Chapter 3: Man the Sinner

Reinhold Niebuhr
by Bob E. Patterson

Chapter 3: Man the Sinner

Niebuhr has been called the twentieth-century theologian of sin. Because of his extensive writing on the subject of sin, the erroneous impression has grown up that Niebuhr was exclusively interested in this one doctrine, that it made him a pessimist, and that he neglected the Christian doctrine of grace. Too many Niebuhr readers have read volume 1 of his Gifford Lectures (the second half of which deals with sin) and have either failed to read or to take seriously volume 2 (which deals with the Christian answer to sin in terms of grace).

Niebuhr’s critics have said that he paid an inordinate amount of attention to the doctrine of sin. They have said that it was his controlling insight, the most fundamental of his ideas, the clue to his anthropology, and his most valuable contribution to contemporary theology. Some liberal critics seem to have blamed him for sin because he rediscovered some of its dimensions. My own feeling is that this doctrine was not his central concern, although it was a central pole around which his writings gathered. Sin is the best-known aspect of his work (and has received a disproportionate amount of discussion), but it is misleading to think that this doctrine is the launching pad for his thought. I would in no way minimize the immense significance of his treatment of sin, but I believe he spoke of it in the light of the shallow moralism of both theological orthodoxy and liberalism, and as one part of the task of relating Christianity to the twentieth century. He is remembered more for his essays on sin than for his vision of grace. But his impact during the ‘30s and ‘40s was dependent as much upon where his listeners were as upon what he said. The situation in America called out for his analysis of the human condition. I hope in the next chapter to show that he also spoke about God’s grace.

There is no question that a numerical count in his written works would show that he used the word sin and its correlatives much more than he did grace and its attendant words of redemption. But when Niebuhr began to write his first articles and books, the concept of sin had virtually disappeared from the vocabulary of enlightened theologians. One of Niebuhr’s early efforts was to reinstate the concept of sin, to reinterpret it, and to attack moral optimism. In doing this he "has given us one of the most astute analyses of the source of sin in human nature which Christian thought has ever achieved."1 Niebuhr’s thought may be more readily understood if approached on the avenue of this doctrine, but it cannot be fully understood if the other aspects are omitted. Niebuhr said that he attempted to emphasize both man’s Godlikeness and his sin. If the doctrine of sin received a strong emphasis in his writings, it was because he was attempting to save modern Christianity and culture from the sentimentality into which it had fallen "by its absurd insistence upon the natural goodness of man."2 For him there was no way to understand God’s grace without understanding sin; he pointed to the depths of sin in order to lead to the heights of grace.

Niebuhr readily admitted that much of his writing and speaking had been diagnostic; it was so designed to call modern man to look at his situation. When this was in a partial way being accomplished, Niebuhr advocated a more positive approach and apparently intended to practice it himself. It is ironic that Niebuhr should have been so successful in his analysis of sin that his solution to it has been neglected.


Niebuhr named three distinctively Christian affirmations about man that sharply distinguished the Christian from all alternate views. The first two, already considered in the previous chapter, were man as creature and as the image of God. The third affirmation was that man is a sinner. Sin is occasioned, although not caused by, the first two contradictory elements of finiteness and freedom. According to biblical faith, this contradiction does not of necessity betray man into sin.

Niebuhr was more concerned about the nature of sin than its matrix; but an account of its origin also gives a clue to its nature. A bundle of originating factors can be distinguished in Niebuhr’s treatment of the emergence of sin. (1) Man is in a unique position between nature and spirit as a free creature. (2) The devil presents to man the temptation to reject the position to which he has been appointed by his Creator. (3) The third element, growing out of the previous two, is man’s anxiety to secure his own position in contrast to the original order of God. Once man has rejected his dependence on God, he becomes even more conscious of his insecurity; as a result his anxiety reaches unbounded proportions. These three intertwined aspects of man’s initial break from God lead to the manifold forms of sin in the individual and the group. Niebuhr did not distinguish these three factors in the emergence of sin as sharply as this; he thought of them as interdependent and closely related.

