Neo-Orthodoxy or Fundamentalism?

In a recent post, Tim lamented the fact that some self-labeled “Fundamentalists” had their priorities wrong. He specifically cited an instance where one of those fundamentalists stated that the central doctrine of Christianity is the inerrancy of Scripture. The post ended with Tim declaring that he is feeling increasingly attracted towards Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy, mainly due to the strong emphasis on Christ of Barth and his followers. There is also another great post by my namesake Ed Hurst that provided the inspiration for Tim’s writing.

I liked what Tim (and Ed) had to say, and I think that a proper reply merits a post on my own.

FUD and Disenchantment on Fundamentalism

For the record, let me say that I consider myself a fundamentalist. A study of the main doctrines espoused by the tracts known as “The Fundamentals” showed me that I am in agreement with each and every one of them; and thus, I think I could use the label.

Moreover, I am more and more in agreement with the spirit of those tracts. “The Fundamentals” were written against the mounting menace of religious liberalism, understood mainly as accomodation to the spirit of the age in such a way that current trends in philosophy, literature and culture came to be the normative agent in Christian discourse, displacing the truth of Christian revelation. It is a tendency that became evident since the Enlightenment, and I can relate to it right now, where movements such as Post-Modernism, Political Correctness, and that amorphous monster known as “The Sixties” pretend to be the arbiters of Christian discourse. Those are the main reasons why I think I am a fundamentalist, and why I think “The Fundamentals” and their spirit are a good thing.

Sadly, the most vocal and visible endorsers of “The Fundamentals” were not exactly marked by Christian charity and discernment. Among those were some individuals and churches affected by a militant separatism that ignored the Christian mandate for unity in charity, and a fanatical anti-intellectualism that often caused the withdrawal of Christian orthodoxy into a ghetto.

Thus, it was just natural that the unholy alliance of religious liberals and secularists used the term “Fundamentalist” as a term of derision since its very inception, employing it for religious fanatics of all creeds and persuasions. This was an impressive achievement in the court of public opinion: to identify people who were unimpressed with the philosophies of the day, and preferred to believe in the truth of Christian revelation, with irrational fanatics and terrorists. Because of this, many adherents of Protestant orthodoxy were very reluctant to call themselves “fundamentalists.” A new label, “Evangelical”, was coined.

As we have seen, the term “Fundamentalist” is covered with so much FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) that most people prefer to avoid taking the label. In my case, I prefer not to use it, although I can state my agreement with “The Fundamentals;” and should anyone ask, I won’t have any trouble describing myself as a fundamentalist.

In his post, Tim laments the position of a self-described Fundamentalist who identifies the inerrancy of the Bible as the capital doctrine of Christianity. Because of this, he states that he is increasingly uncomfortable with Fundamentalism, and that he is more attracted to Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy. Is this good? Yes and no; let me explain.

The Neo-Orthodox Way

The Neo-Orthodoxy is a theological movement inspired mainly on Karl Barth, who might be described as the most important theologian of the twenieth century. His magnum opus, the unfinished Church Dogmatics, contains most of his thinking, along with his early commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

As was the case with Fundamentalism, Neo-Orthodoxy is a reaction against theological liberalism. It is also a vigorous cry against theological conformity to the spirit of the age. Barth was especially displeased with the hard-core liberalism taught by people influenced by Ritschl and von Harnack, and saw the hollowness behind it.

As a corrective, Neo-Orthodoxy strongly stresses the centrality of Christ as the source, the core and the crux of all theology and Christian practice. Neo-Orthodoxy perceives our initial condition as spiritually bankrupt, and ourselves as unable to overcome such condition. It is only by the revelation of God in Christ that we can overcome our spiritual crisis and alienation.

This theme is expounded and applied in the multi-volume Church Dogmatics of Barth with a depth of insight that is unmatched by any contemporary theologian. The strong emphasis on the centrality of Christ is certainly welcome, and a much needed corrective (for liberals) and reminder (for ourselves). It is a truth that we must not forget at any instance. The recently late Rev. Dr. Francisco Lacueva, a former Canon of the Tarazona Cathedral in Spain, a distinguished scholar and thinker who was a member of a Plymouth Brethren church and happy to be labeled as a fundamentalist, said of Barth: “It has depths [of theological insight] that no other theologian can come up with.”

