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Boo\s by 

Published by The Westminster Press 





Six Contemporary Leaders 


Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religion 
Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin 



All rights reserved no part of this book may be 
reproduced in any form without permission in 
writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer 
who wishes to quote brief passages in connection 
with a review in magazine or newspaper. 

Permission to quote material from works cited in 
this book has been granted by the following pub- 
lishers: Charles Scribner's Sons, Harper & Brothers, 
Willett, Clark & Company, University of Chicago 
Press, The Macmillan Company, Henry Holt & 
Company, Inc., Tidings; and by H. Richard Nie- 
buhr, author of The Social Sources of Denomina- 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 52-13140 


Every woman is a theologian, and two have 
taught me my mother and my wife 




The Evangelical Theology o Edwin Lewis 
The Seeking Man 
Lewis and Earth 
The Seeking God 
The Battle of God 


The Critical Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr 
The Insufficiency of Man 
The Insufficiency of History 
The Insufficiency of the Church 


The Postcritical Theology of Nels F. S. Ferrc 
God Is Love 

Society Is the School of Fellowship 
The Church Is Fellowship 


The Bridgebuilding Theology of Paul Tillich 
The Protestant Principle 
The Catholic Faith 
History and Hope 

8 Contents 


The Theology of Hope of H. Richard Niebuhr 
The Point of View 
The Revolution in America 
The Coining Kingdom 


The Theology of Work of Robert L. Calhoun 
Man Product and Participant 
A Working God 
A Working Gospel 


To men hungry for meaning, theology is bread, for men cannot 
live by morality and mechanism alone. We cannot do without 
science, and science cannot do without us. Meaning and morality 
cannot do without science, and science cannot do without meaning 
and morality. Similarly, we cannot do without the social sciences, 
and they cannot do without us. Neither science nor social science 
has failed man; it is man who has failed them. Again, we cannot do 
without the humanities, as the humanities could not have been with- 
out us. Without meaning, which is every man's ultimate concern, 
neither morals nor mechanism can survive. For the question must 
and will be asked: What is the meaning of morals and mechanism? 
If no meaning exists, what is the meaning of science, of ethics, and 
of literature? 

In greater or lesser degree all men are theologians, for man is pre- 
cisely the question about meaning his own meaning, and the 
meaning of every thing around him, the meaning of nature and his- 
tory, of science and literature. 

But questions are not answers. We have tried to live by questions, 
and have become spiritual starvelings. If there is no ultimate answer, 
we will invent our own; indeed, we have endlessly invented the false 
answers: the worship of race, of proletariat, of property, of national 
sovereignty, the worship of man the question rather than of God 
the answer. To live without God is to substitute mammon for 

Not only is theology bread to men hungry for meaning, but it is 
also pure water and strong wine to men athirst in the Sahara of 

io Introduction 

modern meaninglessness. This is the age of hunger and thirst for 
meaning. Men are weary and bored with questions regarded as 
answers. In this age particularly, theology must either " put up or 
shut up." If it has an answer, that answer must be translated into 
twentieth century speech. Without meaning, man's achievements are 
one with Nineveh and Tyre. Modern man faces two alternatives: 
meaning or madness. Theology must speak not merely about the 
meaning which man creates, but primarily about the meaning and 
the mystery which have created, and are now creating, man. 

The hunger of meaninglessness for meaning this accurately de- 
scribes our stormy century. To this hunger this book is intended to 
speak. To men without hunger this book has nothing to say. There 
are many other important voices in contemporary theology: at a 
later time we hope to give them sustained attention. 

The six men here presented were not arbitrarily chosen. Seminary 
presidents and deans, professors of systematic, exegetical, apologetic, 
dogmatic, historical, and philosophical theology, and leaders from 
many Protestant denominations were asked in detail and at length 
for their suggestions. Twenty-four contemporary American theolo- 
gians were nominated. Of the twenty-four, these six headed every 

The sequence of chapters is in no sense a scale of importance. The 
reader will make his own value estimates. To this writer, one study 
seemed the best commentary on its predecessor, and the best intro- 
duction to its successor. Continuity of idea and discontinuity of treat- 
ment determined the order of presentation. Personal inclination and 
interest, it goes without saying, could not be wholly eliminated. 

Each theologian has been read with admiration and affection; each 
is, in his own right, a treasury of merit. Each chapter presents one 
modern master first in biography and book sequence, second in 
careful examination of characteristic ideas. Every chapter has been 
forwarded to the theologian studied to be checked for errors of fact. 
Where suggestions have been made, they have been incorporated. 
The six men are not to be held to account for the following pages. 
Each treatment, as such treatments always are, is a portrait, not a 
photograph. Every effort, with care and love, has been put forth to 

Introduction II 

make each chapter something more than a caricature. It is obvious, 
nonetheless, that the following pages present these men, in exposi- 
tion, in appreciation, and in criticism, as one contemporary sees 
them: no less, and no more. 

Four years ago, in conversation, Nels F. S. Ferre urged me to 
prepare a readable book on contemporary American theology. I 
answered very simply: "There is no American theology." My own 
study, since 1939, had been exclusively preoccupied with European 
theologians, ancient, medieval, and modern. In 1947, 1948, and 1950 
I completed a series of personal interviews, on the meaning and mes- 
sage of basic theology for this age, with thirty-three major European 
thinkers, from Rome to Edinburgh, from Geneva to Oxford, and 
from Paris to Prague. My reply to Ferre was sincere : I felt then that 
American theology was still in its adolescence. 

A year and a half ago, again in conversation, Ferre reopened the 
subject; he stressed the need of a thorough but readable story, with 
essential content, of contemporary theology in America. A lively 
correspondence followed with The Westminster Press, and the proj- 
ect was under way. I am now convinced that contemporary Ameri- 
can theology is not only of age but has something to say, something 
that needs saying, something that needs hearing, and something that 
modern meaninglessness is hungry to hear. The subject is not aca- 
demic. There is very little of the ivory tower here. The subject is as 
practical as the bread and the breath of life. For meaning and mys- 
tery are exactly our daily necessities. 

Beloit College 
September 16, 1952 






The Evangelical Theology of Edwin Lewis 

TJie Evangelical Theology 


Edwin Lewis 

A t an interview in Rome, Jacques Maritain said to me: " American 
./jLProtestantism, in my opinion, needs two things: an intellectual 
rediscovery of Christianity, and a recovery of what the Quakers used 
to call 'the Inner Light.'" At many American seminaries in 
particular at Drew University's graduate school of theology he 
added, there was a genuine awareness of these needs and an intelli- 
gent attempt to meet them. Maritain has thus described with high 
accuracy Edwin Lewis' twin objectives, and, for those who have 
rubbed minds with him, his achievement. 

It is often said that Lewis was first a liberal, then an evangelical, 
and is now a simon-pure Zoroastrian (one who believes that the bat- 
tle between God and Satan is eternal). There is conspicuous truth, 
and falsehood, in the statement. During the skeptical twenties he 
was, for many, liberals, the chief spokesman, yet even then he was 
more, much more, than a liberal. If a modernist is one who discards 
essential elements in historic Christianity, the modernists, as Lynn 
Harold Hough put it, " failed to see that a more historic position 
than their own was implicit in his thinking" (The Teachers of 
Drew, edited by James Richard Joy, p. 144. Drew University, 1942). 
Similarly when Lewis became the leader of his majesty's loyal oppo- 
sition, his conservative brethren failed to see the " implicit liberalism 
in his forceful dialectic for classical Christianity " (Ibid.} . The Man- 
chester Guardian correctly stated, " He is not a timid obscurantist 
but a Christian scholar who knows what science and philosophy are 
saying." Hough added, " The most microscopic scholar who tried 

1 8 Major Voices in American Theology 

to catch him napping would have a bad experience " (Ibid., pp. 144, 

Of importance to all men in general, and to Drew men in particu- 
lar, is the alleged irreconcilable controversy between Lewis and 
Hough. But the general practitioners have declared prematurely that 
there is war in heaven among the specialists. Deep and legitimate 
differences have been glorified as " the Battle o Drew Forest " or 
" the Battle of Missionary Ridge." It is often overlooked that Hough 
has always referred to Lewis as " an intimate comrade in the things 
of the mind " and a chief source of " the intellectual and spiritual 
accent which Drew men carry with them all about the world" 
(Ibid., p. 145). Students of both professors, myself included, used to 
say: " We hear about God from Lewis, and about man from Hough, 
but we need all that we hear. They are a team of winged steeds; 
each offers what the other lacks." Hough once related the following 
story: Lewis had just delivered a powerful summons to evangelical 
recovery before a Methodist General Conference. A clergyman, 
laboring under the delusion that Hough and Lewis were bitter 
enemies, led Hough aside and whispered, " Well, how did you like 
that? " Hough at once replied, "One doesn't /% the gospel; one 
accepts it\ " 

It was Hocking's Layman's Missionary Report, with its devalua- 
tion of Christ as God's supreme self-revelation, and Lewis' own edi- 
torial labor on The Abingdon Bible Commentary which drove him 
from evangelical liberalism to liberal evangelicalism, from philosophy 
to revelation. Documentary evidence exists that Lewis the Liberal 
and Lewis the Evangelical held common ground. Jesus Christ and 
the Human Quest (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1924) stressed man's 
search for God; A Christian Manifesto (1934) accented God's search 
for man, but in both volumes faith and reason labored together as 

Fully as important as the upsweep from natural to supernatural 
religion has been Lewis' later downsweep from one world to three 
(monism to pluralism) ; he asserts three eternals, the creative, the dis- 
creative, and the noncreative, each self-existent. A careful reading of 
The Creator and the Adversary (1948) will disclose how significant 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 19 

is this change both to him and to us. Lewis has simply discovered 
that the battle between the divine and the demonic is no make- 
believe; it is tragically real in nature as well as in man. C. S. Lewis 1 
The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters made the same 
point. Heaven and hell have been wedded blissfully in modern lack- 
of-thought: the two Lewises simply insist that God has put asunder 
what men have united. Lewis' new realism is moral as well as meta- 
physical. " Something has entered into his processes of interpreta- 
tion," writes Hough, " which can only be called prophetic fire." The 
Church has often succumbed to sleeping sickness; drowsiness has 
often replaced vigilance. The alert have become the lethargic. These 
things have been lost to view: that the battle is real, that life is seri- 
ous, that it is possible to fail, that a choice for good and a choice for 
evil are not the same choice. Lewis brings the real war into sharp 
focus. He takes the soul's crisis (man's existential dilemma) out o 
academic moth balls. Dancing a monistic minuet may satisfy the 
false prophets; Amos, Jeremiah, and Edwin Lewis have recognized 
that the dance is the dance of death. 

The thoughtful critic may have a mental reservation about Lewis' 
eternal pluralism. The critic may plead that the parallel lines meet in 
infinity, that the noncreative and the discreative are neither self- 
originating nor self-existent, that both receive their life from God, 
that the battle is all the more real because the devil is under a divine 
contract to destroy all that can be destroyed, to keep the whole of the 
divine creation under critical pressure. The critic may justly plead 
for one world under one God; nonetheless he cannot but sing a 
silent Te Deum that Lewis has reintroduced the theological " elderly 
maiden ladies " to the reality of the battle in nature and in man, the 
possibility of failure, and the necessity of the choice. " A man can get 
damned around here! " 

The discovery, in succession, of the human, the divine, and the 
demonic these are the three movements in Lewis' mind. But what 
about the man himself? 

England was the land of his birth, April 18, 1881 Newbury, 
about twenty miles from Oxford, to be precise. Lewis has often de- 
scribed with admiration his carpenter father's painstaking workman- 

20 Major Voices in American Theology 

ship. An employer once said, " If all my men worked as you do, I'd 
be worth a million pounds." The good Lord may feel the same way 
about Edwin Lewis; he is everywhere recognized as a meticulous 
scholar. Lewis the elder believed that God, not man, was his work- 
master. It seems likely that Lewis the younger similarly considers 
his assignment as solely from heaven. 

At nineteen, Edwin Lewis came to Canada. He devoted four years 
to the Newfoundland Methodist Conference as a missionary, six 
years to the North Dakota Conference, although most of this time 
he was left without appointment to attend school, and nine to the 
Troy Conference. January 5, 1904, he married Louise Newhook 
Frost; there have been five children after the flesh, and ten thousand 
after the spirit of whom I am one. 

He was a student at Mt. Allison University in Canada, Middle- 
bury College in Vermont, and the United Free Church College in 
Glasgow, Scotland. He received the A.B. degree at New York State 
College for Teachers in 1915, the B.D. (1908) and the Th.D. (1918) 
at Drew, and the D.D. at Dickinson in 1926. 

He became a naturalized American citizen in 1916, and the same 
year served as English instructor at New York State College for 
Teachers in Albany. Two events of supreme importance occurred 
in 1916: Woodrow Wilson was re-elected, and Edwin Lewis began 
his long career at Drew. As instructor in Greek and theology he 
assisted Dr. Olin A. Curtis. When Curtis' health failed, Lewis car- 
ried on in his place. From 1918 to 1920 he was adjunct professor of 
systematic theology, then full professor until 1929; since that time he 
has been professor also of the philosophy of religion. 

He was a delegate to the Methodist General Conference in 1928, 
1932, and 1936. He is a Republican, but still able to breathe. He has 
lectured everywhere to clergymen, college professors, and human be- 
ings. A few years ago, circling the globe, he found his own graduates 
on every continent laboring creatively in the Spirit of Christ, carry- 
ing forward with distinction his own intellectual and spiritual min- 
istry. For thirty-five years Drew students, and readers everywhere, 
have felt the thrust of his thought. Not a few of his students began 
their studies as belligerent atheists. I was a member of this fraternity. 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 


Lewis once remarked, " I have seen many a young man through the 
intellectual measles." His 1951 retirement only releases him for a 
wider ministry. A student recently wrote with pardonable idolatry, 
" As far as I am concerned, it is not Edwin Lewis that is retiring, but 
Drew University." 
But now to the movement of his mind. 


Lewis first came to public attention with Jesus Christ and the 
Human Quest. The book was well named, for the entire volume is 
preoccupied with man's search after God. At this point in Lewis' 
experience the seeking God has not as yet become visible. Note the 
words, " It makes no difference whether God is conceived as a self- 
sufficient being wholly distinct from man, or whether he is con- 
ceived as nothing more than a necessary constituent of human con- 
sciousness" (P. 63). The context discloses that man, a pursuer of 
objectives in the mind, cannot escape an inner compulsion to seek 
after God. Whether or not God exists outside the mind, he does exist 
inside; he is real enough to the God-intoxicated. All religious activity 
begins with man. "The life-process is a process of self-realization, 
determined solely from within, although contingent on the nature 
of external conditions. . . . Man is fundamentally a seeker of ends " 

The motif of man-centered religion is continued in A Manual of 
Christian Beliefs (1927), is modified by the discovery of a reality 
greater than man in God and Ourselves (1931), but is still dominant 
in Great Christian Teachings (1933). It must not be denied, how- 
ever, that a secondary motif of God-centered religion exists from the 
first. God seems but a junior partner in the human enterprise, but he 
is increasingly granted executive authority. One receives a distinct 
impression that Lewis may have been a vigorous theist from the be- 
ginning, but intimidated by a hostile climate of opinion. Faith seems 
ashamed of itself. It may have been his desire to make the gospel 
acceptable to the strongest of the skeptics, and on their own ground. 
Nor was he wrong in his apparent idea that to assert the reality of a 
transcendent God would mean his quick classification, and dismissal, 

22 Major Voices in American Theology 

as a Fundamentalist. He wanted the skeptics to hear what he had to 
say, and he knew they could be persuaded to listen only on their 
own terms. Faith does appear to have its back to the wall in the 
Lewis of the twenties; it is even fighting for its life. Everyone who 
lived through that arid decade will remember that Walter Lipp- 
mann's A Preface to Morals, with its sad stoicism in a meaningless 
world, seemed as high as the mind could go toward a supernatural 
faith. There were Fundamentalists and atheists and nothing much 
between. Fundamentalists had turned their backs upon secular 
science, and atheists were Fundamentalists turned inside out. The 
fun and the damn were evident in Fundamentalism, but not the 
mentalism. An educated believer in that dismal day had to walk an 
intellectual tightrope to escape a damning classification, and a " Fun- 
damentalist " was less acceptable than an " atheist " among the " in- 
telligentsia." Lewis was not an atheist, though I remember hearing 
him called one, yet he dared not make a noise like a Fundamentalist. 

In any case, a dimension of transcendence is traceable all the way. 
Even in Jesus Christ and the Human Quest you have the telltale 
assertion, " God became man in order to accomplish a necessary 
human deliverance " (P. 272) . You have there also the recognition 
that Christ himself, the total Person, is the revelation of God, and 
the realization that in the Saviour's agony on the cross sin accom- 
plished its worst but sounded its own death knell; thus disclosing 
its true nature, it made possible both repentance and forgiveness. 
There is more than a hint of Augustine in the idea that man is meant 
for God, and short of God he is not wholly man. 

It is possible, and seems probable, that the pre-Manifesto Lewis 
had not resolved a contradiction in his thinking. Faith may have 
been struggling not so much for expression, or even for existence, 
but for coherence. A complete structure of thought and faith, par- 
ticularly a mature Christian theology, is not the work of a day or 
a decade. There were seeds of supernaturalism in the earliest Lewis, 
and they were growing on productive ground, but they had fallen 
among thorns. In A Manual of Christian Beliefs, Lewis leaves, if 
only momentarily, the seeking man for the seeking God; he asserts 
that there must be in God a capacity for man corresponding to man's 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 23 

capacity for God. Jesus is presented as a human life continuous in- 
wardly with God and outwardly with history; he appears human 
only, yet he is not alone a man of his time, but also a man of no 
time. We are assured that God is purposive yet approachable, suffer- 
ing yet all-sufficient, holy yet humbly incarnate in human flesh; 
nevertheless he remains more amiable than active. The activity is 
still in man. 

Lewis did the greater part of the editorial work on The Abingdon 
Bible Commentary (1929) ; he himself contributed the two articles 
on " The Miracles of the New Testament " and " The New Testa- 
ment and Christian Doctrine." These studies gave little comfort 
to the liberals but less to the literalists. At this point many a young 
theologian reluctantly reclassified every miracle as myth, though 
with a clearer understanding he need not have done so. In Lewis' 
argument, Christ himself is the greatest miracle; in the light of who 
and what he was the lesser miracles are not incredible. Lewis even 
insisted that the Christ of the New Testament cannot be explained 
on a purely naturalistic basis. God was in Christ, and the New Testa- 
ment is the realm of the supernatural where language, forced out of 
contact with the natural, could go but haltingly. The New Testa- 
ment, precisely because it is an anthology of early Christian litera- 
ture, clearly depicts the life and faith of the Church. The Community 
of Christians grew through faith and love centered in Jesus Christ 
conceived as divinely sent Saviour, and through surrender to the 
control of the Spirit. Lewis expresses his mature views on Biblical 
interpretation and illustrates his methods in detail in The Biblical 
Faith and Christian Freedom (The Westminster Press, 1953) . Look- 
ing back on the Lewis of The Commentary from the sixth decade 
of this negative century, he seems but mildly modernistic and sub- 
stantially available to all classical Christians. Man still holds the 
limelight, but he is ad-libbing his lines; God plays only a supporting 
role, but the play is his, and he wrote it, and he is moving downstage. 

God and Ourselves insists that God is real, that he is greater than 
man and greater than the world, that he is the meaning of all things, 
but the argument struggles stubbornly in the Nessus shirt of an 
apologetic spirit. It is a polemic, not a song. To whom must one 

24 Major Voices in American Theology 

apologize for faith? Great Christian Teachings, if not the least, is the 
last of Lewis the Liberal. It pleads, piously enough, that Christian 
holiness means Christlikeness, the greatest thing in the world, but 
implies that the supreme good is attainable without the deep surgery 
of divine grace. When Jesus said his Kingdom was " not of the 
world," he meant only that it was not the kind of Kingdom with 
which the world of his time was familiar. 

But Lewis, the prince of the Liberals, is not to be remembered 
merely as a theologian of the seeking man; he was also, and remains, 
a theologian of the social conscience. He was as responsible as any- 
one else for the truth of the honorable, and dubious, tribute that 
Methodism and the " social gospel " were two terms for the same 
thing. Though Lewis later moves from man to God, the theologian 
of social responsibility remains. At no time does Lewis find escape 
from this world through the discovery of another. From first to last 
he summons the Church to social reconstruction in the love of 
Christ. In The Creator and the Adversary you still have the down- 
to-earth realism of A Manual of Christian Beliefs, which contains 
the following statement: 

" The possibility of a universal cataclysm in which civilization shall 
destroy itself grows every day more real. What can save mankind from 
perishing of its own achievements? One thing only the enthronement 
of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

" But such an enthronement will not be a merely negative thing. Christ 
will not simply stave off ruin: he will bring a positive salvation. If he 
could have his way with men, there would be no industrial oppression, 
no hopeless little children, no cheerless old age, no grinding poverty, no 
fattening o the few on the toil of the many, no racial hatreds, no arma- 
ments, no false standards of judgment as between man and man. Only as 
the race can make progress in this direction can there be any hope of the 
future, and such progress depends entirely on whether or not the follow- 
ers of Jesus Christ are willing to leave the eternal fate of their souls in 
their Lord's hands while they devote themselves to the task of making his 
Spirit operative in the world of today " (P. 130. Charles Scribner's Sons, 


In American theology the early 1930*5 constituted a watershed be- 
tween predepression naturalism and postdepression supernaturalism. 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 25 

Prosperity gave way to prophecy. The City of God was rediscovered 
beneath the City of Mammon. The imponderable logic of economic 
chaos undoubtedly had much to do with it, but the new climate of 
opinion is traceable also, if not primarily, to a European source. 
Whatever American theologians finally conclude about the Calvin 
after Calvin, it is obvious that he stabbed liberalism awake. The 
Kierkegaard after Kierkegaard proved a Christian Socrates, a God- 
intoxicated gadfly disturbing all man-centered religion. The Bonn 
bomber talked as though God has the audacity to exist; further, that 
precious little of importance exists beside him. God is a good deal 
more than man's aspiration after the ideal; he is the Initiator and the 
Goal of man's spiritual activity. From beginning to end, God is 
the totaliter aliter, the totally other. Thus did Earth appear in 1933. 

The Layman's Missionary Report on the one hand and Earth on 
the other heightened Lewis' dissatisfaction with effeminate liberal- 
ism and deepened his awareness of God the Almighty. One must 
not, however, conclude that Lewis is in any sense a European echo. 
No more definitive criticism has ever been written than the third of 
Lewis' three articles on Earth in The Christian Century (1933). 
Lewis precisely delineated the major flaws in Barthianism. In the 
first place no absolute cleavage between God and man can be said 
to exist. If mutual exclusiveness is granted, God can no longer be 
called "Father." Lewis nonetheless applauds Earth's all-out attack 
upon historicism and psychologism, the one padlocking the deity 
behind the prison bars of time, the other imprisoning him within the 
processes of the mind. Liberalism had narrowed the gulf between 
holy God and sinful man; God had been humanized and man dei- 
fied; but Earth had widened the chasm beyond all reason. To Lewis, 
the God who is forever beyond is also the God who is already within. 
But for God below, man could never reach out for God above. God, 
who is always on the offensive, moves toward a man inherently ap- 
proachable and able to respond. It is God who seeks, but he is also 
sought. Some kinship between divinity and humanity exists. 

In the second place Lewis attacked Earth's authoritarianism. On 
Earth's terms, God has spoken to mankind through the men of the 
Bible, but nowhere else. We are asked to believe solely on the pro- 
phetic and apostolic testimony. We are required to accept the Word 

2,6 Major Voices in American Theology 

of God wholly on the word of man. Lewis insists in rebuttal that to 
know God only at second hand is not to know him at all A capacity 
to receive the divine revelation must have existed within the Biblical 
writers; if a similar capacity does not exist in us, we can never un- 
derstand their words. The Holy Spirit conceived the New Testament 
in the womb of the Church. Granted! But the same Spirit may, and 
must, conceive in us. 

A third devastating criticism is specifically Christological. Barth 
presents a docetic Christ, and thus robs us of Jesus. To Barth, even 
Christ's resurrection is not to be understood as historical, lest it par- 
take of the futility of the temporal. Fundamentalists have had trou- 
ble with Barth on this point. In Barthianism the Jesus of history 
has given way entirely to the Christ of eternity. Jesus has ceased to 
be that Christ might be. Lewis inquires, " What should we know of 
'the Eternal Christ' but for the historical Jesus?" ("Where Is 
Barth Wrong? " The Christian Century, March 22, 1933, p. 386). 
True, the question may legitimately be turned around. What indeed 
should we know of the historical Jesus but for the spiritual Christ? 
It is through the Church and the Spirit that our knowledge of Jesus 
has come. Still, it is precisely this knowledge that we refuse to sur- 

The Barthian flaws are obvious and glaring. No one can afford to 
hurry over them. Nonetheless Lewis makes us hear the prophet's 
own accent. He that has ears to hear, let him hear. Let every man 
take what he can use, and use what he takes. The world is not God, 
and God is not the world, though but for God the world could not 
be. Man is dead; only God can make him live. The Infinite and finite 
Stand in absolute contrast, and the gulf between the two can be 
bridged only from the divine side. 

Barth underestimated the values of liberalism, but has rendered 
conspicuous service in casting away its vices. As a student of Herr- 
mann and Harnack, he had absorbed from youth the standard doc- 
trines of German liberalism that the Bible records man's progress- 
ing thoughts about God, that God is immanent in nature, history, 
and humanity, that man is by nature a son of God, that Jesus Christ 
supremely illustrated this sonship, that every man can, by faith and 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 27 

love, realize his oneness with God. Neither the divine Sacrifice nor 
the divine Sovereignty are essential. Earth learned in ten years as a 
pastor the futility of these themes. Earth discovered that man's 
search for God always ends in failure; precisely this search and this 
failure characterize all religion. Over against religion, which at- 
tempts to bridge the gulf from man's side, is Revelation, which 
bridges the gulf from God's side. This Revelation is Jesus Christ. 

Earth is no Fundamentalist. He desires, not less critical scholar- 
ship, but more insight. The textual critic stops at the threshold of 
the real task to interpret what God has said. Revelation is a divine 
invasion, not a human achievement. The religion of the natural man 
who fails to find God is one thing; the religion of the man whom 
God has found is another. 

Though Earth has created an absolute cleavage between God and 
man where none exists, though he has established a new authori- 
tarianism which must be transcended, though he has taken away 
Jesus for the greater glory of Christ and must give him back again, 
still one may say with Edwin Lewis: 

" Sitting at the feet of Karl Earth, we are brought to confess with deep 
sorrow that modern liberal theology has lightly parted with much pre- 
cious treasure. It threw overboard what it thought was useless rubbish 
and now sees was the cargo. Earth is offering a vicarious penitence for 
the sins of the modernists, the humanists, the psychologists, the religio- 
historicists, and all that ilk. Small wonder that the burden he has assumed 
well nigh crushes him, and that there goes up from his soul the cry of 
dereliction. If only the thieves would consent to be crucified with him! " 
(/#<*., p, 387). 


Since A Christian Manifesto, the liberals have regarded Lewis with 
that peculiar dislike reserved for traitors to the cause. They know 
full well that he is in no sense a Fundamentalist; they are aware 
that he has asserted from first to last that literalism is a perversion 
of Protestantism, that the Bible exists as an instrument of the Spirit 
to confront men with God, that the Word which came by the Spirit 
can only be apprehended by the Spirit. Lewis' enemies are not un- 
aware that he has never been a Fundamentalist, yet they have so 

28 Major Voices in American Theology 

classified him in the vain hope of driving him from the field. They 
have succeeded in part. Many who are on Lewis' side in the con- 
troversy, some of them his own disciples, have denied or betrayed 
him in public, fearing to be bracketed with the Biblicists. Such is the 
price of leadership. On the whole, however, the prophets of Baal 
have reckoned without Elijah. Lewis increases he does not dimin- 
ish with the years. 

A major need in our time, in any time, is a term accurately repre- 
senting the classical Christianity which is always modern without 
modernism and fundamental without fundamentalism. No adequate 
term exists or is likely to, for the departures from Christianity are 
easier to label and much easier to publicize. To begin with, they 
possess the garish color which characterizes extremes; they can be 
seen, even by laymen, from a distance. The central tradition, faith 
and reason laboring together with love, is harder to discern; it has 
neither superficial sparkle nor provincial prejudice. It is not an iso- 
lated community, remote from civilization; it is civilization. It is 
not a county, to be visited or neglected at will; it is a continent where 
freedom and authority dwell together in peace. 

