Chapter 1: The Making of a Christian Realist

Reinhold Niebuhr
by Howard G. Patton

Chapter 1: The Making of a Christian Realist


When seventy-eight-year-old Reinhold Niebuhr died in June 1971, America lost its greatest native-born Protestant theologian since Jonathan Edwards. Niebuhr died serenely at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts — the same town where Edwards was once banished for his too-demanding theology — and his funeral was held in the church where Edwards had preached.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s output both as thinker and as activist was prodigious. His career was long and varied. He was a parish minister for thirteen years in Detroit; he taught for a third of a century at Union Theological Seminary in New York; he was a constant “circuit rider” preacher to colleges and universities; he was kept busy most of his life with political activities; he made himself available to all kinds of people; and he was a prolific writer. He contributed significantly to the fields of theology, philosophy, and the social sciences. Very few parallel personalities have both interpreted and influenced so many areas of thought. Only age and illness slowed down his productivity. He was one of the splendid incredibilities of our time.

He is still too much a part of the contemporary scene for us to give a final assessment of his major contribution to American life, and it is difficult to know which facet of Niebuhr’s many-sidedness to stress. But one thing is certain:

Reinhold Niebuhr was the most influential American theologian of this century, the one American who finds a comfortable place in a modern theological pantheon comprised mainly of Europeans. Nearly fifty years ago he instigated an intellectual revolution that changed the climate of theology, and he did more than any other American to shape theology in this country. As the prime theological mover of the last generations he is holding up remarkably well in this generation. In the present theological confusion he provides solid standing ground. So vibrant was his thought that he provides us a significant instance in which dialogue “with a thinker of the past” can be most profitable. His successors cannot avoid dealing with his forceful insights; they will have to abandon them deliberately or build on them. He remains a helpful guide in interpreting the agonies of the twentieth century American religious and political life. His spirited polemics are still worthy targets against which young theologians should test their skills.

Niebuhr claimed that he was not a theologian; and he was not, in the sense of having worked out an elaborate system such as that of the German theologian Karl Barth or the émigré to America Paul Tillich. He felt that only those had developed a full philosophical-religious system of their own were entitled to the designation “theologian.” “Bastardized theology” was the way he spoke self-mockingly of his attempts, but this was because he was modest about his scholarship. Niebuhr was so incredibly busy it is hard to imagine him sitting quietly in his study long enough to write a Church Dogmatics. Niebuhr said, “I cannot and do not claim to be theologian. . . . I have never been very competent in the nice points of pure theology; and I must confess that I have not been sufficiently interested heretofore to acquire the competence.”1 Niebuhr said that he had been frequently challenged to prove that his interests were theological rather than practical, but, he said, “I have always refused to enter a defense, partly because I thought the point was well taken and partly because the distinction did not interest me.”2 In truth, he added little to the theological quest for a more precise understanding of God and Christ. Even in the area of his greatest contribution, the doctrine of man, he was too polemical to be confined to the formal structures of theology. Yet he is still best categorized as a theologian, and both his activity and thought give the “academic” theologians something to write about. As one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century and the foremost interpreter of American religious social behavior, he restated for America the great themes of Christian theology in a revolutionary way. The fact that he was a preacher, teacher, politician, and journalist may obscure his major role as theologian. No apology is made for including him in the “Makers of the Modern Theological Mind” series, since he did some of the most vigorous theological thinking of the twentieth century.

The central focus of Niebuhr’s career was “the defense and justification of the Christian faith in a secular age, particularly among what Schleiermacher called Christianity s ‘intellectual despisers.’”3 He felt that Christianity gained self-knowledge as it grappled with its secular competitors. But Niebuhr did not defend or justify the Christian faith in the traditional manner, since he felt that the “Christian apologists cannot hope for too much success.”4 His apologetic was a twofold polemic, on the one hand against the secular and pagan world and on the other hand against the household of faith, the church. His stance against both was stringently iconoclastic: he brought judgment upon falsehood in both secular and ecclesiastical camps.

He launched his attack against both church and world from a base of prophetic biblical theology — “biblical realism,” as he called it. Rather than accommodating Christianity to what is already proximately Christian in our culture, he assumed all along that the insights of biblical faith are more true and profound than any secular alternatives. He sought to disarm the secularist by proving that alternative faiths to Christianity are inadequate while showing the cogency and relevance of Christianity. He was just as vigorous in criticizing the church’s tendency either to bless some particular social or economic order as the only Christian one, or completely to ignore secular culture. For example, both secular and religious idealism (messianic Marxism and the Protestant social gospel movement) assumed that society would automatically improve through moral and pious benevolence. On the contrary, Niebuhr argued, the collective egoism of class, race, and nation is more persistent than the self-regard of the individual. Man is neither perfectible, as idealists in religion and philosophy had supposed, nor the controllable object of nature, as described by materialists.

Both secular and religious optimism led to moral and political confusion because they ignored man’s sin of willful pride — a universally entrenched, predatory self-interest that exists in all men. Protestant liberalism formally acknowledged the concept of individual sin but widely ignored the idea as a potentially meaningful element in normal life. Utopian Marxism recognized evil but located it outside of man in property. Only the biblical idea of original sin, Niebuhr maintained, properly underlines man’s potential for both good and evil, for realizing perfection and for spoiling it. Niebuhr, taking the doctrine of original sin seriously but not literally, believed that the biblical image of man conveyed a deeper understanding of the human situation than any alternate scheme. He felt that the biblical portrayal of the human predicament could liberate the liberal mind from its rationalistic fixations, show the limitations of all human schemes, and save men from guilty despair when their visions did not bring in the Kingdom of God. In some twenty books and a thousand articles he restored words like sin, grace, judgment, conscience, obligation, and mercy to the American vocabulary, showing believers arid skeptics alike that the Christian message can deal realistically with the modern world. His penchant for polemic against both secularist and saint made his theology dialectical rather than systematic.

Niebuhr’s theology always sought practical expression, and social ethics was the route this expression took. He tried to reconcile an “apparently” mutually exclusive absolute Christian ethic (agape) with a relative social ethic (justice). In combining theology and social ethics he brought theological ethics into the social arena. This thrust him into political involvements in a manner almost unique in his profession. His political biography shows the nature of his alignments: social disillusionment with both capitalism and Marxism; embracement of pacifism, and then the abandonment of it during the rise of American isolationism and European fascism in the 1930s; the championing of U.S. intervention in World War II and a cold war stratagem to contain Soviet power; and indictment of the pretensions of American messianism and scientism when the U.S. first intervened militarily in Viet Nam under John F. Kennedy. In the process of giving theology a practical expression he shaped a distinctively American social ethic that dominated Protestant thought in America from the close of World War I to the widening of the war in Viet Nam. Political ethics as a central theological discipline now has a new intellectual identity and dignity, and many of today’s young “political theologians” owe their ancestry to his creative work.

Niebuhr’s prophetic politics, steeped in biblical theology, Greek classics, Western history and philosophy, depth psychology, and shrewd economic analysis, was the intellectual salvation of some of the most secular of statesmen and scholars. No American preacher or teacher has made a greater contribution to secular political wisdom and moral responsibility. George F. Kennan called him “the father of us all,” and Hans J. Morgenthau said that he was perhaps the only creative American political philosopher since Calhoun. Both Kennan and Morgenthau interpreted errors in American foreign policy with insights specifically derived from Niebuhr. William Pfaff and Edmund Stillman have benefitted from Niebuhr’s showing how America has been deceived by its own pride in misunderstanding its role in history. He has influenced the pragmatic liberalism of many prominent Americans, some of whom saw him as a practical strategist and theoretical interpreter of politics (Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, James Reston, and Hans Morgenthau) while others are convinced that he was chiefly a philosopher of history (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Will Herberg, and Charles Frankel). Niebuhr’s comments on U.S. domestic and foreign policy, particularly after World War II, powerfully influenced some of the ablest people in public life. Some sentences in The Arrogance of Power, former Senator William F. Fulbright’s work, are nearly interchangeable with sentences in The Nature and Destiny of Man. Martin Luther’ King, Jr, in a BBC interview shortly before his death, acknowledged Niebuhr as one of the two major, intellectual influences in his life. Even when these prominent policy-makers have ignored the Christian theology behind Niebuhr’s realistic awareness, they have approached their history and experience with new and significant insights.

Niebuhr’s way with words was evident in both his teaching and preaching. He was a most quotable theologian. Some of his balanced epigrams have become classics. His literary output was enormous, and, according to biographer June Bingham, if “you go to look him up in any library file, you might as well take along a picnic lunch.”5 Among his students at Union Seminary he was a much-loved lecturer and conversationalist. He kept his students breathless with fast paced, challenging lectures. He enjoyed arguments over lunch in the seminary cafeteria, sometimes roughly caricaturing his opponents, and these dialogues often ran over into late evening sessions in his own apartment. He was one of the great Christian preachers of this century, and it is a pity that he allowed only two volumes of his sermons to be printed. For years he was a “circuit rider” pulpiteer to colleges and universities, devoting his weekends to explaining the basics of Christianity to students who knew little, and often cared less, about them. He was immensely popular in many of the great churches of the country. “Those who faced his lucid and mercurial brilliance from the pew will surely agree that their deepest impression has been that of an enormously shrewd and worldly intelligence whose overriding interest centers in the special kind of illumination that is cast by the Christian faith upon the major perplexities of modern man,” says Nathan A. Scott, Jr.6

Niebuhr influenced the literary community, but here his influence is more difficult to measure than in the areas of theology, political thought, social action, or the pulpit and classroom. His influence was felt in both contemporary criticism and creative literature, but his presence was there more often “in the nuances of stress and intonation than in the form of documented reference.”7 Scott, a careful Niebuhr watcher, who cataloged Niebuhr’s influence on the literary world, has said that Niebuhr made some writers aware of the tragic character of all human action. F. 0. Matthiessen, for example, acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence on his critique of the nineteenth-century belief in every man as his own messiah in American Renaissance. Scott has also said that Niebuhr’s influence can probably be traced in the critical assessment of various forms of liberalism by Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren (Brother to Dragons), and Frederick Buechner (The Return of Ansel Gibbs).

