(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
The Neoorthodox Way of Justification: Faith → Justification - WorksGerstner’s formula for the Neoorthodox view italicizes Faith and Justification. The reason is that not only is their formula wrong, but what they mean by faith and justification is not what orthodox Christianity means.
The father of Neoorthodoxy is the Swiss Protestant Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth’s theology was a counter to the liberalism that was sweeping across Europe, and was deeply influenced by the pessimism following World War One. Supporters of neorthodoxy often couch it as the perfect balance between liberalism and fundamentalism (for example, neorthodoxy’s rejection of biblical inerrancy.) But as Gerstner correctly points out, while neorthodoxy is a rejection of liberalism (that’s good) it also rejects, not fundamentalism, but orthodoxy (that’s bad.)
The theologian regarded as the prime mover in spreading neoorthodoxy to America is Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Gerstner describes his encounter with Niebuhr:
In the early forties I was doing my graduate work at liberal Harvard, which had reluctantly begun to admit the existence of anti-liberal neoorthodoxy…Harvard [invited] Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of the early and powerful American advocates of this style of Christian thinking… Niebuhr pronounced denunciations on Harvard and other forms of liberalism in no uncertain accents…Under further questioning, Niebuhr renounced the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) decree that Christ was “truly God and truly man.” When pressed further to explain what he meant by God, Niebuhr answered he meant a “symbol.”
Niebuhr said emphatically and repeatedly that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Ninety-five percent of that audience was confident that Jesus was nothing more than a man. They were told time and time again [by Niebuhr] that Jesus Christ was God, no mere man…
If one left after that address, he would have though that John Calvin redivivus had been heard on the Harvard campus that morning.
If, however, one remained for the question period, he would have known otherwise. A student immediately arose and said, “Professor Niebuhr, you repudiated the liberal notion that Jesus was merely a man. You said that he was God. What do you mean by calling Jesus Christ God?” Niebuhr explained that he did not mean “ontic deity.” Christ was not eternal. He was not a member of the everlasting Trinity. (Primitive Theology, p 270.)
Niebuhr, in his lecture, repudiated liberalism. In his question and answers, he repudiated orthodox Christianity. That is why Gerstner italicizes Justification and Faith for the neoorthodox position. They do have faith, but it is a Jesus of their own creation, one who does not bear much likeness to the real Christ. And they are justified, so they believe, by their faith in this fictional savior.
Another famous theologian of the neoorthodoxy school was Paul Tillich (1886-1965). His concept of justification, at first, seems based on solid ground, for he uses Luther’s quotation: Simul Justus, simul peccator (simulateously justified/righteous and a sinner.) However, what Luther and reformed theology means is that while a justified man is still a sinner, he is not the same type of sinner he was prior to conversion. He is acquitted of all guilt, imputed with Christ’s righteousness, and empowered by the Spirit to pursue righteousness, not perfectly but genuinely—which is impossible for the unsaved man.
The difference for the neoorthodox view comes into sharp relief when Tilich describes the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7:37-39). Gerstner argues that Tilich’s view is that the prostitute was justified by her faith in Jesus and yet remained a sinner, simul Justus, simul peccator, but that she was the same sinner that she was before. But we know this is not correct. When Jesus forgave the adulteress in John 8, he said “go and sin no more.” If she continued, unrepentant, in adultery, she was not a forgiven Christian and was not justified. Tilich’s view is that even if the woman continues as before, with no change in her sinful behavior, not even an attempt, she nevertheless is justified and has eternal life.
As for works receiving a “minus” sign in the neorthodoxy equation, it is not because the neoorthodox view does not value good works. Indeed, they are highly esteemed, and both Barth and Tillich risked their lives in opposing Hitler. The problem is, like their antinomian cousins, which we will discuss next, they do not think works are necessary or essential.