With A Christian Manifesto, The Faith We Declare (1939), and 
A Philosophy of the Christian Revelation (1940) Lewis the Evan- 
gelical transcended Lewis the Liberal; he is visible at full maturity. 
Once for all the point has been driven home that theological liberal- 
ism, at bottom, was nothing more than an attempt to unite philo- 
sophical naturalism and Christianity without benefit of clergy. The 
attempt was doomed to failure from the start, for naturalism in 
philosophy and Christianity are implacable enemies. Christianity is 
the religion of the supernatural: that is, it is really a religion, not a 
meaningful ethic in a meaningless world. Lewis traces the attempted 
illicit union between Christ and Belial to Hegel. All his defense of 
spiritual reality notwithstanding, Hegel's imposing philosophy was 
in effect only an all-inclusive naturalism that had signed a treaty of 
perfect and perpetual peace with scientific determinism. Hegel's 
God could not do anything. Reality is too many-sided to be com- 
pressed into a Hegelian strait jacket; life breaks through logic; 
Samson breathes deeply and snaps the Philistines' shackles. 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 29 

Lewis is a bitter disappointment to Fundamentalists and Modern- 
ists alike when he insists that Biblical myths are not meant to be 
true, but to symbolize truth. What is alone important is the appre- 
hension of the creative idea. As Lewis sees it, it is better to take the 
difficult passages in the most literal sense, if only on this condition 
they are meaningful, than by taking them otherwise to lose their 

The Christ of the New Testament summons us to discipleship 
on his terms, not ours. No one who says that he believes in Jesus 
but does not believe in God ought ever to regard himself as a Chris- 
tian. Utterly alien alike to the spirit and the letter of Christianity is 
that form of liberalism which announces its belief in Jesus, and at 
the same time renounces its belief in that God but for whom Jesus 
himself could not have been. 

Recently a typical American liberal announced publicly: "Chris- 
tianity is anything anybody says it is." Edwin Lewis holds a differ- 
ent view. If the Christian faith, as such, is not to perish from the 
earth, the Church in our time must rediscover, asserts Lewis, that 
Christianity is not the collected absence of identifying characteristics; 
rather, Christianity is forever identifiable as belief, as experience, 
and as a way of life. It is the belief that God, of whom and through 
whom are all things, at infinite self-cost did in Jesus Christ manifest 
and satisfy his holy love, thereby making an atonement for the sins 
of the world and opening a way to forgiveness and reconciliation. 
As experience, Christianity is the realization of sins forgiven; the 
knowledge of God reconciled; the sense of peace within; a sure con- 
fidence in the face of the ills of life; an inner awareness of the pres- 
ence and favor of the Lord; a satisfaction in the fellowship of those 
who share Christ's name and spirit; and the possession of an increas- 
ing passion for souls. As a way of life, Christianity is behavior con- 
sistent with the purpose to glorify Christ and exhibit him before the 
world. It is Christlikeness, love beyond suffering, compassion mak- 
ing sacrifice of self; it is the realistic endeavor to make every life, 
every relationship, every institution, an incarnation of the will of 
God, that in all things Jesus Christ, who is the image of the in- 
visible Father, " might have the preeminence." 

30 Major Voices in American Theology 

In Lewis the Evangelical there is no longer an apologetic spirit; 
he asserts that Christianity as Revelation is unequivocally true. Jesus 
Christ is more than the apex of man's pyramid o ideals. Though he 
is not the totality of the Godhead, the totality of the Godhead is in 
Jesus Christ self-revealed. The Son discloses the Father, and the 
Spirit makes Father and Son real to the believer. Christ is the mean- 
ing of God, of man, and of history. 

The Church calls the sons of men to become the sons of God; but 
more, it offers men in the Holy Spirit the power to respond to the 
call. Only a Church greatly believing will be greatly achieving. 
When the gospel of the Spirit has been neglected, the Church has 
become feeble and futile; nothing but the spiritual gospel has ever 
brought it back to power. Always must the Word become flesh; al- 
ways must the Church rediscover the Spirit. 

Lewis the ex-Liberal has gained new insight into human evil; 
something in man neutralizes and betrays his loftiest aspirations. If 
God must make his way into human life by human means, the 
means may, and does, immeasurably hinder him. There is a king- 
dom of evil and man holds membership in it. Satan must be cast out 
of the heart if he is to be cast out of history. Lewis the theologian 
is so well known that Lewis the social philosopher has been lost to 
view. In A New Heaven and a New Earth (1941) Lewis presents 
the specifically Christian foundation for an ecumenical society. A 
new earth always awaits a new heaven; a new actual always awaits 
a new ideal; the new production always awaits the new pattern. The 
Society that is the Trinity provides the only basis for the brother- 
hood of man. On any showing an increase of fellowship is the one 
criterion of a new and better earth. The great and terrible Day of 
the Lord is that day when God pours out upon men his Spirit in a 
fashion never before known. On that day, " whosoever shall call 
upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." This is the Day! So de- 
d^red the Church on the Day of Pentecost. Put in mundane terms: 
to' " wtefc extent we can ever have an entirely Christian social order is 
a question, but it is no question that we can have a better one. 

Lewis is a mature philosopher and theologian; he has thought 
through, as few men have done, the meaning of the Christian Rev- 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 31 

elation. But he is always also a preacher under the skin. Pulpit prac- 
titioners, in England as well as America, have secured a full barrel 
of sermons per book from the " Christianity-at-the-clergyman's- 
level " volumes which are Lewis* later production. In Christian Truth 
for Christian Living (1942), The Practice of the Christian Life 
(1942), and The Ministry of the Holy Spirit (1944) Lewis the ac- 
tive parson's brain trust is at his best. Even the wayfaring man, 
though a layman, can read these books with profit. Two ideas domi- 
nate these slender books (can any book be too slender for the mimeo- 
graph minister?): (i) To say that there is no fundamental differ- 
ence in the Christian's relation to God and his neighbor from what 
is possible to one who is not a Christian is simply to say that Jesus 
Christ has had no profound and revolutionary effect upon the world. 
(2) Heaven is wherever the Spirit of Christ is in complete posses- 
sion. Wherever he is granted full control, the heavenly pervades the 
earthly. In Lewis' words: 

" In a very real sense, the incarnation was miracle. It was not simply 
something that a man was doing: rather, it was something that God him- 
self was doing. That is why we call it an incarnation. 

"Pentecost may very well be regarded as a second * miracle.* . . . 
Shall we call it the completion of the meaning and the purpose of the 
incarnation? That day, a great new reality burst upon the world. . , . 

"All that God himself is, all that he would do for men, all that tie 
would suffer that his will might come to pass, has been set forth in Jesus 
Christ. Here are human souls that believe this, that believe it without any 
hesitation, that yield themselves completely to it and that is why the 
Holy Spirit can move in upon them as he does. . . . That benediction 
which falls upon the praying soul is the Holy Spirit crowning a move- 
ment of the soul which he himself originated " (The Ministry of the 
Holy Spirit, pp. 21, 82, 127. Tidings). 


A third movement had already begun in the mind of Lewis before 
The Creator and the Adversary. The central idea was present in 
A New Heaven and a New Earth, but exactly expressed in The 
Practice of the Christian Life: 

" No man can think very long about life and its purposes without find- 
ing himself compelled to face the fact of evil. ... In whichever direc- 

32 Major Voices in American Theology 

tion he may look, he sees that which he is not able to call good. ... It 
is to a large extent our human nature itself which is the source o the 
evil we have to fight. The temptation to pride, vainglory, laxity, ambition, 
various forms of indulgence, and the like, do not depend on where we 
happen to be. God has an enemy, an enemy whom he must overcome if 
his ultimate purposes are to be fulfilled " (Pp. 93-96. The Westminster 
Press, 1942). 

This fact of experience becomes in Lewis* major work, The Creator 
and the Adversary, a complete metaphysical system. All things, 
Lewis argues, arise through the opposition of darkness and light; 
the creativity of God, working upon chaos, seeks endlessly to over- 
come discreative resistance. The idea of a real war between good and 
evil, with casualties on both sides, is neither new nor revolutionary. 
With varying emphasis you will find it in every major mind since 
Paul. For sophisticated moderns, what is new about Lewis' argu- 
ment is its absolute and uncompromising dualism; for his three 
eternals, the creative, the discreative, and the noncreative, are morally 
but two; that is, the noncreative is neutral by definition. 

To Lewis, once you dispose of the adversary as the source of all 
resistance to the love of God, on any grounds whatever, or allow him 
status as a secret partner in the divine enterprise, you have lost 
Biblical realism; the battle in which you cannot but choose sides is 
without hope of armistice. The God of holy love has reckoned, and 
must reckon forever, with the bitter opposition of the adversary. The 
dar\ resistance penetrates deeper than the will of man. It goes down 
to the very roots of existence. Man's misuse of freedom is but one 
bitter fruit on the tree an effect, not a first cause. 

Determined resistance to divine activity is a common idea from 
Plato onward. In our time it has received an intriguing variety of 
treatments. Brightman places the resistance within God himself 
hence the term " finite " applied to the deity. Evil is a kind of cosmic 
ache within the divine abdomen; God is as baffled by it as we are, 
but is laboring heroically, and hopelessly, to cure it. The chief criti- 
cism of the view is obvious; it makes God no more and no less than 
an enormously large man proportionately no better equipped than 
man to overcome evil. Lewis' deity is finite also, but the resistance is 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 33 

wholly outside, not inside God, outside him from all eternity, and 
quite as old as he, yet passive and powerless until God creates. Satan 
cannot create; he can only destroy. Until there is something to de- 
stroy he might as well be nonexistent. God initiated the conflict by 
initiating creation. Further, on Lewis' terms, God is able to throw 
into the conflict sufficient resources to turn defeat into victory. Nels 
Ferre insists that all the world's dark evil, from cancer to earth- 
quake, is the activity of Agape, the vigilance of sovereign love, whose 
purpose to bring every soul through freedom to fellowship cannot 
and will not be denied. Man chooses his way with freedom; he is 
free even to disobey and defy God. But God holds all the honor 
count; he controls the board and can overplay or trump any card 
man chooses to lead. Every man will eventually see that God's will 
is best. In this incarnation, or the thousandth to come, every soul will 
be saved. The Ferre optimism solves many problems, but creates as 
many as it solves. It restores sovereignty to God the Almighty and 
brings everything under control; you have one world instead of two. 
The chief criticism is evident: universal salvation is clearly alien to 
the mundane realism of the New Testament; on that older view, it 
is possible to be lost permanently. Sentimentality, however disguised, 
seems to be, and is, peering over Ferre's shoulder. Lewis' view has at 
least no softness; it is no siren song. It does not make the monistic 
mistake of modifying the distinction between good and evil; it does 
not underestimate the reality and the tragedy of evil. It relieves God 
of the split personality with which Brightman endowed him; it de- 
prives man of Ferre's certainty of salvation. A stimulating insecurity 
accompanies the soul's pilgrimage. As some humorist put it, " There 
is no security in numbers, or in anything else." The battle is real; 
the master choice will stand eternally, and only unconditional sur- 
render is acceptable in heaven. The chief criticism of Lewis' split 
universe is clear: it denies the divine origin of the noncreative and 
the discreative; Satan is " used " to keep the whole creation under 
critical attack, but was not " created " to do so. The serious critic 
may contend that Satan was specifically created to occupy his place 
on the divine payroll, that his task in the cosmic economy is to break 
every handiwork of God that can be broken. God wills man's salva- 

34 Major Voices in American Theology 

tion, as an artist wills that every work of art shall be a masterpiece, 
but God is also the absolute critic of his art; he wills the destruction 
of all that can be destroyed, all that lacks the integrity and the vital- 
ity to survive. Man's role in the drama is desperately, breath-takingly 
real. His master choice is decisive; there is no in-between; he either 
hastens or thwarts his own completion as a divine handiwork. Satan 
cannot destroy the elect (who love God because he first loved them), 
but he can, and must, put them to the test. The winds of adversity 
demolish every house on sand, but strengthen every house on rock. 
Man must make his peace with God the Creator and Redeemer, or 
he will have to deal with God the Destroyer. 

In any absolute dualism hope is an orphan; it finds no place to 
lay its head. But Lewis' dualism is not as absolute as it seems; he is, 
after all, a Christian first, and a dualist second; he insists upon the 
reality of hope. 

" It is not to be denied that by his very act of creation, God gives the 
adversary his opportunity, and that evil and sin become an inevitable 
concomitant of the creative act. It is not to be denied that God permits 
evil to run its course, since he can halt it only by halting everything else, 
and that is to admit final defeat. It is not to be denied that God makes 
use of evil in many a subtle way to further his own purpose of good, not 
doing evil that good might come, but enduring evil that good might 
come, . . . All is not merrily right with the world simply because God's 
in his heaven. Much is wrong with the world, God in heaven notwith- 
standing. But it is still true that because God is in his heaven better 
still, because God does not stay in his heaven, as one * sitting apart, con- 
templating all,' but enters the arena of conflict as a personal participant, 
most present, like a faithful leader, where the strife is fiercest because 
this is so, it is the assurance that not all is wrong with the world, and 
that it may more and more become right " (The Creator and the Adver- 
sary, p. 152. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1948). 

In Lewis* view, God initiates by his creative act the divine-demonic 
conflict, but is not to be held responsible for originating either the 
noncreative or the discreative. At this point the inadequacy of the 
"finite" God becomes apparent. By his creative act God gives 
the noncreative and the discreative their significance, but is not 
the source of their existence. This leaves the origin of the noncreative 

The Human, the Divine, and the Demonic 35 

and the discreative entirely unexplained. The ex nihilo theory insists 
simply that the noncreative and the discreative are not self-explana- 
tory; on Lewis' view they are self-explanatory; that is, they "exist 
because they exist." No one will deny their existence, and few will 
deny that their " meaning " is given them by God, but many will 
justly question whether their " existence " is self-explanatory. 

Lewis is not primarily interested in a neat metaphysical system; 
his first interest is the reality of the battle between the Creator and 
the adversary, and the Creator's final victory. His view is essentially 
that of Martin Luther, as Reinhold Niebuhr has quoted and inter- 
preted him: 

" Luther, less philosophical than Calvin and more prophetic in temper, 
preserved the essential paradox more successfully. To him the devil was 
' God's Devil.' God used him to his own ends. * Devil,' declares God in 
Luther's words, * thou art a murderer and a criminal, but I will use thee 
for whatsoever I will. Thou shalt be the dung with which I will ferti- 
lize my lovely vineyard. I will and can use thee in my work on my 
vines. . . . Therefore thou mayst hack, cut, and destroy, but no further 
than I permit ' " (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 75. Harper & 
Brothers, 1935). 

The thoughtful critic may or may not reject Lewis* split infinity, 
but he cannot fail to stand up and cheer Lewis' ethical seriousness. 
As Niebuhr sees it, " it is better for religion to forgo perfect meta- 
physical consistency for the sake of moral potency. In a sense religion 
is always forced to choose between an adequate metaphysics and an 
adequate ethics " (Does Civilization Need Religion?, p. 214. The 
Macmillan Company, 1927). In any case, The Creator and the Ad- 
versary is a trumpet with certain sound summoning the Christian 
to recover his faith, and the Church its gospel. Creation is creativity 
in perpetual strife with discreativity, and, on any terms, the battle 
is as real as Christ's cross. 

To every Christian life is a daily call to love, but discreativity at- 
tacks him most often and most effectively through discouragement. 
The greatest, and the rarest, virtue is simply patience. " Wait on the 
Lord " said the psalmist again and again. Restless moderns may well 
heed Lewis' similar words. 

36 Major Voices in American Theology 

" This place, this task, this moment, contains the possibility o a divine 
revelation to the sotil. From what spot may a ladder reach up to heaven? 
From that stone there at your very feet. . . . The narrow limits to which 
you are confined by a will not your own may be another Patmos. ... To 
be ' in the Spirit ' on any day makes that * the Lord's Day ' indeed " (The 
Ministry of the Holy Spirit, p. 116). 



The Critical Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr 

The Critical Theology 


Reinhold Niebuhr 

A lone pioneer, Reinhold Niebuhr broke through the Modernist- 
\. Fundamentalist wilderness of the first third of this century and 
established a base of operations for subsequent explorers. To use a 
different figure, personal and social Christianity were at war; 
Niebuhr has made possible something more than an armistice: he 
has mobilized the former enemies in a common crusade to lead 
our sub-Christian century to contrition and new venture. He has 
performed the prophet's task of criticism. 

Every thoroughgoing critic is bound to be the center of a storm 
of controversy. Two groups in the main continually attack Niebuhr : 
on the one hand, those who feel that his view of the sinfulness and 
partiality of all human achievement paralyzes all human effort, and, 
on the other, those who are perhaps too certain that his emphasis not 
only accents the insufficiency of man, but also, in effect, the insuffi- 
ciency of God. Archbishop William Temple summarized the attack 
from the left in his well-known Limerick, written shortly after 
Niebuhr had completed a series of lectures in England: 

" At Stanwyck, when Niebuhr had quit it, 
Said a young man: * At last I have hit it; 
Since I cannot do right 
I must find out tonight 
The best sin to commit and commit it.' " 

It is overlooked in this attack that in all his books Niebuhr contin- 
ually stresses the necessity of action in this world toward the best 

40 Major Voices in American Theology 

approximation of virtue in the soul and equal justice in society, that 
he endlessly asserts that the humility which recognizes the persist- 
ence of sinful self-love on the highest level of achievement in no 
way destroys moral ardor; it simply destroys self -righteousness and 
false pretense. It is also overlooked that he perpetually criticizes 
Barthian theology for its failure to perceive the necessity and value 
of proximate solutions to difficult problems in this relative world. It 
is true that he takes liberalism to task for its lighthearted dismissal 
of the sinfulness of man and the transcendence of God. But with 
equal persistence he takes orthodoxy to task for its neglect of this 
world in its preoccupation with the next. 

The attack from the right insists that Niebuhr overestimates for- 
giveness and underestimates fellowship; that he does not see that 
repentance, necessary though it is, is not the end but the means to 
the end. True, the broken heart is the only entrance to the Kingdom, 
not alone at the beginning of the Christian pilgrimage, but every 
day, and as much at the end as the beginning. Yet the nature of the 
Kingdom is mutual love, between God and the soul, and between 
the soul and society; the agape fellowship is the end, forgiveness the 
means. Intentionally or not, Niebuhr leaves you with the reverse 

Niebuhr was fully aware of these opposite attacks from the start. 
In the wholly delightful Leaves from the Noteboo\ of a Tamed 
Cynic there is this diary entry: 

" If I do not watch myself I will regard all who make their adjust- 
ments to my right as fanatics and all who make them to the left as 
cowards. . . . 

"A reasonable person adjusts his moral goal somewhere between 
Christ and Aristotle, between an ethic of love and an ethic of moderation. 
I hope there is more of Christ than of Aristotle in my position. But I 
would not be too sure of it. ... 

" It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and 
on the whole I have been more sane than Christian " (Pp. 166, 167, 195. 
Willett, Clark & Colby, 1929). 

Niebuhr's chief significance lies in the fact that he has reunited 
theology and history in holy, and productive, wedlock. These whom 

The Insufficiency of Man 41 

God had joined together, and man had put asunder, he has made 
one again, and the marriage is recorded in heaven. But what of his 
life and hard times ? 

After the manner of man, he was born, June 21, 1892, at Wright 
City, Missouri. He is still " from Missouri " and can never quite 
be shown. His father was Gustave Niebuhr, a scholarly German 
preacher, who died when the children were young, but not before 
he had taught Reinhold " that the critical faculty can be united with 
a reverent spirit." It was not an easy task for the mother, Lydia 
(Hosto) Niebuhr, to assume the complex responsibilities of her chil- 
dren's nurture. Helmut Richard Niebuhr, two years Reinhold's 
junior, has made his own record and his own distinguished contribu- 
tion to American thought. The mother later served as Reinhold's 
assistant pastor for twelve years in Detroit. 

A brief glance at Niebuhr's boyhood suggests his strong Lutheran 
conditioning, and discloses as well his later reinterpretation of the 
relation between ultimate security and temporal insecurity. In his 
own words: 

'* The need of security is a basic need of human life. I remember how 
wonderful was the experience of rny boyhood when we ran to the barn, 
warned by ominous clouds of an approaching storm, and then heard the 
wind and the rain beating outside while safe and dry under the eaves of 
the haymow. The experience had actual religious overtones. The safety 
and shelter o the haymow were somehow symbolic of all security against 
dark and tempestuous powers. The words of the psalmist committed 
to memory in confirmation class, achieved a sudden and vivid relevance: 
* Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that 
flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the 
destruction that wasteth at noonday. . . . There shall no evil befall thee, 
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling/ This word of the 
psalm is, incidentally, a perfect illustration of all the illusions which may 
arise from an ultimate religious faith. When faith in an ultimate security 
is couched in symbolic expressions which suggest protection from all 
immediate perils, it is easy to be tempted to the illusion that the child of 
God will be accorded special protection from the capricious forces of the 
natural world or special immunity from the vindictive passions of angry 
men. Any such faith is bound to suffer disillusionment. Nor does it de- 
serve moral respect" (Beyond Tragedy } pp. 96, 97. Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1938). 

42 Major Voices in American Theology 

This may be too lighthearted a dismissal of the persistent idea of 
special providence; Niebuhr believes in both general and special 
revelation and therefore has no effective argument against both gen- 
eral and special providence. Nonetheless, this retrospection reveals 
much of his youth, and of his maturity. 

Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College in Illi- 
nois (now of the Evangelical and Reformed Church) . In 1910, Rein- 
hold left Elmhurst without a degree to enroll in Eden Theological 
Seminary in St. Louis, then of the Evangelical Church, now Evan- 
gelical and Reformed. He transferred from Eden to Yale in 1913, 
and there received the B.D. (1914) and the M.A. (1915). The same 
year he was ordained by the Evangelical Synod of North America 
and began pastoral duties at Bethel Evangelical Church, an auto 
workers' congregation in Detroit. Leaves from the NotebooJ^ of a 
Tamed Cynic, by far the most readable of Niebuhr's books, is a 
penetrating, and at the same time hilarious, study of a young pastor's 
pilgrimage through the school of hard knocks. Actually the book 
contains most of the insights that characterize the mature Niebuhr, 
yet mixes profound introspection with a delightful play-by-play ac- 
count of the grandeur and misery of life in church and industrial 
community. He was keenly interested in ethics and dubious about 
theology, yet some transcendence is evident on every page. He was 
unwilling to entertain great moral ideas without attempting to real- 
ize them in life and society, and equally unwilling to proclaim them 
in abstract terms without bringing them into juxtaposition with the 
specific social and moral issues of the day. He despised the cheap 
scolds, and the sentimentalists, among his fellow ministers, and 
slowly developed his unique critical gift. His method is clear, from 
beginning to end, in these words from his 1920 diary: 

" The real meaning of the gospel is in conflict with most of the customs 
and attitudes of our day at so many places that there is adventure in the 
Christian message, even if you only play around with its ideas in a con- 
ventional world. I can't say that I have done anything in my life to dram- 
atize the conflict between the gospel and the world. But I find it in- 
creasingly interesting to set the two in juxtaposition at least in my mind 
and in the minds of others. And of course ideas may finally lead to 
action" (P. 27). 

The Insufficiency of Man 43 

It is obvious that " playing around " with the conflict between the 
gospel and the world not only became "increasingly interesting" 
but finally the master passion. He defined religion as a reaction to 
life's mysteries and a reverence before the infinitudes of the uni- 
verse. He recognized, however, that without ethical application re- 
ligion might never come to grips with tragedy. The soul both rever- 
ently and morally vital could apprehend the infinite in terms o 
holiness, and worship a God transcending both human knowledge 
and human virtue. 

During these years he was much more than a critic of the deper- 
sonalized society produced, along with automobiles, by Detroit in- 
dustry. He was also, and perhaps primarily, a critic of himself. Note 
these words from the diary of 1924: 

" A spiritual leader who has too many illusions is useless. One who has 
lost his illusions about mankind and retains his illusions about himself is 
insufferable. Let the process of disillusionment continue until the self is 
included. At that point, of course, only religion can save from the en- 
ervation of despair. But it is at that point that true religion is born " 
(P. 91). 

The small working-class church grew in size and grace; presently 
a new building was required and obtained. Sunday evening forums 
centered discussion on critical social issues attracting intellec- 
tuals, radicals, and liberals of every shade of opinion. Sessions were 
sprightly, and sometimes explosive. There among Detroit factory 
workers Reinhold Niebuhr developed his profound sympathy for 
the proletariat. He became the doughty David of the disinherited 
against every Philistine Goliath. He once said, " The lowliest peasant 
of the Dark Ages had more opportunity for self-expression than the 
highest paid employee in the Ford factory." Had he been a pastor 
of the privileged, his point of view undoubtedly would have devel- 
oped differently to our loss. As it was, the bitterness of the workers 
against their exploitation and depersonalization by the factory system 
became his own. 

Angry words in the NotebooJ^ denounce Ford's millions held in 
reserve while workers starved. The Marxian faith in the worker as 
the future savior of society entered into his soul. 

44 Major Voices in American Theology 

Socially conservative church circles considered Niebuhr danger- 
ous, and did not realize how dangerous he was. There were flare-ups 
between Niebuhr and Detroit employers. In 1928 he left Detroit, not 
without reluctance, for mutual love had grown between the shepherd 
and his flock; the Noteboof^ acknowledges the strength their occa- 
sional heights and depths of faith had given him. He entered the 
comparative quiet harbor of Union Theological Seminary in New 
York City, as associate professor of philosophy of religion. Since 
1930, he has been professor of applied Christianity. He was no less a 
social radical at Union. He blended conservative Lutheran and Re- 
formed theology; the political philosophy of John Dewey, whose 
naive faith in "free inquiry " he later rejected; the economic ap- 
proach of Karl Marx, whose utopianism became apparent to him, 
but whose perception of the "ideological taint" in all bourgeois 
thinking he continued to value; and the everyday intricacies of the 
American labor movement. During the depression of the thirties he 
rose to commanding influence in the theological world. He con- 
firmed Americans' suspicion that something was radically wrong 
with society, and suggested a revaluation of all values as the first 
deep surgery. 

Early journeys to postwar Europe, particularly to postwar Ger- 
many, convinced Niebuhr that his earlier antipacifism needed revi- 
sion. For a time he espoused tentatively the pacifist cause. In 1932, 
with Moral Man and Immoral Society, he broke completely with 
pacifism, considering it a Utopian miscarriage of social responsibility, 
issuing from a sentimentalized view of God and man. Necessary 
social change for example, from a bourgeois to a proletarian society 
could be accomplished only by force. He was fully aware that reli- 
gion, in particular medieval and Reformation Christianity, had been 
as much a liability as an asset in social reconstruction, and developed 
this dual view in the book The Contribution of Religion to Social 
Wor\ (1932), the 1930 Forbes Lectures at the New York School of 
Social Work. With Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), he pro- 
nounced the doom of capitalist society. He visited strikers, talked to 
unions, and entered wholeheartedly into the activities of the Socialist 
Party. For a time he was editor of the Party paper, The World TV 

The Insufficiency of Man 45 

morrow. With Christianity and Power Politics (1940), Niebuhr had 
discovered, and dispelled, his Utopian illusions. He was considerably 
less certain what might lie on the other side of social breakdown; 
he no longer lightly hoped for the collapse of a social system which 
continued to offer a degree of freedom, and with it the possibility of 
achieving better social and economic adjustments. Hope of break- 
down was only feasible when any alternative was preferable to an 
existing tyranny. Undoubtedly three well-known personalities had 
something to do with the change in Niebuhr's emphasis. Franklin D. 
Roosevelt's attempt to bring economic power under social control, 
whether failure or success, ameliorated working-class hatred of capi- 
talist society; and the rise of Mussolini and Hitler indicated to many 
a sensitive conscience that a contest of power between freedom and 
tyranny was not far away. 

Every man is both imbedded in the society of which he is a part, 
and transcends it. The break with the Socialist Party was inevitable. 
Niebuhr himself tells the story, and the reasons behind it. 

" A letter from the Socialist Party informs me that my views on foreign 
affairs violate the Party platform and asks me to give account of my non- 
conformity. The Party position is that this war is a clash of rival imperial- 
isms in which nothing significant is at stake. ... I answer the Socialist 
communication by a quick resignation from the Party. . . . 

There is not much difference between people/ said a farmer to 
William James, ' but what difference there is is very important/ . . , 

" Utopianism creates confusion in politics by measuring all significant 
historical distinctions against purely ideal perspectives and blinding the 
eye to differences which may be matters of life and death in a specific 
instance" (Christianity and Power Politics, pp. 167-169, Charles Scrib- 
ner's Sons, 1940). 

Long before December, 1941, Niebuhr was the leader of a group 
of eminent churchmen who believed that war could be a lesser evil 
than tyranny; together they denounced the immorality and irrespon- 
sibility of isolation. February 7, 1941, the group presented to the 
public the first issue of Christianity and Crisis, an eight-page bi- 
weekly opposed to the stanchly pacifist tone of existing denomina- 
tional periodicals, in particular of The Christian Century. The 
magazine was dedicated to the principle that " the halting of totali- 

4^ Major Voices in American Theology 

tarian aggression is a prerequisite to world peace and order " Bishop 
Ivan Lee Holt, Bishop Francis J. McConnell, President Dodds of 
Princeton, William Allan Neilson, former president of Smith Col- 
lege, and many others gave the paper their backing. Antipacifist 
churchmen were given a thorough hearing. Churchmen who re- 
mained pacifist, Niebuhr and his group believed, were guilty of a 
sentimentalized Christianity which preferred slavery to war. Con- 
sciously or not, the pacifist was on the side of tyranny; since resist- 
ance to tyranny is war, tyranny is peace. 

