Chapter 2: Existential Anthropology

Reinhold Niebuhr
by Howard G. Patton

Chapter 2: Existential Anthropology

Niebuhr never attempted to explicate all Christian theology. His system finds its beginning in the doctrine of man, and other doctrines are dealt with by indirection. This doctrine, his chief contribution to theology, is determinative for his ethics, his view of history, his Christology, his doctrine of the atonement, and his eschatology. But he understood that man is not an isolated doctrine unrelated to the total Christian faith. He dedicated his writings to the subject of man although he was a number of years arriving at his full view. He finally worked out his maturest statement in The Nature and Destiny of Man, and his later writings did not essentially modify that position (they were largely amplifications of it). His Gifford Lectures are one of the most important treatments of the doctrine of man in contemporary theology. His friendly critics say that Niebuhr’s work on man excels anything American theology has hitherto produced. His unfriendly critics say that to read him with understanding is to reject him. Still, anyone who has failed to take account of this two-volume work has not attempted fairly to understand the present religious situation.

The following pages are my effort to state within exceptionally small scope certain features of Niebuhr’s anthropology. I will do violence to his thought by vast omissions and by simply not coming to grips with some of his crucial ideas. But my hope is to point you to Niebuhr’s own writings: there is no substitute for reading him yourself. Since all the streams of Niebuhr’s previous thinking came together in The Nature and Destiny of Man, I will turn most frequently to this work.


Niebuhr tried to distinguish his Christian view of man from all secular views by his interpretation of three contradictory aspects of the human situation. First he emphasized that man’s self-transcendence in his spiritual nature is the biblical doctrine of the "image of God." Second, he said that man is finite, dependent, and involved in nature, yet this finitude is not the source of evil. Third he said evil in man is a consequence of man’s inevitable but not necessary unwillingness to accept his finitude and admit his insecurity. We will look at the first two distinctives in this chapter, and turn to Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin in the next chapter.

Niebuhr said that man, the "existing" individual, has the capacity to explore his environment and grasp its reality. But the relation of the dynamic self to its environment poses a basic problem: Is the self to be completely identified with its environment of the natural world, or does it transcend its environment? If the self is identical with the natural world, then it is no more than one of the animals. If the self completely transcends the natural world, it is absorbed into a timeless eternity. The self, as it inevitably searches for meaning in its contradictory environment, has unfortunately grasped three premature solutions in its anxiety. According to Niebuhr, naturalism loses the self by reducing it to the "mechanical proportions" of nature; idealism loses the self in the abstract universalities of mind; romanticism loses the self to the larger social collective.

The self, in a mysterious way, is both in and above its environment. As a part of nature man is a physical creature; as a part of eternity he is a free spirit. Niebuhr said, "One might define this total environment most succinctly as one which includes both and time."1 The essential man must be measured in terms of both these environments. This contradiction has always been man’s most vexing problem, and his reflection upon it has consistently landed him in contradictory affirmations. Both sides of man’s nature are usually not appreciated with equal sympathy, said Niebuhr. The tendency of anthropologists is to emphasize one aspect of man’s nature at the expense of the other, and thus become involved in miscalculations. No simple scheme is adequate.2 Niebuhr tried to do justice to both aspects of the self by showing that nature and spirit form the double environment in which man lives. This is the first of a number of paradoxes that he used to describe his understanding of man.

The self has its natural limitations, its forms and boundaries. Man is limited ("creaturely") by the very fact that he is a body. At the same time there are other aspects of man’s existence which are as real as his involvement in nature. Man is unique when compared with the animals because man is the only animal who can transcend himself. The self is endowed with a freedom that enables it to transcend the limitations and necessities of nature. When the self recognizes and admits its natural limitations and physical necessities, the transition from limitation to spiritual freedom is made.