Niebuhr saw the self participating in the double environment of nature and spirit with its correlatives of greatness and weakness.3 In this situation the whole self exhibits capacities for both good and evil. The contradictory character of human existence is not evil in itself. Man’s essence resides in his freedom. Sin is not possible without freedom, but it does not necessarily follow from it.4 The issue in Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin is not man’s finiteness in nature, but his abortive attempts to escape that finiteness. "Sin in history is not finiteness and particularity,"5 he said. Man’s situation of finiteness and freedom is actually a good thing, ordained by God. The situation becomes the locus of sin only when it is falsely interpreted.

If man conscientiously took into account his full involvement in both nature and spirit, he would not be deluded into unwarranted megalomanias. An ultimate mystery surrounds the way in which the human situation becomes a sinful situation. This mystery does not easily fit a scheme of rational intelligibility. The two forms of the mystery are man’s responsible freedom, despite the determining factors of creaturely finiteness, "and the greater mystery of the corruption of that freedom and resulting sin and guilt."6 Man becomes confused and falls into sin when he rejects this state of finiteness and freedom and tries to realize himself without divine authority to define his limits.

The alternatives of right and wrong are not inherent in man’s situation of finiteness and freedom. Niebuhr used the symbol of the devil to explain the false interpretation by which man is tempted. This biblical symbol indicates that sin did not originate out of man’s own nature. Niebuhr said to "believe that there is a devil is to believe that there is a principle or force of evil antecedent to any evil human action."7 The devil is a symbol that sin is a mysterious offer, a tempting alternative to God’s established order.

The bible uses the myth of the Fall, said Niebuhr, to indicate the nature of this temptation. The serpent, correctly interpreted by Christian theology as the devil, had previously transcended the proper state set for him by God in an attempt to usurp the place of God. "Before man fell, the devil fell," Niebuhr said.8 The serpent of the myth created in man a similar desire to break the limits which God had set for him.

Hence a mysterious force of evil exists prior to man’s sin, and man does not face a vacuum. Niebuhr (in a rather inexact way) wanted the concept of the devil to act as a symbol of the mysterious offer presented to man to take the alternative to God’s established order of human existence.

Niebuhr was not a system-builder, and his treatment of the devil is one indication of the gaps in his thought. Regrettably, he was not interested in a universal Fall that involved nature and the cosmos, nor did he have much patience with those who made ontological speculations. He felt that ontology (an analysis of the structure and character of being — being-as-such) depersonalized. There are numerous areas of his thought that would have profited from a more exact treatment. He preferred descriptive rather than ontological terms, but he unconsciously used ontology (ontology cannot be escaped). Historic symbols and careful delineations of the nature of ultimate reality are both needed as necessary correctives one to the other.

Man is in a position between nature and spirit. This situation is not evil in itself; but man’s involvement in it makes him susceptible to the devil’s misinterpretation of this situation.9 Thus the human situation becomes the occasion for man’s temptation along three avenues: (1) Man’s natural limitations and finitude as a part of nature create in him a sense of insecurity. (2) Man is further insecure because in his self-transcendence he can anticipate the danger of the future. Death is the ultimate symbol of this danger. (3) Through his abilities of self-transcendence, man can envision infinite possibilities of perfection, and he overestimates his ability. His very insecurity drives him to the necessity of overestimating his capacity for attaining perfection, since this must be accomplished before death claims him as its victim. These various insecurities cause him anxiety. His freedom, the basis of his creativity, is also his temptation. Niebuhr said that since man is involved in the contingencies and necessities of the natural process on the one hand, and since, on the other, he stands outside of them and foresees their caprices and perils, he is anxious."10

Niebuhr said that man, "being both free and bound, both limited and limitless, is anxious. Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness in which man is involved."11 This internal response of the self is morally neutral. Anxiety is a prerequisite to any meaningful action. The outcome of this anxiety can have either a positive or a negative function. Anxiety does not necessarily imply a negative function; ideally the tensions of life might be surmounted by faith. There is always the possibility that anxiety may be purged of sinful self-assertion. Anxiety cannot be regarded as making sin necessary. Anxiety constitutes a state of temptation, but out of it can arise either faith or sin. Anxiety as such is not sin; it is the precondition of sin.

