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NEOORTHODOXY . Neoorthodoxy is the term used mainly in the English-speaking world to designate a theological movement within Protestantism that began after World War I as a reaction to liberal theology and broadened into diverse attempts to formulate afresh a theology of the Word of God grounded in the witness of holy scripture and informed by the great themes of the Protestant Reformation. Since its leaders had no interest in producing a new orthodoxy along the lines either of seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism or of twentieth-century fundamentalism, the neoorthodox movement could more accurately be called neo-Reformation theology, but the former term has prevailed in common usage.

In its broadest sense neoorthodoxy is an umbrella term that includes a number of diverse but related theologies and theologians. Among them are dialectical theology, or "theology of crisis" in Switzerland and Germany (Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, Rudolf Bultmann); motif research at Lund, Sweden (Gustaf Aulén, Anders Nygren); reconstructionist theology in Scotland (John Baillie, Donald M. Baillie, Thomas F. Torrance); and realistic theology, or Christian realism, in the United States (Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Paul Tillich). Related to these are a multitude of others who, from the 1920s to the 1950s, joined in the tasks of overcoming the weaknesses perceived in liberalism and of finding a more adequate way of expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the social setting of the twentieth century.

Because of its emphasis on the Bible as the written witness to God's self-revelation and on the church as the locus of God's continuing revelation, neoorthodoxy provided stimulus and support for two significant parallel developments: the biblical theology movement, which strove to express the unity of scripture, and the ecumenical movement, which was established to foster church unity.

The characteristic themes of neoorthodoxy, as well as its divergent emphases, are found in two prophetic books that shocked theological communities in Europe and America and sparked the neoorthodox movement. The first was the publication in 1919 of Der Römerbrief (The Epistle to the Romans) by Karl Barth (18861968); the second was the appearance in 1932 of Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr (18921971). Both men had had extensive experience in the parish ministry (Barth in the Swiss village of Safenwil, Niebuhr in the American industrial city of Detroit), direct encounter with movements advocating the social responsibility of the churches (Barth with Swiss religious socialism, Niebuhr with the American Social Gospel), education in the liberal tradition (Barth at Berlin and Marburg, Niebuhr at Eden and Yale), probing intellects, and powerful personalities. Barth's commentary on Romans was written with the problem of the preacher in mind; he discovered the message of God's sovereign grace that declares divine judgment upon all human pretension, especially that of bourgeois society and its religion of human perfectibility. Niebuhr's book was written with the problem of the ethicist in mind; he probed the difference between the social behavior of individuals and that of social groups, in light of the Reformation doctrines of sin and justification by faith. Barth's theology tended to move from God to humanity, Niebuhr's from humanity to God; they found their common ground in the centrality of Jesus Christ.

Neoorthodoxy erupted as a fresh theological movement during the period of social upheaval caused by World War I and the Great Depression. Liberal assumptions about human goodness and historical progress were shaken, if not destroyed, by the sudden outbreak of evil in the midst of a modern civilization that had considered itself enlightened and humane. Liberal theology was closely allied with German idealistic philosophy, and therefore assumed a basic continuity between the human and the divine. God was to be found in human consciousness, in the human sense of morality, and in the progressive evolution of human society toward the kingdom of God. Belief in the immanence of the divine within the human self and in world history led to an optimistic view of human progress and a focusing of theological attention upon the religious experience of individual Christians and the historical experience of the religious community. The result was a blending of Christian perspectives with those of so-called modern, scientific society. Liberalism tried to hold on to the Christian tradition while adjusting it to the changing worldview; modernism, a more radical option, accepted the worldview of science and then attempted to reclaim as much of Christianity as possible. As Karl Barth and his colleagues discovered in the midst of a culture in crisis, both liberalism and modernism inevitably distorted biblical faith and the theology of the Protestant reformers.