But, is Neo-Orthodoxy The Way?

The correctives offered by Neo-Orthodoxy, and the depth of theological thinking showed by Barth (and also by many other proponents, such as Emil Brunner) attracted many adherents. However, there is another side of Neo-Orthodoxy that we must be aware of. In my opinion, it renders Neo-Orthodoxy unable to be considered as totally compatible with the regular, old-time orthodoxy. The main objections are three: natural theology, revelation, and universalism.

1. Natural Theology. The strong emphasis on the centrality of the revelation of God in Christ causes Barth to deny all possibility of a natural theology, understood as theological thinking without recourse to a special revelation from God.

Natural theology can be understood in two principal ways. Firstly, natural theology can be considered as a knowledge of God attained by rational reflection and arguments, mostly drawn from the experience of the world. The main example of this line of thinking is Thomas Aquinas. Secondly, natural theology could be understood as the theological project of Enlightenment Rationalism, i.e., a knowledge of God that is “compatible” with “natural reason” and free from “mythical encumbrances”. The main example of this line of thinking are the Deists and Ristchl.

Barth saw the theological bankruptcy and arrogance hidden behind the second type of natural theology, and vehemently denied any possibility of it. There is also a much-mentioned breakup with Emil Brunner, when the latter admitted some knowledge of God outside special revelation., which provoked Barth to write a book called Nein (i.e., “No”). As for the first type of natural theology, it was already denounced and condemned by the Reformers.

I fully concur with Barth when he explicitly denies any possibility of attaining true knowledge of God to that second-type of “natural theology”; but to go from that position to the claim that all natural and rational knowledge of God is impossible is, in my opinion, too much of a leap. Even the Reformers, for all their condemnation to the Scholastic natural theology, gave some place to rational reflection on God; only with the proviso, of course, that this reflection could not be normative for Christian life and doctrine, and totally superseded by special revelation.

My position is that we cannot rule out not only the possibility, but even the duty, of natural theology, judging from Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 2:14. In this regard, I find the position of Wolfhart Pannenberg (in his Systematic Theology, vol I., chapter 2) much saner. For Pannenberg, natural theology has a place in Christian theology with two main roles: a) As philosophical reflection that sets the standards against the truth claims about God could be tested against all other rival truth claims of competing deities and/or religions; and b) as a testbed for ascertaining the rational plausibility of Christian discourse about God, because even though Christian special revelation is not rationally attained, it should have contents that could stand as reasonable.

Thus, I think that there is a place under the sun for a natural theology that is a servant of the revealed theology, and I find Barth wrong in this regard.

2. Revelation. For Barth and most of the Neo-Orthodox writers, God revealed Himself to humanity through Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He is the Word of God, and the Scriptures are a record of the working of the Word of God through Israel and the Church. Thus, we arrive at the classical Neo-Orthodox statement that the Bible contains the Word of God but it is not itself the Word of God. To do otherwise would make us guilty of Bible idolatry.

There is a lot of truth of that. Hebrews 1:1,2 states clearly that God has spoken, and He has spoken through the Son, and not through the Bible. Moreover, the whole issue of Biblical higher criticism that gained currency since the Enlightenment contributed to cast doubts on the quality of the Bible as a source of dogmatic statements and as its role as a supernaturally inspired, historically truthful source of revelation (see especially Pannenberg, “La crisis del principio de Escritura”, in Cuestiones fundamentales de Teología Sistemática, trans. J.M. Mauleón y J. Leita [Salamanca: Sígueme, 1976], pp. 15-26; I think there is an English translation somewhere).

