Church Fathers Starting with N: Reinhold Niebuhr

Church Fathers Starting with N: Reinhold Niebuhr

Portrait Of Theologian Reinhold NiebuhrRomans 8:1-4

by Daniel Harrell

This morning’s letter is sparse when it comes to Church Fathers and Mothers proper; there’s nobody to speak of from the earliest centuries of the church that start with N. Thus I went with the late 17th century’s Isaac Newton last Sunday, a brilliant philosopher and scientist though a bit of reach theologically some would say, especially given his reservations about the Trinity.  This Sunday’s personality, who lived during my own lifetime, had reservations too; not about the nature of God as much as about the nature and destiny of humanity.“To the end of history, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.”

Reinhold Niebuhr might seem an odd choice for a book on saints, but on the other hand, there are those who rank Niebuhr with Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham as the most influential Christian voices of the 20th century. Columnist and author Ross Douthat asserts that “Niebuhr was the ideal type of a species all but lost to us today: the public theologian, deeply engaged in a particular Christian tradition— in his case, a ‘neo-orthodox’ Protestantism— but capable of setting the agenda for the secular world as well. This is as true with President Obama today as it was with Eisenhower in the 1950s. (Click here for a fascinating interview with Mike Wallace from 1958).

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr represents the heyday of mainline Protestantism in America, the last peak before the long steady descent that has marked denominationalism and some would say American power ever since. Niebuhr saw it coming. He wrote,“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

While in Boston last month I got to visit a a friend with whom I would attend an AA meeting once a year to present his annual medallion for sobriety. The meeting ran like AA meetings have run since their inception: first names only, an acknowledgment that you are an alcoholic, an empathetic welcome from the crowd. When I stepped up to the podium to present Charlie’s medallion, instead of admitting to be an alcoholic, I said, “Hi, my name is Daniel and I’m a minister.” The crowd nevertheless compassionately intoned, “Hi Daniel.” They understood. We’re all a mess.

One evening, a destructively drunk man literally crashed the meeting—slamming chairs, kicking and screaming and cursing at everybody. He tried to pick a fight with some of the people seated quietly toward the front. You could sense the communal sigh. The speaker at the podium kept speaking and the gathering quietly let the drunk make a fool of himself. For some reason I was surprised by this. I asked my friend Charlie about the protocol: “What do you usually do when a drunk person disrupts your meeting?” My friend cleverly asked back, “What do you do when a sinner shows up at church? We’ve all been there. Some day he’ll hit rock bottom and when that happens, we want to make sure he always knows that help is here in this place.”

An alcoholic or addict lives one drink or dose away from tumbling back into his or her own personal abyss with no way out. It’s at this desperate rock bottom that some of the most ardent skeptics resort to prayer. AA does not associate with any religion, denomination or sect, but it still got the gospel written all over it. Person after person at the meeting described how their alcoholism robbed them of their livelihood, their marriages and children, their homes and all of their dignity. It was never until they owned up to their fault, confessed their futility and their need for God that they ever stood any chance at redemption. As every recovering alcoholic discovers, you cannot save yourself. It’s a humiliating realization, but the redemption is unbelievably sweet—a miracle was how one speaker described it. “Sobriety,” another remarked, “is freedom.”

This freedom is the kind of freedom meant by the apostle Paul in our familiar passage from Romans this morning. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” In Christ we’re set free from the law’s condemnation—by our failure to abide by the moral standards of God—we’re set free that we might live according to the law of love—according to the moral standards of God. Sobriety, that one-day-at-a-time experience of faith and wisdom and self-awareness, is long obedience. Obedience is freedom. And yet obedience is impossible without God’s help. This is step one.

This first step of obedience begins with a second prayer—the first being “God help me.” This second prayer was composed by Reinhold Niebuhr. Many of you know it as the Serenity Prayer:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

The prayer goes on:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


Niebuhr was raised on the Midwest German Calvinism of his pastor father. He trained for ministry himself and quickly exhibited extraordinary gifts as both a preacher and a scholar. Without yet earning his PhD, he became a professor at Yale’s School of Religion during World War I, where following the collapse of modernist optimism, he followed theologian Karl Barth onto the path of what Niebuhr called prophetic Christianity which embraced anew the ancient tenets of original sin, the cross of Jesus and divine judgment rather than a mere focus on Jesus’ ethical teachings.

“About midway in my ministry,” he wrote in 1939, “which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles to the peace of Munich … I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915.”

In particular he rejected any hope for sinful human beings to redeem themselves. Niebuhr’s Christian realism infiltrated church and culture alike, convincing all of the need for a sober reassessment of humanity’s capacity to manage itself in the world without serious divine assistance. Christians hold that the demand for justice accords with God’s own just and righteous character, a character codified in stone, that law to which the apostle Paul referred in the passage read for you this morning. Most familiar to us as the Ten Commandments, the essence of God’s law is sublimely summarized by Jesus as the law of love. Violate love and you violate divine law, evoking, the Bible repeatedly warns, heaven’s most righteous censure. Because God is always the one ultimately violated, the penalty is always of ultimate severity. “The payback for sin is death,” Paul famously forebode. When it comes to God’s law, there is no wiggle room. Love or lose, these are the options.

The starkness with which Biblical judiciousness is portrayed has always troubled people who confuse God’s mercy with benign indifference. For them, a permissively loving God would never judge anybody. “Our Heavenly Father loves us as his children—how could such love ever express the sort of wrath the Bible so ferociously depicts?” You know the answer from your own experience. Your fiercest anger is reserved for the people you care about most. It’s their betrayals and offenses which damage you most deeply. Love and fury have never been mutually exclusive. Love’s opposite is indifference, not hatred.

Fury is a function of love; therefore, the love still remains. And since we are talking about God’s love here, the love remains with unrelenting ferocity. Therefore Paul writes: “What the Law failed to do, weakened as it was through the flesh, through human defiance, God did himself.” If God was ever to have the relationship with sinners he so desired, God would have to make it happen. Which he did not by rendering our sin “no big deal.” That would signaled indifference. He would have meant he didn’t care. God did it, Paul wrote, by sending his Son in a human body like ours, “the likeness of sinful flesh,” so that he might take on our sin and our condemnation too. For Christians the cross is the supreme expression of God’s passion, in all its darkness and light, the fury of grace. Justice gets done and love does too.

This is how Paul can so boldly declare that there is now—right now—no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” You are set free to live and to love in sober obedience to the intentions of God. There is no longer any excuse for pettiness or gossip, for grudges or deception or dissension or any of the many things the love of Christ opposes. Our righteousness arrives as free gift, and it survives as obedience—as faithfulness to the Spirit—which is true, radical freedom. Step one is confession. You are essentially powerless to fix yourself. Step two is trust. People need the Lord. Niebuhr preached that, “Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.”

In the light of Reinhold Niebuhr’s realism, America grew to understand the need to trust in God, so much so, ironically, that “in God we trust” became the national motto and found itself emblazoned on American mammon, and “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States.

The irony was not lost on Niebuhr. In his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, he wrote,

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

His words again proved prophetic as America moved through the 1960s. From Vietnam to Civil Rights, from to Flower Power and nuclear power, from the Kennedy and King assassinations to Watergate, salvation proved both necessary but also elusive. Like the alcoholic who crashed that AA meeting, you may have to hit rock bottom before you truly realize how needy you are. The good news remains that the rock at the bottom is solid. Our rock, Reinhold Niebuhr’s rock, is Christ the Lord.

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