As I mentioned the other day, there is a new movie being released on the life and work of Reinhold Niebuhr. As a result, we are seeing the reemergence of the perennial question of whether or not Reinhold was a "real theologian." Most recently, this question was raised again on the blog Die Evangelischen Theologan by J. Scott Jackson, who writes:
Just how theological was Niebuhr's work -- at least the main body of it? To what extent did specifically Christian theological and moral commitments shape his vocation as public intellectual? From what I've read, I'm inclined to answer the later question: "a very great deal." But the earlier question seems a little more ambiguous. To be sure, Niebuhr, who never earned a doctorate, did not write extensively, say, about the intricacies of trinitarian dogma; nor did he offer in-depth analyses of atonement theories; nor did he offer a thorough critique or defense of two-natures Christology. That said, I do have to point out that Niebuhr was a prolific and world-class preacher, who could engage biblical texts with extraordinary sensitivity and insight.
As Jackson's comment indicates, he is well aware that Niebuhr was a very biblically literate preacher, and was able to work with a biblical text in order to produce some genuinely stirring sermons (and for those who are interested in doing so, I highly recommend Niebuhr's book Discerning the Signs of the Times, which contains several examples of his sermons). So an important preliminary question to answer is "what do we mean by theologian?" And it turns out, that depends on who you ask.
Most of those in the "Niebuhr was not a theologian" camp are barthian -- followers of, or strongly influenced by, the work of Karl Barth. Barth's theology, of course, is vast and encompassing. His magnum opus, The Church Dogmatics, which was unfinished at the time of Barth's death at fourteen densely packed volumes. Barth is generally understood to be a "dogmatic theologian" or as we Americans might say, a "systematic theologian," and thus approaches theology with the goal of examining the theological enterprise as a comprehensive whole. Paul Tillich, while very different from Barth, is a theologian in the same sense: Interested in the doctrinal dimensions of Christian thought and their implications. Additionally, both Barth and Tillich saw theology as the work of the Christian community as manifested in the Church.
Probably the most trenchant critique of Niebuhr on this point, at least in the last few years, has been Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas, while clearly having carved his own theological identity, is among those for whom Barth's theology was a major influence, and this shows particularly in his treatment of Niebuhr. In his Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe, Hauerwas writes the following:
For Niebuhr, theology was tested -- or to use his language, validated -- by its ability to provide provocative accounts of the human condition. Accordingly, Niebuhr's theology seems to be a perfect exemplification of Ludwig Feuerbach's argument that theology, in spite of its pretentious presumption that its subject matter is God, is in fact but a disguised way to talk about humanity. (115).
In a similar vein, Shirley Guthrie, a student of Karl Barth's wrote his dissertation on Niebuhr's theology and ethics, and concluded as follows:
Nevertheless, we have seen that both on the basis of what Niebuhr has said and on the basis of what he significantly has not said, the questions we have raised about the "independent" character of his theology and ethic can and must be asked. Moreover, we have seen that they may all be summarized in one single question. It is the question, based on the New Testament faith itself, of the place of the person and work of Jesus Christ in Niebuhr's thought. An answer to the questions we have raised must begin above all with the question of his person and work as the risen Lord, and with the Church as the particular place in which he reveals himself and through which he works. For the problem of the Christian ethic, like that of any other ethic, is "what shall we do and say now?" and the Christian answer depends directly on what christ is today. We have seen again and again that this is the crucial point for evaluating Niebuhr's ethic and theology, the crucial point for judging the validity or inadequacy of his "mythical" or "symbolic" interpretation of the Christian faith, and for measuring his success or failure in fulfilling his own criteria. ... Is it not so that Niebuhr does not, and on the basis of his presuppositions neither need nor can, recognize the reality of the living, self-revealing, working Lord, Jesus Christ; and is it not so that just for this reason one must say that his presuppositions themselves as well as the theology and the ethic which follow from them cannot be independently Christian?
Guthrie packs a great deal into a short passage, but the implied answer to his question is that Niebuhr's thought cannot be understood to be "independently Christian," which is to say for Guthrie, as for barthians generally, it is rooted in some source outside of the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and thus not authentically Christian or in a real way genuinely theological.
In the Facebook conversation on Jackson's article, George Hunsinger recommended Guthrie's take on Niebuhr, asserting that it demonstrated that "all of Hauerwas's worst fears were realized." All of which is to say, all the barthians agree that Niebuhr was not a theologian. Though what they are really saying is that Niebuhr was not a barthian, which is self-evidently true, and a point that Niebuhr would not only have acknowledged, but celebrated.
