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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 9: The Rise and Role of Neo-Orthodoxy

In the previous chapter we considered briefly the theology of transcendence. We stated there that it arose as a pent-up reaction against liberalism. In general, this theology of transcendence grew in America into a school called neo-orthodoxy. This confessional stance started almost as a rumor within the first decade of Karl Barth’s climactic switch from liberalism to Kierkegaardian theology. A few Americans -- Edwin Lewis and Douglas Horton, for instance -- wrote articles about, or translated the writing of, the theological powerhouse of Basel. A few alert spirits of every category of theological readers set their sails toward Switzerland. Some literally made the voyage there to thrill to the thunder of Barth’s theological orations. Others hoisted both mainsails and jibs to catch from afar the mighty wind of his prophetic denunciations. A few turned their skiffs into the gusts. Still others scudded complacently with the breeze. But the majority tacked back and forth.

The one source of the new wind of doctrine soon turned into several. As a whole, these followed the main direction. Some, however, did branch off on definite tangents. Emil Brunner, who started with Barth, and whose writings were soaked in antiliberalism, began to take exception to Barth’s complete denial of God’s presence in man’s history and nature. Brunner believed that man has at least a point of contact in his answerability to God. The content of the image of God may be universally lost, but not its form. Following that break, Brunner carried on a rich conversation with Barth. While maintaining the same general direction, he more and more tried to find relevance for the Gospel on the level of creation. He enriched contemporary theology incalculably. Others like Gustaf Aulen and Anders Nygren shared Barth’s rejection of liberalism, refusing on the whole all precritical metaphysics, but making at least formal use of philosophy to establish the categorical legitimacy of the Christian faith. In America, the Niebuhr brothers at Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School caught part of the drive, which justifies placing them within the neo-orthodox approach in its widest sense. Because of his particular relevance to the American scene, I shall devote one short section of this analysis to Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of my treatment, however, must concern an elaboration of the positions of Kierkegaard and Barth, for they are the prime movers of the movement, and a fuller appraisal of this theological position than I have given before.


Søren Kierkegaard abominated Hegel’s intellectualistic evolutionary panlogicism that in fact centered in human history and culture. For reason, therefore, he substituted the absurd; evolution of ideas he replaced with decisions for eternal destiny. Born long before his time, Kierkegaard became the precursor and effective founder of the contemporary neo-orthodox movement.

Kierkegaard lived in Denmark, just over one hundred years ago. In fact, the centennial of his death was observed in 1955. Writers on Kierkegaard often attribute great importance to his strange bachelor life. He was the son of a moody, melancholy Dane who, with vivid imagination, took him for fascinating imaginary walks right in his own living room. The father’s belief that he had committed the unpardonable sin weighed down the young Søren. Speculation also keeps soaring on the relation between the attractive and lovely girl, Regina Olsen, whom he jilted during their engagement in spite of his own seemingly undying love for her, and the writings which appear to be strongly shaped by this tragic experience. There are innumerable angles to his strange life which affect his literary production, especially his bitter relation to the established Church. For our purposes, however, it is enough to say that the main meaning of his theological thinking is in no way dependent upon the conditions and the circumstances of its discovery.

To Hegel’s conviction that modernity must go beyond Christianity, Kierkegaard countered that to become a Christian was man’s hardest and his lifelong task. Instead of the highest objectivity being the way to truth, Søren Kierkegaard held passionate concern for one’s own eternal salvation to be the door. Faith is incapable of becoming knowledge; faith is risk, choice; it is precisely not seeing. Truth is subjectivity. Instead of the need to eliminate feelings for clear seeing, as in Hegel’s system, truth comes through suffering. Man is real in proportion to his suffering. Only participation and involvement in such self-knowledge as comes from one’s irreversible and irrevocable decision in time for eternity can make a man religiously real. Faith is inwardness. In one’s own present tense of life lies buried all one’s past, but accessible to change. The present movement contains all of life. To arrive at purity of life one must "repeat the past forward," beyond both memory and hope. As we have written, hope is a beautiful maiden beyond reach; memory is a useless old dowager; repetition is a lovely wife of whom one never tires.

