Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Turning away from his commitment to pacifism, Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr argued for “Christian Realism,” proposing that the reality of human sinfulness stands in dynamic tension with the reality of human freedom. He sought to lay a theological foundation for “realistic” politics, including the ethical use of force to advance the cause of justice.

Summary of Event

By the mid-twentieth century, American Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was already well known for his voluminous writings on Christian theology, social ethics, and politics, as well as his extensive political activism. However, the publication in March, 1941, and January, 1943, of his famous Gifford lectures (originally delivered in Scotland in 1939) marked a particularly important turn in American Protestant political theology. Published in two separate volumes (Human Nature, 1941; Human Destiny, 1943), The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation crystallized a theory of Christian social ethics that has come to be known as Christian Realism. Nature and Destiny of Man, The (Niebuhr) Christian realism Theology;Christian Social justice [kw]Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism (Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943) [kw]Christian Realism, Niebuhr Extols a Theory of (Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943) [kw]Realism, Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian (Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943) Nature and Destiny of Man, The (Niebuhr) Christian realism Theology;Christian Social justice [g]North America;Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943: Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism[00140] [g]United States;Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943: Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism[00140] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943: Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism[00140] [c]Philosophy;Mar., 1941-Jan., 1943: Niebuhr Extols a Theory of Christian Realism[00140] Niebuhr, Reinhold Gifford, Adam

The outline of Niebuhr’s theology had emerged in his earlier writings (for example, in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics) Moral Man and Immoral Society (Niebuhr) , but the sharper formulation in The Nature and Destiny of Man represented the wartime evolution of Niebuhr’s thinking. He shifted away from idealistic Christian pacifism Pacifism and toward an advocacy of the situational use of force (political, legal, or military) as a legitimate response to the unfolding catastrophes of mid-twentieth century Europe, as well as the persisting racial and economic problems facing the United States.

Niebuhr’s theology in The Nature and Destiny of Man and the importance of its publication can best be understood in the broader context of intellectual history. In particular, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were periods of vigorous debate internationally among Christian social activists Activism regarding how best to conceive of human nature and how one’s conception of it should influence political and social action. There were significant disagreements among Christian thinkers as they defined categories such as “sin,” “freedom,” “evil,” and “grace,” and the ways those definitions affected their political activities varied widely. The turn that Niebuhr makes in The Nature and Destiny of Man is not only theological but also political, emerging from his experience as not only a pastor but also an activist on the American left with strong commitments to economic and racial justice.

When Lord Adam Gifford established the Gifford lectures Gifford Lectures in Natural Religion in Scotland in 1888, he stipulated that invited scholars somehow address “natural theology” in their lectures. Natural theology Natural theology is quite varied, even in just its Christian forms, but it generally involves the claim that human reason is sufficient to apprehend the existence and nature of God through the evidence provided by the “created universe.” Natural theology in its Christian forms generally places less emphasis on the New Testament as God’s revelatory self-disclosure and instead tends to see biblical texts as historically bound human writings that, however profound, interpret the reality of God and Christ from a human standpoint.

Natural theology also tends to reject truth claims that are based on the authority of biblical texts, if those truth claims run counter to the evidence available to all humans through reason and experience. Natural theology tends to treat the natural world as a reliable theological textbook, to be optimistic about the reliability of human reason, to posit that human nature is essentially good, and to be confident that human societies can and will develop progressively.

While it can be a risky oversimplification to mark historical eras by their wars, Niebuhr’s decision to use his Gifford lectures to criticize—rather than applaud—the optimism embodied in natural theology was a political choice that can be fully understood only as part of a broader Western cultural response to the catastrophic destruction of World War I and the looming disaster of World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];cultural effects . Niebuhr’s work at this time was also strongly influenced by the social trauma of the worldwide Depression of the 1930’s and the continued tragedy of American racism. The Nature and Destiny of Man sounded a theological and political alarm for progressive theologians and activists, especially those who pinned messianic hopes either on a God who would intervene directly in human affairs to correct them or on delusionally unrealistic political solutions to these historical tragedies.

Niebuhr argues in the first volume, Human Nature, that sin is a reality of the human self and of human communities and that sin stands in continued and inescapable tension with human freedom. Niebuhr—a longtime activist familiar with the progressive Social Gospel movement in the United States and himself active in the international and pacifist social justice Left—defines sin as the universal human tendency to make a distorted idol of the self (or of one’s nation, class, or other category of identity). This idolatry entails the exertion of unjust power over others and thus embodies an inherent human capacity for violence and evil. This capacity for evil, however, which expresses itself across the political spectrum, coexists for Niebuhr with the reality that all human beings are good, because they stand as the created image of God. Furthermore, he argues, Christians are able to experience the “actualization of good in history,” which is effected by the grace and power of Christ.

For Niebuhr, Christian Realism takes these tensions between sin and evil on one hand and freedom and grace on the other seriously, especially as the tensions bear directly on social and political life. Niebuhr’s focus in The Nature and Destiny of Man is strongly social and historical, and many interpreters are interested in him as a thinker in the tradition of American philosophical pragmatism.

Despite what some have labeled his essentially tragic view of human experience, Niebuhr still retained his confidence in human reason and its progressive capacities. Before and after the publication of The Nature and Destiny of Man, he worked extensively and pluralistically with secular thinkers and activists and with religious modernists from other traditions, many of whom were impressed by the fusion of philosophy and comparative religion in these volumes.


The philosophical, theological, and political questions addressed in The Nature and Destiny of Man have not disappeared: What is the nature of “the human being”? How is the reality of human nature expressed in the “facts of history”? How should individuals and societies deal ethically with perpetual human problems of violence, war, injustice? What constitutes the good? How can societies nourish political forms that advance social justice? What sorts of relationships between religion and politics can be sustained in a pluralistic democracy? How does the experience of war influence intellectual life? In what ways does, or should, Christian Realism remain limited to Christianity, and in what ways, if any, is it of philosophical or political value in secular or non-Christian religious contexts?

After its initial publication, The Nature and Destiny of Man was of interest to a varied audience: leftist and liberal progressives internationally, who supported the use of force to contain fascism in World War II; African American civil rights activists in the 1940’s and beyond, who built a philosophical case for nonviolent social force; and politically conservative “cold warriors,” who espoused a “pro-American” ethic of just war.

Niebuhr’s Gifford lectures continue to interest a wide range of interpreters, perhaps because The Nature and Destiny of Man remains a text that grapples with enduring ethical questions while demanding that readers stay alert to the sometimes hazardous influence of their own uncritical self-interest. Nature and Destiny of Man, The (Niebuhr) Christian realism Theology;Christian Social justice

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. Reprint. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. Biography as intellectual history. Good presentation of Niebuhr’s interactions with a wide range of other theologians and political thinkers of his time, with close attention to his thought in relation to his brother, theologian and scholar H. Richard Niebuhr.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilkey, Langdon. On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Remarkably substantive and detailed critique of Niebuhr’s political theology by an important scholar of theology and ethics. Close attention paid to The Nature and Destiny of Man and strong focus on Christian social ethics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovin, Robin. Introduction to The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Introduces the category of Christian Realism to readers in historical, theological, and philosophical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Extensive critical analysis of Niebuhr’s thought by an important Niebuhr scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sifton, Elisabeth. The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. A memoir by Niebuhr’s daughter, with good focus on the 1940’s as the context for Niebuhr’s thought. Sifton argues for the continued relevance and importance of her father’s political theology and social ethics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Cornell. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Places Niebuhr in the crosscurrents of American philosophical pragmatism, with special attention to issues of democracy and race.

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