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Is Karl Barth Neo-Orthodox?

Barth’s theology, fairly early on, received the label “neo-orthodox.” Barth himself rejected the label (CD III.3, xii). It is regarded by some today as a misnomer. As early as 1972, German reflection on the thought of Barth were challenging the “neo-orthodox” label (see McCormack, Critical-Realistic, 24–28). Bruce McCormack’s magisterial study of Barth seeks to show that Barth’s theology never was an attempt to repristinate the older orthodoxy of either the Reformed or Lutheran traditions. Quite the contrary, while there are important discontinuities between Barth’s thought and that of modern theology since Schleiermacher, there is also a fundamental continuity which led the German scholar Trutz Rendtorff to conclude that Barth really was an “exponent of liberal theology” (McCormack, 28). The trouble, McCormack argues, is when theologians in the Anglo-American context try to read—or misread—Barth as a neo-orthodox theologian, as if Barth was bringing back that old time religion. The lesson here is, of course, don’t call Barth a “neo-orthodox” theologian and don’t refer to his theology as “neo-orthodoxy.” If anything, it might be more accurate to refer to his theology as neo-modernism. It’s not quite the old liberal theology, yet it’s not a rediscovery of pre-modern post-reformation Reformed orthodoxy. Rather, it really is something—for a lack of better term—wholly other. Its otherness notwithstanding, it still resides at home in the broader sphere of modern theology.1

1. The expression neo-orthodoxy was a charge leveled against Barth very early on, even in the early reviews to his first edition of Romans. He was charged with a lot of things, including being a pacifist and an anabaptist. But because of his rejection of history and scientific theology, it was believed that he was advocating for a return to the old, pre-modern theology.

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