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Neo-orthodoxy, in Christianity, also known as theology of crisis and dialectical theology, was a theological movement developed in the aftermath of the First World War. The movement was largely a reaction against doctrines of 19th-century liberal theology and a reevaluation of the teachings of the Reformation. Karl Barth is the leading figure associated with the movement. In the U.S., Reinhold Niebuhr was a leading exponent of neo-orthodoxy.
Neo-orthodoxy strongly emphasises the revelation of God by God as the source of Christian doctrine. In contrast natural theology, whose proponents include Thomas Aquinas, states that knowledge of God can be gained through a combination of observation of nature and human reason; this issue remains a controversial topic within some circles of Christianity to this day.
Barth totally rejects natural theology. As Thomas Torrance wrote: "So far as theological content is concerned, Barth's argument runs like this. If the God whom we have actually come to know through Jesus Christ really is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in his own eternal and undivided Being, then what are we to make of an independent natural theology that terminates, not upon the Being of the Triune God—i.e., upon God as he really is in himself—but upon some Being of God in general? Natural theology by its very operation abstracts the existence of God from his act, so that if it does not begin with deism, it imposes deism upon theology."
Emil Brunner, on the other hand, believed that natural theology still had an important, although not decisive, role. This led to a sharp disagreement between the two men, the first of several controversies that prevented the movement from acquiring a unified, homogeneous character.
Most neo-orthodox thinkers stressed the transcendence of God. Barth believed that the emphasis on the immanence of God had led human beings to imagine God to amount to nothing more than humanity writ large. He stressed the "infinite qualitative distinction" between the human and the divine, a reversion to older Protestant teachings on the nature of God and a rebuttal against the intellectual heritage of philosophical idealism. This led to a general devaluation of philosophical and metaphysical approaches to the faith, although some thinkers, notably Paul Tillich, attempted a median course between strict transcendence and ontological analysis of the human condition, a stand that caused a further division in the movement.
Some of the neo-orthodox theologians made use of existentialism. Rudolf Bultmann (who was associated with Barth and Brunner in the 1920s in particular) was strongly influenced by his former colleague at Marburg, the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Reinhold Niebuhr and (to a lesser extent, and mostly in his earlier writings) Karl Barth, on the other hand, were influenced by the writings of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was a critic of the then-fashionable liberal Christian modernist effort to "rationalise" Christianity—to make it palatable to those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher termed the "cultured despisers of religion". Instead, under pseudonyms such as Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard maintained that Christianity is "absurd" (i.e., it transcends human understanding) and presents the individual with paradoxical choices. The decision to become a Christian, Kierkegaard thought, is not fundamentally rational but passional—a leap of faith. Opponents of Kierkegaard's approach and neo-orthodoxy in general have termed this fideism, a blatant refusal to find support for the faith outside its own circles.[clarification needed] For the most part, proponents reply that no such support exists, that supposed reasons and evidences for faith are fabrications of fallen human imagination, and in effect constitute idolatry. Some neo-orthodox proponents have gone so far as to claim greater affinity with atheists in that regard than with the theological and cultural trappings of so-called "Christendom", which Kierkegaard venomously denounced in his later works. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" and the later secular theology reflect similar conclusions.)
In neo-orthodoxy, sin is seen not as mere error or ignorance; it is not something that can be overcome by reason or social institutions (e.g., schools); it can only be overcome by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Sin is seen as something bad within human nature itself. This amounts to a renovation of historical teachings about original sin (especially drawing upon Augustine of Hippo), although thinkers generally avoided forensic interpretations of it and consequential elaborations about total depravity. The means of supposed transmission of sin, to neo-orthodox minds, is not as important as its pervasive reality. The association of original sin with sexuality—an abiding idea—leads to moralism, a rectitude that is overly optimistic about human capabilities to resist the power of unfaith and disobedience in all areas of life, not just sexual behavior. This core conviction about the universality and intransigence of sin has elements of determinism, and has not surprisingly offended those who think people are capable, wholly or in part, of effecting their own salvation (i.e., synergism). In other words, neo-orthodoxy might be said to have a greater appreciation of tragedy in human existence than either conservatism or liberalism, a point emphasized by a latter-day interpreter of the movement, Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall.
