{23}     Contemporary Protestantism

ERA 7 << Modern Church (3): Ecumenism & Adaptations (AD 1900–2000) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 2, chapters 34-35

        23.1.1  Bankruptcy of liberal optimism

·         Liberal theology: It dominated Protestantism in the early 20th-c. Teachings include: [1] the emphasis on experience, [2] the Bible is not infallible, [3] beliefs must pass tests of human reason and science, [4] supernatural elements to be excluded, [5] beliefs must be sacrificed in order to adapt to the modern world.

·         Decline of Christianity: There is an increase in skepticism and secularism. Liberals took over most of the mainline Protestant denominations. Europe and North America are no longer a stronghold of Protestantism.

        23.1.2  Overview of neo-orthodoxy

·         Emphases: [1] the use of revelation of God as the source of Christian doctrine, [2] the transcendence of God, and [3] the use of existentialist philosophy.

·         Founding: Barth objected liberalism and founded “neo-orthodoxy”, also called “dialectical theology”. Evangelicals welcomed Barth’s emphasis on the sinfulness of man, transcendence of God, and emphasis on the Bible. But they opposed his rejection of an objective, historical, propositional revelation in the Bible.

·         Errors of neo-orthodoxy: They retained the older liberal Biblical criticism. Elements of universalism were apparent in their soteriology. Some conservative theologians regarded neo-orthodoxy to be even more dangerous than liberal theology because it is often half truths that lead Christians astray.

        23.1.3  Karl Barth (1886–1968), Swiss—founder of neo-orthodoxy

·         On God: God is transcendent (the “wholly other”). Man cannot reach God through subjective experience.

·         On the Word of God: God’s Word is the event of God speaking to man in and through Jesus Christ; it is God’s personal revelation of Himself to us. Jesus Christ is the revealed word. The Bible, God’s written word only becomes God’s Word when God chooses to speak through them. So Barth cannot call the Bible God’s Word. Revelation is a personal encounter, rather than communication of information.

·         On theology: Barth rejected natural theology. As all of God’s dealings with man are in and through Jesus Christ, the entire Christian theology is to be interpreted Christologically. This principle leads to a radical distortion of traditional doctrines, for example, it is illegitimate to use the Law to show people their sinfulness.

        23.1.4  Other neo-orthodox theologians

·         Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Swiss: He stressed the subjective encounter with Christ. He dismissed certain miraculous elements within the Scripture and he denied the historicity of Adam and the virgin birth.

·         Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), German/American: He emphasized the Christian doctrine of original sin but he believed that sin was more social than spiritual. He believed that unbridled capitalism was destructive.

·         H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962), German/American: He was concerned with the sovereignty of God. He accused Christians of surrendering its leadership to the social forces of national and economic life.

        23.2.1  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), German

·         Major works: His The Cost of Discipleship [1937] stressed: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” His Letters and Papers from Prison included new radical ideas: work of the church (sharing in secular problems), independent of God (the world “coming of age” and solving his own problems).

        23.2.2  Religionless Christianity

·         Religionless: Bonhoeffer spoke of “religionless Christianity” because religion is a human effort by which we seek to hide from God. He questioned whether people need to be religious in order to become Christian. He proposed that a Christian today must live his faith in a secular way. But by stressing man’s independence from God, Bonhoeffer laid the foundation for the development of secular theology and God-is-dead theology.

        23.3.1  Existentialist theology

·         Paul Tillich (1886–1965), German—His books explained theology based on existentialist philosophy, not on the Bible. He denied the person of God. He violated most of the orthodox doctrines of Christianity.

·         Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), German: He argued that the message of the NT is enshrouded with myth so it must be “demythologized”. Doctrines as incarnation, resurrection, and second coming are all mythical.

        23.3.2  Marxist-Christian dialogue

·         Josef Hromadka (1889–1969), Czech: He stressed that Christians must not be led astray by Marxist atheism.

        23.3.3  Theology of hope

·         Jürgen Moltmann (1926–  ), German: He argued that hope is the centre of Biblical faith. This is not hope and “spiritual” salvation, but hope for a new order. Christians are to join struggles against poverty and oppression.

        23.3.4  Faith rooted in history

·         Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–  ), German: He stressed God’s revelation in history—especially Jesus Christ and His resurrection. He makes history the authority rather than Scripture. He dismissed virgin birth as a myth.

        23.4.1  Social conditions since WWI

·         Drastic social changes: The US entered a period of isolationism, with the fear of everything foreign, and the suppression of dissent. The Great Depression [1929–1939] led to massive unemployment and bankruptcies.

        23.4.2  Varieties of Christian teachings after WWII

·         Legacy of revivalism: Billy Graham (1918–  ) organized large scale gospel meeetings to every continent.

·         Health and wealth gospel: It is a distorted gospel that promotes “positive thinking”.

·         Black theology: It affirmed black reality, hope, and struggle. It is a form of liberation theology.

·         Feminist theology: It is a reconsideration of traditions, practices, theologies from a feminist perspective.

·         Theology of the death of God: It emphasizes secularization and that rejects all major Christian doctrines.

·         Secular theology: It reinterprets the Christian message in the light of an urban and secular society.

·         Process theology: It denies that God knows the future; God is not unaffected by His creation. The universe is characterized by process and change. Self-determination and free-will characterizes everything in the universe.

        23.4.3  Pentecostalism

·         Wave 1: Old Pentecostalism or Classic Pentecostalism (1901–1960): It emphasized the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” as a separate experience from conversion and with speaking in tongues in order to be genuine.

·         Wave 2: New Pentecostalism or Charismatic Renewal (1960–1980): It emphasized a baptism or filling of the Spirit, “usually” accompanied with tongues.

·         Wave 3: The Signs and Wonders Movement (1980–now): It is also called the Vineyard Movement. They prefer to emphasize the ongoing nature of the experience of the Spirit, such as prophecy and healing.


[1] treasure our heritage

God raised up the Pentecostal Church to extend His kingdom. Yet, it is important not to fall into extremes in some of those churches.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The speculative theologies never become major movements.

[3] avoid past errors

Over-emphasis of social responsibility of Christians led to the heretical Social Gospel and liberation theology.

[4] apply our knowledge

The rise of neo-orthodoxy proved that liberal theology has no future; yet, neo-orthodoxy can lead Christians astray.

[5] follow past saints

Conservative theologians recognized the fallacy of liberal theology so they established their own orthodox churches and seminaries.