Niebuhr distinguished several levels of the self’s freedom: (1) There is the self’s awareness of transcending the natural process, of standing outside of nature. Man manifests this as a tool-making animal. (2) A higher level includes man’s ability to make general rational concepts and his awareness of this ability. With this ability man not only transcends nature, but the world. (3) Another height of transcendence goes beyond this conceptual consciousness to self-consciousness, where man stands outside of himself. Self-consciousness is the height of man’s spirit; here the self faces boundless freedom and God.

Niebuhr, prompted by Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, stressed the freedom of self-transcendence of the self by emphasizing the three types of dialogue in which the self is involved. Niebuhr said that although there is no external evidence of the dialogue of the self with itself, every astute person knows it as an "empiric" fact. The internal dialogue of the self with itself means that the self in one of its aspects is using conceptual images to make another of its aspects its object of thought. The dialogue of the self with various neighbors takes place on endless levels, depending upon the neighbor to bring it to completion. The self is also in dialogue with God, a realm beyond limits of empirical verification. The dialogue of the self with God finds God as Judge and as Redeemer.

Man is an essential unity although he is in and beyond nature. Niebuhr divided the self into nature, rationality, and freedom of spirit for the sake of analysis. These elements in the self do not imply that the self is a trichotomy. The self is a unity. Once Niebuhr had arrived at and accepted the logical inconsistency of this multidimensional unity of man, he was remarkably consistent in maintaining the view. He is responsible for the now-famous phrase in theology that man "lives at the juncture of nature and spirit."

Niebuhr’s existential interpretation of the mystery of human selfhood was informed by the nineteenth-century Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard. Niebuhr said that Kierkegaard had interpreted the human self more accurately than any modern (and most previous) Christian theologians or psychologists. Kierkegaard’s doctrine was attractive to Niebuhr because it took into account man’s dialectical position between time and eternity, man’s transcendence and finitude, and man’s "image of God" and his corruption.

The concept of self-transcendence and the infinite outreach of memory into this self-transcendence (an idea borrowed by Niebuhr from Augustine’s analysis of the phenomenon of memory) is of the greatest importance for his system of theology. The concept of a transcendence beyond rationality paves the way for a biblical revelation that is not disclosed by an analysis of human experience. Niebuhr took with equal seriousness both man’s involvement in, and his transcendence over, the processes of nature. This stress on the essential unity of man was the crux of Niebuhr’s position. He resorted to paradox to describe the functions of this unity because his position drove him to a logical impasse.


Two sources for Niebuhr’s basic presuppositions about the nature of man have been indicated in a preliminary way in the preceding pages: the Christian revelation and an analysis of the human situation. These two sources interpenetrate each other on every level of interpretation. In his analysis of culture, Niebuhr found that the non-Christian anthropologies have variously distorted the two elements in man’s nature. One side of the self is always sacrificed at the expense of the other. Either the self’s natural limitations or the self’s spiritual freedom receives an overemphasis.

According to Niebuhr, modern non-Christian anthropologies — a curious and unstable blend of classical and biblical views — have produced several varieties of difficulties and confusions: (1) The relation of vitality (spiritual self; transcendence) and form (the laws and limitations of nature) has caused an endless debate between naturalistic and idealistic rationalists: (2) This debate has been further complicated by the protest of the romantic naturalists against the emphasis of these rationalists. (3) The concept of individuality has been lost by modern culture. The Christian faith roots man’s individuality in his relationship to God because he is created in the image of God. Modern culture, trying to liberate man through the "infinite possibility of the human spirit," has lost the self in this abortive attempt. (4) Modern culture has tried to explain away the problem of evil, flying in the face of the known facts of history. This optimism has led modern culture to a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress.

