Well, another friend of mine asked me to address the following question. It took me so long to type it out, I figured more than only one person may have this question, so here goes. It’s late, so I probably shouldn’t be writing technical pieces like this… and I’m certainly not an expert– but I do understand a little about it and hope it’s a helpful discussion to get you thinking about how things, especially theology, “works.” She asked:
Question: I’m confused. What is the difference between Neo-Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy?
The confusion comes from the fact that these two ideas (Orthodoxy and Neo-Orthodoxy) are TWO DIFFERENT CATEGORIES of things.
* Orthodoxy is not completely related to NEO-Orthodoxy– at least, not in the exact way they are often used today. They just happen to have the same words in them. But in my discussion below, I will relate them to one another in a way that may make sense.
Orthodoxy has two definitions. It can EITHER BE (a) The large body of Christian believers, the Orthodox Church– similar to Roman Catholicism. So that’s “one type” of Orthodoxy: The “Orthodox Church.” But that’s probably not what you’re thinking about. The second type of orthodoxy is (b) the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. Meaning, the irreducible minimum of convictions and beliefs that one must affirm in order to legitimately be a born-again believer.
Note: Those essentials of the faith, this irreducible minimum that I’ll outline, are typically the same beliefs that we call “Evangelical Theology.” So you could say that, generally speaking, Evangelical Theology is BUILT ON this original concept of orthodoxy—these primary beliefs I’ll list below.
* Neo-Orthodoxy is a WAY OF LOOKING AT THEOLOGY– it’s a type or view of theology. It could be compared to (a) evangelical theology and (b) process theology and (c) liberal theology and (d) so on. Neo-Orthodoxy is a view that drifted from the fundamentals of the faith (orthodoxy) and rejected some of those major views that comprised orthodoxy.
Orthodox means “right beliefs.” The right beliefs that comprise orthodoxy are the same as essential, biblical conservative evangelical Christianity. They include:
- authority of God’s Word (usually certain and specific views, be it inspiration, infallability, and/or inerrancy)
- virginal conception/virgin birth
- deity of Christ
- substitutionary atonement in Christ’s blood/necessity of new birth for salvation
- literal physical resurrection of Christ
- holy trinity as Godhead
Well, neo-orthodoxy rejected at least the absolute authority of the Holy Bible as absolutely necessary. They rejected that former view of orthodoxy I just gave, and established a NEW ORTHODOXY– a new set of standards about what comprised ‘correct beliefs.’ In other words, they changed the rules. They reinterpreted what ‘truth’ meant. They moved the goal lines. They decided they didn’t like those essential rules, and changed the rules of belief. It’s like going from a gold standard where a dollar EQUALS a dollar, to devaluing your money and a dollar being equal to only .29 cents, but still “calling it” a dollar, despite the inflationary value of the dollar bill.
So that’s what lots of theologians at that time did. It originated in Europe, particularly Switzerland and Germany, if I’m not mistaken.
Europe was increasingly liberal. Many of the schools there had long before outright objected orthodox convictions and had gone WAY OUT, completely departing from anything even remotely similar to biblical beliefs. They were social Christians, called Christian as far as religion goes, but were not convictionally biblical in their teachings.
But this group of theologians who would become neo-orthodox didn’t want to go that far. In fact, they rejected the far-out liberal views. They wanted something in-between. Not too restrictive and fundamental, but not as far out as flat out liberalism.
So they knew they were drifting far from true biblical beliefs and true orthodoxy (the 5/6 fundamentals of the faith I described). So, instead of feeling that way, they decided as a collective group of theologians to begin thinking a different way. Those theologians who felt that way rejected orthodoxy, created new rules– and Neo-Orthodoxy was established. And any person who used their basic beliefs AS THE STARTING POINT (OR THEIR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT GOD, TRUTH, THE BIBLE) OF DOING THEOLOGY (THINKING ABOUT GOD, LIFE, ETERNITY, THE BIBLE), WERE FROM THEN ON CALLED “Neo-Orthodox Theologians.”
