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Neo-orthodoxy is a major Protestant theological development in the 20th century. Originating in Europe after World War I, it spread to the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s and to some extent displaced Liberal Christianity with its emphasis on God as the centerpiece of religion. It dominates the Mainline Protestant denominations. The leading American theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).

Neo-Orthodox theologians have characteristics in common with both the Religious Left and the Religious right. Its members include the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the American theologian Paul Tillich. They rejected much of the liberalism, emphatically embracing the doctrine of original sin, but still held modernist biblical criticism in high regard and never fully questioned the liberal foundations of science—unlike anti-modernism, which rejects biblical criticism and never shies away from such confrontation.

The origins of the Neo-Orthodoxy movement stem from Karl Barth's realization around 1920 that his old ideas were outmoded. Barth then rejected 350 years of German Protestant teaching—almost everything after or outside of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Barth asserted that God is "wholly other" and that man must reshape himself to God's design and not the other way around as had become the norm in 19th century Swiss, German Christian theology.[1]

One common characteristic is an enthusiasm for the thought of the Russian Fedor Dostoevski and the Dane Soren Kierkegaard and a rejection of 19th century German theological thought (e.g., Wilhelm Herrmann).

American branch

The American branch of neo-orthodoxy is the theological literature by and on Reinhold Niebuhr, his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, and his friend whom he helped extract from Nazi Germany Paul Tillich. Within the American Academy and mainline churches from the 1930s through the 1960s the theological work of these three men eclipsed that of any others.

Reinhold Niebuhr's 1939 complaint against Liberal Christianity:

Liberal Christianity, in short, tended to follow modern culture in estimating both the stature and the virtue of man. It did not recognize that man is a spirit who can find a home neither in nature nor in reason, but only in God.[2]

The last of the neo-orthodox theologians was Langdon Gilkey. He died in 2004.

European trunk and root

The European portion of neo-orthodoxy was in fact the movement's trunk and root. The root is clearly the work of Karl Barth yet it was initially not his but those of his colleague Emil Brunner read by the Americans Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. It was the Niebuhr's who helped arrange for English translations of Brunner's work. English translations of Barth's work did not appear until after those of Brunner's. From an Anglo-American perspective Bart's work suffers from and is mired in the swamps of German dialectical thought. Hegelian dialectical thought is steadfastly rejected by the Anglo-American Academy (for example, the British academic Karl Popper waged a war consisting of many battles against dialectical thought, which is apparently as destructive to the British and American Academy, and as incompatible, as plugging in a 120V/60 Hz American appliance into a 240V/50 Hz European outlet). Unlike Barth's work, Emil Brunner's did not dwell on what is alternatively called continental, Hegelian, and German dialectic.

Neo-orthodoxy and Christian Antimodernism

A useful but somewhat simplistic way of defining neo-orthodoxy is to define it as the rejection of Professor Wilhelm Herrmann teachings by some of his students—in this sense antimodernism is a branch of neo-orthodoxy. For John Gresham Machen, who traveled to Germany and studied with Herrmann in 1905, is a key figure in the formation of Christian Conservativism. Above all, the common ground between anti-modernism, and Neo-orthodoxy is the acceptance and evangelism of the doctrine of Sin. A significant difference is the solution to the problem of sin. Antimodernism espouses the doctrine of Salvation, while neo-orthodoxy remains eerily silent on such a solution despite all its vociferousness about the sin.

Neo-orthodoxy and Reformed theology

Another way to categorize and define neo-orthodoxy is as a subset of Reformed Christianity. This was done by George M. Marsden and others in the book Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development (Eerdmans, 1985).[3]

Further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. ''Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (2003) excerpt and text search


  1. "Thunder and Lightning in a Pen", Richard N. Ostling, Time magazine, Monday, Aug. 03, 1981
  2. April 26, 1939 The Christian Century, Reinhold Niebuhr, "Ten Years That Shook My World", pages 542-546
  3. Reformed Theology in America (Google Book preview)