Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy”

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Review & Commentary

One thought on “Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy”

  1. Review

    I chose to review this book for two reasons. First, because I, with many others, regard Douglas John Hall, Professor of Christian Theology at McGill University in Montreal, as the preeminent theologian of North America. Second, because Professor Hall and I shared, as seminary students, in hearing and reading the "remembered voices" which are identified with the theological movement called "Neo-Orthodoxy." It is the purpose of his book to reclaim the legacy of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Suzanne de Dietrich. Their writings constitute, Hall believes, "one of the richest, most encyclopedic outpourings of Christian theological work in the entire history" of the Christian faith. And it is his contention that "the future of Protestantism in North America depends upon whether and to what extent that heritage is laid hold of, both by Christian scholars and the churches, in the years and decades ahead."

    The theological movement labeled by the term "Neo-Orthodoxy" was the cutting edge of Christian thought from about 1910 to 1960. Those associated with the movement were responding to the inadequacy of classic orthodoxy and the dominant theology of the nineteenth century, usually called "liberalism", to speak to the crisis of Western civilization presaged by Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and evidenced by the outbreak of World War I.

    Neo-Orthodoxy has been characterized as being absorbed by five themes: (I) Christian faith interpreted on the basis of God’s revelatory Word in Jesus Christ; (2) New emphasis on the Bible that emphasized the radical message of the cross; (3) Recognition that all theology is historically conditioned; (4) Influence of the Protestant reformers, especially Luther; and (5) The ecumenical character and outlook of its theologians.

    Hall devotes a chapter to each of the "remembered voices," choosing to focus on "one major point of concentration" in the thought of each. The titles of the chapters reveal the major points: Karl Earth, Theology After Christendom; Paul Tillich, Faith’s Quest for Wholeness; Reinhold Niebuhr, An American Theology of the Tragic; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship as World Commitment; Emil Brunner, Truth as Meeting; H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and (Post-Christian) Culture; and Suzanne de Dietrich, The Word of God for the People of God.

    Hall points out that all of these theologians "articulate their accounts of the Christian message as contemporary expressions of the theologia crucis (theology of the cross) and therefore as ongoing critiques of both the orthodox and liberal versions of the theology of glory (theologia gloriae)." In the theological wasteland of the contemporary Church, Hall believes that the legacy of Neo-Orthodoxy could portend a new possibility – a "biblically literate, historically conscious, socially responsible, christologically centered Christianity."

    In his small book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, (1997, Trinity Press International), Hall is emphatic that for "Christians who are serious about re-forming the church so that it may become a more faithful bearer of the gospel in our social context, there is no alternative to a disciplined, prolonged, and above all critical work of theology. By this I do not mean merely academic theology, but a theology that reaches into the life of congregations, a theology that asks of every Christian something of what it asks of those who pursue it as a life-work or calling." This book of "Remembered Voices" would be an excellent guide to begin or to continue the work.

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