The Church and World in Perspective: The Formation of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Ethical Paradigm -- By: Jonathan Armstrong

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 27:1 (Spring 2006)
Article: The Church and World in Perspective: The Formation of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Ethical Paradigm
Author: Jonathan Armstrong

The Church and World in Perspective: The Formation of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Ethical Paradigm

Jonathan Armstrong

Jonathan Armstrong is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, New York. He is currently serving as the graduate assistant to His Eminence, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

It is ironic that H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) would be remembered as one of America’s greatest religious ethicists when his first two published monographs were not works of moral theology but methodologically avant garde treatises on American church history. And yet, it was through these early works of historiography that he laid the ideological foundation for his later ethical originality. From the experience of drafting these remarkably different thought-experiments, The Social Sources of Denominationalism and The Kingdom of God in America, Niebuhr discovered the dialectical form of theological modeling now associated with his name. H. Richard Niebuhr approached ethics from a profoundly historical perspective. In his lifelong intellectual pursuit of the relationship of church and world, Niebuhr sought not an illusory, ahistorical plateau from which to survey the theological landscape. In this article, we will explore the historiography of Niebuhr’s early works and discover that it was through a radical shift in his comprehension of history that he arrived upon the dynamic, ethical thesis proposed in his best known book, Christ and Culture. The lessons learned from history and from the discipline of writing history furnished the structure of H. Richard Niebuhr’s ethics.

I. The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929): The Dependence of Church on Culture

Although it would be inaccurate to claim that political and economic analyses of religious history were unprecedented at the time when Niebuhr published his first monograph, it should be noted that the sociological perspective was largely unrepresented in American scholarship.1 In Europe, Ernst Troeltsch from the University of Heidelberg and his renowned colleague Max Weber

had already published landmark treatises exploring the thesis that the major developments of ecclesiastical history could not be adequately explained through theological inquiry alone, but that an extensive investigation of the socioeconomic condition was also necessary. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that theological convictions and social conditions are intimately and inextricably united. “Capitalism was the social counterpart of Calvinist theology,” as R. H. Tawney f...

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