After a while, people who trained in Europe under those theologians naturally began to be swayed– and they began to believe the same things. So Neo-Orthodoxy’s influence spread.
People began, in lots of places, looking at the Bible differently. They began looking at “church” differently. They began thinking of Christianity differently. And these schools who were now teaching Theology and Bible from a Neo-Orthodox perspective, began to produce graduates who (naturally) came to accept much or all of what they were taught. This led to at least 3 big things.
1.Graduates from European Neo-Orthodox seminaries were hired by those faculties at the seminaries at which they studied. This ensured that neo-orthodox views would continue to be taught generation to generation.
Graduates with advanced degrees from European Neo-Orthodox seminaries were hired by faculties in the US and elsewhere—further establishing Neo-Orthodox views in other places. Since it is often considered avant garde in educational institutions to hire people with novel ideas and who were trained abroad—to broaden people’s perspectives and allow for liberal academic freedom, those graduates were/are hired in many schools.
3. The majority of graduates from schools with heavy percentages of Neo-Orthodox faculty tended to become neo-orthodox in perspective themselves, and assumed leadership positions in (a) churches who would accept those views or didn’t know any better and (b) in denominational agencies who hired them. Since denominational agencies seek people with advanced degrees, lots of neo-orthodox graduates were hired for leading roles in those denominations, which further pushed (over a period of time) those denominations in a certain theological direction—typically AWAY FROM biblical Christianity (orthodoxy) and TOWARD Neo-Orthodox views of theology (meaning, toward a new way of looking at orthodoxy—a new way of looking at spiritual things).
That is how neo-orthodoxy got so rooted into things.
So, what is Neo-Orthodoxy then?
Neo-Orthodoxy came primarily, originally, from the early 1900s from two main people—Karl Barth (pronounced with a silent “h” meaning pronounced “bart”) and Emil Brunner. These men wrote books about their views (the most well-known possibly being Barth’s Doctrine of the Word of God and Christian Dogmatics, among others. They attracted other minds, such as Soren Kierkegaard and Rudolph Bultmann, and Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm, etc.
Neo-Orthodoxy is complex, but these major points are important.
· God is enormously transcendent. Most Christians believe this concept—but Neo-Orthodox take it way farther. They view God as far, far, far beyond us or our ability to truly comprehend and know. This makes some of those groups sound like they are preaching a great and holy God, but one that is really, really distant from us and perhaps not as close and as intimate as we would like Him to be.
· Interesting Note: Some churches that tend to be more neo-orthodox tend to ‘feel’ less intimate in worship and in their approach to discipleship and knowing God intimately. (This includes SOME Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, etc. This would also include SOME, fewer groups like Methodism, Disciples/Christian Church, Episcopals, etc. Some of those latter groups I just mentioned ended up in full on Liberal Theology- and others ended up more Evangelical in theology.
· The big issue with Neo-Orthodoxy is their view of the Bible. This view is that, and I may be oversimplifying here—and I’m not an expert on this—but the gist of it is that there is the Word of God (the Bible) and the Revealed Word of God (the spirit-empowered essence of truth). And while I believe that the Holy Bible IS the Word of God as it is written in the Bible, they would believe that the words in the Bible are words… that BECOME the Word of God at certain times and in certain experiences when God speaks to us. In this way, a Neo-Orthodox wouldn’t completely focus on the Bible and its teachings, but may focus more on personal experience, and religious experience, and truth then isn’t just what is said by God in the Bible—but really, something we experience—and what we believe and what is true is more subjective and relative, and we may believe and experience something that is “truth for us” even if it contradicts specific teachings in the Bible—since “we are not under the law, but under grace” and so on.
That view of the Bible and truth and the Word of God changes everything about truth—and that opens the door to views and beliefs that are, well, unorthodox.