Barth began to study Paul's Letter to the Romans because of his disillusionment with the theology and ethics of his liberal theological professors in Germany, especially after one "black day" in August 1914 when he learned that they, together with other intellectuals, had declared their support for Kaiser Wilhelm's war policy. In Paul's letter to the Romans Barth discovered what he later referred to as "the strange new world within the Bible," a world concerned not with the right human thoughts about God but with the right divine thoughts about humans, not with what people should say about God but with what God says to people, not with how people can find God but with the way God has taken to find people. The Bible speaks not of human religious experience but of GodGod's sovereignty, God's glory, God's incomprehensible love, God's covenant with humankind, sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.

Barth likened the 1919 edition of his commentary on Romans to the unexpected ringing of a church bell at night. It awakened the theological world, especially in postwar Germany, and won Barth an invitation to teach theology at the university at Göttingen. He accepted the position in 1922; the same year he published a completely rewritten, more radical second edition of The Epistle to the Romans.

Other theologians had come to similar conclusions about the inadequacy of liberal theology. In 1923 another Swiss Reformed pastor, Eduard Thurneysen (18881974), and a German Lutheran pastor, Friedrich Gogarten (18871967), joined Barth in publishing the journal Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the times) as the organ of their movement. Soon another Swiss pastor, Emil Brunner (18891966), and a German Lutheran New Testament professor, Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), began contributing articles to the journal. All of these prominent collaborators eventually attained professorships, so that the neoorthodox movement, which had begun in the pastorate, gradually reached the universities. From there its influence spread abroad, especially to Scandinavia and Scotland, and then to the United States. Between the two world wars, neoorthodoxy was the dominant force in Protestant theology and was influential in Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles as well. Despite serious theological divisions that caused them to cease publishing Zwi-schen den Zeiten in 1933, the originators of the movement and their followers remained united in their opposition to certain elements of liberalism and in their commitment to a theology of the Word of God.

Since neoorthodoxy began as a reaction within liberal theology and at first intended to provide a mere corrective, it is not surprising that the movement retained some of its liberal heritage: respect for the scientific method of investigating the natural world, acceptance of historical-critical research on the Bible, and aversion to metaphysics and natural theology. Nevertheless, the following characteristic emphases of neoorthodoxy were all formulated in opposition to positions common in liberal theology:

  1. the transcendence and otherness of God instead of God's immanence in nature and history, and thus a fundamental discontinuity between the divine and the human that can be overcome by God alone;
  2. divine revelation rather than human religious experience as the source of the knowledge of God, and thus the Word of Godincarnate in Jesus Christ, attested in scripture, and proclaimed in the churchas the seat of authority for Christian thought and action;
  3. the Christ of faith rather than the Jesus of history as the basis and/or object of Christian faith, and thus the acceptance of the conclusion of the eschatological interpretation of the New Testament that the quest for "the historical Jesus" is fruitless and unnecessary;
  4. the meaning of history as hidden and thus not to be viewed as a progressive movement in which humans cooperate in the building of the kingdom of God; rather, Christ provides the only clue to history's ultimate meaning, and the kingdom of God is an eschatological event that depends solely upon the action of God;
  5. sin as a rebellion against God caused by the abuse of human freedom rather than a result of human ignorance or failure to curb natural impulses; thus, the self-centeredness and alienation resulting from sin cannot be overcome by education but only by an act of divine forgiveness that calls forth repentance and new life.

