunner believed that natural theology still had an important role and this led to a sharp disagreement between the two men.
Transcendence of GodThere is a stress on the transcendence of God. Barth believed that the emphasis on the immanence of God had led human beings to imagine God to be ourselves writ large. He stressed the infinite qualitative distinction between the human and the divine.
ExistentialismSome of the theologians grouped together as neo-orthodox made use of existentialist philosophy. Rudolf Bultmann (who was associated with Barth and Brunner in the 1920s in particular) was strongly influenced by his sometime colleague at Marburg, the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Reinhold Niebuhr and (to a lesser extent) Karl Barth were influenced by the writings of the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was a critic of the liberal Christian modernist effort to rationalise Christianity. Instead, under pseudonymous names such as Johannes Climacus, he maintained that Christianity transcends human understanding and presents the individual with paradoxical choices. The decision to become a Christian is not a rational decision but a leap of faith.
Relation to Other TheologiesNeo-orthodoxy is very distinct from both liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism, though its language has much in common with the former, and in partial doctrinal assent with the latter. Neo-orthodoxy draws off various denominational expressions in an attempt to rehabilitate Christian dogmas largely outside the restraints of Enlightenment thought.
- Busch, E. (1976). Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 0-8028-0708-9
- Hall, D. J. (1998) Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of "Neo-Orthodoxy". Louisville, Westminster John Knox. ISBN 0-664-25772-0
- Hauerwas, S. (2001). With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, Brazos Press. ISBN 1-58743-016-9
- McCormack, B. (1995). Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. New York, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-826337-6
- Tillich, P. 1951. Systematic Theology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Tracy D. 1988. Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. San Francisco, Harper & Row. ISBN 0-8164-2202-8
neoorthodoxy in Danish: Dialektisk teologi
neoorthodoxy in German: Dialektische Theologie
neoorthodoxy in Korean: 신정통주의
neoorthodoxy in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Theologia dialectic
neoorthodoxy in Dutch: Dialectische theologie
neoorthodoxy in Portuguese: Teologia dialética
neoorthodoxy in Swedish: Dialektisk teologi
neoorthodoxy in Chinese: 新正統神學