Niebuhr said that the modern view of man has produced these four areas of difficulty because it offers too simple a solution to man’s dialectical nature. Modern culture ("Western" culture since the Renaissance) "is to be credited with the greatest advances in the understanding of nature and with the greatest confusions in the understanding of man."3

Idealism (as derived from Kant and Hegel) emphasizes man’s rational freedom at the expense of natural involvement, practically identifying man’s reason with God. In idealism the rational man is the real man.4 Naturalism, on the other hand (as expressed in Francis Bacon and Montaigne), seeks to understand man in terms of his relation to nature, identifying man primarily as the physical man. Naturalism reduced the human ego to a stream of consciousness in which personal identity was at a minimum.5 Idealism identified consciousness with mind and finally identified the mind with some sort of divinity or absolute. But modern culture, not fully satisfied with either approach, sought a third answer in romantic. naturalism (rooted in Rousseau and Christian Pietism).6

The protest of this newest of modern anthropologies has taken various forms. One aspect, culminating in Nietzsche’s nihilism, is the assertion of nature’s vitalities against the peril of loss of energy through rational discipline. Another aspect, as in Freud and Marx, is the insight that reason is dishonest when it claims mastery over nature. A third aspect, seen in Bergson and Schopenhauer, disputes reason’s claim to be the organizing principle of life. Yet another aspect of this revolt, a brand of modern existentialism, ends in a deification of the self as its own creator and end.

Modern culture sensed that naturalism did not comprehend the self-transcendent human spirit, and that idealism lost spirit when it did not conform to the pattern of rationality. Spirit was annihilated through either deification or abasement. Niebuhr said that the history of modern culture began as a debate between those who explained man in terms of his reason or in terms of his relation to nature. But, he said, "the latter history of this culture is not so much a debate between these two schools of thought as a rebellion of romanticism, materialism and psychoanalytic psychology against the errors of rationalism, whether idealistic or naturalistic, in its interpretation of human nature."7 Romantic naturalism has denied the claim of idealism that freedom and rationality are synonymous; it has also denied the claim of naturalism that the essence of man is mechanical nature. Romanticism tried to save man by stressing his vitality, claiming this could be done if man asserted himself with passionate inwardness. The result has been an autonomous individual with no checks on his self-expression. When a check is found in the state, for example, it does away with the newly won selfhood. The check becomes more important than the self.

According to Niebuhr’s analysis, romanticism errs in the contradictory criticism it levels at rationalism. Romanticism charges rationalism "with the enervation on the one hand and the accentuation of natural vitalities on the other; with the creation of too broad and too narrow forms for the expression of the will-to-live or the will-to-power."8 It errs again in its interpretation of the vitality of man when it ascribes to the biological what obviously belongs to the creativity of the spirit.9 Freudianism makes this error when it explains man’s complex spiritual phenomena in terms of biological sexual impulses. Marxism does the same thing in materialistic rather than biological terms when it ascribes vitality to the drives of the social classes. These errors indicated to Niebuhr romanticism’s failure to penetrate to the paradox of the human spirit.10 He maintained that the individual self cannot, be contained within the presuppositions of any of these three competing anthropologies.

Absolute idealism admits man’s transcendence over nature; and it has the advantage over naturalism in its appreciation of the depth of the human spirit. Idealism will not admit, however, that man transcends his reason; consequently, it equates the individual self with the "Absolute" and loses individuality in the universal spirit.11 The self then becomes only an aspect of the universal mind, the cosmic reason. Idealism discounts the individuality that depends upon the particularity of the body. The naturalistic portion of modern culture strips the self of transcendence and reduces it to a stream of consciousness.12 When man is identified with the natural order, when time becomes everything, when history is self-explanatory, individuality is lost. Niebuhr said that this philosophy runs throughout the modern capitalistic, bourgeois pattern of life. Romanticism tried to save individuality by giving it unqualified significance. It emphasized the essence of man as feeling, imagination, and will. It ignored the norm of reason or the norm of God and absolutized each individual instead. But romanticism eventually recoiled from this self-glorification (all but Nietzsche) and replaced the individual with a collective individual such as the state or nation. The collective individual then became the center of existence. Niebuhr said that this is the cultural history of modern nationalism.13

In summary, Niebuhr said that individuality, the most unique emphasis of modern culture, cannot be maintained within the presuppositions of modern culture.