Behind the rise of neoorthodoxy lay a number of factors. First was the general cultural crisis of Western bourgeois society that was reflected in two world wars. The nineteenth century's optimistic view of the future, based on scientific advances, evolutionary theory, and idealistic philosophy, was seriously undermined by historical events. There were other important factors as well: scholarly investigations of the New Testament that established apocalyptic eschatology as the framework for interpreting Jesus and his message of the kingdom of God and viewed the Gospels as products of the early church for preaching and worship rather than as biographies of Jesus; the thesis of Martin Kähler (18351912) that church and faith are dependent not on the results of historical inquiry into the life of the so-called historical Jesus but on the preaching of the early church's kerygma of the risen Christ, who is known in faith; the renaissance of interest in the study of the theology of the Protestant reformers, especially of Luther; the writings and preaching of Christian socialists (on the continent, Christoph Blumhardt, Leonhard Ragaz, Hermann Kutter; in America, Walter Rauschenbusch); the literary explorers of the ambiguity of human existence, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky (18211881) and, above all, Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), the Danish "father of existentialism," whose writings were first translated during the early decades of the twentieth century; and the personalistic philosophy of Ferdinand Ebner (18821931) and Martin Buber (18781965), who insisted that God always remains a subject with whom humans can have an I-Thou, but never an I-It, relationship.

All these factors supported the neoorthodox attack on the nineteenth century's legacy of anthropocentric religion and helped to turn the church's attention to the God of the Bible, who is "wholly other" than the world and whose word enters the world "from outside" and never comes under the control of humansnot even in the sphere of religion. Inspired by his biblical studies, by the religious socialists' critique of present-day society in the light of God's coming kingdom, and by Kierkegaard's message of the infinite qualitative difference between the eternal God and finite, sinful humanity, Barth led the attack on the pious religiosity and cultural captivity of the church. He emphasized the "Godness" of God (God is not "man writ large"), the difference between the Word of God and the word of humans, and the judgment (Krisis ) that God's word pronounces on human pretension and hypocrisy, whether in civil or religious affairs. Barth stressed that God pronounces a No to human sinfulness, but in and through that No comes the unexpected and incomparable Yes of God's mercy and forgiveness. This word of judgment and grace, which breaks into the world "from above," he insisted, can be understood by humankind in history only in a dialectical manner, and this in two senses: first, as the dialectical relation between eternity and time, and, second, as the dialectical movement from God's No to God's Yes.

Barth's appeal to revelation and his attack on the psychologism and historicism of liberal theology generated early support from Gogarten, Brunner, Bultmann, and even Tillich (18861965), but it soon became evident that they disagreed with Barth's stringent opposition to natural theology and with what some considered to be an unwarranted supernaturalism. Each in his own way declared the dialectic to be not between two separate worlds (God's and ours) but within human existence (unfaith and faith, the "old man" and the new). Thus each affirmed the necessity of incorporating into theology an analysis of human existence prior to faith, whether it be based on a personalist philosophy of I-Thou relationships (Gogarten), on the phenomenon of human "respondability" as the formal image of God that remains even in sinful humanity (Brunner), or on a human "pre-understanding" derived from existentialist philosophy (Bultmann and Tillich). In response, Barth, who in his early work had agreed that God's self-revelation was "the answer to human existence," determined henceforth to free his theology from any dependence on an analysis of the "existential question of man" and to base it solely on God's self-revelation in one man: Jesus Christ.

Subsequent events in Germany tended to confirm Barth's suspicion of any theology that appealed to a revelation of God "outside Christ," in the natural order or in history. With the rise of Nazism, the so-called German Christians hailed the advent of Hitler and his policies as a new revelation of God. Their attempt to blend Nazism with Christianity was decisively repudiated at a meeting of the representatives of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions at Barmen in 1934, when it was declared that the Christian church must listen to Jesus Christ as the one Word of God, and to him alone.

Barth's split with Gogarten over the latter's initial support of the German Christians led to the cessation of publication of Zwischen den Zeiten in 1933, and the following year Barth repudiated Brunner's call for the development of a Christian natural theology. Thenceforth this group of "dialectical theologians," who had found their closest unity in what they opposed, followed their own paths toward mature theological positions that in many respects differed markedly and yet in the broad perspective of theological history still shared the basic characteristics of neoorthodoxy.

