The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature - Vol. 1

By John Witte Jr.; Frank S. Alexander | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)

DAVISON M. DOUGLAS

Reinhold Niebuhr was the twentieth century's most influential American theologian and, after Martin Luther King Jr., the most prominent American preacher. Extraordinarily prolific—he wrote twenty-one books and more than 2, 600 articles1—Niebuhr interpreted the theological significance of contemporary national and world events for a broad and diverse audience. Niebuhr was also a highly influential political theorist, particularly in the field of international relations. In 1962, the distinguished political theorist Hans Morgenthau called Niebuhr “the greatest living political philosopher of America, perhaps the only creative political philosopher since Calhoun.”2

Niebuhr articulated a “Christian realist” perspective in which he challenged many of the secular and religious orthodoxies of his day by emphasizing the depths of human sinfulness. Possessed of a passion for social justice characteristic of the biblical prophets, Niebuhr urged the creation of political structures that might contribute to a more just society; at the same time, he realized the profound difficulty of achieving such a society in light of the realities of human nature. Niebuhr directed his incisive critiques at both the church and the secular world. He sought to bring “the judgment of Christ to bear as rigorously on the household of faith as upon the secular and pagan world, even as the prophets of Israel were as severe in mediating the divine judgment upon Israel as upon Babylon.”3 In the process, Niebuhr caused many modern secular thinkers to take more seriously the claims of Christianity. As one Niebuhr scholar puts it, Niebuhr “attempted to overcome, and to a remarkable degree has succeeded in overcoming, the estrangement of the modern mind from the insights and content of the Christian faith.”4

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