Anxiety is a permanent concomitant of freedom. The destructive and creative aspects of anxiety cannot be separated. Using an analogy, Niebuhr said that it is the condition of the sailor climbing the mast "with the abyss of the waves beneath him and the ‘crow’s nest’ above him. He is anxious about both the end toward which he strives and the abyss of nothingness into which he may fall."12 The self senses that the elements of good and evil are present in any act. Anxiety over the situation of insecurity does not become operative as sin until lack of faith enters in. In his ambiguous situation man feels insecure without a faith in God. Man inevitably tries to overcome this anxiety by setting up false gods. Underneath all the forms of particular sin lies the initial sin of unbelief — the unwillingness to trust God to keep one secure amidst the insecurities of existence. This "is the meaning of Kierkegaard’s assertion that sin posits itself,"13 Niebuhr said. This desire for security is never satisfied; it is indeterminate.

Society, just as the individual self, is faced with the consequences of anxiety because it too consciously exists in the tension between nature and spirit, necessity and freedom. Nature’s necessities must be accepted, but freedom keeps tempting communities with the possibility of escape. The result is an anxious search for security. Just as anxiety can lead the individual self to be creative or destructive, or both at the same time, so it can lead every human group to be creative or destructive. Thus the community is an ethical agent responsible for moral action.

Niebuhr characterized the nature of sin by numerous descriptions which can be placed very generally into two categories. The first is rebellion against God and the order he has established for man’s life. This has a religious dimension because it is the attempt to usurp the place of God. Niebuhr used many expressions to describe this rebellion, among them "wrong use of freedom," "rebellion against God," "worship of false centers, eternals, or absolutes," "falling short of the ultimate ideal," "self-worship," and "man’s pretension that he is not contingent." 14

The second category has to do with the human values that the self destroys, either its own or those of others. This has a social dimension because it treats other personalities as if they were of inferior significance. Some of Niebuhr’s expressions to describe this second level of sin were "pride," "injustice," "sensuality," "consistent self-interest at the expense of others" (self-centeredness, self-assertion, etc.), "transmuting the will-to-live into the will-to-power," and the "violation of the love obligation between persons." Both categories involve, in varying degrees, a consciously perverse choice of evil. And since man chooses evil, his sin cannot be blamed on his finitude, a defect in his nature, his ignorance, or an evolutionary hangover from his animal ancestry.


When anxiety has conceived within the individual it brings forth both pride and sensuality. Man falls into pride when he attempts to replace God; he falls into sensuality when he attempts to escape his freedom. Anxiety is the soil in which sin grows. Lack of trust in God leads to egotistic self assertiveness in individual and collective life (save for the "second Adam"). This whole process of the centralization of the ego Niebuhr summed up in the word pride. This is man’s basic sin — his unwillingness to acknowledge his creatureliness, his self-elevation.

Niebuhr’s analysis of the sin of pride was both profound and convincing. A careful study of it leaves the reader with a sense of discomfort about his own pretentiousness. His treatment imposes upon the reader the task of not allowing himself to be deceived by the attempts of individuals and groups to hide their guilt before God by so-called good works. He further imposes on the reader the task of recognizing the differences in guilt among men. He convincingly disentangled the various strands of pride and presented them in ascending sequence, one of the keenest products of his thought that was to become a "modern classic."

In order to relate this concept of sin to the observable behavior of men, Niebuhr distinguished among four types of pride. First was the pride of power. This kind of pride can rest either upon the self’s assumption of its own self-sufficiency or self-mastery, or upon the self’s feeling of insecurity and the wish to gain self-sufficiency through more power. In the one case the self does not realize its insecurity; in the other it is most acutely aware of it. One group in society lusts for power because its position is secure; another group, because of its sense of insecurity. In the modern era, a particularly flagrant form of the will-to-power that tries to eliminate insecurity is greed.15 While the man of power remains something of a beast of prey, those who suffer under him become vindictive (and thus self-righteous).