In idealism the individual is able to transcend the tyrannical necessities of nature only to be absorbed in the universalities of impersonal mind. In the older naturalism, the individual is able for a moment to appreciate that aspect of individuality which the variety of natural circumstances creates; but true individuality is quickly lost because nature knows nothing of the self-transcendence, self-identity and freedom which are the real marks of individuality. In romantic naturalism the individuality of the person is quickly subordinated to the unique and self-justifying individuality of the social collective. Only in Nietzschean romanticism is the individual preserved; but there he becomes the vehicle of daemonic religion because he knows no law but his own will-to-power and has no God but his own unlimited ambition.14

Using this criticism, Niebuhr negated these competing anthropologies. He maintained that Christianity can give a vantage point which presents a proper balance of both freedom and involvement. In the history of thought the Christian emphasis on individuality is best expressed in the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. "Without the presuppositions of the Christian faith," said Niebuhr, "the individual is either nothing or becomes everything."15 Niebuhr held that Christianity accepts all that is valid in the presuppositions of modern culture, but does not fall prey to its errors.

Niebuhr also criticized idealism, naturalism, and romanticism for their optimistic treatment of evil. He wrote that man s sinfulness is universally rejected by contemporary culture; the Christian account of man’s sinfulness is discarded as irrelevant. Idealism finds the root of evil in man’s involvement in nature, and hopes to free him by increasing his rational faculties. On the other hand, naturalism and romanticism hope to overcome evil by a return to the harmony and unity of nature.

An easy conscience is the unifying force among the competing anthropologies of modern culture, and they justify this by the most diverse and contradictory metaphysical theories. Evidence to the contrary, said Niebuhr, does not seem to disturb man’s good opinion of himself. Modern man views himself in only one dimension (either nature or reason) and attempts to derive evil from some specific historical source such as religion (Holbach and Helvetius), autocratic government (Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith), or economic organization (Marx).

Idealism has a simpler approach to the problem of evil in history than does naturalism. Idealism recognizes the presence of evil in history, but it makes a distinction between nature and reason and attributes evil to the body.16 Idealism is complacent about the perils of the freedom of the human spirit, convinced that spirit and rationality are identical and that rationality controls freedom. Naturalism and romanticism, on the other hand, believe that they can easily return to the innocency of nature. Naturalism looks upon man as essentially good, and advocates a return to the harmony of nature as the way of salvation (Rousseau, John Dewey). This optimistic approach to man’s virtue and the problem of evil expresses itself philosophically as the idea of progress in history.17 The empirical method of modern culture has been successful in understanding nature; but, when applied to an understanding of human nature, it was blind to some obvious facts about human nature that simpler cultures apprehended by the wisdom of common sense.

In this cultural approach to the doctrine of man, Niebuhr found that all contemporary non-Christian views of life fail because they do not fully take into account man’s freedom on the one hand or his involvement in nature on the other. In pointing out the self-refuting qualities of alternate explanations, he hoped to pave the way for the relevance of the Christian explanation.

Niebuhr’s treatment of idealism, naturalism, and romanticism in his cultural analysis was typical of his approach to a problem.

A somewhat stylized Niebuhrian analysis of a human problem is to state two opposite facets of the problem, then to reduce each further to negative and positive elements, to correlate the subnegation, then to show how the Christian answer meets these complexities, but only in the wholeness of the problem; for once any element of the Christian answer is emphasized at the expense of some other facet, distortion occurs.18

Niebuhr’s belief that the deeper truths about man must be stated in such a way as to include the contradictory aspects of reality was an offense to many. This is a self-contradictory position to the rationalists, especially when Niebuhr did not give a synthesis to the thesis-antithesis nature of reality. Many secular positions would be destroyed if they admitted the full complexity that Niebuhr pointed up. This "relational" or dialectical" pattern of thought, Niebuhr maintained, is well adapted to the complexity of life and to the Christian answer to it. This pattern of thought sometimes became mechanical; this was to be expected in any stylized pattern that tried to deal with the varying aspects of reality.