Niebuhr influenced countless lives both directly and indirectly. A charming story about his impact concerns the so-called Serenity Prayer in constant use by the half-million acknowledged alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous groups throughout the world: “O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

In 1934 Niebuhr preached at a small church near his summer home in Heath, Massachusetts, and he had casually jotted down the prayer on a slip of paper to use in the worship. At the conclusion of the service, his next-door neighbor Howard Chandler Robbins, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, requested a copy of the prayer. Handing him the slip of paper, Niebuhr said, “Here, take the prayer. I have no further use for it.” Robbins included the prayer in a subsequent issue of the Cathedral News, whence it gradually made its way into the religious public domain of America.


Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892, and his boyhood was spent in St. Charles, Missouri, and Lincoln, Illinois. His father was a German immigrant who served as pastor in a German-speaking Lutheran Church which mixed the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Niebuhr said that the “first formative religious influence on my life was my father.”8 He was nurtured on German-Lutheran piety in his father’s parishes in Missouri and Illinois. At ten he told his father he had decided to become a minister because “you are the most interesting man in town.” He studied at two Lutheran schools, Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary. Elmhurst was a small, then-unaccredited school run by his denomination, the Evangelical Synod of North America, now part of the United Church of Christ. In April 1913, while Reinhold was still at Eden, his father suffered an attack of diabetes, went into a coma, and died.

Eager to break away from his tightly knit German church life and encouraged by his mother, he studied for two further years at the Divinity School of Yale University, concentrating his study in the problems of epistemology and receiving a Master of Arts degree. He said that he got into Yale only because they were “hard up for students,” but he went on to earn himself a respected academic place in this Ivy League school.

At Yale he was deeply influenced by liberal social thought and became a typical product of the early twentieth-century liberal theology. As a student he shared the liberal temper of the campus. He accepted the historical-critical method of biblical studies, rejected some traditional theological claims on the basis of their incredibility to a critical mind, assumed a religious optimism, championed individualism, accepted evolutionary categories, emphasized ethics, stressed the humanity of Jesus, and recognized the importance of toleration. At this point he discontinued his formal education because of family needs and because studies “bored me . . . and frankly the other side of me came out; I desired relevance rather than scholarship.”9 Long before it became academically popular to wed thought with action, Niebuhr was developing a life-style in which his theology was hammered out in the context of pressing human needs. This in part explains why his thought altered significantly through more than half a century.

Rather than stay at Yale and work toward his doctorate, Niebuhr accepted the appointment by his denomination as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915. Family needs “and my boredom with epistemology prompted me to forswear graduate study and the academic career to which it pointed,” he said.10 (Although he never earned a Ph.D. degree, he was awarded eighteen honorary doctorates, including one from Oxford.) His widowed mother moved to Detroit with him and managed the affairs of the parsonage, living with him until his marriage in 1931.

This little congregation was composed of eighteen families, but in the next thirteen years under Niebuhr’s leadership its membership was to reach nearly eight hundred. During these years Detroit’s population grew threefold, from half a million to a million and a half, and became the motor capital of the country as the automobile industry rapidly expanded. These two facts “determined my development more than any books which I may have read,” Niebuhr commented.11 Niebuhr called Detroit a “frontier” industrial town, but his diary indicates he was obviously happy in his pastorate. (Pages from his 1915-1928 diary were edited and published in 1929 with the title Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.)

Youthful high spirits, unfortunately, do not automatically solve pastoral problems. His mother became, in effect, the assistant pastor to the fledgling twenty-three-year-old minister, and he was grateful for her help. In his first Leaves entry in 1915 he wrote, “Where did anyone ever learn in a seminary how to conduct or help with a Ladies Aid meeting? I am glad that mother has come to live with me and will take care of that part of the job.”12 But after three months he admitted that he was discouraged over his preaching: “Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find that I am. repeating myself. A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again.”13 The few ideas that he had worked into sermons at the seminary were soon used up, and it was a full five years before he admitted that he was beginning to “like” the preaching ministry. He wrote, “I think since I have stopped worrying so much about the intellectual problems of religion and have begun exploring some of its ethical problems there is more of a thrill in preaching.”14

Niebuhr became a successful pastor. Sensitive to the personal problems of his parishioners, he learned many Christian skills and attitudes at a practical level. Shortly after taking charge of his parish, he discovered that two elderly ladies in his congregation who were dying were counting on him to help them face death peacefully. From one’s prayerful and wholesome acceptance of death he saw how the Christian faith can work. He said, “I relearned the essentials of the Christian faith at the bedside of that nice old soul.”15 At the, bedside of the other he saw how faith can be blocked by those who are pridefully preoccupied with themselves. It was typical of Niebuhr that this lesson stayed with him. Reflecting in later years on the difference between the faiths of the two old ladies, he said that the “church is a curiously mixed body consisting of those who have never been shaken in their self-esteem or self-righteousness and who use the forms of religion for purposes of self-aggrandizement; and of the true Christians who live by ‘a broken spirit and a contrite heart.’” 16

He could learn from all sorts and conditions of people. Niebuhr drew theological insights from the social gospel (a concern for social justice), from Karl Marx (men are influenced by their place in the social scheme), from Augustine (history is moved by both love and sin), and Kierkegaard (the free individual is anxious), but his first lessons came from personal experience. Niebuhr was reluctant to place himself visibly near the center of his written work, but he did confess that facts, not books, shaped his theology. He said that even at Union Seminary “the gradual unfolding of my theological ideas came not so much through study as through the pressure of world events.” 17 Niebuhr’s own self-interpretative clue, then, is that he moved from practice to ethics to theological formulation. Martin E. Marty says of Niebuhr that it “is possible to trace almost every eventually developed view of the religious community in action back to his root experience in the Detroit parish.” 18

Even though his church grew rapidly in membership, he was a constant lecturer and preacher on college campuses, a writer for religious and secular journals, a participant in political and secular affairs, and a traveler abroad. In 1924 he chaired the large Detroit meeting for La Follette for President. Entering politics that year at the national level, he never withdrew from involvement. Sherwood Eddy, a leading figure in the YMCA, was so impressed with Niebuhr’s speaking ability that he contributed money to hire an assistant at Bethel Church and thus free Niebuhr to be a roving ambassador to college campuses. Niebuhr wrote that for years “I commuted, as it were, between ecclesiastical and academic communities. I found each with a sense of superiority over the other either because it possessed, or had discarded, the Christian faith.”19 He published his first article in 1916 (in The Atlantic Monthly), and during the remainder of his parish ministry published some forty more signed articles (mostly in The Christian Century, The World Tomorrow, and The Atlantic). He was emerging as a writer worth watching.

His service as pastor of Bethel Church proved to be of decisive influence in the development of his thought and interest. Here he discovered industrial America. Here his moral passion was honed as he observed firsthand the fierce struggle between management and labor. His own congregation was a cross-section of wage earners and the wealthy. The problems of social ethics came into focus for him. He committed himself to the cause of the working class and began actively to criticize the detrimental consequences of capitalism. His pastoral rounds brought him into contact with the victims of the industrial dehumanization. His sermons from his own pulpit made him one of the interesting men in town, and potentially one of the most dangerous to Henry Ford I. Niebuhr said, “I cut my eyeteeth fighting Ford.”

Ford, appealing to humanitarian motives to justify his economic policies, came to represent for Niebuhr the capitalistic system. Supposedly Ford’s policies in the automobile industry were producing great profits for workers, but Niebuhr observed that these policies were reducing workers to mere cogs in an impersonal assembly line while producing great profits for Ford himself.

Mother and I visited at the home of ______________ today where the husband is sick and was out of employment before he became sick. The folks have few connections in the city. They belong to no church. What a miserable existence it is to be friendless in a large city. And to be dependent on a heartless industry. The man is about 55 or 57 I should judge, and he is going to have a desperate time securing employment after he gets well.20

Niebuhr openly scoffed at Ford’s trumpeted magnanimity, and welcomed union rallies in his church when other public platforms closed to them. He placed himself on the side of the underdog and the Bethel Church stood loyally behind him.

In Detroit Niebuhr discovered the real cost of industrialization: dehumanization of the worker, nervous tensions, unemployment without compensation, broken bodies, appalling working conditions in the factories, and naive gentlemen with a genius for mechanics deciding the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands. At this time Niebuhr was driven into the mild socialism of the “Social Gospel,” but he soon began to do battle against what he called its naivete (its lack of understanding of the depths of sin in individual and society). His Detroit experience posed for him the problems with which he would struggle throughout his career — racial strife, economic injustice, international disorder, and an adequate theology. Detroit was to see the beginning of Niebuhr’s pragmatism, that ability to break away from the givens that his biographer June Bingham calls “the courage to change.” Detroit was the learning laboratory for him as he moved from parish ministry to public protester.

During these years his theology underwent a significant change. He entered his parish with the moralistic assumptions of optimistic liberalism, the goodness of man and the inevitability of human progress, but he soon saw that corrupting self-interest is inextricably involved in the human situation. Looking back upon his ministry in later years, he confessed, “About midway in my ministry, which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles to the peace of Munich, measured in terms of Western history, I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals with which I ventured forth in 1915.” 21

Serving as a minister in an auto workers’ community, he was shocked by the callous injustice of a modern industrial society. He was equally shocked to find that the Christian church as he knew it was isolated from men’s needs by social impotence. This early insight into the ugly realities of an industrial society, particularly the exploitation of men by other men and the church’s placid indifference, was to change his pastoral ministry. He said that it began to dawn upon him that “the simple little moral homilies which were preached in that as in other cities, by myself and others, seemed completely irrelevant to the brutal facts of life in a great industrial center. Whether irrelevant or not, they were certainly futile. They did not change human actions or attitudes in any problem of collective behavior by a hair’s breadth, though they may well have helped to preserve private amenities and to assuage individual frustrations.”22 He developed a passion for a realistic theology which would be relevant to man’s total life in twentieth-century American society. His Detroit experience began to show him that there were two false answers to the problem of relating gospel and world. He revolted against a theology to the left (“liberalism”) and a theology to the right (“orthodoxy”) in seeking an answer to them (“Christian realism”) .

