Paleo-orthodoxy (why I am not Barthian)


Okay, so there’s this theology-geek website that compares your views on theology to some famous dead guys…

Here’s how I scored… but I don’t agree with it, and I’ll explain why.

You scored as Karl Barth, The daddy of 20th Century theology. You perceive liberal theology to be a disaster and so you insist that the revelation of Christ, not human experience, should be the starting point for all theology.

Karl Barth
John Calvin
Martin Luther
Jonathan Edwards
Friedrich Schleiermacher
Charles Finney
Jürgen Moltmann
Paul Tillich

Which theologian are you?
created with

Here’s what I can say about Karl Barth (it’s pronounced Bart, like Bart Simpson):

  1. I don’t understand him. I’ve read him, but it’s like reading Martian. He is, to me, incomprehensible. Which means either I’m dumb, or he’s incomprehensible.
  2. Here: try some Barth for yourself: (click for source) “Nor could he [Brunner] possibly have said that the state of affairs to which this knowledge relates could be seen only by “utilizing that which man can of himself know about himself.” How can man ever in any sense know “of himself” what has to be known here? He may know it himself, yes! But “of himself,” never! How could he possibly convince himself of this negation of his freedom? He could only do it if he thought that he could, in advance, overlook and grasp both the Word of God and himself, if he thought not only that he knew the condition of his hearing of the Word – i.e. the negation of his freedom to do so – but also that he could create it himself. If we base ourselves upon what is possible to us, we shall always believe in them.. . . All the comfort, all the power, all the truth of the revelation of God dependso n the fact that it is God who is revealed to us. And all understanding of this fact depends on its identity with God being understood, on all possibilities except that of God being excluded. This applies also, or even specially, to the “loss of certainty” ! Also the wrath of God is the wrath of God. Hence it is by no means identical with any fundamental condition or “negative point” of our existence.”
  3. See what I mean?
  4. People that I respect a lot dig him, so I’m careful to not just toss him overboard.
  5. People that I respect think he’s the worst thing to happen to Christianity since the Spanish Inquisition.
  6. I am way more sympathetic with the arguments against his views, so I would not ever call myself a Barthian… Click for a critique.

In the courses I teach on theology, I have students read two chapters from a critique of neo-orthodoxy. It was written by Charles C. Ryrie. He has to know what he’s talking about–he has a whole study Bible named after him! Right?

Click, if you want to download that article. Neo-Othodoxy

I believe that the Word of God IS the revelation of God. The Bible IS the revelation of God–in our days, without peer. isaiah5561.gif

Barth believes that the Word of God BECOMES the revelation of God when we encounter God through it, by faith. The Bible CONTAINS revelation only when it leads to an encounter with the LIVING WORD, JESUS. Which radically subjectivizes the truth. When Barth was asked if the resurrection of Jesus and virgin birth were historical realities, actual events, he sidestepped the question and got sarcastic. The underlying history was optional–the Word, energized by a subjective encounter, was all that mattered.

Barth’s influence was mixed. He spurred a return to the Bible–a big deal in the liberal seminaries of his day. But by redefining the Bible’s nature and role, he paved the way for skeptical/liberal theologies and the denial of the historical accuracy of the Word. He undercut the objective nature of truth, and paved the way for liberalism.

Most of all Barth paved the way for a kind of theology that YOU CAN’T PIN DOWN. Think emergent theology–and you get it. The natural offspring of Barthianism is postmodern, emergent theology, which is a theology that has no position.

Want an example? Try an emerging church leader’s tortured explanation as to why he doesn’t believe in having a doctrinal statement.

Such a move [providing a statement of faith] would be inappropriate. Various communities throughout church history have often developed new creeds and confessions in order to express the Gospel in their cultural context, but the early modern use of linguistic formulations as “statements” that allegedly capture the truth about God with certainty for all cultures and contexts is deeply problematic for at least two reasons. First, such an approach presupposes a (Platonic or Cartesian) representationalist view of language, which has been undermined in late modernity by a variety of disciplines across the social and physical sciences (e.g., sociolinguistics and paleo-biology). Why would Emergent want to force the new wine of the Spirit’s powerful transformation of communities into old modernist wineskins? Second, and more importantly from a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.

I couldn’t disagree more. His references to Irenaeus and Calvin misrepresent both of them, who eagerly pinned their views down in intelligble words. Don’t miss the fact that he has written off two thousand years of church history, theology, and thinking as “deeply problematic.” I find such presumption deeply problematic.