Niebuhr was the fifth American to deliver the Gifford Lectures. 
His predecessors were William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, 
and William E. Hocking. The lectures were given at the University 
of Edinburgh in 1939, and published in two volumes, Human Nature 
(1941) and Human Destiny (1943); they are now available in one 
edition. Niebuhr's fresh approach to old controversies, his sharp 
logic, and his theological brilliance penetrated the presuppositions 
and pretensions of every alternative to the gospel of judgment and 
redemption. Niebuhr argues that man is a paradox of finiteness and 
freedom, that his sin issues not from his finiteness but his unwilling- 
ness to accept it, his excessive self-love, which produces defiance on 
the one hand and fanaticism on the other. Mysticism sought falsely 
to save man from impulse, and romanticism from reason. Prophetic 
religion disclosed God the Judge who stands over against the par- 
tiality and idolatry in all human achievement; the Gospels disclosed 
God the Redeemer who meets repentance with pardon, and com- 
pletes in grace what man cannot complete in nature and history. It 
is impossible for the reader not to be stirred to self-examination or 
rebuttal. Niebuhr is often criticized for his severity, but surely he is 
too severely criticized, for the surgeon must cut deeply before heal- 
ing can begin. He is said to be too clever, and in greater need of 
tenderness and compassion. After listening to him, one clergyman 
remarked, " He can skin civilization, hang the hide up to dry, and 
offer prayer over the carcass." His students, and thousands who not 
having seen have believed, have responded affirmatively to his mes- 
sage, and consider him the lesser of two evils in contemporary the- 
ology. A gospel that underestimates the problem is always a greater 

The Insufficiency of Man 47 

hazard than a criticism that underestimates the gospel. 

It is of special interest that Niebuhr is not unaware o his hyper- 
critical temper. Leaves from the Noteboo\ of a Tamed Cynic con- 
tains the following entry: 

" I have been profoundly impressed by the Spenglerian thesis that cul- 
ture is destroyed by the spirit of sophistication and I am beginning to 
suspect that I belong to the forces of decadence in which sophistication Is 
at work. I have my eye too much upon the limitations of contemporary 
religious life and institutions; I always see the absurdities and irration- 
alities in which narrow types of religion issue. . . . 

"I don't want anyone to be more cynical than I am. I can't justify my- 
self in my perilous position except by the observation that the business of 
being sophisticated and naive, critical and religious, at one and the same 
time is as difficult as it is necessary, and only a few are able to achieve the 

balance. H [probably Lynn Harold Hough] says I lack a proper 

appreciation of the mystical values in religion. That is probably the root 
of the matter. Yet I can't resist another word in self-defense. The modern 
world is so full of bunkum that it is difficult to attempt honesty in it 
without an undue emphasis upon the critical faculty " (Pp. 132, 133). 

There are, in reality, two Reinhold Niebuhrs, if not more. On 
the one side he is the fearless and honest critic of our age, and of the 
ages that have preceded ours; with exact scrutiny he weighs the 
Middle Ages along with Reformation and post-Reformation and 
finds them wanting. On the other side, he is a messenger of good 
news, a bearer of the gospel. This side of Niebuhr is the lesser side. 
He seems considerably more a John the Baptist than a Saint John. 
Perhaps he that is least in the Kingdom of Love is greater than he. 
He himself apparently had something of the kind in mind when he 
wrote in his Detroit diary: "I am not really a Christian. ... I am 
too cautious to be a Christian " (P. 166). He is more of an Arnos 
than a Jeremiah. Arnos prophesied doom for Israel as Niebuhr has 
prophesied doom for our liberal bourgeois culture. Jeremiah also 
prophesied doom, but wept over Judah as Christ wept over Jerusa- 
lem. The tears are not apparent in Niebuhr. Yet there is a strain of 
faith and love in him which is so rarely apparent that it is a special 
delight. Even in his first book, Does Civilization Need Religion?, 
though Niebuhr the critic is evident, there is more of positive faith 

48 Major Voices in American Theology 

and love than in many a later work. Christianity seems often a prin- 
ciple of criticism rather than a song of love and joy. Yet some of the 
later works, perhaps because they were addresses given on college 
campuses, accent the positive gospel. Beyond Tragedy and Discern- 
ing the Signs of the Times (1946) are not only more readable than 
the heavier books, but also contain something more than criticial 
attack on an age which has substituted departure from for approxi- 
mation of the Christian faith. New Testament peace and joy shine 
through these pages. They offer healing as well as surgery. Yet An 
Interpretation of Christian Ethics, The Children of Light and the 
Children of Darkness (1944), and Faith and History (1949) return 
to the business of thoroughgoing criticism: the first of the absence 
of transcendence in liberalism, and the absence of immanence in 
orthodoxy; the second of the false optimism of bourgeois democracy, 
yet the necessity of democratic freedom; and the third of the various 
views that assume that history is redemptive, that time will solve all 
the problems. 

The critical theology of Niebuhr will always need the postcritical 
theology of Nels F. S. Ferre to complete it, and vice versa. Niebuhr 
himself appreciates, whether or not he is able fully to achieve, child- 
likeness. These words from Faith and History sound more like 
Ferre than Niebuhr : 

" There is, of course, no easy road from maturity back to childhood. 
A too simple return to the innocency of childhood results in obscurantism 
in the realm of culture and social primitivism in the realm of man's 
moral life. Yet the return is both possible and necessary. 

" The way to it lies in a wisdom which recognizes the limits of human 
knowledge and a humility which knows the limits of all human powers " 
(P. 54. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949). 

Clearly this is Saint Paul's "I know in part," and something 
other than the pride that makes each thinker consider himself the 
final surrogate for God. Notwithstanding the constant Niebuhr criti- 
cism of literalism in religion, he has a word of appreciation for the 
evangelistic cults which somehow succeed in shattering the self in 
repentance as a prelude to power, however serious their fault in 
deriding reason and ignoring social justice. 

The Insufficiency of Man 49 

He has by no means confined himself to the professor's chair and 
the lecturer's platform. He has headed the Union for Democratic 
Action; has served as chairman of American Friends of German 
Freedom. As editor of the quarterly Christianity and Society, he has 
demonstrated the unique relevance of " applied Christianity " to the 
stubborn conflicts of our century. Journals too numerous to mention 
have published his articles and clamored for more. He is a contribut- 
ing editor of The Christian Century which he once attacked as the 
voice of effeminate liberalism. The American Scholar, The Christian 
Century, Newswee\, Time, and many other leading magazines have 
discussed him repeatedly and at length, though as often with acidity 
as with benevolence. Many a doctoral dissertation has painfully elab- 
orated his ideas, and many a book is now in preparation, or in print, 
offering a character or a caricature. It is safe to predict a long life 
to his influence. 

The better colleges and universities have honored themselves and 
Mm with honorary degrees: Grinnell, Wesleyan, Pennsylvania, Am- 
herst, Yale, Oxford, Harvard, Hobart, Occidental, Princeton, Glas- 
gow, and New York. Obviously there will be others. Catholicism 
has often burned its critics at the stake; Protestantism prefers to kill 
its critics with kindness. 

In 1931, Reinhold Niebuhr married a former student, the English- 
woman Ursula Keppel-Compton, and there are two children : Chris- 
topher Robert and Barbara Elizabeth. He may be seen with his 
family on the few afternoons when he is not encouraging or criticiz- 
ing the saints in Europe or the American provinces, walking on 
Riverside Drive his only recreation. 

He seems " tall, bald, and cold," something of a theological owl 
looking out wisely, and unblinkingly, on the world. Yet there is 
warmth in him, and it is felt beneath the tumult and the shouting 
of his prophecy. His photographs suggest a Lutheran Voltaire with- 
out a periwig. He even resembles Calvin Coolidge, though he is con- 
siderably more committal, yet also " against sin." 

His significance lies in the fact that his feet are firmly planted in 
history. He is not an ivory-tower philosopher, but from the first has 
dealt heroically with the intractable stuff of society, which always 

50 Major Voices in American Theology 

reduces every ideal to a mere approximation. There is stubborn in- 
ertia in all reality; existence offers determined resistance to creation. 
Each new step is inevitably a compromise between the creative will 
and the concrete world. History steadfastly defeats, and reveals, God. 
Niebuhr is definitely in, but as definitely not of, the world. He has 
his eyes on the Absolute which appeared in Galilee; he expects and 
accepts conflict and refuses the cowardice of capitulation. He is 
aware that capitulation without conflict reduces religion to magic 
and secularizes life. Let the chips fall where they may, Niebuhr grap- 
ples wholeheartedly with nature and history. He understands that 
the cross was inspired by devotion to a " kingdom aot of this 
world "; yet that the cross was also the method by which that King- 
dom was changed from ethereal to concrete reality. Only the abso- 
lute, which is beyond history, moves men to defy and subdue the 
relative. Niebuhr realizes that a religion perfectly at home in the 
world offers no counsel which the world cannot gain from secular 
sources. The creative and redemptive struggle is real, but not hope- 
less. Religion preaches hope as well as repentance, and rescues men 
from despair as well as complacency. He understands the absurdity, 
and glory, of faith. 

" Only the foolishness of faith knows how to assume the brotherhood 
of man and to create it by the help of the assumption. A religious ideal 
is always a little absurd because it insists on the truth of what ought to be 
true but is only partly true; it is however the ultimate wisdom, because 
reality slowly approaches the ideals which are implicit in its life. A merely 
realistic analysis of any given set of facts is therefore as dangerous as it is 
helpful. The creative and redemptive force is a faith which defies the real 
in the name of the ideal, and subdues it " (Does Civilization Need Re- 


Every prophet needs a decadent age, and vice versa. The critical 
faculty is a less desperate necessity in an age of growth. Without 
criticism a civilization moves toward disintegration without light 
and without hope. The prophet may not arrest the momentum of 
decay, but its nature could not be understood without him. Indeed, 
an articulate conscience in a conscienceless society is bound to leave 

The Insufficiency of Man 51 

some kind of mark, if only to point the way for future pilgrims. 
Undoubtedly conscience is in part a sociological product, yet con- 
science has always been " most perfectly expressed when men have 
defied the mediocre or perverse standards of a given community in 
the name of a religiously apprehended higher standard." Reinhold 
Niebuhr has offered precisely this defiance. He has unquestionably 
punctured the idolatrous pretensions of our culture, yet fully appreci- 
ated the periodic despair into which our complacent moralism, legal- 
ism, and rationalism have led us. In one sense he has been a psycho- 
logical scientist; he has enabled us to analyze our true motives, to 
separate our published purposes from our actual desires; he has de- 
creased hypocrisy and increased morality. He has destroyed the con- 
sistent confidence in human virtue which makes faith irrelevant, and 
has thereby made faith possible, though not inevitable. It is probably 
not too much to say that he has reintroduced conscience, and indeed 
Christianity, into Christendom. 

He has succeeded primarily because he has understood, as few 
have done, that prophecy is applied theology. He has been content 
neither with a transcendence which neglects the world, nor with an 
immanence which neglects God. In his thinking the vertical and the 
horizontal meet. There are always a few prophets of the transcend- 
ent, and many prophets of the immanent. Niebuhr is perhaps the 
most articulate modern to unite the two perspectives, making each 
the critic of the other. This creative interplay is possible precisely 
because Niebuhr considers man an organic union of flesh and spirit. 

"The soul and the body are one. . . . This unity of soul and body 
does not deny the human capacity for freedom. It does not reduce man 
to the processes of nature in which he stands, though yet he stands above 
them. It merely insists on the organic unity between the two. The mind 
of man never functions as if it were discarnate. That is, it is not only 
subject to the limitations of a finite perspective but also to the necessities 
of physical existence " (Beyond Tragedy, pp. 293, 294) . 

Theology and history are therefore in permanent and perplexing 
tension. The Christian doctrine, not of simple immortality, but of 
the resurrection of the body, in his view, emphasizes this organic 
unity; he finds it also the basis of social as over against merely in- 

52 Major Voices in American Theology 

dividual religion. Niebuhr thinks with the Bible, though he inter- 
prets it mythologically rather than literally; he considers sin, as does 
the Bible, in both religious and moral dimensions. The religious 
dimension of sin is rebellion against God, its moral and social di- 
mension injustice. The self which prematurely makes itself the 
center of existence inevitably seeks to subordinate other selves to its 
will Niebuhr's theological conservatism releases him from modern 
sentimentality, and his social radicalism similarly releases him from 
the this-worldly irresponsibility of the pious. Beyond all sin he per- 
ceives the possibility of the broken heart, and the healing of pardon 
and power. He offers no false security, no security ,at all short of 
divine grace, and he has the true prophet's courage to speak clearly 
to the majority whether or not he is a minority of one. To the mod- 
ern nontragic view of history he offers only tragedy. He places a 
time bomb at the base of every Tower of Babel. Christian Church 
and pagan State alike come to judgment. Proximate answers to per- 
plexing questions, and proximate solutions to social problems, he 
regards as perpetual necessities. Mixed with the humility which is 
despair with faith, these proximate answers and solutions create the 
difference between greater good and greater evil. Mixed with pride, 
the proximate is mistaken for the ultimate, and secular defiance or 
religious fanaticism produce the remorse which is despair without 
faith. Beyond all tragedy, Niebuhr apprehends the divine love and 
power which bear the whole human pilgrimage, shine through its 
enigmas and antinomies, and are finally and definitively revealed in a 
drama in which suffering love gains triumph over sin and death. 

Man's predicament lies in the fact that the human problem is in- 
soluble with human resources. Man is imbedded in nature, yet in- 
finitely transcends nature. He is a paradox of finiteness and freedom. 
His sin issues not from his finiteness, but his unwillingness to accept 
it, his pride, his desire to make himself the center of the universe, 
his will to make himself independent of God. Any view that accents 
only the grandeur of man fails to account for his misery. Any view 
that emphasizes only man's depravity fails to account for his aware- 
ness of it. 

The Insufficiency of Man 53 

" Man is mortal That is his fate. Man pretends not to be mortal. That 
is his sin. Man is a creature of time and place, whose perspectives and 
insights are invariably conditioned by his immediate circumstances. But 
man is not merely the prisoner of time and place. He touches the fringes 
of the eternal. He is not content to be merely American man, or Chinese 
man, or bourgeois man, or man of the twentieth century. He wants to be 
man. He is not content with his truth. He seeks the truth. His memory 
spans the ages in order that he may transcend his age. His restless mind 
seeks to understand the meaning of all cultures so that he may not be 
caught within the limitations of his own " (Ibid., pp. 28, 29). 

If man were totally depraved, he would not know that he is de- 
praved, he would not seek endlessly to justify himself to himself, he 
would have no feeling of guilt, no uneasy conscience, no reaching 
out for the truth, beauty, and goodness which are always beyond his 
grasp. If he were totally depraved, he could neither desire nor re- 
ceive the divine revelation; the stability and mercy at the heart of 
the universe would be beyond his comprehension. Because man is 
essentially good, yet always involved in sinful self-love, he is a per- 
petual contradiction. He seeks a divine grace not only greater than 
his sin, but greater also than his righteousness. 

Man is torn between religious humility and sinful pride: this is his 
dilemma. From this situation man cannot extricate himself. The self 
that is to change itself is as troublesome as the self that is to be 
changed. No one can decide to be humble; the very decision estab- 
lishes the self from whose dominion freedom is sought. Humility 
issues only from the heart that is broken at the foot of the cross, the 
heart that has seen, in the broken body of the Son of God, the mean- 
ing of its sin. No one can will a broken heart unless the wrath and 
the love of God have been revealed to him. In the knowledge that 
God is forever against sinful self-love, yet forever for the self, that 
God takes man's sin into his own heart and suffers it only in this 
knowledge can the heart become humble. 

Nature can be known through scientific inquiry, but scientific 
knowledge does not disclose its own meaning. The meaning of na- 
tural and human existence is disclosed from a trandscendent perspec- 
tive available only to faith and love. The knowledge of God does not 

54 Major Voices in American Theology 

proceed from rational processes, though it eventually engages them. 
The knowledge of God is available only to the heart that is broken, 
and illumined, by the Holy Spirit. 

" The Christian gospel as the final answer to the problems of both in- 
dividual life and man's total history is not proved to be true by rational 
analysis. Its acceptance is an achievement of faith, being an apprehension 
of truth beyond the limits of reason. Such a faith must be grounded in 
repentance; for it presupposes a contrite recognition of the elements of 
pretension and false completion in all forms of human virtue, knowledge, 
and achievement. It is a gift of grace because neither the faith nor the 
repentance required for the knowledge of the true God, revealed in the 
cross and the resurrection, can be attained by taking thought. The self 
must lose itself to find itself in faith and repentance; but it does not find 
itself unless it be apprehended from beyond itself " (Faith and History, 
p. 151). 

At the end of self, God. Rational process, with all its virtues, can- 
not apprehend him, for self-trust and self-assertion are always in- 
volved in self-analysis. The Renaissance idea of salvation by reason 
failed to take into account that it is precisely reason which turns the 
will-to-live into the will-to-power. Reason cannot find in itself a 
vantage point beyond self-interest. Marx discovered the ideological 
taint in all bourgeois morality. Bourgeois ideals were rationalized 
bourgeois interests. The sinful exploitation of the poor had been hid- 
den behind the high-sounding pretense. But Marx failed to realize 
his own ideological taint, the rationalized envy of the proletariat. 
Reason is aware that it ought to be free, but is never as free as it 
ought to be. Lack of wisdom is not due primarily to a defect of the 
mind; it is due rather to a corruption of the heart; selfish pride intro- 
duces confusion into every historical conclusion. The human mind is 
so weak, so easily enslaved and prostituted by passion, that one is 
never certain whether the aristocratic fear of anarchy and revolution 
is an honest apprehension of evil or a dishonest attempt to take ad- 
vantage of the proletariat. Reason not only justifies egoism, but en- 
dows it with a force it does not possess in subrational nature. Ration- 
alism has no impartial perspective from which to view, and no 
transcendent fulcrum from which to affect, human action. Privileged 
groups have habitually denied the underprivileged every opportunity 

The Insufficiency of Man 55 

to cultivate innate capacity, and then ungallantly accused them of 
lacking what they had been denied the right to acquire. 

Scientific investigation achieves relative impartiality as long as the 
object of its study is not an object of its desire, or as long as the 
facts it accumulates remain uninterpreted. As soon as meaning is 
added to measurement, presupposition destroys impartiality. The 
modern belief that scientific objectivity may be simply extended from 
nature to history obscures the unity of the self which acts, and is 
acted upon, in history. It also obscures the ambiguity of the self as 
both an effect, and a cause, of history. The self as creator does not 
master the self as creature merely by the extension of scientific 
know-how. The self is always an interested participant in every 
event, yet transcends itself enough to know that this is true. The 
common sense of mankind has always labeled as ridiculous every 
denial of human freedom, every evasion of human responsibility and 

Man is a sinner, but he is more than a sinner because he is aware 
of his sin. Yet with his own resources of mind and will he cannot 
extricate himself from his dilemma. Because he is aware of his guilt, 
he transcends H. L. Mencken's cynical characterization: " Man is a 
sick fly taking a dizzy ride on a gigantic flywheel. . . . He is lazy, 
improvident, unclean. . . . Life is a combat between jackals and 
jackasses " (Does Civilization Need Religion?, p. 40). Precisely this 
cynicism characterized the Nazi view of non-Nordic man. 

The modern assumption of self-sufficiency is nothing more than 
finiteness without humility. 

" To be self-conscious is to see the self as a finite object separated from 
essential reality; but also related to it, or there could be no knowledge of 
separation. If this religious feeling is translated into moral terms it be- 
comes the tension between the principle of love and the impulse of ego- 
ism; between the obligation to affirm the ultimate unity of life and the 
urge to establish the ego against all competing forms of life. . . . All 
modern moral theory may be briefly described as complacent finiteness." 
(An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 67) . 

Essential Christianity and modern culture at this point are irrec- 
oncilable. The final conflict is between those who have a confidence 

56 Major Voices in American Theology 

in human virtue which human nature cannot support and those who 
have looked too deeply into human character to place their trust in 
so broken a reed. 


Modern optimism, in contrast to Christianity's provisional pessi- 
mism, issues from the simple secular faith that history is Christ, that 
is, that history redeems itself. Christianity offers ultimate hope be- 
cause its confidence is in the power and love of God; its provisional 
pessimism rises in its experience of human double-mindedness, its 
awareness that the highest idealism and the most hideous baseness 
exist side by side, and with all sincerity, in the same man, and even 
more in the same society. Human collectives, whether Churches or 
States, families or labor unions, are always more selfish than individ- 
uals. While Christianity seeks God's will on earth as in heaven, it 
has no naive faith in any group's ability to transcend its own egoism. 

Christianity's basic universalism dwarfs the provincial and partial 
perspectives of nations and cultures. Christianity comprehends the 
whole of history, and not only the story of a particular people; fur- 
ther, it deals with the problem of evil ultimately, and not merely 
from the standpoint of what may appear evil to an individual or a 
nation beset by competitors and foes. Christianity comprehends the 
whole of history because it is a religion of revelation; it knows by 
faith of certain events in history, in which the transcendent meaning 
of the whole panorama is disclosed. To Christianity, history is pre- 
cisely a drama, not a mechanism of cause and effect which can be 
charted scientifically, not a sequence of inevitabilities which takes no 
account of freedom. 

The secular faith, in history as itself redemptive, was clothed by 
liberal Christianity in traditional Christian phrases; the evolutionary 
process was the actual content of the liberal creed. Fundamentalism, 
on the other hand, sought prematurely to prove the truth of the 
Christian faith by denying and defying the fact of development in 
nature and history. The Christian concept of creation ex nihilo is 
not a denial of development; it simply insists that the temporal proc- 
ess is not self-explanatory. 

The Insufficiency of Man 57 

The Christian view that history, either in whole or in part, can- 
not complete itself, has been wrongly used to justify cowardly resig- 
nation to known evils. Aware of creaturely limitation, religion has 
frequently prompted a defeatist attitude toward scientific efforts to 
ameliorate natural evils or social efforts to overcome historical evils. 
Yet this miscarriage of Christian humility is in contradiction to the 
Biblical faith, which always affirms the potential value of historical 
life. It was precisely in history, and not in a flight from history, that 
the divine love which suffers and sustains history was revealed. In 
contrast to every idolatrous culture, the divine revelation, which has 
manifested itself in history, cuts down everything that exalts itself 
against the knowledge of God. In short, the meaning of history 
transcends the historical process. 

Fanaticism, whether religious or irreligious, whether Catholic or 
Communist, is simply the tendency within any economic class, any 
national or ecclesiastical hierarchy, to consider its partial perspective 
absolute, to consider itself God. Society is unable to complete itself, 
to save itself, precisely because egoism intrudes itself sinfully into all 
social achievement. Even the highest truth may be prostituted to the 
lowest purposes. The self -worship of individuals, and even more of 
nations and civilizations, expresses itself more plausibly in a truly 
universal religion than in any obvious idolatry. There is no absolute 
defense against the corruption of Christian truth through national or 
ecclesiastical pride and pretense. The sad history of Christian fanati- 
cism proves that no version of the Christian faith has been immune 
to the error of claiming absolute significance for relative insights. 
Thus the Roman Church has uniformly sanctified medieval feudal- 
ism; thus Reformed Christianity has uniformly sanctified laissez- 
faire economics; and thus Marxism has uniformly sanctified the 
self-interest of the proletariat. 

The fanatic fury of orthodox Marxism rises in its naive faith that 
history is itself redemptive. The Marxian messianism endows a 
particular class in society with premature sanctity; its secular utopian- 
ism asserts the corning appearance, in history, of a kingdom of per- 
fect righteousness (i.e., a classless society and an anarchistic brother- 
hood). Communism's absolute self -righteousness constitutes its real 

58 Major Voices in American Theology 

peril. The conventional objections to Marxist "materialism" and 
"atheism" are beside the point. Materialism is, on the whole, a 
justified reaction to purely otherworldly religions which do not 
understand that life is social and material as well as spiritual and 
moral. Marxist atheism is less deadly than Marxist idolatry. Orthodox 
Communism worships a god who is the unqualified ally of one 
class in society against all others, 

The Christian view of life through death is applicable to individ- 
uals, but also, though more rarely, to nations. For example, Britain's 
absolute monarchy was forced to submit to constitutional limitation, 
and thus extended its life, thus found life through death. Precisely 
at the point of challenge by new forces, every political or social struc- 
ture either resists and is destroyed, or submits to judgment and is 
renewed. No nation may achieve absolute justice within its borders; 
no society of nations may perfectly satisfy the legitimate aspirations 
of all its members; yet equal justice may always be more adequately 
approximated. Approximation becomes tragic departure, however, 
when the privileged class which controls the political system within 
a nation or the privileged nations within a society of states seek self- 
ishly to maintain their position at the expense of the total com- 

Naive social scientists have assumed that men of power, and na- 
tions of power, will immediately curb their excessive demands upon 
society, as soon as they have been informed that their demands are 
antisocial. The egoistic corruption of individuals, and even more of 
nations, is wholly underestimated. All moralists, whether religious 
or rational, fail to comprehend the brutal behavior of every human 
collective; the power and persistence of group pride is insufficiently 
grasped. Only relative justice is possible in the affairs of men, and 
the possibility always transcends actual achievement, yet relative 
justice inevitably requires something more than mere good will 

" Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given them- 
selves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation 
waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enter- 
prise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence 
and social good will will never be so sure or powerful, and rational capac- 

The Insufficiency of Man 59 

ity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our 
own will never be so fully developed, as to create the possibility of the 
anarchistic millennium which is the social Utopia, either explicit or im- 
plicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists. 

" All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social 
group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its 
unity purely by coercion, neither can it preserve itself without coercion " 
(Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 3. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932). 

Niebuhr asserts a simple social law: the larger the group, the 
stronger its egoism in, and against, the total community. This exces- 
sive self-interest necessitates a measure of countercoercion. Niebuhr 
finds the rational moralists wrong in their assumption that violence 
is intrinsically immoral. In Kant's view, nothing is intrinsically im- 
moral except ill will, and nothing intrinsically good except good 
will. Yet if violence is to be justified at all, as surgery to check can- 
cerous growth, it must be applied with the surgeon's skill and with 
the surgeon's healing purpose. Indeed, nonviolence itself is a form 
of coercion. Negative resistance does not achieve spirituality simply 
because it is negative; it may express ill will as readily, or more 
readily, than good will. As long as it enters the field of society and 
places physical restraints upon the desires and activities of others, 
it is a form of physical coercion. 

In Niebuhr's view, Christianity must usually side with the poor 
against the privileged, and with democracy against tyranny; as he 
sees it, society is always a contest of power, and the competing pow- 
ers are never equally good or equally evil. Since equal justice is the 
only acceptable objective for society> social conflict which aims at 
greater equality has a moral basis not found in efforts which seek 
the perpetuation of privilege. War for the emancipation of nation, 
race, or class, is different in kind from war for the perpetuation of 
imperial rule or class dominance. 

Niebuhr believes that democracy, to survive, must be divorced 
from its traditional defense. Democracy must and can have a 
stronger foundation than bourgeois optimism and individualism, 
now in need of revision. Man's capacity for justice, says Niebuhr, 
makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes 

60 Major Voices in American Theology 

democracy necessary. The will to survival becomes, through the mis- 
use of reason, the will to power, imperialism, and domination. To 
rest democracy's case upon human self-sufficiency is to rest it upon 
a false dogma; in Christian thought, self-sufficiency is recognized as 
the primal sin. Self Jove, the root of all sin, takes two social forms: 
the domination of other life by the self, and isolationism, which is 
irresponsibility. Yet democracy is necessary, because its system of 
checks and balances curbs the egoism of competing groups, each by 
itself seeking to establish a new tyranny. Democracy is necessary, 
because its insistence upon free criticism is a simple recognition that 
all historical reality, whether of Church or Government, whether of 
wise man or specialist, is involved in the flux and relativity of human 
existence, is subject to error and sin, and exaggerates its errors and 
sins when they are immune to criticism. 

Some kind of communal life is possible upon this planet, but the 
world community must be built by men and nations sufficiently ma- 
ture to understand that relative justice is achieved, not merely by 
destroying, but also by deflecting, beguiling, and harnessing inevi- 
table self-interest and by seeking the greatest possible common 
ground between self-interest and the general welfare. Leading na- 
tions and men must be humble enough to understand that the self- 
interest to be deflected is not exclusively in the opponent or com- 
petitor; it is also in the self, individual or collective, even in the 
idealist who erroneously imagines himself above the battle. 

Only faith in a transcendent as well as immanent God can view 
without final despair the personal and collective egoisms which ob- 
struct human brotherhood. Because modern man has faith neither in 
divine transcendence nor in divine immanence, the tragic realities of 
human existence and human nature drive him to total despair; for 
this reason he grasps at a straw, and clings desperately to the false 
dogma of human goodness. Thus his actual virtue becomes vice, 
and his noble strength an ignoble shortcoming (The Irony of Ameri- 
can History, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952). Christianity believes in 
a divine mercy that overcomes the contradictions of human history, 
which man can never completely overcome on any level of achieve- 
ment. But Christianity is embarrassed by the fact that the majority 

The Insufficiency of Man 61 

of modern Christians, particularly in America, have no other faith 
than modern secularists. 

" The Christian faith finds the final clue to the meaning of life and 
history in the Christ whose goodness is at once the virtue which man 
ought to, but does not, achieve in history, and the revelation of a divine 
mercy which understands and resolves the perpetual contradiction in 
which history is involved, even on the highest reaches of human achieve- 
ment. From the standpoint of such a faith it is possible to deal with the 
ultimate social problem of human history: the creation of community in 
world dimensions. The insistence of the Christian faith that the love of 
Christ is the final norm of human existence must express itself socially 
in unwillingness to stop short of the whole human community in express- 
ing our sense of moral responsibility for the life and welfare of others. 
The understanding of the Christian faith that the highest achievements 
of human life are infected with sinful corruption will help men to be 
prepared for new corruptions on the level of world community which 
drive simpler idealists to despair" (The Children of Light and the 
Children of Darkness, p. 188). 


