Reinhold Niebuhr

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a major figure in the "Neo-Orthodox" movement in Protestant theology, which reoriented the entire thrust of theological and biblical studies from the 1920s on.

Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Mo., on June 21, 1892, the son of an immigrant German Evangelical and Reformed minister who served as pastor to German-American communities in small towns. Early deciding to enter the ministry, Niebuhr studied at Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary and then spent 2 years at Yale Divinity School. After receiving his master of arts degree from Yale in 1915, he left the academic world to take his first and only pastorate—a small mission church in Detroit, where he remained until 1928.

At the time Niebuhr arrived there, the automobile industry was just beginning its rapid expansion, and Detroit was developing into one of America's major cities. Many of the employees of the Ford Motor Company lived in his parish. He had the opportunity to observe at firsthand the impact of industrial society upon the factory workers. As Niebuhr said much later, "The resulting facts determined my development more than any books I may have read." He watched the dehumanizing effects of assembly line speedups and irregular job opportunities upon workers unprotected by legal or associational powers. By the end of the 1920s he was questioning seriously the basic assumptions of liberal Protestantism and the Social Gospel, on which he had been nurtured. In public he urged churchmen to examine critically the capitalist social order, and he pressed for greater realism concerning the pervasiveness and subtlety of human pride or sin. His first book, Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927), reflected these attitudes.

In 1928 Niebuhr moved to New York City to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, where he remained until his retirement in 1960. He reached New York just as the Depression began and found all about him confirmation of his ideas concerning the severe strictures of capitalism. For a time he became a Socialist, influenced strongly by the Marxist critique of a floundering capitalist society; but at the same time his theological perspective was becoming more conservative, and he was reaching back to recover and reassert the classic formulas of Christian doctrine.

Niebuhr was not a systematic theologian. He was pragmatic, stressing a dialectical, problematic approach in his intellectual inquiries. In a series of important books published during the 1930s and early 1940s, his mature reflections on the relationship of the Christian faith to the industrial, technological world gradually unfolded. Moral Man in an Immoral Society (1932) was a full-scale attack upon liberal Protestantism, especially its lack of understanding of the nature and use of power in modern society. In Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935) he replaced his largely critical and destructive polemics against liberalism with an attempt at a constructive restatement of the relation of ethics to politics. In Beyond Tragedy (1937), a series of essays that originally had been sermons, Niebuhr reasserted the centrality of human sinfulness in explaining and understanding the human predicament and offered Christ's crucifixion as the most profound means of transcending that human condition. He also stressed the importance of myth as a method for making comprehensible to modern man the biblical world view, which he now so vigorously espoused.

All of Niebuhr's previous work was knitted together in more comprehensive and systematic form with the publication of the Gifford Lectures, which he delivered in Scotland in 1939, under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols., 1941, 1943). This work was his principal intellectual achievement. Nearly all of his subsequent books sought to expand upon selected aspects of this richly varied material. The central concern of the work was an inquiry into the nature of selfhood. Niebuhr demonstrated that his vision of human existence was, at its core, ambiguous. Man was "both free and bound, both limited and limitless." Moreover, it was the Christian faith, above all other world views, that perceived most clearly this ambiguity and proposed means to cope with, and perhaps even to overcome, the anxiety that was inevitably a product of that ambiguity.

Niebuhr persistently tried to relate his religious insights to the concrete political and social problems of the contemporary world. He involved himself actively in politics, once as a Socialist candidate for local office, later as one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal study group within the Democratic party. He preached often on college campuses throughout the nation, involved himself in the ecumenical movements of national and international church bodies, and produced an endless stream of articles for popular journals, both religious and secular. He also continued to publish more serious studies in theology and politics. Two especially important analyses of democracy, Children of Light and Children of Darkness (1944) and The Irony of American History (1952), appeared at a time when the Western democracies were facing fundamental ideological and spiritual challenges.

The flirtation with Marxism and support of pacifism characteristic of Niebuhr in the early 1930s gave way to disenchantment with communism and a willingness to support "realistically" the use of force in international politics as the world was engulfed in World War II. Urging the participation of the United States in the power politics of the postwar period, Niebuhr became a major influence on the thinking of high-ranking academicians and government officials. (Consistently enough, the massive extension of American power into Southeast Asia provoked criticism from Niebuhr comparable to that directed against the Communists in the immediate post-World War II period.)

His health seriously impaired by a stroke in 1952, Niebuhr was forced to limit his activities. He died in Stock-bridge, Mass., on June 1, 1971. He was one of the major spokesmen for Protestant theology in the 20th century.

Further Reading on Reinhold Niebuhr

An important statement by Niebuhr concerning his intellectual and personal development is included among a series of illuminating essays by many scholars edited by Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall, Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (1956). An engaging, perceptive biographical study is June Bingham, Courage to Change (1961). Ronald H. Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politician (1972), emphasizes his political philosophy. A useful, brief pamphlet that analyzes the salient points in Niebuhr's system of ideas is Nathan Scott, Reinhold Niebuhr (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Bingham, June, Courage to change: an introduction to the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, Lanham: University Press of America, 1993.

Brown, Charles C. (Charles Calvin), Niebuhr and his age: Reinhold Niebuhr's prophetic role in the twentieth century, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

Clark, Henry B. (Henry Balsley), Serenity, courage, and wisdom: the enduring legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994.

Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: a biography, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, 1985.

Stone, Ronald H., Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: a mentor to the twentieth century, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

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