Reinhold Niebuhr, who died June 1 at the age of seventy-eight, placed within his debt evangelicals, no less than Christian thinkers of broader persuasion. His legacy may be viewed under a wide range of rubrics; we here restrict ourselves to five.
As a thinker, Niebuhr gave us a valuable example of searching self-criticism and rigorous self-evaluation, leading at times to a frank reversal of position. His convictions were shaped during the crisis of Western capitalism—the period leading up to the Great Depression. Niebuhr was confronted by the utopianism of communism as well as by the strident claims of fascism.
He was at first tempted to accept the view that violence was the only means to social justice. He shortly saw, however, that violence from the left was impelled by the same quality of hate that inspired violence from the right. His fearless honesty led him to reject the view that the gigantic butcheries of the Lenin-Stalin era were mere peccadilloes of “idealists striving toward the light,” and to assert, “We believe that not only fascism but communism has the perils of barbarism.”
We are indebted to Niebuhr, second, for his realistic view of human reason. It was his contention that reason is as largely affected by sin as are the appetites. Seeing the fearsome contrast between the “moral” individual and the “immoral society” of men in collective life, he affirmed strict limitations upon the ability of reason to curb the power of egoism.
To him reason appeared to be ambivalent, able at the same time to “check egoism” in one sense and to “justify the egoism of the individual” in another. Thus reason became an instrument for producing results as diverse as imperialism and proletarian resistance.
A third enduring contribution to Christian theology is his understanding of sin as pride rather than as sensuality. He shifted the locus of sin from the visible misuse of natural impulses to the more subtle assertion of human autonomy—to the attempt to deny finite limitation. This expresses itself, Niebuhr said, in both individual and collective egoism. Not only did he discern that the “sin of pride” needs greater analysis because of its relative freedom from social inspection; he also saw that collective pride asserts itself in ways transcending the capacities of the individual wills that compose it. It is scarcely possible to overestimate the value of Niebuhr’s thought here.
Permanent, too, is the contribution embodied in his protest against any theory or hope for the too-easy sanctification of society. His genius here lay in his ability to see the complexity of the factors in human behavior, and the demonic possibilities built into the structures of society, notably those of political and economic power. Certainly our century will not outlive the necessity for hearing his verdict upon the prevalence of pride as an ingredient in modern civilization.
Niebuhr saw, more clearly than most, that each age, while imagining that it approached the Kingdom of God at its most impressive moments, was in reality likely to be near the point of death at those times. Since death and mortality underlie all human endeavor, all empirical institutions are under God’s judgment. Niebuhr thus saw that the corrupting effects of human pride ruled out any and all mundane utopias.
Finally, Reinhold Niebuhr left to the world of Christian thought a theological model. His constant objective was to relate the Christian tradition (and primarily the Reformed tradition) to life. He sought the larger bearings of such doctrines as sin and grace on man and his history. Even the doctrine of judgment was seen by him to work toward hope, for as God judges man, he strips him of his pride and opens the way to a rebirth.
Evangelicals cannot claim agreement with all Niebuhr’s theological positions. They regret his lack of a high view of biblical authority, and his denial of the sinlessness of our Lord. They may at times feel perplexed by the ambiguities of his view of the eschaton. But the presence of these problem-areas does not cancel his great contribution to Christian understanding.
Niebuhr’s earlier (and profound) insights into the great questions of sin, freedom, and grace were brought to bear upon the entire range of man’s historical process. If as a revolutionary prophet he pronounced judgment upon society, he himself stood voluntarily under the same judgment. More important still, he will never let us forget that we are two-dimensional entities, living in tension between the relativities of our historical order and the absolutes of the future.
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