Are the Neo-Reformed/Evangelicals Niebuhrians? and therefore ill equipped for Post-Christendom?

Warning: The following is a theological post requiring citing theologians, histories of tradition, hemeneutical and cultural concepts,  in order to better understand the influences, assumptions and sources of our beliefs that shape our practice of church in the world.


It’s always dangerous to use a big word in a blog post. But the word “Niebuhrian” is just too important to leave to academics. I think it’s important because it helps understand issues in Neo-Reformed theology (as well as other versions of evangelicalism) that handicap it when it comes to engaging the new post-Christendom cultures of the West.  Let me explain the term and then draw this out a bit.

“Niebuhrian” refers to the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, the famous theologian-brothers who led American mainline Protestantism after WW2. They guided (what some have called) a Neo-Orthodox “liberal” vision of church in society that emerged in U.S. after WW2. Through Reinhold’s books (for example Moral Man and Immoral Society) and position at Union (in NY) and H Richard’s Christ and Culture and other books and his position at Yale, they established a broad consensus of how the church was to inhabit its space within post WW2 American society. Reinhold’s “Realism” argued that Jesus was for individual spirituality. That we must be “realistic” about society (and social sin) and manage it appropriately. We can’t apply Jesus to the problems of society.  H Richard argued for a “transformationist” view of the Christian in society which took on similar lines of argument. Jesus is a principle which points us away from the world. We must be transformationist seeking the goods of the creator. Jesus is inspirational, but we must be practical. Together the two brothers became the vanguard for not only mainline churches but later on evangelicals as well. Again, for the Niebuhrs, Jesus is a personal ideal, but we must turn to nature (or creation) to understand how to make practical (ethical) decisions in the world.

Yoder executed a significant critique of the Neibuhrs during his time. The most notable critique was eventually published as “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture” in this collection of essays (Authentic Transformation). This critique of Niebuhrianism became one of  Stanley Hauerwas’ staples (as found for example here in ch. 3 of this book Wilderness Wanderings or in ch. 4,5 of this book).  It is the Yoder/Hauerwas account of Niebuhrianism that I find particularly helpful. It is striking in its insights into the political habits of evangelicalism – my own tradition.

I would summarize this definition of a Niebuhrian with the following:  A Niebuhrian is someone:

  1. Who elevates Jesus to a principle so that now He is in some sense unapplicable to the political-social problems of organizing our life together in the world. Jesus is relegated to a personal aspiration, not someone directly related to the course of human societal affairs.
  2. Who defaults to the orders of creation/nature as the source of ethics, and in so doing elevates God the Creator over God the Son as the source of ethics. Over against this move, Yoder pleads that Jesus the Son cannot be separated from the Father. A true Trinitarian ethic starts with Jesus (ala Barth).
  3. Who sees (as a result of the above) culture as something inherently good, stable and monolithic (Vocation, orders of creation). The church’s job is therefore to be the training ground for sending individuals into these institutions who already know what is best, bringing each order it to its true created intent. The church is NOT a dynamic culture-creating entity in itself in dialogue (and sometimes in subversion to) with surrounding culture by which culture is transformed. Instead church takes up a posture of chaplain to the culture operating out of a posture of Christendom, as opposed to entering a culture in humility.  Such a church presumes to know what is best for society as opposed to living justice incarnationally allowing God to extend his work for justice in Christ into the world.

I claim evangelicalism has become Niebuhrian. You can tell by:

  1. How Jesus has been relegated to concept to be applied to individual life. Evangelicals notoriously make Jesus into soley one’s “personal Savior.” The Anabaptist says “Huh?” Wherever two or more gather in His name, a new social reality is birthed in and for the world. This is a social reality worked out in the world not merely for a personal relationship.
  2. How in matters of politics, government, economics, business, money, art, we default to making judgements based in nature (not Jesus) that apply to everyone regardless of belief.  Evangelicals do this regularly, say when we argue for capitalist forms of economy based on the inherent self interest of human beings (Reinhold Neibuhr). But are the ways capitalism shapes individuals over against each other opposed to God’s working in Christ for reconciliation, justice and renewal revealed in Jesus Christ? Should we be more resistant to its formation? The Anabaptist Yoder argues that appeals to creation/nature alone sets one over against Christ. This is Trinitarian heresy.
  3. How evangelicalism minimizes the church as the agent of transformation in society. Instead it prefers to send individuals into the world’s institutions to transform them. But how do we discern whether these institutions should not be resisted as opposed to participating in them? How do we know these institutions are not in outright rebellion? Evangelicals are notorious for sending individuals into the world completely ignoring ecclesiological engagement.

Evangelicals are Niebuhrians. So What?

I contend Niebuhrianism is a disease that undercuts the church’s witness in post Christendom. It disables the church from having a social witness over against the powers. It relegates Jesus to personal spirituality as opposed to an inbreaking ruler setting the world right. We therefore too often default to government and societal justice to set the world right. It presumes a posture of power for the church (sometimes unconsciously) when it has none.  And this kind of power is not the way God works anyway.  The church, as a result, ends up trying to be relevant in a world that no longer believes. The church loses its integrity, is inherent vitality as the Kingdom, and becomes mute. So, admittedly, I need to tease this out quite a bit more, but contrary to what one might think, NIEBUHRIANISM NEUTERS THE CHURCH’S WITNESS IN THE WORLD FOR GOD’S KINGDOM IN CHRIST. It is a Christendom theology of church and culture that renders the church impotent in a society/culture turned post Christendom.

Diagnosing Niebuhrianism

For all these reasons, those of us finding ourselves in (increasingly) post Christendom cultures would do well to diagnose our Niebuhrian habits and instead pursue a discipleship of Jesus as Lord, who forms a community under His Lordship in the world, which gives us the posture to participate in the rule of Christ over the principalities and powers.

images-4My question for the coming weeks? Is how much of Neo-Reformed Puritianist theology/ecclesiology is Niebuhrian? If so, these people (whom I love) may be doomed to a mute witness outside of Christianized peoples. I will take a look in the coming weeks at Tim Keller’s Center Church for these kinds of theological habits. I hope to tease out how Tim Keller (whom I love!) may have fallen victum to Niebuhrian habits that neuter the church’s witness for the Kingdom. I suggest that certain versions of Kuyperian theology and church show tendencies of these same Niebuhrian habits (James K A Smith strongly disagrees with me on this, but has his own critique/revision of Kuyperian categories). For example, this thoughtful Kuyperian’s article seems to suggest this is so. Of course, Kuyper himself would never explicitly separate spheres of creation ethics from Jesus. But the point is, how did his system open/make possible the independence of creation spheres from Jesus.I also suggest the influence of Kuyperianism on Neo-Reformed Puritianist church and culture positions is noticeable (Tim Keller’s book shows a large influence from this sector of Calvinist theology).

OK, there’s my argument. Comments? Pushback and misunderstandings are all welcome!

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