Neo-Orthodoxy Theology: Barth, Brunner et al.


Neo-orthodoxy is a concept used in advanced contemporary theology, also called liberal theology. The views of neo-theologians are different from those of the orthodoxy on the basis of their approaches to the word of God. Neo-theology is a deviant view of the doctrine of the word and is in complete disharmony with the orthodox views. The orthodoxy doctrines contend that the bible was inspired by God, both mechanically and verbally, and remains the revealed word of God (Grenz, & Olson, 1992). This essay seeks to evaluate the theologies of Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, and Niebuhr. To what extent were these theologies neo-orthodox?

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The views of orthodoxy point to the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration for the person that wrote the script. Orthodoxy holds that the Holy Spirit was in control when the bible was being written. The Holy Spirit worked through a person as the tool of writing or verbally dictated all that was written. Consequently, the orthodox doctrine concludes that the original biblical manuscripts were written without error (Escobar, 2003).

Neo-orthodoxy disputes the approaches of orthodoxy by asserting that the scripture was not written by the Holy Spirit using an individual as a tool of writing. Instead, neo-orthodoxy postulates the bible was an individuals personal interpretation of events or Gods word, thus rebuffing the orthodox claim that “the bible is the complete and sufficient revelation of God” (Escobar, 2003).

Barths Theology

Karl Barth lived between 1886 and 1968. Barth was a Swiss theologian and one of the most influential Christian theologians of the 20th century (Green, 2006). He began his theological experience with teaching, during which he disapproved of the European Protestantism typical liberal theology of the 19th century. His first theological philosophy came to be known as dialectical theology (Green, 2006). Barths dialectical theology emphasized the contradictory nature of the divine truth. His theology gave much emphasis on Gods sovereignty. He stressed, “the interpretation of the Calvinistic doctrine of election” (Green, 2006). Most of Barths critics often consider him the finding father of neo-orthodoxy (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).

Neo-Orthodoxy is commonly accredited to Karl Barth as its founding father. The doctrine of neo-orthodoxy, also called “the dialectical theology” in Europe, is broadly seen to be in gross contrast to orthodoxy. This doctrine continues to evoke conflicting reactions amongst the contemporary theologians. Conservative theologians see it as a deviant doctrine that is quite far fetched from the truth (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).

Barths aim was to transform the Gospel into a language he believed could be understood in modern society. To him, the old Gospel was not sufficient. In his teachings, he was spreading the Gospel of the universal election. In Barths Gospel, the word of God was not the word of God in the absence of the Holy Spirit, which subjectively worked for every individual (Green, 2006). He made an attempt to redeem the doctrine of Trinity, which was purportedly lost in liberalism.

According to Barth, God is the object of His own self-knowledge, and the biblical revelation is the self exposition to Gods humanity (Hordern, 1955). The redemption and development of the doctrine of the trinity is the prime universal enterprise of contemporary theology. Barth inducted the enterprise, and therefore he is accredited for the successful recovery of the doctrine of Trinity (Escobar, 2003).

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Brunners Theology

Heinrich Emil Brunner lived between 1889 and 1966. Just like Karl Barth, he was a Swiss Reformed theologian and a key player in the finding of neo-orthodoxy. He also rebutted the European liberal theology, which claimed that Jesus Christ was only a well respected and honored individual and not the son of God. Brunner, however, strongly defended the argument that Jesus Christ was the key to salvation, and He was Gods incarnate (Hordern, 1955). To him, the Christ interposed between the free human credence of the gift of salvation from God and His sovereign approach to humankind (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).

Green (2006) points out that Brunner tried to establish a neutral stand within the continuing Calvinist and Arminian controversy. Given that he was a German-speaking Protestant theologian, his views were seen to be a combination of the Reformed views of Christian theology (soteriology) and Lutheran doctrine. Brunners criticized Barth on the grounds of that Barths take on the liberal pressure on universal salvation and double preordination of Calvin. His theology was focusing on a single preordination (Hordern, 1955).

Brunner, together with his subjects in the neo-orthodoxy, declined in its entirety the conception of human connection with God through salvation. On the contrary, Brunner and his colleagues welcomed the views of Augustine, which were ascertained through the Martin Luther doctrine. He, too, disapproved of the existence of miraculous factors inscribed within the scripture. He was therefore challenging “the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible” (Hordern, 1955). These beliefs made most theologians from Great Britain and from America to criticize Brunners theological views, even though he was in consensus with evangelical and fundamentalist theologians and also acknowledged the centrality of the Christ (Escobar, 2003).

Apparently, Emil Brunner was a vocal advocate of neo-orthodoxy. Brunner was the proponent of the crisis theology, which states “the turning point in history occurs when God in Christ confronts humanity,” after which an individual is able to discover the existence of two roads, one leading from God to death, while the other one is leading to God and life (Escobar, 2003).

