by O. Kendall White, Jr
At the hands of its most articulate, rigorous, and celebrated theologians—Karl Barth, H. Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr—Protestant neo-orthodoxy affirms divine sovereignty, human contingency, and the necessity of salvation by grace. To anyone even remotely familiar with the Reformation theologies of Luther and Calvin, neo-orthodoxy is hardly novel: it restates their thought within a contemporary context.
Neo-orthodoxy differs from Luther’s and Calvin’s theology, however, in its acceptance of a more modern world view and many of the conclusions of biblical scholarship. An orthodox fundamentalist has described the neo-orthodox theologian as an individual who is trying to be “at the same time a respectable intellectual (by believing evolution and destructive aspects of higher criticism) and an orthodox evangelical (by preaching the Gospel in the usual terms)” (Ryrie 1966, 17). Obviously, neo-orthodoxy is not the same as orthodoxy or fundamentalism.1
[p.28] Even a cursory examination of the writings of Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr reveals neo-orthodoxy’s basic doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Barth, one of the most important theologians of this century, in Dogmatics in Outline (1959), a brief but excellent summary of his thought, describes three processes in which the sovereign God participates. First, God is the Creator. He has no origin, as Brunner suggests, for he is the origin of all that is. He “has no nature. He is not ‘founded,’ posited, based on anything save Himself. He posits Himself, and is therefore completely transparent to Himself” (Brunner 1939, 237-38). He has no beginning and will have no end. He simply is.
Through his “holy, overflowing love,” God creates. He “puts something else, something different from Himself—namely the creature”—alongside himself, “without having need of it, in the power of His Almightiness” (Barth 1959, 39). His act of creation is ex nihilo (ibid., 55)—that is, it is a creation out of nothing. The ex nihilo creation is not one in which God takes some “nothing,” as if nothing were something, and then creates something else. Rather, it is a creation where nothing, except God, exists. From the condition in which he alone exists, God originates his creation. Thus all existence outside of God is subject to God and [p.29] owes its being to him. It is his creature. To be a creature means to exist “in time and space, existence with a beginning and an end, existence that becomes in order to pass away again” (ibid.). Hence only God exists necessarily; only he could not not exist. All creation exists contingently and can only continue to be as God wills.
Although God is the Creator, his work is not finished with creation. He is also the Covenantor, having established a covenant between himself and humanity, his creation. Why God chose to do this is inconceivable since humans have always been unthankful and disobedient to him; from the very beginning, they have been sinners. But, in spite of human disobedience and ingratitude, God surrendered himself. He lent “Himself to become the God of a tiny, despised people in Asia Minor, Israel” (ibid., 39). He thereby originated a covenant between himself and human beings.
In addition to his work as Creator and as Covenantor, God is also the Redeemer, the invisible God who made himself visible in the Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God redeems human beings, restoring them to their appropriate relation to him, through the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man. Christ
is at once the goal of the history of the nation Israel, and the beginning and starting point of the Church, and at the same time the revelation of the redemption, of the completion, of the whole. The whole work of God lives and moves in this one Person. He who says God in the [p.30] sense of Holy Scripture will necessarily have to say Jesus Christ over and over again (Barth 1959, 39).
Moreover, according to Brunner, humans cannot participate in this act of redemption or salvation. For to share in the act of salvation, to divide salvation between God and human beings, is to make the latter co-partners with God—to make them equal to God. Thereby a man or a woman becomes a “fellow-god.” “God is not Lord, not sovereign, but a partner; but this is mocking God. God proves Himself to be the one God, that is, the true God, only when He is sovereign, only when He proves himself to be the one helper” (Brunner 1929, 62). In other words, God is God only when he alone exists necessarily and is the Ground of Being for all other existence.
Furthermore, neo-orthodox theologians generally avoid describing God in terms of classical Christian absolutist categories. Attempting to limit their descriptions of God—asserting that he is the “living God” of the Bible—they, nonetheless, find it necessary to emphasize specific attributes embodied in this traditional philosophical language. Thus Brunner speaks of God’s “unconditional” and “absolute” freedom which enables him to do as he wills (1939, 262), and Barth describes God as “Almighty,” beyond limitation:
He has this ability which is the foundation of reality, its determinant and its support: He has almightiness, that is, He has everything, He is the basic measure of everything real and everything possible. There is no reality which does not rest upon His as its possibility, no possibility, [p.31] no basis of reality, which would limit Him or be a hindrance to Him. He is able to do what He wills. Thus God’s power might also be described as freedom. God is simply free. The concepts of eternity, omnipresence, infinity are included in it. He is mighty over everything that is possible in space and in time; He is the measure and the basis of time and space; He has no limit (1959, 46-47).
