Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1
H. Richard Niebuhr. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. (Goto Part 2)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Sometimes books refuse to stay on the shelf and just scream to be read and re-read. Richard Niebuhr’s The Kingdom of God in America is such a book, which I first read in 1978 as a graduate student. Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are frequently described as belonging to the neo-orthodox school of theological thought, which attempts to reconcile reformed theology with the enlightenment and emphasizes God as the principal source of theological doctrine.
Niebuhr begins The Kingdom of God in America, writing:
“The following chapters attempt to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which find its center in the faith in the kingdom of God.” (ix)
This is a bold claim which echoes Jesus’ early teaching following that of John the Baptist in the synoptic Gospels:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15 ESV)
Niebuhr goes on to observe:
“In the early period of American life, which foundations were laid on which we have all had to build, ‘kingdom of God’ meant ‘sovereignty of God’; in the creative period of awakening and revival it meant ‘reign of Christ’; and only in the most recent period had it come to mean ‘kingdom on earth’”. (xii)
Niebuhr expands on this introduction citing three convictions. The first conviction is that: “The true church is not an organization but the organic movement of those who have been ‘called out’ and ‘sent’” (xiv). The second conviction is that this movement is dialectical:
“expressed in worship and in work, in the direction toward God and the direction toward the world which is loved in God, in the pilgrimage toward the eternal kingdom and in the desire to make his will real on earth.” (xv)
The third conviction is that: “American Christianity and American culture cannot be understood at all save on the basis of faith in a sovereign, living, loving God.” (xvi)
Faith is Fundamental
In launching into this historical study of American Protestantism, Niebuhr takes as a presupposition that faith in Christ is not an epiphenomenon, by which Marxian interpreters mean a secondary consequence (4), but rather fundamental to understanding who we are. Much like the Exodus from Egypt is the touchstone of Jewish identity; our identity lies in our faith experience. An historical exploration of our faith origins is likely therefore to yield insights into our present and our future and patterns that we might discern (1). The present challenge being the preservation of “American civilization.” (5)
This heady charge for a book written in 1937 deserves a bit of attention. In 1937, the split between fundamentalists and liberals in the American Presbyterian church (1925) was still fresh and incompletely consolidated (Longfield 2013, 158), in part, because even liberals grew up steeped in the church and cultural accommodation in response to postmodernism was still in its infancy. In 1937, the Great Depression was ongoing, the Second World War had yet to include the United States, and the evangelical revival of the Billy Graham years (1940s through 1960s) was just getting started. The idea that a book written in 1937 anticipated the problem of secularism in the postmodern period astounds me. Yet, clearly the seeds had already been planted.
These seeds are real and is seen in the Niebuhr characterization of liberal Protestantism, which remains widely cited and consists of a single sentence:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” (193)
While this characterization might be hotly debated, it is worth pointing out that Niebuhr himself generously spoke about the dialectical nature (conviction two above) of Christian faith that could encompass both liberal and evangelical articulations of faith, at least at in their initial characterizations.
Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) received his doctorate from Yale University (1924) and taught ethics there for several years. His older brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, was also a well-known theologian and author. His book, Christ and Culture, is also still widely cited and was the focus of a recent book by D.A. Carson.
In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Niebuhr’s work. In part 2, I will delve deeper into his arguments.
Niebuhr, Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
 Matthew actually prefers the term, kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matt 4:17).
 Missing in the liberal worldview is the key doctrine of the atonement that simply says that Christ died for our sins. If sin is viewed as unimportant, the work of Christ is likewise unimportant, contrary to the teaching of Paul, for example:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3-5 ESV)
And, of course, also contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost:
“Brothers, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:37-38 ESV)
Following Peter, confession of sins is usually taught as a condition for coming to faith in Christ. To deny the atonement of Christ is to deny New Testament teaching about the work of Christ and to ignore the primacy of mercy in God’s own self-disclosure in Exodus 34:6.