- Niebuhr, Reinhold
- (1892-1971)influential theologian and ethicistReinhold Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Missouri. His father was a minister in the German Evangelical Synod and his mother the daughter of an Evangelical missionary. Reinhold's brother, Helmut Richard (1895 - 1987), would also become a religious scholar of note.Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College near Chicago (1907 - 10), and then Eden Seminary, the denominational school at St. Louis, where he was introduced to the liberal Protestant thinking then popular in Germany, especially that of Adolf von Harnack. In 1913, Niebuhr was ordained in the Evangelical Synod, but he continued his studies at Yale Divinity School (B.D., 1914) and Yale University (M.A., 1915).For the next 13 years, Niebuhr served as minister of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. His observations on the conditions of the workers in the expanding automobile industry challenged his views of capitalism and led to his first major book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929). For a time, he argued for socialism, but he eventually supported President Roosevelt's New Deal as a more just and realistic approach to labor's problems. This change accompanied his growing familiarity with NeoOrthodox theology, which was replacing liberalism in Germany.By this time, Niebuhr had begun his long tenure as a professor of applied Christianity (later renamed ethics and theology) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1928 - 60). His move to what he termed a more realistic approach to Christian thinking manifested in his ethical treatise, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and his monumental theological work, the Nature and Destiny of Man, published during World War II. The latter work, representing his Gifford Lectures, became an American appropriation of NEO-Orthodoxy and placed Niebuhr in the center of the late 20th-century flowering of theological activity.Niebuhr introduced the concept of love as the "impossible possibility." Love (Christian agape) is possible and exists in human encounters, but because of egoism, its historical and social expression always falls short of the ideal we know as the Kingdom of God.While at Union, Niebuhr tried to demonstrate his attitude toward loving action and social concern through a life beyond the academic walls and the classroom. He frequently spoke on contemporary issues involving the cold war, and had almost a second full career in journalism. He served as editor of The Christian Century (1922 - 40), to which he added duties with Radical Religion (renamed Christianity and Society) (1935), The Nation (1938 - 50), Christianity and Crisis (1941), and the New Leader (1954 - 70). Niebuhr died on June 1, 1971.Further reading:■ Robert McAfee Brown, ed., The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986)■ Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985)■ Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner, 1935); , Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Chicago/New York: Wilett, Clark & Colby, 1929)■ ----, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribner, 1932)■ ----, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1, Human Nature; vol. 2, Human Destiny (New York: Scribner, 1941, 1943).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.