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TEXT: II Peter 1:16

SUBJECT: Heresies #8: Neo-Orthodoxy

In January of this year, we began an occasional study of heresy. Heresy is a major false teaching in the Church. I say it's a major false teaching because no one is perfect and the soundest men make mistakes. I say it's in the Church because many false doctrines are not in the Church-atheism, for example, or Islam. These are wrong and dangerous teachings, of course, but no one who calls himself a Christian believes in them.

Heresies are taught in the Name of Christ; they often find support in the Bible and are accepted by people who say they're disciples of the Lord Jesus.

The first major heresy was Judaism or reading the Old Testament as though Christ had not come. It is exposed and demolished in the New Testament, especially in Romans, Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews.

Other heresies soon followed, including Arianism that says Jesus is not God and Gnosticism that says the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New.

A bit later, we had the Pelagians who taught that salvation isby works, not grace and that man has the resources in himself to save himself if he wants to.

In the Middle Ages, two great heresies broke out: one involves the use of Images in the Church. The other is the Doctrine of the Mass in which the bread and wine of the Lord's Table becomes the literal body and blood of Christ and so in it, the Lord is crucified every day all over the world.

Last time, we studied a newer heresy called Liberalism, which has had a powerful and hurtful affect on the Church for more than 200 years now.

Today, we'll look at a heresy that is even newer than Liberalism-in fact, it rose in reaction to it. In opposing Liberalism it was right, but sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.

The doctrine is called Neo-Orthodoxy, or once in a while, someone will call it The Theology of Crisis or Dialectical Theology.


Neo-Orthodoxy did not just drop out of the sky. Like other human philosophies, it developed over time against a particular background.

The context it came out of was Liberalism or Modernism. Two or three hundred years ago, men became tired of all the fussing and fighting over doctrine. They began to say that Christianity is not a set of doctrines at all, but rather, a feeling of dependence on God and a way of life-a life full of charity and kindness and so on.

The second part is true: Christianity is a dependence on God and a way of treating your neighbor. But that's not all it is and these good things cannot be hung in the air! They have to be placed on something solid-and they are-the solid rock of true doctrine. We depend on God because we know He loves us and we know He loves us because His Son died for us. We ought to love others and we can, once again, because Christ loved us and gave Himself for us. These are not feelings; they are doctrines, true doctrines because the events they describe really happened!

The main ideas of Liberalism are four:

From about 1800, these ideas started catching on. Within 100 years, the controlled all the major churches in Europe and most of them here in the States. A few voices were heard in the wilderness, but Liberalism had turned God's Garden into a Wasteland of unbelief.

But then something happened. It was the First World War, beginning in 1914 and ending four years later, it was the bloodiest and most pointless war in the history of the world. Trenches were dug all over France, Belgium, and Germany, and they became mass graves. Millions died and, when the war ended, no one could say why it was fought. Liberalism, which looked for a Paradise on Earth found a Slaughterhouse!

The Liberals were wrong! If the Holy Spirit is the human spirit, then it's also the spirit of Satan! Man is not basically good, but radically evil, capable of the worst violence and all for nothing. If God is not angry with the world, there is no God. The Kingdom will not be brought in by the schemes of men!

At this time, many professed Christians renounced their faith. But others didn't. Looking at the carnage all around them, they recoiled from the easy and optimistic answers of Liberalism. They sought a faith that could account for the facts.

There was one existing at the time: Orthodox, Evangelical Christianity. The Bible had the answers and the people who humbly believed God's Word had no problem explaining why the world was in the mess it was back in 1918.

But the former Liberals thought Bible believing Christians were naïve and their interpretations of the Bible were simplistic.

They didn't like the old paths in which many faithful men had walked-and still did. They set out to blaze new trails of their own. All this took place from the end of the Great War to the rise of Hitler fifteen years later.


The three leading men of Neo-Orthodoxy were all German (or Swiss-German). All were born in the 1880's and lived long and fruitful lives. The most important of them is the pastor, Karl Barth , Emil Bruner a theologian, and the New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann. The men did not see eye-to-eye on everything, of course, but it is fair to group them together under the name Neo-Orthodox.


What do the leading men of Neo-Orthodoxy teach? What are the distinctives of their system compared to others? This is not easy to answer because to a man they depend very much on what they call paradox and what I'd call contradiction.

When I first read them years ago, I was blown away by the power of their writings, but when I closed their books, I had no idea what they were saying. Here's a quote from Karl Barth on Predestination (if you think Calvinism is confusing, you ain't seen nothing yet!)

"If man responds to God's revelation by faith, he is what God intended him to be-an elect. But if he does not respond, he remains a reprobate. But since man is always in crisis, unconditional pardon and complete rejection continue to apply to everyone simultaneously. The two decisions meet in the same individual, but in such a way that, from the human side, man is always reprobate, but seen from the Divine side, he is always elect."

Who wants to take a crack at this one?

