Reinhold Niebuhr

1893-1971. Neoorthodox theologian. An Evangelical (now United Church of Christ) pastor who left a Detroit industrial parish in 1928 to begin thirty-two years on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, New York, he struggled throughout his life with the question he raised in lectures at Edinburgh in 1939: “Man has always been his most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself?” Niebuhr thought of man as both nature and spirit, neither damned nor perfectible, but capable of transcending himself. A polemicist as well as a scholar, he contributed hundreds of articles to magazines and journals, was active in the creation of the National Council of Churches, New York's Liberal Party, and Americans for Democratic Action, and wrote seventeen major books, including Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941 and 1943), Faith and History (1949), and Christian Realism and Social Problems (1953). Thoroughly American, he was as critical of Karl Barth's* bibliolatry and aloofness from society as he was of doctrinaire reformers, although he believed that God and man were radically separate and that society needed fundamental changes.

Always sensitive to problems of church and nation, he chose the ministry in 1915 after theological studies at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School because he wanted to work in society rather than toward an advanced theological degree. His pastorate taught him the meaning of modern technocracy, and for a time he was a member of the Socialist Party. He ran for Congress as a Socialist in 1930. The New Deal and imminent world war, however, cured him of socialism and pacifism, and in 1941 he founded Christianity and Crisis to bring realism into American Christianity's view of world ills. After the war he helped to create Americans for Democratic Action to keep Communists out of liberal Democratic affairs. A dynamo who slowed slightly after a 1952 heart attack, he opposed those who deluded the American people. Critical of reformers who ignored human self-glorification, and impatient with theologians who were pessimistic about man's chances of self-improvement, he united pragmatism and Christian orthodoxy to effect a theology that accepted God's sovereignty and encouraged men to reform institutions. A major figure in recent American Protestantism, he brought a needed sense of tragedy into American progress and influenced many secular thinkers.

D.B. Robertson, Reinhold Niebuhr's Works (1954); C.W. Kegley and R.W. Bretall (eds.), Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (1956); J. Bingham, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (1961); D.B. Meyer, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919-1941 (1961); N.A. Scott, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr (1963).