Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892–1971)

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Reinhold Niebuhr was eminent in two fields. One was social action and analysis of current social problems; the other was the interpretation of the Christian faith. This entry will concentrate on his religious and ethical thinking.

Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri. His father was Gustave Niebuhr, a minister in the Evangelical Synod of the Lutheran Church, who came to the United States when he was seventeen years old. His mother was the daughter of the Reverend Edward Jacob Hosto, a second-generation German American of the same religious sect. Niebuhr studied at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and Yale University. He was ordained in 1915 and was pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church of Detroit until 1928. He was then appointed professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he taught until 1960, when he became professor emeritus.

Religious Views

The central theme of Niebuhr's religious teaching can be stated as follows: A divine, forgiving, and timeless love "beyond history" gives meaning to human life. Nothing actually operating in human history can ever be sufficiently dominant over sinful pride and sensuality to deliver men from despair, although men attempt to conceal reality with optimistic illusions. But if we look beyond the temporal process to transcendent being, we find, through faith, a forgiving and perfect love that gives to human life a grandeur beyond the reach of despair and a zeal beyond the reach of apathy. This love from beyond history has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We know it is from beyond history because in history this kind of love, called agape, is ineffective before the powers that rule this world. It is futile and meaningless except when, as in the Christian faith, it reveals the ultimate purpose of our existence by an evaluation that transcends history.

sin and anxiety

Sin arises from anxiety, although anxiety is not sinful in itself. Man is rendered anxious by criticizing himself and his world, by recognizing his own limitations and the contingencies of his existence, and by imagining a life infinitely better than what actually is.

Anxiety would not lead to sin if we brought it under control by trusting ourselves to God's forgiving love and ultimate power. But instead of this, we seek to bring anxiety under control by pretending to have power or knowledge or virtue or special favors from God, which we do not have. This pretense leads to pride, cruelty, and injustice. Or we seek to escape anxiety by dulling the awareness of it with sensuality. All this is sin because it is a turning away from God to a self-centered existence. Sin thus induced is not inevitable, but it is universal. Also Niebuhr obscurely suggested that sin was in the world before men became sinners, this prehuman sin being symbolized by Satan.

In this predicament we have two alternatives. We may trust ourselves along with the whole of human history to God's forgiving love. The other alternative is twofold: to sink into annihilating despair or to conceal our predicament with illusions that render our condition even more desperate in the end. If we take the first alternative, we live not only for whatever love can be attained in history but also and primarily for the divine love beyond history. In this way the whole of history takes on meaning. Otherwise we have only glimpses of meaning in developments occurring here and there but no meaning for the whole of history.


Themes continuously recurrent throughout Niebuhr's writing are transcendence, freedom, reason, and love. Niebuhr's language often suggests that by "transcendence" he means the timeless ideal of perfect love. But for Niebuhr this love is not merely an ideal. It is a God who loves, yet is beyond time, cause, and world.

Self-transcendence is a central theme in Niebuhr's thought. If this merely meant that the self can change into a better self, the meaning would be obvious. But Niebuhr seems to mean that the self, while never escaping finitude in one dimension, does somehow, in another dimension, transcend time and causation and self. It does this by surveying past and future and by self-criticism. But to survey past and future is to be aware of one's involvement in time; and in self-criticism the self in retrospect is criticized by the present self; and this criticizing self may in turn be criticized by the self at a later time. Niebuhr would seem to be wrong, therefore, in claiming that in self-criticism the self can transcend time and causation.

freedom and reason

Niebuhr affirmed human freedom by paradox: Man is both bound and free, both limited and limitless; he is, and yet is not, involved in the flux of nature and time. As spirit he "stands outside" time, nature, world, and self, yet is involved in them. Freed of paradox, these affirmations assert that humankind is free in the dimension of spirit but not in the dimension of natural existence. The human spirit transcends the self, time, and nature because the individual can know himself as an object, can judge himself to be a sinner, can survey past and future. "The ultimate proof that the human spirit is free is its recognition that its will is not free" (Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, p. 258).

Niebuhr would seem to be making contradictory statements. The self is not free if only the "spirit" transcending the self is free. The critical comment made above on his concept of transcendence would apply here also.

Reason is an instrument, says Niebuhr, which can be used for either good or evil. One evil use of reason is to impose rational coherence upon reality and to reject as unreal what cannot be fitted into that coherence. But Niebuhr is mistaken in thinking that one who insists on subjecting every affirmed belief to the tests of reason is thereby claiming that reason comprehends all reality. To the contrary, such a person fully admits that unknown reality extends beyond his knowledge; but he refuses to conceal his ignorance by superimposing religious beliefs where knowledge cannot reach. Niebuhr defended such beliefs because they relieve anxiety by providing courage and hope.

Another sinful use of reason, says Niebuhr, is to make it the basis of a false security, thus turning away from the one sure ground of security, which is a belief beyond the tests of reason, namely, that God in forgiving love will overrule all evil "at the end of history." Here again the question arises: Is true security to be found in beliefs exempt from the tests of reason or is it to be found by rejecting such beliefs and recognizing the unknown without concealing it beneath beliefs that cannot be rationally defended?

