An Examination Of Neo-Orthodoxy Part Three

A Critique Of Neo-Orthodoxy

It is now time to provide a critique of the Neo-Orthodox movement.  This critique will be divided into three sections.  The first section will examine critiques that have come from outside of the Neo-Orthodox movement.  The second section will critique the movement internally by examining an aspect of each Neo-Orthodox theologian mentioned in the previous post.  Finally, the last critique will be about a common problem found in the Neo-Orthodox movement.

External Critique

One of the best external critiques of this movement comes from Charles Caldwell Ryrie, in his book Neo-Orthodoxy.  In that book, Ryrie wrote, “Exactly what is Neo-Orthodoxy and how does it affect those who ascribe to its strange and hard-to-understand tenets?  Does it reach the level of the man in the pew?” (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 5).  Ryrie recognized that this was a difficult theological concept to grasp on to, and because of that, it could be rather confusing to the average church goer.  He also pointed out that it was a movement that had an “inconsistency” about it (Ibid, 6).  This inconsistency had to do with “certain isolated statements that sound good” (i.e. it’s a call back to the Word, the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, etc.), but “takes on an entirely different meaning…in the context of the system” (i.e. the fact that the call back to the Word does not include a belief that the Scriptures are inerrant, etc.) (Ibid, 6-7).  The point here is that this is a system that can lead people into believing it means one thing, when it really means something else.  Ryrie said that this had a “deceptive” quality about it (Ibid, 6).

Ryrie also had a problem with Neo-Orthodoxy because of its inconsistency about Scripture.  He wrote, “Neo-Orthodoxy had been trumpeted as a Biblical theology which has returned to Reformation principles” (Ibid, 56).  Ryrie pointed out that this was inconsistent because “the chief characteristic of the theology of the Reformation was its return to the Bible as the final authority in all matters” (Ibid).  The inconsistency here is obvious.  Neo-Orthdoxy was a movement that held that the Bible was errant.  So the question has to be asked:  How can a movement that does not hold to inerrancy claim to be a return to Reformation principles?  This was a problem for Ryrie.

Another critique of Neo-Orthodoxy comes from Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson.  In critiquing Karl Barth, they wrote, “In his zeal to protect God’s freedom and transcendence…Barth may have sacrificed too much on the human side of the God-world relationship” (Grenz and Olson, 20th Century Theology, 77).  They then give an example of this:  “This is most illustrated in (Barth’s) doctrine of salvation.  Here God’s triumphant ‘Yes!’ in Jesus Christ makes null and void every human ‘No!,’” as if this somehow takes some of the responsibility off of humans for the decisions they make (Ibid).  In fact, as it has already been pointed out previously, Barth seemed to do this (sacrifice the doctrine of human responsibility) so much, that it became difficult to discern whether or not he was a universalist, a belief that he claimed he did not ascribe to (Ryrie, Neo-Orthodoxy, 24).

Another critique of Neo-Orthodoxy has been pointed out by Alister McGrath, in his book Historical Theology.  In this book, McGrath wrote, “Neo-Orthodoxy has been criticized at a number of points.  The following are of especial importance:  1. Its emphasis upon transcendence and ‘otherness’ of God leads to God being viewed as distant and potentially irrelevant.  2. There is a certain circularity to the claim of Neo-Orthodoxy to be based only upon diving revelation, in that this cannot be checked out by anything other than an appeal to that same revelation.  3. Neo-Orthodoxy has no helpful response to those who are attracted to other religions” (Alister McGrath, Historical Theology, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002, 238-239).  McGrath certainly does point out some serious problems that seem to accompany the Neo-Orthodox movement.

Internal Critique

To adequately critique Neo-Orthodoxy internally, it will first be necessary to return to the theologians mentioned in the previous post.  After all, these theologians are considered to be the most prominent theologians in the Neo-Orthodox movement.  We will begin with Karl Barth.