Intellectual pride is a sublimation of the pride of power. All human knowledge pretends to be more true than it is, to be final and ultimate knowledge. Pride of intellect, like the pride of power, is derived from either the ignorance of finiteness or the insecurity resulting from the recognition of finiteness. Each great thinker imagines himself the final thinker and thus becomes fair sport for any wayfaring cynic. The thinker cannot imagine that he is subject to the same error that he has detected in others. Intellectual pride is more productive of evil than the simpler will-to-power.

Elements of moral pride are involved in intellectual pride. Intellectual pride claims final truth; implied in this is the claim to absolute morality. Moral pride claims that its standard of righteousness is the final standard; that makes its virtue the vehicle of a pharisaic sin. Niebuhr said that moral pride "is revealed in all ‘self-righteous’ judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self."16 The self-righteous are guilty of history’s greatest cruelties. Most evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good.

Spiritual pride is an immediate offspring of moral pride. In its quintessential form it is self-glorification. It claims that the self’s righteousness conforms to God’s righteousness. Niebuhr quoted with approval a comment that most "religion" is unbridled human self-assertion in religious disguise. He said that most religion is merely a "battleground between God and man’s self-esteem."17 There is no final guarantee that man can escape this spiritual pride. Christianity is a religion that can shatter this pride, but the self can become proud of even this shattering experience, and turn its contrition into self-righteousness. Niebuhr approved of Luther’s insistence that the vicar of Christ on earth is bound to be the Antichrist.

Dishonesty is related to pride, although not the basis of it. The deception about one’s own status is neither pure ignorance nor pure dishonesty. It is partly ignorance because the self inevitably believes itself to be the whole world, and resorts to deception to maintain its security. This is the lie involved in sin. Dishonesty is sin’s final expression.

Niebuhr treated the pride of the individual and the group separately because collective pride is the outgrowth of individual pride; but this collusion of individual egos results in a unity which transcends the power and pretension of the individual ego. "The group is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centered and more ruthless in the pursuit of its ends than the individual,"18 he said. Groups have always succumbed to making idolatrous claims for themselves. Men have further added to their sin by their unwillingness to recognize this tendency. Niebuhr’s political realism grew out of the conviction that the egoism of the group is stronger than its sense of justice. Special privileges make all men dishonest.

Collective pride is man’s last effort to deny his contingency; it is the very essence of human sin. Collective pride is a more fruitful source of guilt because it is a more pregnant source of injustice. Niebuhr said that the spiritual pride of nations has two aspects in its unconditional claims: "The nation claims a more absolute devotion to values which transcend its life than the facts warrant; and it regards the values to which it is loyal as more absolute than they really are."19 Prophetic religion accurately described this national self-deification and pronounced judgment upon it. Niebuhr noted with approval Augustine’s having pointed out that such national pride causes the destruction of every "city of this world."

Niebuhr gave prolonged attention to the sin of pride — to the neglect of the other "seven deadly sins." He spent most of his efforts denouncing the invisible sins of good people, and seldom wrote about rascals or the visible sins of the publicly wicked. Niebuhr was certainly aware of the overt scandals which law enforcers can prevent, but he engaged himself with the form of evil that laws cannot combat. His biographer said that he was "less concerned with the three per cent of American youth who are delinquent than with the ninety-seven per cent who will grow up to be good citizens."20 Thus he almost never wrote about what most Christians denounce as sin. "One hunts long in his writings before finding mention of murder or theft, for example, and when these do appear it is likely to be in their collective, rather than individual form: Nazi murders, or Soviet thefts of neighboring lands." 21

Niebuhr gave no attention to the sins of indifference. John C. Bennett, his friend, colleague, and affectionate critic, has observed that Niebuhr himself was so incapable of apathy that he could find no place for it in his doctrine. Niebuhr never discussed the traditional sin of sloth. Thus the sin of the weak man who needs some discipline is unaccounted for in his categories. And this is a great loss, because most of us are not in a position to commit the sin of the wise, the powerful, or the good — the sins of the strong who throw their weight around. Niebuhr took the side of those hopelessly buried in the struggle, but defeatism was not one of his characteristic themes.

