Friday, 20 December 2013

The Truth of the Christmas Story: Neo-Orthodoxy Trickles Down to the Masses

OK...enough cricket inspired frivolity; let's look at Christmas though the contemporary theological lens:

"One of the puzzles of a newly released survey about Christmas in the United States was the striking finding that Americans' belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story -- the virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men from the East -- has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points during the last decade. In a PSRA/Newsweek poll in December 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans affirmed their belief that the Christmas story is historically accurate, compared to 24 percent who said they believed it is a theological story written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ."  Read more here.

The first thing to say that if those are the figures for the US, you can be fairly sure they are higher elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where orthodox Christian belief tends to be under greater challenge.

Now, for the uninitiated, "neo-orthodoxy" is not a new and better version of Eastern Orthodoxy. It's a broad movement of mainly European Reformed and Lutheran theology (although not without influence on Roman Catholic theologians either) which came into being in the aftermath of World War One when some theologians realised that the Liberal theology they had been taught as students was not up to the task of serving the proclamation of the Gospel to a broken and despairing world: to preach the old Liberalism of the pre-war 19th C. was like offering the hungry stones instead of bread. At the same time, though, these men could not affirm the old orthodoxy with its belief in the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, so they developed a via media (middle way) which sought to affirm the theological content of the old dogmas while also denying that the Bible was inspired and inerrant. They also taught that at least some of its narratives were "non-historical". Names like the German-Swiss Barth and Brunner, the Germans Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, the German-American Niebuhr brothers, et. al. could, for all their differences, be helpfully categorised together for our purposes here as neo-orthodox theologians.

By repudiating plenary inspiration and inerrancy and the historicity of the Biblical narrative the neo-orthodox voluntarily separated themselves from the mainstream of Christian theological reflection on scripture which can be traced back though 17th century Protestant orthodoxy (the original orthodoxy which the "neo" in neo-orthodoxy modified), the medieval scholastics like Aquinas and Bonaventure, the Fathers and finally to our Lord (I'm presently in the research stage of writing a paper on the history if inerrancy which I may post here in installments in the future). Neo-orthodoxy reached its zenith in influence in the 1940s & 1950s but by the next decade it was somewhat passé as even more eccentric theologies (e.g. Paul Tillich's philosophical theology, whose ideas were popularised in the British Commonwealth by Bp Robinson's 1963 book "Honest to God" and Thomas Altizer's "Death of God" theology which took inspiration from Nietzchean atheism) appeared on the scene to feed the fascination of sophisticates in Western societies who were fast becoming disconnected from the traditional forms of Christianity which had hitherto breathed life into their souls and who were now looking for reasons not to believe the Bible.

What is puzzling about neo-orthodoxy's rejection of the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of scripture and therefore its historical skepticism as to the Bible is its basis: that basis was not primarily on evidentiary grounds but philosophical ones. That is to say that, contrary to the impression often given by tendentious popularisers down to this day, there was actually very little in the way of new discoveries in 19th C & 20th C. archaeology or classical philology or related historical disciplines that seriously challenged the "old" view of the Bible so as to make it redundant. Rather, these discoveries tended to illuminate and support the Biblical text and narrative. But the theologians of neo-orthodoxy were apparently blinded to the significance of these positive developments, having imbibed certain philosophical assumptions as young students, chief among which was the commitment to a dualism between Geschichte and Historie which made them fearful of the consequences of grounding the Christian Faith too solidly in the blood and dust of actual history.

