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Tillich's Theological Influence on H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962)

Samuel Needham, Boston University, 2012


H. Richard Niebuhr (from here)

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) was among the most important Christian theologians of the twentieth century. With Hans Frei, he helped initiate a theological tradition during his long tenure at Yale Divinity School (from 1931 to 1962) that came to be known as the “Yale School” or, perhaps more commonly, “postliberal” theology. Niebuhr was instrumental in fostering productive conversations between American and German Protestant theologians, both before and after the Second World War. He gained notoriety for his navigation between the secular and religious worlds in Christ and Culture (1951), and completed his magnum opus in Christian ethics before his death in 1962, published posthumously as The Responsible Self.

Paul Tillich’s theological and broader cultural work deeply influenced Niebuhr’s thought, despite the fact that there are few textual references in Niebuhr’s works that attest to such influence. Niebuhr navigated between affirming the sovereignty of God and emphasizing the subjectivity inherent to acting in God’s grace; broadly speaking, he drew upon the work of Karl Barth (1886-1968) for instruction in the former and the work of Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) with respect to the latter. In order to arrive at a synthesis between the subjectivism of Troeltsch and the divine sovereignty of Barth, Niebuhr drew from Tillich’s ontological analysis of culture—an analysis Niebuhr called “belief-ful realism” (Niebuhr, 1962: 13ff; Libertus Hoedemaker notes that “belief-ful realism” is Niebuhr’s translation of Tillich’s phrase Gläubiger Realismus—see Hoedemaker, 1970: 174).

One of the crucial aspects of this realism is the “realistic” view of the costliness of belief that Tillich and Niebuhr shared. Niebuhr famously characterized the Social Gospel, an American Protestant movement draped over the turn of the twentieth century that advocated for Christian moral optimism in society, as the false message of “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (Niebuhr, 1959: 193). In response to this perceived insufficiency in accounting for the troublesome aspects of God’s nature, Niebuhr drew upon Tillich’s concept of the “Abyss.” For Tillich, the abyss is “the depth of the divine life, its inexhaustible and ineffable character” (Tillich, 1951: 156). This depth dimension speaks to the mysterious and terrible aspect of God; the abyss is the name for that aspect of God in which “every form disappears,” where absence is most acutely felt (157-8). Picking up on this aspect of Tillich’s thought, Niebuhr “speaks of God the void, but not apart from God the enemy; and he speaks of neither of these two apart from God the companion” (Fowler, 1974: 61; see also Niebuhr, 1931, referenced in Fowler, 1974: 54, note1). Tillich’s discussion of the abyss provided the ground for Niebuhr to speak of a sovereign, loving, deeply involved God who nevertheless must be characterized in some way as absence or (in Niebuhr’s term) void.

Another aspect of Tillich’s realism that became important for Niebuhr’s theology is the centrality of history and culture to conceptions of God. James W. Fowler argues, “[Niebuhr], as did Tillich… sought to hold together the poles of God’s radical transcendence and [God’s] presence in values and actions in history” (Fowler, 1974: 191). This emphasis on the polar aspects of God’s involvement in culture and history is a very prominent feature of Tillich’s thought, and Niebuhr’s reading of Tillich on this matter inspired a spate of articles with titles such as “The Irreligion of Communist and Capitalist” (1930), “Faith, Works and Social Salvation” (1932), and “Nationalism, Socialism and Christianity” (1933) (see Hoedemaker, 1970: 174) Though developments in his thought took him further from sharp critiques of capitalism after the early 1930s, nevertheless Niebuhr’s social engagement during this period followed the cultural critiques on which Tillich spent so much time.

Fowler and Hoedemaker argue that Tillich acutely influenced Niebuhr during the latter’s formative years in the early 1930s, but that Tillich’s sway over Niebuhr’s thought waned dramatically after 1935 (Fowler, 1974: 67; Hoedemaker, 1970: 25-6). There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Niebuhr turns toward Barth’s thought at this time in a direct way, adopting much more substantially Barth’s stress on the sovereignty of God than Tillich’s language about God as Ground of Being. And certainly Niebuhr never gave himself over completely to Tillich’s system; he was always an independent, critical thinker. Nevertheless, Tillich impacted Niebuhr’s thinking in a profound way in the 1930s and continued to make his influence on Niebuhr felt to the end of their careers. This is especially true given a consideration of Niebuhr’s ethics, the culminating effort of his academic career.

In 1931, Niebuhr returned from a lengthy sabbatical in Germany and immediately set about translating Tillich’s book Die Religiöse Lage der Gegenwart (1925) (published in English as The Religious Situation). Niebuhr’s introduction to the book indicates his level of respect for Tillich at the time. Tillich rejects contemporary liberal society and its “myth of progress” on the one hand, and rejects “orthodox mythology” in its ignorance of this-worldly history on the other. Instead, Niebuhr writes, Tillich provides the best way forward with his theology of Kairos, a fulfilled time in which eternity invades a moment. Kairos rejects the false narrative of “perfection or completion in time. To act and to wait with the sense of Kairos is to wait upon the invasion of the eternal and to act accordingly, not to wait and act as though the eternal were a fixed quantity which could be introduced into time” (Niebuhr, 1962: 18).

This sense of “act[ing] accordingly,” praised elsewhere in the introduction, became a major theme for Niebuhr’s ethical thinking as epitomized in The Responsible Self. His project is to reject deontological/Kantian, consequential/utilitarian, and teleological/Aristotelian ethics in favor of an ethics of “fittingness”—an ethic inherent to “the great religions in general, and Christianity in particular… [all of which] call into question our whole conception of what is fitting… by questioning our picture of the context into which we now fit our actions” (Niebuhr, 1963; 107). In other words, Tillich’s theology of Kairos and its demand for an appropriate response helped shape in a significant way Niebuhr’s central ethical concept of responsibility. That concept of responsibility, present in Niebuhr’s work in the 1930s, only increased in importance during the course of his career, which indicates a lasting influence of Tillich on Niebuhr.



Fowler, James W. To See the Kingdom: The Theological Vision of H. Richard Niebuhr (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974).

Hoedemaker, Libertus A. The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. “Introduction,” in Paul Tillich, The Religious Situation, ed. H. Richard Niebuhr (New York: Meridian Books, 1962).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. “Theology in a Time of Disillusionment,” unpublished handwritten lecture for Yale Alumni Lecture in 1931.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1959).

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

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