Reinhold Niebuhr and Providential history

Reinhold Niebuhr and Providential history.  I’ve changed my mind about Reinhold Niebuhr.  He tries but fails to connect Christian realism with Providential history.  In other words, he fails to connect Christ’s love commandment (“love your neighbor”) with God’s role in history.  So that God might be relevant, Niebuhr draws him into history; but not too close lest God get some of the blame. *  It’s a tough balancing act that doesn’t quite work.

History as God

Modern history, says Niebuhr, history since the Enlightenment (eighteenth-century), is not so much about confidence in history as faith in history.  Until, that is, history ran into the twentieth-century.  Faith in history meant faith in historical progress.  God would not redeem us, but history would.  Reason would make God unnecessary, as humans became more rational and less nationalistic.  Peace and progress would follow.

With the twentieth-century the belief that history is the story of humanity’s increasing reason and freedom came to an abrupt end.  World War One, World War Two, the genocide of the Jews and Roma, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all involved countries most committed to the hopes of the Enlightenment.  If we look at history today, can we honestly say that the period from World-War One through the Holocaust was a mere pause in historical progress?  The United Nations Genocide Convention counts twenty-three genocides since the Holocaust. 

God and justice

History cannot provide an answer to the meaning of life.  But amidst the turmoil of history, God can be found, and his meaning discerned, says Niebuhr.

God makes Himself known. His sovereignty over history is disclosed in specific events and acts which are revelatory of the meaning of the whole process. (loc 793)

This may be, but throughout the essays collected in Faith and History, Niebuhr gives not a single example.  Niebuhr argues that there is an observable if “rough and inexact” relation between God’s ultimate judgment and human experience (loc 2247).

The moral obscurity of history is, on the other hand, recognized as partly due to the fact that rewards and punishments are not exactly proportioned to relative guilt and innocence of men and nations. This is the problem of the quality of justice in the historical process. (loc 2254)

“Not exactly proportioned” How about grossly disproportionate?  I think Job represents a more authentic encounter with God and human justice  than does Niebuhr.  Niebuhr clings to God’s preference for fairness in human history so that God might not be completely other, so that we might catch a glimpse of God, as Moses caught a glimpse of God’s back. 

But nothing can happen in history to shake the confidence in the meaning of existence, to those who have discerned by faith the revelation of the ultimate power and love which bears and guides men through their historic vicissitudes. (loc 2302)

The Holocaust, Hiroshima, etc. are not “historic vicissitudes.”  They are horrors that defile humanity, and any God who stands too close.  “Too close” is close enough to make a difference in history.  Niebuhr is caught in a bind.  He wants a God who is present in history, but not so present that he can be blamed for not intervening in its disasters.  Dozens of times Niebuhr uses the term “vicissitudes.”  It’s a cop out.  All he means, all he can mean, is that millions of people tortured and murdered represent just one more unfortunate change in circumstances, for that is what vicissitudes means.  But, it’s more than that if you’re one of the hundreds of millions who were victims of the twentieth-century.

Knowing God

The faith to know God is an entirely different type of knowledge than ordinary human knowledge.  Niebuhr strives to make them continuous.

The meaning of history in the Christian faith are  . . . “revelations” apprehended by faith, of the character and purposes of God.  The experience of faith by which they are apprehended is an experience at the ultimate limits of human knowledge. (loc 2310)

Knowledge of God is not at the ultimate limits of human knowledge.  It is simply a different type of knowledge, what Søren Kierkegaard called “subjective truth”—true because we have made the leap to faith, true because we have decided to believe in God and his purposes.  Niebuhr seeks a continuity between God’s world and man’s.

Faith transfigures the moral perplexity about suffering innocence . . . It gives life a final meaning without promising the annulment of history’s moral obscurities. (loc 2304)

Once again, Niebuhr turns the deaths of hundreds of millions into something abstract, a “moral obscurity.”  Furthermore, while Niebuhr tells us that faith gives life a final meaning without annulling the hell of history, he never tells us what this means.  Does the claim that eternity “transfigures but does not annul the temporal process” have any meaning at all? (loc 4020)  I can’t help but think that Niebuhr is making it up as he goes along, moving God and eternity around so that they remain in touch with history without being contaminated by it.

At other times he makes the victims, or at least those who would call out the guilty, the bad guys.

Thus the suffering of the guiltless, which is the primary problem of life for those who look at history from the standpoint of their own virtues, is made into the ultimate answer of history for those who look at it from the standpoint of the problematic character of all human virtue. (2427)

I don’t quite understand how the suffering of the virtuous is the “ultimate answer of history,” unless we are talking about Jesus Christ.  He may be the ultimate answer, but not to the question of why imperfect humans, even those piously proud of their own virtue, can’t judge the monstrous?  We must.  God may be the ultimate judge, but it remains up to ordinary decent humans to judge in this world.

Conclusion: what remains?

What remains is the love commandment, as much a part of the Hebrew Bible as the New Testament: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  “Whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” (Matthew 25:40).

Niebuhr’s great achievement was to make the love commandment the foundation of Christian realism, which recognizes the presence of conflict and enemies in this world, but sees realism, as it is called in international relations, as insufficient.  We must assure our survival, but there are limits beyond which we must not go, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Lovin, p 32). 

The love commandment does not stand on its own.  It stands on the Judeo-Christian tradition, which for Christians is focused on the teachings of the Gospels.  Niebuhr is unable to convincingly argue that he can locate these teachings in a Providential interpretation of history.  That is, an interpretation in which God is active in the world, and the eschaton (the end of the world) justifies in some way the horrors of this world.  The love commandment is enough. 


* This post is concerned with a number of post-war essays collected in Faith and History.  It should be read together with my previous post, “My obsession with Reinhold Niebuhr.”  I don’t think they are contradictory, but I’ve changed my mind about Niebuhr.


Robin W. Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History.  Andesite Press, 2015 [original 1949]

4 thoughts on “Reinhold Niebuhr and Providential history”

  1. I’ve read it and I will have to read it more slowly but I can see what you mean.It’s very strong and good

  2. I wonder if God is irrelevant if he is so far away.And Jesus was a highly gifted.charismatic figure.
    The trouble with that is we’d think we were gods

    1. Yes, one of the best reasons to believe in God is not to be an idolater: of money, power, or even the self.  Fred

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