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Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892–1971)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Reinhold Niebuhr is widely regarded as the foremost public theologian in twentieth-century America. A ‘public’ theologian is one who is responsive to the biblical tradition and responsible to the Christian Church, but who also responds to the social and political concerns of the world and seeks to effect change in that world. In the case of Niebuhr, this meant being attuned to life in the USA as it passed through times of prosperity, depression, war, cold war and cultural complacency. It also meant that he had to be as alert to the secular philosophy and expression of the times as to the biblical and creedal traditions of the Church, and he managed to correlate and connect these in ever-changing ways.

Niebuhr is known as a developer of a school of thought often called ‘Christian realism’. Though shaped first by the more optimistic liberal thought of his teachers’ generation, which stressed the immanence of God and the potential for goodness in human beings, Niebuhr came to witness to the otherness of God and the drastic limits of human potential. He even helped resurrect the term ‘original sin’ to describe the human condition, well aware that the term was scorned by most philosophers of his time. Yet over the decades, his realism came to be seen as so appropriate to descriptions of human actions, especially in situations of power, that he attracted a following far beyond Church communities. Niebuhr thus influenced both domestic and international policies. He was seen both as a self-critical theologian who uttered judgments on the Christian Church and the American nation, and as a theologian of the Cold War who issued devastating critiques of Soviet Communism. In the time before the Second World War, when most of the more notable Protestant clerics leaned towards pacifism, Niebuhr let his realistic vision and his opposition to totalitarian powers lead him to argue for ‘preparedness’ for war and to scold those who refused to see with him a need for military response to the threat of dictators.

Citing this article:
Marty, Martin. Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892–1971), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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