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Neo-orthodoxy is not a single system; it is not a unified movement; it does not have a commonly articulated set of essentials. At best it can be described as an approach or attitude that began in a common environment but soon expressed itself in diverse ways. It began in the crisis associated with the disillusionment following World War I, with a rejection of Protestant scholasticism, and with a denial of the Protestant liberal movement which had stressed accommodation of Christianity to Western science and culture, the immanence of God, and the progressive improvement of mankind.

The first important expression of the movement was Karl Barth's Romerbrief, published in 1919. Soon a number of Swiss and German pastors were involved. In the two years 1921 - 22 Friedrich Gogarten published his Religious Decision, Emil Brunner his Experience, Knowledge and Faith, Eduard Thurneysen his Dostoievsky, and Barth the second edition of his Commentary on Romans. In the fall of 1922 they established Zwischen den Zeiten, a journal whose title characterized the crisis element in their thinking in that they felt they lived between the time when the Word was made flesh and the imminent appearance of the Word again. Although at this point most of the early members of the movement held to some common points of view, such as the absolute transcendence of God over all human knowledge and work, the sovereignty of the revelation in Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the sinfulness of mankind, it was not long before their dialectical approach led them to disagreements and a parting of the ways.

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However, the disagreements seemed to make the movement all the more vigorous and intriguing. Soon it spread to England, where C H Dodd and Edwyn Hoskyns became involved; in Sweden Gustaf Aulen and Anders Nygren became followers; in America the Niebuhr brothers were identified as neo - orthodox; and others in other churches and lands began to read about the movement and watch what was happening. With the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany many of the leaders of the neo - orthodox movement met with other German Christians in Barmen in 1934 and issued a declaration against the evils of Nazism. The resulting crackdown by Hitler forced some into exile, as Paul Tillich; some back to their homeland, as Barth; some underground, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and some ultimately into concentration camps, as Martin Niemoeller. The movement continued throughout the period of World War II and into the postwar period, but with the death of the main leaders it tended to lose its cutting edge in theology.

The movement was called neo - orthodox for a number of reasons. Some used the term in derision, claiming it had abandoned the traditional Protestant creedal formulations and was advocating a new "off" brand of orthodoxy. Others saw the movement as a narrowing of the traditional stance of Protestantism and thus to be avoided in favor of a more liberal stance. Those in sympathy with the movement saw in the word "orthodoxy" the effort to get back to the basic ideas of the Protestant Reformation and even the early church, as a means of proclaiming the truth of the gospel in the twentieth century; and in the prefix "neo" they saw the validity of new philological principles in helping to attain an accurate view of Scripture, which in turn and in combination with orthodoxy would provide a powerful witness to God's action in Christ for those of the new century.


The methodologial approach of the movement involved dialectical theology, theology of paradox, and crisis theology. The use of dialectical thinking goes back to the Greek world and Socrates' use of questions and answers to derive insight and truth. It was used by Abelard in Sic et Non, and is the technique of posing opposites against each other in the search for truth. Barth and the early leaders were probably attracted to the dialectic as the result of their study of Soren Kierkegaard's writing. For Kierkegaard, propositional truths are not sufficient; assent to a series of religious formulations or creeds is not enough. Kierkegaard believed theological assertions of the faith to be paradoxical. This requires the believer to hold opposite "truths" in tension. Their reconciliation comes in an existential act generated after anxiety, tension, and crisis, and which the mind takes to be a leap of faith.

The neo - orthodox took the position that traditional and liberal Protestantism had lost the insight and truth of the faith. The nineteenth century theologians had taken the paradoxes of faith, dissolved their tension, used rational, logical, coherent explanations as a substitute, creating propositions, and thus had destroyed the living dynamic of the faith. For the neo - orthodox, paradoxes of the faith must remain precisely that, and the dialectic method which seeks to find the truth in the opposites of the paradoxes leads to a true dynamic faith. As an example of this consider the statement: "In the No found in God's righteous anger one finds the Yes of his compassion and mercy."

Some of the paradoxes identified by the neoorthodox movement are the absolute transcendence of God in contrast with the self - disclosure of God; Christ as the God - man; faith as a gift and yet an act; humans as sinful yet free; eternity entering time. How is it possible to have a wholly other God who reveals himself? How is it possible for the man Jesus of history to be the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity? How can one speak of faith as God's gift and yet involve human action? How is it possible for humans to be simultaneously sinful and saved? How is it possible for eternity, which is apart from time, to break in on time? In struggling with these, the temptation is to rationalize answers and avoid the crisis of faith; but the neo - orthodox eschewed such a solution. It is only in crisis / struggling that one can rise above the paradox and be grasped by the truth in such a way as to defy rational explanation. Crisis is that point where yes and no meet.