Niebuhr began his career as a liberal, but he became one of liberalism’s most ardent critics. He said, “In my parish duties I found that the simple idealism into which the classical faith had evaporated was as irrelevant to the crises of personal life as it was to the complex social issues of an industrial city.” 23 With a predilection for exaggeration, he isolated liberalism’s confidence in moral progress and directed his polemics against this feature. The illusion of moral progress became the central theme in his attack. He said, “Modern liberalism is steeped in a religious optimism which is true to the facts of neither the world of nature nor the world of history.” 24 World War I shattered for Niebuhr liberalism’s optimistic view of life. He felt that nationalism and liberalism had combined in an unhealthy union of righteousness and power to urge on the war in moral terms. Liberal churches were prostituted at the hands of nationalism. After the war he regretted his defense of it, concluding that the war was a contest of power dependent upon economic interests. He decided not to have anything to do with “the war business” again and became a pacifist.

Niebuhr began a heated and ceaseless struggle against both the ethical inadequacy and the theological presuppositions of liberalism. Liberalism for Niebuhr had two forms, religious and secular. The religious form was the theology characterized by the American Social Gospel movement, initiated by Walter Rauschenbusch at the beginning of this century and having its roots in the prevailing theology of Europe in the nineteenth century and in American “revivalism.” The Social Gospel movement tried to change America’s unjust social systems by convincing the men who controlled and managed the systems to live by the Sermon on the Mount. This overweening confidence grew out of a theology which had a superficial view of man’s sinfulness, which identified the Kingdom of God with current political and philosophical ideals, and which pictured man as having a “spark of the divine” in him and thus capable of his own salvation.

Niebuhr found Protestant liberalism to be incompetent and irrelevant, to be little more than a system of values descending from the Enlightenment. It was no better than the piety of bourgeois idealism with its naive preachments about moral optimism, its identification of the ideal society with the Kingdom of God, and its simple confidence in the possibility of implementing in public life the absolutes of the Christian faith. His first book, published in 1927, Does Civilization Need Religion?, was a direct consequence of his Detroit experience and reflected Niebuhr’s alarm at the depersonalization caused by an industrial civilization. He said that his “early writings were characterized by a critical attitude toward the ‘liberal’ world view, whether expressed in secular or Christian terms.” 25 Liberal Protestantism was so much at home in the world that it had no counsel and had become a harmless adornment of the moral life. The Social Gospel movement with its happy worldliness had lost its capacity for genuinely radical criticism. The book represented his break with liberalism, but it did not contain the thorough realism of his later writings. The book was a prelude to his later attack on liberalism from a Marxist perspective during the 1930s and his Augustinian-inspired attack in the 1940s.

The secular form of liberalism for Niebuhr was a philosophy and social ethic which stemmed from a secularized Social Gospel combined with American optimism, faith in the techniques of natural science, and the idea of inevitable social progress. Secular liberalism appealed to “reason” rather than the Sermon on the Mount in order to achieve the perfect society. According to the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Mill, and John Dewey, social injustice grew out of ignorance, and could be obliterated through education and the power of moral suasion. Niebuhr became convinced that this mild Pelagianism did not understand the element of power in the living actualities of politics and could not be expected to provide any relevant guidance for social structures.

In Detroit Niebuhr learned that neither form of liberalism was relevant to the brutal facts of life in an industrial culture or a collective society. The corrupting elements of self-interest remain mixed with man’s best intentions. The potentiality for progress is always accompanied by the potentiality for destructiveness. Man is imperfect and history is incomplete. Moving from liberalism’s inadequacy, he began to criticize its theologically weak view of God and man, demanding a more “transcendent” view of God and a more “realistic” view of collective man. While trying to preserve liberalism’s valid insight of man’s moral and rational capacity for good, Niebuhr rejected its utopian and individualistic social strategy. Accepting liberalism’s spirit (openness to change), he turned his back on its creed (the painless improvability of man). Through this type of criticism Niebuhr introduced into American theology the movement known as Christian realism, and he remained its outstanding leader.

As liberalism was a false answer to social-ethical problems on the left, so “orthodoxy” was a smaller but still formidable enemy on the right. Orthodoxy was synonymous in his thought with conventional Christianity (biblical literalism, fundamentalism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism). Niebuhr directed most of his polemic against liberal churches, possibly because he seemed to have despaired of theological fundamentalism and felt it was beyond redemption. He saw in Detroit that orthodoxy was as inadequate as liberalism in dealing with modern ethical problems. It neglected man s present concerns by concentrating on his eternal destiny, it neglected public morals by restricting itself to individual perfection, and it sanctioned social evil with its doctrine of predestination.

Niebuhr wrote in his Detroit diary in 1928:

One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in the ministry is the proclamation of great ideals and principles without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of the day. The minister feels very heroic in uttering the ideals because he knows that some rather dangerous immediate consequences are involved in their application. But he doesn’t make the application clear, and those who hear his words are either unable to see the immediate issue involved or they are unconsciously grateful to the preacher for not belaboring a contemporaneous issue which they know to be Involved but would rather not face.26

Even though orthodoxy actually contributed to unjust social structures by its neglect, it did contribute to a realistic social ethic with its doctrine of sin. Niebuhr took the traditional Protestant doctrine of original sin, stripped it of its literalism, and used it to explain the real character of modern society. His criticism of biblical literalism drove him back to an acceptance of “biblical realism” (to use his own phrase), to the biblical answer to sin, and the biblical affirmation of God’s grace in Christ. His emphasis on man’s sinfulness soon made Niebuhr a revolutionary force in American theology. He set himself the task of steering a realistic course between the two threats of liberalism and orthodoxy as he tried ‘to relate Christianity to the modern world.

During World War I Niebuhr had traveled to Europe on speaking tours with the YMCA leader, Sherwood Eddy. Eddy drew him onto the national stage and gave him a larger audience by providing speaking opportunities on college campuses. Niebuhr soon had the opportunity to position himself at the crossroads of American intellectual and political ferment. At Eddy’s instigation, Niebuhr spoke before a student convention in Detroit in 1923. Henry Sloane Coffin (later president of Union Seminary in New York City), who was in the audience and became acquainted with Niebuhr, in time offered Niebuhr a teaching post at Union in the field of Applied Christianity. When Niebuhr asked, “What shall I teach?” Coffin replied, “Just what you think.” Niebuhr said this was a hazardous venture, since my reading in the parish had been rather undisciplined and I had no scholarly competence in my field, not to speak of the total field of Christian theology.” 27

The tall, balding Niebuhr resigned his Detroit pastorate in 1928 and joined the faculty of Union to start full-time teaching. Having learned to love the pastorate, he left his congregation with reluctance. He also was well aware of his lack of preparation for the classroom. He said, “It was a full decade before I could stand before a class and answer the searching questions of the students at the end of a lecture without the sense of being a fraud who pretended to a larger and more comprehensive knowledge than I possessed.” 28 His life in New York was even more hectic than it had been in Detroit as he taught, preached, traveled, wrote, and participated in a growing number of both religious and secular organizations. His presence helped make that period the golden age for Union, and he remained there until his retirement in 1960.

He was too much of a human being to live alone, and three years after he went to Union he married one of his students, a bright, elegant Briton. Ursula Keppel-Compton was an honor student at Oxford before coming to Union in 1930. Mrs. Niebuhr was not only a warm and vivacious companion, but demonstrated her own theological alertness by teaching religion at Barnard College for many years. They had two children, a son and a daughter, Christopher and Elizabeth, who added to their happy home life. Mrs. Niebuhr, a woman of impressive erudition, later became head of the religion department at Barnard College. Included in the Niebuhr teaching dynasty were his late brother, H. Richard, the eminent Yale ethicist; his late sister, Hulda, who taught education at McCormick Seminary; and his nephew, Harvard theologian Richard Reinhold Niebuhr. The two brothers were to dominate the thought of American Christian ethics for four decades.

The academic environment at Union with its research facilities stimulated Niebuhr to publish theological writings that were to have a notable impact both nationally and internationally. He became one of the most prolific writers in American intellectual life. Since it is unlikely that the general reader can take the time and effort to read all of Niebuhr’s books (not to mention his hundreds of journal articles), I have tried in this chapter to intersperse mention of his books in the chronology of his life, note their contents, show their place in his developing thought, and point to their impact on American thought. It is my hope that this hasty survey will allow the general reader to turn to several of Niebuhr’s most important books without the feeling that he is totally disoriented in the mass and variety of Niebuhr’s writings.

Niebuhr’s lecturing and writing never removed him from the problems of the day on the one hand nor from the church on the other. If anything, he became more deeply involved in the arena of social action and political debate, but from his basic home in the seminary’s Christian community. He never hesitated to join a movement promoting social justice, and during the thirties and forties he lent his name to more than a hundred of them — a matter of some amusement to his friends. Whereas in Detroit he had learned the resources for practical justice in the Hebrew-Christian tradition, in New York he learned of such resources among the secularists as well. A number of radical and liberal groups were surprised to find a minister among their number and in accord with their views. He was a pioneer in the Christian rediscovery of the secular — the healthy affirmation that God’s grace (the hidden Christ) is also at work outside the church. In 1929 he served on the executive committee of the League for Independent Political Action and was still active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the leading pacifist organization on the American scene. In 1930 he helped found the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and ran for Congress as the candidate of the Socialist party in the Morningside Heights community of New York City. As he moved theologically to the right, he became a well-known figure in the radical political circles of the left. Capable of change, Niebuhr was ever a “moving target” in both body and mind for his critics.

