An Examination Of Neo-Orthodoxy Part Two

Here is part two of “An Examination Of Neo-Orthodoxy.”

Important Tenets Of Neo-Orthodoxy

There are various important theological tenets of Neo-Orthodoxy.  The following paragraphs will discuss these tenets by focusing on positions held by three leaders of the Neo-Orthodox movement.  The first leader that will be focused on is Karl Barth.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth has been called “the most important Protestant theologian” of the twentieth century (John Webster, Barth London: Continuum, 2000, 1).  John Webster, in his book Barth, wrote, “the extraordinary descriptive depth of his depiction of the Christian faith puts him in the company of a handful of thinkers in the classical Christian Tradition (Ibid).  Indeed, this is the man that birthed the Neo-Orthodox movement.  Many of the theological positions that he held can be described as some of the most distinguishing theological tenets of the Neo-Orthodox movement.  The following paragraphs will examine two of the positions.

The first position that will be examined regarding Barth is his theological position on the doctrine of God.  In his Church Dogmatics, Barth began his examination of the doctrine of God with “The Knowledge of God” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, First Half Volume 2, ed. by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957, 3-256).  One can see from the outset that the approach Barth took on this issue is different from the approach that was taken by many of the classical liberal scholars of his day.  It was typical of liberal scholars to support a view that said the knowing of God began with man.  Barth’s “stress that God is primarily objective to Himself is an attempt to shift the epistemological center of gravity away from the projective activities of human knowing and on to divine action” (Webster, Barth, 77).  Barth, in Dogmatics, wrote, “Only because God posits Himself as the object is man posited as the knower of God” (Barth, Dogmatics II, I, 2).  He reemphasized this point again when he wrote, “God is the known through God and through God alone” (Ibid, 44).  Since he believed this, Barth also concluded that God’s primary objectivity is “not available to human creatures” (Webster, Barth, 78).  That is why Barth came up with an idea of “God’s secondary Objectivity.  With this term, Barth specifies the mode of God’s presence to the human knower” (Ibid).  The objectivity of God to humans is what Barth called “the clothed objectivity” (Barth, Dogmatics, II, I, 18).  What is this clothed objectivity?  Barth says that it is Jesus Christ (Ibid).  In his Dogmatics, Barth wrote, “It is under these determinations that God is spoken about and heard in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Faith, and therefore knowledge of God, stands of falls with…these determinations of the clothed objectivity of God” (Ibid).  By taking this position on who Jesus Christ was, Barth was assigning meaning to Christ’s role.  Not only was he saying that Christ was the secondary objectivity of God, but he was saying that one must have faith that this is so, if they want to be able to know God through this secondary objectivity.  This was a radical departure from the classical liberalism of Barth’s day.  The liberal scholars, if they believed in Christ at all, certainly did not think He was actually a way to know who God was (Webster, Barth, 77).  This was certainly a factor that distinguished this new idea of theology from the theology that surrounded the early twentieth century.

Another important aspect of Barth’s doctrine of God is his view on the election of God.  Barth had this to say about election:  “When the Holy Scriptures speaks of God it concentrates our attention and thoughts upon one single point and what is to be known about that point.  And what is to be known there is quite simple…God does the general through the particular” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Second half of Volume 2, ed. by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957, 52-53).  What did Barth mean by this?  He meant that God, when He became man in Jesus Christ, elected Himself, which made Him “this particular” (Ibid, 53).  In doing this, God was able to accomplish the act of “the election of humanity” (Webster, Barth, 91).  Barth ties the election of humanity to the election of Jesus Christ.  The election of Jesus Christ is actually God electing Himself.  In a sense, Barth believed that “all as sinners are death doomed, and all in Christ elected to life” (Ryrie, Neo-Orthdoxy, 24).  One cannot get around the fact that this seems like universalism.  However, Barth “expressly opposes” universalism “as a doctrine” (Ibid).  This apparent contradiction will be dealt with later.  All that needs to be said at this point is that Barth’s view of election resembles the type of mindset that dominates the theological atmosphere today, even in denominations that traditionally had been more Reformed in their theology.  Let’s take, for example, the Southern Baptist denomination.  Before Barth, Southern Baptists generally took what would be considered a more Calvinistic approach to the doctrine of election (Gregory Wills, Democratic Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 8-9, 108-110).  Not so after Barth.  The argument made here is that this is not mere coincidence.  That is one of the reasons that Barth’s view of election can be described as one of the important tenets of Neo-Orthodoxy.

A second position of Barth’s that will be examined as one of the important theological tenets of Neo-Orthodoxy is his position on the doctrine of the Word of God.  For Barth, “The Word of God is an act which God undertakes.  God’s word is that complex but unitary event in which God has spoken, speaks, and will speak, an event which encounters us through the human means of Scripture and its proclamation in the church” (Webster, Barth, 55).  Barth believed that God’s Word is revealed in three ways.  1.  Jesus Christ is the Word in that He is the act of revelation itself” (Ibid).  2.  Scripture is the Word in that it is “an attestation in the prophetic and apostolic words” (Ibid).  3.  The Word of God as preaching in the churches.  The fact that he breaks up the idea of the Word of God into three categories is interesting to note.  Barth believed that the Word of God was “Trinitarian in character, since God is God’s self as Trinity” (Ibid).  Barth put it this way:  “If we really want to understand revelation in terms of its subject, i.e. God, then the first thing we have to realize is that this subject, God, the Revealer, is identical with His act in revelation and also identical with its effects.  It is from this fact, which in the first instance we are merely indicating, that we learn we must begin the doctrine of revelation with the doctrine of the triune God” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, First Part of Volume 1, ed. by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, New York: T & T Clark International, 2004, 296).  This return to the idea of a triune God “rescued the doctrine of the trinity from the obscurity in which it had languished in modern Protestant dogmatics” (Webster, Barth, 57).  That is why it is an important tenet to note.