God, for Kierkegaard, was in no way continuous with this life. For him there was rather an infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity. Kierkegaard’s was an uncompromising supernaturalism, as radically different from this world generally as Buddhism’s nirvana. Only at one point had the supernatural broken through -- in God’s becoming man for our sake in Jesus Christ. But this Incarnation was no general truth to give us speculative ideas about God or to illumine our world of experience. Christ was no Socratic occasion who revealed a universal truth, equally valid apart from its bringer. Christ was, rather, a Christian moment wherein the message and the messenger were indistinguishable. Christ’s becoming man, instead of being man’s great joy, best hope and longest light, was offensive, absurd, and to be dreaded.

There are universals of science and philosophy, but none in religion. A theological system is impossible and indeed comic; it is pretentious to the point of blasphemy. Nor can anything add to or help prove God’s own incoming. God is absolute. Christ is absolute. Not the Lord Jesus of human reason, but the hidden Christ, the absolute open only to contemporary faith, became the basis of Christianity. Nothing in history, nothing in man, nothing in social effectiveness, nothing in man’s reason, as for instance metaphysics, and nothing in man’s experience, even ethics, can help one whit to establish the fact, reality, or value of the Incarnation. All are proximate; and proximate testimony can never establish or add to absolute truth. As a matter of fact, reflection helps thin out and weaken faith. Faith lives on paradox, on the absurd, in the realm of maximum spiritual passion.

Nor is there any help in community. Religion is a matter of the individual. The crowd is untruth. As Kierkegaard points out, no soldier by himself spits in Jesus’ face. The individual stands directly responsible before God who demands all. Not even ethical rules, directives, or analyses are of any avail when one stands before God. Religion has no universals, not even for conduct. There must instead be a suspension of teleological ethics. In the light of ethical rules, Abraham would be a murderer in intent of his own son, Isaac. Obeying God, he becomes instead the father of faith. Sin consequently is no matter of human wrong doing, subject to psychological understanding or social assessment. It is not a matter of quantitative more or less. It is qualitatively distinct from ethics, a standing before the absolute God in guilt. Guilt is the characteristic relation of man to God. The Christian must surrender all. He must become a "knight of infinite resignation"; but even the pagan can follow him in so doing. Beyond this surrender, the Christian must become a "knight of faith" who unwaveringly expects the right answer from God.

Kierkegaard’s writings are divided into indirect, pseudonymous material and direct works written under his own signature. He believed that men must be surprised, "wounded from behind," by the judgment and Gospel of God, since otherwise all men’s barriers will already be up against them. His religious writings, however, are open, devotional, inviting the clear understanding of the glad news of the Christian Gospel. Through some of these, like Christian Discourses and Purity of Heart, radiates the reality as well as the sound exposition of the God of love.

In one way, Kierkegaard makes the initial, basic break with the scientific and philosophic mentality based on man’s reason and general experience from within this world. He is through and through a radical supernaturalist -- here David Swenson is right --in his presuppositions and analysis of Christianity. His method centers in the existential acceptance of the Christ who is absurd to our ordinary standards of truth and conduct. He thus lifted the method of the Christian theologian to supernatural revelation, re- vealing God’s stark transcendence and man’s sin in the light of Christ. Unfortunately, he failed to find as integral to the faith the apostolic doctrine of the Church and God’s secondary presence and revelation within the realms of nature and history. Thus he gave to neo-orthodoxy, from the beginning, both its strength and its weakness.


Barth it was, however, who founded the modern movement called neo-orthodoxy. To be sure, Barth himself disowns the word. He will have none of it. To a Continental European, a neo-orthodox is a stuffy Lutheran theologian of years gone by, primarily associated with Erlangen, who tried to revive the Lutheran orthodoxy of classical times. Between these and Barth there is a chasm. Besides, Barth can no longer be called Barthian, as we shall see. He is far too great a man for that. And yet, for impetus and leading, neo-orthodoxy goes back to Barth, and Barth still holds on to its main characteristics, in actual fact if not in profession.