As Niebuhr contemplated the shambles of the Depression, he became deeply convinced that modern liberalism, whether in its secular or its religious form, could not provide relevant guidance for social and political reconstruction. Out of this disenchantment with liberalism came his famous book of 1932, Moral Man and Immoral Society. This book, representing Niebuhr’s first venture into political philosophy, had an explosive effect in American theological circles. It carried the same impact in America that Barth’s commentary on Romans carried in Europe. His academic colleagues at Union were taken aback by his brash, outspoken touting of socialism and pacifism when he joined the faculty, but they were even less ready when he attacked theological and political liberalism in this book. No other book in the first third of the twentieth century had a greater impact in American theological circles. Many old liberals looked upon this book as a study in ruthless iconoclasm, demolishing their dearest assumptions and removing the foundation for a Christian philosophy. Later, Niebuhr was jokingly to say that an even more accurate title for his book would have been “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.”

Niebuhr, wrestling with the contrast between individual and group ethics, summarized the problem in the following way:

A realistic analysis of the problems of human society reveals a constant and seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience. This conflict, which could be most briefly defined as the conflict between ethics and politics, is made inevitable by the double focus of the moral life. One focus is in the inner life of the individual, and the other in the necessities of man’s social life. >From the perspective of society the highest moral ideal is justice. From the perspective of the individual the highest ideal is unselfishness. Society must strive for justice, even if it is forced to use means, such as self-assertion, resistance, coercion, and perhaps resentment, which cannot gain the moral sanction of the most sensitive and moral spirit. The individual must strive to realize his life by losing and finding himself in something greater than himself. . . Political morality, in other words, is in the most uncompromising antithesis to religious morality.29

Niebuhr felt that no reconstruction could take place until a sober assessment of power had been given. He asserted that social collectives are so egotistical that a tolerable justice can be achieved only by guaranteeing enough power to each group to counterbalance the power of other groups by which they may be exploited.

Niebuhr said that the thesis of his book was that a “sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.”30 He said that all moralists misunderstood the brutal character of groups. “Whatever increase in social intelligence and moral good will may be achieved in human history, may serve to mitigate the brutalities of social conflict, but they cannot abolish the conflict itself.”31 As groups increase in size they become more selfish, and perhaps “the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.”32 Individual moral life is difficult enough, but a “perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life.”33

Niebuhr said that the relevant norm for political decisions and social policy is not love, as the liberals had claimed, but justice. Whereas it may be possible to bring about just relations between individuals by moral and rational persuasion, in larger groups this is an impossibility. The relations between large groups, therefore, must be predominantly based on power rather than ethics. Power is as significant as moral persuasion in large groups, and a just society is the result of politics rather than education. Any thought to the contrary is pure sentimentality, he argued.

It was this position that led Niebuhr eventually to disavow his mild socialism and to abandon the position of pacifism. To abandon force for moral persuasion is to invite disaster, he felt. The trouble with pacifism, Niebuhr finally came to say, was that it tried to live in history without sinning. Violence was a part of the class struggle, he felt, and conceded the right of violence to the underprivileged classes. At the beginning of World War II he developed the fullest argument in the American church against pacifism. He fully recognized the evil of war, but judged it less evil than acquiescence to Nazi tyranny. He became more vocal in his opposition to appeasement, and backed many causes that aided refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe. Paul Tillich credited Niebuhr with having saved his life at the time Hitler came to power. As Niebuhr took on international prominence as a molder of opinion he developed working relationships with people in the left wing Democratic party and the major news media, notably Eleanor Roosevelt and the Luce publications Time and Life. He began his long association with government policy-makers in the State Department and was gradually drawn into the orbit of American leadership as a consultant.

Niebuhr published another book in 1932 that went unnoticed in the shadow of Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two years earlier he had given a series of lectures to social workers, and these lectures formed the basis of the book The Contribution of Religion to Social Work. In this book he argued that religion created a conscience which is quick to understand social need, that religious philanthropy gives charitably but without raising ultimate questions about the causes of social maladjustment, that religion “unifies individuals, stabilizes societies, creates social imagination and sanctifies social life; but it also perpetuates ancient evils, increases social inertia, creates illusions and preserves superstitions.”34 He also argued that religion is a resource for the social worker because it contains potentials for achieving a more adequate social justice. Because of the brevity of the book, the special audience to which it was addressed, and the untimeliness of its publication, it is seldom quoted from or mentioned by even the most ardent Niebuhr followers.

In 1934 he published Reflections on the End of an Era, in which he continued to argue for a realistic political theory that would set power against power and bring about a more just social system. Niebuhr said that the basic conviction running through the book was that “the liberal culture of modernity is quite unable to give guidance and direction to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one.” 35 In this book he confidently expected the collapse of capitalism — words he was later to eat publicly. He made a twofold proposal for spiritual guidance — first, a more radical political orientation, and second, a more conservative religious conviction (a return to more classical and historical interpretations) — but without hope that either would be heeded. He admitted that his approach would “satisfy neither the liberals in politics and religion, nor the political radicals nor the devotees of traditional Christianity.” 36 Niebuhr struggled to find a new standing place in the Christian camp, struggled to be heard by the secularist, and feared all the while that he would be ignored by both church and world.

His continuing reaction against moral liberalism led him to accept some insights from Marxism. He was never a Marxist and was ever critical of its reckless fanaticism which led to inordinate political tyranny. He never had any illusions about its demonic character and was one of its more severe critics. However, to criticize liberalism he used Marxism’s organic view of society, its theory of class conflict, its insights into social injustice, its intuition of judgment and disaster, and its sense for the duplicity of man. He deplored Marxism’s moral cynicism, but praised its realism.

He was to become one of the sharpest critics of the religious pretensions and failures of Marxism. He felt that Marxism had chosen the wrong means (violence) to bring about the ideal society, that it destroyed the good along with the bad in its revolution, and that it was “hopelessly romantic” in its view of the coming classless society. He said that Marxism “betrays the ethical enterprise into an illusion, akin to the liberal illusion.”37 He characterized it as a religion without God or grace, but said that all “men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of


In his book of 1935, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr tried to restate in a constructive way the relation between politics and ethics. His disenchantment with the Social Gospel finally began to emerge as a recovery of the doctrine of original sin, and his thought began to move in the direction of theological anthropology. He turned to the more distinctive insights of the Christian faith and became a theologian in a new sense. He said that “only a vital Christian faith, renewing its youth in its prophetic origin, is capable of dealing adequately with the moral and social problems of our age.”39 The question in this book was how one might move from an ethic of agape to viable ethical norms in the historical order, how “to derive a social ethic from the absolute ethic of the gospels.” 40 Neither conventional orthodoxy nor liberal Christianity could give a satisfactory answer. Orthodoxy, clinging to the myths of a prescientific age, made no effort to make the Bible relevant to contemporary experience. Liberalism had surrendered the distinctives of the Christian faith in order to be modern. This book was his first broad attack on the liberal middle-class churches.

In this work Niebuhr maintained that the agape of the Cross in its sacrificial heedlessness and universalism is the only final adequate norm of human life. “The Christian doctrine of love is thus the most adequate metaphysical and psychological framework for the approximation of the ideal of love in human life.”41 He asserted that the ethic of agape is impossible to fulfill by the natural man in his historical sinful situation. He said that the “modern pulpit would he saved from much sentimentality if the thousands of sermons which are annually preached upon these texts would contain some suggestions of the impossibility of these ethical demands.”42 Agape remained as a transcendent norm, a radical perfectionism. “The ethic of Jesus may offer valuable insights to and sources of criticism for a prudential social ethic which deals with present realities; but no such social ethic can be directly derived from a pure religious ethic.”43 The ideal must transcend history since every norm that is found in history is too partial and incomplete. Man, however, tried to make the historical norm his final norm. In making absolute claims for the partial finite values, man tries to make himself God. This is the root and nature of sin. “The devil is always an angel who pretends to be God. Therefore while egoism is the driving force of sin, dishonesty is its final expression.”44

An Interpretation of Christian Ethics makes clear that man’s tendency to claim more for himself than he ought to claim constitutes the Christian doctrine of original sin. On the one hand, Niebuhr denied the orthodox tendency to convert the doctrine of original sin into a doctrine of a literally inherited corruption. This would destroy both freedom and responsibility. On the other hand, he rejected the liberal tradition which denied that man had this tendency toward playing God. “The orthodox church dismissed the immediate relevancy of the law of love for politics. . . The modern church approached the injustices and conflicts of this world with a gay and easy confidence.”45 Niebuhr’s debates with both orthodoxy and liberalism were gradually leading him to a fundamental restatement of Christian theology.

In his book of 1937, Beyond Tragedy, he restated with theological richness some of the great themes of classical Christianity. “The cross, which stands at the centre of the Christian world view, reveals both the seriousness of human sin and the purpose and power of God to overcome it.”46 The Christian view sees through a sense of the tragic to a hope “beyond tragedy.” Here it is evident that he was indebted to the fathers and reformers and particularly to Augustine. In later years he was to confess that he regretted not having studied the thought of Augustine earlier. “The matter is surprising because the thought of this theologian was to answer so many of my unanswered questions and to emancipate me finally from the notion that the Christian faith was in some way identical with the moral idealism of the past century.”47

Beyond Tragedy is a collection of fifteen sermonic essays which grew out of materials that he had preached in colleges and universities, and is still perhaps the best introduction to Niebuhr. His analysis of the human situation in these sermons is much like that in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, and he carries forward the proposals that he had made there. Man is fated to be mortal but he pretends not to be mortal. Because of his creativity, man pretends to be more than he actually is. This gives rise to his sinfulness. Because man is free, he can pretend to be more than he is and the consequences are that he bears responsibility for his sin. In his return to classical Christian anthropology, Niebuhr used the doctrine of original sin. But in rejecting orthodox literalism he restated the doctrine in a “radical” way: he reinterpreted the dogma in a parabolic or mythical fashion. For example, he said that man’s fall is locatable in no historical Garden of Eden, but it is a way of speaking profoundly about what has happened in every man’s experience. “We are deceivers, yet true in clinging to the idea of the fall as a symbol of the origin and the nature of evil in human life.” 48


Niebuhr came to love the students and the classroom work at Union Seminary. He and Mrs. Niebuhr had open house almost every Thursday evening for his students, and the students would crowd into their apartment. Niebuhr loved teaching, and he never neglected it for his many outside activities and interests. Fierce in impersonal polemics, he dealt with students tenderly, and his office was never closed to them. He was the gregarious type of professor who liked to be stopped in the halls by students who wanted to talk. As one of his students said, “A lot of other professors talk about being sorry not to see more of the students. But they go off to their offices and close the door. Reinie’s door is always open — and he’s always being stopped in the hall by someone.”49 He thrived on the exchange with students, and missed them when he was away from the seminary.