Another important tenet of Neo-Orthodoxy can be seen in Barth’s position of part two of his triune nature of the revelation of God.  In other words, the Scriptures.  Barth believed that The Word, that is the sovereign self-communication of God in Christ, reaches us through the intermediary of the Scriptures…” (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 22-23).  This means that “the authority of the Word (Christ)…is absolute, (but) the authority of the Bible is not so absolute” (Ibid, 23).  Indeed, Barth did not believe in the infallibility of the Scriptures.  In volume one of his Dogmatics, he made this clear when he wrote, “The Prophetic and apostolic word is the word, witness, proclamation, and preaching of Jesus Christ” (Barth, Dogmatics, I, I, 107).  The word that is important to note here is “witness.”  Barth believed the Scriptures were a witness to revelation, which meant that he did not believe that they had to be infallible.  The infallible One was Christ.  The Scriptures were a witness to this revelation, written by men, and thus, as far as Barth was concerned, were errant.  That is Barth’s position on the Scriptures, and indeed, is one of the most distinguishing tenets of Neo-Orthdoxy.

Emil Brunner

The next theologian that will be discussed is Emil Brunner.  He is also traditionally considered one who followed the path of Neo-Orthodox thought.  If one is to understand some of the tenets that shaped Neo-Orthodoxy, then one has to examine Brunner at some length.  The following paragraphs will do just that by comparing Brunner to Barth.

Brunner was similar to Barth in some ways, but very different as well.  For example, Brunner, like Barth, believed the Bible was “witness revelation only” (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 27).  However, Brunner believed that, although general revelation was not enough to bring salvation to people, it was enough to guide people to a knowledge of God.  This was giving general revelation too much emphasis as far as Barth was concerned (Chad O. Brand, “Neo-Orthodoxy: Emil Brunner” classroom lecture notes, 28180 – 23 February 2006, self written).  Brunner and Barth, for the most part, were in agreement when it came to special revelation.  Like Barth, Brunner believed “revelation is understood as something objective, as something which confronts us, something outside ourselves” (Emil Brunner, Christian Dogmatics Volume 1: The Christian Doctrine Of God, Trans. by Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946, 19).  However, with Brunner, there was a hint of the self-centeredness that was not there with Barth.  Brunner wrote, “The reality of the revelation culminates in the ‘subject’ who receives it.  Indeed, it is quite possible that none of these forms of revelation may become revelation to us (Ibid).  In other words, revelation is not revelation if it has not become revelation to the subject.  For Barth, revelation was revelation no matter what, regardless of whether or not the subject perceived it as revelation.  Finally, like Barth, Brunner seemed to take on a view that promoted universalism.  In his Christian Dogmatics, he wrote, “we men, from the very beginning, have been created in and for this Image of God, and…no sin of ours can destroy this original destiny of human nature” (Ibid 21).  He went on to say, “it is equally important to realize that it is not only in Jesus Christ that we know our original destiny, and that it is only through Him that this ‘Image’ is realized in us:  in our present state, imperfectly, but in the age to come, in its full protection” (Ibid).

Reinhold Niebuhr

The last theologian to be examined is Reinhold Niebuhr.  Niebuhr is probably the least Neo-Orthodox of the Neo-Orthodox theologians.  However, one still has to take note of his positions if they want to identify some of the important tenets of Neo-Orthodoxy.

Niebuhr did have some “broad affinities in the thought of” Barth and Brunner (Ronald H. Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972, 120).  As Ronald Stone put it, “They all contributed to the attacks upon liberal culture, politics, and theology.  They all found inspiration in Reformation thought.  They each emphasized, though in somewhat different ways, the gap between the sacred and the secular…(and) they all regarded man’s existence and history as provisionally tragic” (Ibid 120-121).  There was one major difference though, between Niebuhr and the previous two theologians that have been covered, and that is Niebuhr’s thought on politics” (Ibid 121).  The way Niebuhr intermingled politics into his thought “cannot be deduced from the theology he held in common with other representatives of Neo-Orthodoxy; his political thought and those of Barth and Brunner had very little in common” (Ibid).  Niebuhr was preoccupied with the social aspect of society, and “his background…had much to do with the shaping of his theology.  He saw liberalism so optimistic as to have little strength.  In (his) Detroit pastorate, he saw capitalism so materialistic as to have little Christianity” (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 30).  As Charles Ryrie put it, “The foundation of his theology is Neo-Orthodox, but the superstructure is clearly social gospel…” (Ibid).  Niebuhr’s view of sin was “more social than spiritual,” and thus he believed that we ought to try and convert people to the Christian faith by doing good things (Ibid).  He believed that by doing good things, man could “reach its ultimate…by social progress (Chad O. Brand, “Reinhold Niebuhr” classroom lecture notes, 28180, 7 March 2006 – self written).  This is what Niebuhr believed was the resurrection of the body.  It was not a physical resurrection.  It was social progress (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 32).

Niebuhr, like Barth and Brunner, did not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures.  For example, “Genesis 3″ was “a myth” as far as Niebuhr was concerned (Ibid, 30).  What did he mean by this?  He meant that it was “truth thrown into the form of a good story” (Ibid).  Niebuhr believed that all religions made “use of symbols, metaphors, and myths to point to sources of meaning beyond the flux of the phenomenal world” (Stone, Niebuhr, 219).  Since he believed this, his conclusion regarding Scripture was just that.  It was useful, and it did have truth in it.  However, it also made use of symbols, metaphors, and myths.

And so that’s An Examination Of Neo-Orthodoxy Part Two.  Next Friday I’ll conclude this examination by giving a critique of the movement, both external and internal.  Stay tuned.