Barth's Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church dogmatics), consisting of thirteen volumes originally published between 1932 and 1967, represents the premier intellectual expression of neoorthodoxy. In it Barth conducted a critical examination of the church's present teaching in the light of the scriptural attestation to God's self-revealing Word become flesh in the man Jesus of Nazareth. While not relinquishing his earlier stress on the deity of God, Barth more and more centered his focus on the "humanity of God," that is, on the triune God's covenental relationship with humankind that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in whose person one encounters both the true God as humanity's loyal partner and the true human being as God's loyal partner. God and humankind are thus reconciled in Christ, and those who respond to God's word of free, self-giving love become participants in Christ's earthly, historical bodythe churchand witnesses of the Word to the world. Barth's biblical, Christ-centered theology reinterprets for today all of the doctrinal themes of classic Protestantism: God's sovereign grace, the lostness of humankind, Christ's reconciling deed, and renewed life under the rule of God.

Brunner, whose apologetic, or "eristic," interest on behalf of the church's mission was expressed in a number of theological and ethical monographs, ultimately summarized his theology in a three-volume Dogmatik (19461960), which is representative of neoorthodox thinking. He emphasized that for sinners who are living in contradiction to their true being, truth comes in the personal encounter with the Word of God that evokes the response of faith and new life in the church, which he considered to be a spiritual community rather than an institution.

Unlike Barth and Brunner, both of whom were in the Swiss Reformed tradition, Bultmann and Gogarten were German Lutherans who, ostensibly guided in their thinking by Luther and the apostle Paul, emphasized the nonobjective character of the revelatory event of faith. For Bultmann, whose Theologie des Neuen Testaments (19481953) sets forth a demythologized, or existentialist, interpretation of the New Testament, the event of faith produces a new self-understanding that enables the believer to live authentically in the present. Gogarten, who after World War II produced a number of significant books on the relation of Christian faith to secularism, proposed in his magnum opus, Der Mensch zwischen Gott und Welt (1952), that the Christian gospel itself leads to a secularizing of the world insofar as it depopulates the world of its "principalities and powers" and calls humans to assume the responsibility of ordering and caring for the world as mature sons and daughters of God.

Echoes of continental neoorthodoxy in Great Britain were strongest in Scotland, where John Baillie (18861960) entered into the debate between Barth and Brunner over natural theology in his book Our Knowledge of God (1939); his brother Donald M. Baillie (18871954) wrote a profound essay on incarnation and atonement, entitled God Was in Christ (1948), in which these doctrines were interpreted as "paradoxes of faith." In Swedish Lutheranism, neoorthodoxy is represented by two studies: the seminal treatise of Anders Nygren (18901978), Eros och Agape (1930, 1936), in which Nygren stressed the radical difference between agapē as God's self-giving love and eros as human love fueled by desire; and the monograph of Gustaf Aulén (18791977), Den kristna försoningstanken (1930), translated as Christus Victor, which argued for the superiority of the classic view of the atonement held by Irenaeus and Luther over Latin and moral-influence theories.

Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother H. Richard Niebuhr (18941962), both Christian ethicists, led the neoorthodox battle against liberalism in the United States. Influenced by the Augustinian-Lutheran understanding of the profundity of sin, Reinhold Niebuhr probed the Christian understanding of humankind in his two volumes, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943). His realism regarding sin, especially as it is manifested in the structures of society, plus his keen sense of God's action in history, made his writings significant for both church and political constituencies. H. Richard Niebuhr in his best-known book, Christ and Culture (1951), applied his knowledge of sociology and theology to illuminate the relationship between faith and culture. The thought of both Niebuhrs was enriched by their association with Tillich, who emigrated to America in 1933. In his three-volume Systematic Theology (19511963), Tillich attempted to correlate the questions raised in modern culture with the answers provided in the Christian tradition.

By the end of the 1950s the influence of neoorthodoxy had begun to wane. Critics questioned its sharp separation of sacred history from world history, its pronounced discontinuity between Christianity and humanity's secular experience, its seeming lack of interest in the historical Jesus, its tendency to collapse eschatology into Christology, its failure to address sufficiently the challenge of world religions, and the inadequacy of its answers to the ethical problems of a nuclear age. In spite of these questions, however, all subsequent theology has acknowledged its enormous indebtedness to neoorthodoxy, realizing that it can ignore the neoorthodox legacy only at its own peril.

