公 法 评 论 惟愿公平如大水滚滚,使公义如江河滔滔
et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis

 The Neo-Orthodox Theology

of Reinhold Niebuhr

by Paul Foreman



Paul Foreman grew up in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He enjoys playing most sports, but especially baseball. He claims to have once thrown out Kirby Puckett (later of the Minnesota Twins) at home plate while playing shortstop in Junior College. Paul has a B.A. from Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois and a M.Div. from the International School of theology.



Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892. He was the son of a pastor, Gustav, in the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Gustav had immigrated to America in 1878 and then attended Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri. The seminary was associated with the German Evangelical Synod of North America.

Karl's father had a tremendous impact on his life. He was impressed by his father's piety and intellectual vigor. Daily, Gustav read from the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. His father considered himself an American and a liberal. It is not surprising that Reinhold took hold of his father's liberal values and followed in his footsteps to Eden Seminary in 1912 (McCann, 8)

Niebuhr studied at Eden for a year and then entered Yale Divinity School, receiving B.D. and M.A. degrees within two years. In 1915, the mission board of his denomination sent him to Detroit as pastor where he served for 13 years. The congregation numbered 65 on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 when he left. The growth was no doubt partly due to the tremendous growth of the automobile industry.

During his pastorate, Niebuhr was troubled by the demoralizing effects of industrialism on the workers. He became an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and often allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to preach their message of worker's rights. Niebuhr documented the inhumane conditions created by the assembly lines and erratic employment practices.

In 1923 Niebuhr visited Europe to meet with intellectuals and theologians. The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation dismayed Niebuhr and reinforced the pacifistic views he adopted in disgust after World War I.

In 1928, Niebuhr became Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Before arriving at the seminary, Niebuhr captured the meaning of his personal experience at his Detroit Church through his book Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

During the Great Depression, Niebuhr became a leading spokesmen for "religious socialism," a political ideology claiming to be grounded in substantively religious values. Religious socialists were Christian social activists drawn from both clergy and laity who took seriously both the "prophetic" moral values of the Bible and the apparently insoluble contradictions of the capitalist system. He was instrumental in the 1931 founding to the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. During the early 30's he supported socialist candidates, but became disenchanted with socialist politics and, in 1940, voted for Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat (McCann, 10).

World War II led him to abandon his socialism and pacifism, as he felt that the survival of Western civilization was at stake. After World War II, Niebuhr formed the Americans for Democratic Action, a "left-wing" political organization dedicated to supporting the Allies.

Niebuhr's first significant writing was called Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). In 1952, he wrote The Irony of American History in which he shared with his readers the various struggles (political, ideological, moral and religious) in which he participated. By and large, his writings reflect a penetrating criticism of the Social Gospel liberalism of his youth and his search for alternatives. For a while he tried to synthesize various elements of Marxism and Christianity. Both his political experience and his deepening Christian values, however, caused him to abandon the work in favor of an idealogy he called "Christian Realism". These views meshed the Augustinianism of the Reformation with his own hard-won political wisdom. His views were formulated in The Nature and Destiny of Man a book which is considered the magnum opus and comes as close as he ever came to a systematic presentation of his practical theology (McCann, 12).

Niebuhr made insightful observations on the human condition, emphasizing its social and political aspects. No other theologian has made such a deep impact upon the social sciences. For two decades his ideas were the most important influence on theology in American seminaries.



Niebuhr's theology was not something thought up in the quiet of an academic environment. Rather, it grew out of his efforts to apply Christianity to the social, economic, and political spheres (Hordern, 151). For example, the cross of Christ was a particularly important theme for Niebuhr since it revealed the great paradox of powerlessness turned into power, of a love in justice that overcame the sinful world. (Elwell, 777)

Indeed, he gave his life to the application of theology in the ethical and political arena. It "focused more on the doctrine of man than on the doctrine of God, and it showed more concern for life in society than for life in the church." (Elwell, 776-7) As a result, he has been criticized for showing more interest in the paradoxes of human life than in the salvation offered through Christ. (Elwell, 777).

