Peace And War In The Thought Of Reinhold Niebuhr -- By: James E. Tull

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 04:1 (Fall 1986)
Article: Peace And War In The Thought Of Reinhold Niebuhr
Author: James E. Tull

Peace And War In The Thought Of Reinhold Niebuhr

James E. Tull

Professor Emeritus, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Among all native American Christian thinkers of the twentieth century, perhaps only Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) has won world renown. Early in his ministry Niebuhr set himself to address the Christian Gospel to the problems and challenges of modern industrial society. For many years he was a professor of Applied Christianity in Union Theological Seminary, New York City. In the broad area of his specialty, he became not only a brilliant theoretician, but also an indefatigable activist.

The central concern of his many-sided thought was the doctrine of humanity. This interest was manifested in what generally has been recognized as his greatest book, his Gifford lectures, entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man.1

No extensive accounts of Niebuhr’s life and thought can be given here. A recent critical biography by Richard Fox entitled Reinhold Niebuhr, a Biography, is a most valuable resource.2

Niebuhr reached the zenith of his influence from the 1930s through the 1950s. In recent years his influence has waned considerably. Much of his work needs to be updated, but a review of his career today still challenges the student. His prophetic stature, his depth of insight, the breadth of his vision, his Christian commitment, the force and sometimes grandeur of his writing, are still provocative and impressive. He was a towering mind and spirit.

The topic chosen for this article involves attention to salient aspects of his thought which at first may not seem to be especially pertinent to the chosen central theme. The relationship will be clarified, I trust, as the inquiry proceeds.


Dr. Niebuhr held what he considered to be the Biblical understanding of man. This understanding, in broad outline, is three-fold: 1) Man is made in the image of God; 2) he is a creature; and, 3) he is a sinner. An eloquent, brief summary of these aspects of human nature is found in a sermonic essay in his book Beyond Tragedy.

Man is mortal. That is his fate. Man pretends not to be mortal. That is his sin. Man is a creature of time and place, whose perspec-

tives and insights are invariably conditioned by his immediate circumstances. But man is not merely a prisoner of time and place. He touches the fringes of the eternal. He is not content to be merely American man, or Chinese man, or bourge...

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