He had a voice that carried, a burning intensity that showed in his carriage and conversation, a large frame, and the broad, thick hands of a farmer. Even when speaking casually he spoke rapidly. His hands and arms were in constant motion as he preached or spoke in private conversation. He could often be seen walking two poodles on a leash on the streets around Union Seminary. Charming and witty in personal conversation, he was formidable as a debating opponent. He was a 17-hour-a-day dynamo who lived a disciplined, mildly ascetic life. His torrent of trenchant speeches and articles were often turned out at the last minute.

Niebuhr was a tough adversary. He called pacifists “parasites,” death-of-God theologians “infants,” religious services at the White House “complacent conformity,” and, to the end, the name “Richard Nixon” could evoke from him well-chosen epithets. Even among friends, he was not fully at home in any preexisting ideological camp. His opponents were numerous. If “his ideas were too orthodox for the liberals, they were too liberal for the orthodox; and if too secular for the religious, they were too religious for the secular.”50 At the same time he knew the meaning of love and forgiveness. He was sensitive and could be hurt. When in the wrong, he was ready to admit his error and seek forgiveness. He was keenly aware of the difference between an attack on a person and an attack on a position. He is well remembered for the vigorous polemic with which he could destroy a position contrary to his own, but in his later years he often deplored the combativeness of his earlier years. Many felt that his main gift lay in demolition, but this was only partially true. He negated other positions in order to clear the ground for making his positive affirmations more readily understood. Well aware of the falsehoods in his own claims to truth, he tried to avoid inordinate claims for his own position in relation to that of an opponent.

Those who knew and praised his greatness also spoke of his “humanity” and “humility.” Robert McAfee Brown, one of Niebuhr’s students, said that Niebuhr wore his national and international honors “lightly.” “It needs to be stressed, therefore, that the man who so tellingly reacquainted a whole theological generation with the sin of pride was himself singularly free of that shortcoming.” 51 John C. Bennett, Niebuhr’s colleague at Union for many years, spoke of his tenderness. “Those who worked with him and especially his students will remember him as a person of extraordinary personal power which was expressed through his physical presence as well as through thought and word, but in so far as their personal relations with him are concerned, they will even more remember his tenderness.” 52 The only student reaction Niebuhr did not know how to cope with was praise.

It was rapidly becoming obvious that Niebuhr was emerging as a commanding and brilliant voice in American theology. It came as no surprise to his colleagues when he was invited to the University of Edinburgh as the Gifford Lecturer in the spring and autumn of 1939. Only four other Americans — William James, Josiah Royce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey — had been invited to give these famous lectures. Niebuhr delivered these lectures against the backdrop of the guns of World War II and the air raid sirens of Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Gifford Lectures became Niebuhr’s theological masterpiece, the central achievement of his career. This effort has been called by some of his admirers the most prodigious apologia for the Christian faith ever written by an American theologian. They were published under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man, the first volume of which was published in 1941. This book, his longest and most important, marked the crystallization of his theology. All of his thought and writings since his Detroit pastorate had been moving toward the unifying theme of Christian selfhood. How shall man think of himself? was the opening question of his Gifford Lectures, and this question represents the core of his thought, his controlling theological principle. This book contains innumerable themes, but many have considered the phenomenology of selfhood to be the profoundest and most original theme running through it. The decisive fulcrum is the inquiry into the nature of the self. Niebuhr said, “I chose the only subject I could have chosen because the other fields of Christian thought were beyond my competence. I lectured on ‘The Nature and Destiny of Man.’”53

Niebuhr’s principal preoccupation was with the doctrine of man. He stands in a great line of Christian thinkers stretching from Augustine through Kierkegaard who have been occupied with anthropology. For Barth and Bonhoeffer, everything focused on Christ. For Niebuhr, Christ was utterly important, but he had no interest in the classical formulations of the doctrine of Christ. The doctrine of man gives body and substance to everything in Niebuhr’s rich multiplicity of, themes. He reinstated for the American intellectual community a sense of the mysterious heights and depths of man that are possible for the Christian vision. Niebuhr holds our attention along with the other great thinkers of our time — such as Jaspers, Heidegger, Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre — who have expressed the most vital vision of man.

The Nature and Destiny of Man was Niebuhr’s most comprehensive and definitive theological statement. He offered a forceful “Christian” view of man, comparing this view with others that fail to take into account all the facts of human existence — Greek classical views in the ancient world, and naturalism in the modern world. Niebuhr’s approach was pronouncedly Protestant, based as it was on the Reformers, Augustine, and the Bible. The two volumes must be considered together to get at Niebuhr’s purpose. Human nature is the created conjunction of spirit and nature. Man’s sin, acted out in the historical process, consists in man’s self-centered refusal to recognize his creaturely limits. On the other hand, human destiny is a historical drama which begins at creation, reaches a climax at the coming of Christ, and moves on to conclude at Judgment Day. In this chapter I will sketch only the barest outline of Niebuhr’s book, but return to it in detail in the following chapters.

Niebuhr began the Nature volume by saying that man is a problem to himself. Both ancient and modern views of man create problems for themselves because of their limited viewpoints. When man is defined only in terms of mind, rationality, or spirit, then man’s involvement in nature is neglected. When man is defined only in terms of nature or natural process, then man’s self-conscious and self-transcendent freedom is ignored. Niebuhr said that, contrary to these two alternatives, the biblical view sees man as a unity of body and spirit, of freedom and creatureliness. Thus a Christian view avoids the errors and combines the truths of the alternative views of man. Niebuhr maintained this Christian view throughout the book. Only in God does man find the source and key to his fulfillment. Niebuhr next analyzed non-Christian views of man for the elements of form and vitality as well as the ideas of individuality and collectivism. Again he argued that the Christian view is best able to hold together in a vital balance these contrasting aspects of man’s nature.

The one pervasive trait of the many conflicting views of modern man is their radical misreading of the nature and extent of evil in man. Niebuhr spoke of the “easy conscience of modern man.” Modern man has rejected the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin. Modern man has thought well of himself and asserted that he is sufficiently intelligent and virtuous to solve his problems and shape his destiny. Modern man feels that any lingering evils of inertia or ignorance can be cured by social reform or education.

Niebuhr developed his biblical view of man under the idea that man is both in the image of God, and a self-venerating sinner. Unlike many of the early church fathers who, under the influence of Greek philosophy, sought to identify the image of God with human reason, Niebuhr, following Augustine, saw the image of God as the self-conscious and self-transcendent character of man’s whole self. At the same time this free and self-determinate man is a finite, mortal creature in God’s creation. As image of God, man is both free and finite.

Niebuhr looked upon man as essentially ambiguous. On the one hand, man is a creature embedded in nature. On the other hand, man has the capacity to rise above his creaturehood in indeterminable acts of self-transcendence. Man is both free and bound, both limited and limitless. Alternatives to the Christian faith have either emphasized man’s creaturehood or emphasized his freedom to the neglect of the other side. The biblical faith, on the other hand, emphasizes both man’s creaturehood and man as being made in the image of God. Man belongs both to the realm of nature and to the realm of spirit.

As the image of God man tries “to play God”; that is, to make himself the center of all things. Man is a sinner. There is no absolute necessity for man to be self-centered for man is free to find his proper center in God. But self-centeredness is overwhelmingly probable because the tension between man’s freedom and his finitude creates a situation of temptation. Man’s sinful relation to God expresses itself as prideful self-deification at the individual level, while it expresses itself as injustice towards one’s fellow man at the collective level. Sinful egotism is even more pronounced in groups (collective egotism) than in individuals. Group pride, which identifies itself with whatever is taken as the ultimate, constitutes itself as the final expression of pride. In this volume Niebuhr established his reputation as the diagnostician of sin in its subtle and blatant forms, and was to lead Emil Brunner to comment that sin was the concept that “became one of the main pillars of his thought structure.”54

Niebuhr began his Destiny volume with a basic distinction between historical and nonhistorical views of man. The nonhistorical views either subsume history to nature or swallow it up in eternity. Historical types expect a Messiah, a figure in whom the meaning of history is fulfilled. For Niebuhr the figure of Christ fulfilled history. While Jesus fulfilled Old Testament hopes he rejected or radically reformed them when he renounced Jewish legalism and particularism. The Cross of Jesus was the climactic expression of God’s decisive work to man and God’s power at work reconciling man to Himself.

The Cross, God’s sacrificial love for man, defined the limits and possibilities of history. Man’s love is fragmentary and corrupted and needs God’s sacrificial love to perfect it. Niebuhr took the Protestant view that even the regenerate man continues his sinful, egotistical behavior. The Renaissance, with its new and optimistic estimate of man, suggested that man could shape his destiny without God’s gracious help. Modern man has taken his cue from the Renaissance and feels that man is both good and self-sufficient, thus rejecting the Reformation idea that man is finite, corrupt, and in need of God’s grace.

