Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962)
Richard Niebuhr, an American theologian and brother of Reinhold, spent
most of his academic life in the faculty of Yale Divinity School. He was noted
for his technical expertise as a theologian and in particular for his attempts
to re-examine Christian ethics.
His major works deal with the basis of denominational divisions in the United
States, the interrelationship between human beings and the culture within which
they live, and the role of Christian faith in the transformation of that
culture. His books include The Social Sources of Denominationalism
(1929), The Meaning of Revelation (1942), Christ and Culture
(1951), Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960), and The
Responsible Self (1963).
Niebuhr's overall aim seems to have been to address the reform of the Church
at a time when it was coming under increasing stress from rapid cultural change.
But if the reader of the 21st century looks to Niebuhr for a
radically fresh approach to Church and culture, he or she may be disappointed.
For example, his theology hinges on the idea of God's sovereign reality in the
world. This is true in the sense that one can choose to interpret the universe
as a created system and therefore deriving from and ultimately supported by God.
But few today would use or even understand the kingly metaphor and it is not
easy to maintain, as Niebuhr appears to have done, a God who intervenes in and
controls his creation .
Niebuhr asserted that our existence is not contingent upon natural processes
and our response to them, but upon our response to a prior "� reality behind and
in all realities" - the trustworthy Absolute One who acts in history.
He agreed with Ernst Troeltsch that historically differing eras shape
cultures differently and that it is therefore impossible to attain a truly
"universal view" of historical reality. That is, our contemporary interpretation
of the person of Jesus can't be compared in every detail with the interpretation
made by Paul (for example) because we are, as it were, conditioned by our own
cultural context and Paul by his. While there are some common factors, the two
cultures are too dissimilar to allow close comparison. Any understanding of
history can't be completely objective. All we have is more or less objective
"views of the universal", in Niebuhr's words.
According to Niebuhr, Christians in any age and culture use two primary
points of reference as they attempt to interpret the meaning of their existence.
The first is Jesus as a fixed point in history to which everything is compared
The second is the culture of which they are a part and which has formed them in
every respect. The Jesus of history is available from the New Testament and we
are brought into conversation with him as we reflect on his meaning for us in
our culture. Niebuhr says: "� every description [of Jesus] is an interpretation,
[but] it can be an interpretation of objective reality".
The real, un-interpreted Jesus is what we usually call the "historical"
Jesus. In other words, Niebuhr's assertion depends upon the availability of the
same degree of hard data a modern history would require to meet contemporary
acceptance. If there is one result of more than 200 years of intensive research
by dedicated, committed Christians, it's that such data is not available.
Even if we could substantially penetrate the culture of Jesus' day we don't have
enough material for a biographical description of him. Niebuhr admits that the
Jesus of his his time and culture is only partly
accessible to us.
The inevitable consequence of this conclusion is that the essential Jesus,
examined through the lens of available historical data, derives his ongoing
relevance from constant re-interpretation by each generation of every culture.
So there is nothing false for example in a black Jesus who is interpreted by
tribal law (and perhaps allows polygamy) - though a fascist "Jesus" almost
certainly could not validly be called Christian, since what historical data we
do have of Jesus contradicts the basic premises of fascism.
Niebuhr, if he errs to any great degree, is wrong in thinking that an
"objective" Jesus yields more than a basic template for us. The historical Jesus
can't be a satisfactory archetype (a precedent to model one's life on), though
as a prototype he provides a more than adequate platform for the lives of his
Nevertheless, Niebuhr's case is strong when he says that the interpreted
Jesus is capable of inducing "� a permanent revolution of mind and heart" which
turns a culture away from misdirected freedom and in-group exclusiveness.
His preferred image of the human moral effort was of "responsibility" as we
face the forces - natural, historical, cultural and interpersonal - which act
upon us. The value of our responses depends upon how well we interpret "what is
"Responsibility affirms - God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond
to all actions upon you as to respond to his action."
Jesus empowers us to respond to God the "prior reality" - not as a set of
moral laws but as the trustworthy Absolute. It is this empowerment which gives
us "radical faith". Niebuhr thought of this radical faith as "� a
permanent revolution of mind and heart".
Christians speak of God from their varying traditions according to a
distinctive "story of our life". But while Christian theology may remain
confessional it should, he thought, never magnify differences between Christians
and never claim superiority on rational or cultural grounds. Although Niebuhr
doesn't say it in so many words, the implication of this is that culture is the
primary vehicle of our awareness and that it is the only valid vantage point for
any interpretation of Jesus.