The Niebuhr Legacy



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The Niebuhr Legacy

» A Faculty Perspective on the Niebuhrs

A Faculty Perspective on the Niebuhrs

Thoughts on the legacy of the Niebuhrs from Nancy C. Lee, Elmhurst College professor of religious studies and the founding director of the College's Niebuhr Center and its Callings for the Common Good program.

H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr   
Not only were the Niebuhrs considered two of the most influential U.S. theologians of the 20th century who were also philosophers of religion, social ethicists and historians, but their relevance continues in a time when nations, religions and economic interests more than ever vie for position amidst global interdependence and diversity. As many have observed, the Niebuhrs’ contributions continue to be generative in an array of contexts. Both were intellectual giants, complex, wide-ranging thinkers, dialectic and realist in approach; they drew upon multiple disciplines to inform their work, both had a pragmatic bent toward social engagement and critique of interests. It is easy to oversimplify their contributions by focusing on one or a few elements, and commentators can arrive at differing conclusions. Any summary is just a glimpse of their work. As always, the best approach is to read the richness of their comprehensive writings as well as those works that analyze them.

The Niebuhrs were products of a German Evangelical history and immigrant background, also influenced by American thinkers and embedded in theological and social issues of the first half of the 20th century. Both Niebuhrs were students at Elmhurst College. Today they are affirmed, even co-opted at times, by some in the ideological right and the left, but in their time they challenged both ends of the spectrum and individually found a prophetic middle ground that resisted and still resists easy manipulation. They drew upon biblical and Christian theological principles and rhetoric typical of their era, yet pushed their audiences well beyond the sectarian and the ideological, and could be outspokenly critical of the church. While H. Richard’s theology was theocentric and his audience was more often the church, Reinhold’s analysis leaned toward the socio-political and matters of justice; his audiences were theological, ecclesial, but especially the socio-political world. So it is wise to learn from both, remembering they each dialectically held together questions of the divine and human.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), Elmhurst College Class of 1910
Major biographies have been written on Reinhold Niebuhr (below). He is often called prophetic, as his life’s work and writing through four decades were marked by engagement with the political scene and a pervasive concern for justice (or social justice, he used the terms interchangeably) in the U.S. and abroad. He was especially influenced by the biblical prophets. Niebuhr had broad reach across academic disciplines and taught and influenced students who became distinguished leaders in many fields. Besides theology and ethics and philosophy, he drew upon theoretical and practical knowledge from political science, history, economics, sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology and classics. He taught Philosophy of Religion and Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in New York. Interestingly, he taught ethics with a comparative religious approach unusual in that time; his view was that the discipline of ethics, or morals, was insufficient alone to deal effectively with systemic injustice and the socio-political challenges of each generation. He criticized the conservative right for not being socially engaged in justice and criticized the liberal left for naïve optimism (including the social gospel movement), that it could humanly bring in the ‘kingdom of God,’ while being oblivious to its own self-interest and pride. A thoroughly dialectical thinker, Niebuhr leaned on a key organizing principle for his ‘realist’ thought—the tension between the ideal and the actual in social life.

Often quoted today, Reinhold Niebuhr had and is still deemed to have significant influence, in part because his realist conception of sinful human nature, the perennial problem of group self-interest and his aim to effect ‘proximate’ justice on many different levels, rang true over and over again. In his time, he translated those matters on such a sophisticated level as a public intellectual that his views were sought by social, political and congressional leaders and the White House. One can only imagine, given the state of things in politics and society today, that most leaders would run from Niebuhr’s incisive critique.