Niebuhr proposed a synthesis between the Renaissance and Reformation views, an offensive element in his thought to the orthodox. He said that man in history stands before ever-new possibilities of both good and evil. The Renaissance appreciated human aspirations and the continued new possibilities of the good. The Reformation was aware of the power of sin to infect even man’s best endeavors. Niebuhr pointed to two results of such a synthesis — tolerance and social justice. Man can have truth without having the final Truth. Man can believe with deep and genuine conviction without the arrogant finality or absoluteness which generates intolerance. Again, all human achievements in law and social justice can be recognized for their validity, but at the same time it can be acknowledged that they fall short of the perfection of the Kingdom of God (the ideal society). Niebuhr’s Christian realism thus avoided utopian illusions and the pessimism of historical determinism. Only the Judgment at the end of history can fulfill the final meaning of history. Niebuhr ended the Destiny volume by saying that only eschatology can rescue the political pragmatist who seeks to keep history going with only minor adjustments in the system.

We will return to this volume in the following chapters and examine it in detail.

Before the opening salvos of World War II, Niebuhr had been writing occasional essays on various political issues. In 1940 he published sixteen of these essays in a book entitled Christianity and Power Politics. He said that the common thesis of the book was “that modern Christian and secular perfectionism, which places a premium upon non-participation in conflict, is a very sentimentalized version of the Christian faith and is at variance with the profoundest insights of the Christian religion.”55 Liberal perfectionism (to be good is to avoid conflict), Niebuhr held, was both bad religion and bad politics, and left America weak before Nazi tyranny. In the book’s first chapter, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist,” he argued that “the failure of the Church to espouse pacifism is not apostasy, but is derived from an understanding of the Christian Gospel which refuses simply to equate the Gospel with the ‘law of love.’”56 The American Church, however, in its efforts to keep America out of the war was “unable to help the needy for fear lest pity for the victims of tyranny imperil its precious neutrality.”57 Liberal perfectionism (in religion or politics) was unable to make significant distinctions between the peace of capitulation to tyranny and the peace of the Kingdom of God. This book was Niebuhr’s warning to America not to surrender to evil whatever the alternative conflict.

The Nature and Destiny of Man emphasized the doctrines of man and history, the two doctrines where Niebuhr placed his greatest emphasis. During World War II his writing turned in another direction. He helped form and edit the journal Christianity and Crisis, a publication dedicated to interpreting the Christian faith in a manner relevant to the threat of tyranny. He deliberately pulled away from Christian Century, the journal with which he had been associated, because he felt that it was totally unrealistic in its attitude toward Hitler. He held that the threat of Hitler should be regarded as more evil than participation in a war to stop Hitler’s tyranny. During the war his journalistic writings generally supported President Roosevelt’s conduct of the war.

As the war came to an end, Niebuhr wrote his major treatise on democratic political theory, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944). It was his defense of democracy (which had so recently been under military attack), and a corrective of its traditional defense (which he felt was based on an overly optimistic estimate of man’s moral capacities). He believed that a better understanding of man — neither too pessimistic nor too optimistic — would give democracy a more secure standing. One of his most quoted aphorisms states the thesis of the book: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” 58

Since man is moral — a “child of light” — he can achieve a degree of community harmony, but as basically self-serving — a “child of darkness” — his egoistic will-to-power needs to be checked. Democracy is of all systems best endowed both to guard against the misuse of power and to encourage man’s benevolent side. “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community.”59 Niebuhr felt that a working democracy is a living refutation of both optimism and cynicism.

The major weakness of a democracy is its paralysis in foreign policy before a determined foe. Democratic foreign policy depends on the consensus of the nation, but this seldom comes soon enough in a crisis. With a sense of urgency Niebuhr warned that the “preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.” 60

Niebuhr’s political philosophy was grounded in a Christian theology which he had already stated in his Gifford Lectures. He began to give ever-increasing attention to international politics after World War II.

At this stage in his career Niebuhr was becoming more influential in public life. He was appointed as an advisor to the State Department’s policy planning staff. He also served as a U.S. delegate to UNESCO. As a liberal Democrat he was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action and at one time its chairman. He was three times Chairman of the Liberal Party in New York politics. He wrote resource materials and provided sectional leadership at the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. He served on the National Council of Churches as a consultant on the commission to work with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In later years his friends sponsored a Niebuhr chair of social ethics at Union Seminary. A list of these friends is an index of his influence and includes such names as Adolph Berle, Chester Bowles, Ralph Bunche, David Dubrinsky, Norman Thomas, George Kennan, Paul Hoffman, Walter Reuther, Herbert Lehman, Walter Lippmann, Stanley Isaacs, Henry Luce, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Oppenheimer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Beardsley Ruml, George Shuster, William Hocking, Adlai Stevenson, Charles Taft, Joseph Rauh, Hubert Humphrey and Robert Hutchins. World figures numbered in this group were Arnold Toynbee, Alan Paton, Barbara Ward, Jacques Maritain, Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Sir Walter Moberly, W. H. Auden, and Charles Malik.61 Association with political shapers and molders became a permanent part of his life-style. He was active in scores of organizations for particular causes.

In 1946 Niebuhr published his second book of sermonic essays (Discerning the Signs of the Times) elaborating the two facets of Christian hope — belief in the realization of God’s will in human history and an understanding that the Christian hope transcends the limits of history. In the preface to the book, Niebuhr wrote that our age, confronted by so many hopes and frustrations, “is in particular need of the Christian gospel; and requires both the relative-historical, and the final-and-absolute facets of the Christian hope to maintain its sanity and its sense of the meaning of existence.” 62

These sermons are typical of his university preaching when he was still at his critical and polemical task and before he felt free to shift to an increasing stress on the grace of God and its power to reshape human life. He was still in the apologetic phase of his preaching — negatively analytical and critical to break down false optimism before justification by faith took place. For Niebuhr, judgment preceded mercy, and these sermons reflect more of judgment than mercy. His sermon “The City Which Hath Foundations” is typical of the others in the book. He began the sermon by saying that the Bible has both a this-worldly and an other-worldly hope. God’s Kingdom is both realized and unrealized in this life. This dilemma should be accepted by faith in humility, looking to God to give final meaning to existence. Therefore, we should be faithful in our duties and cease to worry about our success in bringing in God’s Kingdom. No facile resolutions of this dilemma are offered the hearer (reader) of the sermon, but the hearer is invited to go on struggling with the problem under the grace of God.

Niebuhr returned in 1949 to his formulation of a Christian theology of history. His book Faith and History compared Christian and modern views of history and brought out the distinctiveness of the former by contrasting it with the latter. He said this book was “but an elaboration of the second part of my Gifford Lectures.”63 The method was apologetic: the Christian view was set in opposition to the classical Greek view (meaning for history is found in a changeless realm of ideas) and the modern view (both time and history are self-explanatory). “The Christian Gospel is negatively validated by the evidence that both forms of worldly wisdom, leading to optimism and to pessimism, give an inadequate view of the total human situation.”64 Although a Christian philosophy of history cannot be rationally demonstrated, Niebuhr argued, an indirect defense is possible by showing that alternative views fail to account for all the facts of history. “The truth of the Christian faith must, in fact, be apprehended in any age by repentance and faith. It is, therefore, not made acceptable by rational validation.”65

Niebuhr’s thesis was that the gospel of Christ is true for all men and thus relevant to the historical process in all ages. The Christian view begins with the sovereignty of God in creation, judgment, and redemption. “The sovereignty of God establishes the general frame of meaning for life and history.”66 God’s sovereignty is most fully disclosed in the center of historical meaning, Jesus the Christ, who reveals the divine love which transfigures historical justice and who reconciles the ambiguities of human existence. “The New Testament makes the startling claim that in Christ history has achieved both its end and a new beginning.”67 This Christian interpretation rejects the criterion of rational intelligibility as the final court of appeal in both its Greek (historical events have no significance) and modern forms (history itself is redemptive). History gets its meaning from a rationally offensive “scandal of particularity” — the event of one who is received and acclaimed as the Christ.

God’s lordship over history most clearly denies the “wisdom of the world” in two decisive movements — the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These two events climax all previous revelations, disclose God’s unique relationship to man, elucidate the dramas of sin and redemption as they unfold in history, and point to the end of history where God will give history its final meaning. “This pinnacle of faith in New Testament religion is the final expression of certainty about the power of God to complete our fragmentary life as well as the power of His love to purge it of the false completions in which all history is involved.” 68 Thus Niebuhr once again argued against both the utopian dreams of those who sought to flee from the historical process into a timeless realm and those who were too optimistic in their interpretation of history.

Niebuhr quickly moved to another volume on history as the post-World War II years saw his attention turn to international politics. He turned to irony as the major motif of his interpretation of history in The Irony of American History (1952). The book marks his movement politically toward pragmatic liberalism of the Franklin D. Roosevelt types and philosophically toward irony rather than tragedy in his philosophy of history. Both shifts in his thinking indicated that he was less dogmatic in his approach to history than he had been in his Gifford Lectures and more open to human accomplishment.

Niebuhr said, “Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.” 69 The biblical interpretation of human history rejects the pathetic (the pain caused by unthinking natural evil) and the tragic (a conscious choice of evil for the sake of good) for the ironic (evil resulting from man’s wrong use of his unique capacities). When hidden vanities or pretensions are exposed, then the irony of a situation is disclosed and tends to be cured. Thus Niebuhr turned to the pretensions of virtue, wisdom, and power in American life in order to confront America with its ironies and free it of its illusions in the conduct of foreign policy. He said that American civilization “is involved in many ironic refutations of its original pretensions of virtue, wisdom, and power.” 70 He claimed that this approach was theological because irony was the normative way for Christians to view history; God “laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations,” he said71 he hoped by pointing out America’s ironies to dissolve them and reduce America’s pretensions without destroying America’s faith in its future. He said that America looked upon itself as the most innocent nation upon earth: “The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.” 72

Niebuhr continued his major role at Union Seminary, eventually being appointed vice-president. His life-style of “Christian realism” began to produce a new breed of church leader. Churchmen were influenced by one or more of his themes. “Representative of these various types were men like Roger L. Shinn, who succeeded Niebuhr at Union in the chair of Applied Christianity; George William Webber, founder of the East Harlem Protestant Parish and later president of New York Biblical Seminary; Truman Douglass, leading spirit in the affairs of the National Council of Churches and pioneer in church involvement in human issues; and Martin Luther King, Jr.”73 Niebuhr was at the apex of his influence in the early 1950s and was to remain there for over a decade longer.