Historie is the everyday arena of events open to historical investigation and validation, whereas Geschichte is a sort of meta-history (the world of "myth", "saga" or "legend") to which the stories of the Bible are assigned. Their "truth" value is there preserved because Geschichte is supposedly not subject to empirical but only theological investigation and exploration. By way of illustration: the events of World War One, the assassination Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip that began it, its various battles and the political conferences that ended it, are Historie. The events recorded in Genesis 1-8 are Geschichte; we can find religious truths in them but such truths are finally independent of the question of whether these events actually happened as the Biblical authors seemed to believe, for no-one really doubts that they thought they were writing history - not academic history as we know it, to be sure, but true* narratives nonetheless (of course, a true narrative can contain symbolism and other tropes, but these are not evidence that the whole narrative itself is symbolic). It is interesting, though, that in his discussion of Christmas in "Church Dogmatics" I/2 Barth appears to affirm the dogma of the virginal conception and birth - tellingly, though, this was not on the basis of the scripture but because it is theologically necessary to buttress the teaching of divine monergism in salvation. Ironically, Roman Catholicism likewise proclaims its distinctive Marian dogmas without reference to scripture, but for the opposite purpose of upholding its teaching on divine-human synergy in salvation! Thus Barth and the Pope both share the traits of what Lutherans term "Enthusiasm" - basing religious doctrine and practice on revelation other than that found in Holy Scripture.

Some would aver that this dualistic way of thinking goes back through through the philosophical school of German Idealism to certain trends in late medieval thought which in turn derived from newly rediscovered Greek patterns of thought which later found a niche in classical Reformed theology, where the guiding principle was summed up in the slogan finitum non capax infiniti - that which is finite cannot contain that which is infinite. In its initial Reformed expression this then represents an incipient rationalism that later dovetailed neatly with liberal skepticism. Once this philosophical principle is accepted any reported manifestation of the supernatural in the natural world can be interpreted as merely symbolic of higher, religious truths: the narrative of the fall into sin does not depict an actual event but is a symbolic story teaching us about the fall of everyman into sin as he tumbles out of the cocoon of innocence that is childhood and into the moral responsibilities of adulthood. Likewise, the angel Gabriel didn't really announce the conception of Jesus to Mary - that is just a symbolic way of telling the reader that Mary's piety brought her so close to God that the child in her womb became the Messiah. Or, Christ didn't really institute His Supper as the means by which His body and blood are available to His disciples ("in, with and under" the earthly forms of bread and wine as Lutherans say) as the synoptic Gospels and Paul record - rather, in the Supper the meal setting and its elements are merely symbolic helps as we lift our hearts to heaven so to speak (sursum corda) and commune with Christ by meditating on the spiritual benefits of His life and death. As you can see, there's no end to the way Biblical narratives can be creatively re-interpreted as timeless religious "truths" for those who otherwise stumble on the hard rock of the underlying history and the "earthiness" of revelation.  

Be that as it may, the original motivation for introducing the Geschichte-Historie distinction into theology, a move which seems to be first attributed to Martin Kahler, who was particularly concerned with liberal challenges to the life of Jesus as understood from the Gospels, was to safeguard the Biblical salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) from the acids of critical historical inquiry which had been developing incrementally since the Enlightenment. As noted above, that was a purely defensive move which subsequent developments have proven to be highly questionable. There is, it can be admitted, an element of truth in the distinction, in that certainly protological Biblical events like Creation and the Fall or the Biblical miracles are not subject to historical investigation or scientific explanation, although in the case of creation and the fall evidence from observation of the created world and human nature for them is clear enough. In regard to Creation the most science can do is propose a hypothetical mechanism to explain the material advent of the universe, such  as "the Big Bang" (a theory which is presently under challenge, as it should be). But science cannot get beyond that theoretical point and answer the fundamental religious questions of  "Who created?" and "Why?". Indeed, even the question of "How?" is still a religious question, since Holy Writ tells us God created through His Word. But from Genesis chapter 11 onwards it is clear to any intelligent and unbiased reader of the Bible that we are dealing with a world and a history which is - obvious cultural differences aside - continuous with our own, even though it is one in which angels converse with poor shepherds!

