H.R. Niebuhr’s principles

In the preface to his The Meaning of Revelation, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines three convictions that he says underlie his argument:

–self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking and perhaps especially in theology and ethics;

–the greatest source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church, or Christian morality for God; and

–Christianity is “permanent revolution” or metanoia which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time.

“Positively stated,” he adds, “these three convictions are that man is justified by grace, that God is sovereign, and that there is an eternal life” (p. xxiv).

The first point means that Christians shouldn’t try to “prove” their faith from some allegedly neutral, ahistorical premises. Niebuhr embraces the “historicity” of all truth-claims–that they are situated in a particular context and that we always view the world from a particular perspective. This doesn’t mean that our beliefs don’t bring us into contact with an independently existing reality, but that our convictions don’t necessarily rest on the kind of public evidence upheld as the ideal by the sciences. Rather, Christians should be “confessional”–telling the story of their lives and how they have been changed by their encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

The second conviction summarizes what Niebuhr elsewhere calls “radical monotheism.” Following Paul Tillich, Niebuhr identifies sin as humanity’s tendency to elevate finite goods (self, family, nation, even moral values) to the status of “ultimate concern.” Authentic biblical faith, however, insists that only God is ultimate; rather than enlisting God in our cause–as the one who meets our needs or guarantees the success of our projects–we should enlist in God’s cause, which is the cause of being itself.

Finally, the third point is that the Christian community should be “reformed and always reforming,” to use a favorite Protestant slogan. If “confessionalism” can under some circumstances lead to a hardening of identity, this principle calls for constant self-criticism–and for receiving criticism from outside the community. Some recent theology seems at times to interpret confessionalism to mean that the church should think of itself as a hermetically-sealed “language game” or set of cultural practices immune to outside critique or influence. But Niebuhr insists that its boundaries must remain permeable to some extent if the church is not to become an idol that takes the place of God.


One thought on “H.R. Niebuhr’s principles

  1. Pingback: H.R. Niebuhr on revelation, ethics, and nature | A Thinking Reed

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