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Orthodoxy and Neo-Orthodoxy

4 Mar

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.

The Casual Use of Theological Terminology

31 Jan

Relax. That image is tongue in cheek.

From a current conversation that I am having with someone regarding a very technical aspect of theology, I am rediscovering a real and pervasive problem that is hindering people from getting a better grasp of God and the Bible.

This is an important issue, because it creates confusion on our understanding of God– which in turn has a radical effect on how we think and live our lives.

The problem? That some people (especially church leaders and church members) use theological words and terminology without really understanding what they mean.

Need I give examples? OK, sure… How about:

  • Limited Atonement or Unlimited Atonement… or “atonement” for that matter
  • Election, unconditional or conditional
  • Redemption
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • The list goes on

Now, it’s not that NO ONE knows what the words mean, but they are used by BOTH people who do AND don’t understand those terms. They are then, in turn, heard by people who had a limited understanding of the terms in the first place– who, themselves, then casually re-use the terms with others. The result is that it sort of becomes the old example of getting in a circle and sharing a word or concept with someone and them passing around the circle until it gets back to the original person; inevitably, the concept bears no resemblance to what was originally said or meant. That’s what happens when people are fast and loose with theological terms– especially Christian leaders and speakers.

The Development of “Hearsay Status”

As a result, these words take on a type of “hearsay status” where everybody uses the words without really understanding exactly what they mean. And that further dilutes the already weak understanding of theology that people had in the first place.

Now, one good rule of thumb is to AVOID using words of which we don’t know the meaning. My mom taught me that when I was a kid. My Uncle “Cotton,” as he was called, told me to go to my mom (in front of a group of people) and make a certain statement. I dutifully did what my mischievous uncle told me to do, only to see the look of horror on my mom’s face as the profane word fell from my lips. (I’ve never said THAT word since). The experience taught me not to use words I didn’t really know.

But that doesn’t keep the average person from doing it.

The Solution

Lest you misunderstand from these initial statements, let me clarify my point. The solution to this problem isn’t what you think. By no means would I suggest that people STOP using theological terms altogether. Nor do I want to force people to “leave theology for the formally educated.” No, theology is everybody’s business. And we “use” theology every time we think or say anything about God.

So the answer isn’t to STOP using theology or theological terms– it is simply for people to engage in more rigorous LEARNING of theological words. It is a good thing for Christians and others to develop a working knowledge of what such words mean, so they can engage in more meaningful and intelligent discourse about truth, knowledge, meaning, ethics, morality, and… God. And as a person develops that understanding, their use of such words should be commensurate with the current knowledge that they have.

Also, we should insist on people using these words technically and accurately, so we can ensure that closer approximations and descriptions of spiritual phenomena and realities are commonly known and understood. That means holding people who use these words accountable for their proper use. As we do, over time, our collective understanding of important themes and ideas will be greater, and we can all grow in our depth and breadth of the most important things in life and eternity.


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