The first two sentences are false, but at least they're clear. Faith makes a sinner elect; unbelief makes him non-elect. But then he goes on to say that every man is both elect and non-elect at the same time! In other words, the faith that makes you elect also leaves you reprobate and unbelief that leaves you reprobate also makes you elect! Looked at from the human side, man is rejected by God, but from the Divine side, he is accepted by God. In fine, all men are (1) unconditionally pardoned by God, and-at the same time-(2) completely rejected by God!

Everyone has a bad day now and then. Many things I've said in the pulpit were a knot of contradictions. But if you read Barth-even his popular writings-you see he writes like this all the time!

It is not because he was a stupid man! He was highly intelligent and well-educated. He wrote like this because he did not believe that order or logic or reason applied to God. And thus He could be both (a) and (non-a) at the same time. Is the Lord bound by logic and reason? Of course He isn't! He isn't bound by anything. But He is orderly-and He does not contradict Himself.

Which the Neo-Orthodox men do in nearly every sentence.


What does Neo-Orthodoxy teach? As I said before, it's leading men lived long and productive lives: few men have read as much as Barth, Bruner, and Bultmann have written. Their followers have added to their work quite extensively.

However, let me single out a few of their distinctive articles of faith and state them as clearly as I can (though, remember, they're always contradicting themselves).

    1. God is Wholly Other.
    2. This term, Wholly Other, is central to their theology. It was forged as a weapon against the Liberals who equated God with nature and the human spirit. Barth and the other said, Nein! God is not us; He is not the babbling brook or the starry heavens the poets are so fond of!

      This is right-He isn't the creation; He is Other. But they don't leave it there. They say He is Wholly Other, which means God is absent from the creation.

      This means "The heavens do not declare the glory of God and the firmament does not show His handiwork.What can be known of God are not clearly seen by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.He left Himself without witness."

      This fundamental mistake is going to create all the others that follow.

    3. The Bible is not God's Word but is a witness to the Word.
    4. What is the Bible? To Barth's way of thinking, it is a creation of man-a fine and noble creation, to be sure, but that's all-a creature. Now, is God connected to the creation in any way? No. Therefore, the Bible cannot be the Word of God.

      If it's not the Word of God, what is it? It is man's attempt to describe his encounter with God. God came to the writers of the Bible in an awesome and spiritual way and they tried to put their feelings about Him into words. That's the Bible-a witness to the Word-and, therefore, "true" in a vague, fuzzy sense, but not infallible, inerrant, or authoritative.

    5. The Gospel events are true, but they are not factual.
    6. Was our Lord born of a virgin? Did He live a sinless life? Did He perform miracles? Did He preach the Sermon on the Mount? Did He die on the cross? Did He rise from the dead?

      All Christian affirm these things. The Neo-Orthodox do too, but then they explain that the events did not happen in history, but in what they call Sacred History. In other words, they occurred in the Faith of the Church, in the hearts of the faithful, and so on, but they didn't occur in and around Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago-and even if they did, it doesn't matter one way or the other!

      You can see how this is connected to the wholly otherness of God. If God is totally separated from the world of time and space, then His Son did not-really-die on the cross and rise the next Sunday morning.

    7. All men are saved.

Finally, the Neo-Orthodox affirm a universal salvation. Because they're so unclear, it is hard to pin them down on this point, but as far as I can tell, none of them believes in a literal damnation after death. Which is another way of saying that all men will be saved.

This causes a big problem: how can they say that all men are saved and also explain the wickedness of men that seems to belie their salvation? If all men are Christians, how come so many of them say they aren't and act like it?

The Neo-Orthodox explain this by saying that although everyone is redeemed by Christ, not everyone knows that he is redeemed by Christ.

This is what the Gospel does in their scheme: it announces that we are saved! And, to the more conservative, because we are saved, we ought to live like it-even though we'll be saved if we don't.


Neo-Orthodoxy is a very dangerous set of doctrines and way of reading the Bible and living the Christian life. Cornelius Van Til who knew Barth and studied his writings with great care, thought it was worse than Liberalism. Francis Schaeffer says the same thing.

The danger lies in slipperiness of the doctrines. In one sermon, Barth might affirm and deny the Virgin Birth or say the Lord is risen, but his real tomb may not be not empty!

This permits the undiscerning Christian to swallow a lot of poison with the milk and meat of the Word.

It also puts his experience above the objective Word of God and that cannot be good or safe.

Finally, it undermines the Word of God and makes the Christian wonder if God has really spoken or not.


That's the heresy of Neo-Orthodoxy. Pray for people who are in it; befriend them if you can and try to help them see the truth as it is in Christ and the Bible.

Stay away from every religious fad that is not solidly founded on the Bible. Wonderful experience is good, but it does not save or determine right and wrong or lead you into God's Will. Mixed with faith, the Scripture does all these things and more.

We can be satisfied with that Word-the sure word of prophecy! God help us! Amen!

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