Niebuhr’s robust health began to fade in the period after World War II. In 1952 he had a heart attack which slowed but did not stop his activity. After retirement from Union Theological Seminary in 1960 to continue his theological and political concerns, he was invited to study at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and he was active in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, California. He moved to his retirement home at Yale Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1966. A series of strokes sapped his energy and gradually paralyzed him over the last twenty years of his life. He underwent lengthy hospitalization and had to reduce his activities for months at a time. Eventually he regained his speech and some arm movement but he was unable to travel freely.

He bore his life of sharp physical pain with grace and humor, but his severe limitations caused difficulties for his family and friends. The companionship and help of his wife, Ursula, were of inestimable value during his long convalescence. He became frail and husbanded his strength for those moments when a speech had to be given. He continued to write on a restricted schedule and to entertain friends at his Stockbridge home together with Mrs. Niebuhr. The deep and warm personal and interpersonal life he had cultivated in earlier years sustained him in his time of weakness. Being an invalid deepened his understanding of himself, the Bible, and prayer.

Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953) was a book of essays on theological, ethical, and political themes that Niebuhr published during his illness. The essays said nothing that he had not already said in principle, but they do reflect a new awareness and indebtedness to the political realism of St. Augustine. Niebuhr held that Augustine’s value for the Christian political thinker lay in the interpretation of human selfhood which enabled Augustine to “view the heights of human creativity and the depths of human destructiveness, which avoids the errors of moral sentimentality and cynicism, and their alternate corruptions of political systems of both secular and Christian thinkers.”74 Out of the emotional depression coming from his physical illness Niebuhr searched anew and more deeply into the meaning of human selfhood. The Self and the Dramas of History (1955) reflects his thinking at this time and is a further development of his phenomenology of selfhood.

The Self and the Dramas of History is an excellent example of Niebuhr’s spiritual fortitude. He said that it was “written in two years of enforced leisure.” Actually, the “leisure” was a severe illness that would have put most of us in a home for incurables. This book is a splendid tribute to a sick man who refused to be a passive patient. When the worst of his illness was over he began to write down this book and develop a theme already implicit in his earlier works. This is probably his third most important book. The self is a difficult and omnipresent problem, and he handled it in such a way that the practical implications of some very intricate theological constructions became persuasively clear.

This book also demonstrates Niebuhr’s genius for timeliness. He always had an instinct for the heart of the emerging great issues. He did it first with Moral Man and Immoral Society when he pointed out the tragic discrepancy between the personal and the social dimensions of ethical behavior. The ripeness of the idea made the book a turning point in American theology. Later, when he focused on man as sinner in the first volume of his Gifford Lectures (The Nature of Man), he did it again, and this study of man’s alienation from God, self, and society became a modern classic. His treatment of man as sinner became widely familiar even to those who did not read Niebuhr himself. In The Self and the Dramas of History Niebuhr, for the third time, grasped the ripeness of a great idea and found a means to give it common understanding. He had long explored the complexities of human nature in history and society, but in this book he turned the problem around and looked at the subject which was involved, turning from the objective self which most analysts look at to the subjective self behind the object.

In 1952 Paul Tillich published The Courage To Be, in which he said that man discovers himself when he discovers his existence is in the structure of “being itself.” Tillich put his emphasis on ontology, which meant for him that ontology was prior to ethics. Niebuhr and Tillich, although good friends and closely allied in many a cause, had very different theological styles. In The Self and the Dramas of History Niebuhr returned to the debate about man’s nature and freedom, and this book may be read as Niebuhr’s public reply to Tillich. Niebuhr objected to Tillich’s use of ontological categories because he felt that such categories curtailed man’s freedom through their rigidity. Hence Niebuhr defined the self in terms of its dialogues rather than in terms of its structure of being or its participation in the structure of being:

“The self is a creature which is in constant dialogue with itself, with its neighbors, and with God, according to the Biblical viewpoint.”75 He held that the self, its communities, and its experience of love should be interpreted in dramatic historical categories rather than in terms of ontological fate.

Niebuhr illustrated, with great penetration and force, the truth that the human self cannot be its own end. Whenever the self is devoted to its own self-realization it fails. It is only as a person gives himself over to the power and grace of God that true selfhood is realized. The most important part of the book (part 1) deals with the self in its three dialogues — with its own self, with others, and with God.

The self can only be defined in terms of its three interactions. It is much more complicated than either “mind” or “body” or any of the conventional categories for defining it. The self in dialogue with itself “is an empiric fact in the sense that every astute person must admit that such a dialogue goes on in the internal life of the self, though there are no external evidences of this dialogue.” 76 The self in dialogue with others “is dependent upon them for the image which it has of itself and for the spiritual security which is as necessary to the self as its social security.”77 To deny the self’s dialogue with God would be to fail in defining the total anatomy of human selfhood. In part 2 Niebuhr sketched the relations of selfhood and history in ancient, medieval, and modern thought. In part 3 he applied the biblical notion of the self he had developed in part 1 to the current social and political order. This remarkable book is a tribute to Niebuhr’s genius and the best available statement of the psychological core of his thinking.

Despite the strokes that gradually were paralyzing him, Niebuhr continued to write topical essays. In the years 1956-57 he wrote a number of journalistic essays which were published in 1958 as Pious and Secular America. They are dated, as all journalism is. Their unity is found in Niebuhr’s interest in relating Christianity to the social and political life of America. Niebuhr continued in this book to reveal to Americans the ironies in our history, to point up the incongruities between America’s myths and America’s realities.

We are “religious” in the sense that religious communities enjoy the devotion and engage the active loyalty of more laymen than in any nation of the Western world. We are “secular” in the sense that we pursue the immediate goals of life, without asking too many ultimate questions about the meaning of life and without being too disturbed by the tragedies and antinomies of life.78

For Niebuhr one of the chief ironies was that America was superior to the communists in the pursuit of happiness, not because of America’s piety, but because of America’s secular, scientific, and technical proficiency. He observed that “our ‘Godly materialism’ has been immeasurably more successful than their ‘godless’ variety.”79

Niebuhr’s major and most formal work on political theory, The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959), tried to distinguish the contingent from the permanent in international politics. He deliberately tried to isolate the perennial features of imperialism, and he argued that there are discernible patterns by which strong nations relate to weak nations. He said the fact that the American and Russian “empires,” the two postwar superpowers, tried to establish hegemonic relationships over other nations is the most important feature of the international system. He said that it is probable “that the world will live, if it does not destroy itself, for a long time in a state of semi-anarchy in which certain centers of authority, power, and prestige will mitigate the anarchy much as anarchy was mitigated in nineteenth century Europe by the balance of power.” 80

Niebuhr found in Western history a recurring pattern in which strong nations exercised power over weaker nations. He felt that this pattern was inevitable and the moral results ambiguous — both harmful and beneficial. After tracing the long history of conflict between communities both national and imperial, he concluded that the struggle had “reached a climax in the cold war and the nuclear dilemma of the present day.” 81 Further, the climax “certainly contradicts and refutes most of the philosophies of history in which the wise men of two previous centuries attempted to chart the course of history and to predict its future.” 82

Niebuhr was trying to make Christian moral claims relevant to international politics, so in the book he turned specifically in his application to the problems the United States faced in the cold war. He hoped to show that America was not as virtuous in her foreign policy as she supposed, nor the Soviet Union as evil as Americans supposed she was. Speaking of America’s relation to Russia in the cold war, he said, “The task of managing to share the world without bringing disaster on a common civilization must include, on our part, a less rigid and self-righteous attitude toward the power realities of the world and a more hopeful attitude toward the possibilities of internal developments in the Russian despotism.” 83 Niebuhr concluded his study with the warning that he had voiced years before in his Gifford Lectures, that human freedom entailed both creative and destructive features:

“It is creative when an ultimate norm or value is set in judgment over the historically relative and ambiguous achievements of man’s existence. It is destructive and a source of evil if a simple identification is made between the ultimate norm and the norms and values which we cherish.” 84 The only safe way to build a cold-war community was to assume that the dominion which the world needs for its peace always is ambiguous morally.

Niebuhr continued to prick American illusions and point out the ironies of American history in two other books he jointly authored, one with Alan Heimert (A Nation So Conceived, 1963) and the other with Paul E. Sigmund (The Democratic Experience, 1969). In both books Niebuhr argued that history was not tragic and did not of necessity end in evil. Man was destructive, but he also had creative possibilities as a free creature.

In the first book, with Heimert, Niebuhr warned America not to be too proud: “The inclination is to attribute the growth in power to our democratic virtues.” 85 But characteristically he went on to praise America for its democracy: “Democracy is an ultimate norm of political organization in the sense that no better way has been found to check the inordinacy of the powerful on the one hand and the confusion of the multitude on the other than by making every center of power responsible to the people whom it affects.” 86 In tracing America’s growth from simple agrarian nation to complex industrial power, Niebuhr pointed out that America was responding to a sense of mission. Then he observed that the vision of the mission should keep us from “nostalgic yearning after the original simplicities, for the sake of fleeing or avoiding present complexities.” 87

In the second book, with Sigmund, he reflected on the broader democratic experience of Europe and the three constant prerequisites of free governments (community solidarity, freedom of the individual, and social justice), but he continued to warn Americans of the complacency, sentimentality, utopianism, and parochialism which he saw in our heritage. He put it in Winston Churchill’s words when he said, “We believe that democracy is the worst form of government on earth except for all others ever tried.”88 Niebuhr reaffirmed his “pessimistic faith” in the democratic idea, but he concluded that democracies in the emerging third world will remain an ideal more often than an operative reality.

