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

H. Richard Niebuhr (from here)

Articles by Nathan Hoefgen-Harvey and Samuel Needham.

The Friendship of Paul Tillich and Reihold Niebuhr by Nathan Hoefgen-Harvey

Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr were two of the preeminent public theologians in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, each gracing the cover of Time magazine (Niebuhr in 1948 and Tillich in 1959). Both had German backgrounds: Niebuhr was the son of German immigrants while Tillich immigrated himself to the United States in 1933. Niebuhr first encountered Tillich on a trip to Germany in 1930 and mentioned him in a Christian Century article that year: “an organization of religious leaders calling themselves ‘religious socialists,’ in which, among others, the young philosopher of religion, Paul Tillich is active” (Rice 18). After Tillich was removed from his position at the University of Frankfurt once Hitler came to power, Niebuhr sent Tillich an official telegram offering him a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The faculty of Union agreed to contribute five percent of their income apiece in order to pay Tillich’s salary and the seminary offered Tillich and his family an apartment as well. Having the fall semester to improve on his limited English skills, Tillich found a friend in Niebuhr at Union. Niebuhr, who knew German (having grown up speaking the language) spoke with Tillich in his native tongue, and helped acclimate the new arrival to American culture. Niebuhr was already a renowned theologian (and came to be known as “America’s establishment theologian”) when Tillich arrived in the United States, and used his connections to help Tillich attain his status in the proceeding decades as one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States.

Niebuhr helped translate Tillich’s German work Interpretation of History into English in 1936. Interpretation of History influenced Niebuhr’s own view that human beings’ recognition of their finiteness reveals their capacity for self-transcendence (Dorrien 467-468). As Niebuhr himself wrote about Tillich in a footnote in The Nature and Destiny of Man: “Professor Tillich’s analysis of the thought which transcends all conditioned and finite thought, and proves its transcendence by its realization of the finiteness of thought, is a precise formulation of the ultimate self-transcendence of the human spirit, revealed in its capacity to understand its own finiteness” (Niebuhr 218). The two were both influenced by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s insight that human beings are both finite and free at the same time, which creates great anxiety and dread in the individual. Tillich and Niebuhr believed that human beings tended to overemphasize one aspect of humanity and downplay the other, either humanity’s finitude and limitedness on one hand or the capacity for freedom on the other (Finstuen 70).

In his biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Fox mentions that Niebuhr lacked the romantic appreciation of nature that was so key for Tillich, and, how in their walks together, Niebuhr would show no interest when Tillich pointed out the beauty of the flowers. Fox also mentions a negative experience for Niebuhr in which he sent a female student to Tillich’s office and, during her visit, Tillich proceeded to grope her, and the student later told Niebuhr about the incident (257). This experience apparently put a strain on their personal friendship. Wilhelm and Marion Pauck do not mention this incident in their biography of Paul Tillich, but they do say that Tillich’s rise to fame in the United States occurred around the same time as Niebuhr’s decline after he suffered a stroke in 1952.

Fox suggests that Niebuhr was intimidated by Tillich’s intellectual prowess and that when he publicly criticized Tillich’s ideas, he would do so on political grounds, which he felt was his area of greatest intellectual strength. Fox writes “In his intellectual defensiveness he tended to shift the debate with each of them to the areas of his own strength: ethics and politics…if Tillich disregarded historical and ethical responsibility, his philosophy must be a maze of fruitless abstractions” (258). Niebuhr’s clear focus on social and political questions contrasted with the later Tillich, who was not as active in the American political scene. They were both members of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians, cofounded by Niebuhr in 1931, which Fox describes as somewhere in between liberalism and communism. Niebuhr grew more conservative after the war and came to support establishment Democratic politics (and changed the name of the organization to Frontier Fellowship in 1948), while Tillich came to believe that socialism was not as viable in America as it had been in his native Germany (Fox 22).

In addition to their mutual socialist political interests, the two men shared a concern with the political situation in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. During World War II, they began to advocate for the creation of a democratic German state once the Nazis were defeated and helped create the Council for a Democratic Germany in 1944, which broke apart a year later ( Stone 157). Tillich largely withdrew from political activism after World War II, while Niebuhr remained more politically engaged. As Tillich himself remarked concerning their different theological interests: “His [Niebuhr’s] background was a social-ethical passion from the very beginning of his ministerial work in a parish. My development, on the basis of the German background and German classical philosophy, went in another direction, more the individual, psychological, and metaphysical, or ontological direction” (Rice 45). They both understood idolatry to be a basic problem for humanity. The two also saw Christianity in terms of myth and theological terms as symbolic. Both thought that Christians should participate in and be informed by secular culture. Niebuhr even borrowed Tillichian language, including “ground of being” and the “demonic.”

They came from different schools of thought: as Ronald H. Stone notes in his study of the two figures, Niebuhr was an American pragmatist and Tillich came from a German idealist background (Stone 359). Niebuhr disapproved of Tillich’s use of Greek philosophy and his focus on ontology, while Tillich thought that Niebuhr tended to be anti-philosophical. Speaking about the lack of rigor in Niebuhr’s thought, Tillich wrote: “Niebuhr does not ask, ‘How can I know?’, he starts knowing. And he does not ask afterward, ‘How could I know?’, but leaves the convincing power of his thought without epistemological support” (Dorrien 482). Niebuhr also employed biblical terminology far more often than Tillich and contrasted philosophical thought unfavorably with the insights of biblical religion. While Niebuhr thought of Tillich as a modern day Origen because of his focus on ontology, Niebuhr likened himself to Augustine (Fox 257). Despite their differences and the fact that they grew apart later in their lives, upon Tillich’s death in 1965, Niebuhr wrote of his friend’s “massive achievements” and said he “took ‘some pride in his small part in transferring this genius from Germany to our nation” (Rice 45). Niebuhr himself died six years later in 1971. In the span of six years, America lost two of the most notable public theologians of the twentieth century.


Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

Finstuen, Andrew S. Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985).

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

Pauck, Wilhelm and Marion. Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought. Volume I: Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).

Rice, Daniel F. Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Stone, Ronald H. Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012).

Article by Samuel Needham

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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