But the accusation runs deeper than the idea that Niebuhr was not a theologian, even in the broad sense that he was not a dogmatic or systematic theologian. What is really being asserted by both Guthrie and Hauerwas (and, though I suspect he'd deny it, tacitly affirmed by Hunsinger) is that Niebuhr's work was not even genuinely Christian. Rather, there are three specific ways in which, for the barthians, Niebuhr fails the Christianity test.
First, they argue that he did not really believe in God, but was a form of religious naturalist, of the Feuerbachian sort. Hauerwas makes this accusation explicitly above. However, this is a drastic misreading of Niebuhr. As Gary Dorrian has noted, Niebuhr had a very strongly transcendent view of divinity:
Epistemologically, Niebuhr posited a divine ground of meaning and coherence beyond all finite notions of meaning and coherence; ontologically, he asserted the transcendence of God’s being over all contingent and temporal being while affirming that God is continually present to God’s creation in the workings of providence, the history of judgment, the grace of renewal, and the stirrings of individual moral conscience (The Making of American Liberal Theology, vol. 2, 468).
I've written on this topic myself in other places. In an article published in Political Theology, I wrote the following:
It is simply not credible for Hauerwas to attempt to paint Niebuhr as a “naturalist” for whom God was simply a projection of human desires and virtues and Christ was simply a good man. When Hauerwas makes such statements as “Niebuhr’s god is not a god capable of offering salvation in any material sense,” one wonders how Hauerwas can interpret such Niebuhrian statements as “the significance of a Christ is that he is a disclosure of the divine purpose, governing history within history,” or “the self-disclosure of God in Christ is significantly regarded by Christian faith as the final ‘word’ which God has spoken to man. The revelation of the Atonement is precisely a ‘final’ word because it discloses a transcendent divine mercy which represents the ‘freedom’ of God in quintessential terms.” ("Being Wrong and Being Right," 480-1)
Given Niebuhr’s own emphasis on the human need for and longing for God as emerging from a realization that we are incapable of attaining our highest possibilities, it is difficult to understand how he could possibly see any version of “naturalism” as providing a solution to the problems endemic to the human condition. One might understand if Niebuhr were to reply in the spirit of exis- tential resignation, that the human condition is insoluble, but to posit God as the solution to the particular problems that Niebuhr identifies necessitates a rejection of religious natural- ism, not an embrace of it. (481)
Indeed, Niebuhr explicitly and emphatically rejects religious naturalism directly:
The trouble with religious naturalism is not only that it obscures the whole mystery of the divine, the mystery of creativity and grace, but that it also falsifies the whole drama of human history with its increasing heights of good and evil and in the paradoxical relation of persons to this drama. For persons are both the creatures and the creators of the process. Professor Wieman is under the impression that a classical Christian faith is merely a crude, pre-scientific way of looking at the world, God, and the self. He, with the help of modern science and the ontology of Dewey and Whitehead (more Dewy than Whitehead, for Whitehead did not understand the mystery of creation beyond the temporal process and consequently agonized about the relation of the "primordial" to the "consequent" God) will construct a more adequate view of God and the world. H will define either the temporal process itself as God, or that part of it which is value-creating. Since Hitler's day his is not so certain that the process of "integration" is of itself "value-creating."
This suggests that Hauerwas was far too eager to read Niebuhr through the Feuerbachian lens, and left on the cutting room floor any ideas or passages of Niebuhr's that didn't support his preconceived notion of what Niebuhr's theology, not being barthian, must necessarily be.
Second, they argue that Niebuhr did not have an adequate Christology. Though here again, the passages quoted above give a very clear indication of the way in which an incarnation Christology was central to Niebuhr's soteriology. And the entire second volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man is given over precisely to the question of the significance and character of Jesus Christ. As Langdon Gilkey notes:
This intimate relation in Niebuhr between social theory, political ethics, and "high theology" (Atonement and Christology) is nowhere more event than in Niebuhr's discussion of "powerlessness," the powerlessness and so the ultimate vulnerability of Jesus as the Christ. Here the agape of God, which represented the pinnacle of the divine transcendence and mystery, becomes in historical enactment the apparent opposite of transcendence, its paradoxical partner, powerlessness and vulnerability. In the divine love the ultimately unconditioned becomes the absolutely conditioned. And this paradox of unconditioned majesty and radical conditioned vulnerability, of ultimate power and absolute powerlessness, is for Niebuhr the center of the Christian gospel and of the Biblical message. (On Niebuhr, 186).