Niebuhr’s treatment of pride was not unique: it had its foundation in Pauline, Augustinian, and Lutheran theology. The importance of his statement of the sin of pride lay in the relevant manner in which he applied it to the many aspects of contemporary life. Few theologians would differ with Niebuhr’s structure for the treatment of man’s self-love. He encountered considerable opposition, however, about the "inevitable but necessary" character of sin. This will be considered shortly.

Secular thinkers gave Niebuhr’s doctrine a different reception. Niebuhr’s insistence on the sin of man’s self-love met with serious challenges by some of the most astute contemporary minds. Carl R. Rogers, a justly famous modern psychologist, said that Niebuhr’s contention that man is primarily the victim of self-love can be maintained only if one views individuals on the most superficial or external basis. Rogers, drawing upon thirty years of psychotherapeutic experience with maladjusted individuals, maintained that the chief difficulty with individuals is that they do not love themselves enough. Individuals despise themselves. Only as the individual senses something lovable in himself, in spite of his mistakes, can he realize himself and love others as he should.

Niebuhr might possibly have answered that Rogers’s client undervalued himself because he had a form of pride masquerading as self-deprecation, and it was a temporary condition. Or, Niebuhr might have answered that Rogers’s client was sincere, and that self-love had turned into weakness (as will be seen in Niebuhr’s treatment of the loss of the self in sensuality). Niebuhr would probably have maintained that self-love and underevaluation are closely related phenomena.

Niebuhr’s and Rogers’s findings apparently belie one another completely. Both men owe a great debt to Kierkegaard’s doctrine of choosing to be a self as the antidote to despair. Anxiety is the precondition to this choice. Self-love is one form that anxiety may drive to in an effort to avoid despair and insecurity. Another escape reaction is to lose oneself in what Niebuhr called sensuality. This has a similarity in Rogers’s idea of the self’s deprecation of itself. I am not attempting to reconcile the two men, because that is hardly possible; yet I would point to the possibility that Niebuhr may have included Rogers’s "lack of self-acceptance" under his doctrine of sensuality, a derivative form of pride and self-love. Or, if he had developed such a doctrine, he might have included it in a doctrine of "sloth." Further, Niebuhr’s doctrine of God’s grace would find a congenial overlap in Rogers’s ideas on "acceptance."

The second general type of sin named by Niebuhr was sensuality. Sensuality, like pride, must be understood in the framework of nature and spirit. While pride attempts to identify the self with spirit, sensuality attempts to identify the self with nature.22 Sensuality is a more apparent form of anarchy than selfish pride. Niebuhr, calling upon Paul and Augustine, said that sensuality was a fruit of the more primal sin of rebellion against God. Sensuality is not regarded as a natural fruit of man’s animal nature. He said that "sensuality is, in effect, the inordinate love for all creaturely and mutable values which result from the primal love of self, rather than love of God." 23

Niebuhr maintained that sensuality was both a form of idolatry which made the self god, and an alternative idolatry in which the self, conscious of the inadequacy of its self-worship, sought escape by finding some other god.24 He described three forms of sensuality (luxury, drunkenness, and sexual passion) to demonstrate this. The misuse of things, alcohol, and sex is either an attempt to escape the ego or to enhance the ego; it is either flight or assertion. Sensuality in the individual has its counterpart in society as anarchy (destroying the unity of the group).

Niebuhr summed up the sin of sensuality by pointing out three of its invariable characteristics: a self-defeating self-love, an attempt to escape the self by finding a god outside the self (in a person or process), and an attempt to escape from the confusion caused by sin into some form of subconscious existence. Sensuality begins with self-love or self-gratification. Futility soon ensues, and sensuality becomes self-escape in forms of indulgence that soon reach a point where they defeat their own ends. When a sensuous process is deified it proves disillusioning, and a plunge into unconsciousness is made.25

Niebuhr’s discussion of sensuality provides us another point of regret in his thought. Although interesting, accurate, and insightful, it lacks the convincing power found in his approach to pride. He treated it as a degraded form of pride, almost as an afterthought. He could have contributed immeasurably to our understanding if he had devoted himself to a full study of sensuality. As it is, contemporary theology usually turns to the findings of depth psychology because it has no formulated doctrine of sensuality of its own.