The first source for Niebuhr’s doctrine of man was an analysis of culture. His second source was the Christian revelation. Although the analysis of culture preceded his exposition of the Christian answer to the problem of man, his analysis of culture presupposed the acceptance of the Christian faith. For Niebuhr there was no inquiry into the human situation without a faith presupposition. To attempt an exposition of the doctrine of man outside the context of the Christian faith would oversimplify the human situation. Niebuhr said that modern culture does not have a principle of interpretation that adequately takes into account the unity of man’s self-transcendence and his physical life, the meaning of individuality, or the origin of evil.19

Niebuhr defined man’s total environment as including both time and eternity, He maintained that the Christian revelation does not reduce man to nature, nor absorb him into an undifferentiated eternity. Christianity answers the problem of man with its doctrines of man as made in the image of God and man as creature. These doctrines are also the key to man’s individuality. Further, Christianity answers the problem of evil with its doctrine, of original sin.

Niebuhr, wary of traditional epistemology because reason is usually assumed to be the key that understands the form or structure of unity that encompasses the self, linked himself with the dramatic and historical method of the Bible. He expressed it this way: "My point is simply that when we deal with aspects of reality which exhibit a freedom above and beyond structures, we must resort to the Hebraic dramatic and historical way of apprehending reality. Both the divine and the human self belong to this category."20 The biblical insight rests upon the encounter in freedom between the self and God beyond the limits of philosophy. Niebuhr’s thought, inseparable from his religious faith, drew upon the Bible for its basic insights. He ran into constant criticism, however, for the way in which he handled the biblical testimony. The chief reason for this criticism was that Niebuhr considered myth to be the primary language of the Bible in its description of the dynamic nature of history (both its beginning and its end) and the encounter of the self with God in freedom.

Niebuhr regretted that he had used the term myth (and the term is perhaps unfortunate, as myth implies a fairy tale to most people). But by myth he meant that which, although it temporarily deceived, nonetheless pointed to a truth that could only be expressed in that form. Niebuhr said, "The word has subjective and skeptical connotations. I am sorry I ever used it, particularly since the project for ‘demythologizing’ the Bible has been undertaken and bids fair to reduce the Biblical revelation to eternally valid truths without any existential encounters between God and man."21 But his later writings found him continuing to use the term. Apparently he never intended to discard it.

Niebuhr insisted that the poetic and religious imagination of the Bible most readily expresses the basis for the doctrine of man. Myths, imaginative pictures of the world shaped in terms of the powers and feelings of man’s interior life, are true, but not true in a scientific sense. Biblical symbols are more convincing than the average prose in the attempt to grasp the ineffable. Biblical myths point to truths that logic cannot adequately encompass. Niebuhr wrote that "the temporal process is like the painter’s flat canvas. It is one dimension upon which two dimensions must be recorded."22 Consequently Niebuhr used myth, deceiving for the sake of truth, to express from the experience of the race and the individual self what is contemporaneously true for all men at any given moment.

The advantages that Niebuhr found in myth were that (1) myth pictures the world as a coherent whole and still retains a relationship with God, (2) myth allows religion to be independent of science, and (3) myth eliminates the insufficiencies of a rationalism that substitutes a "first cause" for God.

Having shown that the competing current anthropologies do not do full justice to either man’s freedom or finiteness, Niebuhr turned to the Christian revelation. He said that the Christian God reveals himself to man in two distinguishable but inseparable ways. Although he did not use the term in the traditional sense, he said that the first way that God reveals himself can be called a form of general revelation. This general, or private, revelation is the universal testimony of every person’s consciousness that he touches a reality beyond himself and nature. God impinges on every man’s consciousness. A characteristic of this experience is the sense of "being seen, commanded, judged and known from beyond ourselves." 23

Niebuhr pointed out that in its personal-individual form, revelation contains three elements, two of which are sharply defined and the third not defined at all.