Barth, born 1886, started as a Ritschlian liberal, greatly influenced by the great Wilhelm Herrmann. As a precritical theologian he was at first concerned with moral categories and their realization through the power of religion. No eschatology for him. His task was to overcome the relative and the historical. Redemption is for creation and works its power in history. Barth knows liberalism, for he was a liberal.

But he broke radically with liberalism. In 1919, in the first edition of The Epistle to the Romans, he was still a liberal. By the publication of the famous second edition in 1921, he had made one of history’s most drastic and dramatic turnabouts. He himself designates as life-shaking his face-to-face encounter in 1920 with his great teacher, Adolf Hamack, who challenged him to say something also on the theme of the humanity of God. His answer was a shouting, tumultuous, triumphant ‘’No!’’(By the way, once Edgar S. Brightman was challenged by Vida Scudder to distinguish the positions of Barth and Brunner in two words. His reply was, "Brunner -- yes; Barth -- no!) Right then was born Barth’s hypercritical theology of crisis. With fairness, Paul Althaus has called it the theology of the unknown God. Barth was then no theologian constructing a system. He was the prophetic preacher hurling Kierkegaard thunderbolts at lightning-struck church people. He gave voice to the bitter despair of human beings, disemboweled of all hope after world catastrophe. He cried the wind of suffering humanity, nauseated by liberal, this-worldly optimism.

Back to the Bible meant for him back to man’s sickness unto death, his need to cry utter woe in the absolute crisis before God. Man is a mess and a mass of sinfulness. He cannot in any way know God. Not through reason, not through experience, not through good works, not through mystic immediacy, not through theology, not through history, not even through the historical Jesus. There is no God to be known in nature, in man, in conscience. Kierkegaard’s infinite qualitative distinction between man and God gapes with abysmal depths. Its priority of assertion is unviolated. The dualism between time and eternity is in effect made into a philosophic structure, complete, unmitigated, unbridgeable. God has made himself known in one place, and in one place only -- in the revelation in Christ, and that not in history but tangent to it. God never enters history; he only touches it to bring judgment upon it and salvation out of it, in particular by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. History is no place for redemption; history is no predicate of revelation at all in any sense of means. History is judged by God. Over against it stands eternity.

The Christian faith is through and through eschatological. Barth scorns liberalism’s weak appendix on eschatology. No Christian social ethics, no Christian education are valid; there is only soul tension under the impossible weight of eternity. But even the experience of utter crisis before God gives no knowledge of God and no assurance of salvation. Nor does man’s recognition of his own worthlessness or his acceptance of God’s promises ensure salvation. God’s election, and God’s election alone, counts; and no one ever knows whether he is elected to salvation or to damnation.

This hypercritical period underlies neo-orthodoxy and what is characteristically meant by "Barthian." Barth himself changed. He is no longer, as he himself asserts, either neo-orthodox or Barthian in the fullest sense. In 1925, he became a professor; and prophetic denunciation, whatever be true of the pulpit, does not wear well in the classroom. Then in 1927, Barth published his Christian Dogmatics, later to become Church Dogmatics, and dogmatics requires at least a minimum of positive construction. Besides, he himself, as early as this, saw that his radical dualism was due not to biblical thought but to Kantian analysis. Therefore a new, more constructive, less tense period started in Barth’s theology that may best be called the Theology of the Word. He took another long step forward when in 1931 he stated in his book on Anselm, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, that even a Christian philosophy is possible provided it has its focus on Christ and is carried on by eyes of faith.

On the side of the social application of the Gospel, Barth’s fight with Hitler and his exile from his post at Bonn, Germany, begged no support by theological construction. Social ethics never! Only faith acting out the resurrection! But later, in Christengemeinde and Bürgergemeinde, he saw God’s work in the social order as a dim or suggestive analogy of his work in the Church. Thus he stepped forward once again toward a more complete theology. Then in the forties, with the publication of the first part of the third volume of Church Dogmatics, Barth definitely broke away from the blasphemous double predestination which attributes to God what is life’s worst conceivable act, and proclaimed instead, with the power of Christian vision and concern, the only final outcome that is consistent with the sovereign God of love who has elected all unconditionally and irresistibly in Jesus Christ. Man’s freedom was not now lost in Barth’s theology; man never had any. But salvaged at least in his theology was the majestic character and freedom of God, the God of the Cross, the God of universal love.