Even though Barth avoids the concept of omnipotence, his unlimited God is still clearly all-powerful:
But God is not wholly or partly powerlessness, but He is real power. He is not one who can do nothing, nor is He one who cannot do everything, but He is distinguished from all other powers by being able to do what He wills to do. Where powerlessness comes into question, there we have not to do with God (ibid., 48-49).
We must recognize, however, that God is not simply “power in itself,” according to Barth. To conceive of “power in itself” as God is to miss God “in the most terrible way.” For God is almighty; not that “the Almighty” is God. The attempt to explain God’s sovereignty in terms of “power in itself” is futile since “power in itself” is “Chaos, Evil, the Devil.” “Power in itself” is bad; it is “the end of all things. The power of God, real power, is opposed to ‘power in itself.’” Indeed, “power in itself” and God are “mutually exclusive” (ibid., 47-48). Through this distinction, Barth introduces a moral aspect—a sense of responsibility—into the concept of God’s power.
Despite such descriptions evoking the imagery of classical Christianity, neo-orthodox theologians assert that God is nonconceptual. Barth writes,
[p.32] We must be clear that whatever we say of God in such human concepts can never be more than an indication of Him; no such concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable. What is called God’s goodness and God’s holiness cannot be determined by any view that we have of goodness and holiness, but is determined from what God is (ibid., 46).
Barth argues that the Bible’s message is that God lives, acts, works, etc.; it is not an attempt to define or to limit him through conceptualization.
Moreover, God is unprovable. To the neo-orthodox, God needs no proof. He is his own proof. He “proves Himself on every hand: Here I am, and since I am and live and act it is superfluous that I should be proved” (ibid., 38). Hence, rational speculations and philosophical arguments which attempt to prove God are vain. God is not to be proved through philosophical speculation and logic. He is his own proof.
Finally, in addition to the claim that God is inconceivable and unprovable, neo-orthodox crisis theologians assert that God is unsearchable. We cannot reach up to God, but God must reach down to us. No man or woman ever found God, for knowledge of God is acquired, not by years of effective searching, nor by sudden discovery on our part, but only by God willingly disclosing himself to us (ibid., 36-38). In fact, this is the essential difference between religion and revelation. Religion is the attempt of humans to reach God; revelation is the attempt of God to reach [p.33] humanity. Religion is damned as a human enterprise and is considered, along with speculative philosophy, as an attempt to be like God. Revelation, on the other hand, is the only way to learn about God. Its first “work is to confound man’s religious aspirations.” Paul Tillich, in a perceptive critique of Barth’s theology, discusses neo-orthodoxy’s distinction between religion and revelation.
There are many students of theology, especially in Continental Europe, who contrast divine revelation not only with philosophy but also with religion. For them religion and philosophy stand under the same condemnation, since both are attempts of man to be like God; both are demonic elevations of man above his creatureliness and finitude. And, of the two, religion is the more dangerous, because philosophy, at least in principle, can be restricted to the technical problems of logic and epistemology (1955, 2-3).
To summarize: the God of neo-orthodoxy is sovereign. Though beyond conceptualization, he is nonetheless described as absolute, using traditional theological categories. God is Creator, Covenantor, and Redeemer, and is unprovable, inconceivable, and unsearchable.
Perhaps more important is the neo-orthodox doctrine of human nature. For it is here that neo-orthodoxy differs most radically from liberalism. Since God created humans from a condition in which he alone existed, humans are totally his creation. The ex nihilo creation means that human existence, our very being, is completely dependent upon God who alone exists necessarily. To Emil Brunner, [p.34] human contingency clearly means that “man is what he is because God has so made him. He has received his life, his existence, his peculiar being from God, precisely as thousands of animals have their characteristics from God” (1936, 46-47).
The implication of contingency is clear: we are God’s property. In fact, Brunner asserts that the meaning of loving God—the admonition of the first of the ten commandments—is the recognition that we are God’s property, not our own, and must act accordingly (ibid., 51). And contingency means not only that God may do with us as he wills, but that we owe all we are and have to him. Without God we are nothing. We have no knowledge, no morality, no happiness. In one of his polemics, Barth attacked liberal theology for de-emphasizing human contingency, thereby reducing the gulf separating God from humanity. “There is no question about it,” he wrote, “here man was made great at the cost of God” (1960, 39).
