H. Richard Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr

Helmut Richard Niebuhr (September 3, 1894-July 5, 1962) was one of the most important Christian theological-ethicists in 20th century America, most known for his 1951 book "Christ and Culture" and his posthumously published book "The Responsible Self". The younger brother of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr taught for several decades at Yale Divinity School. His theology (together with that of his colleague at Yale, Hans Wilhelm Frei) has been one of the main sources of post-liberal theology, sometimes called the "Yale school". He influenced such figures as James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas.


Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of Gustav Niebuhr, a minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America. He graduated from Elmhurst College in 1912, and Eden Theological Seminary in 1915. he would later obtain a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1918, and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1924. He started his working career as a reporter in Lincoln, Illinois in 1915 and 1916. He was ordained a minister in the Evangelical Synod in 1916, and served with that body in St. Louis, Missouri, through 1918. (The Synod merged in 1934 with the German Reformed Church in the United States; the subsequently formed Evangelical and Reformed Church united in 1957 with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ.) He taught at Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1931, with a four-year interruption between 1924 to 1927, when he served as President of Elmhurst College. He taught at Yale from 1931 to 1962, specializing in theology and Christian ethics.


Niebuhr was concerned throughout his life with the absolute sovereignty of God and the issue of historical relativism. He considered Karl Barth and Ernst Troeltsch to be his main influences. He accepted from Barth and neo-orthodoxy the absolute transcendence of God. He believed that God is above history, that he makes commands upon human beings, and that all history is under the control of this God. Niebuhr borrowed often from Paul Tillich's notion of God. He was comfortable describing God as Being-itself, the One, or the Ground of Being. In this regard, Niebuhr held something of a middle ground between the dogmatic, confessional theology of Karl Barth and the philosophically oriented neo-liberalism of Paul Tillich.

Niebuhr was also concerned with historical relativism. While God may be absolute and transcendent, human beings are not. Humans are a part of the flux and movement of the world. Because of this, the ways in which God is apprehended are never permanent. God is always understood differently by people at different times in history and in different social locations. Niebuhr's theology shows great sensitivity to the ways in which expressions of faith differ from one religious community to another. His thought in some respects anticipated latter-day liberal Protestant concerns about pluralism and tolerance.

Niebuhr was, by training, a Christian ethicist. In this capacity, his biggest concern was the way in which human beings relate to God, to each other, to their communities, and to the world. Niebuhr's theological ethics can be described as relational. His greatest ethical treatise is "The Responsible Self", published shortly after his death. It was intended to be the seed of a much larger book on ethics. His sudden death prevented his writing this work. In "The Responsible Self", Niebuhr dealt with human beings as responding agents. Human beings are always "in response" to some influence, whether another human being, a community, the natural order or history, or, above all, God.

His most famous work is "Christ and Culture." It is often referenced in discussions and writings on a Christian's response to the world's culture. In the book, Niebuhr gives a history of how Christianity has responded to culture. He outlines five prevalent viewpoints:

:Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.

:Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.

:Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.

:Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.

:Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.


*"The Social Sources of Denominationalism" (1929)
*"The Kingdom of God in America" (1937)
*"The Meaning of Revelation" (1941)
*"Christ and Culture" (1951)
*"The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry" (1956)
*"Radical Monotheism and Western Culture" (1960)
*"The Responsible Self" (1962)
*"Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith" (1989).


*Bowden, Henry Warner. "Dictionary of American Religious Biography." Westport, CT:Greenwood Press, 1977. ISBN 0-8371-8906-3.

External links

*H. Richard Niebuhr [http://www.centropian.com/religion/academic/theologians/HRNkit/index.html H. Richard Niebuhr Online Collections]

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