Neo-orthodoxy is distinct from both liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism, but, notwithstanding some interpreters, it cannot properly be considered a mediating position between the two. Neo-orthodoxy draws from various Protestant heritages (primarily Lutheran and Calvinist) in an attempt to rehabilitate dogma outside the restraints of Enlightenment thought. Unlike confessionalist or fundamentalist reactions to individualist approaches to the faith, however, neo-orthodox adherents saw no value in rehabilitating tradition for its own sake. Past Protestant doctrine is used only to the degree that it affirms the living Word of God in Jesus Christ. Propositions in and of themselves, whether from the Bible or not, are, to the neo-orthodox, insufficient to build theology upon. Also, in the pursuit of social justice, intellectual freedom, and honesty, the neo-orthodox, unlike the conservatives they were accused by detractors of resembling, often made practical alliances with liberals. Both groups shared a deep hostility to authoritarianism of any kind, in both church and state.
The breadth of the term "neo-orthodox," though, has led to its abandonment as a useful classification, especially after new emphases in mainline Protestant theology appeared during the 1960s. These included the "Death of God" movement, which attacked the linguistic and cultural foundations of all previous theology, and a renewal of interest among Biblical scholars in the "historical Jesus", something neo-orthodox theologians largely dismissed as irrelevant to serious Christian faith. Still, some of the movement's positions and worldviews would inform such later movements as liberation theology during the 1970s and 1980s and post-liberalism during the 1990s and 2000s—in spite of theological and ethical differences from both (i.e., liberationist use of Marxist conceptual analysis and narrativist dependence upon virtue theory).
From its inception, this school of thought has largely been unacceptable to Protestant evangelicalism, as neo-orthodoxy generally accepts biblical criticism; has remained mostly silent on the perceived conflicts caused by evolutionary science; and, in espousing these two viewpoints, it retains at least some aspects of 19th-century liberal theology. This is in keeping with its stated aim not to commit to specific theories of verbal inspiration of the Bible, seeing them as utterly subordinate (if important at all) to Jesus' transformative life, death, and resurrection.
Although some evangelicals have sought a rapport with neo-orthodoxy, most notably the Americans Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm, they have convinced very few on either side that the two positions are compatible enough to form a working relationship. One reason for this is that evangelicalism, in keeping with its goal to produce conversion experiences, is far more concerned with the accessibility of its ideas to a large audience, as opposed to the primarily academic approach (with its emphasis on paradox and irony, with its intellectual difficulty) that neo-orthodoxy espouses. In fact, some neo-orthodox thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr have accused evangelicals of over-simplifying both biblical interpretation and doctrine in order to entice (or intimidate) hearers into accepting the faith. Which is to say, they are charged with ignoring aspects of the Bible not immediately related to soteriology or to personal morality, such as the prophets' denunciation of Israel's pride and spiritual complacency, or Paul's understanding of people's inability to measure up fully to the standards of divine righteousness and justice.
The movement was strongest in the U.S. during the mid-20th century, primarily among (1) denominations stemming from the Reformation--Presbyterianism and Lutheranism, for instance—not professing strict confessionalism, and (2) the predecessor denominations of the present United Church of Christ. It was less influential among mainline Protestant groups with an Arminian theological orientation, such as the Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Northern Baptists. Some pastors in these denominations opted to continue the traditions of American religious liberalism, while others took their stands with evangelicalism. Generally speaking, neo-orthodoxy had a greater following among ministers than among the laiety, and within clerical ranks, primarily among theological educators.
While some German scholars[who?] since the 1990s have warned English-speaking scholars against a too-serious[clarification needed] application of neo-orthodoxy—calling it a misreading of the writing of Karl Barth, who, with his predecessors and contemporaries, should be understood in terms of historical forces—the fact is that neo-orthodoxy was and remains a valid method of scholarship.[clarification needed]