In addition, Niebuhr desired that we should see his theology as simply a rediscovery of the lost wisdom of Christian orthodoxy. He compared theology to a painter who, working upon a flat surface, tries to create the illusion of another dimension, depth. The theologian must describe God in the thought forms of our space-time world. But God transcends the world. Theology is an attempt to express the dimension of depth in life (Hordern, 152).

Niebuhr used the term "myth" often. By this he meant that although it deceives, it none the less points to a truth. We must take "myths" seriously, but not literally. For example, the story of Adam and Eve was not historical, rather a mythical statement of the situation on every man and woman.

Some commentators believe that Niebuhr did more to introduce Barthian neo- orthodoxy to America than anyone else. While he did reject Barth's overly Christocentric emphasis (because it ignored the basic questions of human society), his adherence to the majority of Barth's views can be seen in the following defintions: (King, 195-198)

GOD THE CREATOR--In the Jewish-Christian tradition this problem of pessimism and optimism is solved by faith in a transcendent God who is at once the creator of the world and judge of the world. He thought cognitive knowledge of God impossible because of an alleged dialectic between eternity and time.

CREATION--We are deceivers yet true, when we say that God created the world. Creation is a mythical idea which cannot be fully rationalized

WRATH OF GOD--The wrath of God is the world in its essential structure reacting against the sinful corruption of that structure.

MIRACLE--But we do not believe in the virgin birth, and we have difficulty with the physical resurrection of Christ. We do not believe, in other words, that revelatory events validate themselves by a divine breakthrough in the natural order. . . This pinnacle of faith has no support from miraculous facts in history.

MYTH--In one sense all Orthodox Christian theology has been guilty of the sin of profanity. It has insisted on the literal and historic truth of its myths, forgetting that it is the function and the character of religious myth to speak of the eternal in relation to time, and that it cannot therefore be a statement of temporal sequences.

INCARNATION--The significance of Jesus for the religious life of the Western world is due to his attainment and incarnation of a spiritual and moral ideal of such absolute and transcendent nature that none of his followers have been able to compromise it by their practical adjustments to the social necessities of their day.

CHRIST'S RESURRECTION-- Yet honest scholarship must admit that the resurrection is not as well attested as an historical event as the crucifixion. The idea of the resurrection of the body can of course not be literally true.

JUSTIFICATION--All men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of grace. In every life there must be at least be times and seasons when the good is felt as a present possession and not as a far-off goal. The sinner must feel himself "justified", that is, he must feel that his imperfections are understood and sympathetically appreciated as well as challenged.

MESSIANIC REIGN--As with most biblical symbols dealing with the eternal fulfillment of the course of history, the "end of history" in the messianic reign must not be taken literally. It must nevertheless be taken seriously because it indicates the eternal dimension in which history moves.

CHRIST THE JUDGE OF THE WORLD--Christ as judge means that when the historical confronts the eternal it is judged by its own ideal possibility, and not by the contrast between the finite and the eternal character of God.

CHRIST--The God of our devotion is veritably revealed most adequately in the most perfect personality we know, as he is potentially revealed in all personal values; and his conflict with the inertia of the concrete and historical world is expressed most vividly in the cross of Christ. When dealing with life's ultimates, symbolism is indispensable, and a symbolism which has a basis in historic incident is most effective.



Niebuhr thought that doctrines affirming the divinity and humanity of Jesus verge on contradiction in that they ascribe both conditioned and unconditioned qualities to him. Niebuhr thought it possible for a historical person symbolically to point beyond himself to an unconditioned eternity, but considered it impossible for any person to be historical and unconditioned at the same time. (Nature and Destiny II, 61). Here the importance of one's view of the kenosis is seen. The eternal Son of God remained the unconditioned second person of the Trinity, but he freely chose to limit his freedom from space and time in order to experience life in a given space, time, and culture (Lewis II, 349 ). Both Barth and Niebuhr held that since Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, He must have had a sinful nature like our fallen nature.

