An Introduction to “Neo-Orthodoxy”
October 14, 2009
In the comment thread to the previous post, I lamented the lack of serious engagement, from too many evangelical students, with the theology of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and kindred spirits. In response, Mike Cheek asked about recommendations for understanding their context and what they were accomplishing. Naturally, not missing an opportunity to proselytize, I wrote him a mini-lecture on early 20th century theology. I am reproducing it below for the possible benefit of others.
Note: I do make some brief remarks on the propriety of the “neo-orthodox” label.
These “theologians of the Word” (i.e., early 20th century “neo-orthodox” writers) were working against an epistemological and metaphysical crisis — the fallout of Kant’s rejection of metaphysics, which was adopted by mainline Protestant theology (in various ways), from Schleiermacher to Ritschl to Harnack to Tillich.
With H. R. Mackintosh and P. T. Forsyth in Britain, E. Y. Mullins in America, and then Emil Brunner and Karl Barth in Switzerland/Germany, we have the first serious, in-depth offensive against this liberal tradition. [Prior to this, confessional critics of the dominant liberal academy were largely, with notable exceptions, on the defensive, resorting to apologetics or sometimes fideism.] All of the neo-orthodox theologians were trained in the liberal academy (e.g., Forsyth went to Germany to study under Ritschl), which contributes to their incisive critiques, as well as an appreciative appropriation of the liberal attack on metaphysics. Their response was, what I call, an “evangelical metaphysics.” In short, the power of the Word — the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit — creates a metaphysics of its own. Indeed, the Word creates the only metaphysics possible. Apart from this Word, Kant is right and metaphysics is impossible, except for certain moral postulates that never achieve a sure foundation outside of the human will’s self-determination (which Nietzsche correctly saw).
Thus, the liberals rightly (against the confessional orthodox) accepted the Kantian attack on a philosophical metaphysics but wrongly (against the neo-orthodox) extended this attack to any metaphysics whatsoever. As a result, the liberals rejected the agency of a God “out there” working and revealing himself “here.” Hence, we see the moralism and demythology that plagues this liberal tradition. Instead, the neo-orthodox, in a sense, humbled themselves before the power of the “wholly other” Word, which came in Israel/Christ, and comes now in the Spirit, and resides in His own self-sufficiency apart and above the created order (hence, meta-physics, above-the-physical).
The best introduction to all of this is to actually read the theologians themselves. They were fully conscious of what they were doing. I highly recommend P. T. Forsyth’s The Principle of Authority (currently published by Wipf & Stock) as an introduction to these issues and the neo-orthodox response. It should be noted that they did not think of themselves as “neo-orthodox” or even as a cohesive “movement.” Barth especially rejected any sort of labeling, in part because of his own eccentric approach (e.g., his vigorous attack on any natural knowledge of God, which nonetheless sort of allows for a natural knowledge of God!). The main problem with labels is that their use tends toward an over-emphasis of common traits, forgetting important differences (oh, like in the presentation you are currently reading!). Still, labels are unavoidable and helpful for students to organize the massive landscape of theology and philosophy.
Emil Brunner’s The Mediator (which can be found used for a reasonable price) is also a great introduction to this theology of the Word, especially the first two chapters where he positions himself vis-à-vis Schleiermacher and Ritschl, on the one hand, and Protestant orthodoxy, on the other hand. Barth is undoubtedly the greatest of all of these theologians, but because of the esoteric nature of his works and the shifts in his approach, from his more existential-deconstructive early writings to his more positive-constructive writings, he should probably be read after grappling with Forsyth and Brunner. However, Barth, like the others, always remained fairly existential, given his/their critique of scholasticism. I call this “good existentialism” as opposed to the bad existentialism which remains at the level of existentialism, lacking confidence in the new world of God’s re-creation. Barth’s Evangelical Theology is the best and most accessible introduction to this confidence amidst an existential critique of the world.
posted by Kevin Davis
For further reading, Paul Moser (Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Chicago) has an excellent faculty page with an extensive list of free pdf books by P. T. Forsyth, Emil Brunner, John Baillie, H. H. Farmer, H. R. Mackintosh, et al.