Niebuhr said that the forms of actual sin appearing as pride and sensuality derive from a misinterpretation of man’s paradoxical position in nature and spirit. Anxiety, which is morally neutral, is antecedent to this misinterpretation.

Anxiety presupposes a choice between good and evil. Human experience, however, indicates that man invariably chooses evil. The inevitability of man’s choice of evil and his responsibility for having done so, logically irreconcilable facts of experience, formed for Niebuhr the problem of original sin. He said:

Here is the absurdity in a nutshell. Original sin, which is by definition an inherited corruption, or at least an inevitable one, is nevertheless not to be regarded as belonging to his essential nature and therefore is not outside the realm of his responsibility. Sin is natural for man in the sense that it is universal but not in the sense that it is necessary.26

Niebuhr believed that both contentions must be maintained, even if they are an offense to rationalists and moralists.

The doctrine of original sin was the crux of Niebuhr’s treatment of sin and is probably the one aspect of his thought more than any other that shook American theology loose from its liberal premise. This doctrine also threw him farthest into the American theological thicket. Here he encountered the most difficulty, gave the most paradoxical answer, was open to the most misunderstanding, and emerged with the least satisfying solution. A charming doggerel written by William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, after Niebuhr had been lecturing in Swanwick, England, points to this unfortunate misunderstanding. Temple wrote: -

At Swanwick, when Niebuhr had quit it,

Said a young man: "At last I have hit it.

Since I cannot do right,

I must find out tonight

The best sin to commit — and commit it."

This is not to say that Niebuhr may not have been correct in his treatment of original sin; he was dealing with a most difficult subject. Niebuhr had no simple and easy definition of original sin, and he halted before its mystery. Like many men before him, he was not afraid to maintain, that all human actions are sinful.

Niebuhr did not follow the traditional interpretation of this doctrine. He saw it no longer as an event in the past, but as a symbolic truth about man’s universal and incorrigible tendency to sin. Original sin is centered in human existence. Man does not inherit the guilt of a historical Adam; man falls naturally and inevitably into the sin of claiming eternal worth for his relative objectives. Sin grows out of man’s present freedom rather than a prehistoric event of the past.

Niebuhr relied on Soren Kierkegaard to help him unravel the problem of original sin, and he probably cannot be appreciated until this linkage with Kierkegaard is understood. Kierkegaard renewed the doctrine of original sin in an ingenious modern fashion by giving it a "psychological" explanation. Niebuhr accepted this account. To Kierkegaard the ultimate origin of sin was mysterious; but he argued that the psychological conditions under which it took place could be investigated. These conditions involve (1) man’s double nature as animal and spirit, (2) the resultant state of unstable anxiety, and (3) the inevitable sprouting of sin. Kierkegaard said that sin was inevitable, but he left room for man’s responsibility in succumbing to temptation. Man sins inevitably, but not from natural causality or ontological necessity.

Sin for Kierkegaard was not foreign. Sin cannot be separated from man. Adam is disclosed as a potential sinner by his temptation. The tradition stemming from Kierkegaard says that whenever man becomes self-conscious he has the feeling that he is falling short of what is required of him. "Original sin" is the existential formula to express this condition.

Niebuhr accepted Kierkegaard’s analysis and said that, while it may be logically absurd, it is psychologically sound.

When men analyze their own psychological experience of wrongdoing they must arrive at this conclusion. Existential experience discloses that man sins inevitably, yet not by necessity. Man’s responsibility shows that he is free, but he is free only to sin. This is the paradox that Niebuhr called "original sin."