A summary of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought might best be grasped by a focus on how he approached the matter of justice, evident in hundreds of writings, talks and actions. While Niebuhr drew upon many disciplines, he was not a theorist or classical theologian, but a pragmatist, and so developed a working concept of justice. He became sensitized to American justice issues, especially the denial of labor rights and racial discrimination, when he first was a pastor for more than ten years in Detroit. Not his first book (he had 20, plus about ten volumes of his essays), but one of the most noted was Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Coming after his Detroit experience, the stock market crash and the onset of the Depression, the work is Niebuhr’s central claim that the primary cause of injustice in society is the inevitable pursuit of self-interest by every individual and group, and concomitant self-aggrandizement and the will to power. No individual, group, political party, corporation, nation, religion or other interest is immune from self-interest and pursuit of power that leads to injustice. Moreover, almost never does a person or group selflessly give up their interests or power for the larger good. An individual or group might on very rare occasion escape this human quagmire by choosing to let go of anxious self-interest, empowered by reliance instead on a transcendent ideal reality.

Niebuhr’s ‘realism’ meant neither justice nor love (in the Christian sense of agape as modeled in Jesus) can ideally be fulfilled in history, only approximated. While skeptical (and criticized for his negativity), Niebuhr never gave in to pure cynicism, but called persons still to aim for an ideal of love and justice. But importantly, to work against systemic social injustices would always require a realistic resistance, counter force, or coercion; after weighing competing interests, decisions for justice should be made to help some, resist others, finding a balance of interests, but in the spirit of love.

Like his brother H. Richard, Reinhold held that knowledge and truth claims are also contingent upon and shaped by cultural and historical contexts. Thus he held that “it is not possible to state a universally valid concept of justice,” but we should still pursue justice. For Niebuhr, justice involved pursuit of regulative principles in different contexts: ‘equality’ was primary, then ‘liberty,’ and later he emphasized ‘order’ as peace. Niebuhr was involved in policy decisions, such as labor reforms, but he was more interested in ‘working strategies’ such as equal justice, and balancing interests and power.

In his two-volume magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr engaged the classics of western culture on the concepts of humanity and history and God to shed light and give underpinning to his above analysis; his basic understanding of human nature drew from biblical concepts: the divine image/dignity/worth of human beings but also their sinfulness; the prophets’ critique of human power and call for social justice; and the ideal love ethic of Jesus. He combined and called for justice with love in a necessary dialectic.

Niebuhr, of German background, is well-known for his role in calling the U.S. to resist Hitler. That he advocated military resistance to Hitler did not mean that he preferred war to address injustice; rather, he had grave reservations about the use and abuse of military force. In one of his last published articles before his death, Niebuhr used a broad historical framework to severely critique the President’s abuse of power with the Vietnam War. Niebuhr was supportive of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. He was open to dialogue and truth from traditions not his own, and played an important early role in Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially with his colleague, Abraham Joshua Heschel, also deeply committed to social justice.

Criticisms of Niebuhr’s work are that his pragmatism insufficiently developed a formal theology or philosophical theory; thus his justice seemed too relativist, or not clear enough about the specifics of what justice meant, or overly preoccupied about balance of power (especially in the Cold War with the Soviet Union), or about American interests, or not pacifist. In the view of some feminists, womanists and other liberationists, his understanding of human nature and self interest was from a position of relative privilege, less from understanding those powerless in societies, and did not account sufficiently for their experiences and needs; thus he was not radical enough in changing the status quo.

Reinhold Niebuhr is held up as a favorable figure today by both right and left political commentators who draw from, or co-opt, some of his contributions as a lens for today’s socio-political context and agendas. However, one suspects Niebuhr would probably be happier with them spending their time pursuing justice and criticizing interests, with love for the oppressed and the oppressor, rather than putting him on a pedestal.   

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) President, 1924–1927
Elmhurst College Class of 1912

From the late 1920s, H. Richard Niebuhr was ahead of his time in addressing such seminal topics as relativism, the contingent nature of knowledge, monotheistic faith, impact of social location, theory (especially of valuation/values) held together with practice (an ethics of responsibility) and the need for Christian and other religions’ restraint in universalizing themselves.