He even calls every attempt at formulating a creed or a statement of faith for the last two thousand years, “nothing short of linguistic idolatry.”  Hmmmm.

Emergent theology, in some cases, not all, but in MOST cases, is POINTLESS. It has no point. No point of beginning. No point of ending. No middle. It is theology without content. It is not the message of historic Christianity or of the Bible.

It’s always QUESTIONS–and God-forbid that we should actually have some answers.  As if people look to Jesus because they want more questions.  Heck no!  They’re looking for answers, and JESUS HAS ‘EM AND IS THE ANSWER.

And it genuinely grieves me and makes me mad that so many Christians can swallow this stuff.

Hence the tag on Barth’s theology–the godfather of emergency-ism: NEO-ORTHODOXY (new orthodoxy, as opposed to the fine orthodoxy from the good old days).

dinosaur-world.jpg Call me PALEO-ORTHODOX. I’m good with that. I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones who urged us to go back to the 17th century for our theology (mainly the Puritans)

The problem with the quiz I took that identifies your theology is this: NONE of the questions was about the nature and place of Scripture. That’s the only reason I could score so high as a Barthian. I’d feel much more affinity with a theological morphing of Calvin and Finney. Add some dashes of Zwingli, fistfuls of Horatio Bonar and FB Meyer, and out pops ME.

That quiz which pegged me as a Barthian was a depressing way to start my day.

I’ve just finished putting together my son’s new Spiderman Scooter. Watching him glide around the house has delivered my spirits. See ya, Karl.


9 thoughts on “Paleo-orthodoxy (why I am not Barthian)

  1. Yes, I did that test too, and I found that it had no room for Orthodoxy, which goes back to the first century, not the 17th.

    Now there’s a paradox — Orthodoxy preceides paleo-Orthodoxy!

  2. Bill,
    Glad you found some helpful articles on our web site. Your observation regarding barthianism being a philosophical (I’d prefer that to “theological”) basis for the emerging church is confirmed when you consider that Biblical Theological Seminary theology prof. John Franke is a barthian [& wrote a book on him] who says on the school’s web site “I love Emergent the movement” and the school has adopted the vision of being the place of choice for training “missional leaders” for the emerging church. Franke, by the way, went to Nyack College, sorry to tell you.

  3. Steve,
    I’m not in a place to comment deeply on the quote from NT Wright. I have not read anything by him. I know he is popular a) among emerging church theologians, and b) as a conservative voice in that community. But I can’t intelligently say too much except this…
    Since Wright is an Anglican, I am not surprised that he would downplay the theoretical (theological) side of the death of Christ in order to emphasize the symbolism of Communion. A sacramental theology–be it Anglican or Orthodox (like yours, Steve), tends to shift down the spectrum toward the mystical side of Christianity. So I’m not surprised.
    As I’ve mentioned on other posts, I agree with what he affirms (Christ gave them a meal, i.e., the Lord’s Supper), but disagree with what he denies (that he didn’t give them a theory).
    Christ did give them a theory: and that theory was not given in a vacuum, but in the context of a lifetime of sacrifices, and a rich heritage of teaching, temple worship, and festivals–all of which were shadows (object lessons) of intense DOCTRINE: most specifically, the doctrine of the Vicarious Subsitutionary Death of Jesus.
    ““just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”” Matthew 20:28, NKJV.

  4. Indeed he gave his life as a ransom for many. But whether that indicates a vicarious substitutionary atonement is a moot point.

    A ransom is the price of freedum, but were we salves under the Father or slaves under sin?

    I would suggest that sin is something God rescues us from, rather than something God punishes us for.

    But my original point was historical — that Orthodoxy begins in the first century rather than in the 17th.

  5. Either you’re disingenuous or you are indeed “dumb” if you can’t understand Barth. I do, and I ain’t done be winnin’ no awards for brains bro.
    But I also think he’s wrong, about nearly everything.
    But I do as a liberal (I disagreed with everything the post-liberals tried to teach me at Yale Divinity, and continue to adore Scleiermacher, Tillich, Rahner, etc).
    Paleo-orthodoxy is neo-fundamentalism, a self-inflicted ghetto, and will fade with other magical thinking after its 15 minutes of fame are over. I predict by 2020, or 2050 if Palin is elected to anything and the culture manages to prop it up. But it may take Christianity with it, which would be a pity.

    • Hey, I’m doing my best; I’m sure you are too. No, I don’t get Barth, so I’m not being disingenuous. Dumb, yep. On some things. Thanks for stopping by.

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