On the other hand, Niebuhr used to the full his own magnificent powers of rational intelligence in dealing with problems arising in the temporal process of human existence. He completely accepts the powers of reason in dealing with such problems. For him reason has the further use of demonstrating its own incapacity for dealing with those religious beliefs that Niebuhr affirms while admitting that they cannot be rationally defended.

In June Bingham's book Courage to Change (p. 224) she reports that Niebuhr wrote to a friend that he (Niebuhr) adhered to the religious pragmatism of William James. He validates Christian belief, when it cannot be rationally defended, by the courage, hope, peace, zeal, love, sense of being forgiven, and other psychological effects resulting when these beliefs are affirmed. Niebuhr identified these psychological effects as the grace bestowed upon us by God when we affirm these beliefs with the total self. Thus are we assured that we are loved and forgiven by God while we are yet sinners. Niebuhr also affirmed that beyond all the incoherence of our existence and beyond all our rational powers to know there is an all-comprehending and perfect coherence that somehow overcomes and absorbs all the manifest incoherences that we experience.


Niebuhr distinguished three kinds of love: heedless love (agape), which seeks nothing in return; mutual love; and calculating love. Heedless love is God's way of loving; and human beings by God's grace may have it to some degree. Since it seeks nothing in return, it cannot have the intention of awakening responsive love, although this may be its unintended result. Suffering endured with intention to awaken responsive love would be calculating love. Hence God's suffering love in Christ is not to awaken responsive love, although this may be its unintended result; but the intention is to protect God's righteousness in forgiving sin because forgiveness without atonement would be condoning sin.

Political Views

In making political judgments, the individual is inevitably biased by the social position and historical process in which he finds his security and personal identity. No one can be entirely free of this bias, but its distortions are reduced by a faith that finds its ultimate security not in any social position or historical process but in the God of love and mercy who rules supreme over the whole course of history, determining its final outcome as no plan or purpose of man can ever do. Such a faith in God's power and forgiveness enables one to practice "Christian realism," whereby one is able to see the evil in the self and in the historical process with which the self is identified, as well as the depth of evil in all of human life. Political judgment can then be more free of the illusions generated by false pride, on the one hand, and by despair, on the other.

Justice requires the coercions of government to support moral demands; and the power of opposing parties must be equalized if one is not to be subordinated unjustly to the interests of the other. Also, to have justice, freedom to criticize is required. Justice serves love by providing the social conditions required for the practice of love. Love is the final norm but cannot by itself guide political action, because every project set forth in the name of love amid the contests for political power is infected with self-interest whereby the needs of others are falsely identified with those of self.

With his highly developed rational powers and critical intelligence, Niebuhr sharply distinguished between problems subject to rational treatment and religious beliefs that cannot be rationally defended. This gives us what at times seems to be two Niebuhrs: One, the naturalist struggling with the problems of our existence with all the tools of human reason; the other, the mystic upholding a superstructure of religious belief beyond the tests of reason. Whether one of these, or both, will prevail in the course of history, only time can tell. However, the impact of Niebuhr's thought and action on our civilization will continue in one form or another for a long time.

See also Determinism in History; James, William; Love; Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Religion, History of.


works by niebuhr

Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study of the Social Resources and Limitations of Modern Life. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Chicago: Willett, Clark and Colby, 1929; new edition, Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1955. A diary of experiences when pastor in Detroit.

Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribners, 1932.

Reflections on the End of an Era. New York: Scribners, 1934.

An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York: Harper, 1935.

Do the State and Nation Belong to God or the Devil? London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1937.

Beyond Tragedy, Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History. New York: Scribners, 1937. Sermons.

Europe's Catastrophe and the Christian Faith. London: Nisbet, 1940.

Christianity and Power Politics. New York: Scribners, 1940.

The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Scribners, 19411943. The most complete statement of his thought.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. New York: Scribners, 1944.

Discerning the Signs of the Times, Sermons for Today and Tomorrow. New York: Scribners, 1946. Sermons.

Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History. New York: Scribners, 1949.

The Illusion of World Government. Whitestone, NY: Graphics Group, 1949.

Christian Realism and Political Problems, Essays on Political, Social, Ethical, and Theological Themes. New York: Scribners, 1953.

The Self and the Dramas of History. New York: Scribners, 1955.

Pious and Secular America. New York: Scribners, 1958.

The Structure of Nations & Empires. New York: Scribners, 1959.

works on niebuhr

Bingham, June. Courage to Change. New York: Scribners, 1961.

Fox, Richard. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Gilkey, Langdon. On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Kegley, Charles, and Robert Bretall, eds. Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1956.

Lovin, Robin. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lovin, Robin. "Reinhold Niebuhr in Contemporary Scholarship: A Review Essay." Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (2003): 489505.

Richards, Priscilla. Annotated Bibliography of Reinhold Niebuhr's Works. Madison, WI: American Theological Library Association, 1984.

Scott, Nathan, ed. Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Warren, Heather. Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Henry Nelson Wieman (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)