The Nature and Destiny of Man was Niebuhr’s most systematic theological statement about man. The publication in 1965 of Man’s Nature and His Communities brought together the attempts to revise his approach that he had been making since he gave the Gifford Lectures. The new book, a collection of three essays, did not mark the breaking of any new ground nor a summing up of his work (in spite of the book’s claim to the contrary). Discussing man’s inhumanity to man, he examined the paradox of universalist aspirations side by side with a history of communal conflicts. He also reflected about the mixture of self-seeking and self-giving in man’s selfhood and gave as well a critical survey of idealist and realist political theories. For most Niebuhr-watchers, however, the rather autobiographical introduction was of most interest. The introduction was entitled “Changing Perspectives” and represented in certain respects a revision of his views. The primary difference between this volume and the Gifford Lectures was the absence of a theological vocabulary. It was a shift away from the language of orthodox theology which offended the intellectual community. This represented a change in style but not in content.

The Nature and Destiny of Man used the theological categories of image of God, original sin, original righteousness, grace, the Kingdom of God, and the last judgment. Man’s Nature and His Communities was Niebuhr’s attempt to describe again the human situation in the light of the criticism by political philosophers of his religious language in the Gifford Lectures. On his abandonment of the term “original sin” Niebuhr wrote:

I made a rather unpardonable pedagogical error in The Nature and Destiny of Man, which I hope I have corrected in the present volume. My theological preoccupation prompted me to define the persistence and universality of man’s self-regard as “original sin.” This was historically and symbolically correct. But my pedagogical error consisted in seeking to challenge modern optimism with the theological doctrine which was anathema to modern culture.89

Niebuhr admitted that he had tried to purge the doctrine of original sin of some of its cruder traditional interpretations, but this effort proved vain for his modern readers. He learned that his readers who were political philosophers and in substantial agreement with positions taken in his Gifford Lectures were careful to state their disagreement with his “theological presuppositions.” Niebuhr went on to say that Man’s Nature and His Communities would “understandably use more sober symbols of describing well-known facts.” 90 He said that he had changed his vocabulary but not his analysis, and remarked that he still thought that the London Literary Times Supplement was correct when it observed that the “doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” 91 So Niebuhr retained his emphasis on man’s freedom, sin, sacrificial love, and God’s grace, vindicating their meaning by an analysis of contemporary history and experience.

Niebuhr demonstrated gradual but significant changes in his outlook as his fifty-year writing career progressed. There was no climactic change of direction such as Karl Barth’s, but he moved in response to intellectual inquiries and public events. Over the years he gradually developed a new appreciation for certain secular disciplines and values. He said of the essays in Man’s Nature and His Communities:

They also embody increasingly the insights of the secular disciplines and reflect the author’s increasing enthusiasm for the virtues of an open society which allows freedom to all religious traditions, and also the freedom to analyze and criticize all these traditions through the disciplines of an empirical and historical culture.92

For example, he mentioned particularly the psychology of Erik Erikson as having helped him clarify his own doctrine of faith. Again, he had put more emphasis in his latter years on “common grace,” the “hidden Christ” operating through ordinary human relationships. The “hidden Christ” had only been in the footnotes of his earlier writings, but had become a major theme of his later work. Further, he underscored his increasing sympathy, as a Protestant, with both the Jewish and the Catholic traditions.

The assistance of his wife, Ursula, should be noted here. For years she had edited his work and informed his writing. Niebuhr said that eventually her contributions to his work were indistinguishable from his, although they were very real. But most of all she loved him, and nursed and protected him during his years of illness.

This last Niebuhr book disclosed a mellower Niebuhr who saw that, despite the danger of sinful self-assertion, man still needed a healthy self-regard. But his topical essays continued to pour out to the end with a hard-headed, pragmatic realism. In his years of declining health, younger liberal theologians had grown up who were infected with a revolutionary, third-world “romanticism.” Niebuhr warned that the poor, the weak, and the despised of yesterday might, on gaining a social victory over their oppressors, exhibit the same kind of prideful arrogance.

This remained Niebuhr’s typical realism in human affairs. His last two articles in Christianity and Crisis in 1969 and 1970, typed out while he was in pain and fatigue, showed him alert and still polemical. One was a withering blast on White House religion (“The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”) and another on presidential despotism in Vietnam (“The Presidency and the Irony of American History”). The first article reviewed the semiestablishment of religion of the first Nixon administration with the Sunday service in the East Room of the White House. Niebuhr wondered if the White House clergy were not guilty of perpetuating complacency through a failure to realize that all governments stand under God’s absolute standards of justice. Although mellower, he still thrived on controversy.

The increasingly frail Niebuhr had a peace and serenity as he entered into death. By December of 1970 he no longer had physical strength or mental energy. No one was better prepared than he to confront the end of history that is the promise of death. He had faced eternity in every moment and in every action of his life. He knew the limitations of man but was more persuaded of the power of God’s grace to transcend these limitations. On May 31 of the following year he died at the age of seventy-eight in his home in Stockbridge.

Three years after Reinhold’s death, Mrs. Niebuhr published a book of his sermons and prayers. “We preachers” was how Niebuhr regarded himself, and almost every Sunday for more than fifty years followed this vocation in the parish and then increasingly in university and college chapels in different parts of the country. This book represents the expression of two aspects of his ministry — to proclaim the basic forms of the Christian faith and to relate them to social concerns. Niebuhr had said, “I am a preacher and I like to preach.” But his sermons were devoted to an analysis of the human situation that discussed both the levels of human possibilities and the levels of human sin. Niebuhr felt that the preacher’s twofold task was to get in contact with the biblical tradition (including the liturgical traditions of all the Christian churches) and then apply it relevantly to the special problems, personal and social, of his people. Mrs. Niebuhr says that her husband saw the preacher’s task as showing the relevance of the Christian faith to life, in both its individual and social dimensions. She said that for Reinhold the Christian faith was “a present fact, and a present truth about life that illumines our existence and gives meaning, relieves us of some of the miseries of guilt in which all men are involved, . . [and] explains the curious paradox of human freedom and human necessity.”93

If triviality and simple moral absolutes were the two besetting sins of the preacher, then relevance and applicability were the two preacher qualities that Niebuhr most admired and tried to emulate. Thus his ministry ended as it had begun — as a preacher and a pastor.




1. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, The Library of Living Theology, vol. 2, ed. Charles Kegley and Robert W. Bretall (New York: Macmillan Co., 1956), p. 3 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography”).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 20.

5. June Bingham, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), p. 11.

6. Nathan A. Scott, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963), p. 25.

7. Ibid., p. 43.

8. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 3.

9. Bingham, p. 83.

10. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 4.

11. Ibid., p. 5.

12. Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Living Age Books (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), p. 20 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, Tamed Cynic).

13. Ibid., p. 22.

14. Ibid., p. 45.

15. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 6.

16. Ibid., p. 7.

17. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Ten Years That Shook My World,” Christian Century 56 (April 26, 1939): 545.

18. Martin E. Marty, “Reinhold Niebuhr: Public Theology and the American Experience,” The Journal of Religion 54 (October 1974): 344.

19. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 7.

20. Niebuhr, Tamed Cynic, p. 175.

21. Niebuhr, “Ten Years That Shook My World,” p. 542.

22. Ibid.

23. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 6.

24. Reinhold Niebuhr, Does Civilization Need Religion? (New York: Macmillan Co., 1927), pp. 9-10.

25. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 7.

26. Niebuhr, Tamed Cynic, pp. 218-19.

27. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 8.

28. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

29. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), pp. 257, 259.

30. Ibid., p. xi.

31. Ibid., p. xxiii.

32. Ibid., p. 95.

33. Ibid., p. 107.

34. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Contribution of Religion to Social Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), p. 49.

35. Reinhold Niebuhr, Reflections on the End of an Era (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), p. ix.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid., p. 136.

38. Ibid., pp. 284-85.

39. Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Living Age Books (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 38.

40. Ibid., p. 9.

41. Ibid., p. 192.

42. Ibid., p. 50.

43. Ibid., p. 55.

44. Ibid., p. 83.

45. Ibid., p. 153.

46. Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), p. x.

47. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 9.

48. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, p. 13.

49. Quoted in Bingham, p. 23.

50. Bingham, pp. 44-45.

51. Robert McAfee Brown, “Reinhold Niebuhr: A Study in Humanity and Humility,” The Journal of Religion 54 (October 1974): 325.

52. John C. Bennett, “The Greatness of Reinhold Niebuhr,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 2 (Fall 1971) : 8.

53. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 9.

54. Emil Brunner, “Some Remarks on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Work as a Christian Thinker,” in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, p. 28.

55. Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), p. ix.

56. Ibid., pp. 1-2.

57. Ibid., p. 33.

58. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), p. xiii.

59. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

60. Ibid., pp. 40-41.

61. Gabriel Fackre, The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970), p. 24.

62. Reinhold Niebuhr, Discerning the Signs of the Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946); p. x.

63. Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 9.

64. Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), p. 1164.

65. Ibid., p. viii.

66. Ibid., p. 120.

67. Ibid., p. 139.

68. Ibid., p. 150.

69. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), p. viii.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid., p. 155.

72. Ibid., p. 23.

73. Fackre, p. 26.

74. Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism and Political Problems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 2.

75. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), p. 4.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

78. Reinhold Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 2.

79. Ibid.

80. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), p. 31.

81. Ibid., p. 267.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid., p. 282.

84. Ibid., p. 291.

85. Reinhold Niebuhr and Alan Heimart, A Nation So Conceived (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 126.

86. Ibid., p. 127.

87. Ibid., p. 155.

88. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul E. Sigmund, The Democratic Experience (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1969), p. vi.

89. Reinhold Niebuhr, Man’s Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), p. 23.

90. Ibid., p. 24.

91. Ibid.

92. Ibid., pp. 15-16.

93. Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, ed. Ursula M. Niebuhr (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 5.