H. Richard’s first notable work was The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929). One commentator suggests he wrote this work in light of his experience as a pastor and as president for three years of Elmhurst College. In researching American Protestant denominations he concluded that not belief or doctrine really, but race and socio-economic status continued to segregate denominations and churches, and he criticized the church’s failure to shape society rather than be conformed by it. This was a time of intense suffering of blacks caused by Jim Crow practices as well as the looming stock market crash. Seven years later he shifted his focus to the theological differences and motivations of denominations, but the results of his book were widely accepted and influential. More than 20 years later several Protestant streams of tradition unified to form the United Church of Christ.

Another work by H. Richard Niebuhr was Christ and Culture, in which he proposed five pragmatic ways that historic Christian leaders have interacted with a culture (or society) and its values. Niebuhr’s categories ranged from faith that is against culture, to faith of culture, to faith transforming culture. Some critics affirm the model’s continued usefulness, but stretch it to interpret greater social complexity, and update its unnuanced understanding of ‘culture’ (perhaps the term ‘society’ or ‘civilization’ was more suggestive of his aim). The focus on western Christian faith in this work, and the assumed dichotomy of the secular and religious spheres, may require an overhaul if the model is to address how all of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions engage the basic question of how to interact with/in culture(s). Niebuhr’s overall approach would necessitate all voices contributing for themselves from their perspectives.

The core of H. Richard Niebuhr’s thought and theology was ‘God,’ but not simply an exploration of traditional, a priori assumptions. He affirmed that all theological principles, beliefs, and experiences of God were shaped by human limitation, history, culture, and social location. While this epistemological approach (some might say crisis) is common now, in the earlier decades of Niebuhr’s time, this was cutting edge in theology and other disciplines, drawing upon modern theoretical notions of how such contingencies produce meaning and understanding; he was not completely alone, but he significantly pointed the way ahead to recognitions of ‘interest’ and ‘ideology’ in everything we do, an important component also of post-modern thinking. The flip side of this coin, in tune with some philosophers of the time, was that there is an inevitable relativism that threatens ‘foundations’ of theology, or for that matter, any sphere of knowledge. Yet, H. Richard Niebuhr did not find this a threatening enterprise, and his approach was not therefore one of futilism, or an insecure retreat to specific faith claims. In Niebuhr’s approach,

  • Faith claims about God are not matters of objective knowledge, but are matters that persons engage with head and heart, learned and experienced from an ‘inner history’ of a tradition; a person lives out of the values and interpretations of the tradition's community, situated sometimes in agreement, sometimes in tension with their tradition; it is important not to relinquish such specific traditions (in this and several other matters, H. Richard has much in common with Gandhi); Niebuhr also affirmed the critics’ task of analyzing tradition's ‘external history,’ from a descriptive perspective (though neither is it ‘objective,’ but which also has commitments.)
  • However, beyond historically conditioned knowledge, for Niebuhr there is an ultimate reality from which everything comes and returns, the source (‘God’) absolutely prior to all things human; this transcendent 'One' is also personal  but not the same as all our lesser gods that are our devotions, particular loyalties, causes, and values—ends in themselves that will end. This is Niebuhr's "radical monotheism." Relative human value systems are affirmed, but God is the ultimate source of all valuation. (From Niebuhr’s understanding, all our devotions lesser than God can be good, made sacred, insofar as they participate in transcendent values of the One; e.g., while there are different human understandings of justice, there is a justice that is part of God’s very being and valuing.)
  • The two purposes of theology, according to Niebuhr, are to develop "reasoning in faith" and the "criticism of faith." Theology is also called to criticize the absolutization (idolatries) of humanly-derived social, cultural, national, and religious views and values.
  • Understanding what it means to be human is always in relation to the ultimate reality or God, and faith is a response to that ultimate reality in experiential terms, to God’s action upon the individual; thus knowledge of the ultimate reality is not primarily abstract but relational; the individual is not autonomous and free, but free within this radical dependence upon the ultimate reality.
  • There must be a universality of theological vision; yet just as importantly, no religion, including Christianity (much less a specific tradition within it)  should equate itself to the ultimate reality or universalize itself to claim an understanding of the full reality of God; this self-idolatry would be a ‘henotheism’; Moreover, while Niebuhr’s theology drew upon his Christian heritage—that Jesus Christ witnessed to God and exemplified what it means to be human—Niebuhr had reservations about the Christian popular tendency to elevate Jesus Christ to be the same as God.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s theology, relevance for today is found in the above expansiveness that calls for a Christian humility and dialogue with other religious and nonreligious perspectives, agnosticism, the sciences, cultural diversity, yet while still affirming one’s specific tradition. Niebuhr showed that it is possible and necessary to move away from a universalizing Christian rhetoric to interpret history and the role of religious communities, while holding firm to a ‘radical monotheism,’ which critiques abusive human power that ignores God (whether by a particular religion, politics, or society). While H. Richard Niebuhr through his career maintained his analysis and engagement with Christianity and the churches, of stunning foresight for today implicit in his approach is the need for all other internal histories of religions or spiritual traditions to contribute their voices in the larger dialogue, yet all humbly limit their universalizing tendency in light of a larger source of value and otherness, the One—to whom all faith oriented persons answer.

