Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, it has been said, fell like a bomb on the theological playground when it was released early in the twentieth century. This gives us some idea of his importance, as Barth is regarded as perhaps the most influential systematic theologian of his era and the most important advocate of the theology known as neoorthodoxy.
Barth and other neoorthodox theologians were reacting to nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, which largely denied the supernatural and attempted to empty faith of its doctrinal content, defining faith as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Protestant liberalism stressed the “universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man,” viewing human beings as basically good. World Wars I and II demonstrated the folly of such a naive theology, and it was in the wake of the decline of nineteenth-century liberalism that the neoorthodox did most of their work.
To its credit, neoorthodoxy attempted to recover the transcendence of God and the supernatural character of Christianity. Yet neoorthodoxy did not go far enough and quickly fell into a theological liberalism not unlike what it opposed. This was due in large measure to its denial of Scripture as objective, inerrant, propositional truth. Neoorthodox theologians denied that the Bible is itself the Word of God and redefined truth as an existential “encounter” with Christ. The Bible, in neoorthodoxy, is not the Word of God—it contains the Word of God and becomes the Word of God when it brings us to an encounter with Christ.
Certainly, one of the purposes of Scripture is to bring us into a saving relationship with Jesus, but to divorce Christ from His Word in the neoorthodox manner sets up a false dichotomy. The only way we “have” Christ is by His Word, and if He—by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—gave us the Scripture, it must be fully true and the very Word of God. In fact, we can only know the Savior by means of the propositions we read in Scripture. We are to study these propositions with fervor, for we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37–38), and to deny that Scripture is inerrant, propositional revelation actually weakens our resolve to love the Lord in this way. After all, if we cannot trust all that He claims to have revealed, how can we trust Him?
Neoorthodoxy lives on among those who deny biblical inerrancy. But it is neither new nor orthodox. It departs significantly from the historic Christian view of the Bible.