Reinhold Niebuhr, who introduced neo-orthodox dogma into American theological circles with the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society, assumed a less extreme position regarding human contingency. If Niebuhr shared Barth’s belief that utopian schemes were doomed to fail because of their naively optimistic conception of human nature, he claimed that Barth’s theology suffered from an excessive preoccupation with the gulf between the creature and the Creator. He wrote,
In the modern Barthian revival of Lutheran orthodoxy [p.35] the religious experience is practically exhausted in the sense of contrition. The emphasis on the difference between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man is so absolute that man is convicted, not of any particular breeches against the life of the human community, but of being human and not divine (1932, 68).
Protestant liberalism may have ignored human contingency and obliterated the gulf between God and humanity, but the Barthian revolution erred in the opposite direction. Its excesses were equally repudiated with Niebuhr’s reminder of the “paradoxical nature of man,” assuring that he is “both a child of God and a sinner” (Niebuhr 1963, 147). (Incidently, contingency was reaffirmed in Niebuhr’s argument that democracy functions best when it rests on a conception of human limitation and not merely on rationality [1944, xv].)
So the human condition is also characterized by sinfulness. Brunner, for instance, described humanity as absolutely helpless because “we are sinners, not merely now and then but, as far as we are concerned, sinners always, hopeless sinners” (1929, 74). And Barth, in his commentary on Romans 5, writes, “So we were weak, sinners, godless, and enemies, always Adam in us and ourselves in Adam” (1962, 40). But what is this sin? And what does it mean to be a sinner?
With important qualifications, neo-orthodoxy reaffirms the Reformation concept of original sin (see Niebuhr 1944, 16-17). To Luther and Calvin, the human predicament is a condition or state of sin. Sin is not a specific act; [p.36] specific acts are the fruits of sin. Though they follow naturally from the condition of human sinfulness, the fruits of sin must not be confused with sin itself. Adultery, for instance, is not sin but rather a consequence, or product, of human sinfulness. Sin is the condition from which we all act. That is, everything that humans do is sin because all men and women are in a state of sin. They are inherently and irrevocably sinners.
Niebuhr laments modern society’s rejection of original sin—the “sober and true view of the human situation”—because it makes “an important contribution to any social and political theory” (ibid.). However, neither he, Barth, nor Brunner accepts the classical Christian explanation for the origin of the human predicament. In other words, they reject the story of Adam as a factual account of creation and qualify their conception of original sin.
In order to avoid the criticisms leveled against the traditional doctrine, Brunner defines sin as an act rather than a state. Through an impressive argument, he concludes that the whole person is a sinner. However, to be a sinner is not to be equated with “being a sinner” in the sense of a child “being blue-eyed” or a dog “being a mammal,” for these are static categories. Humans are persons, and a person is a “being-in-decision.” He is an actor, and whenever he acts, he sins (Brunner 1939, 148).
Indeed, by attempting to become independent from God, humanity is in an act of rebellion against God. The whole person is set at odds with God. To be a person, for [p.37] Brunner, is to be an actor acting against God. He concludes his argument with a discussion of Luther’s conception of sin: “To him the doctrine of Original Sin is the means provided by tradition to visualize this in his mind. The method of expression is often questionable, but the truth which he is trying to express, namely, that the whole person is sinful, is indeed the whole point at issue. The Bible says this, and nothing else” (ibid., 150).
On the other hand, sin is only part of the story. Humans are also children of God. Thus Niebuhr writes:
“The simplicity of the gospel” means the affirmation of the basic paradox of human existence: the fact, namely, that man is both a child of God and a sinner, that the same majestic freedom which enables man to be creative also gives him the capacity, and perhaps the inclination, to do evil, which means usually, perversely to make himself the center of every value scheme. There is a mystery about the human capacity for good and the human inclination to evil which has been explicated in the Biblical faith but obscured in even the profoundest philosophies (1963, 147).
This dual nature is also apparent in the theologies of Barth and Brunner. In his exegesis of Romans 5, Christ and Adam, Barth discusses the human relationship to Christ and Adam. Even sinful human nature is not to be found in its affinity to Adam but in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only through Christ, who is both the son of God and of man, can we understand human nature. Christ was above humanity. Through him humankind transcends the duality of its nature.