No doubt it is true that psychological analysis yields such a verdict as Niebuhr claimed. But it does not give an answer as to why sin should be inevitable and yet man responsible. Kierkegaard’s speculation that "sin presupposes itself" is impressive but confusing. (Kierkegaard would probably have replied that sin is a confusing and mysterious experience) Niebuhr said that, when the psychological facts are investigated in their full complexity, it becomes clear that man sins inevitably; yet without escaping responsibility. The inevitability of sin is not a logical outgrowth of man’s situation in nature and spirit; but temptation to sin lies in this situation. Ideally, it is possible that anxiety could lead the self to submit to God’s will. It is when anxiety leads the self to find its life independently, without God, that it falls into sin and loses its life. The inevitability of sin is "anxiety plus sin." 27

When man acts, his action is always evil. Man has the freedom to act, and to contemplate the moral character of his willful act. In this contemplative examination, the self discovers that a degree of conscious dishonesty was involved in its sinful act. The self discovers that it was not blindly led to do evil — that it bears responsibility for its sin. This discovery is possible because the self can transcend its actions in contemplation. This contemplation involves both the discovery and the reassertion of freedom.

Sinful actions are followed by remorse or repentance. To Niebuhr, this attested the fact of responsibility. The self discovered, both in its act and the contemplation of the act, that a degree of conscious disharmony accompanied its sinful act. He said that the "remorse and repentance which are consequent upon such contemplation are similar in their acknowledgment of freedom and responsibility and their implied assertion of it."28 Repentance is freedom with faith while remorse is freedom without faith.

Niebuhr’s position was logically absurd. His belief in the universality of sin stood in contradiction to his belief that sin was an expression of man’s freedom. Niebuhr was not unique in the way he combined these contradictory elements into one view; they were left to stand in opposition by Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. Rationalists have admired the way that Niebuhr diagnosed the forms of pride and have even accepted his view about anxiety; but they have recoiled from this final paradox of original sin.

Niebuhr was well aware of the logical absurdity of this paradox; still he clung to it as an attempt to bring out a distinction of which language is not fully capable. He felt that "loyalty to all the facts may require provisional defiance of logic."29 Whether or not the Niebuhr reader will accept this logical absurdity depends upon his orientation toward the Pauline tradition. Respected Christian thinkers have held to a serious doctrine of sin without following the paradoxical interpretation of existence advocated by Niebuhr. One must make a choice as to which of the approaches most nearly conforms to the facts of experience as he can best see them.

Niebuhr’s statement of the Fall and of original sin does not stand without opposition. Orthodox theology rejects the way Niebuhr altered the traditional concept of original sin from a historical incident to an existential experience. Orthodoxy cannot see that original sin may be true in every moment of existence but have no history. Even when the doctrine of original sin has been purged of literalistic errors, Niebuhr’s approach has been rejected by the Pelagian temper that the free will can attain righteousness. Pelagianism dismisses the Fall as an unnecessary theological pessimism. Modern liberal Christianity believes that it can ignore the doctrine of original sin in its definition and attainment of the good, both individually and socially. Practically every school of modern culture rejects the doctrine of original sin. No evidence to the contrary presented by realistic theology in the past years seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. There are some pessimists among modern secularists, bu they nevertheless have an easy conscience because they do not hold man responsible for his sin. Even among those who have lost their easy conscience, there is no disposition to turn to God for forgiveness and grace; they can "make it on their own, thank you."

The real question is whether Niebuhr’s doctrine of original sin is an accurate description of existence, and whether or not Niebuhr’s particular interpretation is substantiated by the facts of contemporary life. For Niebuhr, the psychological, and moral connotations of the Fall were more important than the ontological ones. He felt that a nonacademic "empiricism" takes the psychological and moral implications of human egotism for granted in all forms of human relations. All men of affairs in business and government act on the basis of an implied doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr said that the "wisdom of the ‘man in the street’ never fails to comprehend the mixture of creativity and self-concern in the behavior of all his fellows."30 This implied recognition of the harsh reality of original sin on the part of the nonacademic man does not imply, however, that Niebuhr’s particular approach was a correct one. On the other hand, it does mean that Niebuhr the analyst and the existential man recognized that all of the facts involve a dialectical statement of the self’s inevitable self-assertion and its consequent responsibility.


Niebuhr held that no man is able to regard his sin as normal, regardless of how deeply involved in it he is. There lingers in man’s soul a memory of a condition of blessedness, a sense of an original righteousness that is no longer his possession. This sense of a contradiction between what man is and what he ought to be is a universal experience.

