A Question I Was Asked:

...I Am Attracted to the Theology of Karl Barth; Is Neo-Orthodoxy Acceptable For The Searching Christian?”

My Reply:

While at University I too was attracted to the Theology of Karl Barth and, truthfully, I still have a soft spot for his writings. Unforunately, however, there are problems, indeed quite serious ones.

The school of Neo-Orthodoxy came along in response to the utter despair of the 19th century/early 20th century theological liberals such as Harnack and Schleiermacher. Once some of these early liberals had picked over the Bible there seemed to be little left to build a faith upon; Neo-Orthodoxy said that this had gone too far and there was a need to get back to a more orthodox Christian position, hence the name Neo-Orthodoxy. However, Neo-Orthodoxy was a compromise. This school of theology still insisted that not all of Liberal Protestantism could be rejected and, in fact, Neo-Orthodoxy still upheld most of the complaints of the liberals: They believed that the Scriptures could not be utterly relied upon. They mostly truly believed in a transcendent God but insisted we could know little of Him due to the unreliability of Scripture, and, in any case, how can written words in a book tell us anything of God? In response to this pessimistic position they developed an existentialist theology. These writers (at least theoretically) fully accepted the anti-supernatural claims of Modernism and yet – despite this – they really believed that there was a great God out there......somewhere........

Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had much influence here.

Kierkegaard taught that no matter how rigorous your belief system, there will always be gaps. As these gaps are logical gaps, it is futile to try and bridge them. Instead, they can only be breached by taking a Leap of Faith. What characterises a leap of faith is the absolute uncertainty that underlies it. Faith is by definition that which cannot be proven or disproved. That is why a leap of faith is undertaken in 'fear and trembling.'

So the existentialist-influenced Neo-Orthodox theologians taught that we need to make a 'leap of faith' in order to know the true God since absolutely no evidence is available to support such a belief. Had not God, perhaps, even designed it that way?

Today we can see that Neo-Orthodox theology was built on a foundation of sand. Modernism (including the belief that science and human research can discover/solve all things) has been blown away, to be replaced by the scepticism of Postmodernism. We now know the limitations of science and of human endeavour. Recent archaeological discoveries (commencing even before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls ) have tended to corroborate much within the Bible in the area of customs, time settings and personalities. The Documentary Source Hypothesis as a valid and helpful tool to explain the writing of the Torah is now just about dead (see my article, Does Anyone Still Believe the Documentary Hypothesis?)

The best way to truly appreciate the limitations of Karl Barth and of Neo-Orthodoxy is to read Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There, which is excellent in showing the serious inadequacies of all liberal man-made theologies, including Neo-Orthodoxy. Schaeffer says,

'The God who created man in His own image communicates true truth about Himself. Therefore, this need not be thought of as only an existential experience or contentless “religious ideas.” We have true knowledge, for as the Scriptures say so simply and overwhelmingly, when God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone, or when Jesus spoke to Paul on the Damascus road in the Hebrew language, a real language was used subject to grammars and lexicons, a language to be understood.' (Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, page 104, Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy, paperback, Inter-Varsity, 1998).

In contrast to this, the Neo-Orthodox approach to finding God is ethereal and mystical, and Christ is wholly 'other.' Karl Barth taught that the Scriptures were only a guide to the revelation of Christ and that we need an existentialist encounter with Christ in order to know Him. He rejected any place for proof or evidence, fully supporting the 'leap of faith' concept. He also rejected the concept that we can learn anything at all about God from the natural world (the apostle Paul, however, is quite clear that the natural world itself teaches us so much about God that we are 'without excuse' if we then reject Him! See Romans 1:18-20).

In fairness to Karl Barth, however, towards the end of his life he appeared to begin to see the shortcomings of Neo-Orthodoxy and spoke of the historical resurrection of Christ. This is very encouraging, since Neo-Orthodoxy generally taught that Christ's passion and resurrection were not within human history but beyond it. In complete contrast to this, the New Testament writers spend much time in stressing that the events concerning the gospel occurred within history and that, in fact, many had witnessed them.

Karl Barth's voluminous writings (especially in his huge Church Dogmatics!) are a mixture of many things. He did indeed (correctly) stress that God can only be found through Christ and his theology is constantly Christocentric (putting Christ central in everything) – this is great, however, there are suspicions of romanticism and mysticism in his concept of encountering Christ. He has (probably unjustly) been accused of teaching Universalism (all will be saved), but he certainly taught a very broad salvation – but only through Christ! While some of his writings are hard to follow, other things he wrote are quite beautiful and really inspiring. He must also be commended for his stinging attacks on the older Liberal Protestantism, in fact it was probably Barth more than anybody else who drove the final nails into the coffin of the older, 19th century Liberal Protestantism.

So I would say, by all means read a little Barth but be constantly aware of the serious scepticism towards Scriptural integrity which is inherent in his Neo-Orthodoxy. Yet he was a believer who appeared to fully accept Christ and this cannot be taken away from him. How encouraging then to note that, in his final years, Barth apparently came to see that existentialist theology could not contain the full truth of the Gospels.

Today we would say that Neo-Orthodox theology is a compromise from a group of theologians who were still far too accepting of the German rationalist Bible critics. Today, encouragingly, we can again be more positive of scriptural integrity in the light of the far greater knowledge of the ancient world which we now have.

Robin A. Brace, 2006.