A Third Way in Theology?

By Dorrien, Gary | The Christian Century, July 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Third Way in Theology?


Dorrien, Gary, The Christian Century


NO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE has a commanding place or an especially impressive following these days. Various theologies compete for attention in a highly pluralized field, and no theology has made much of a public impact. One significant and inescapable development, however, has been the emergence of "postliberal" theology, a major attempt to revive the neo-orthodox ideal of a "third way" in theology.

For nearly as long as modern theology has existed, efforts have been made to locate a third way between conservatism and liberalism. The idea of a third way was intrinsic to mid-19th-century German "mediating theology," which blended confessional, pietistic and liberal elements. Two generations later, neo-orthodoxy issued a more aggressive appeal for a third way. While insisting that he was not tempted by biblical literalism, Karl Barth began his dogmatics by describing the liberal tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf von Harnack as "the plain destruction of Protestant theology and the Protestant church." Emil Brunner's "theology of crisis" similarly maintained that in different ways Protestant liberalism and Protestant orthodoxy both betrayed the Reformation principles of the sovereignty and freedom of the Word of God. Reinhold Niebuhr took a different tack toward a similar end, arguing that fundamentalism was hopelessly wrong because it took Christian myths literally, while liberal Christianity was hopelessly wrong because it failed to take Christian myths seriously.

Neo-orthodoxy was an umbrella term for various profoundly different theologies. It was embraced in the U.S. by thousands of pastors and theologians, who generally got their theology from Brunner and Niebuhr rather than from Barth. American neo-orthodoxy in the 1940s and 1950s typically meant a compound of Brunner's dogmatics, Niebuhr's theological ethics, and the scripture scholarship of the biblical theology movement. This movement, a reaction to the perceived sterility of earlier, purely analytic studies, emphasized the unifying themes of scripture and stressed the revelatory acts of God in history as described in the Bible.

The neo-orthodox movement was stunningly successful in reorienting the field of modern theology. The biblical language of sin, transcendence and the Word of God resumed a prominent place in theological discourse.

But in a remarkably brief period of time, the house of neo-orthodoxy crashed. During the 1960s, the theological giants of neo-orthodoxy passed away, James Barr's claims about the uniqueness of biblical semantics dismantled biblical theology, and Langdon Gilkey exposed the incoherence of neo-orthodox God-language. Gilkey showed that for all of its condemnations of theological liberalism, neo-orthodoxy construed the meaning of the scriptural "mighty acts of God" in essentially liberal terms. Gilkey later called attention to a secularizing trend in theology--he called it "death-of-God theology"--which was led by former Barthians such as William Hamilton and Paul van Buren. Shortly after that, the first currents of liberation theology emerged in Latin America and the U.S., making neo-orthodoxy seem stuffy, provincial and oppressive.

Though postliberals' connections to neo-orthodoxy are not widely touted in postliberal writings, the connections are significant. The postliberal movement is essentially a Barthian project--one that, in certain respects, is more deeply influenced by Barth than American neo-orthodoxy was in its glory days.

Postliberal theology began as a Yale-centered phenomenon. It was founded by Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, who wrote the movement's founding texts and who (before Frei's untimely death in 1988) trained most of its key advocates. Prominent figures in the development of the postliberal school have included such Yale-trained theologians as James j. Buckley, J. A. DiNoia, Garrett Green, Stanley Hauerwas, George Hunsinger, Bruce D. …

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