Niebuhr said that Christian thought had confused the relation of man’s original righteousness to his sinful nature in history by assigning the original righteousness to a paradisiacal period before the Fall of Adam. Original righteousness is a vertical relation, and when "the Fall is made an event in history rather than a symbol of an aspect of every historical moment in the life of man, the relation of evil to goodness in that moment is obscured," he said.31

Faith, hope, and love were the virtues designated by Niebuhr as filling the content of original righteousness. They are the basic requirements of freedom, exhausting the definition of original righteousness. There is no point of advance beyond them. Faith gives harmony toward God. Hope, a form of faith, is harmony within the self. Love, a derivative of faith, is harmony toward others that allows for living in community. These three virtues can be reduced to the one virtue, of the self’s perfect relationship to God. Faith, hope, and love are the source of original righteousness; their fulfillment is original righteousness. They are not static terms, but dynamic expressions of man’s activity. The virtues of faith, hope, and love appear to sinful man in the form of law. In fact, these virtues heighten the sense of sin. They either show that man falls short of them, or they tempt man to assume that he can live up to them because he knows them. This law is written in man’s heart, and his conscience constantly reminds him of it.

Niebuhr said that when man examines his conduct in the light of original righteousness he discovers that, while he gives assent to it in the transcendent self, he never lives up to it in his acting self. Man finds he has fallen. The fall happens in that moment of freedom when the free self, agreeing with the law of agape, looks down into the empirical self and discovers selfishness. Psychologically, every man is his own Adam.

The question naturally arises, What is the possibility of fulfilling original righteousness for the acting and sinful self? Niebuhr said that the perfect harmony toward God that eliminates anxiety is not a simple possibility of human existence; this freedom from anxiety belongs to the perfection before the Fall. The will cannot do the good that it wishes. Even in acts of obedience to God there is an inner contradiction. Original righteousness becomes a demanding law to the sinful man. Original righteousness is only a possibility, and never a possession of the self in action. Niebuhr’s critics usually draw the conclusion from this statement that he was an utter pessimist.

The salient features of Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin, then, are the universality of sin, sin’s existence as an objective fact in human experience, sin’s tendency to perpetuate and aggravate itself, a meaningful sense in which there is bondage of the will, and the inability of man to extricate himself from the situation of unbelief. Yet Niebuhr maintains that man has a real responsibility for his self-assertion and lack of trust in God. Further, Niebuhr provides a rationale for good works, though not in the sense of bargaining merits with God.

Niebuhr said that pre-Reformation Christianity taught that man under grace (defined primarily as power) could realize original righteousness. This idea was taught, however, with restrictions and reservations. The Reformation, defining grace primarily as forgiveness, taught that not even the redeemed man could overcome his contradiction and embody original righteousness. The Renaissance, the other wing that came out of the breakup of the medieval synthesis, saw human nature only as a realm of limitless possibilities. According to Niebuhr, both modern liberal Christianity and secular culture adopted the Renaissance answer to man’s attainment of original righteousness. He proposed to take what was valid in the insights of both Renaissance and Reformation and combine them into a more fruitful approach. He intended his answer to have all the benefits of grace as both power and forgiveness.




1. Daniel Day Williams, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (New York Harper & Bros., 1949), p. 28.

2. Niebuhr, The Contribution of Religion to Social Work, p. 66

3. Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of history, p. 41.

4. Niebuhr, Faith and History, p. 31.

5. Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, p. 63.

6. Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, p. 126.

7. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:180.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 181.

10. Ibid., p. 251.

11. Ibid., p. 182.

12. Ibid., p. 185.

13. Ibid., p. 252.

14.Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 81.

15.Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Alan, 1:191.

16. Ibid., p. 199.

17. Ibid., p. 200.

18. Ibid., p. 208.

19. Ibid., p. 213.

20. Bingham, p. 141.

21. Ibid.

22.Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1: 179.

23. Ibid., p. 232.

24. Ibid., p. 233.

25. Ibid., p. 239.

26. Ibid., p. 242.

27. Ibid., p. 251.

28. Ibid., p. 255.

29. Ibid., p. 263.

30. Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History, p. 135.

31. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1: 269.