[p.38] To Emil Brunner the fact that we were created in the image of God and yet oppose him establishes a contradiction in human nature. He writes:
Let us not quibble about words. The point at issue is this: the state of mind which reaches its nadir in despair is the contradiction between man’s “true” and his “actual” nature, between his Divine destiny in Creation and his self-determination in actual experience, and it is this conflict which not only runs right through human life as a whole, but is also somehow felt by all men, even if dimly and obscurely, as a sense of hopeless division, of being “torn in two.” Even the happy and placid person is not as happy and placid as he thinks, or makes other people think, he is. Even he perceives, though dimly, that his life is torn, that he is inwardly bleeding from an unhealed wound at the centre of his personality, his heart. Even he observes that he cannot “square” his own ideal of life and his actual life-experience, that things are out of proportion, the symmetry has been disturbed, “something has gone wrong” (1939, 201).
Even though the contradiction eventually may be resolved, Brunner at least views this life in extremely pessimistic terms. History, he explains,
is always, without the slightest exception, the history of sinful man. If man rises to higher levels of intellectual or cultural life, so does sin. It follows him like his shadow. He cannot get rid of it wherever he may go. For he takes it with him; in fact we ought not to say “it” because the “it” is himself. He is the sinner, and wherever he goes and whatever he does, he goes and does as a sinner (1929, 101).
Undoubtedly this depravity and contingency mean that humanity is lost. Criticizing Schleiermacher for a naively [p.39] optimistic conception of human nature, Barth declares:
With all due respect to the genius shown in his work, I can not consider Schleiermacher a good teacher in the realm of theology because, as far as I can see, he is disastrously dimsighted in regard to the fact that man as man is not only in need but beyond all hope of saving himself; that the whole of so-called religion, and not least the Christian religion, shares in this need; and that one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice (1957, 195-96).
Neo-orthodoxy’s third fundamental tenet is hereby revealed: the necessity of salvation by grace. If we were not completely helpless and powerless—totally dependent upon forces outside ourselves—perhaps we could help save ourselves. However, says Brunner, “if the contradiction consists in man’s antagonism toward God, then a reconciliation on the part of man is out of the question. And, I say it advisedly, not merely a complete, but even a partial, clearing up of the contradiction on man’s part is thus excluded” (1929, 56).
Though helpless, powerless, and undeserving, humanity still has hope since the “sin of Adam is not comparable with the grace of Christ” (Barth 1962, 49). If destroyed through sin, human nature is restored through grace. Grace “has the last word about the true nature of man” (ibid., 56). Moreover, grace is entirely divine. It is a gift from God who alone is able to restore human nature. God initiates grace, he acts, he reaches toward humanity. “God has mercy [p.40] on men; He even comes to those who do not come to Him; He troubles Himself about them, follows after them like a good shepherd after his erring sheep” (Brunner 1936, 8).
Through grace we are elected, saved, restored to our divine nature, “raised up from eternal death to attain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Barth, in Casalis 1963, 102-103). We know that we are saved without our own effort and only by the loving, gracious act of God. In his most important work, Man in Revolt, Brunner summarizes God’s act of election and then proceeds to point out that redemption is not completed in this life.
The manner in which the contradiction is overcome in faith is: the Atonement. Atonement means: the rediscovery of man’s original position, his restored position in God. This status is expressed as a condition or state; and only the status, not the state, is completed. The knight has been dubbed knight, his patent of nobility has been issued, but the knight is still, in his condition, a “commoner,” his nobility has not yet permeated his whole nature; redemption is not to be separated from atonement, it is true, but it is not yet completed. Man still awaits the consummation of Redemption; this consummation would mean the transition from faith to sight, complete deliverance from this “body of death,” from all that is contradictory in our present state, from that participation in the curse which even the man who has been reconciled to God still bears; for as a member of the human race he shares in the sin of all. Redemption therefore can only be consummated on the other side of this earthly existence (1939, 491).
Neo-orthodoxy offers hope ultimately but not in this life. A sovereign God is necessary to resolve the contradiction [p.41] of human depravity through salvation by divine grace. Thus neo-orthodoxy offers its explanation and resolution of the human predicament.
Significant social factors shaped the origin and development of Protestant neo-orthodox theology. Intellectual crises within the Christian community, as well as social and cultural crises of twentieth century western civilization, were of special importance.
