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Neo-Orthodoxy, a stream of 20th century Protestant theology which attempted to recover some essential elements of Reformation theology, notably emphasis on the sovereignty and grace of God, human sinfulness, and the primacy of revelation through Scripture.

Karl Barth (1886-1968), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), and Emil Brunner (1889-1965), while differing from one another in some important respects, are influential voices in this stream. Neo-orthodox theology, forged in the crucible of post-World-War-I Europe and refined there and in the United States during the World War II years, strongly criticized aspects of 19th- and early 20th century liberal theology: liberalism's emphasis on the immanence of the divine in the human spirit, its tendency to view sin as a result of ignorance or natural impulse rather than willful wrong, and its optimistic view of history as a progressive overcoming of evil and gradual building of the kingdom of God.

The publication of Karl Barth's book on the Epistle to the Romans in 1918 (English trans., 1922) marked the beginning of neo-orthodox theology. Concerned about theology's turn to the human subject, a direction set by Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) early in the 19th century, Barth asserted in Romans that the starting point for theology is not humankind or human thoughts about God, but God and God's Word. Revelation, not religious experience, is the foundation of theology.

During the development of his multi-volume Church dogmatics (1936-69) Barth shifted away from his early "dialectical theology" which had been stimulated by Kierkegaard (1813-55) and characterized by an appreciation for paradox. However, he continued to press the primacy of the Word of God preached, written in Scripture, and revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth's commitments led him to greater exegetical sophistication in his later work, to a strongly christocentric systematic framework, and to insistence on the "objective" reality, not simply the subjective effect, of God's reconciling activity in history.

Barth's work has influenced both directly and indirectly several generations of Mennonite scholars, educators, and pastors. His influence helped prepare the way for the emergence of the so-called biblical theology movement (ca. 1950-70) in North America and the continuing interest in "biblical realism" which characterizes the writing of Mennonite scholars John Howard Yoder, Willard Swartley, Millard Lind, and David Schroeder, among others. Barth's legacy has affected Mennonites through their graduate study at various institutions, notably Basel University and Princeton Seminary, through the resurgence of interest in Barth among evangelical scholars, and through the work of Jürgen Moltmann.

The attraction of some Mennonites to Barth may be partially explained by J. A. Oosterbaan, a Dutch Mennonite theologian, who argues that Barth and Menno Simons share a christocentric method of interpreting Scripture, disagree with Calvin's view of predestination, elevate the humanity of Jesus, and reject infant baptism and sacraments as a means of grace. J. H. Yoder further finds traces of an implicit free church theology in Barth, and suggests that this developing ecclesiology helps explain his movement toward a position close to pacifism and his distinction between the church community and the civil community. Barth's christocentric and revelation-centered approach to theology has been criticized by Gordon Kaufman, a Mennonite theologian who has helped shape some emerging Mennonite theological work.

While Barth is the most prominent of the theologians referred to as neo-orthodox, Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr have also had import for Mennonites. Less exegetically oriented than Barth and somewhat more appreciative of human religious experience, the Niebuhr brothers' writings in theological ethics stimulated a flurry of responses by Mennonites on issues of pacifism, distinctions between church and world, and Christian social responsibility. John H. Yoder formulated his basic Christian pacifist position in debate with Reinhold Niebuhr. Other Mennonite leaders active in the 1980s whose teaching and work have been shaped by or in response to issues posed by Reinhold include, among others, Donovan Smucker, J. Lawrence Burkholder, J. Richard Burkholder, Theodore Koontz and Duane Friesen.


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, 4 vols., tr. G. T. Thomson. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1936-62.

Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans, tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns. London: Oxford U. Press, 1963.

Brunner, Emil. Dogmatics, 3 vols., tr. Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950-62.

Finger, Tom. Christian Theology: an Eschatological Approach, 2 vols. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985; Scottdale, 1987, a work from a Mennonite perspective that shows the influence of Barth and Moltmann.

Hordern, William. A Layman's Guide to Protestant Theology, rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Kaufman, Gordon. Systematic Theology: a Historicist Perspective, 2nd ed. New York: Scribner's, 1978: preface.

Livingston, James C. Modern Christian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Meaning of Revelation. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1941, 1943.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. "Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist," in Christianity and Power Politics. New York: Scribner's, 1940.

Oosterbaan, J. A. "The Theology of Menno Simons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (1961): 187-96.

Yoder, John Howard. "The Basis of Barth's Social Ethics," extempore lecture at the Midwestern Section of the Karl Barth Society at Elmhurst, IL, Sept. 29-30, 1978; located in Yoder personal files, Elkhart, IN; Yoder's comments about Barth's distinction between the church and the civil communities refer to Karl Barth, Church and State tr. G. Ronald Howe. London: SCM Press, 1939.

Yoder, John Howard. "Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 29 (1955): 101-17, also published as Church Peace Mission Pamphlet, no. 6. Scottdale, 1968.

Additional Information

Princeton Seminary Center for Barth Studies

Author(s) Gayle Gerber Koontz
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Koontz, Gayle Gerber. "Neo-Orthodoxy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Jul 2021.

APA style

Koontz, Gayle Gerber. (1989). Neo-Orthodoxy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 July 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 621-622. All rights reserved.

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