Ideally the Christian Community is " the saving remnant " which 
offers healing as well as diagnosis to sub-Christian nations, cultures, 
classes, and persons. It summons to renewal through repentance 
without the false belief that any nation or person can fulfill the 
meaning and purpose of history. But alas, the Church as a historical 
enterprise is human as well as divine, and seldom approximates the 
ideal. The true Church, never identical with the Church visible, is 
precisely that community of saints, known and unknown, among 
whom life is constantly transformed because it is always under the 
divine word. But the Church that men experience from century to 
century in history is often as far short of saintliness as the secular 
world. Indeed, secularism may be basically no more than a healthy 
reaction against the premature maturity of the pious. The under- 
production of saints curses Church and State alike. 

Niebuhr became keenly aware of the departure of organized re- 
ligion from its own avowed faith during the years immediately pre- 
ceding our participation in World War II. Spiritual insight and 
moral sensitivity, in his view, had at that time sunk to a new low. 

62 Major Voices in American Theology 

In an age of world tragedy, surrounded by the miserable victims of 
tyranny and conflict, organized Christianity had identified the slo- 
gan, "Keep America out of War! " with the Christian gospel. In 
1940 he wrote: 

** Modern Christian and secular perfectionism, which places a pre- 
mium upon nonparticipation in conflict, is a very sentimentalized version 
of the Christian faith and is at variance with the profoundest insights of 
the Christian religion. . . . 

" The ' liberal culture } of modern bourgeois civilization has simply 
and sentimentally transmuted the suprahistorical ideals of perfection of 
the gospel into simple historical possibilities. In consequence it defines 
the good man and the good nation as the man and nation which avoid 
conflict. ... It is unable to make significant distinctions between tyr- 
anny and freedom because it can find no democracy pure enough to 
deserve its devotion. ... It is unable to distinguish between the peace 
of capitulation to tyranny and the peace of the Kingdom of God. It does 
not realize that its effort to make the peace of the Kingdom of God into 
a simple historical possibility must inevitably result in placing a premium 
upon surrender to evil, because the alternative course involves men and 
nations in conflict, or runs the risk, at least, of involving them in conflict. 

" This kind of perfectionism is bad religion, however much it may 
claim the authority of the Sermon on the Mount. ... It is bad politics 
and . . . helps to make the democratic nations weak and irresolute be- 
fore a resolute and terrible foe" (Christianity and Power Politics, 
pp. ix-xi). 

In simplest terms Niebuhr is convinced that religion can survive in 
modern civilization only by divine grace; humanly speaking, reli- 
gion is dying in Western culture for two reasons: it has not made 
room in its authentic faith for scientific fact, and it has not made its 
ethical resources available for the solution of social problems. 

In particular, modern religion has failed to rescue the economic 
world from essential irreligion. Adam Smith replaced Thomas 
Aquinas as the moral authority of the businessman, and, the ful- 
minations of the early reformers notwithstanding, Protestantism 
sanctified laissez-faire economics and accepted a divided world; vast 
areas of life were withdrawn not only from religious inspiration but 
also from ethical examination. Thus was created our present world 
in which " business is business " and " politics is politics "; the noja- 

The Insufficiency of Man 63 

moral character of two basic human relationships is taken for 
granted. " Business is business," " ethics is ethics," and never the 
twain shall meet. 

The Church has injured itself needlessly, and endlessly, by its pre- 
mature identification of medieval science with Christian revelation. 
The whole evolutionary controversy, in Niebuhr's view, was charged 
with nonscientific and nonobjective factors on both sides. In the one 
case the heretics sought a premature escape from the unique respon- 
sibilities of human freedom; and in the other case the orthodox 
sought a premature escape from human creatureliness. Neither saints 
nor sinners knew as much as they advertised. A religion which 
claims to know too much is guilty of idolatrous pride; it is also an 
expression of the will-to-power. Secular skepticism is, or can be, 
faith's path to purity. Modern science was wrong in its premature 
identification of external description with ultimate meaning, but 
fundamentalism was equally wrong in regarding transcendent mean- 
ing as an adequate description of natural sequence. Theology be- 
came a bad science and science a bad theology. The conscious and 
pious motive of secularism, whatever its unconscious and more sin- 
ful motive, was to remove the strait jacket which pseudo-Christianity 
had placed upon man. " Publicans and sinners " have often rescued 
an important truth, and restored wholesomeness in human relations, 
against the fanaticism of the saints, who had forgotten that sainthood 
is corrupted whenever either perfect knowledge or pure virtue is 
claimed as a simple possession. The antichrist of the righteous, on 
the long view, is more deadly than the antichrist of the sinners. 

Yet the Church has rightly sought to protect divine and human 
freedom from the dissolving determinism of science. Science, as often 
as religion, is corrupted by its assumption that its relative knowledge 
is absolute. The modern distaste for the religious sense of guilt has 
frequently led modern culture to deny the idea of moral responsi- 
bility. Modern culture has placed all its eggs in the basket of the 
scientific method; and no scientific description of a moral act can 
ever disclose the area of freedom in which alternate choices are 
weighed. Scientific description is both external and retrospective. In 
its view, every act is determined by previous acts in an endless chain 

64 Major Voices in American Theology 

of cause and effect. To an external observer no conscious choice of 
good or evil is discernible. 

The Church has failed to render its required and essential service 
to the cause of social justice. An inevitable vice of a really profound 
religion is its frequent indifference, and irresponsibility , toward the 
immediate problems of relative justice in human relations. When 
statesmen are judged, it must be remembered that the statesman 
must, and the prophet need not, consider the limitations of human 
society. The self-righteousness of the prophet in his quick condem- 
nation of the statesman has obscured both ethical faith and political 
good works. 

The cultural crisis of Western civilization issues directly from its 
substitution of secular religions for the Christian faith. German na- 
tionalism was the cheapest, and costliest, ersatz religion. But a mes- 
sianic classj the Communist alternative, is as evil as a messianic 
nation; indeed in Russia the two have become one. Undoubtedly the 
working class enjoys a special historical destiny. But without a tran- 
scendent reference it cannot criticize its own mission; inevitably it 
imagines itself to be God, even if it does not believe in God or 
perhaps particularly if it does not believe in God. 

But the insufficiency of the Church is evident not alone in its rela- 
tion to secular science and idolatrous religion. Interior problems 
illustrate abundantly that organized piety has more often preached 
than practiced its gospel of love. The evangelical dismemberment of 
the body of Christ has demonstrated the human tendency to consider 
every partial truth ultimate. There is a religious solution to the prob- 
lem of religious diversity. Religious and cultural diversity are pos- 
sible in a free society, without the loss of religious depth. The solu- 
tion requires a high form of religious commitment. It demands that 
each religion, or each version of a single faith, proclaim its highest 
insights while yet preserving a contrite recognition that all creeds 
are subject to human corruption. Such a recognition makes tolerance 
possible and denies any religious or cultural movement the right to 
claim official validity or to demand an official monopoly. 

There is a positive element in our resistance to necessary change 
that is evil precisely because it is spiritual. World Christian fellow- 

The Insufficiency of Man 65 

ship is obstructed by countless premature maturities. Lower and 
narrower loyalties stand against nobler and wider loyalties, and their 
strength lies not alone in natural inertia, but also in guile of spirit. 
Stubborn provincialism is as destructive as idolatry, and is idolatry. 
It is obvious that religion has both created, and prevented, world 
community in State and Church. 

The faith of the Church rests upon the sufficiency of God, yet the 
Church has abundantly demonstrated its own insufficiency in inter- 
preting that faith. The Christian revelation has been abused in the 
house of its friends, both by literalists and by liberals. To begin with, 
the basic distinction between Biblical and cultural religions has been 
obscured. Culture religions and Christianity itself has often lost 
its supracultural character seek to achieve the eternal by some 
discipline of mind or heart, whether mystical or rational. Biblical 
religion stresses the gulf eternally fixed between the Creator and the 
creature which neither mysticism nor rationalism can cross; revela- 
tion lets down a drawbridge from within the divine, but it is useful 
only to those who see it. The Christian revelation itself is relativized 
by every finite mind that accepts it. The worship of a God who is 
more than man's highest wisdom and virtue makes contrition pos- 
sible. Every grasp of the revelation is at best an inexact representa- 
tion, a more or less faithful approximation. This position requires an 
intellectual humility rare among liberals and literalists alike. Pride 
has been more common among the interpreters of the faith once for 
all delivered to the saints. As Helvetius, with much justification, put 
it: " On every side you see the consecrated knife of religion raised 
against the breasts of women and children, and the earth all smoking 
with the blood of victims, immolated to false gods or the Supreme 
Being, and presenting one sickening, horrible charnel house of jntol- 
erance" (Beyond Tragedy, pp. 232, 233). 

Liberalism, in haste to escape the obscurities of literalism, has often 
substituted a central relativism for central certainty. In the first place, 
liberalism has overestimated the role of reason. Revelation is mean- 
ingless to purely rational religion, for rationalists always approach 
life with the naive confidence that human reason can at length en- 
tirely resolve its mystery; rationalists inevitably overlook the embar- 

66 Major Voices in American Theology 

rassing fact that human reason is always involved in the enigma it 
seeks to comprehend indeed is itself the enigma. As Niebuhr sees 
it, liberalism produces neither warriors nor saints, neither heroes nor 
rebels, and is always ill at ease when confronted with either their 
fury or their passion. Presented with a Lenin or a Napoleon on the 
one hand, or a Francis or a Tolstoy on the other, the gentle liberal 
can only deplore their fanaticism and regret their ignorance of the 
principles of sociology. Liberalism has disclosed its effeminacy in its 
complete lack of asceticism. Some asceticism is a permanent charac- 
teristic of all serious religion. It has often degenerated into morbid 
prudery, but its complete absence is an evidence of the loss of reli- 
gious vitality. Similarly, there is a millennial hope in every vital re- 
ligion, and it is usually realistic enough to expect catastrophe. But 
liberalism has totally surrendered all expectation of judgment; its 
exclusive evolutionary millennialism is always the hope of the com- 

The real weakness of liberalism is its capitulation to the prevailing 
secularism. There is, in Niebuhr's view, only one step from a reason- 
able idealism to opportunism, and only another step from oppor- 
tunism to a dishonest acceptance of the status quo. There is no way 
of measuring the perils of fanaticism against the perils of opportun- 
ism, but it is rather obvious that society as a whole is more inclined 
to inertia than to adventure, and is therefore in greater need of the 
challenge of the absolutist than the sweet reasonableness of the rela- 

Yet Niebuhr genuinely appreciates the sweet reasonableness of the 
liberal. From his viewpoint, the contributions of the liberal spirit to 
social well-being, its tolerance, good will, and rational sympathy, are 
prematurely discounted in an era like our own because its claims 
have been too extravagant and its fruits too meager. The liberals are 
always needed in an established society to minimize racial antago- 
nisms, to preserve harmony between competing groups, to relate spe- 
cialized functions to one another, and to make tolerable the relations 
between individuals. In brief, the virtue of the supernaturalists is 
precisely their vertical dimension; their vice lies in the embarrassing 
fact that they have no horizontal awareness. Liberalism has lost the 

The Insufficiency of Man 67 

virtue of the vertical, but has lost also its horizontal insensitivity. 
Barnabas is always needed as well as Paul; the feminine is always as 
necessary as the masculine. 

The Church at its best is the repentant community. But repentance, 
either among literalists or liberals, has seldom been excessive. In 
classical Christianity it is asserted again and again that repentance 
is the beginning of redemption, and possibly synonymous with it. 
On the one hand it makes a difference whether men are good or 
evil, loving or selfish, honest or dishonest. It makes a real difference, 
that is, an ultimate difference in the sight of God. On the other hand 
it makes no difference at all. No life can justify itself ultimately be- 
fore God. The evil and the good, even the more and the less good, 
are equally in need of the mercy of the cross. God pays all his serv- 
ants more than they are worth. 

There is, in short, no method by which men can extricate them- 
selves so completely from human conflict that they are worthy to 
build a temple dedicated to the God from whom we learn "the 
nothingness of all human victories." There is no way of moral striv- 
ing to build the Church of God. The Church is created, not by the 
pride of the Pharisee, but by the humility of the publican; not by the 
achievement of pure goodness, but by the recognition of human 
sinfulness. This necessary contrition is the fruit of faith in the tran- 
scendent God who cannot be identified with any human goodness. 

It is always the task of the prophet to thrust with the sword of 
criticism. The struggle between the prophets and the pride of Israel 
contains ultimate insights almost totally lost in modern mediocrity. 
The prophets sought vainly to prove to Israel that a nation might 
have a divine mission and yet not be immune to divine judgment. 
As Niebuhr sees it, the United States, like Israel, must consider both 
its divine assignment and its human sin. 

Today, as much as at any period in history, the prophet's con- 
science is a social necessity. Modern secularism speaks naively about 
the sociological source of conscience, but the most effective oppo- 
nents of tyranny today, as always, are persons who can say, " We 
must obey God rather than men." The prophets' heroism is possible 
because they have a vantage point from which they can discern the 

68 Major Voices in American Theology 

pretensions o the modern Caesars and defy their police states. 

The two obvious weaknesses in Niebuhr's system of ideas are also 
his sources of strength. On the one hand he is wrong in viewing the 
ethic of Jesus as solely vertical. True, he endlessly asserts that love 
is an impossible possibility with direct relevance to every social issue, 
that love may always be achieved, even by sinful men, more perfectly 
than it is achieved. His negative definition of love as simple heed- 
lessness of self needs more positive content. Love is better under- 
stood as responsibility. Responsibility is required of men because 
responsibility is the nature of God. It was love-as-responsibility that 
hung upon the cross under the weight of our irresponsible self -love. 
Nonetheless it is true that love-as-responsibility, rather than as sim- 
ple selflessness, remains an impossible possibility, always beyond our 
actual achievement, yet always more perfectly within our reach. 

On the other hand no Christian will be quite satisfied with Nie- 
buhr's view that man both has, and has not, divine grace. Every 
Christian will recognize that sin persists on the highest levels of 
saintliness, that sin must be forgiven at the end as well as the begin- 
ning of the Christian life. The Reformation-Calvin-Luther emphasis 
has rightly retained this truth when the Arminius-Wesley-sectarian 
accent has frequently lost it. Nonetheless, you are left on the last 
page of Niebuhr's fourteen volumes with the feeling that Christ's 
words, " My grace is sufficient for thee," are not true. This deficiency 
may be explained by the fact that Niebuhr is always preoccupied 
with the interior of the Christian's soul, and is insufficiently aware 
that the Christian gospel has always offered an actual union between 
Christ and the soul a marriage, if you like. In this marriage the 
central interest is not the perpetual, though necessary, agony of sin, 
repentance, and forgiveness but the perpetual glory of a fellowship 
that transcends sin. Forgiveness exists for fellowship, not fellowship 
for forgiveness. A marriage solely preoccupied with sin and forgive- 
ness would be utterly intolerable. Repentance is the basic essential 
in man, society, and Church, but the purpose is fellowship, and the 
means forgiveness. In other words, as Niebuhr would himself con- 
fess, we are left at the end not only with the insufficiency of man. 

The Insufficiency of Man 69 

history, and Church, but also with the insufficiency o Niebuhr. It is 
Christ after all who must rescue, and restore, our souls. 

" The cross is a revelation of the love of God only to those who have 
first stood under it as a judgment. It is in the cross that the exceeding 
sinfulness of human sin is revealed. It is in the cross that we become 
conscious how not only what is worst but what is best in human culture 
and civilization is involved in man's rebellion against God. It was Roman 
law, the pride of all pagan civilization, and Hebraic religion, the acme 
of religious devotion, which crucified the Lord. . . . Our gospel is one 
which assures salvation in the cross of Christ to those who heartily repent 
of their sins " (Ibid., pp. 210-211). 




The Postcritical Theology of Nels F. S. FerrS 

The Postcritical Theology 


Nels F. S. Ferre 

If Reinhold Niebuhr's theology can be quickly, and essentially, 
summarized in the word of Jesus, " Without me ye can do noth- 
ing," the theology of Nels F. S. Ferre can be similarly summarized 
in the word of Paul, " I can do all things through Christ which 
strengthened! me." The word of Jesus, though expressed negatively, 
clearly carries Paul's meaning. Put affirmatively, the line would read: 
" With me ye can do all things." Niebuhr thinks negatively of hu- 
man sufficiency; Ferre thinks positively of the sufficiency of God. 
Each theology needs the other: the postcritical faith needs the Nie- 
buhr realism; the critical faith needs Ferre's affirmation of the ade- 
quacy of love. Without Ferre, Niebuhr is cynical; without Niebuhr, 
Ferre is sentimental. Niebuhr has thrust his two-edged sword deep 
into modern complacence, but where Niebuhr has wounded, Ferre 
has healed. Niebuhr has turned the modern critical temper upon 
itself, and has thereby made faith possible but not inevitable. Ferre 
has built a theology of love upon the ground Niebuhr has cleared. 
Niebuhr has accented the inadequacy of the human spirit; Ferre has 
emphasized the adequacy of the Holy Spirit. Where Niebuhr is a 
John the Baptist, pronouncing doom upon the perennially false, 
Ferre is a Saint John, announcing the resurrection of the perma- 
nently true. It is a caricature to say that Niebuhr sees no possibility of 
success; it is no caricature to say that Ferre sees no possibility of 

A direct look at Ferre's life will disclose that, in his case, theology 
is a postscript to a divine-human encounter. Paul's experience on 

74 Major Voices in American Theology 

the road to Damascus determined the direction, if not the content, 
o his subsequent thought. Ferre's experience of divine severity and 
divine goodness laid the foundation of his faith. 

Ferre was born in Sweden in 1908, the son of a Baptist minister. 
He dedicated his first book, Swedish Contributions to Modern The- 
ology (1939), to his fire-breathing Fundamentalist father, Rev. Frans 
Ferre, " for fifty years a minister to Swedish people." Though Nels 
Ferre eventually departed from literalism, he still retains its depth 
of seriousness. To him, an easy religion is a false promise; true faith 
makes radical demands and commands radical treatments. No easy 
religion was offered him in childhood. Evangelists, more conscious 
of the horrors of hell than of the glories of heaven, summoned him 
with fire and brimstone to the mourner's bench, there to confess his 
sins and be saved. Not to obey the mandate of the Bible was to carry 
on his forehead the mark of the Beast. Christ was presently to return 
to judge the world, " perhaps tonight, perhaps tomorrow, but in any 
case, suddenly and soon." Then the day of opportunity would be 
ended and the lost would cry in vain for death. A literal hell, with 
souls bubbling forever in a flaming caldron, produced in Ferre 
exactly what it produced in Mary Baker Eddy, a firm determination 
to do away with it. 

The Ferre family lived in the country, next to the farm later 
bought by Greta Garbo. Once when Nels returned to find the family 
unexpectedly away, his heart turned frigid with fear, the whole 
world appeared abandoned, and he screamed for the sight of another 
human. Christ had certainly come, and one raw youth was left alone 
to face the unspeakable doom. A chilling silence, and hysterical in- 
ward shivering, followed. The Fundamentalists seemed more certain 
of doom than of hope, and the young Ferre was numbed rather than 
drawn; from the wrath of the Almighty, and from the Almighty, he 
desired only escape. 

But Ferre the elder could preach with joy and confidence about 
an equally literal heaven. When Nels was twelve, he heard his father 
speak quietly at a midweek prayer meeting about the future bliss of 
the saints. Surrounded by friends and neighbors deeply beloved, 
Nels felt, and has continued to feel, the call of heaven. Deep yearn- 

The Sufficiency of God 75 

ing for the God of Love pressed tears into his eyes, and his mother 
drew him to his knees. All knelt, and all prayed. Torrents of words 
gushed forth, and have continued to gush into ten volumes. New 
converts have seldom prayed so long and so fervently. Jericho's walls 
had crumbled, and Nels's heart grew light with joy. Late that night 
his father cautioned him, gently but firmly, that, though saved, he 
must nevertheless sleep as before. But joy, and a whole new universe, 
had found him. He was no longer afraid of the dark, and he went 
at once to share his new-found treasure with a friend. 

Ferre confesses that he has been converted three times: the first to 
traditional Christianity; the second to honesty; and the third to 
Agape. His own life thus televises the modern Church, wherein he 
finds three kinds of Christians the precritical, the critical, and the 
postcritical. His first conversion was to naive Fundamentalism, all 
heart and little head; his second to a thoroughgoing liberalism, what 
he later terms " the theology of the bootstraps," all head and very 
little heart; and his third to the Love which is the heart of God and 
the hope of man. 

Ferre's life is a study in tormented spirituality; his second con- 
version began when " shadows of thought and knowledge crept 
steadily over the bright expanse of traditional faith." How could 
Cain and Abel father sons and daughters without female assistance? 
The elder Ferre drew his son aside and whispered an explanation 
which was no more and no less than simple incest. How could 
Noah's ark carry so many animals ? Nels's mother urged him not to 
doubt, but to believe the Bible. Worry pushed into his mind that 
Christianity, though wonderful, might not be true. " Don't argue 
with God " was Fundamentalism's only advice and Nels's happiness 
evaporated like mist before the sun. 

At thirteen he came to America to work for his education. In high 
school he tried to secure peace of soul by social nonconformity; he 
stayed away from movies, dances, and even Shakespearean plays, but 
to no avail. Faith was not to be forced, not even by his torrents of 
words at young people's meetings. High school petting, possibly as 
present as education is absent, plagued him. He told himself that 
petting was " natural," yet dared not succumb completely to biology. 

j6 Major Voices in American Theology 

Worst of all, and surprisingly enough, not even high school could 
keep some actual education from creeping through to him. College 
further presented his naive faith with rational impossibilities. Came 
the sciences, history, psychology, Biblical criticism, and a growing 
feeling that not every picture in the Bible, even of God, was respect- 
ably moral. One night he sank down by his bed, a disillusioned jun- 
ior, and prayed that, if there were any God to hear him, he might 
be given the courage to be honest. With the collapse of external 
literalism, God too had disappeared. Once he had defended his 
punctuation in a high school theme by King James usage, and was 
certain his teacher was an atheist when she flunked his paper. He 
felt himself confronted with an ultimate either/or, Christianity or 
honesty, and he could not but choose honesty. Head and heart went 
their separate ways, and not until his third conversion could he bring 
them back together, but minds as well as souls must be born from 
above. He became, and is still, consciously critical, though he has 
surrendered both head and heart to Love as the final reality of the 

Biblicism was gone, but he was further disturbed by a plain con- 
tradiction in traditional theology, that the sovereign Lord, pro- 
claimed as saving Love, should finally commit the greater part of 
mankind to an eternal hell. If it was God's will that all men should 
be saved, and if with God all things were possible, how could an 
eternal hell be taken seriously? His maternal grandmother had 
sometimes muttered meekly about a second chance for those who 
had had no opportunity in this life to receive Christ. She would do 
that for her son, she said, and had no doubt that God was better than 
she. Nels's tender but strong-willed mother had even risked life and 
limb to present before the family the case of the eternally lost, who 
had never seen the Light which shone round Galilee. The father then 
thundered from Mt. Sinai the orthodox damnation, and worlds of 
thought collided in Nels's mind. As Monica finally won out over 
Patricius with her son, Augustine, so Nels's mother, in his eventual 
theology, finally defeated his father. There was no flexibility in the 
elder Ferre. One condemnation was to be given the hardened, the 
babes, and the heathen. Man was not to question God. There was 

The Sufficiency of God 77 

no appeal to a higher court, and no postponement of the issue. Fam- 
ily peace, and submission to the father's pontifical utterances, per- 
sisted or perished together. But the hidden reservation remained in 
the child's " unhardened heart and untampered logic of love." 

As an Augustus Howe Buck Scholar and Fellow, Nels received 
his B.A. at Boston University (1931), and entered Andover Newton 
Theological School. While there, he found the reading of a non- 
assigned book each week the better part of education. George A. 
Gordon's My Education and Religion provided needed light. Ferre 
became convinced that it was possible to unite honesty with Chris- 
tianity, indeed that neither could live without the other. His third 
conversion had begun, though it was not to be completed without a 
required graduate course in intense personal suffering. Before read- 
ing Gordon, Nels had been held in check by his father's stern view 
of divine severity. There was suffering in the world, and no place 
for sentimentality. Gordon convinced him, however, that even in 
severity, God is Love. God's severity, for Love's sake, as well as his 
open goodness, has remained central in the Ferre theology. He con- 
siders evil a necessary condition of God's control of our freedom. 
We are neither determined nor irresponsibly free; it is not in our 
power finally to frustrate the eternal Purpose. We are free to revolt, 
but within limits, that we may thus learn and accept, in God's long 
and patient time, his way and his way alone. Through pain and 
pleasure God leads us to the recognition of our insufficiency, that 
we may cast our faithlessness upon his faithfulness. Love as kind- 
ness, and love as severity, effects God's Purpose in us, if not in this 
life, then in one or many lives to come. 

To perceive this truth with the mind is one thing; to perceive it 
existentially with the soul is another. In the first conversion Ferre 
adopted traditional religion, though not without a personal experi- 
ence of God. In the second conversion, he became free from the 
imposed past. In the third, conceived by insight, and born of suffer- 
ing, Ferre found the real God, head and heart agreeing. He was 
being converted all the while to the same God. Each conversion was 
an intensification and a redirection of growth. Slowly he has moved 
from the center in self to the center in God. 

78 Major Voices in American Theology 

He received the B.D. at Andover Newton in 1934, the M.A. (1936) 
and the Ph.D. (1938) at Harvard. He completed postdoctoral study 
at the Universities of Uppsala and Lund, and was Sheldon Traveling 
Fellow from Harvard to Europe. In Sweden he became thoroughly, 
though not uncritically, indoctrinated in Lundensian theology; he 
presented this significant material in his first book, Swedish Contri- 
butions to Modern Theology, where the greater part of his later 
system of ideas appears in seed form. He accepted Lund's Agape 
motif, but rejected its nonnormative approach to theology along with 
its traditional dualism. 

He was married in 1932 to Katharine Louise Pond, daughter of 
Dr. and Mrs. B. W. Pond (M.D.), of Boston. His wife appears, as 
counselor, typist, and proofreader in all his later books. He dedicated 
Faith and Reason (1946) " to Katharine in love, the bond of perfect- 
ness," and The Christian Faith (1942) to his wife's father and 
mother, " parents not only in law, but also in love." Ferre acknowl- 
edges that an immeasurable power for conversion came to him 
through his marriage. An authentic other person entered his world. 
He possessed a high, zealous theology, wedded to intensity of spirit. 
His wife's liberal theology centered in constructive and forgiving 
good will. He pitied her faith; she loved him, through suffering, into 
newness of life. Just being real came to mean more and more to him. 
Her quiet, steady faith, her believing prayer, and later, the devoted 
prayer of family and friends surrounded him with healing grace. 

He was ordained a Congregational minister in 1934, and still in 
his early thirties became professor of theology at Andover Newton. 
It was then that his salvation through surgery began in earnest. For 
nine years he was a victim of chronic arthritis. His own description 
of the ordeal is priceless: 

" God was at the center of my theology, yet 7 was at the center of my 
life prayer, faith, and work notwithstanding. I was a Harvard doctor of 
philosophy; I had spent years working on books from five thirty in the 
morning to eleven or later at night; I had stepped almost at once into a 
graduate professorship at rny own Andover Newton; and I felt too free to 
correct my colleagues. Exploding with ideas, I talked too much. I wanted 
to be accepted, but the more I tried to prove myself worthy of belonging, 
the less welcome I was. . . . 

The Sufficiency of God 79 

" God knew that I needed to suffer long and hard. Without sentimen- 
tality he took away my health and gave me years of pain, of constant 
physical handicap. Its intensity and duration cannot be known outside the 
family; in pain dulled by medicine and with an irrepressible drive to be 
used, I appeared at the line of duty. I dared tell no one how much I was 
suffering lest I lose my chance of participation. My wife and family are 
the heroes of those strange years. My wife cared for a baby daughter who 
was slowly dying during one of my hardest periods. Never can I stop 
thanking God for the purgatorial fire of those years. In them God's se- 
verity became personally accepted as goodness, and part of the process of 
conversion was actually effected. . . . 

" Gradually, . . . God has converted me to patience. He knows what 
he is doing; he knows long waiting. What right have we to fret, or to try 
to take the Kingdom by force, even the force of insight? Truth wins 
slowly, but is never stopped finally. Patience has given me much peace. I 
was really surprised that with less push came far more acceptance. God's 
pace, after all, is best for us " (" The Third Conversion Never Fails," in 
These Found the Way, edited by David Wesley Soper, pp. 136, 137. The 
Westminster Press, 1951). 

