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
Some books refuse to stay on the shelf and 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 belong to the neo-orthodox school of theological thought, which reconciles 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 states that: “The true church is not an organization but the organic movement of those who have been ‘called out’ and ‘sent’” (xiv). The second states 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 states 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 presumes that faith in Christ is fundamental to who we are, not secondary as taught by Marxian interpreters (4). Much like the Exodus from Egypt is the touchstone of Jewish identity; our identity lies in our faith experience. A 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)
Fundamentalists and Liberals
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) had just occurred and remained incompletely consolidated (Longfield 2013, 158). Even liberals grew up steeped in the church and cultural accommodation in response to postmodernism remained in its infancy.
Remember, in 1937, U.S. remained in the Great Depression. The Second World War had yet to include the United States. The evangelical revival of the Billy Graham years (1940s through 1960s) had just begun. The idea that a book written in 1937 anticipated the problem of secularism in the postmodern period astounds me.
The Niebuhr characterization of liberal Protestantism 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 some dispute this characterization Niebuhr himself generously spoke about the dialectical nature (conviction two above) of Christian faith. It 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 for many years. His older brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, also taught theology and wrote. Richard’s book, Christ and Culture, remains widely cited and D.A. Carson recently updated his basic premise.
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).
 The liberal worldview misses the key doctrine of the atonement that simply says that Christ died for our sins. If sin is unimportant, the work of Christ becomes unimportant, contradicting the teaching of Paul (1 Cor 15:3-5) and the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:37-38). The New Testament teaches that we come to Christ through confession of sins and ignores the primacy of mercy in God’s own self-disclosure in Exodus 34:6.
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