See Also

Barth, Karl; Brunner, Emil; Bultmann, Rudolf; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Protestantism; Tillich, Paul Johannes.


Important primary resources regarding the beginnings of neoorthodoxy, beyond Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans, translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford, 1933) and Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932), mentioned above, are the following: The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, vol. 1, edited by James M. Robinson and translated by Keith R. Crim and Louis De Grazia (Richmond, 1968); Karl Barth's The Word of God and the Word of Man, translated by Douglas Horton (New York, 1928); Brunner's The Theology of Crisis (New York, 1929); Rudolf Bultmann's Faith and Understanding, vol. 1, edited by Robert W. Funk and translated by Louise Pettibone Smith (New York and Evanston, Ill., 1969); Reinhold Niebuhr's An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York, 1935); and Paul Tillich's The Religious Situation, translated by H. Richard Niebuhr (New York, 1932).

The best systematic expressions of neoorthodox theology are found in the following works: Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, 13 vols. plus index, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, 19361977); H. Emil Brunner's Dogmatics, 3 vols., translated by Olive Wyon (vols. 12) and David Cairns (vol. 3) (Philadelphia, 19501962); Gustaf Aulén's The Faith of the Christian Church, translated from the fifth Swedish edition by Eric H. Wahlstrom (Philadelphia, 1960); Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19511963); Reinhold Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols. (New York, 1941, 1943); and Rudolf Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament, 2 vols., translated by Kendrick Grobel (New York, 1951, 1955).

Distinguished writings on particular themes are Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, translated by A. G. Hebert (1931; reprint, New York, 1969); Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, pt. 1, A Study of the Christian Idea of Love, and pt. 2, The History of the Christian Idea of Love, translated by Philip S. Watson (London, 1932, 1939; rev. in 1 vol., Philadelphia, 1953); Friedrich Gogarten's The Reality of Faith: The Problem of Subjectivism in Theology, translated by Carl Michalson et al. (Philadelphia, 1959); and Donald M. Baillie's God Was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement (New York and London, 1948).

Of the innumerable secondary resources regarding neoorthodoxy and its theologians, the following are recommended as lucid and fair interpretations: James D. Smart's The Divided Mind of Modern Theology: Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, 19081933 (Philadelphia, 1967); Nels F. S. Ferré's Swedish Contributions to Modern Theology (New York, 1939); Mary Frances Thelen's Man as Sinner in Contemporary American Realistic Theology (New York, 1946); John B. Cobb, Jr.'s Living Options in Protestant Theology: A Survey of Methods (Philadelphia, 1962); Christof Gestrich's Neuzeitliches Denken und die Spaltung der dialektischen Theologie: Zur Frage der natürlichen Theologie (Tübingen, 1977); James C. Livingston's Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II (New York, 1971), chaps. 11, 12, and 15; Alasdair I. C. Heron's A Century of Protestant Theology (Philadelphia, 1980), chaps. 36; and the essays on individual theologians in A Handbook of Christian Theologians, edited by Dean G. Peerman and Martin E. Marty (Cleveland, 1965).

New Sources

Cross, Terry L. Dialectic in Karl Barth's Doctrine of God. New York, 2001.

Dorrien, Gary J. The Baritone Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology without Weapons. Louisville, 2000.

Gilkey, Langdon Brown. On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. Chicago, 2001.

Hart, John W. Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance. New York, 2001.

Schuurman, Douglas James. Creation, Eschaton, and Ethics: The Ethical Significance of the Creation-Eschaton Relation in the Thought of Emil Brunner and Jürgen Moltmann. New York, 1991.

Warren, Heather A. Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists. New York, 1997.

Webster, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

John D. Godsey (1987)

Revised Bibliography