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Summary Article: Niebuhr, H. Richard (1884-1962)
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

A notable 20th century Christian ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr belongs to a theologically oriented family, which includes his brother Reinhold, who also became a well-known Christian theologian in the United States, and his sister Hulda, who was a professor of Christian education. Richard grew up in Missouri, guided in theology by his father, Gustav Niebuhr, a German Evangelical Synod pastor, and in literature and music by his mother, Lydia Hosto Niebuhr, the daughter of an Evangelical pastor. Richard attended Elmhurst College (1908-1912) and Eden Theological Seminary (1912-1915). Ordained in 1916, he served a short term as pastor in Saint Louis. In 1919 he took a teaching position at Eden while also studying at Washington University and the University of Chicago, where he studied with G. H. Mead, a pragmatist philosopher. In 1920 he married Florence Marie Mittendorf; the couple would later have two children, Cynthia and Richard Reinhold. After completing doctoral studies at Yale (1922-1924) and tenures as president at Elmhurst College and academic dean at Eden, he in 1932 accepted an invitation from Yale Divinity School to teach Christian ethics. He served there over 30 years and influenced a number of students, including Paul Ramsey, Hans Frei, and James Gustafson — and indirectly influenced Yale's postliberal school of theology (George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, etc.).

Niebuhr's theological reflections began with a sociological analysis of church communities. In The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), Niebuhr characterized denominationalism as the churches' sinful compromise to exterior economic, social, and political forces, but his fear that such study was incomplete led to the more theologically oriented study The Kingdom of God in America (1937). In the central The Meaning of Revelation (1941), Niebuhr emphasizes the rootedness of human, including Christian, thought within the traditions of particular communities, arguing that not to confess one's contingencies is to move into idolatry. Niebuhr presented revelation as an ongoing relationship with a God who works within history — through the ongoing story of Israel, Jesus, and the church — to bring about the reconciliation of humanity. Niebuhr cogently applied such insights to the Christian moral life; The Responsible Self (1963) records that Christians respond to God's prior activity in the world, acknowledging our own limitations and contingencies, even in our reception of revelation. Response, however, depends upon how we interpret the world, and we learn how to interpret the world rightly through membership in the community God has been building through Christ. However, as Niebuhr argues in Faith on Earth (1989), since our lives are dominated by idolatries and broken faiths, Christ must repair the brokenness, teach us to place God at the center of our lives (“radical monotheism”), and show us how to live in such a way that we learn to trust and to be loyal both to God and to other people. Niebuhr portrays the church as the community that with the help of the Spirit follows Christ's example and worships God the Father, acknowledges its own limitations and contingencies before God's sovereignty, and seeks to share God's gifts of mercy, love, and peace with others. His most known work, Christ and Culture (1951), drawing from Ernst Troeltsch's work, analyzes five types of responses to the question of how the church should relate to the world, ultimately favoring an image of “Christ transforming culture.”

SEE ALSO: Ethics; Liberalism; Monotheism; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Social Gospel; Troeltsch, Ernst

References and Suggested Readings
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1929). Social sources of denominationalism. Holt New York.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1956). Purpose of the church and its ministry. Harper New York.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1960). The meaning of revelation. Collier New York.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1963). The responsible self. Harper & Row New York.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1970). Radical monotheism and western culture. Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, KY.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1975). Christ and culture. Harper & Row New York.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1988). Kingdom of God in America. Wesleyan University Press Middletown, CT.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1989). Faith on earth. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Niebuhr, H. R. (1996). Theology, history, and culture (ed. Johnson, W. S. ). Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Brett Chandler Patterson
    Wiley ©2012

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