An essential part of Ferre's suffering was the very intensity of his 
sense of mission. He felt that he had a commission from God, that 
his mission and message were certain. In his view, liberalism had 
relativized and literalism had strait-jacketed Christianity. The shorn 
Samson, eyeless in Gaza, awaited rescue in the house of bondage. 
Ferre's task was to proclaim anew that the sovereign Lord is 
saving Love, that divine Love will not be, and cannot be, denied, 
that "God works through general providence to bring forth the self 
only in order that special providence may begin in the self the crea- 
tion of a saint. God is in absolute control; all history and experience 
are simply the pedagogy of Love. The predictability of nature makes 
knowledge possible; the precariousness of process makes clear man's 
insufficiency, in order that he may cast himself utterly on the suffi- 
ciency of God. This clue, followed thoroughly, Ferre recognized, 
would revolutionize modern theology, cut across literalism, natural- 
ism, and liberalism, and exchange new light for old darkness. There 
is nothing new about the radical (root) idea of God's love, but its 
final meaning for faith and reason, for the purpose and process of 
God, for the nature and purpose of evil, and for the Christian view 

8o Major Voices in American Theology 

of last things, was, and remains, to be seen and accepted. To com- 
municate his revolutionary idea to fellow Christians everywhere was 
Ferre's burning ambition, and his slow acceptance as an authentic 
Christian voice increased his cleansing pain. In his words, " All my 
life I have had to wait abnormally long for many things which I 
wanted in a particular hurry" (Strengthening the Spiritual Life, 
p. 22. Harper & Brothers, 1951). Yet looking back upon his pilgrim- 
age, the amazing thing is not how slowly, but how quickly, he has 
achieved rank among America's leading theologians. 

Ten books have come from his busy mind, and it is safe to expect 
as many more. Though each presents the same structure of theology, 
each is significant in its own way, and, whether heavy or light, of 
inestimable value. Ferre has rejected the Lund dualism, and the 
Lund descriptive rather than normative theology, yet Swedish Con- 
tributions to Modern Theology, published in 1939, when Ferre was 
thirty-one, accents his heavy indebtedness to Aulen and Nygren on 
the depth relation of human Eros to divine Agape. In 1940, when 
Ferre was thirty-two, came The Christian Fellowship, attacking lib- 
eralism as the idolatry of man, and traditionalism as the idolatry of 
doctrine, stressing Agape as Christianity's distinctive motif, its prin- 
ciple of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, applicable alike to the Bible 
and to all other religious literature; human knowledge and fellow- 
ship, which are neither absolute nor valueless, can approach com- 
pleteness only through forgiveness and surrender. The Christian 
Faith, in 1942, relates the push of process to the pull of Purpose, 
asserts that Love must work through pain, distinguishes between the 
priceless pearl of Love and its inexpensive Biblical setting, denies 
that traditionalism's purity of doctrine is an end in itself, pours out 
with scorn " the skim milk of liberal theology," finds in the divine 
Agape a social gospel without secularism. In 1943 appeared Return 
to Christianity, a small book with big ideas and probably, along with 
Pillars of Faith (1948), the layman's best introduction to Ferre. 
Return to Christianity describes and defines the cracked bells of liter- 
alism, liberalism, and scientism, with its reductionist anesthetic, diag- 
noses the failure of secular education to educate, seeks a more ex- 
cellent way than capitalist or socialist materialism, and urges the 

The Sufficiency of God 81 

acceptance, in theology and in life, of Christianity's full fellowship 
on earth and in heaven. Three volumes in series, bearing the con- 
tinuous subtitle, Reason and the Christian Faith, began with Faith 
and Reason, written in thanksgiving for the return of health, and 
tracing through science, philosophy, and religion the pointing of 
process to Purpose. The distinct, and common, tasks of science, phi- 
losophy, and theology, and the false uses of all three, have not been 
better described. The book should be required reading in all college 
survey courses attempting to make an effective team of these rival 
prima donnas. Science has not failed man; it is man who has failed 
science. Philosophy is simply rational knowledge; theology involves 
the reflexive super spective which looks back upon present process 
from final Purpose; religion in general is whole response to what is 
regarded as most important and most real; right religion is whole 
response to what is most important and most real. Only .by the 
breaking of self do we change from selves to sons. The series con- 
tinued with Evil and the Christian Faith (1947), wherein Ferre 
struggles with the problem that has always plagued him in thought 
and life, but concludes, perhaps prematurely, that evil has only a 
functional and not at all a final reality. In his view, man may not 
have two deities, God and pleasure. No vacation-at-the-beach phi- 
losophy is adequate for man. The hand of God hurts to heal. The 
self must rebel in order to be a self, but only that it may become a 
son. Moral evil is man's misuse of freedom; natural evil is God's 
control of freedom. All men must, at one time or another, pass through 
self-sufficiency to self-despair, and thence to God's security in the 
Agape fellowship. Accepted, dedicated suffering can be placed on 
God's altar for the redemption of the world. Agape is definitely dis- 
continuous with all religions, became flesh conclusively, but not 
concludingly, in Jesus Christ for our salvation, can be understood and 
realized only through the Holy Spirit. Pillars of Faith, perhaps the 
best short summary of essential Christianity, and the best short his- 
tory of the Christian Church now in print, describes the five au- 
thorities upon which the Church has in sequence depended, explains 
how each has at times become through human sinfulness a problem 
rather than a power, why all are necessary for the fuller faith 

82 Major Voices in American Theology 

Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, and reasoned experi- 
ence. Following Pillars of Faith, the series " Reason and the Chris- 
tian Faith" concluded with Christianity and Society (1950). The 
implications of Agape for man and society are carried out in full. 
Christianity is through and through social. Man exists for himself 
only that he may live for God and the Fellowship. Nature is both 
steady and risky, in order that man may learn responsibility without 
self-sufficiency. Creative newness enters the world only through 
those whose eyes are open to what is more-than-society. Social theory 
needs not only realism, but even more, Reality. When man loses his 
heart, his head soon follows. Liberalism spoke in love, but forgot that 
it was the truth that was to be spoken. The God of wrath and the 
God of love are the same God, working through slow patience and 
sudden catastrophe to create and break the self -centered self that it 
may become a member of the Family. Man's freedom is finite; he 
cannot thwart God eternally. The determinism of Love is final; the 
freedom of fear is temporal. Agape is released in individual souls 
mostly through prayer. Men cannot pray effectively together who do 
not pray rightly alone. The business of theology is to look at life 
from the perspective of the Ultimate. The year 1951 brought to print 
two penetrating volumes, one food for the people, the other giraffe's 
food. The first, meager in size but not in insight, is Strengthening 
the Spiritual Life, a Christian muezzin, a call to prayer, a command 
to worship, to work, and hardest of all to wait, in the Holy Spirit. 
The second, meager neither in weight nor in light, builds a long- 
needed bridge across the chasm from Kierkegaard to Aquinas, The 
Christian Understanding of God. The importance of this book, the 
first of what may prove ten volumes in series on Christianity's cen- 
tral ideas, corrected by Agape, cannot be overestimated. All of Ferre 
is in this volume, though the full portrait may be more apparent to 
one who has taken the grand tour through his earlier writing. Basi- 
cally, the idea is that theology, like philosophy, has always been 
falsely centered either in being or becoming, in Reality conceived 
as static perfection, or in Reality conceived as dynamic process. In 
Ferre's view Agape terminates this historic controversy and makes 
of the two hemispheres one world. Being must endlessly become in 

The Sufficiency of God 83 

order to be what it is. Love is ultimate, and never less than itself, 
but freely and endlessly creates to share its joy, and as it creates it 
grows. Over against the infinity of being is the infinity of nonbeing, 
of nothingness, but nothingness constitutes no barrier to God. Every 
divine creation, every self, and every self broken and embraced by 
the Holy Spirit, enriches and enlarges Love. The Spirit of God has 
driven the evolutionary process from below, impersonally, to bring 
forth the self-conscious self, the natural man, predominantly pos- 
sessed by Eros, in order that the self, at the end of itself, may be 
possessed directly by Agape, the Holy Spirit; it is he who makes of 
isolated selves the Community of saints, the Fellowship for which 
the world was made and is now sustained. Process, yes; Reality, yes; 
but Process and Reality, and the Process in the service of Reality. 
Reality is the divine Agape conclusively but not concludingly en- 
acted in the whole Christ, neither Jesus alone nor the Church alone, 
but Head and body together. A basic limitation, traceable in the total 
Ferre theology, is the category of Antibeing, noticeable by its ab- 
sence. In Ferre's view, nothing can, nothing does, permanently resist 
Agape. Love never fails. Resistance is only the pedagogically neces- 
sary self-centeredness of man on the way from his center in self to 
his center in God. Hell has a school and a door in it, and no man 
can finally be lost. The volume, and the whole Ferre theology, fails 
to take into account the obvious evolutionary fact that not all that 
starts finishes, that not every amoeba becomes a monkey, that not 
every monkey becomes a man, that not every man becomes a saint; 
on Jesus' terms, few do. Thank God that papa crocodile eats ninety- 
five out of every hundred eggs mama crocodile lays. That which is 
born of the flesh is flesh; only that which is born of the Spirit has 
resurrection in its future. Nonetheless, in itself, Ferre's view of the 
nature and purpose of God is final; no work will be found more 
ultimately satisfying, nor more ultimately true, for the Christian, or 
for any man. God is Agape, and Agape precisely unites being and be- 
coming, Reality and Process. In his first work Ferre was content to 
leave the future of the natural man in God's hands, tentatively accept- 
ing the Lundensian idea that the problem is beyond the limits of 
faith. From that time on, Ferre has not been content to leave the 

84 Major Voices in American Theology 

problem in God's hands, but has closed his system on the note of 
inevitable universal salvation. In his own words, a closed system is 
closed seeing; theology always suffers at the hands of the scheme 
makers. In Ferre's faith, Calvin's determinism of Power has been 
subtly changed into a determinism of Love. To him, Love is ulti- 
mately irresistible. Yet is it not the very nature of Love to be resist- 
ible? In Ferre's own words, Love invites, and never forces. Perhaps 
Love is ultimately irresistible to those who are born of Love, but to 
those who remain centered in self Love is precisely an unreality, an 
illusion; it is not seen ultimately; it is therefore neither perceived, 
accepted, nor rejected. Ferre believes every theologian is finally 
forced to choose either universal salvation or a limited God; but 
when an unlimited God selects a process, among alternate possibili- 
ties, he is obviously limited by the process he selects; hence, Ferre 
has presented a false either/or. In any case, every Christian will rec- 
ognize, with Ferre, that it is not Love that fails but self-love. 

For many years professor of theology at Andover Newton Theo- 
logical School, Nels F. S. Ferre became in February, 1950, professor 
of philosophical theology at the Vanderbilt University School of 
Religion. When he gave the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt, he was 
asked to name the conditions on which he might accept a Vanderbilt 
invitation. His conditions, among them to give one lecture a day five 
days a week that he might be released for further writing, were ac- 
cepted, and the change was made. In 1952, Ferre lectured at Mans- 
field College, Oxford, on leave of absence from Vanderbilt. 

He is endlessly in demand at ministers' conferences and summer 
schools; colleges continually seek him for religious emphasis weeks. 
In the spring of 1951, Beloit students were stirred as never before to 
deep questioning, of themselves and of their total universe. Ferre 
does the work of two, possibly three, men. If only there were more 
of him! His presence searches the heart, stretches the mind, and 
blesses the spirit. He preaches, and practices, love. Daily he lifts his 
friends, and his enemies, near and far, and by name, to God in 
prayer, and follows each prayer with a personal card or letter full 
of insight, counsel, and encouragement. This writer must confess 
from experience that a Ferre note out of the blue sets the soul singing. 

The Sufficiency of God 85 

He has given the Wells Lectures at Texas Christian University, the 
Gay Lectures at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Hyde 
Lectures at Andover Newton Theological School, the Denio Lec- 
tures at Bangor Theological Seminary, the Earl Lectures at the 
Pacific School of Religion, the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt, the Rail 
Lectures at Garrett Biblical Institute, and the Hoff Lectures at Beth- 
any Biblical Seminary. He is an active member of many national 
committees devoted to philosophy, theology, social studies, and 
higher education. His influence, already great, is growing, and will 
grow. He is probably the only theologian now living who is continu- 
ously invited as a lecturer by both Unitarians and Nazarenes. He 
precisely unites liberalism and literalism, and transcends both. He 
lives fully in both vertical and horizontal dimensions. In his words : 

" Gratitude to God and to ... near ones in the Spirit increases my 
desire to become thoroughly converted, consciously and subconsciously. 
Without reserve I have put my life on God's altar to be used for the com- 
mon good; ever more I want to trust his faithfulness to take complete 
charge of my life. 

" The first time I was converted, in content, to traditional Christianity; 
the second time, to honesty; the third time, to the love of God and men, 
first in theology and gradually in life. Beyond the third conversion, how- 
ever, there can be no step ahead except of the same kind. The third con- 
version was to the love of God, in thought and in life; in the end that can- 
not fail, for firm is the promise, * Love never fails,' for love is of God and 
is God" ("The Third Conversion Never Fails/' in These Found the 
Way, p. 138). 

Goi> Is LOVE 

To Ferre, theology and life are one. Yet it is important, and nec- 
essary, to examine in detail his system of ideas. 

To begin with, it may be well to examine Ferre's assertion that 
scientism, traditionalism, and liberalism have all failed, both theo- 
retically and practically, to understand either God or the world. This 
is a large statement, but the truth is larger than the statement. In 
Ferre's words: 

" Science as a self-sufficient way to truth failed theoretically because by 
the limitations inherent in its own method it tells us nothing final about 
the nature of ultimate truth; it failed practically because its new informa- 

86 Major Voices in American Theology 

tion and physical achievements must always be subject to a moral drive 
and direction which it could not provide. . . . Traditional theology failed 
theoretically because it was not consistent with Christianity's central 
affirmation that God is all-powerful and all-wise love, and because it re- 
duced God's absolute scale of magnitude to its own infinitesimal drop of 
historic time. Traditional theology also failed practically because it became 
generally allied with the status quo in the world of politics, economics, 
and social customs, and was not a daring prophetic power for the trans- 
formation of all the relationships of men. 

** Modernism failed theoretically because it gave up the Christian faith 
itself as the primary standard of truth, accepting instead as primary the 
secondary standards of reason and experience in so far as these could 
demonstrate the truth of religion in terms of what is here and now ac- 
tual; it failed practically as well because its inner intellectual inconsist- 
ency choked off its religious drive. Faith is power. The Christian faith, 
when central in thought and practice, can heal and transform all of life. 
This power modernism lacked. Thus while traditional theology was not 
Christian enough, modernism was not religious enough. Now, freed from 
the false claims of science, we must accept resolutely in thought and life 
the Christian faith which is God's power of salvation for both the indi- 
vidual and society, . . . 

" The primary Christian claim is not theoretical but practical. It is that 
there is a power not our own that can lift and lead us into the reality of 
fellowship. . . . There are those who have showed us the power of 
Christian love when men surrender themselves fully to it. ... Chris- 
tianity definitely does not offer to solve this problem theoretically alone, 
and stresses, therefore, that little has been done until the hearts of men 
as well as all their social patterns are increasingly subject to the claim of 
God's Agape. This is the locus of solution of man's problems. To depart 
from it is to fail; to walk in it is to find real victory '* (Return to Chris- 
tianity, pp. 13, 14, 23, 24. Harper & Brothers, 1943). 

Modern education has similarly failed, and it has failed primarily 
to educate. Its failure is due to a false philosophy of history and hu- 
man nature; the depths and stubbornness of evil have not been 
sufficiently acknowledged; its sophisticated negativism has produced 
critical and clever but seldom appreciative and creative minds; and 
its analytical method has sacrificed man's peculiar heritage, his crea- 
tive and spiritual capacities, on the altar of quantitative measure- 
ments and sense proofs. 

Where Niebuhr's method is criticism, turning negativism upon 

The Sufficiency of God 87 

itself, Ferre's method is primarily affirmation. He begins and ends 
with Christianity as beyond equation with any form of human cul- 
ture; while it is continuous with man, its significance lies precisely 
in the fact that it is always discontinuous with him as well. To Ferre 
the abiding truth of conservative theology stands: Christianity is 
ultimate; it is unique and absolute. He is certain that we cannot 
reduce the oceanic mysteries of God to the tin cup of human reason. 
Prior to God's supreme Revelation, primarily not a station-to-station 
but a person-to-person disclosure, we simply did not know what God 
most deeply is and wants; but now through the Agape-made-flesh, 
though we know only partly, we nevertheless know truly. We can- 
not know God absolutely, yet in Jesus Christ we know the abso- 
lute. The very center of Christianity is God's special, final Revelation 
and his special, conclusive redemption in Jesus Christ. The Virgin 
birth, which every Christian experiences in the birth of the Spirit, 
and regardless of the biological issue, stands for the real fact of a 
special discontinuity entering the continuity of history. Christianity, 
precisely defined, is a God-centered, God-given freedom and faith- 
fulness in fellowship based on the kind of love first fully revealed 
and made effective as light and life in Jesus Christ. Self -giving love 
creative of fellowship is the human ultimate. But this is also Chris- 
tianity. Christianity, therefore, is at least good humanism. 

It is one thing to say this; it is another to apply it throughout the 
length and breadth of religion. Ferre is quick to point out that Chris- 
tianity has, in itself, both a principle of inclusion and a principle of 
exclusion. The one, proceeding from the nature of Agape, precludes 
Christianity's invidious comparison with other religions, and at the 
same time requires that we learn whatever is good in other religions. 
The other cleanses historic Christianity of its subagapaic idolatries 
its alternate worship of the Church, the Bible, or reason and experi- 
ence; in the same movement it cleanses the subgood from the good 
in all other religions. The principle of inclusion is this: all things 
cultural, intellectual, moral, and spiritual which are consistent with 
the God-centered, sacrificial, creative good will first fully revealed 
and made effective in Jesus Christ may be freely admitted into the 
Christian religion. The principle of exclusion is like unto it : all that 

88 Major Voices in American Theology 

is inconsistent in profession and practice with the nature of Chris- 
tianity as sacrificial, creative good will, centered in God and first 
fully revealed and made effective in Jesus Christ, must be done away. 
If the Christian Church has been right in keeping the Old Testa- 
ment with its predominantly sub-Christian content, why cannot 
Christianity do the same with the Confucian or Hindu scriptures? 
All religious literature, and indeed all literature of any kind, inter- 
preted in the light of Agape, is permanently available to the growing 
Christian. Similarly, Ferre finds that the New Testament itself does 
not always square with its own highest standard, Agape. He thus, 
perhaps prematurely, side-steps Jesus' recurring words about the 
broad road to destruction and the narrow road to life, about the 
many who are called and the few who are chosen. To Ferre, Jesus' 
words about the salvation of the few are existentially but not ulti- 
mately true; they are true of process, but not of Purpose, not of final 
achievement. He acknowledges, as a present but not a final fact, that 
few and far between are the saints so buried with God in Christ 
that their lives are constantly transfigured by the Holy Spirit. 

Ferre is at pains to assert, again and again in his books, that he 
is not aware of any non-Christian literature where the full idea of 
God's Agape appears. Stoicism emphasized love, but stoic love was 
impersonal, pantheistic, immanentistic, and self-seeking; it was in 
no sense a disclosure of the nature of God. The highest insight in 
Buddhism was not in the teachings of Buddha, which were negative, 
bent upon the destruction of evil desire, but in his life, in his return 
from vision to help his fellow men; again, no statement is evident 
about Love as the nature of God. The Hindu bhakti sects, in their 
emphasis upon devotion, owe something to Christianity, which pre- 
dates them, yet essentially accent not Agape but an emotional Eros. 
The Chinese jen stresses mutual benevolence; it is therefore ethical 
and calculating, and not at all a statement about the nature of God. 
Lao-tse urged that injury be recompensed with Teh, not kindness; 
there is no disclosure of the full Agape. Confucius expressly pro- 
hibited kindness to the evil; his whole system was centered in human 
morality, not in divine Love. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, per- 
haps the purest expression of vicarious suffering in the Old Testa- 

The Sufficiency of God 89 

meat, is essentially an insight into Israel's historical purpose, not a 
disclosure of the nature of God. Hosea 11:9 declares, "I will not 
destroy; I am God and not man." Hosea's love reached out to heal 
the fallen, and is thus similar to the Christian Agape, but since he 
recognized no personal need of repentance, his contribution is am- 
biguous. Isaiah i :i8 approaches the Christian Agape: " Though your 
sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow"; in the original 
the second line may have been a question : " Shall they be as white 
as snow? " The context, which argues for a negative answer, accents 
unremitting judgment; God's wrath is primary, his love secondary; 
divine wrath is something other than an expression of divine love. 
Psalm 103:13 declares that God is a Father who pities his children; 
it is thus similar to the Christian Agape, but it is only " them that 
fear him" whom he pities. Apocryphal literature accents law or 
wisdom as central in God; it emphasizes love as conduct, not as the 
nature of the Ultimate. Plato's Shepherd of Mankind, in the context, 
stresses divine reasonableness, not divine self -giving. Ferre concludes : 

" Outside Christianity, although there are certain ideas similar to that 
of the Christian idea of Love, the resemblances are largely superficial. 
We can say with some confidence that Agape is not only the determina- 
tive but also the distinctive motif of the Christian religion, the deepest 
truth in the universe and the highest ethical standard for man " (The 
Christian Fellowship, p. 87. Harper & Brothers, 1940). 

Ferre's view of the nature of God successfully bridges the chasm 
from Roman architecturalism to Protestant personalism, from 
Aquinas and Aristotle to Kierkegaard, from the hierarchy of science, 
philosophy, and theology to pedagogical process, from a motionless 
to a moving deity, from static perfection to dynamic evolution. God 
is Love, and Love always remains itself, and is thus motionless in 
character; at the same time it is always active, dynamic, dramatically 
creating, directing, and redeeming, in order to be what it is. Love is 
thus the energy, and the goal, of all evolution. It is above and beyond 
process, yet perpetually at work within it. God's impersonal energy, 
the Spirit of God, has driven, and now drives, the total evolutionary 
process from below to bring forth the self-conscious self, the Eros man. 
Until each man is in truth an individual, fellowship either divine 

90 Major Voices in American Theology 

or human is impossible. Each man in some measure must rebel 
against divine and human authority to be in reality a self. Original 
sin is therefore an original necessity, but only for a pedagogical pur- 
pose. The self must choose itself in order to be a self, but this only 
that it may eventually yield itself to God. The purpose may be, and 
is, frustrated, and thus arises man's misuse of good, his sinfulness, 
his complacent self-centeredness. God's Agape created Eros to make 
persons real, to prevent absorption. Eros must precede Agape as 
man's dominant drive, in order that a fellowship of real persons 
might be created. This is Ferre's view of the problem of evil, of 
what is called the Fall. He arrives therefore, as he begins, with an 
ultimate monism. God as Love constitutes the nature of ultimate 
being. This monism intrinsically involves a dynamic dualism, be- 
cause nonbeing, a help and not a hindrance to monism, serves func- 
tionally the purposes of dualism. This monism also includes deriva- 
tive, yet distinct pluralism, wherein man, time, and nature are real, 
according to their own nature. God is the primary order of reality; 
man is the secondary; and nature is the tertiary. The only thing 
missing in this formula is the category of antibeing. As Edwin Lewis 
has seen, something in the universe resists God's love. Man himself 
can become the incarnation of this resistance. Aggressive wars are 
real; the cross of Christ is real; human destruction, of soul as well 
as of body, is real. Ferre's partial pacifism, which acknowledges the 
necessity of policemen, which even acknowledges the occasional ne- 
cessity of the dirty work of war; Ferre's idea of universal salvation, 
here or hereafter; indeed Ferre's democratic socialism: all issue from 
the total absence of the category of antibeing in his structure of 
thought. To him, antibeing is not ultimate but historical; it is an 
ultimate illusion rising from man's existential and sinful self-love; 
evil exists in the divine pedagogy only to bring all men through Eros 
to despair, and thence to Agape. Evil is real existentially, historically, 
actually, but not ultimately. God on the cross suffers only in history, 
not in heaven; the cross is the means to human redemption, a sacri- 
fice to a temporal not an eternal evil. No final antibeing exists, or 
can exist, to thwart the divine Purpose, made flesh in Jesus Christ. 
What is in itself inconsistent with divine Agape is consistent with 

The Sufficiency of God 91 

divine pedagogy. No Christian can deny that Ferre is right about 
the divine Purpose, else Agape is not Agape. Yet science at this point 
may offer revelation to theology; not all raw material becomes a 
finished masterpiece; not all that starts finishes. Neither creation nor 
redemption is so simple as that. Without the shedding of blood there 
is no remission, no creation, no redemption, no fellowship. That 
which is not fellowship cannot be, and will not be, admitted into 
fellowship. Only " the pure in heart " shall see God. It is the very 
nature of Love to invite, not coerce; it is therefore ultimately resist- 
ible, particularly to those whose self-love makes them the blind who 
lead or the blind who follow. Ferre's view, in Baptist theology, is 
true of the redeemed: once in grace, always in grace. On Ferre's 
terms, all men are in general grace and on their way to special grace. 
As he sees it, neither the redeemed nor the unredeemed can ever be 
lost, only completed in a completion that is never complete, through 
a dozen purgatories or ten heavens, for not even in eternity can man 
exhaust the knowledge or the love of God. Ferre simply erases the 
distinction between the redeemed and the unredeemed; the distinc- 
tion has only a pedagogical or existential, not an ultimate, validity. 
Nonetheless, every Christian will agree with Ferre that all men exist 
for one purpose, to be born again from Eros to Agape by the Holy 
Spirit. The Spirit of God, the Agent of creation, brings forth the self, 
only in order that the Holy Spirit, the Agent of redemption, may 
make of the self the saint. God's impersonal or passive presence is 
nowhere absent from creation; it is everywhere present in one way 
or another, in the evolutionary process, in natural man, in the State. 
God's personal or active presence in history is in the Holy Spirit 
through the Church. Only in the Holy Spirit can man know God 
or Christ; only in the Holy Spirit can man love his brother; only in 
the Holy Spirit does the Church exist. General providence is God's 
indirect presence in the total process; special providence is his selec- 
tive and personal control of the total process for the sake of the elect. 
Men without the Holy Spirit live only, or mainly, under general 
providence; men in the Holy Spirit live totally in principle, and in- 
creasingly in practice, under the selective and personal care of special 

9 2 Major Voices in American Theology 

Agape as the nature of God is absolute; the absolute Word came 
conclusively in Jesus; no other absolute therefore can possibly come. 
Yet the same absolute may come repeatedly; the more Christ is re- 
peated in the saint and in the Church, the more he reveals, and real- 
izes, his reality. 

So important to Ferre is inevitable universal salvation that he can 
never let it alone. In his view, an eternal hell is naturally out of the 
question, both as sub justice for finite man cannot sin infinitely 
and as sublove. To him, hell is the reduction of evil to order by its 
separation from the good and its control on its own terms. Hell is 
precisely an instrument of justice in the service of reclamatory Love. 
Hell is not heaven unattained, but heaven temporarily rejected. Hell 
cannot be eternal, but it can be longer than we think. Hell is for the 
unrepentant, purgatory for the repentant. Heaven cannot be heaven 
until it has emptied hell. In the Ferre rigorism, no saint can enter 
heaven until all sinners are redeemed. To say the least, this post- 
pones things a bit. Man has the freedom to be over against God, but 
has no freedom to remain an eternal problem child. Yet, Ferre in- 
sists, fear must be preached, for unless we repent we shall all like- 
wise perish. This is the eternal truth of God and of his Word for 
us. But the severity of God will lead us along with his goodness to 
our eventual repentance. Our process must end in God's way with a 
heaven which is the consummation of the Beloved Community, 
God's own Family. 

Ferre is positive about universal salvation, yet with rare humility 
leaves a door open to possible fuller truth. As he puts it, think we 
must, but never confuse our thinking with God's. 


In Ferre's view, it is the business of the theologian, not alone to 
examine all things from the perspective of the ultimate, but also to 
relate organically the eternally ultimate to the immediately practical. 
It goes without saying that history is subject to endless improve- 
ment; at the same time, one must understand that society cannot be 
changed by its own power. The more-than-society is the hope of 
society. God rather than history is central in Christian social think- 

The Sufficiency of God 93 

ing. We cannot be saved as society without the mystery of the more 
than society, the ground of our being and thinking. Though we 
must remember humbly that even in revelation, it is man, and not 
God, who does the seeing, we cannot but recognize that all hope of 
progress lies in the eternal Purpose beyond all historic process. 

The significance of history is precisely freedom. Every human 
choice is related, positively or negatively, to Agape; our choices are 
genuinely real in relation to the absolute, yet they are not absolute 
choices; only God can choose absolutely. Moral evil is our misuse of 
freedom; natural evil is God's control of our freedom. Evil is ac- 
tually, but not metaphysically, real. Evil is divine pedagogy within 
historic process; it has no existence in eternal being. The purpose, 
and failure, of history is to realize a God-centered freedom-in-fellow- 
ship. Since infallibility belongs only to God, no historical authority 
should regard itself as absolute; to accept any human authority as 
final is idolatry; it is surrender to the demon of the status quo. Soc- 
rates, the saints, and the Saviour were, and are perennially, sacrificed 
to the Molech of human absolutism. We need to know the presence 
of Purpose now, but also to see that it has as yet been realized only 
in anticipation. In Jesus Christ and his Church the Anticipation was 
made flesh. 

The basic historical problem is the relation between society and 
the self. We shall progress farther in social thinking when we under- 
stand that before history man is neither hopelessly good nor hope- 
lessly bad. Before God man in repentance recognizes himself to be 
totally forgiven and totally unforgivable, but not before man. Those 
who declare man radically bad know the stubbornness of man's sin 
but not its pedagogical purpose. Sin is the perversion of Eros by 
finite freedom. Eros is necessary for all finite creatures, and not in 
itself evil, for God has made it. God has given us Eros to prevent 
absorption, to make us real and free. Those who declare man radi- 
cally good see the purpose of the self but not its perversion. The con- 
flict between self and society, whether more or less acute, exists in 
the saint as well as in the sinner. No human has been completely 
concerned about and none has been completely indifferent to social 
good. There is no self that is not in part a socius; there is no socius 

94 Major Voices in American Theology 

that is not in part a self. 

