The Nature of Neo-Orthodoxy is that there is no objective or ultimate truths. Instead of truth there is guidelines and pointers found in myth and existence. Neo-Orthodoxy was a theology developed in reaction to liberal thinking. In liberal theology there is a stress on the immanence of God and a philosophical idea that man can bridge the gap between God and man by reason and reducing faith to the essential meanings. Liberal theology is very reductionist in method and this is the reason for such an emphases on immanence because anything in this time bound realm can be reduced. However, Neo-Orthodoxy recognizes God has a transcendent nature and that transcendence cannot be so easily reduced using the liberal method. Onto this scene of conflict walk four of the greatest theological minds of the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. First and probably the greatest in terms of impact is Karl Barth. Barth, according to Grenz, & Olson “accusing[ed] Neo-Protestantism of succumbing to the culture of Enlightenment rationalism” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 68). The next man in the fight was Emil Brunner. Brunner lived in Barth’s shadow however he brought good critique of Barth’s election doctrine; Brunner is described by Grenz, & Olson as teaching that “truth as a Divine-Human encounter” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 80). The next theological titan to walk the stage was Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann was not a systematic theologian like Barth or Brunner. Bultmann’s focus was to demythologize scripture so that the modern mind could have an encounter with the transcendent message in the texts. Last there was Reinhold Neibuhr. Neibuhr thought of himself as a pastor more than a theologian, however he is important in the discussion of Neo-Orthodoxy because he incorporated in the nature of Mankind. Neibuhr said that mankind was “both potential and problem” and the problem lies in man’s sin nature (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 103). These men had several commonalities that causes them to fit into the category of Neo-Orthodox and some of those are that they all combated the overemphasis of the immanence of God in liberal theology, they all did not see the scriptures as infallible, and they all stressed some kind of extra scriptural revelation.
Karl Barth (1886 – 1968)
Karl Barth is recognized as one of the greatest theological thinkers of the last 200 years even by those that disagree with him. Barth’s theological focus was extremely Christocentric, absolutely denied the use of rationalism in theology, trinity focused and, like all Neo-Orthodox thinkers, transcendence was something to be pondered. Barth began to reject liberal theology first and foremost because he found it entirely useless for his preaching (Grenz, & Olson, 1992). One of Barth’s most interesting features is that the Word of God and the Bible were two separate entities. For Barth, the Word of God was the revelation that the person received from God. So the Word of God could be found by reading the Bible and when the story of the Bible became alive to the person what the person had received was the Word of God. Another interesting feature of Barth’s work was his position on election. Barth taught that Jesus was the only condemned and elected person; Grenz, & Olson quote Barth as saying “what is laid up for mankind is eternal life in fellowship with God” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 74).
Barth had some very positive aspects to his theology. A good example of this is the Christocentric nature of this teaching; he saw Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascendance as the signpost by which theology and the understanding of God should be guided. On the other hand Barth flatly rejected the inerrancy of scripture and his doctrine of election bordered on, as Brunner pointed out, universalism.
Emil Brunner (1889-1966)
Emil Brunner’s theological focus was not extremely original. This might be why he does not hold the same place as a thinker like Karl Barth. However there were several things about his theology that stand out. First Brunner considered the encounter of the person with God to be the highest form of revelation. In this revelation the Bible was invaluable but it was not the infallible revelation of God, the encounter was; Grenz, & Olson said of Brunner that “revelation [for Brunner] is a life giving encounter” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 81). Brunner’s theology was also about a balance between Reformed and Liberal positions.
Perhaps, like Barth, Brunner’s position of Scripture is one of his defining attributes. For Brunner the Bible was “an indispensable witness to Jesus Christ’ but was not “God’s … infallible word to humanity” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992, p. 83). Brunner did admit that there was instance in scripture that seemed to be directly transcendent, like the “this is my beloved Son” text in Matthew. Brunner and Barth disagreed specifically on general revelation and election. Brunner placed general revelation in much higher regard than Barth did. For Barth, theology was all about special revelation, Brunner, on the other hand, found many ways that a person might come to the life giving encounter. Brunner was also very rightly critical of Barth’s theology of election, of which Brunner said that bordered on universalism.
Rudolf Bultmann (1884 – 1976)
Bultmann was not a systematic theologian like Barth and Brunner were; Bultmann was a New Testament Scholar. Bultmann’s theological focus was very existential, most of Bultmann’s work is focused on existence and bringing the modern mind into an encounter with the gospel. Bultmann talked about the Kerygma, the transcendent message of scripture. For Bultmann this Kerygma was the message of the preacher. It was the words or message that brought the mind into an encounter with God. For Baultmann the topic of the historical Jesus allowed him th express his understanding of the Kerygma. In Bultmanns’s theology, finding out who the historical Jesus was was far less important than finding the Kerygma behind the story of Jesus.
Bultmann saw the need to demythologize scripture in order to make it consumable by the modern mind. The noble reasoning behind Bultmann’s demythologization attempt was to draw the modern mind into an encounter with the Kerygma of the gospel.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971)
Niebuhr focused on the nature of humanity and practical application of faith. Niebuhr sought to explore the ways faith was applied to everyday social interaction and ethics. In many ways this made Niebuhr very Kant-ian in application. This was also a point of contention for Niebuhr and Barth because while Barth rejected most applications of general revelation, Niebuhr saw God speaking in human experience and conscious. Niebuhr also contended with Bultmann on what to do with the myth in scripture. Bultmann worked to demythologize scripture while Niebuhr saw the myth as the tool that brought an understanding of the transcendent lessons in history. For Niebuhr, myth was necessary to overcome the paradox that is finite man trying to understand transcendent meaning and truth.
What makes Niebuhr unique in this group is his incorporation of the nature of humanity into his theology. For Niebuhr the human race was by nature sinful and this is what lead to his position on proximate justice. Niebuhr understood that as sinful beings humans could never give true justice. While Bultmann approached theology as a New Testament Scholar; Barth and Brunner were systematic in their approaches, but Niebuhr comes at it from the angle of social ethics (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).
Where these four theologians differ is not what places them neatly into the Neo-Orthodox group. The main thread they all share is a revelatory experiential encounter theology that places how man encounters God above how God revealed himself in the Scriptures. In their theology man needs to seek an encounter with a transcendent God and each of them differ on the method of the encounter.
Grenz, S. J., & Olson, R. E. (1992). 20th-century theology: God and the world in a transitional age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.