Boltzmann’s Theology

Ludwig Boltzmann lived between 1844 and 1906. Boltzmann is renowned for his idea of the fluctuation of the universe. He posited that as a result of the fluctuation of the universe, the universe existed in a state of entropy, and everything that existed on it had been thermo-equalized and therefore was in an entropy state (Grenz, & Olson, 1992). But what was his take on theology?

As a result of Boltzmanns strong belief in thermodynamics, Boltzmann’s brains were conceived. Boltzmanns brains, according to Hordern (1955), “are hypothesized phenomenon emerging from the cosmological interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics,” which posits the complexness of the universe continues to intensify (Hordern, 2003). Boltzmanns initial theory was that random thermal variations could be attributed to the creation of the universe. He further asserts the human observation of the universe had low-level entropy and high-level organization and was simply a figment of the imagination.

Boltzmanns ideas raised a lot of concern in the field of theology, as his views posed serious implications in the revelation of the truth about the Universe and the connection among humanity, the Universe, and God. His brains could have been used on the basis of a rational and scientific account for the existence of God. He was a pious atheist with great tolerance for the religious discourse. Basically, Boltzmanns doctrine was that of rational theology. His hypothesis for the existence of God was, perhaps, the first to be accredited. In Boltzmanns brains, the existence of God didn’t involve “mindless veneration and leaps of faith” (Grenz, & Olson, 1992).

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Boltzmann had what could be seen as a real explanation for Gods existence. In his explanation, he begins by arguing that God came about as a result of the first cause of the universe. The first cause was the thermo-equalized foundation of the universe. Together with his fellow atheists, they believe God spontaneously came into existence from a formless, chaotic state and out of the void. This view also postulates if God came into existence from nothingness and formless chaos, then God Himself is formless and non-existing (William, 2001).

The theology of Boltzmann was in complete contrast with that of Barth and Brunner. While Barth and Brunner accepted the existence of God and, to a great extent, His involvement in the creation of the Universe, Boltzmann has a sharp contradiction of such claims. His theology was neo-orthodox in the sense that, like Barth and Brunner, what is written in the bible is only the imaginations of humankind and not inspired scriptures (William, 2001).

Niebuhrs Theology

Karl Reinhold Niebuhr lived between 1892 and 1971. Niebuhr was both a theologian and a public commentator. Before shifting to neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s, Niebuhr was a shrewd liberal theologian in the 1920s. In his neo-orthodox views, he took issues with the sin of pride, asserting that the sin of pride was the cause of evilness in the world (William, 2001).

Niebuhr was a critic of utopianism, which he held was ineffective in addressing the universal reality. He became an exceedingly influential religious figure in the years between the 1940s and 1950s. In his theological doctrine, Niebuhr challenged the liberal theologians on the basis of their conception of sin and disposition of the social Gospel. He was at the same time against the doctrine of religious conservativism, which he argued had a naïve and narrow view of the truthfulness in religion and a callow perceptivity of the scripture (William, 2001).

Niebuhr spent a good amount of his life, establishing the connection between realism and the Christian faith with regard to foreign affairs. He did not invest any effort in spreading idealism (Grenz, & Olson, 1992). It is important to note here that Niebuhrs views and contributions in contemporary theology had impacts on liberalists who later echo the same realistic views in their foreign policy.

He talked about “sin and grace, he discussed faith and reason, and he addressed the issue of love and justice, idealism and realism” (William, 2001). All his ideas were under the umbrella of neo-orthodox theology and were greatly influenced by the European dialectical theology and Barths theology.


To the believers of neo-orthodoxy, the biblical scripture is not a revelation in itself as held in orthodoxy, but a medium of the revelation of the word. In the context of neo-orthodoxy, revelation is subject to individual interpretation of each other, and the truth is “a mystical experience, not a concrete fact” (William, 2001). In the neo-orthodox mindset, there is a clear differentiation between the revealed word of God and the word of God. The revealed word of God is referred to as the spirit world, and the word of God is termed as the letter. Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, and Niebuhrs theologies attempted to continue the doctrine of neo-orthodox.


Escobar, S. (2003). The new global mission: The gospel from everywhere to everyone. Downers Grove (IL). Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN-13: 9780830833016.

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Green, G. (2006). Introduction to On Religion by Karl Barth. London: T&T Clark.

Grenz, S., & Olson, R. (1992). The 20th century theology: God and the world in atran sitional Age. Downers Grove (IL). Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN-13: 0-8308-1525.

Hordern, W. (1995). A layman’s guide to Protestant theology: Revised Edition. Wipf & Stock Publishers. ISBN-13: 1-57910-925-X.

William, C. (2001). “Unapologetic theology: A Christian voice in a pluralistic Conversation.” Westminster John Knox Press, 1989ISBN0664250645.

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