The problem is complicated by the fact that every man must learn 
to accept and to love himself genuinely. Self-love is wrong only when 
it makes the self an ersatz deity. True self-love is the death of the 
aristocratic self and the self's rebirth within the Agape fellowship. 
None can accept himself, or find himself acceptable, until he has 
learned to hate his partial, narrow, defensive self the self that seeks 
itself and denies its neighbor and God. Total evil, on Ferre's terms, 
is impossible for any creature. Man is perverted, partially depraved, 
or, in truer perspective, an immature child, dominantly selfish, yet 
deep down bored with his self-seeking and yearning for fellowship. 

The Christian faith is totally world-transcending, yet its world- 
transcendence is totally for society. Man's task is to learn that God's 
will is social, that society is the direct object of God the Verb as 
well as God the Noun. Yet God's love is short-circuited, and his fel- 
lowship frustrated, when society wears either a Roman or a Russian 
strait jacket. 

Christianity's world-renunciation, which is also totally for society, 
is precisely the world's conscience. For society's sake a Christian may 
refuse to participate in war; for the same reason a Christian may 
accept his share in war's dirty discipline, rejecting the irresponsibility 
of the pious. When the world steers off the course, whether in im- 
perialistic war or in isolation from the common effort to resist it, 
the Christian must stay on the course, not to withdraw from the 
world for the sake of the course, but to keep the course for the sake 
of the world. As Woodrow Wilson put it, " I would rather fail in a 
cause I know must someday triumph, than win in a cause I know 
must someday fail.'* A Kentucky mountaineer expressed it more 
simply: "I would rather chase a rabbit and not catch it, than chase 
a skunk and catch it." 

The purpose of society, to the Christian, is not justice but fellow- 
ship. Every religion of justice is sub-Christian; it is built on law and 
invidious comparison. Christianity is a religion of complete concern 
for all. The Bible contains both the light of true Agape and the dark- 
ness of subagapaic justice. The Bible, designed as a royal help, is 
sometimes a royal hindrance. Much of the Bible's explicit ethics re- 

The Sufficiency of God 95 

quires a humble and resigned acceptance of the status quo, as in 
Paul's Epistle to Philemon. The higher Biblical ethic can be only 
the full implication and application of Agape, the Word become 
flesh for the salvation of self and society. 

In Ferre's view, while the Church is created, directed, and disci- 
plined by the Holy Spirit, the State is created, directed, and disci- 
plined by the Spirit of God. The State exists of, by, and for the 
natural man, and for the saint-in-process who remains, in greater 
part, natural rather than spiritual. The Spirit of God is God's activity 
on all levels below Agape, whether in instruction, judgment, or for- 
giveness. The Holy Spirit is God's activity on the level of Agape. 
The distinction is functional, not metaphysical. God is not undiffer- 
entiated being. The Spirit of God is the pedagogical face and hands 
of the Holy Spirit. The God of wrath and the God of love are one, 
but God assumes, in the State, the shape of the avenger to the dis- 
obedient. General social action is the field of the Spirit of God, Chris- 
tian social action the field of the Holy Spirit. Neither the separatist- 
quietist nor the social gospel was genuinely Christian. The modern 
approach to social need has been largely physical or spatial, rather 
than spiritual. Social effort has been primarily externalistic and legis- 
lative, the forcing of the good, the compelling of the Kingdom of 
God. Pietist effort, on the other hand, has been solely internal, ac- 
centing conversion and regeneration within the circle of the elect, 
wholly unaware that Reality unites the inside and the outside with- 
out confusing them. The sword of the Spirit is two-edged. 

Simple pacifism overlooks God the Creator in its preoccupation 
with God the Redeemer. If man is determined to use only uncon- 
taminated means, he must needs go out of the world. Absolute paci- 
fists confine Christianity to the level of redemption, as though God 
were not the Creator, and as though they were too good to do the 
dirty work that God has to do for our sake, through the austere and 
unsentimental operation of his wrath, a vital function, it must be 
remembered, of the Spirit of God. The surrendered Christian must 
use the best available means to accomplish the best relevant ends. 
The use of the best available means is not compromise, but obedience 
to God's actual will. Jesus did not sin by paying tribute money to a 

$6 Major Voices in American Theology 

corrupt State. History knows little o perfect means. Jesus had to 
live one way with the world and another way with his disciples. In- 
deed,, the secular world with its understanding of practical issues is 
often the conscience of the Church, even as the Church in its dis- 
tinctive realm is the conscience of the world. 

When a higher conception comes in, the old gods exist as idols, 
either openly or in disguise. The Old Testament God has become in 
large part an idol. Natural conflict, under the Spirit of God, is often 
preferred to genuine Agape under the Holy Spirit. Man is warlike 
in nature, warless in grace. Ferre expects the world to move perhaps 
too quickly from nature to Agape, though he is fully aware that it is 
a long way from man's animal history to his Agape history. Ferre is 
realistic enough to see the present as God's way. God has made this 
kind of world for our salvation; we have therefore no right to deny 
that wars, however indirectly, have a pedagogical place in it. Yet 
Ferre is idealistic enough to see that the present exists not for itself, 
but for the future. In his words: 

" Animals and men fight for food to eat, shelter, for their own needs, 
and then for place and prestige among themselves. But part of this need, 
curiously and significantly enough, seems to be the need to fight. They 
need to become themselves through fighting. Fighting seems to be a 
creative need, beyond mere self-preservation. In one stage of our lives, at 
least, God has made us to fight. Strife exists in order to differentiate 
individuals and groups for the sake of preparing them for fuller and 
better community. Group conflicts and war are, thus, part and parcel of 
growing men and growing history. The fighting game brings out the 
whole man in an active challenge. Many have found themselves in war; 
many have there awakened a sleeping heroism, a sense of importance, a 
sense of responsibility and concern, who are bored insufferably in peace- 
time, dabbling away at impersonal tasks that lack challenge. Even the 
Christian faith must be the Christian conflict. Unless Christianity has 
within its very bosom the drive to conflict and to war, it has not the full 
solution to our concrete problems " {Christianity and Society, pp. 189- 
191. Harper & Brothers, 1950). 

On Ferre's terms, the Christian can and must renounce war, with- 
out renouncing the constructive force of civil government under judi- 
cial process, and without renouncing the constructive role of world 

The Sufficiency of God 97 

police. Absolute pacifism is based on a faulty theology which refuses 
to accept the share of process in God's Purpose. Agape is never a 
compromise because it uses imperfect means; history, itself an im- 
perfect means, exists to be perfected. Force in itself is no compro- 
mise. God uses force continually and is not compromised. God 
uses physical compulsion and his children must do so too, or evade 
their responsibility on the level of creation. God takes life. Agape 
always chooses the most constructive historical alternative, redemp- 
tively and creatively. To declare that the use o imperfect means is 
if so facto compromise is to deny process as the method of God's 
Purpose, to claim, in fact, to be better than God. Yet when com- 
mon measures for justice are considered sufficient, then indeed has 
the Christian lost his savor and become no better than the world. 
" These [things] ye ought to have done, and not to have left the 
other undone." Wars between nations, in Ferre's view, belonged 
(more properly belong) to the historic epoch, when the nation served 
a necessary purpose in God's pedagogy as an expression of natural 
law. Perhaps prematurely, Ferre believes that this epoch is now past 
'or passing, and with it the place of the State as a sovereign entity 
under God. As he sees it, the State has a right to demand obedience 
only as long as it serves a real purpose under God and uses legiti- 
mately the power which divine Love has bestowed upon it. When its 
purpose is past, or when it uses its delegated power illegitimately, as 
in an unjust war, or in a generally nonconstructive war, the citizen 
must refuse to obey, serving God rather than men, or even serving 
his reason and conscience rather than the reason and conscience of 
men blinded by narrow vision and narrower loyalty. If a Christian, 
or any other person, is convinced that more can be conserved or 
created by common action against aggression than without it, he 
must follow his conscience in this regard, and no one is to judge his 
decision. Obviously, there is little hope for world fellowship except 
through the surrender of force to an inclusive and responsible au- 
thority; force without a common spirit and mind will never give us 
a peaceful world. 

, Attention must be given to Ferre's significant treatment of eco- 
nomics as applied theology. All property is from God, and exists for 

98 Major Voices in American Theology 

freedom and fellowship. Individual man needs property both to in- 
ternalize and externalize himself. Yet power welding rather than 
frustrating fellowship is the purpose of property in the divine econ- 
omy. Power can be socialized because it is God's gift for society. 
Property is both from God and for men. Property is precisely a 
means of freedom and faithfulness in fellowship. In one sense, prop- 
erty is freedom from God, freedom over against God. For our own 
good, God has made us considerably independent of himself. Prop- 
erty bestows on man a necessary pedagogical freedom. Individual 
initiative and personal enterprise are essential, and any system that 
denies the individual these necessities goes against the grain of God's 
purpose with property. Man also needs freedom from things by hav- 
ing enough of them. Reasonable material security is a basic essential. 
Poverty, which is lack of life, is not God's will for man; poverty is 
the occasion of envy in the poor as property is the occasion of pride 
in the rich. Yet the other half of the coin must also be seen. Psycho- 
pathic defenders of capitalism will tolerate no restriction upon in- 
dividual initiative or personal enterprise. They are liberal only in 
their wish to be liberated from social responsibility. No man can 
hold private property as a divine right to the detriment of public 
good. When an individual has what society needs and can profitably 
use, it is no longer his. 

Granted an imperfect and sinful soul, power tempts to pride, to 
self -importance, to hardness of heart, to imperialistic desire, to irre- 
sponsible self-indulgence. Hand in hand with spiritual rebirth must 
come the socialization of the means of production. Capitalism has 
enriched our lives and preserved the freedom without which we be- 
come submen, yet it is essentially the materialism of the classes, as 
Communism is the materialism of the masses. Marx without ques- 
tion voiced the envy of the underloved, yet he was also a prophetic 
personality who expressed the revolt of conscience against the un- 
concern and iniquity of industrial society. Marxism is bad theology 
and bad anthropology, and consequently bad sociology and eco- 
nomics. Nevertheless it is not unthinkable that Marxism may be the 
scourge of God and at the same time God's means to Christian ful- 
fillment. Whatever degree of Christian socialism may be achieved. 

The Sufficiency of God 99 

it must never lose its democratic structure. Without democratic 
process public ownership is inevitably totalitarian. Creative freedom 
must always be defended, perhaps through blood, sweat, and tears, 
against frustrating bureaucracy. State control or ownership, without 
democratic process, ends in the paralysis of bureaucracy, political 
oppression, the deadening of creative drive, indifference, officious- 
ness, pride of place and power, irresponsibility, and " passing the 
buck." Yet these evils are present in any and all systems, for they are 
part of our actual human nature. Nothing historical is manproof. 
The primary battle is always spiritual. No change in externals, how- 
ever drastic, will usher in the Kingdom. 
Every sensitive conscience will feel the sting of Ferre's words: 

" For Christianity property is never static but always functional. Eco- 
nomic resources are the God-given means and media of fellowship. They 
are not first of all private possessions, but rather responsibilities entrusted 
by God for the sake of the common welfare. Property belongs, first of all, 
to God, has been given by him for social purposes, and no individual 
or group is ever more than a steward of it. Property belongs to the self 
as a socius, for property is primarily social in origin, function, and mean- 
ing. Profiteering is in essence anti-Christian. What is euphemistically 
called ' free enterprise * actually means freedom mostly for the strong 
those who possess the means of production or have the skill to attain such 
control. There is no parallel freedom for the masses of men, but rather 
an oppressive preconditioning to economic, social, and cultural poverty 
and dependence because of this very antisocial freedom of the strong " 
(Return to Christianity, pp. 64, 65). 


Not the least of Ferre's contributions is the tremendous impetus 
he gives to new vitality in the Church. To him simply and truly the 
Church is the Mission. The Church is God's will for men; it is the 
fellowship of, by, and in the Holy Spirit. However far below Agape 
the actual churches may be, and undoubtedly are, they exist only to 
bring forth saints-in-fellowship, the true Church. If nature and his- 
tory are God's activity in creation, the Church is his activity in re- 
demption. The specific function of the Church is redemptive; that is 
its purpose for being; the Church must be in but not of the world; 
when the Church conforms to secular society and temporal power, 

ioo Major Voices in American Theology 

it becomes a light set under a bushel. The Church is God's redemp- 
tive agency in history demanding for the sake of the world that the 
creative order conform increasingly to the redemptive goal. The 
Church is, and the churches must become, the pull of God's Purpose 
in history, the transforming discontinuity through which alone the 
continuity of process can be redeemed. 

Christianity is not a philosophy. Christianity is a fellowship which 
creates philosophy. The Christian philosophy is the interpretation of 
history in the light of God's Revelation in Jesus Christ. The purpose 
alike of creation and redemption is consistent with the truth of God's 
self -disclosure in Christ; it cannot be less than increasing fellowship 
through Christ. The Church begins when the human heart, in self- 
despair, is surrendered to the Holy Spirit, but the Church began his- 
torically with the Love of God made flesh at Bethlehem and Pente- 
cost. In Jesus, God's Agape visited man in matchless fullness. Agape 
pre-existed from all eternity, was in the beginning with God, and 
was God, "and without him was not any thing made that was 
made." Not God as Father, but God as Son, was in Jesus. Not the 
totality of God's being, but the quality of God's nature, became man. 
The human process of the Bible in no way lessens its disclosure of 
divine Purpose. Jesus Christ in the Bible is a precious Gift wrapped 
in inexpensive paper. Some see the Gift in the wrapping but cannot 
distinguish between them. Others are offended by the wrapping and 
throw the Gift away. In Ferre's view, if the issue were forced, we 
should rather keep the wrapping with the Gift than lose the Gift. 
There is, as he sees it, more danger in superficial liberalism than in 
undiscriminating fundamentalism. We must always distinguish be- 
tween the sophisticated skepticism of men " wise in their own con- 
ceits," and the true criticism of men who can criticize their own 
criticism and acknowledge their own ignorance. 

In Niebuhr's view, the human problem is insoluble with human 
resources. Ferre agrees, but insists that the human problem is equally 
insoluble without human resources. In our day when man-centered 
moralism goes one way and an irrational God-centeredncss the other, 
we, like Augustine, must realize that no theory of the atonement, or 
of the Church, can be adequate without sufficient stress on Jesus as 

The Sufficiency of God 101 

our Example, for this alone makes fellowship possible, or without 
adequate insistence that salvation is of God, since without him we 
are utterly helpless. Without God we cannot be saved, but neither 
can we be saved unless we accept the process. 

The Church is precisely the fellowship of the Holy Spirit God's 
movement through and beyond history. In Ferre's words: 

" Christ's death released a redemptive force in history which is pecul- 
iarly perpetuated by God's Holy Spirit through the redemptive fellow- 
ship which is the Church a fellowship of grace, a fellowship of for- 
giveness, wherein by worship and by trust in a personal Saviour man is 
able to alter his ways and even to become a channel of God's grace into 
history. No one can live orthodox Christianity without creating around 
him a Christian fellowship. Christianity is the redemptive spirit of Christ 
flowing through history. . . There can be no experience more final for 
man than to face the Christ, to surrender to him, and to live eternally 
within the Christian fellowship of forgiveness, completely dependent 
upon the grace of God" (The Christian Faith, pp. 166, 167, 181. Har- 
per & Brothers, 1942). 

For the Church, there are important truths in neglected doctrines, 
among them the doctrine of the ascension of Christ. He had to be 
lifted up above all earthly things, for in him was, and is, the eternal 
reality of God. Only as we see Christ above the actual, on the very 
right hand of God, can we grasp the Christian claim that all things 
are to be understood through him. The stormy doctrine of the Sec- 
ond Coming of Christ also indicates an important truth: the closing 
of the parenthesis of this age. History is precisely parenthetical, and 
the parentheses are turned outward, not inward. 

On the deepest level, the Church is one in Christ, in the Holy 
Spirit, in the sacrament, in the hope of resurrection. But human sin- 
fulness has divided the historic Church. At the present, three ap- 
proaches to ecumenical Christianity seem irreconcilable: the literal- 
istic, the liberal, and the sacramentarian. Christianity is a common, 
continuous commitment to the Holy Spirit who came into the world 
through Jesus Christ, who activates our individual lives, who ex- 
presses himself in the Agape fellowship. But liberal theology is weak- 
ened by vagueness; it has no clear principle of exclusion; its tolerance 
is identical with its lack of intense conviction. As Chesterton put it, 

102 Major Voices in American Theology 

" tolerance is the virtue of people who don't believe anything." Tra- 
ditional theology can keep the substance of its faith, yet accept its 
intellectual and social responsibility; liberalism can keep its intel- 
lectual and social passion, yet recover an adequate and definite stand- 
ard o faith. By limiting the Christian fellowship to one historic 
organization, which is clearly but one branch on the Tree of Life, 
the Roman Church became a sect. No historic organization, whether 
Italian or North European, has fully incarnated Agape. The apos- 
tolic Agape, the Holy Spirit, is the apostolic succession. At times 
purity of doctrine has replaced papal authority as the end and all 
of living, but doctrinal idolatry, like papal idolatry, forgets that it is 
weighed in Love's balances, and found wanting. In Jesus Christ 
there came into full historical awareness the idea of Christian love, 
the determinative, distinctive motif of Christianity, its ultimate prin- 
ciple of explanation and its perpetual judgment; in this Light all 
doctrines are to be defined and understood. Love is normative for 
Christianity, but Christians have sought to possess, rather than to be 
possessed by, normative Christianity; they have made of every good 
means an idolatrous end; the Church has become Roman; the Bible, 
Presbyterian; and reason and experience, Congregational. In particu- 
lar, Christianity has succumbed to Christendom, to standpattism and 
the status quo. Atomic Agape has been kept safely under lock and 
key in the arsenal under the pulpit or behind the altar. 

The Church is the pull of Purpose in history, the magnetism of the 
Holy Spirit. The push of process itself drives history toward the 
Church. Even wars demonstrate that history cannot thwart the puls- 
ing power of God's purpose. Willingly or unwillingly, communities 
become vitally aware of each other. Indifference and ignorance make 
fellowship impossible; wars make men conscious of each other and 
of the need for fellowship without which the world cannot survive. 
What history reveals as man's basic need, Christianity offers as a 
positive gift. The fellowship which the Church is, and offers through 
the Holy Spirit, is based not on man's merit, but on forgiving Love. 
Man's merit divides and damns; God's Love unites and redeems. 
Agape as faith's final meaning and judgment weds ultimate hope to 
historic challenge, whereas traditional theology maintains a split uni- 

The Sufficiency of God 103 

verse, an unsolvable dualism, an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. 
Ferre is certain that a resolute acceptance of Chris dan love and its 
application to every sphere of theology and life are clearly on the 
agenda. Man's relationship to God is neither on the basis of holiness 
(Aquinas) nor on the basis of sinfulness (Luther), since both are 
legal and lethal, but on the basis of Love. Agape must be, and is, 
organically related to all men, all history, and all nature. By the very 
character of Agape, the works of Christian love, the enterprises of 
the Church in history, its redemptive efforts in and for every sub- 
Christian culture that surrounds it, must overflow continuously and 
increasingly into the whole world, without defensive concern for its 
acceptance or rejection. Christianity, like Christ, has come, not to 
destroy, but to fulfill. The struggle between faiths, contrary to 
Nygren's assertion, is not a struggle to death. Whatever in the dif- 
ferent religions of the world is good must be kept and used in the 
service of Christ by the Spirit. 

Ferre hopes that we have now reached the post-Protestant period 
of Christian history. With Sorokin and Toynbee, he awaits a new 
age of the spirit, and believes that the present movement is toward 
a new catholicity which will accept a different form of supernatural- 
ism yet amply allow for the most cherished values of liberalism. The 
freedom that liberalism sought from supernaturalism has resulted 
not a little in relativism, and in many quarters in agnosticism, 
whether uttered or unexpressed. Liberalism has changed from a 
negative evangelicalism demanding freedom into an apology for 
the possession of that freedom. As a historic movement liberalism 
was man-centered, whereas social history needs to be centered in 
religion. To have lastingly effective social relations, man needs God. 
The liberal Church presented a headless body, a fatherless family. 
Man cannot sustain the burden of his heart without religion, which 
is simply whole-response to what is regarded as most important and 
most real. For this reason the world has created and accepted idols; 
it is dancing wildly, unhappily, and dangerously before the golden 
calf man has made in his own image. Yet absolutism without liberal- 
ism is paralysis. Absolutism has fathered asceticism with its unhappy 
holiness* Liberalism has fathered aestheticism with its unholy happi- 

104 Major Voices in American Theology 

ness. The full Christian Fellowship can and must create and main- 
tain in the Spirit a holy happiness. Only one thing is absolutely cer- 
tain and never to be questioned, much less denied, namely, that God 
has revealed himself in Jesus as redemptive Love, that without this 
Love the world and the Church are lost. When Christianity becomes 
fully Christian, a new evangelism will explode all barriers and burst 
forth into the world, positive, earnest, victorious, until the cross of 
Christ receives its crown, fullness of freedom in fellowship, the 
glorified Church of God. To confuse the visible churches with the 
Kingdom of God, or in any way to equate them, is spiritually dis- 
astrous. To lose either the absolute or the relative, the eternal or the 
historical, is to lose the meaning of the incarnation and to forfeit 
the mystery of God's saving presence in a sinful world. Whenever 
the hidden God is totally eclipsed by the revealed God, the intensity 
of religious emotion fades away and we live on diminishing spiritual 
capital. Without wholesome stress on the otherness of God religion 
cannot overpower and control the human heart. We must never re- 
move Jesus either from God or from man, yet we are always at- 
tempting to do both, to lift him into irrelevance or to lower him 
into impotence. History and indeed the churches exists to be 
fulfilled in the Church, and the Church, God's Kingdom on earth 
and in heaven, will never be abrogated or superseded, but only ex- 
panded and fulfilled. 

It is necessary to understand both the subagapaic actuality of our 
churches, and the Agape which endlessly creates and sustains the 
Church within, and beyond, our churches. In Ferre's words: 

" In every theological position concerning the Church there is usually 
a fallacious abstraction, especially since there are at least three inevitable 
aspects of any adequate doctrine of the Church. The Kingdom of God 
corresponds to God the Father. Even as he, beyond clear human under- 
standing, is the transcendent source of all ideal embodiment, so the King- 
dom of God is the foundational reality of the Christian Church Catholic. 
This, in turn, may be compared to the Son. Even as the Son is the em- 
bodiment of the Father, so the Christian Church Catholic is the extension 
of the incarnation, of the invisible rule of grace through the succession of 
saints, of the mystical body of Christ. The Christian Church Corporate, 
again, corresponds to the Holy Spirit. Even as it, though itself of God, 

The Sufficiency of God 105 

perfect and absolute, works through the media of sinful men and of sin- 
ful institutions, so the divided churches represent not only the Kingdom 
of God, the source of their divine dignity, but also the fallible, sinful 
conditions of men. Even as the Holy Spirit is Christ with us to the end 
of the world, the sinless eternal Deity present in our sinful humanity, so 
the Christian Church Corporate, even in its state of humiliation, is of 
infinite importance because it is, in spite of the imperfections on its 
human side, the embodiment of the Church Catholic, the eternal, tran- 
scendent Kingdom of God present in the historical flux of human falli- 
bility " (The Christian Fellowship, pp. 133, 134. Harper & Brothers, 

Clear is the meaning and the message of the Church; clear also is 
its responsibility to hallow the earth with grace, to persuade the sons 
of men to become the sons of God. Christianity is essentially a re- 
ligion of grace, wherein the natural order of this world is continu- 
ously interrupted by the supernatural intervention of God's forgive- 
ness. Through repentance and surrender the self becomes the saint, 
the divine Agape pours itself into and through him, and fellowship 
both Godward and manward begins, and never ends. The walls of 
hell are strong, and they are built from within. The walls of the 
Church are strong also, and they are built, not from within, but from 




The Bridgebuilding Theology of Paul Tillich 

The Bridgebuilding Theology 


Paul Tillich 

There appear to be three inexhaustibilities in the universe, in the 
following order of importance: God, the world, and Paul 
Tillich. It is not possible to confine him to a single classification; 
he splits all the categories at their seams. He is Mr. Theology, the 
theologian's theologian, and is not to be covered in one essay, how- 
ever thorough, well-intentioned, and long. The human brain vault 
resembles a nut, and alone among his peers Tillich is a theological 
nutcracker. There are more things in heaven and earth than are 
dreamed of in his philosophy, but not many more. He is a philoso- 
pher in theology, and a theologian in philosophy; he is a political 
theorist; he is both historian and prophet and more; in his intel- 
lectual ensemble fact and meaning look well together. His many- 
sided contribution may be basically characterized as a vast bridge- 
building enterprise; he erects a George Washington span across each 
of the impassable chasms of modern thought. Without direct de- 
pendence upon either Reinhold Niebuhr or Nels F. S. Ferre, he 
unites the critical theology of the one with the postcritical theology 
of the other, and transcends both. He unites the ethical dualism of 
Edwin Lewis with the metaphysical monism of Nels F. S. Ferre, and 
corrects both. He unites a questioning philosophy and an answering 
theology in holy wedlock. He unites the Protestant principle with 
the Catholic faith, transcendence with immanence, Europe with 
America, liberalism with orthodoxy, atheism with theism, the past 
with the present, and the present with the future. He ends the com- 
fortable, and sterile, isolation of theology from history, and the un- 

no Major Voices in American Theology 

comfortable and dynamic isolation o history from theology. 

To begin with, in the Tillich galaxy of ideas, Christ is the end of 
the contradiction between religion and irreligion. Neither atheists 
nor theists are outside of God. Religion is the first burden which 
Christ takes from the shoulders of men; he gives men the power to 
overcome religion; his yoke is a New Reality beyond the contradic- 
tion between essence and existence, New Life beyond law. Religion 
is man's heroic attempt to overcome his anxiety; in Christ man dis- 
covers that he possesses nothing, not even religion; he discovers that 
both himself and his anxieties are possessed, grasped, by Uncondi- 
tioned Love. The strength that sustains the world is stronger than 
the world, though it is quiet and humble in the world, lest human 
freedom be annihilated. Jesus is not the creator of another religion, 
but the victor over religion. In so far as Christianity is one religion, 
alongside many others, it is blasphemy, idolatry, perversion. One 
thing only is demanded of man, that he accept his acceptance in 
Christ, that he receive the life that sustains him from within and 
from beyond. We call Jesus the Christ, not because he brought a new 
religion, but because he is the end of religion; the contradiction be- 
tween religion and irreligion, Christianity and non-Christianity, 
sacred and secular, is transcended. Divine grace is directly present at 
every point in history, and to every man in the world, and directly 
active for man's salvation. One point in the process is no farther 
from God than any other. Both atheists and theists are grasped alike 
by immanence and transcendence, yet neither may be identified with 
the saving power that embraces them. All that exists exists in God, 
and God is the existence in all that exists, yet God infinitely tran- 
scends all finite existence. We are strong only in so far as we point, 
for our own sake and for the sake of others, to the truth which pos- 
sesses us, but which we do not possess. Christ accepts our refusal 
to accept, and thus conquers us. Transcendent Love justifies us in 
spite of our sins, but also in spite of our doubts. Premature maturity 
yearns for a Christ of power who will coerce skeptics into faith, but 
if a Christ of power were to regiment us and our world, we should 
have to pay the one price we cannot pay, the one price the real Christ 
will not accept; we should have to surrender our freedom, our hu- 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion in 

manity, our spiritual dignity. Christ preserves the skeptic's attack 
upon false religion against all worshipers of the status quo; he pre- 
serves the skeptic's rejection of all that he does not see as truth; un- 
hurried and unworried Love preserves the skeptic's dignity of re- 
fusal. Tillich considers it arrogant and erroneous to divide men by 
calling some " sinners " and others " righteous." When the righteous 
do not know that they are sinners, they have added the sin of pride 
to the sin of separation. The despair of the sinner is closer to the 
Kingdom than the complacence of the righteous. Sin is the separa- 
tion of fact from meaning, of immanence from transcendence; sin 
is from other individuals, from the self, and from God. Yet if man 
were only separated from God, from other men, and from himself, 
he would not know that he is separated. In every man, separation is 
in perpetual tension with union. The righteous share the sinners' 
separation; when closest to God, men experience most keenly the 
agony of their estrangement from him. In grace something is indeed 
overcome; grace occurs "in spite of" something; grace occurs in 
spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of God and 
man, of man and man, of man and nature, of man and himself, 
and of the present and the future. Estrangement prevails in nature 
and in man, in Church and society, in sage and saint. Sin abounds. 
Man is split within himself. In the picture of Jesus as the Christ, 
which appeared to Paul at the moment of his greatest separation 
from other men, from himself, and from God, he found himself ac- 
cepted though unacceptable. In the knowledge that he was accepted, 
he was able to accept himself and, as well, every Jew and Gentile. 
The religious world has always needed, and now needs more than 
ever, Tillich 's rediscovery of the grace that is greater than our sins, 
but greater also than our theology, greater than either our ecclesi- 
asticism or our skepticism, and greater infinitely than our righteous- 
ness. As he sees it, it would be better to refuse God and the Christ 
and the Bible, and to declare a hundred-year moratorium on all 
three, than to accept them without the grace that accepts us. We are 
judged and found wanting; we are rejected; we are sub-Christian, 
subreligious, and subhuman; the relentless command is upon us all 
to move forward with singleness of heart toward God's future which 

H2 Major Voices in American Theology 

endlessly breaks and shakes our present; yet, though unacceptable, 
we are accepted; though unforgivable, we are forgiven; and the 
" we " includes all men, Christians and non-Christians, the religious 
and the irreligious. 