The first is a sense of reverence for a majesty and of dependence upon an ultimate, source of being. The second is a sense of moral obligation laid upon one from beyond oneself and of moral unworthiness before a judge. The third, most problematic of the elements in religious experience, is the longing for forgiveness. All three of these elements become more sharply defined as they gain the support of other forms of revelation.24

These three elements gain the support of other forms of general revelation in the following order: faith concludes (1) that the "wholly other" is also the Creator, (2) that the sense of moral unworthiness means that God is Judge, and (3) that the longing for forgiveness after judgment implies the tentative assurance that God is also Redeemer. Although these elements are vague in themselves, they provide a point of contact for special-biblical revelation.

Man’s longing for forgiveness, the third testimony of general revelation, requires a further revelation to clarify his common human experience. A special revelation is necessary to know more about this other at the limits of man’s consciousness. Without special interpretation, the general revelation involved in conscience becomes falsified. General revelation presents the problem but offers no solution. The record of this disclosure of a special revelation is found in the biblical account.

In general revelation, man feels a sense of moral obligation and judgment. in the biblical revelation, the counterpart of this is the covenant relation between God and his people and its prophetic interpretation. Within the covenant relationship between God and Israel, Prophetism developed and discerned that the people of Israel were not fulfilling the covenant. Prophetism accused Israel of the besetting sin of pride; Israel identified herself too completely with the divine will, whereas in reality Israel was only a historical instrument. The prophets said that man’s sin was his unwillingness to depend upon God to make his life secure. Man brings his own destruction when he exceeds the bounds of creatureliness and seeks to make himself God. Once this prophetic interpretation of history is assumed, history justifies it. Prophetism concludes, in its final answer, that God is related to history only in judgment.

Can God cure as well as punish man’s sinful pride? This is the question with which the Messianic promises of the Old Testament are concerned. Messianism rejected the Prophetic pessimism that God is related to history only as a Judge; it concluded instead that God would eventually disclose himself and his relation to history in an act of mercy.

Niebuhr said that this debate between Prophetism an Messianism ended in an impasse. The pessimism of Prophetism showed the optimism of Messianism to be an inadequate answer. Thus the Old Testament concluded certain of the justice of God but uncertain about God’s love and mercy. God’s ability to fulfill history could finally be revealed only in a Christ. The acceptance of this judgment marked the beginning of a revelation of redemption, the revelation of Christ.25

Within the context of special revelation, Niebuhr turned to two distinctive biblical teachings about man, man as creature and image of God, and used these two doctrines to clarify and substantiate his original assumption about man’s paradoxical environment of nature and spirit, and to refute the competing anthropologies of modern culture. At the same time Niebuhr felt that these two biblical teachings about man gave significance to his doctrine of man’s finiteness and nature on the one hand and man’s freedom of spirit on the other.

Niebuhr said that the biblical view of man interprets and relates three aspects of existence in a way that distinguishes it from all other views. (1) The first aspect of the biblical view Niebuhr designated as "creaturehood." (2) The biblical view also "emphasizes the height of self-transcendence in man’s’ spiritual stature in its doctrine of ‘image of God.’" (3)The biblical view affirms that the evil in man is a consequence of his inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to "acknowledge his dependence, to accept his finiteness and to admit his insecurity, an unwillingness which involves him in the vicious circle of accentuating the insecurity from which he seeks escape." 26

The Bible recognizes with humility and reverence, said Niebuhr, that it was a part of God’s plan to create man finite, dependent, and mortal. This is true of man’s collective and national life as well as his individual life. This creatureliness was pronounced good at the creation. The doctrine of the "resurrection of the body" indicates that man the creature is destined to participate in the fulfillment of life. At the same time, the self has a dynamic existence between nature and spirit. When the self acts, it is involved in a contradiction between these two areas of its life.

The self also has an area above the realm of nature and spirit from which it can survey these two realms. Niebuhr said that Christianity identifies this point of transcendence with the image of God. Christianity understands man primarily from the standpoint of God, and not from the uniqueness of his rational faculties or as a creature of nature. The image of God is the aspect of man’s nature which enables him to transcend the world of finitude and see the world from the point of view of eternity. This self-conscious transcendence gives man the ability of self-determination above nature. Man can transcend both nature and himself. This is the freedom side of man’s paradoxical nature. The true paradoxical character of man’s nature (as image and creature) is indicated in the concrete and earthly choices of man. These choices of the will show that man is both free and determined.