More changes were to follow, the greatest of which can now be seen only as beginning. In 1956, Barth wrote his startling booklet, The Humanity of God, in which he repudiates the extreme onesidedness of his theology of crisis. It was called forth by the needs of the times, he admits, and it ministered to those needs. But Barth saw then only half the moon. He sings a new song lately: "Now is the time for the fuller Gospel!" One expects the fifth volume of Church Dogmatics to supply the lack in his theology of God’s presence and work in nature and man. In any case, this volume will be yeast thrown into baked loaves. His preliminary sketch of the lack and the task, in Die Menschlichkeit Gottes, gives no serious indication at all that Barth has seen the organic, pedagogical work of God indirectly through his purposed passivity, or his general working, in nature and history.

Be that as it may, it was Barth who thrust Kierkegaard athwart the sickening optimism of liberal cultural progressivism (A critic claims that here I am being unfair to liberalism as a whole, but I am now mentioning only its weaknesses.) and almost single-handed threw the stream of Christian thought into a new channel of Christ-centered method, mood, and content. All hail the name of Barth for reinstating the unity of Christian method and content. All hail the name of Barth for his world-shaking vigor. Whatever fate his great system (more than two million words when finished) may meet, Barth himself will surely be placed among the great prophets of God and among the forefront of Christian leaders in history.


Reinhold Niebuhr is usually classed as neo-orthodox. As a matter of fact, most Americans make the two terms synonymous. But he has spewed the term out of his own mouth. There is also a considerable question as to the nature and measure of transcendence in his thought. Some class him with Barth in the school of classical Christian supernaturalism. Others place him within the existentialist-neo-naturalist stream. He owes much of his inspiration to Kierkegaard. He definitely has become an antiliberal in the dominant stress of his confession. But when all is said, Niebuhr is hard to group because he has related himself positively to both the Barth-Brunner axis and the Tillich-Bultmann focus. My own judgment is that he has learned immensely from Tillich, but even more from Kierkegaard. Ontologically, he stands nearer in feel to Tillich than to Barth, but he has learned most from Kierkegaard with respect to the latter’s mood and method of analyzing experience. The fundamental question with regard to Niebuhr, however, is not his metaphysics or his method, for he has never worked out, to my knowledge, a definite position, in structure and detail, in either field. Niebuhr is the social prophet. He is the great spirit who inspires others. He is the exciting lecturer and teacher who fires others to imitate him or to try to hold his position. It is in the combination of theology and Christian social ethics that his influence has counted the most. His hold on his followers is usually personal beyond his own sort of general identification with the prevailing winds of doctrines. Niebuhr is no initiator of new analysis. He is the prophet, the applier, the popularizer, and the inspirer.

Niebuhr as a theological social reformer inherited the great Rauschenbusch mantle. In his first church in Detroit, Reinhold Niebuhr’s whole being ached with compassion for the workers. He was captivated by the Marxian social analysis of the plight of society by the means for its redemption. Without forfeiting Walter Rauschenbusch’s personal faith in, and concern for, individual salvation, Niebuhr’s main interest became social-political reform. His first book, Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, vibrates with human compassion and cogent criticism of capitalist society and bourgeois church life. He was also caught by another prevailing wind among intellectuals: pacifism. He even became president of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. True to then current ideas among advanced thinkers he could advocate pacifism among nations while at least condoning violence as the workers’ method of changing society. Niebuhr has always been sensitive to vanguard movements of shifting mood and thought and has therefore consistently identified himself with some intellectual frontier, generally adapting his thinking because of it in a living, amorphous way.