Tillich can bridge the impassable gulf between religion and irre- 
ligion because he has understood, as few have done, that our knowl- 
edge reaches only as far as our uniting love reaches. There is only 
one way to know another personality to become united with that 
personality through love. Full knowledge presupposes full love. God 
knows me because he loves me; and I shall know him face to face 
through a similar uniting, which is love and knowledge at the same 
time. Knowledge that is less than love shall be done away; knowl- 
edge shall become eternal in so far as it is one with love. The un- 
pardonable sin of scientists and dogmatists alike is knowledge with- 
out love. 

Tillich has built several impossible bridges across several impass- 
able chasms, because he is himself a bridge. A direct look at his life 
discloses that God has made him a span, not only between Germany 
and America, but also between many controversial philosophies, the- 
ologies, political theories, historiographies, and prophecies. 

Paul Johannes Tillich was born in Prussia, August 20, 1886, son 
of the Protestant parson, Johannes, and his wife, Mathilde. The ten- 
sion between eastern and western Germany was present from the 
start, for the mother was from the Rhineland, and the father from 
the Mark. The authoritarian East and the democratic West were 
united in Paul's birth. The mother's early death determined that the 
father should be the dominant influence. Classical composure, the 
son insists, was not part of his heritage. 

He was born, and has lived, between two worlds. He is a living 
illustration that the borderline is the truly propitious place for ac- 
quiring knowledge. As Hellenism and Hebraism played irresistible- 
force-and-immovable-object in Saint Paul, so progressive West and 
static East collided head-on in Tillich. In his own words : " It has 
been my fate, in almost every direction, to stand between alternative 
possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither, to take 
no definite stand against either" (The Interpretation of History, 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 113 

p. 3. Part One tr. by N. A. Rasetzki; Parts Two, Three, and Four 
tr. by Elsa L. Talmay. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936). To be a bridge 
between two temperaments, in his experience, is as unfruitful for 
decision as it is fruitful for thought. Tillich illustrates the principle 
that thought is born in conflict; though not a Baptist, he has been 
totally immersed in inner and outer conflict from first to last. From 
his point of view, truth dwells not in ivory towers but in the midst 
of struggle and fate. 

Tillich's father was town pastor in the rustic trans-Elbian village; 
the village itself was barely opening its eyes after the slumber of the 
Middle Ages. The father was superintendent of the area churches, 
and as well a functionary in school administration. From his fourth 
to his fourteenth year Paul loved his uncritical country, yet longed 
for the critical city. On a journey to Berlin the railroad seemed to 
him half-mystical. Annual seaside vacations awakened his dreamy 
appreciation of the boundless ocean as a symbol of the eternal, of the 
infinite bordering on the finite, erupting into finiteness. This mysti- 
cal or half-mystical intuition is never absent from the mature Tillich. 
He sees and describes the fallacy of mysticism, as man's attempt to 
cross the boundary of finitude, yet his theology remains both mysti- 
cal and systematic. To him God is always more mystery than mean- 
ing, the union of abyss and ground, far and near, " theos" and 
"logos" demonic energy and divine purpose. Ferre's view of in- 
direct grace from below and direct grace from above is similar. 

Tillich's childhood was a bridge not only between temperaments 
but also between social classes. He attended the common school, and 
there acquired a deep animosity toward the upper classes the 
burgomaster, the doctor, the large landowners, and his own parents. 
Later in the Gymnasium, roughly equivalent to an American high 
school, though distinct in its humanities emphasis, Tillich's real 
chums were commoners; he felt an increasing distaste for bourgeois 
youth. He accepted his membership in the privileged class with a 
painful sense of social guilt. His father was intimate with the old 
nobility, and the family were often entertained in the manor houses 
of the squires. The large landowners despised the bourgeoisie, Til- 
lich's own class, and, strangely enough, in their feudal tradition pos- 

H4 Major Voices in American Theology 

sessed some affinity with socialism. The Prussian accent on duty -and 
order provided social and mental stability, but reduced the venture 
of personal decision. Tillich developed a passionate desire to emerge 
from every sort of narrowness. His sympathies were with a small 
antibourgeois Bohemian group, intellectually unconventional, ironi- 
cally self -critical, and in principle pro-Communist. The common en- 
emy was the anti-intellectual petty bourgeoisie, and the Nietzschean 
aristocratic individual the common ideal. 

From his fourteenth to his seventeenth year Tillich struggled with 
the tension between reality and imagination. External reality was 
not to be taken seriously; worlds of fantasy were more real. His 
romantic imagination eventually became philosophic imagination, 
but his ability to perceive the abstract in concrete imagery remained. 
He recognized the temptation of the romanticist, to isolate himself 
from the communal work of science, yet felt profoundly the uncom- 
promising seriousness of prophetic religion. To Tillich, then and 
now, art is the highest form of play and the unsentimental mirror 
of the public mind. His father was musician and composer, yet typi- 
cally Protestant in his contempt for architecture and the fine arts. In 
Tillich the younger, the love of art turned, in part, to love of litera- 
ture. Shakespeare, in the Schlegel translation, was important to him, 
and he identified himself with Hamlet to the danger point. He 
moved instinctively toward existentialism in philosophy. Goethe, 
he felt, was not existential enough, and Dostoevsky, the incarnate 
existentialist, was a late discovery. 

In Berlin, on his last furlough as field chaplain in the First World 
War, he discovered painting through Botticelli; he regards the ex- 
perience as decisive. The direct encounter produced reflection, with 
philosophical and theological overtones, and his basic thesis, the ne- 
cessity of combining cultural form with religious content, came to 
clarity in his mind. In his view, culture is the form of religion, and 
religion is the content of culture, and the content, in so far as it is 
the break-through of revelation, is both form-creating and form- 
destroying. His belief -ful realism, or self -transcending realism, takes 
its meaning here. Form must be determined by culture from its own 
perspective, by its own standards; content must be determined by 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 115 

religion. Into every form must erupt the depth content, the ultimate 
meaningfulness of the moment. This is the basis of the Tillich trinity 
of terms, theonomy, heteronomy, and autonomy. Heteronomy makes 
the tragic mistake of creating its own forms outside and alongside 
the cultural forms; autonomy makes the tragic mistake of emptying 
every cultural form of transcendent meaning. Only one world-em- 
bracing reality can overcome the schizophrenic split between heter- 
onomous religion and secular autonomy, that is, theonomy the 
filling of the cultural forms with religious content, belief -ful realism, 
or self -transcending realism. In the poetry of Rilke, which his wife, 
Hannah Werner, later made accessible to him, Tillich discovered 
again that form both can and must be charged with metaphysical 

Existentialism became TUlich's bridge across the chasm from 
theory to practice. In his early years it was evident to everyone, and 
to him, that he was marked out for theory, not for practical activity. 
He learned from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics that pure theory 
alone offers pure happiness; nonetheless he acquired a profound dis- 
taste for heteronomous theory, a form of escapism, and dedicated 
himself to theonomous theory, the uniting of form and content. 
Neither the Protestant parsonage nor Shakespeare had made him 
a lighthearted dilettante; both had taught him the first principle of 
high seriousness: in religious truth the stake is one's own existence; 
the question is, To be or not to be. To him religious truth is always 
existential, inseparable from practice. Religious truth is acted, in 
accordance with the Gospel of Saint John. In the creed of the 
Church, Tillich found transcendent meaning, beyond surface belief 
and shallow doubt. A man's religion is what he does, because he 
does what he is; Christ could say, " I am the Truth," and the Church 
could agree with him, because he taught, enacted, and was Love. 

Tillich attended the University of Berlin in 1904 and 1905, the 
University of Tubingen in 1905, the University of Halle from 1905 
to 1907, and returned to the University of Berlin in 1908. In 1911 he 
received the Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Breslau. 
Two years of labor in the Church were followed by four as field 
chaplain on the Western Front. As an undergraduate he had been a 

n6 Major Voices in American Theology 

member, and a director, of Wingolf, a student organization that 
sought to unite Christian principles with liberal ideas, but he had re- 
mained politically indifferent until the war and its aftermath awak- 
ened in him a strong sense of social responsibility and a serious hope 
for the remaking of the State. Never again was his theology to 
retreat from its political task. He entered sympathetically into the 
intellectual work of the Social Democratic Party; he became tre- 
mendously preoccupied with religious Socialism, and wholeheart- 
edly attacked self-sufficient finitude, the bourgeois spirit; he divorced 
himself completely from the separation of heteronomous religion 
and social need, and at the same time from a secular socialism which 
had emptied itself of religious meaning and was thus bourgeois. In 
education, humanistic classicism had been destroyed by scientific 
specialization; the universities had become political; by sacrificing 
theory to practice they had emptied practice of meaning. 

Tillich succeeded in building an important bridge across the bot- 
tomless abyss between Lutheranism and Socialism. Calvinism, with 
its idea of the Kingdom of God, rationalized at the second genera- 
tion into a Kingdom of This World, had common ground with 
Socialism; this, Lutheranism never had. Indeed, Tillich has never 
attempted to build the bridge across the Lutheran-Calvinist chasm. 
Nonetheless today he is a member of a denomination that attempts 
that engineering feat, the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The 
substance of his own religion was, and remains, Lutheran. Luther- 
anism had erected two barricades against Socialism: religious nation- 
alism and dialectical theology. On German soil religious Socialism 
was impossible. Tillich felt then, and has continued to feel, that the 
congenital antagonism between religion and Socialism is the tragic 
element in German history. The Lutheran view of man is allergic 
to all Utopian thinking. Tillich found a path through the Lutheran 
pessimism in the doctrine of the fairos, the possibility of a special 
demand and a special expectation at a special historic time. In his 
view, the Kingdom of God will always remain transcendent; yet it 
is directly related to this world as a judgment against an existing 
society and a norm to the next. A decision for Socialism at one time 
and place may be a decision for the Kingdom of God, even though 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 117 

Socialism and the Kingdom of God cannot be equated. Christ, the 
center of history, is the content of demand and expectation, alike for 
individual and group, and historic time moves forward irreversibly. 
Religious Socialism therefore considers capitalism and nationalism 
demonic, and heteronomous religion profane. Theonomy, which 
ends the cleavage between heteronomy and autonomy, finds its kin- 
dergarten in religious Socialism. 

A bridge between idealism and Marxism is to be found in the 
Tillich epistemology. Hegel did not realize that thinking is entan- 
gled with existence, that it is not pure essence. Tillich finds Marx's 
concept of ideology, the unveiling of sacred and profane self-interest, 
identical with Luther's idea of the self-made God. In American 
literature, we have met the same idea in Paul Elmer More's The 
Demon of the Absolute. Where we stand determines what we see, 
as Kierkegaard discovered in the soul, and Marx in society. Despair 
is the beginning of hope, for the greatest possibility of obtaining 
unideological truth is precisely the recognition of present inade- 
quacy. The proof that unideological truth is possible is given in the 
very statement that many truths are ideologies; if the statement is 
to be taken seriously it must itself be regarded as unideological. 
Marx's materialism, as Tillich sees it, was not primarily metaphysi- 
cal; it was merely a method of historical interpretation, and useful, 
though negative. Economics involves, but does not exclusively de- 
termine, the whole of life in this world; it is therefore fundamental. 
Both Luther and Marx emphasized that man lives on earth, not in 
heaven; in existence, not in essence. The unveiling of group ideolo- 
gies, like the psychoanalytic unveiling of depth drives in the individ- 
ual, is painful and therefore resisted, yet desperately necessary. 
Tillich rejects the Utopian and dogmatic elements in Marxism, but 
retains its unveiling technique as truly prophetic. Because he found all 
political parties distortions, he remained committed to none. Cannot 
this argument be used with equal legitimacy against membership 
in our churches? In an age of mediocrity it is hard to criticize 
Donatist perfectionism, yet is there not sinful pride as well as virtu- 
ous perspicacity in purist asceticism? Can it be that perfectionism 
is itself an ideological cover for the evasion of creative anguish? 

n8 Major Voices in American Theology 

Perhaps Tillich's withdrawal from the hazards of party participation 
is simply a self-restriction of method, a self-limitation of vocation. 
After all, no human can fight all the battles. 

Professionally, Tillich was Privatdozent in theology at the Univer- 
sity of Berlin, 1919-1924; professor of theology at Marburg, 1924, 
1925; University of Dresden, 1925-1929; University of Leipzig, 1928, 
1929; and professor of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt- 
am-Main, 1929-1933. He received the honorary Doctorate in The- 
ology at Halle in 1926. He married Hannah Werner in March, 1924. 
His book The Interpretation of History is dedicated to her. There 
are two children, Erdmuthe and Rene. 

Partly through the influence of his friend Reinhold Niebuhr, 
Tillich became, in 1933, professor of philosophical theology at Union 
Theological Seminary in New York, and began his study, and re- 
markable mastery, of the difficult tool of a foreign tongue. In 1932, 
Richard Niebuhr had translated Tillich's 1926 The Religious Situa- 
tion for American readers. Tillich became a naturalized American 
citizen in 1940, and the same year received the Doctor of Divinity 
degree at Yale. He was active in the American Democratic German 
Movement in the closing years of the Second World War. He de- 
livered the Taylor Lectures at Yale in 1935 and the Terry Lectures 
in 1950. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and 
Sciences, and has been both vice-president and president of the 
American Theological Association. The University of Glasgow gave 
him the Doctor of Divinity degree honoris causa in 1951, and he is 
the scheduled 1952 Gifford lecturer. He published nine books on 
philosophy and theology., Protestantism and Socialism, in his native 
land. Including The Religious Situation there are five volumes now 
available in English: The Interpretation of History, The Protestant 
Era (1948), The Shading of the Foundations (1948), and Systematic 
Theology, Volume One (1951). The Shafting of the Foundations, 
the layman's best introduction to Tillich, contains a series of sermons 
delivered at Union Seminary and mimeographed in response to 
student demand before publication. The book uniquely illustrates 
Tillich's method, and fulfills his purpose, to impart transcendent 
meaning to the modern skeptic in his own speech. Systematic The- 

Beyond Religion and Irrdigion 119 

ology, Volume One, correlates the authentic questions from philoso- 
phy with the authentic answers from theology; it builds the bridge 
between reason and revelation in our time; it unites the Protestant 
principle with the Catholic faith; it classifies Tillich as a twentieth 
century, and specifically Protestant, Thomas Aquinas. For this study 
the essential content of Volume Two, in the form of extended 
mimeographed summaries, was made available. Tillich's view of 
" The World Situation " (1945) is found in his unique chapter under 
that title in the worthy volume The Christian Answer, edited by 
Henry P. Van Dusen and produced individually and corporately by 
the Theological Discussion Group, a meeting of major minds. The 
society of savants met two week ends each year from 1933 to 1945 
to correlate the \airos, to relate eternity and modernity, the Christian 
faith and the social fact. The entire volume unites theology and 
recent history in belief-fill realism. 

Tillich's prolific present is solidly based on his strenuous past. 
Only through severe struggles with his Prussian father did he 
achieve the break-through to mental and moral autonomy. Self- 
assertion as a means of self-discovery, as Nels Ferre has shown, is 
necessary for everyone, yet Tillich did not lose sight of the inevitable 
emptiness of mere autonomy. Autonomy filled with religion, this is 
theonomy for which Tillich crusades. Submission to divine and secu- 
lar authorities, that is, heteronomy, Tillich has firmly rejected, for 
his own sake, and for ours, and there is no return. From earliest 
times he was opposed to the most potent heteronomy, Roman 
Catholicism, and his opposition was both Protestant and autono- 
mous. At one period, he confesses, he was tempted to surrender to 
the peace of Rome; for a time it seemed that the only alternatives 
were national heathenism in Protestant vestments and religious des- 
potism in papal pomp. Both were heteronomies, and both he re- 
jected. His fundamental theological problem is a problem of the 
bridge: the relation between the absolute and the relative, the Un- 
conditioned and the conditioned, God and human religion. Only an 
unconditioned God can forgive sins. A conditioned God must de- 
fend himself. Beside the unconditioned claim of the divine no other 
claim can exist. That this claim is established by a finite, historical 

120 Major Voices in American Theology 

reality is the root of all heteronomy and of all demonry. The Sa- 
tanic, the pure evil, exists in theory but not in fact; metaphysical 
dualism is metaphysical schizophrenia; but the demonic is some- 
thing finite, something limited, which puts on infinite unlimited 
dignity whether Book, person, community, institution, or doc- 
trine. The same demonic distortion has been studied by Nels R S. 
Ferre in Pillars of Faith. Tillich is certain that Dostoevsky's Grand 
Inquisitor has entered the vestibule of the German Confessional 
Church in the strong but tight-fitting armor of Barthian supranat- 
uralism, a new heteronomy, antiautonomous and antihumanistic, the 
abnegation of the Protestant principle. 
In Tillich J s words: 

" There can be no act of thought without the secret presupposition of 
its unconditional truth. But this unconditional truth is not in our pos- 
session. It is the hidden criterion of every truth that we believe we pos- 
sess. There is an element of venture and of risk in every statement of 
truth. Yet we can take this risk in the certainty that this is the only way 
in which truth can reveal itself to finite and historical beings " (The 
Protestant Era, p. 14. The University of Chicago Press, 1948). 

" Protestantism must exist in the constant tension between the sacra- 
mental and the prophetic, the constitutive and corrective element. Were 
both these elements to fall apart, the former would become heteronomous 
and demonic, the latter empty and skeptical. . . . The question of heter- 
onomy and autonomy has become the question of the final criterion of 
human existence. ... In the theonomous, prophetic word, the contra- 
diction of autonomy and heteronomy is overcome. . . . 

" I am determined to stand on the border of autonomy and heteronomy, 
not only principally but also historically. I have concluded to remain on 
this border, even if the coming period of human history should stand 
under the emblem of heteronomy" (The Interpretation of History, 
pp. 26, 28, 30). 

Not least among the bridges Tillich has engineered crosses the 
chasm from theology to philosophy. His wish to become a philoso- 
pher was formed during his last years in the Gymnasium. And to 
him the philosophical questions have always been pointless without 
the theological answers. He could become neither liberal nor ortho- 
dox, neither autonomous nor heteronomous. The doctrine of justifi- 
cation, the divine acceptance of the unacceptable, shatters every 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 121 

human finality, every identification of God and man. Yet the same 
doctrine discloses that human decadence and despair are overcome 
by the divine acceptance of the sinner and the doubter. For Tillich 
no approach was possible to liberal dogmatics, which replaced the 
crucified Christ with the historical Jesus, and dissolved the yes-and- 
no of justification into moralism. 

^ Perhaps every profound theology must appear Docetic, if only that 
it may be, in effect, Athanasian. It is, after all, the divinity and not 
the humanity of Jesus Christ that evoked Peter's confession and 
ignited the original blaze. To Tillich the foundation of Christian 
belief is not the historical Jesus; as he sees it, the existence of the 
historical Jesus cannot be proved beyond doubt; in his view it is 
possible, though not necessary, to dispense with the historical Jesus; 
indeed, in so far as the human Jesus has become an idol, rather than 
an incarnation, he must be dispensed with. Jesus expressly sacrificed 
all that was Jesus to all that is Christ; the crucifixion, resurrection, 
and ascension can mean no less. For Tillich, the foundation of Chris- 
tian belief is the Biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ, not the his- 
torical abstraction, a work of the creative imagination. His Docetism 
therefore may be more appearance than reality: the Christian sub- 
stance is everywhere present, though presented in a philosophical 
rather than a Biblical setting. He finds himself against Earth's supra- 
naturalism and for Earth's paradox of justification, and at the same 
time against liberal dogmatics and for liberalism's historical method. 
He thinks and lives as both faithful theologian and critical philoso- 
pher, and takes care never to lose either dimension in the other. In 
the First World War and in Nietzsche he experienced the abyss of 
existence. His philosophy of history is therefore both sociologically 
oriented and politically formed. He regards metaphysics as a human 
attempt to express the Unconditioned in rational symbols, but the 
good word "metaphysics" has fallen into disrepute and is often 
misunderstood; hence he replaces the word with ontology. To him 
theology is simply theonomous metaphysics. Tillich appears a com- 
plete rationalist; except for other books than his Systematic The- 
ology you would never know that he is a committed Christian. 
However, his rationalism, upon examination, turns out to be only a 

122 Major Voices in American Theology 

methodological self-restriction. He is convinced that reason is a 
critical necessity, that it must be severely exercised despite fanatical 
resistance, that resistance to reason is heteronomy. In his view reason 
is basically theonomous; though conditioned by existence, thinking 
is rooted in the absolute as the foundation and abyss of meaning. The 
express subject of theology is the assumption of all knowledge, 
whether or not expressed. From Heidegger, Tillich learned the 
depth of freedom and the limit of finiteness; Heidegger reached 
theonomous philosophy through emphatic atheism; he had no an- 
swer but he asked the right question, and destroyed heteronomy. 
Sartre renders a similar service. 

Because Tillich, in principle, has ended the war between philoso- 
phy and theology, he has, in principle, also ended the war between 
Church and society. His thinking includes the universe, yet begins 
and ends at the altar. The Church has always been, and remains, his 
home. As he puts it: 

" I belong to the Church. The years of my youth laid the foundation 
of this feeling, not only by the Christian attitude of a Protestant parson's 
home, but also by a rather uninterrupted religious custom of a small city 
east of the Elbe at the end of the nineteenth century. My love for the 
church building with its mysticism; my love for the liturgy, singing, and 
sermon, for the great Church festivals, which for days, even weeks, de- 
termined the life of the town; for the mysteries of Church doctrine and 
their effects upon my spiritual life as a child; the thrilling experience of 
holiness, of guilt, of forgiveness; the language of the Bible, particularly 
its pithy sayings all this together was effective and created an inde- 
structible foundation of ecclesiastical and sacramental feeling in me. It 
was decisive in leading me to the decision to become a theologian, and 
to remain one in spite of all tensions " (Ibid., pp. 41, 42). 

His interest in society necessitated his effort to make Church and 
society one, not through home missions as such, but through reli- 
gious Socialism; therein alone, in his view, is theological meaning 
accessible to the proletarian masses. The problem is, in part, one of 
translation, the necessity of expressing the religious substance in 
common speech; indeed the entire Tillich theology is an adventure 
in semantics. The problem is complicated by the fact that there are 
no substitutes for the original terms. In his view, the only solution 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 123 

is to use the original words, and at the same time to make clear 
their original meaning, to disavow their secular and distorted usage, 
to stand between sacred and secular terminologies and interpret the 
one to the other. Present society has driven many to the sacred- 
secular border, and precisely there the religious terminology can be 
heard in its original meaning. When a blind and arrogant orthodoxy 
monopolizes the ancient words, confuses honest seekers, and drives 
them into paganism or thrusts them out of the Church, the damage 
is irreparable and the sin unpardonable. 

Finally, Tillich's doctrine of the latent and the manifest Church 
builds the bridge between religion and culture, and between other 
religions and Christianity. In every ethical and spiritual religion ex- 
ists the preparatory Church; indeed, in Christianity itself the Church 
is often more latent than manifest. He finds secular autonomy often 
more religious in content than sacred heteronomy. Wherever human 
existence is subjected to questioning, wherever unconditioned mean- 
ing becomes visible in works which have only conditioned meaning 
in themselves, there culture is religious. Sacraments are symbols of 
the holy; they are not holy in themselves. The Unconditioned alone 
is holy, and the holy both is and is not in all things at the same time, 
yet the manifest Church is impossible without a sacramental pres- 
entation of the Unconditioned. The latent Church in our secular 
society can be understood in a pungent Tillich paragraph: 

" It will not do to designate as non-Churchly all those who have be- 
come alienated from the organized Churches and traditional creeds. My 
life in these groups for half a generation showed me how much latent 
Church there is in them: the experience of the finite character of human 
existence; the quest for the eternal and the unconditioned, an absolute 
devotion to justice and love; a hope which is more than any Utopia; an 
appreciation of Christian values; and a most delicate apprehension of the 
ideological misuse of Christianity in the Church and State. It often 
seemed to me as if the latent Church, which I found in these groups, 
were a truer Church than the organized Churches, because its members 
did not assume to be in possession of the truth. Of course, the last few 
years have shown that only the organized Church is able to carry on the 
struggle against the pagan attacks on Christianity. The latent Church 
has neither the religious nor the organized weapons necessary in this 
struggle, though their use threatens to deepen the chasm between Church 

124 Major Voices in American Theology 

and society. A latent Church is a concept belonging to the situation of the 
border, and it is the fate of countless Protestant men of our day to stand 
on this border " (Ibid., pp. 48, 49). 

If Tillich has one paramount passion, it is that painting, music, 
poetry, philosophy, and science become at once cultural or autono- 
mous in form, and religious or theonomous in substance. Tillich the 
bridgebuilding theologian is seen at full stature in his words: 

" In face of the Unconditioned, or religiously speaking, of the Majesty 
of God, there is no preferred sphere, there are no persons, Scriptures, 
communities, institutions, or actions that are holy in themselves: nor are 
there any which are in themselves profane. The profane work can possess 
the quality of holiness, and what is holy can remain profane. ... It 
seemed to me that the unconditioned character of religion becomes much 
more manifest if it erupts out of the profane, disturbing and transform- 
ing it. Conversely it seemed to me that the dynamic character of the 
religious becomes veiled if some institutions and personalities are consid- 
ered religious in themselves " (Ibid.., pp. 51, 52). 


To Paul Tillich, Protestantism is an eternal necessity; its essential 
element would remain if there were no Protestant Churches. He has 
examined Protestantism continuously for many years, both from the 
outside, as a student of world history, and from the inside, as a man 
of faith. He is always a theologian from within the faith, and a 
philosopher from without. At times he is a philosopher in theology, 
which accounts for the rationalism of his method and the Docetic 
quality of his thought. By the same token he is at times a theologian 
in philosophy. In his view, it is the business of philosophy to ask its 
own questions, and of theology to provide its own answers; in so 
far as philosophers have attempted to answer their own questions, 
and most of them have done so, they have become theologians, 
whether for good or ill. As he sees it, neither the purely objective 
nor the purely subjective method can yield the whole truth. Man is 
subject as well as object; in the study of man therefore the so-called 
objective approach is the least objective of all, because it is based on 
an initial dehumanization of its object. The merely objective ap- 
proach, useful as it is, is especially limited in the study of religion. 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 125 

Unconcerned detachment, if it is more than a method, becomes a 
metaphysic; it contains an a priori rejection of the religious demand 
to be ultimately concerned. It denies the reality of the object at the 
moment of approaching it. Tillich finds Hussed's descriptive phe- 
nomenology useful and necessary; its weakness is that it has no 
normative principle. For the same reason, Ferre both uses and rejects 
the Lund theology. 

With Tillich 's objective method and subjective experience, Prot- 
estantism is to be understood as a special historical embodiment of a 
universally significant principle. This principle, that the divine 
" No " is spoken against every finite claim of finality, that man is 
not God, has been demonstrated in all periods of history, in every 
religion of mankind; it was powerfully pronounced by the Jewish 
prophets; it is manifest in the picture of Jesus as the Christ; it has 
been recovered time and again in the life of the Church; it was the 
sole foundation of the Churches of the Reformation; and it chal- 
lenges these Churches whenever they leave their foundation. It is 
the ultimate criterion of all religion and all spiritual experience. 
Protestantism as a principle is eternal and a permanent criterion of 
everything temporal. Protestantism as the characteristic of a histori- 
cal period is temporal and subjected to the eternal Protestant prin- 
ciple. It is judged by its own principle, and this judgment might be 
a negative one. The Protestant era might come to an end. But if it 
came to an end, the Protestant principle would not be refuted. 

It is the business of theology, in Tillich's view, to discover and 
apply the Protestant principle, for without it theology cannot per- 
form its necessary work of mediation. The task of theology, as he 
sees it, is precisely mediation, that is, bridgebuilding, between the 
eternal criterion of truth as it is manifest in the picture of Jesus as 
the Christ and the changing human situation. If the mediating task 
of theology is rejected, theology itself is rejected; for the term " the- 
ology " unites the mystery, which is theos, with the understanding, 
which is logos. Similarly the Church itself is a bridge between eternal 
foundation and historical situation; the Church that is not mediation 
is miscarriage. 

Tillich turns the Protestant principle, the basis of mediation, not 

126 Major Voices in American Theology 

only against the liberals who lose transcendence in immanence, to 
whom mediation means surrender, but also against the Barthians, 
who lose immanence in transcendence and thus make mediation im- 
possible. Dialectics, one of the methods of mediation, seeks the truth 
through the " Yes " and " No " of debate, until a " Yes " has been 
reached that unites the necessary differences. In recent years the 
adjective "dialectical" has been misapplied to a theology that is 
strongly opposed to all dialectics, all mediation, a theology that con- 
sistently reiterates the "Yes" to its own and the "No" to every 
other position. This misuse of the term " dialectical " has obscured 
theological movements of a really dialectical, that is, a mediating, 
character; and it has resulted in a cheap and clumsy division of all 
theologians into naturalists and supernaturalists, liberals and ortho- 
dox. This division is obsolete in the actual work which is done to- 
day by every theologian who takes the mediating task seriously. 