Elmhurst College often cites its former president, H. Richard Niebuhr, and his emphasis on “the ever-widening circle” that suggests an ever-widening college community. Yet, H. Richard’s theological legacy was consistently to point first not to human effort, but to an Absolute reality that makes possible and guides an ever-widening circle, embracing all, along with one’s specific heritage. As Gordon Kaufman notes, in Radical Monotheism Niebuhr affirmed “a permanent revolution of the mind and of the heart, a continuous life which opens out infinitely into ever new possibilities” (Legacy, 126). H. Richard Niebuhr had a vision of an extraordinary divine-human dialectic, seen in the kaleidoscope of the world’s spiritual and intellectual traditions, that could meet the immense challenges, and give hope, in our troubled times.


On Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Reinhold Niebuhr. Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
  • —. Beyond Tragedy (1937)
  • —. The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1949)
  • —. Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, D. Robertson, ed. (1957)
  • —. The Irony of American History (1962)
  • Robin Lovin. Reinhold Niebuhr (Abingdon, 2007).
  • Martin Marty. “Reinhold Niebuhr,” in E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London, 1998); retrieved online (April 12, 2007) from
  • Gary Dorrien. "Revolt of the Neoliberals: Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennet, Paul Tillich, and the Dialectics of Transcendance," (chap. 7) in The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity: 1900-1950, Vol. 2 (Westminster/John Knox, 2003).
  • Harlan Beckley. Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr (1992).
  • Karen Lebacqz. Six Theories of Justice (1986).
  • Rebekah Miles. Bonds of Freedom: Feminist Theology and Christian Realism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).
  • Ronald H. Stone. Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century (Westminster, 1992).
  • Richard W. Fox. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Pantheon Books, 1985).
  • Charles C. Brown. Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century (Trinity Press, 1992).
  • Melitta J. Cutright. An Ever Widening Circle: the Elmhurst College Years (1995; under revision).

On H. Richard Niebuhr

  • H. Richard Niebuhr. The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929)
  • —. The Meaning of Revelation (1941)
  • —. Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1943)
  • —. Christ and Culture (1951)
  • —. The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (1963)
  • The Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr, edited by Ronald F. Thiemann (1991), and see additional bibliography of H. Richard Niebuhr.
  • “Niebuhr, Helmut Richard (1894-1962),” Martin Marty, in E. Craig (Ed.). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998); retrieved online (April 12, 2007).
  • “God and Ourselves: The Witness of H. Richard Niebuhr,” Douglas Ottati; review of Theology, History, and Culture: Major Unpublished Writings, H. Richard Niebuhr (
  • "Fifty Years of Christ and Culture,” Insights 115 (Fall 1999).
  • Melitta J. Cutright. An Ever Widening Circle: the Elmhurst College Years (1995; under revision).

Re-use by permission only; copyright 2009; Nancy C. Lee.

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