Liberalism, neo-orthodoxy’s immediate theological predecessor, also resulted from complex social forces. Both the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment—with their attendant increase in knowledge, emphasis on reason, and faith in human potential—produced a profound spirit of optimism which the course of Western history seemed to enhance with its
relative peace; rapid industrialization and growth of trade; a rising standard of living; political liberalism and steps toward more democratic structures of government; economic theories of a “harmony of interests”; the Romantic movement; the use of the idea of evolution in the interpretation of the course of history; and the new-found confidence in the scientific method. Man’s age-long struggle against nature seemed almost ended. The final victory was not yet here, but the means for achieving it were, and the time when men could live in harmony and free from physical want was just around the corner (Dillenberger and Welch 1954, 214).
These conditions encouraged a unique reinterpretation [p.42] of traditional Christianity. Protestant liberalism was not, as some suppose, a decline in religious faith. On the contrary, it reflected a resurgence of religious vitality that was simply redirected. For the first time in its history, a significant Protestant movement focused upon social rather than individual life. This religious enthusiasm, with its grand optimism, became an integral part of the new social gospel.
However, the implications for traditional Christianity were not limited to the social gospel’s emphasis on action. Theology too was transformed. The transcendent God of classical Christianity fell before an immanent God who, in the expression of William James, actively works with human beings to make the world a better place in which to live. God was no longer separate from his creation; he was now a personal God within the world. The radical discontinuity implied in the classical Christian distinction between the natural and supernatural made little sense to Protestant liberals whose emphasis on continuity bridged the divine/human gulf. Problems of human contingency, finitude, and creaturelessness received minor attention.
Not only was this disregard for contingency consistent with favorable social conditions reflecting human supremacy over the environment, but also with liberalism’s doctrine of human nature. “Personality was hailed as the supreme value” (ibid., 222). Liberalism stressed the ideal person, not the actual person; the potentialities of people, not their failures; human dignity, not human depravity.
In contrast to the orthodox Christian doctrine of [p.43] the inherent evilness of humanity, liberalism boldly proclaimed the basic goodness of human nature. It rejected the doctrine of original sin and the fall of man. Liberal theology did not deny the reality of sin, as some have asserted, but it redefined it. Sin was no longer conceived of as a condition from which human action issues. Instead, it was identified with the action itself. In other words, people sin when they violate their dignity or the dignity of others; but when they develop the good in themselves or in others, this is not only good but it reveals basic human nature. Never claiming that humans were perfect, liberalism nonetheless assumed their perfectibility.
From the doctrines of an immanent God and the perfectibility of humanity, liberalism did not need a savior in the orthodox Christian sense. Indeed, people were not in a predicament from which they needed salvation. Furthermore, they possessed the power within themselves to change conditions—the power, if you will, to save themselves.
Yet this does not imply that liberal theology left no place for Jesus. On the contrary, the importance of Jesus is found in his exemplary moral life. Through Jesus we learn the good life and the way to God. It is not through an atonement that humankind is reconciled with God, nor through divine grace where some are elected to salvation, but rather through the moral and natural perfection of the individual personality.
Jesus is the liberals’ savior; but, since the meaning [p.44] of salvation is different for the liberal, so is the role of a savior. If salvation came for classical and neo-orthodox Christians through the death of Christ, it came for liberals through the life of Jesus.
Since scholars typically refer to war and depression as the crises giving rise to neo-orthodoxy, this discussion of liberal theology is necessary to provide a more complete context for the emergence of neo-orthodox theology. In the early years of the twentieth century, Christianity confronted an internal, profoundly significant crisis, which the inordinate attention to war and depression obscures. The Christian community was seriously divided between classical and liberal theology, and the social milieu tended to favor liberalism in its competition with traditional orthodoxy. There was, as Emil Brunner would later suggest, a crisis within Christianity.
In the Swander Lectures of 1928, subsequently published as The Theology of Crisis, Brunner identified this crisis as the rapid dissolution of Protestant theology. The cause, of course, was liberalism. Its tolerance of non-Christian views was matched only by its tentativeness toward Christian beliefs, both of which were unpardonable. The absolutes of Christianity were gone. If there was anything absolute in liberalism, Brunner argued, it was absolute uncertainty (1929, 8). The liberals had betrayed Christianity.
Moreover, liberalism had created another problem. Theology and even belief became secondary to practical religion. Morals and ethics were the essence of the gospel, [p.45] and the profession of belief and faith was subordinate to it. To Brunner this decay of “theological consciousness” portended the “complete decomposition” of Christianity:
Christianity is either faith in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ or it is nothing. From this faith it derives its name, and has its peculiar content, its claim, its history. With it Christianity stands or falls. In the course of the last two centuries—or, in the case of America, the last three decades—a process of transubstantiation has gone on which has resulted in something utterly distinct from Christian faith and theology (ibid., 3-4).
