Neo-Orthodoxy is best 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." ^[1]^

Notable figures associated with this form of theology include Emil Brunner (1889-1966) and Paul Tillich (1886-1965) whose theological methods were markedly influenced by the writings of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who is regarded as the father of existentialism. Some scholars have added Karl Barth (1886-1968) to the list, but this has been recently disputed. ^[2]^

Neo-Orthodoxy, in fact, is known for its existential element which stresses the subjective experience of the individual and regards propositional truth as either irrelevant or indeterminate. According to Neo-Orthodoxy, existential truth is a truth that transforms the individual in his concrete here and now. Propositional truth, on the other hand, may increase one's information but leaves man essentially unchanged. According to the Neo-Orthodox, as long as we conceive of the Fall as an historical event, we fail to think existentially. They typically see the Fall as something we all commit.

The Bible is said to contain within it an inspired witness, but it is a mistake to directly identify Scripture as the Word of God; Jesus, the person, is the Word of God. The Bible can become the Word of God only when God chooses to use it to reveal himself. Therefore, the actual text and words of Scripture are not identified as the Word of God. Rather, it is an instrument to communicate and witness to the true Word, Jesus. Neo-Orthodoxy accepts higher criticism of the Scriptures but believes exegesis must move beyond mere historical inquiries.

American Neo-orthodoxy

Neo-orthodoxy is an umbrella term for profoundly different theologies. It was embraced in the U.S. by thousands of pastors and theologians who generally received their theology from Brunner and Niebuhr rather than from Barth. American neo-orthodoxy in the 1940s and 1950s typically meant a compound of Emil Brunner’s dogmatics, Reinhold Niebuhr’s theological ethics, and the Scripture scholarship of the biblical theology movement. This movement, a reaction to the perceived sterility of earlier, purely analytic studies, emphasized the unifying themes of Scripture and stressed the revelatory acts of God in history as described in the Bible. ^[3]^

The end of the movement?

The Neo-orthodox movement was stunningly successful in reorienting the field of modern theology. The biblical language of sin, transcendence and the Word of God resumed a prominent place in theological discourse.

But in a remarkably brief period of time, the house of neo-orthodoxy crashed. During the 1960s, the theological giants of neo-orthodoxy passed away, James Barr’s claims about the uniqueness of biblical semantics dismantled biblical theology, and Langdon Gilkey exposed the incoherence of neo-orthodox God-language. Gilkey showed that for all of its condemnations of theological liberalism, neo-orthodoxy construed the meaning of the scriptural "mighty acts of God" in essentially liberal terms. Gilkey later called attention to a secularizing trend in theology -- he called it "death-of-God theology" which was led by former Barthians such as William Hamilton and Paul van Buren. Shortly after that, the first currents of liberation theology emerged in Latin America and the U.S., making neo-orthodoxy seem stuffy, provincial and oppressive. ^ [4]^

A revival of Neo-orthodoxy?

Postmodernism has proven to be remarkably congenial to neo-orthodoxy as a new generation of theologically conservative clergy and theologians works to find ways to affirm the authority and truth of scripture without viewing it as historically accurate or literally true in all cases. Post-liberal scholars such as George Lindbeck and Charles Campbell are producing new scholarship that, in many ways, is a revival of neo-orthodox understandings of Scripture and the Church.



While Neo-Orthodoxy claims to hold many of the orthodox doctrines of the faith, it radically departs in a critical area - the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. Scripture is no longer a reliable guide unless God chooses to use it in a persons life. Hence, it is difficult to find any doctrinal consistency among Neo-Orthodox theologians, even with regard to critical things such as the nature of the atonement.

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  1. ? R. V. Schnucker, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary, Neo-Orthodoxy.
  2. ? Bruce McCormack has argued that the term "neo-orthodox" is inappropriate for Barth and that such a label is actually the result of Anglo-American neo-orthodox readings of him. See his work, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (Oxford, 1997), esp. pp. 24-28.
  3. ? Gary Dorrien, The Origins of Postliberalism.
  4. ? Dorrien, Ibid.


  • Baker's Dictionary of Theology, ed. E. Harrison, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), s.v. "Neo Orthodoxy"

See also