Right now, however, putting aside the Scripture principle that identifies God’s special revelation with the contents of the Holy Scripture, with that identification guaranteed by the plenary and verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not look as plausible as it did some time ago. There has been some extensive work documenting the arrogant assumptions lying behind most of the destructive Biblical higher criticism; especially, one could complain of a blind surrender to the philosophies of the day and an unfair submission of the Biblical pretensions to what Hegel or Heidegger fancied themselves. What really gives this criticism away is the willingness of the historiographical community to give historical value to anything but the Bible, and to see this prejudice translated “uncritically” to the higher critics. On any historiographic standard, the Bible is a better record, more objective and better transmitted and preserved than anything else; but no, the Bible is myth, while the machinations of an Egyptian priest who adscribes divine origin to the Pharoahs is a better source of Ancient Near Eastern chronology… and so it goes.

I am afraid that Barth critical separation from theological liberalism because of the latter’s perceived claudication into the spirit of the age was not followed by a similar separation from the equally influenced Biblical higher criticism of its day. And the reason, I think, was that Barth did not want to be seen as just another exponent of Protestant Scholasticism, on one side; and on the other, devaluing the Protestant Scripture principle enabled him to reinforce the Christ-centered aspects of his theology of revelation.

The Scripture principle stands strong as ever. I deem the Holy Scripture, the Bible, to be the Word of God fully inspired and without any mixture of human error in all matters of human knowledge, while I still recognize the primacy of the Lord Jesus Christ as the archetipal revelation of God (Isaiah 8:20; 2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1,2).

3. Universalism. For most people, this is a minor issue; but not for me. Barth strongly states the primacy of Christ and the absolute need of His work for attaining salvation. However, Barth also states that in Christ the whole humanity is the object of election. The corollary of this is, of course, that every man and woman on the planet is saved by the value of the work of Christ. This runs totally against the Biblical witness that states that salvation is only possible by joining Christ by an act of personal faith. Of course, this act of personal faith is the result of the sovereign decree of God manifested in His election; but by no means this is to be applied to all people. Revelation 20:15 alone rules out this.

In Conclusion

Barth’s failure to conform his theological system to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures on the areas of natural theology, the doctrine of revelation, and the universalism, prevent me from giving my full endorsement to his work and thought.

Despite these criticism, I regard Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy as a blessing by God. The corrections made by Barth to theological liberalism are refreshing and welcome; and his powerful theological insights could be profited by any Christian interested in deepening his or her theological thinking. Church Dogmatics is a masterpiece; amd I fully endorse Dr. Lacueva’s opinion. Moreover, it could function as a corrective to ourselves, because we too could be carried away by the idols of rationalism, conformity to the spirit of the age, or the Bible itself. I think that Barth’s Church Dogmatics should be required reading for any serious student of dogmatics, together with the corresponding works of Pannenberg, Berkouwer, Thielicke, and others.

With Tim and Ed, I am also increasingly unhappy with theological developments in the midst of fundamentalism. The militant and blind emphasis on inerrancy and KJV-onlyism come especially to my mind. However, I can still consider myself as a fundamentalist, especially if that term is meant to denote adherence to the doctrines espoused by “The Fundamentals.”

10 Comments

  1. I’m with you on the term “fundamentals” of faith. As our brother J-T has said, there are times when it might be inappropriate to espouse even the label “Christian” until we are sure its use approximates our own. In the context where I serve, it would be inappropriate to call myself “fundamentalist” because it typically includes baggage I don’t own. John the Baptist dealt with that when asked by the Pharisees if he were the Second Elijah. By their definition, he was not. Yet we all know by the proper prophetic definition, he was.

    I further agree Barth was a needed corrective, and fails only by comparison of the better position giving Scripture its proper place. Scripture is not The Rock of our faith, but the one and only sure path to Him. If you do not pass that way, you cannot know Him.

  2. Great post, Eduardo. If I get time, tomorrow or the next day, I’ll have to respond to a couple of points back over at my blog. I did a talk on Barth’s doctrine of election (including the universalism issue) a few weeks back, it might be a good time to post my thoughts on that online.

    Interesting you mention the Brunner/Barth debate. I have a little book that contains _Nature and Grace_ and _Nein!_ checked out from the library at the moment.

  3. I am from Burma(Myanmar). Please tell me about neo orthodoxy.
    Please tell me more about their faith statement and beliefs.

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