Brunner’s criticism of liberalism was destined to become popular. Liberalism, to the neo-orthodox, was merely a secular substitute for the Christian gospel. It denied the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and destroyed both the purpose and potency of the gospel. In 1934, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:
The liberal culture of modernity is defective in both religious profundity and political sagacity….Liberalism understands neither the heights to which religious life may rise nor the depths to which it might sink….It is quite unable to give guidance to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one (1934, 14).
Three years later, his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, accused liberalism of impotence for preaching that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (in Dillenberger and Welch 1954, 185).
To the neo-orthodox theologians, liberalism promised [p.46] eventually to destroy Christianity. Indeed, Brunner was convinced that the liberals threatened Western civilization itself. “An age which has lost its faith in an absolute has lost everything. It must perish; it has not vitality left to pass the crisis; its end can only be—the end” (Brunner 1929, 8). The condition of Christianity was summarized in Brunner’s paraphrase of scripture: “If ever the art of pouring new wine into old skins was successfully practiced, modern theology may claim the prize” (ibid., 6).
The “complete decomposition” of Christian theology, which neo-orthodox theologians anticipated, would follow from desacralization and the rationalization of thought accompanying the secularization process described in the previous chapter. Liberalism’s betrayal was implicated in both. Liberalism helped to dismantle the Christ—Christianity’s ultimate object of worship. Christ became Jesus the teacher and exemplar. And the quest for the historical Jesus, a pursuit encouraged by liberals, resulted in further skepticism regarding his peculiar claim to divinity.
The rationalization of thought appeared in accepting the results of biblical criticism, the encouragement of biblical research, and the participation by liberals as biblical scholars. The question of Jesus’s historicity was addressed through the eyes of an “objective” historian rather than the “emotional needs” of an orthodox theologian. Using logical and empirical methods in his research, the liberal [p.47] scholar abandoned much of the biblical account of Jesus. He also rejected those other portions of the Bible found to be mythical. The Christ of orthodoxy appeared more like the spiritual God of the Docitists, who only seemed to suffer and die on the cross, than the actual Jesus of the synoptics. Accordingly, the liberals either rejected or radically reinterpreted Jesus’s significance for humanity. The transformation of Christian theology into secular morality—of Christ on the cross into Jesus the moral teacher—confirmed the worst suspicions of neo-orthodox theologians.
If this internal crisis was not sufficient to explain the rise of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, it accounts for the revival of orthodoxy expressed in Protestant fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is primarily a reaction to secularization, especially the “modernity” embraced by liberalism. Fundamentalism assumed a rigid posture against science and its implications for the biblical world view. Adopting a biblical literalism that enabled them to reject both evolutionary explanations for the origin of the human species and the conclusions of biblical scholarship, the fundamentalists needed only this challenge from the liberal theologians to appear as the guardians of traditional Christianity.
Though sensitive to the internal crisis produced by science and secularism, other theologians required greater disenchantment to find the assumptions of classical theology appealing. Though perhaps more skeptical, neo-orthodox [p.48] theologians, like the liberals, accepted modern science and its implications for the biblical world view. Like the liberals, they were professionally trained and well educated. In fact, neo-orthodox theologians, often educated as liberals, found themselves rebelling only as the social conditions supporting liberalism crumbled. The failure of “rational men” to resolve international conflicts at the conference table prior to World War I demonstrated the paucity of liberalism’s assumptions about human nature. Technological advances offering hope for a better society were as easily employed for destruction as for amelioration. Science, humankind’s newest savior, now revealed itself as the “destroying angel.” Humanity no longer seemed as good, its potential as great, or its perfectibility as possible. “It is our acquaintance not with savage and unmoral man,” Barth would remind us, “so much as with moral man that makes us none too proud of his achievements” (1957, 147).
For European theologians, World War I was sufficient reason to reject the frame of reference of Protestant liberalism. Defeated and humiliated, Germany especially provided rich soil for pessimistic philosophy and theology. As H. Richard Niebuhr wrote, in a preface to the translation of Paul Tillich’s The Religious Situation,
The crisis is naturally more acute and the problems are more sharply defined in Germany than elsewhere, not only because the German temper runs to sharp antitheses and exclusive definitions but also because that country has been visited by a severer fate in our time than the other countries of the West have been (1932, 22-23). [p.49]
Neo-orthodoxy emerged out of the social crises of post-World War I Germany, social conditions antithetical to those sustaining liberalism. So Karl Barth and Emil Brunner began their labors in fertile soil.
