Heretic of the week: Reinhold Niebuhr

Heretic of the week: Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was born in Missouri to an immigrant German couple. His father was a minister in the State Church of Prussia, itself a shotgun marriage between Lutheran and Reformed denominations in that country (in Reinhold’s lifetime, it would merge first with the German Reformed Church in the United States, and finally the Congregationalists, to form the current United Church of Christ).

The young Niebuhr graduated from Yale Divinity School and followed his father into the church’s clergy. He was ordained in 1915, being sent to a small congregation in Detroit.

When World War I broke out, he became a leading German American voice in support of defeating his parents’ homeland, and in 1919 he ended the use of German in his parish’s services. The young pastor reached out to African Americans and other poor in the city and expanded his congregation from 66 to 800 – all the while working out his views on patriotism, pacificism and politics. One biographer described this period as one of “volcanic activity”: “He was constantly preaching, writing, and travelling; throwing himself into the controversies of his city, his denomination, and his country.”

In 1928, he became professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a position he held until his retirement in 1960. On the one hand, he abandoned liberal theology for what is called “Neo-Orthodoxy” – a Protestant movement which accepts Biblical Criticism and “de-mythologising”, but also rejects natural theology. On the other, Niebuhr embraced Marxism, if not communism. He also became much involved in denouncing “structural” rather than personal sin.

At the time Niebuhr died in 1971, Time magazine described him as “the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards”. He has been cited by former President Barack Obama as his favourite theologian.