If one returns to Barth’s position on the Knowledge of God, one will remember that he believed that the knowing of God came through revelation.  This revelation was three-fold.  First there was the revelation of God in Jesus.  That is to say that God has made Himself known by manifesting Himself in Christ.  Second, God has made Himself known through the Scriptures.  However, since the Scriptures were written by men, they are not inerrant and infallible.  Finally, the revelation of God come from the proclamation of His Word.  That is to say preaching.  The main problem with this is Barth’s position on the objectivity of God.  Barth believed that “only because God posits Himself as the object is man posited as the knower of God” (Barth, Dogmatics II, I, 22).  He also believed that “God is known through God and through God alone” (Ibid, 44).  On the surface, these appear to be noble statements that are emphasizing the sovereignty of God, and to a certain extent they are.  However, what we really have here with Barth is a God that is, at best, vague in His way of interacting with human kind.  Not only that, we also have a God that really has no perfect way to communicate who He is.  The Scriptures are not infallible as far as Barth is concerned, and man’s proclamation is not infallible.  Even the first form of revelation, Jesus Christ, is “clothed objectivity” in the words of Barth (Ibid, 18).  This is problematic.  However, it is a problem that is seen throughout Barth’s writings.  He is never really conclusive, and this is frustrating when you consider that he wrote so much in regards to what was supposed to be considered this new system of theological thought.

Emil Brunner was not without problems either.  In his view of revelation, he seemed to come very close to advocating a position that was closer to classical liberalism.  One will remember that he made this statement:  “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 (Brunnner, Christian Dogmatics Volume 1, 19).  This sounds very much like a position that is putting the “subject” first.  In other words, if a human does not recognize revelation when it comes their way, then it does not become revelation for that particular human.

Reinhold Niebuhr also had his problems, which seemed to stem from the fact that he was too narrow in his school of thought.  He never really developed any kind of Systematic like Barth and Brunner.  He became too focused on the social aspect of life, and the idea of politics in religion, that he failed to further the Neo-Orthodx cause.  In fact, out of the three theologians discussed, Niebuhr is the one who would be considered the most unorthodox Neo-Orthodox theologian.

A Final Critique

It is now time to turn to one last critique.  This critique is from this writer’s perspective.  It is a perspective that has been gained by observation.  The rest of this section will be written in the first person.

The one main problem that I have with this entire movement, and has been illustrated by the positions of the three theologians, is the one thing they all have in common, and that is this:  They all deny the inerrancy and the infallibility of the Bible.  As an evangelical, I have serious problems with this.  It is hard for me to believe that a man like Karl Barth can be so oblivious to what the Scriptures claim.  In other words, the Bible never claims to be anything except the inerrant, infallible, Holy Word of God (II Timtohy 3:16, II Peter 1:21).  The fact that Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr all ignored these claims is staggering.  Neo-Orthodoxy is a movement that had some good with it.  There is no doubt about that.  First of all, it stomped out classical liberalsim, and its idealistic, elevated view of human nature.  Anything that accomplished that feat cannot be labeled all bad.  It also did call for a return to a more conservative theology.  However, just because it was more conservative than classical liberalism doesn’t mean that it was conservative.  It’s view of the Bible proves that fact.  No matter what good it provided, for me, the Neo-Orthodox movement will always be tainted by the fact that it had, what I consider to be, a low view of Scripture.


And so that is the end of “An Examination Of Neo-Orthodoxy Part Three,” as well as the end of this three-part blog post.  As always, I hope that this has been helpful and useful information.  Neo-Orthodoxy was one of the main theological movements of the twentieth century.  And even though it is not as prevalent today, many of its characteristics live on in the theological atmosphere that surrounds this country.  No doubt they will continue to live on in the future.

Bibliography (For All Three Blog Posts On Neo-Orthodoxy)

Primary Sources

Barth, Karl. A Karl Barth Reader. Edited by Rolf Joachim Erler and Reiner Marquard. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

______. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of God: First Part Volume. Edited by G.W. Bromiley and  T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957.

______. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of God: Second Part Volume. Edited by G.W. Bromiley  and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957.

______. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of The Word Of God: First Part Volume. Edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. London: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Brunner, Emil. Dogmatics: The Christian Doctrine Of Creation and Redemption. Trans. by Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949.

______. Dogmatics: The Christian Doctrine Of God.  Trans. by Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader.  Edited by Charles C. Brown. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

Secondary Sources

Ames, Edward Scribner. The New Orthodoxy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1925.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson. 20th Century Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Humphrey, J. Edward. Emil Brunner. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977.

McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Neo-Orthodoxy. Chicago: Moody Press, 1956.

Stone, Ronald H. Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Webster, John. Barth. London: Continuum, 2000.

Wills, Gregory. Democratic Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.