Despite the ravages of World War I, Americans generally remained optimistic. Though they had been embroiled in a global war, it was “a war to make the world safe for democracy.” Understood from the frame of reference of American liberalism, World War I may have been an unfortunate regression in human progress, but it was hardly sufficient to support Luther’s and Calvin’s bleak concept of human nature. The assumptions of Protestant liberalism were still too much a part of American life.
However, the advent of economic depression and burgeoning international tensions rendered even the Americans receptive to Reinhold Niebuhr’s forceful presentation of neo-orthodoxy. In 1932, Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society, in which he wrote:
The breadth and depth of the world depression have, moreover, tempted others beside proletarians to express a temper of catastrophism. If they do not share the proletarian hope, that salvation will come out of catastrophe, they are at least inclined to question the possibility of avoiding catastrophe by methods of gradual social change, and await the revolution in the ambivalence of hope and fear (1932, 169).
The inhumanity of capitalism (Barth 1957, 18) and the atrocities of World War II—with the brutal execution of six million Jews, not to mention the wholesale slaughter of [p.50] millions of others—seemed to provide empirical confirmation of neo-orthodoxy’s central thesis that humans are inherently sinners. Indeed, the post-war period, with the development of the cold war, underscored the propensity of using human intelligence, science, and technology for destructive ends. Unparalleled technological and scientific advances left the world in a still more precarious position. It is far from clear that social and political conditions have improved. A “balance of terror,” in which opposing sides still possess the capacity to annihilate each other, undergirds the uneasy peace of humanity resting on the brink of Armageddon. Even in the nuclear age, “civilized men” seem no more capable of resolving their differences at the conference table than were their ancestors centuries ago.
Thus, the crisis of the nuclear age, with the constant threat of the extinction of all life, renders the neo-orthodox concept of human nature plausible. The appeal of neo-orthodoxy follows from the fact that modern humanity lives continually on the brink of a critical situation.
Cultural crises are often preconditions for religious conversion because they invalidate traditional and accepted frames of orientation. Casting doubt upon logical and psychological methods of coping with the world, they thrust people into a confrontation with their inadequacy, contingency, and powerlessness. This recognition of helplessness [p.51] is often construed as a revelation of God’s sovereignty, human contingency, and the necessity of salvation. The latter, under these conditions, typically comes as a gracious gift from a sovereign God rather than from within the individual.
Such was the experience of the neo-orthodox theologian. The crises described above revealed human contingency, sinfulness, and powerlessness. A critical situation discloses the human predicament; it demonstrates human sinfulness (see Brunner 1939, 489). This is the first step in accepting the need for grace. Indeed, the crisis experience itself is a religious experience to the neo-orthodox; for it discloses fundamental human nature—alienation, or a total separation from God—along with humanity’s unwillingness to admit perversity, and a sinister effort to place itself at the center of everything. Brunner described the crisis situation as the “most important point of contact for the Gospel message.” As a basis for conversion, the individual feels
completely passive; he has no power over his feeling, the disharmony of his existence comes out in his feeling, against his will, while in thought and will, to some extent at least, he is able to go beyond himself. His feeling as a whole is the total balance of his existence which is drawn up and presented to him without his will; no skillful intellectual speculation and no deliberate positing of an end for his will can alter this. This unstilled longing for life, this negative balance of life, is therefore in the Bible everywhere the most important point of contact for the gospel message: “If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink” (ibid., 234).
[p.52] Though he had given up preaching sometime before his death, Barth still preached to inmates at a major prison in Basel (Casalis 1963, 89-93). There he could preach the fundamentals of the gospel—divine forgiveness, deliverance, and grace—to a “captive” audience. Incarceration stripped people of the “usual masks” they wear and left the prisoner in a unique position to recognize his predicament. The prison provided the perfect analogy with the human predicament in which everyone is a prisoner in need of deliverance. The prison constituted a ready-made critical situation, and Barth’s message of human contingency and depravity resonated with the realities of prison life. Aware of their own predicament, their dependency and helplessness, the prisoners could respond readily to the message of divine grace and deliverance.
In no sense was Barth oblivious to the relationship between world conditions and the renewal of Christian vitality. “I am sure,” he wrote, “that the course of events has aroused in many hunger and thirst for the Word of God, and that a great hour has arrived for the Church” (1959, 33).