Sin and Man

There are both religious and moral dimensions to sin. The former manifest themselves as rebellion against God. The latter show themselves in man's injustice to his fellow man. ( Erickson, 586)

To Niebuhr, the great mistake of Liberalism has been its belief that man is essentially good. But, like Barth, he saw the fall as myth and belonging to suprahistory rather than history; however, it tells important truths about the human condition. He inveighs against modernists who fail to treat the story of Eden seriously and against fundamentalists who interpret it literally (Lewis, 189)

The Fall conveys the fact that persons stand in the paradoxical relation of freedom and finitude. As spirit, persons transcend nature and so are free. But as creatures, they are part of nature's order and so are bound. For this Niebuhr depended heavily on Soren Kierkegaard's Concept of Dread (Erickson, 587). As those both free and bound, persons inevitably experience anxiety- the internal precondition for sin. In this state of anxiety Satan tempts persons to deny their limitations through pride or to violate their freedom through sensuality (Lewis, 189)

Niebuhr, like Barth and Brunner, denied that original sin transmits to the race by generation. He said, "Original sin is not an inherited corruption, but it is an inevitable fact of human existence. . It is there in every moment of existence, but it has no history" (Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 86) This is the paradox of the Christian faith, the fact that each person inevitably sins and yet bears personal responsibility for his sins (Lewis, 190). Sin does not result from the imperfections of society; it causes them (Hordern, 165)

Finally, Niebuhr claims that the assertion of total depravity is unduly pessimistic. If persons were totally corrupted, they could not be sinners at all. Thus sin has not destroyed essential human nature; the divine image endures despite the reality of sin (Lewis, 190). "Man has always been his own most vexing problem"



The Church must learn the truth that secularism has to teach; it must admit that many of the values of our modern culture are due to secular contributions. (Hordern, 160). The major heresy for the Church, be it Catholic or Protestant, is for it to identify itself with God, to suppose that opposition to its way is opposition to God's ways. When the Church is guilty of such pretensions, it needs be, and usually is, attacked by a secular force. The secular voice becomes a judgment of God upon a Church that has forgotten its true nature. (Hordern, 160-161).


Niebuhr believed that we should never sit quietly in the midst of an evil situation.


Without a historical faith, but a faith in Christian myths some have wondered why he chose Christian myths over those of the attractive mythologies of the Greeks or Hindus.

Although Niebuhr has analyzed the dynamics of sin and temptation in an insightful way a problem remains. He does not seem to realize the need for the Holy Spirits help. There is a failure to acknowledge the need for a transformation by God (Erickson, 589).

One might ask, what difference does it make what causes sin? The answer is that our view of the cause of sin will determine our view of the cure for sin. It seems that if one adopts Niebuhr's view that sin grows out of the anxiety of finiteness, the cure will involve accepting one's limitations and placing one's confidence in God. But this cure is a matter of altering one's attitude, not of real conversion. The cure for sin will come through a supernaturally produced alteration of one's human nature and also through divine help in countering the power of temptation (Erickson, 598)

Niebuhr, more than any other, was able to see the good and bad of the fundamentalist-liberal controversy. He became a mediator between them.




Selected Works

Beyond Tragedy

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

Christianity and Power Politics

Christian Realism and Political Problems

Does Civilization Need Religion?

Discerning the Signs of the Time

Essays in Applied Christianity

Faith and History

The Nature and Destiny of Man

The Irony of American History

An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

Moral Man and Immoral Society

Pious and Secular America

Reflections on the End of an Era

The Self and the Dramas of History

The Structure of Natures and Empires



Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985.

Hordern, William E. A Layman's Guide To Protestant Theology. New York: Collier Books, 1955.

King, Rachel Hadley. The Omission of the Holy Spirit from Reinhold Niebuhr's Theology. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1964.

Lewis, Gordon R. and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1987.

Marty, Martin E., and Dean G. Peerman, eds. A Handbook of Christian Theology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1965.

McCann, Dennis P. Christian Realism and Liberation Theology: Pratical Theologies in Creative Conflict. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Stone, Ronald H. Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981.