For Niebuhr, Christ revealed the true nature of the self and of God. Christ as the norm for the self points out two characteristics of the self in the image of God. (1) When the transcendent self makes a choice it requires and demands a transcendent norm above itself: this norm is God.27 (2) The image-of-God doctrine implies that man has a capacity for religious judgments, an ability to judge false gods. Man constantly makes false gods, but by virtue of the image of God he can judge them.28 This ability to judge false gods does not give man a vision of the true God, but it opens the door for a true revelation. Man’s contradictory existence, as free in the image of God and as finite in his creatureliness, presents the "occasion" of sin. This situation of contradiction is not sinful, but it provides the opportunity for sin.

For Niebuhr, the dimension of freedom was the most significant element in human nature; it is the essence of man in the image of God. The freedom of the self raises man above nature and the structure of reason, leading man to the sphere of the spiritual, where he encounters God. In and through freedom man finds a point of contact with God.

The freedom of the self gives life a creative power; but inextricably interwoven into the creative power of freedom is its destructive power. The spiritual freedom of man that increases human values can also be used for their decrease. Man in the image of God does not guarantee his virtue. Man’s freedom makes both his destructive and creative powers unique. "Human nature is, in short, a realm of infinite possibilities of good and evil because of the character of human freedom." 29 This tension, as Niebuhr defined it, is a normal aspect of human nature. Any definition of man embraces these two correlatives of freedom.

If the self is to remain a true self, these correlative options of freedom to create or to destroy must attend the self throughout its history. To destroy one would be to destroy the other. Each achievement of good in history will be attended

by the possibility of its parallel evil. Niebuhr said that if "biblical thought seems to neglect the creative aspect of the extension of human powers in its prophecies of doom upon proud nations, this is due only to the fact that it is more certain than is Greek thought that, whatever the creative nature of human achievements, there is always a destructive element in human power." 30 These options provided Niebuhr with the foundation for a doctrine of sin on the one hand and a doctrine of growth in grace on the other.

The self, according to Niebuhr, lives in a contradictory environment of nature and spirit. This paradoxical environment includes other subordinate correlatives of finitude and freedom, time and eternity, necessity and freedom, creature and Creator, freedom to create good and to destroy, and other contradictory aspects of human existence. The various philosophies of modern culture fail to take the whole self or its full environment into account. Only the Christian faith does full justice to the self.

The contradictory situation of the self is not evil, but it leads to the temptation from which evil arises. Man’s involvement in finiteness and freedom generates insecurity and anxiety. Man’s insecurity, along with the vision of the unlimited possibilities of creative human freedom, inevitably tempts man to sin. The biblical interpretation of sin is the third aspect of the doctrine of man that sharply distinguishes the Christian view from alternative views. Niebuhr’s account of how sin arises and the various forms it takes is the subject of chapter 3.



1. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, two volumes in one (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 1:124.

2. Ibid., p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 5.

4. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

5. Ibid., p. 75.

6. Ibid., p. 84.

7. Ibid., p. 33.

8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. Ibid., p. 40.

10. Ibid., p. 53.

11. Ibid., p. 81.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 87.

14. Ibid., p. 92.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 112.

17. Ibid., p. 24.

18.William John Wolf, "Reinhold Niebuhr’s Doctrine of Man" in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, p. 231-32.

19. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:123-24.

20. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Reply to Interpretation and Criticism," in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, 433 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, "Reply").

21. Ibid., p. 439.

22. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, pp. 5-6.

23. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:128.

24. Ibid., p. 131.

25. Ibid., pp. 140-45.

26. Ibid., p. 150.

27.Ibid., pp. 163-64.

28. Ibid., p. 166.

29. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Christian Faith and Natural Law," in Love and Justice, ed. D. B. Robertson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p. 54.

30. Niebuhr, Discerning the Signs of the Times, p. 65.