The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr
Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr.
I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr. I think this is mostly because I didn’t read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously. If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of my range until now.
For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry. This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post. We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations. I discussed communal idolatry in a previous post, so I won’t spend much time on it here.
In sin, we worship the idols of the group. And not just extremist groups or nations. In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry. As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr
went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Bacevich, p xii; Niebuhr, 1944, p 133)
If even democracy is at risk of becoming an idol, then what does it take to avoid communal idolatry? Niebuhr argues that only the belief in a providential God can save us.
Modern man’s confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history. (Irony, p 4)
Not exactly a providential God
In fact, Niebuhr’s view of a providential God is a little complicated, for God acts not so much in history, as above it, judging our sins, and offering forgiveness. God judges our sin, while Christ represents the mercy of this judgment, the forgiveness that makes the judgment bearable—that is, knowable and acceptable. This is the gift of the cross to the world.
Justice alone does not move men to repentance. The inner core of their rebellion is not touched until they behold the executor of judgment suffering with and for the victim of punishment . . . . The fact that justice and mercy are one is symbolically expressed in the idea of the unity of Father and Son. (Niebuhr, 1986, pp 29-30)
Any who still worry about the heresy of patripassionism, the belief that God suffers, should worry about something else. The whole point of God the father and son is to say God suffers in the form of Jesus Christ. Christ suffers not only the horror of the cross, but for a moment the doubt of almost all men and women about God’s existence, expressed in His dying words according to two of the gospels, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) For a moment, God was forsaken by God, so that we might experience eternity.
It’s not about divine omnipotence
For Niebuhr, God’s participation in history has nothing to do with a divine omnipotence that enters into historical events. God’s participation takes the form of solidarity with suffering humanity.
The suffering servant does not impose goodness upon the world by his power. Rather, he suffers, being powerless, from the injustices of the powerful. He suffers most particularly from the sins of the righteous who do not understand how full of unrighteousness is all human righteousness. (Beyond Tragedy, p 181)
Niebuhr calls this the scandal of the cross, God’s strength made perfect in weakness as Milton put it in Paradise Lost.
Knowing this is enough to know that history has a meaning, and that we must never abandon our historical responsibility to fight evil where we find it, while remembering that we are not God’s righteous avengers, but humans who have made a fallible decision about who and how to fight. And knowing, too, that we might lose (Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, v. 2, p. 321). But still we must fight.
When the good lose (or even when they win), millions suffer, but only in the short run. History does not last forever. Trouble is, for those who suffer, the short run can last an awfully long time. The knowledge that Christ suffers with us has been a comfort to many, but to others it has been cold comfort or no comfort at all. Historical events such as the Holocaust seem to mock Christ’s presence among the suffering of innocents.
I would put it this way. God stands outside of history, where He weeps for our sins and suffering, and whose grace is occasionally a weak force in history when men and women are able to feel it. That is, when they are not too arrogant and afraid, which is unfortunately most of the time. Still, this is more than enough to give life and history meaning.
What do I mean by God’s grace? Not only the unmerited favor of God, expressed in the forgiveness of sins, but the spirit of mercy touching men and women in their daily lives, so that they might do His will, which is goodness. It’s rare, especially regarding public things, but I believe it happens. The peaceful transition of political power to the black majority in South Africa would be an example.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (Scribner, 1937)
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols. (Scribner 1941-1943)
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Scribner, 1944)
Reinhold Niebuhr, Man’s Nature and His Communities (Scribner, 1965) [epigraph]
Reinhold Niebuhr, The power and weakness of God, in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (Yale University Press, 1986), 21-32.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, with an introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich (University of Chicago Press, 2008)