His method of applying his theology has usually been opportunistic. For this reason he cannot be systematically classified among theologians, for in fact he does not operate from theological analysis as a primary base. His theology has in large part resulted from borrowing, but it has become vibrantly a whole position. That is the reason why, when he writes, he takes his huge paintbrush and throws on masses of colorful ideas, which communicate for the most part neither analytically nor intellectualistically-synoptically but from the whole man in his concern to other men in their concerns. Theologically he has used myth and dialectic in a way that precludes nonparadoxical exposition of systematic theology. His main allegiance has been to biblical theology in general and to the whole history of Christian experience in its total impact on faith. Niebuhr, however, has always been sympathetic to all genuine attempts to understand the Christian faith and to communicate it, within the limits of human capacity and God’s special grace.

The reason that I have placed him among the neo-orthodox is that his main stress has been on the sinfulness of man (even more than on the topic under which David Wesley Soper introduces him, "the insufficiency of man") and on the ambiguity of history. Not that Niebuhr is strongly concerned with any realm of transcendence fundamentally beyond history. His focus is on God’s relation to man in history, not basically on God’s action beyond man’s sinfulness in human history. (As a matter of fact, Niebuhr’s position on what actually is beyond the world of experience, the scene of history and its analytical presuppositions, is ambiguous.) With regard to the first, he has consistently stressed the persistence of sin even in the life of the redeemed. He has opposed the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification as perfectionism. For him, this doctrine is basically self-deception and hypocrisy.

Similarly, he has opposed all hopes for basic historic progress as collective perfectionism and group sham. More than any man in America, and possibly in the world, Reinhold Niebuhr contributed to the collapse of pacifism in the churches and thus to the fact that the churches were generally behind the government when America entered the Second World War. He punctured the liberal positions of radical pacifism as personal perfectionism and of gradual improvement as utopianism. To be sure, he was one of the earliest thinkers in America to work with Nygren’s distinction of agape and eros, but he limited the use of Christian love to personal and church relations. Politics was almost solely a matter of justice and a matter of the balance of power. Christian realism became identified with power politics.

Niebuhr’s general disparagement of man, his preaching on the pretensions of reason, his main stress on biblical theology as a faith-judgment, his use of myth, paradox, and dialectic, swept out most liberal theology or cowed it almost completely. In spite of all the liberalism left in Niebuhr -- and there is much, including his central view of Christ, all learned claims to the contrary notwithstanding -- and in spite of his present definitely mellowing and more constructive estimates of man’s possibilities and of God’s grace in human life and history, Reinhold Niebuhr stands in the very forefront of neo-orthodox influence. More than any other contemporary American theologian, he must carry the responsibility, in my opinion, for having undermined Christian opposition to war.(The reason for my opinion that Niebuhr’s influence in one respect has been negative is that he forfeited the power and perspective of the Christian Gospel in its bearing on social problems by baptizing secular social science into "Christian realism." We were left with worldly "power politics." Such an acclimatizing of the Gospel was welcome to an age of teachers and ministers who were becoming increasingly less sure of the truth-claim of the Christian Gospel and were equally anxious to be accepted by the sophisticated. But we are now perishing for lack of Christian analysis, impact, and power. We no longer dare hide the real issues. We need to return to the full perspective and Power of the Christian faith in its radical judgment of the ways of the world, its call to repentance, and its guidance into a new creative age). Along with this, stand his decidedly positive contributions to religious and social thought and action. The man Niebuhr, however, is far greater than the mottled neo-orthodox theology of which he has long been made one of the world’s chief spokesmen.

If neo-orthodoxy is to be summarized in a paragraph, the following aspects should be included: (1) It rejects the philosophic buttressing of the Christian faith. It repudiates Christian apologetics. (2) It dismisses revelation in rational terms, especially in propositional form. Instead, it speaks of revelation through events or encounter. (3) It declares the basic sinfulness of man. Man is fallen. He is both blinded by original sin and made impotent for unambiguous good. (4) It refuses to accept the improvability of human nature and of progress in human history. A high Christian confession of sanctification from its point of view is sheer moralism, perfectionism, and utopianism, the expression and report of human pride. (5) It usually connects in some way with one form or another of existentialism.

