Helmut Richard Niebuhr

The Protestant theologian Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) was one of the most original and perceptive American theologians of the 20th century.

On Sept. 3, 1894, H. Richard Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Mo., the youngest of five children of a German immigrant Protestant minister, Gustav Niebuhr, and his American-born wife, Lydia. Three of the Niebuhr children were to distinguish themselves in theology. Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst College (1912) and Eden Theological Seminary (1915) and received his master of arts degree from Washington University (1917).

In 1916 Niebuhr was ordained to the ministry of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and served as pastor of a church in St. Louis until 1918. He taught at Eden Seminary from 1919 to 1922. He married Florence Marie Mittendorff in 1920.

In 1922 Niebuhr matriculated at Yale University, receiving his bachelor of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 1923 and his doctorate the following year. He returned to Elmhurst College to serve as its president until 1927 and then went to Eden Seminary, where he taught until 1931. Niebuhr's first book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), remains a classic analysis of the social factors in the rise and perpetuation of Protestant denominations and reveals his characteristic use of data and methods from the social sciences.

Niebuhr accepted a post as associate professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School in 1931, where he spent the rest of his career. In 1938 he was promoted to the rank of professor, and in 1954 he became Sterling professor of theology and Christian ethics. His The Kingdom of God in America (1937) is a study of the central role played in American Protestant history by the biblical idea of the kingdom of God and how that idea underwent fundamental shifts of emphasis between 17th-century Puritanism and 20th-century Protestantism. In The Meaning of Revelation (1941) Niebuhr sought to articulate the Christian understanding of revelation—the self-disclosure of God to man in Christ—in the light of the relativity of human knowledge disclosed by modern investigation, especially in the social sciences. His next book, Christ and Culture (1951), distinguished five basic ways of understanding the relationship between the lordship of Christ and human culture which have been used in the history of Christian thought: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.

In 1954 and 1955 Niebuhr directed a survey of theological education in the United States and Canada. The fruits of this study and evaluation are embodied in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (1956), edited by Niebuhr and Daniel Day Williams, and The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (1956) and The Advancement of Theological Education (1957), which Niebuhr wrote in collaboration with Williams and James M. Gustafson.

Niebuhr's last book, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960), was the most complete presentation of his basic theme: Christianity's anchor and critical principle in the sovereignty of the one God amid the relativities of man's thinking and living. His Robertson Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1960 were published posthumously as The Responsible Self (1963). The book is the fullest statement of his approach to Christian ethics, centering on the notion of Christian responsibility as the "fitting response" to other human beings and society arising out of a biblically grounded interpretation of what God is bringing about in the world of men. For Niebuhr the theological key was to be found in the biblical perception of the transcendence of God over all finite things, including man's knowledge of God.

During his distinguished career Niebuhr was awarded many honorary degrees. He participated in ecumenical work, contributing to major study documents drawn up for World Council of Churches assemblies. He was an architect of the United Church of Christ, formed in 1957 by a merger of the Congregational Christian and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches, and helped draft its Statement of Faith. He died on July 5, 1962, in Greenfield, Mass.


Further Reading on Helmut Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr has not been given the widespread and comprehensive attention he deserves as a leading American theologian. There are two full-length books on him: Paul Ramsey, ed., Faith and Ethics: The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (1957), a symposium of excellent essays on Niebuhr's thought by distinguished students and colleagues, and John D. Godsey, The Promise of H. Richard Niebuhr (1970).