It is that theological point where the human recognizes God's condemnation of all human endeavors in morals, religion, thought processes, scientific discoveries, and so on, and the only release is from God's word. The neo - orthodox, in summarizing their methodology, used dialectics in relation to the paradoxes of the faith which precipitated crises which in turn became the situation for the revelation of truth.

Some Key Beliefs

Perhaps the fundamental theological concept of the movement is that of the totally free, sovereign God, the wholly other in relation to his creation as to how it is controlled, redeemed, and how he chooses to reveal himself to it. Next is God's self - revelation, a dynamic act of grace to which mankind's response is to listen. This revelation is the Word of God in a threefold sense: Jesus as the word made flesh; Scripture which points to the word made flesh; and the sermon which is the vehicle for the proclamation of the Word made flesh. In its first sense, the Word made flesh, it is not a concern for the historical Jesus as in Protestant liberalism, but a concern for the Christ of faith, the risen Christ testified to and proclaimed by the apostles. In the second sense, Word as Scripture, it is not intended that the two be seen as one. The Scripture contains the Word but is not the Word.

In the third sense, the Word is proclaimed and witnessed to, in and through the body of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The movement also stressed the sinfulness of mankind. The sovereign, free God who reveals himself does so to a sinful fallen humanity and creation. There is a vast chasm between the sovereign God and mankind, and there is no way that mankind can bridge that chasm. All of mankind's efforts to do so in his religious, moral, and ethical thoughts and actions are as nothing. The only possible way for the chasm to be crossed is by God, and this he has done in Christ. And now the paradox and the crisis: when the paradox of the word's No against mankind's sin is given along with the Yes of the Word of grace and mercy, the crisis mankind faces is to decide either yes or no. The turning point has been reached as the eternal God reveals himself in mankind's time and existence.


The neo - orthodox movement has made a number of important contributions to twentieth century theology. With its stress on Scripture as the container of the Word it emphasized the unity of Scripture and helped to precipitate a renewed interest in hermeneutics. With its rejection of nineteenth century Protestant liberalism and its return to the principles of the Reformation it helped to rejuvenate interest in the theology of the sixteenth century reformers and in the early church fathers. With its threefold view of the Word the doctrine of Christology has been more carefully examined, and the Word as proclamation has reemphasized the importance of preaching and the church as the fellowship of believers. The use of dialectic, paradox, and crisis introduced an effort to preserve the absolutes of the faith from every dogmatic formulation and, by so doing, aided the cause of ecumenism. Finally, the urgency found in the writings and in the title of its first journal has encouraged a renewed interest in eschatology.

Neo - orthodoxy is tied to its own Zeitgeist and thus does not have the popularity it enjoyed earlier in the century. Certain inherent elements have precluded its continuing influence. For example, its dialectic has presented confusing concepts such as "the impossible - possibility" and "the history beyond time"; its view of Scripture, "The Bible is God's Word so far as God lets it be his Word" (Barth, Church Dogmatics, I / 2, 123), has been seen as a rejection of the infallible sola Scriptura of conservative Protestantism. The reliance of some of the neo - orthodox upon existentialism and other nineteenth and twentieth century concepts has meant that when those concepts became unfashionable, neo - orthodoxy became unfashionable. Perhaps the greatest weakness within the movement has been its pessimism concerning the reliability and validity of human reason.

If human reason cannot be trusted, then it follows that since neo - orthodoxy relied on human reason, it could not be trusted. Finally, some have criticized neo - orthodoxy for lacking a plan for the reformation of society; most theologies, however, are susceptible to this charge. Neo - orthodoxy's stance toward the conservatives and the liberals has satisfied neither group and the moderates have not embraced it. Thus although one cannot ignore the movement, its ultimate place in the history of theology is not yet clear.

R V Schnucker
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J Pelikan, Twentieth Century Theology in the Making; J Macquarrie, Twentieth - Century Religious Thought; W Nicholls, Systematic and Philosophical Theology; J M Robinson, ed., The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology; W Hordern, The Case for a New Reformation Theology; H U von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth; C Michalson, ed., Christianity and the Existentialists; E Brunner, The Theology of Crisis; O Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics; C W Kegley and R W Bretall, eds., Reinhold Niebuhr; A J Klassen, ed., A Bonhoeffer Legacy; W Schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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