The crisis experience, with the realization of helplessness, often causes people to doubt their own powers. Reason, for instance, is no longer trusted, and a denial of its efficacy can lead to a celebration of nonrationality. The overwhelming sense of the inadequacy of the intellect is often enshrined in the theology of neo-orthodoxy. Thus Brunner suggests that revelation occurs in a way that emphasizes [p.53] God’s “inaccessibility to our thought and imagination” (1936, 11-16). The major problem with theology is its propensity to systemization, that is, to subject revelation to reason. However, human reason cannot withstand the “alogical” teachings of the Gospel. “We should leave the Scripture as it is, unsystematic, in all its parts; otherwise we pervert its message” (ibid., 33). Apparently a primary role of revelation is to baffle the intellect so that the individual will be responsive to divine will. This failure of reason is a precise revelation emerging out of the critical situation.
In spite of this attack on the intellect, some neo-orthodox theologians claim that they are not irrational (see Brunner 1939, 243-44). If reason is held within proper bounds, it can be good. But reason must be understood from the point of view of God, not God from the point of view of reason. “Reason is right wherever it listens to the Word of God, and does not think that it is able to proclaim divine truth itself” (ibid.). Barth identifies some of the limitations of reason: “Reason sees the small and the larger but not the large. It sees the preliminary but not the final, the derived but not the original, the complex but not the simple. It sees what is human but not what is divine” (1957, 9). In disciplines like the formal sciences and mathematics, Brunner conceded, the influence of sin is minimal; so it would be meaningless to speak of a Christian mathematics. Any area addressing humanity, however, is so tainted with the influence of sin that reasoning cannot be trusted (Macquarrie 1963, 324-27).
[p.54] The denial of the efficacy of reason can lead neo-orthodox theologians to cast serious dispersions on doubt. When we doubt, we are in bondage:
We are not yet Christians. For to doubt eternal life is to dismiss the promises of God, to be disobedient to the Word of God, to put our trust in our own understanding and senses. God’s Word is not sufficient guarantee, we want something more certain. But this desire for something more certain than God’s Word is crass, naked doubt; crass, naked paganism; crass, naked Godlessness (Brunner 1936, 144-45).
Reason causes doubt, destroys faith, and provides “pallid and academic substitutes for the loss of faith,” which “from the very outset contain the seeds of doubt.” Only that faith that realizes the “misunderstanding of reason within itself” can withstand doubt—”faith which knows that reason is derived from the Word of God” (Brunner 1939, 199-200). This faith alone knows the inadequacy of reason and the necessity of revelation to save humanity from this cultural crisis.
The neo-orthodox religious experience does not end with the realization that we are lost sinners who cannot rely upon our inadequate mental faculties. The most important aspect of the neo-orthodox revelation is, in fact, the “good news” that God wants to save humankind—that God wants to reach down, take our hand, and lift us out of our predicament. While God’s goodness and mercy are evident in his willingness to save us, so is the necessity of our reliance on an agent outside ourselves. This preoccupation with [p.55] “grace” and denial of human possibilities for the amelioration of adverse conditions suggest an underlying authoritarianism. Humanity is incapable of saving itself in time or eternity. Only a transcendent God, a wholly other, can perform such a feat. Without coming to God, our fate is sealed. Remember Brunner’s warning that an “age which has lost its faith in an absolute has lost everything. It must perish; it has no vitality left to pass the crisis; its end can only be—the end” (1929, 8).
So it is the critical situation that reveals the human predicament. The contingency, powerlessness, nonrationality, and authoritarianism associated with the crisis situation, when people are especially sensitive to their inadequacies, become elements of theology. The neo-orthodox theologian projects these psychological phenomena onto human nature itself, and they become the foundation of the basic doctrines—divine sovereignty, human depravity, and salvation by grace—of Protestant neo-orthodoxy. [p.57]
1. Some scholars have abandoned the label neo-orthodoxy in favor of “Theology of the Word” as a better expression of the intent of neo-orthodox theologians. The reason is that neo-orthodoxy may imply the same literalistic approach to the Bible characterizing Reformation theology. I have chosen to retain neo-orthodoxy because it does embody the spirit if not the letter of Reformation theology and because the label “Theology of the Word” would only be clear to professional scholars of religion. For those advocating a redefinition, see Mackintosh 1937, 263-72, and Macquarrie 1963, 319-21.