Paul Lehman as well, saw Christology as central to Niebuhr's thought, stating: "Christology has been and is the principal passion and purpose of his theological work ... Christology is pivotal, not peripheral ... a remarkably evangelical view of the person and work of Jesus Christ" (in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, quoted in Fackre, The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr, 104).
Third, it is often argued that Niebuhr did not have an adequate vision of the role of the Church in Christian ethics. Now here, his critics do have a point. Niebuhr did not write extensively of the role of the church or its place in Christian ethics. Both Hauerwas (for whom the Church often seems to be about the only thing that does matter) and Guthrie hammer Niebuhr on this point. Yet, two things need to be said about this. First, Niebuhr himself was a lifelong church-goer and was a pastor for many years. He regularly preached in churches around the country. Clearly Niebuhr was, in his life, very closely affiliated with the church. Secondly, Niebuhr's innate suspicion of the way in which group egoism and self-deception functioned in institutional settings was no doubt a factor in his lack of attention to the church as any kind of exceptional institution. Indeed, the sad fact is that the Church as quite often remarkable precisely to the extent that it is not an exception on these fronts.
However, Niebuhr did recognize this as a deficit in his own thought, writing:
I think that I have increasingly recognized the value of the Church as a community of grace which, despite historic corruptions, has the 'oracles of God,' as St. Paul said about Israel. The church is the one place in history where life is kept open for the final word of God's judgment to break the pride of men and for the word of God's mercy to lift up the brokenhearted. Inasmuch as this has been only a growing recognition, Professor Wolf's criticism is justified. But when I see how much new evil comes into life through the pretention of the religious community, through is conventional and graceless legalism and through religious fanaticism, I am concerned that my growing appreciation of the church should not betray me into this complacency. (Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, 437)
While it was never the subject of sustained attention in his thought, it was always in the background of his reflections, even if not viewed that way by Hauerwas and Guthrie, for whom the only validly Christian ethic is precisely one that takes place in and through the church. Of course, Niebuhr's ethic was in and through the church. As Gabe Fackre notes:
Critics often accuse Niebuhr of lacking an ecclesiology. As a pastor and teacher in the church he helped to found-the Evangelical and Reformed Church-I saw for myself his deep immersion in and love for the Church. This ecclesial context is basic to who he was and how he thought, especially so his shaping by both the Reformed and Lutheran traditions of his church. While Niebuhr never attempted to construct a systematic ecclesiology, his life and faith cannot be understood without a grasp of the functional ecclesiology in which they are grounded. (The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr).
What it was not was by and exclusively for the church, which seems to be the bone of contention for Hauerwas.
To return to the question of what makes a "real" theologian: If the only definition of "theologian" that is acceptable is "dogmatic" or "systematic" theologian, then I suppose Niebuhr wasn't a theologian, but then I'm not sure that Augustine was either. Both wrote occasional theology, writing in context and seeking to illuminate the particular pressing theological themes with which they were confronted in their own time and place. While Augustine's range may have been greater than Niebuhr's, that hardly detracts from the idea that Niebuhr was a theologian in the same vein as Augustine, any more than one can say that, because Tom Brady has won more Super Bowls than Payton Manning, that somehow means Manning isn't a quarterback.
Sometimes, the "Niebuhr is not a theologian" argument is grounded in an assertion that Niebuhr himself denied that he was one. This of course, requires taking his words out of context. In the volume of critical essays about his theology, to which he responded, he took specific note of Paul Lehman's critique of him:
Thus the Christological center of my thought has become more explicit and more important. But, as Professor Lehmann declares, I have never pretended to be a theologian, and so I have elaborated the Christological theme only in the context of inquiries about human nature and human history.
This would seem perhaps to settle the case, until one turns to Lehman's article, because Lehman was specifically noting that Niebuhr was not a systematic theologian. His statement? "Reinhold Niebuhr is not a systematic theologian (Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought).
Honestly, the whole argument is intensely annoying to me precisely because it is typically used as a way of delegitimizing Niebuhr as a Christian thinker -- undermining his status not only within the field of Christian theology generally, but even as a Christian. At the end of the day though, I think, for all I've written here, I probably can't answer the question better than Langdon Gilkey:
To my knowledge, no one has tried to present Niebuhr's political and ethical views in the light of his entire theological viewpoint -- which was, I believe, the way that he always saw those views. that is to say, he understood politics and ethics theologically, in relation to what he regarded as the Christian understanding of human being, of the creativity and the ambiguity of freedom, and of the course of history under God. As he argued repeatedly, this theological framework is essential for any valid comprehension of the puzzles and paradoxes of our ordinary experience.
That sure sounds like a theologian to me.