The emphasis or proportion may vary, but several of these aspects are always present in any theology that may properly be called neo-orthodox. Our own differentiation is that neo-orthodoxy started with Kierkegaard and Barth in the main line of classical Christianity, which assumed supernaturalism. Therefore, we have cleaved to this distinction, except for the fact that Reinhold Niebuhr, who will not fit completely into either category, is placed here because his main influence has gone into the furthering of a vague neo-orthodoxy where the lines of Christian superstructure have been decidedly blurred, and most disciples have simply assumed that some form of classical Christianity, merely rethought in modern terms, was presupposed.

Can we now evaluate this movement, at its heart, in the light of a steadier and fuller Gospel? For the most part it is correct to say that we should accept the affirmations and deny the denials of this theological position. Certainly we must be thankful for its stress on the primacy of faith. Objectively, this means Godcenteredness. It involves decisive emphasis on Christ; it includes placing the Bible once more in an authoritative position. Worship returns. God himself meets us in the sacraments. God is the Lord of history, of all humanity. Christ is the Lord of his Church. Subjectively, new emphasis is put on the whole man as believer. Faith is understood as decision before God. Once again, too, the power of sin is understood to darken counsel.

Freedom is conceived of as less intellectual and metaphysical and is understood instead as man’s basic choice, either of God or of evil forces. The natural sinfulness of man is wrestled with both in the sinner and in the saint, both in the world and in the Church. Revelation is grasped as encounter. Instead of making meaning or propositional truth central to theological knowledge, reason is grasped as subject to the striving self, and God promulgates his revelation through people and events. The permanent, or at least the persistent, ambiguity of life, personal and social, becomes vividly comprehended. What has happened is actually that the split between method and content of the Christian faith has been healed (as we saw in Chapter 7) and the Christian faith speaks again with forthright unity and confidence.

What is dangerous, weakening, and even evil in the stress of the neo-orthodox position, on the other hand, is its failure to find God active on the level of creation. Revelation becomes arbitrary; and man’s faith, capricious. It becomes mystery without meaning. Reason, experience, and social effectiveness are not given their secondary place as vital signs and fruits of the Spirit. Therefore, the organic unity in God between redemption and creation is forfeited. Therefore, too, the Gospel loses its directing power for judgment, repentance, and growth in grace. The Christian faith is not allowed its proper place with Christ the light at the center of history. Neither is a proper context available for constructive theology or for communication with the world at large.

Besides, although actually and undeniably man is a sinner, at the heart of his being he is nevertheless from God by creation, under God by providence, and for God by destiny. Man is not primarily a sinner in the sight of God. He is a sinner who is basically a prodigal son. He belongs at home, if only he will come to himself, to his true self. Finally, neo-orthodoxy has taken the nerve out of social action by substituting man’s place before God in the locus of justification for his place before God in moral and social responsibility. Man is saved by sheer grace. He is accepted out of God’s pure love. He can never earn or force his salvation. But he can and ought to improve, to grow in grace; and history is improvable within limits.

Therefore, we are bid to be leaven. God reigns in a different way in the world from his rule in the Church, but he still reigns among all men in some sense and in some way. Consequently, our social task is to be faithful and to change things for the better within the limits of history’s improvability. History can be neither heaven nor hell. It is neither all good nor all bad. It is made as the medium and the means of our growth through responsible choices, preparatorily before conversion and consummatingly afterwards. Our total lives count even in the realm of our responsible action and giving. And finally, all of history is God’s medium for our total pedagogy here and beyond death.

Neo-orthodoxy has sold man short and has belittled his efforts under God to achieve a more than tolerable environment. We must therefore deny, carefully and with the right stress, the basic denials of neo-orthodoxy. God is constructively active on the level of creation as well as in the realm of redemption. What is needed is Christian theology with the best of the positive neo-orthodox stress, but with a more ample appreciation of God’s general work on the level of creation. We need a postneo-orthodox theology.

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