The price that neo-orthodoxy was willing to pay to protect the Biblical narrative from historical criticism was too high and in any case unnecessary. By effecting a split between a fallible Biblical narrative and a world of "timeless" dogmatic truths they fatally severed the Christian Faith from its historical roots and turned it into a Christian version of German Idealism, a dead end if ever there was one and one from which various theologians - Pannenberg for example - have been trying to back academic theology out of ever since with varying degrees of success. Alas, ideas, especially bad ones it seems, have consequences and they attract followers. Neo-orthodoxy trickled down through university and seminary courses and corrupted the theology of a generation or two of preachers and teachers. From thence it has seeped down to the popular level, so that, as the article notes, 40% of Americans, most of whom have probably never heard of Barth or Bultmann, believe the Christmas story is not history but "theology written to affirm faith". Theology that is disconnected from the historical narrative of the inspired and inerrant Bible, the only infallible source of knowledge of God and the way of salvation, is not Christian in any orthodox sense and is well on its way to becoming neo-Gnostic. That's another "neo-ism" we might post on in the future.

In the meantime, a blessed Christmas to all who visit the virtual old manse.


For a modern (1950, so written at the zenith of neo-orthodoxy) statement on scripture and inspiration that upholds orthodoxy against both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy go to  and click on 'Scripture and Inspiration' under the heading A. Theses of Agreement.

* Note regarding the truthfulness of the Bible: my view of truth is common sense realism, known more formally as the correspondence theory of truth. In short, what is true corresponds to the actual state of affairs in the world because it is congruent with facts discerned either by observation or, for the Christian, revelation. The correspondence theory of truth was the basic epistemological tenet not only of the Greek philosophers but also of the Biblical authors. It has therefore been foundational to Western culture and society at least until the irrationalism of the 20th century erupted.  I'm not sure to what extent any of the theologians I've categorised as neo-orthodox would accept this position - I suspect none. They were all quite skeptical of the extent to which truth could be set forth in grammatical propositions, which seems like a self-defeating position for theologians who wrote so much! Some, like Barth, seem to work more with a coherence theory of truth, i.e., a statement is true if it coheres with other statements in the system (cf. his views mentioned above on the virginal conception and birth). While I grant that intra-systemic statements can be logically consistent with the first principles of that system without reference to other, external criteria, the ultimate criterion for the truth of the system itself remains the congruence of those principles with what is known about reality either by observation or revelation.    

Update 23.12.2013 from the UK: Bible knowledge gets worse.

Update 26.12.2013 from the US:


Kevin Davis said...

Well, it is more than passé to lump Barth with neo-orthodoxy or even dialectics without qualification. Barth rejected both the existentialism and the critical grounds upon which Bultmann/Tillich demythologized the Bible, which takes a moderate form in Brunner -- all of whom rejected or questioned the virgin birth or, excepting Brunner, the bodily resurrection.

Barth did neither, even if he rejected the sort of apologetics that would submit these events to historical contingencies. Each of these dialectical theologians have a particular way that they render geschichte -- it is hardly uniform, as most accounts make it seem. Bultmann really did not care whether or not any of our historical knowledge of Jesus was true. It did not matter because Bultmann was a pure existentialist -- the individual's faith is all that mattered (ideas, not history).

As Barth shed the last vestiges of his Kierkegaardian orientiation, Barth broke company with all of his former dialectical/neo-orthodox colleagues. It really mattered for Barth whether Jesus rose from the dead. It was not reducible to an experience or idea beyond the historical. Barth makes this repeatedly clear, yet the old evangelical criticisms persist -- as if Barth scholarship has not advanced since the days of Van Til or Carl Henry.

I am not trying to make Barth acceptable to an old-school confessional Lutheran or Calvinist. Obviously not. But the tired "neo-orthodoxy" bogeyman needs to be retired.

Acroamaticus said...


Agreed, Bultmann's theology is the most detached from Biblical history and the others can be placed on a spectrum heading in a more conservative direction where you finally find evangelcials influenced by neo-orthodoxy. Barth is more ambiguous than you grant from what I've read - and I've read a bit of him over the last 15 years or so. We're just going to have to disagree on him, I'm afraid. I agree none of these theologians can be reduced to "neo-orthodoxy", but it remains a convenient handle to identify a movement of theologians who shared similar assumptions, even if they differed somewhat on how these assumptions were worked out in their theology. It seems to me any discrete period in the history of theology can probably be handled this way, as the histories of theology indicate. Anyway, thanks for your comment and your continued engagement. Maybe I'll have to address Barth a bit more in the future.