The Protestant principle is derived from the doctrine of justifica- 
tion by faith: God both rejects man's claim of finality and accepts 
man. The Protestant principle therefore rejects heteronomy, that is, 
the doctrine of infallibility, whether papal or Barthian, and at the 
same time rejects self-complacent autonomy, that is, secular human- 
ism. It demands a self-transcending autonomy, or theonomy. Thus 
the Protestant principle is the way of mediation, of bridgebuilding. 

Not only he who is in sin but also he who is in doubt is justified; 
indeed only the sinner and the doubter are justifiable, since the rec- 
ognition of sin and doubt is the recognition of the tentativeness and 
fallibility of human virtue and human knowledge. Doubt of every 
human claim is the beginning of faith in the divine claim. Therefore 
doubt, even doubt about God, need not separate us from God. There 
is real faith in every serious doubt, namely, faith in the truth which 
is sought, even if at the moment our only truth is our lack of truth. 
Truth is divine immanence, and more. If truth is sought as an ulti- 
mate concern, the divine is present, though not possessed; the 
doubter with depth longing is therefore "justified." He who seeks 
seriously for the truth recognizes that he does not possess it; the fact 
that he seeks seriously is the proof that it possesses him. He who 
seriously denies God, affirms him. There is no place beside the di- 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 127 

vine, no possible atheism, no wall between the religious and the 
nonreligious. The holy embraces both itself and the secular. Being 
religious is being unconditionally concerned. Neither works o piety 
nor works of morality nor works of the intellect establish unity with 
God. Good works do not create divine-human unity; they are created 
by it. They even prevent it if you try to reach it through them. Un- 
conditional seriousness is the presence of God in the experience of 
utter separation from him. Faith is the acceptance of one's rejection, 
and at the same time, the acceptance of one's acceptance. This radical 
and universal interpretation of the doctrine of justification by faith 
has made Tillich a conscious Protestant; for him it has meant the 
conquest of meaninglessness by the awareness of meaning in mean- 
inglessness. No realm of life can exist without relation to something 
unconditional, to an ultimate concern. Religion, like God, is omni- 
present; its presence can be forgotten, neglected, denied. But it is 
never absent; it is the inexhaustible depth of life, the inexhaustible 
meaning of every cultural creation. 

The Protestant principle makes mediation possible because it 
makes theology historical To Tillich, history is the central problem 
in theology and philosophy because in historical reality he found 
himself immersed. He discovered historical depth when he returned 
from the First World War and saw the chaos of Germany and Eu- 
rope, the end of the nineteenth century bourgeois victory, the split 
between the churches and the masses, the gap between static tran- 
scendence and revolutionary immanence. The situation demanded 
interpretation as well as action. Tillich found himself and his task, 
the creation of a theonomous interpretation of history. To him, re- 
ligion is the substance of culture, and culture is the expression of 
religion; theonomy and religious Socialism are one. 

In Tillich's view a very real barrier exists in the United States to 
an understanding of the world in which it finds itself a leader. 
Everything critical of nineteenth century capitalism is denounced 
as "Red" and, consciously or unconsciously, confused with Rus- 
sian Communism. Religious Socialism, unlike Russian Communism, 
is interested in human life as a whole and not in its economic basis 
exclusively; the exclusive economic interpretation of life, which char- 

128 Major Voices in American Theology 

acterizes capitalism and Communism alike, is empty secularism. Re- 
ligious Socialism recognizes the dependence of economics on all 
other social, intellectual, and spiritual factors. Religious Socialism is 
not a problem of wages, but of a new theonomy in which the ques- 
tion of wages, of social security, is treated in unity with the question 
of truth, of spiritual security. The stubborn reality of social structures 
that divorced the masses from meaning meant for Tillich a perma- 
nent break with philosophical idealism and theological transcen- 
dentalism; both were nonhistorical 

The Protestant principle means not only the critical transcendence 
of the divine over every conservatism and utopianism, but also the 
creative omnipresence of the divine in every historical process. Re- 
ligious Socialism, to Tillich, is not a political party but a spiritual 
power. It has friends and foes on the Left as well as on the Right. 
Yet it stands unambiguously against every form of reaction, whether 
semifeudal and futile as in Germany, the bourgeois status quo as in 
America, or the revived clericalism of postwar Europe. Religious 
Socialism is not Marxism, though it has learned more from Marx's 
analysis of bourgeois society than from any other in our time. Tillich 
finds Marxism much nearer than idealistic theology to the classical 
Christian view of human nature and human history; Marxism, like 
Christianity, accents empirical pessimism and eschatological hope. 

The Protestant principle cannot be understood merely as criticism 
of all man-made forms, sacred and secular. Its creativity must also 
be grasped. God is not only critically transcendent over all heter- 
onomy and autonomy, but he is also creatively omnipresent in every 
moment of history, and his creative presence is more visible in pre- 
pared periods than in others. When the time is ready, the \airos, the 
fulfillment, appears, which overcomes the preparatory contradictions. 
What happened in the one unique \airos, the appearance of Jesus as 
the Christ, the center of history, may happen in a derived form again 
and again in the process of time. Christ is the measure of both criti- 
cal transcendence and creative immanence. Kairos is a Biblical con- 
cept which could not be used by Catholicism because of its static 
two-level interpretation of history; and it has not been used by the 
sects because of their striving toward the final end. Both conserva- 

Beyond Religion and Irrdigion 129 

tism and utopianism were, and are, nonhistorical. Kairos means that 
history moves, not in meaningless cycles, but irreversibly in mean- 
ingful preparations; hence peak periods, periods of fulfillment, are 
possible, though never to be equated with the Kingdom. Kairos con- 
tinues the Protestant criticism of Catholic historical absolutism; it 
prevents the acceptance of any kind of Utopian belief, progressivistic 
or revolutionary; it overcomes Lutheran individualistic transcen- 
dentalism; it recovers the revolutionary historical consciousness of 
early Christianity and the early Reformation; it provides a theono- 
mous foundation for the emergence of the new in history. Kairos 
unites both the criticism and the creativity of the Protestant principle. 

The Protestant principle takes seriously both the demonic enslave- 
ment and the divine liberation of human freedom. In Tillich J s view, 
the demonic was as real to Luther as to Paul; to both it was the 
structural and inescapable power of evil greater than the moral 
power of good will. Theological humanism, as Edwin Lewis also 
has been at pains to point out, underestimates the power of evil in 
regarding it merely as an individual's misuse of freedom. The 
strength of the Lewis position is its recognition of the inevitable 
dualism of existence; the Lewis limitation is the thrusting of relative 
dualism upon the ultimate, the finite war upon the infinite. The 
demonic is precisely the mixture of divine power and human pride 
in historical institutions and cultures; the demonic has no existence 
outside history. Both Tillich and Ferre have seen beyond the dualism 
of immanence the monism of transcendence. Since evil has historical 
and structural reality limiting individual freedom, its conquest can 
come only by the opposite, the divine structure, what Tillich calls a 
" Gestalt of grace." To him, the spiritual Church, is a " Gestalt of 
grace " older and larger than the Christian churches. Grace, which 
transcends history, is also historical, and a continuous war has been, 
and is now, fought between divine and demonic structures. Aware 
of its situation at the center of the battle, religious Socialism created 
its religious, and essentially Protestant, interpretation of history. The 
strength of the demonic is divine immanence; the weakness of the 
demonic is divine omnipresence. 

Luther's fight with Erasmus illustrates the Protestant view of 

130 Major Voices in American Theology 

grace. We are justified by grace alone, because in our relation to God 
we are dependent on God, on God alone, and in no way on our- 
selves; we are grasped by grace, and this is only another way of say- 
ing that we have faith. Grace creates the faith through which it is 
received. Man does not create faith by will or intellect or emotional 
self -surrender. Grace possesses him; it is objectively real, and he may 
or may not become aware of it. The interest of early Protestantism 
was so egocentric that the idea of a " Gestalt of grace " in our total 
historical existence could not develop. Indeed, our churches do not 
possess grace; grace possesses them, the same grace that possesses the 
so-called secular world. Our churches, when spiritually alive, are 
witnesses to the grace they do not possess. The Protestant principle 
admits no identification of grace with a finite reality, not even with, 
the visible Church. Without the latent Church, the Church in prep- 
aration before, within, and outside Christianity, the manifest Church 
could never appear. To build the bridge from the manifest to 
the latent Church, and vice versa, is to reunite mankind under the 
judgment and mercy of God; this historical bridgebuilding is the 
divine enterprise. 

Tillich, like Ferre, insists that Protestantism, to be effective, must 
become post-Protestant; that is, a profound religious and cultural 
transformation of Protestantism is on the agenda. To become post- 
Protestant is not to return to papal heteronomy; it is not even, al- 
though much more so, to return to early Christianity; nor is it to 
surrender to secularism. It is rather to move with self-transcending 
realism toward a new form of Christianity, theonomous and world- 
embracing, a new \airos, to be expected and prepared for, but not 
as yet to be named. Christianity is final only in so far as it criticizes 
and transforms each of its historical creations; and just this dual 
activity is the Protestant principle. 

The question may well be asked: How can critical and creative 
power be united in historical Protestantism? And Tillich answers: 
In the power of the New Being that is manifest in Jesus as the 
Christ. Here, in his view, the Protestant protest comes to an end. 
Here is the bedrock on which the Protestant house is built to prevail 
against hell and heteronomy. To dynamite this rock is insanity and 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 131 

suicide. Here is the eternal sacramental foundation of the Protestant 
principle, and the Protestant reality. 

Tillich is appalled at the decrease in sacramental thinking and 
feeling among modern Protestants. Nature has been excluded from 
religious meaning, from participation in the power of salvation; the 
body has been disjoined from the spirit. The sacraments have lost 
their vital power and are vanishing from the Protestant conscious- 
ness. The Christ has become Jesus, a religious personality, an ex- 
ample; to the many the Christ is no longer God's union with man, 
the basic sacramental reality, the New Being. To be sure, Christian 
leadership must endlessly draw the line between the divine-human 
mystery and demonic magic, yet the sacrament, the one essential in 
every religion, is the presence of the divine before our acting and 
striving, a structure of grace as real as the symbols expressing it. 
Protestantism has often reduced essential symbols, with their in- 
herent numinous power, to accidental signs; it has therefore tended 
to replace them with rationalism, moralisrn, and emotionalism. 

Tillich shares and criticizes both the negativism of Niebuhr and 
the affirmativism of Ferre, though he mentions neither name. As he 
sees it, cynical realism prevails today, as Utopian hope prevailed at 
an earlier time and now reappears in both Marxian and Ferre escha- 
tology. The Protestant principle judges both cynical realism and 
Utopian hope. It accepts the hope, though rejecting its Utopian form; 
it accepts the realism, though rejecting its cynical form. At this point 
Tillich and Lewis hold common ground. 

An unblinking realism that is full of hope characterizes the Prot- 
estant principle. The wars and the revolutions of this century are 
symptoms of the breakdown of bourgeois liberalism and signs of a 
coming fydros, a radical transformation of Western civilization. On 
this issue, Tillich, Sorokin, and Toynbee are three men with one 
idea. In so far as Protestantism is one structure among others in the 
Western world and nothing more it participates in both break- 
down and transformation. Not the Protestant era but the Protestant 
principle is everlasting. 

If the Protestant era is to continue in visible form, Protestantism, 
in the power of its principle, must dissolve its amalgamation with 

132 Major Voices in American Theology 

bourgeois ideology and create a synthesis, in criticism and accept- 
ance, with the revolutionary forces. Protestantism does not now have 
but must develop a social ethic determined by the T^airos under the 
judgment of the Protestant principle. The ethic of the \airos is the 
ethic of love, for love, as Ferre also has emphasized, unites the ulti- 
mate criterion with the concrete situation. Because faith and not love 
was the be-all and end-all of historic Protestant thought, Protestant- 
ism has never sufficiently recognized the centrality of love in Chris- 
tianity. Puritanism without love is Calvinist, and romanticism with- 
out justice is Lutheran. Love, properly understood, is the Protestant 
principle, for love criticizes all that is sublove in sacred and secular 
society, makes the two worlds one, and creates a new cosmos to re- 
place the old chaos. Primarily, love is not emotional, but ontological. 
Love is the essence of life, the dynamic reunion of that which is sep- 
arated, for separation without reunion is death. Love and theonomy 
are one. 

Finally, the Protestant principle is the First Commandment. In 
Tillich's words: 

"It was the Protestant principle that showed orthodox theologians 
(both old and new) that the history of religion and culture is a history 
of permanent demonic distortions of revelation and idolatrous confusions 
of God and man. Therefore, they emphasized and re-emphasized the 
First Commandment, the infinite distance between God and man, and 
the judgment of the cross over and against all human possibilities. In this 
respect also, Protestant theology must be always orthodox, fighting against 
conscious and unconscious idolatries and ideologies. . . . 

" Man in his very existence is estranged from God, a distorted human- 
ity is our heritage, and no human endeavor and no law of progress can 
conquer this situation but only the paradoxical and reconciling act of the 
divine self-giving. . . . 

" We know three things: we know the Protestant principle, its eternal 
significance, and its lasting power in all periods of history. We know, 
though only fragmentarily, the next steps that Protestantism must take 
in the light of its principle and in view of the present situation of itself 
and of the world. And we know that it will take these steps unwillingly, 
with many discords, relapses, and frustrations, but forced by a power that 
is not its own" (The Protestant Era, tr. by James Luther Adams, pp. 
xxviii-xxix. The University of Chicago Press, 1948). 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 133 


Tillich the bridgebuilder is at full maturity in the method of cor- 
relation, basic to his Systematic Theology. The sorrow of the past 
has been either a philosophy exclusively autonomous, or a theology 
exclusively heteronomous. The method of correlation overcomes the 
conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism which imperils not 
only any real progress in theology but also any possible effect of 
theology upon history. Tillich explores the unexplored: the inter- 
dependence between the desperate philosophical questions and the 
definitive Christian answers. 

As Tillich sees it, philosophy, as philosophy, cannot answer ulti- 
mate or existential questions. If philosophy offers an answer, the 
answer is theology, whether good or bad. Conversely, theology can- 
not answer the philosophical questions without accepting their pre- 
suppositions and implications. If logical question and theological 
answer are separated, the answer is unintelligible and the question 
unanswered. The questions must not be drawn from the answers, nor 
the answers from the questions. Philosophy and theology are not 
separated, and they are not identical, but they are correlated, and 
their correlation is the problem of Protestant theology. For this rea- 
son Tillich is <c professor of philosophical theology " at Union Semi- 
nary, and Ferre's new professorship at Vanderbilt University bears 
the same name. 

To Tillich neither neo-orthodoxy nor liberalism are valid alterna- 
tives. The Protestant principle prohibits old and new orthodoxy, in 
so far as any orthodoxy regards its truth as final, but also prohibits 
old and new liberalism which reduces truth to relativism or regards 
its relativism as absolute. In so far as liberalism is critical of false 
absolutes, Protestant theology must always be liberal. In so far as 
orthodoxy keeps as its foundation the Biblical picture of Jesus as the 
Christ, the center and meaning of history, the criterion of what is or 
is not Christian, the depth and purpose of life, Protestant theology 
must always be orthodox. Truth is to be preferred to security, 
whether liberal or orthodox. The Protestant principle maintains its 
ground; it looks at Scripture as Holy Scripture, the original docu- 

134 Major Voices in American Theology 

ment of the event, Jesus as the Christ. Theology, to be both adequate 
and relevant, must move back and forth between its eternal truth 
and the temporal situation. The word "situation" refers not to 
psychological or sociological states, but to man's total self-interpre- 
tation at a specific period. Fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy re- 
ject this bipolar movement, and thereby miss the meaning of their 
task. Kerygmatic theology always needs an apologetic or answering 
theology, directed toward the immediate situation, or power shaft 
and gears remain apart. 

Message and situation are meant for each other. Tillich correlates 
the questions implied in the situation with the answers implied in 
the message. Half the thinking world evolves questions for which 
there are no answers; the other half elaborates answers for which 
there are no questions. Tillich rejects both forms of comic theologi- 
cal opera, both forms of futility. 

Tillich J s method is clear, but his concept, the theological circle, 
must also be grasped. Every understanding of spiritual things is 
circular, that is, it contains a mystical a priori, an awareness of some- 
thing that transcends the cleavage between subject and object. And 
the theologian's working circle is narrower than that of the philoso- 
pher of religion. He adds to the mystical a priori the criterion of the 
Christian message, the Biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ. The 
scientific theologian, in spite of his desire to be a theologian, remains 
a philosopher of religion. Or he becomes really a theologian, an inter- 
preter of his Church and its claim, and thus enters the theological 
circle. He must then admit that he has done so and stop speaking 
of himself as a scientific theologian. It is permissible to be both ob- 
jective and subjective, but it is not permissible to deny it. 

In the theological circle, all parts are interdependent. The intro- 
duction presupposes both the content and the conclusion, and vice 
versa. Tillich J s arrangement epistemology, God, Christ, the Holy 
Spirit, and the Kingdom of God is a matter of expediency for the 
sake of the contemporary mind. One can begin anywhere and run the 
gamut in either direction. God comes first in both transcendence and 
immanence, but Tillich begins with epistemology, because there 
man's questions begin. Wherever you start, the theological circle em- 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 135 

braces the whole of existence and essence. Ultimate concern, without 
which religion is not religion, is the meaning of the great command- 
ment: The Lord, our God, the Lord is One; and you shall love the 
Lord your God with all. The religious concern is ultimate. All other 
concerns are conditional. The unconditional concern is total: no part 
of ourselves or our world is excluded from it; there is no " place " 
to flee from it. We cannot speak of the " object of religion " without 
simultaneously denaturing its unconditional character. That which 
is ultimate gives itself only to the attitude of ultimate concern. The 
object of theology is what concerns us ultimately. Only those proposi- 
tions are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can 
become our ultimate concern. Hence theology does not deal with 
what concerns us relatively; the theologian is no expert in other 
fields; he ought never to entangle himself either positively or nega- 
tively with preliminary concerns. Our ultimate concern is that which 
determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theo- 
logical which deal with their object in so far as it can become a mat- 
ter of being or not-being for us. Christian theology is not only 
theology, but is the theology; in its preoccupation with the Biblical 
picture of Jesus as the Christ, the center and meaning of history, 
the purpose and goal of process, it is absolutely concrete and abso- 
lutely universal at the same time. Philosophy deals with the structure 
of being in itself; theology deals with the meaning of being for us. 
In philosophy the place to stand is all places; the place to stand is 
no place at all; it is pure reason. There is no possible conflict; between 
philosophy and theology, for there is no common basis between 
them. All conflict rises as conflict in philosophy or as conflict in 
theology, when the hidden theologian in the philosopher fights with 
the professed theologian. Thus modern philosophy is not pagan; 
atheism and anti-Christianity are not pagan; they are anti-Christian 
in Christian terms. 

The Christian claim that the logos that became concrete in Jesus 
as the Christ is at the same time the universal logos includes the 
claim that wherever the logos is at work it agrees with the Christian 
message. No philosophy that is obedient to the universal logos can 
contradict the concrete logos, " the Logos made flesh." The divine life 

136 Major Voices in American Theology 

is the spiritual unity of form and depth, of Logos and abyss. It is 
the abysmal character of the divine life that makes revelation mys- 
terious; it is the logical character of the divine life that makes revela- 
tion rational; it is the spiritual character of the divine life that creates 
the miracle and the ecstasy in which revelation is received; without 
the abyss, the divine depth, revelation is information; without the 
Logos, the divine rationality in which our rationality is rooted, reve- 
lation is heteronomous subjection; without the Spirit, which unites 
mystery with meaning, and both with receptive ecstasy, the experi- 
ence of revelation is impossible. 

The sources of systematic theology are three: the Bible, Church 
history, and the history of religion and culture. Experience, is not a 
source of revelation, but a mediurn_ofeception; it yields insight, but 
not new material beyond the given in Christ. Insight dissolves every 
theology that makes experience an independent source rather than a 
dependent medium. The center and norm of systematic theology is 
the New Being in Jesus as the Christ understood as our ultimate 
concern. The partial openness of the Biblical canon safeguards the 
spirituality of the Church. The Biblical message, Jesus as the Christ, 
is final, but the Church's interpretation of the message is conditioned 
by religion and culture, and there is no escape from finitude. The 
attempt to escape finitude is the religious arrogance which is de- 
stroyed, in principle, by the doctrine of justification by faith. Prot- 
estants, particularly the neo-orthodox, have inveighed against Ro- 
man infallibility, and often substituted their own. 

Reason does not, and cannot, create the Christian content; it is a 
method of examining that content. Reason is not a source of revela- 
tion, but a medium of reception. Reason is overpowered, invaded, 
shaken by the ultimate concern; finite reason is superseded but not 
annihilated. There is, in the last analysis, only one genuine paradox 
in the Christian message, the appearance of that which conquers ex- 
istence under the conditions of existence. Finite man asks about the 
infinite because he belongs to it, yet the fact that he must ask about 
it indicates that he is separated from it. Only those who have experi- 
enced the shock of transitoriness, the anxiety which is the awareness 
of finitude, the threat of nonbeing, can understand the notion of 

Beyond Religion and Irrdigion 137 

God. Man is precisely the question he asks about himself, before any 
question has been formulated; the question implied in his finitude is 
the question implied in universal finitude. The Christian message 
answers the question of human existence; for the question is man 
himself. Man's unity with God makes reunion possible; man's sepa- 
ration from God makes reunion necessary. God is the answer to the 
question, man man in his essential nature and finitude. Christ is 
the answer to the question, man man in his existential self- 
estrangement. The Spirit is the answer to the question, man man 
in whom energy and meaning are separated. Revelation is the an- 
swer to the question, man man whose rationality is finite and en- 
closed within existence. The Kingdom of God is the answer to the 
question, man man who experiences in history the separation of 
process and purpose. More simply: God is in all things that exist; 
he is the life in all that lives. He is in the world, but not of 
the world; he is in man, but not of man. The fact that God is in 
man is the strength of man's reason; the fact that God is not of man 
makes man his own question about God. 

Theology begins and ends with God, but Tillich is aware that 
modern man begins and ends with himself. Tillich meets modern 
man halfway; he begins with him, but ends with God. He begins 
with curiosity (epistemology), and ends with the cross and the 
crown. And he is humble enough to acknowledge that systematic 
theology is a construct, that revelation is neither given nor received 
as a system. Nonetheless revelation is not inconsistent. The system- 
atic theologian therefore can interpret the consistency systematically, 
aware that the self-manifestation of the divine mystery transcends 
all possible systems, including his own. 

The problem, in epistemology, is the relation between the techni- 
cal reason which reduces ends to means, the ontological reason 
which reduces means to ends, and the question raised by the exis- 
tential ambiguity and disharmony of both, the question that is an- 
swered by revelation. Every epistemological assertion is implicitly 
ontological; that is, epistemology does not create ontology, but vice 
versa; the epistemological preamble is dependent on the whole the- 
ological system. The " how " is dependent on the " what," and the 

138 Major Voices in American Theology 

" what " is conditioned by the " how." 

Technical reason, separated from ontological reason, dehumanizes 
man, empties man of meaning, robs process of purpose. Technical 
reason itself is impoverished and corrupted if it is not continually 
nourished by ontological reason, and reason without revelation is 
question without answer. As Tillich sees it, theology cannot accept 
the support of technical reason in " reasoning " the existence of a 
God. Such a God would belong to the means-ends relationship. He 
would be less than God. On the other hand, theology is not per- 
turbed by the attack on the Christian message made by technical 
reason, for these attacks do not reach the level on which religion 
stands. There is no such thing as a God within the context of 
means-ends relationships. Technical reason is an instrument, and, 
like every instrument, it can be more or less perfect; as an instru- 
ment, no existential problem is involved in its use. The question of 
purpose involves the ontological reason. In theology one must distin- 
guish not only ontological from technical reason but also ontological 
reason in its essential perfection from its predicament in existence, 
life, and history. 

Ontological reason enables the mind to grasp and to shape, to re- 
ceive and to control, reality, for logos, or rationality, is the character 
of the real. In receiving reasonably, the mind grasps or receives its 
world; in reacting reasonably, the mind shapes or controls its world. 
The reasons of the heart are aesthetic and communal, that is, beauty 
and love; technical reason cannot comprehend them. Being is finite, 
existence is self -contradictory, and life is ambiguous. Actual reason 
p; "ticipates in these limitations. Autonomy means obedience to the 
law of reason, the logos, which man finds in himself, Heteronomy 
imposes a strange law; it issues commands from the outside; but this 
outside is also inside, in the depth of reason. Both autonomy and 
heteronomy, in knowledge as well as in faith and life, are rooted in 
theonomy, and without theonomy each goes astray. Theonomy does 
not mean the acceptance of a divine law imposed on reason by in- 
fallibility; it means autonomous reason united with its own depth. 
There is, of course, no complete theonomy under the conditions of 
existence. But the quest for it, for a reunion of what is always split 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 139 

in time and space, issues from reason itself; it is therefore not anti- 
rational. This quest is the quest for revelation. The double fight 
against an empty autonomy and a destructive heteronomy makes the 
quest for a new theonomy as urgent today as it was at the end of the 
ancient world. Totalitarianism without reason and democracy with- 
out depth groan and travail together in pain awaiting the City of 
God. The catastrophe of autonomous reason is complete. Neither 
autonomy nor heteronomy, isolated and in conflict, can give the an- 
swer. Reason does not resist revelation. It asks for revelation, for 
revelation means the reintegration of reason. 

Revelation is the unveiling of the ground of being, of God's pres- 
ence and purpose in process, for human knowledge. Knowing is a 
union of the knower and the known; the unity of distance and 
union, of the far and the near, of the subject and the object, is the 
ontological problem of knowledge. As Luther put it, God made 
himself small for us in Christ. In so doing, he left us our freedom 
and our humanity. He showed us his heart, so that ours hearts could 
be won. All religious knowledge is knowledge through union with 
the known, gnosis, as over against episteme, external knowledge of 
objects. Knowledge through union is knowledge through ecstasy, 
and ecstasy is not enthusiasm, but the state of being grasped by the 
unconditional. That which is not received in ecstasy is a report about 
the belief in a miracle, not an actual miracle. Ecstasy is the miracle 
of the mind, and miracle is the ecstasy of reality. Revelation is the 
unveiling of the depth of reason and the ground of being. .It points 
to the mystery of existence and to our ultimate concern. It is inde- 
pendent of what science and history say about the conditions in 
which it appears; and it cannot make science and history dependent 
on itself. No conflict between different dimensions of reality is pos- 
sible. Reason receives revelation through ecstasy and miracle, but 
reason is not destroyed by revelation, just as revelation is not emptied 
by reason. 

Historical revelation is revelation through history. Indeed history 
is the history of revelation. When the prophets spoke, they spoke 
about the great deeds of God, transparent events in the history of 
Israel When the apostles spoke, they spoke about the great deed of 

140 Major Voices in American Theology 

God, the transparent event that is Jesus, the Christ. There are no 
revealed doctrines, but there are transparent events that can be de- 
scribed in doctrinal terms. Rationalism replaces revelation with 
moralism, reminding us of what we already know. It is necessary 
to transcend rationalism as such with the idea of continuous revela- 
tion in the history of the Church, and at the same time to distinguish 
between the original revelation, the Biblical picture of Jesus as the 
Christ, and dependent revelation. The original miracle, together 
with its original reception, Peter's confession of faith, is the perma- 
nent point of reference. Original inspiration and dependent illumi- 
nation are likewise to be distinguished. The divine Spirit, illuminat- 
ing believers individually and as a group, brings their cognitive 
reason into revelatory correlation with the event on which Chris- 
tianity is based. A dependent revelatory situation exists in every 
moment in which the divine Spirit grasps, shakes, and moves the 
human spirit. Thus, the marks of revelation, mystery, miracle, and 
ecstasy, are present in every true prayer. Revelation, whether original 
or dependent, has revelatory power only for those who participate 
in it. 

There is, in Tillich's view, a possible idolatry immediately related 
to every revelation, for the bearer of the revelation, rather than the 
revelation, may become the object of worship. Because Jesus refused 
to be worshiped, and claimed nothing for himself, but surrendered 
all that was Jesus to all that is Christ, everything revelatory is present 
in Christ4as the final revelation, and that revelation cannot come to 
an end. 

It is important to realize that knowledge of revelation does not 
increase our knowledge about nature, history, and man. Research and 
verification not only can but must be applied severely if additional 
ordinary knowledge is claimed. If revealed knowledge interfered 
with ordinary knowledge, it would destroy scientific honesty and 
methodological humility. Conversely, New Testament philology 
may contribute muQJi to our understanding of the documents. It can 
neither contribute to, nor subtract from, the knowledge of revelation 
mediated through the documents. Ordinary knowledge cannot inter- 
fere with knowledge of revelation. No scientific theory is more favor- 
able to the truth of revelation than any other. Galileo and Darwin 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 141 

neither added to nor subtracted from Christian truth. Revealed truth 
lies in a dimension where it can neither be confirmed nor negated by 
historiography. Its truth is to be judged by criteria that lie within 
its own dimension. 

Revelation yields many insights into the nature of man, but all 
are related to what concerns man ultimately, to the ground and 
meaning of his being. There is no revealed psychology, no revealed 
historiography, no revealed physics. It is not the task of theology to 
protect the truth of revelation by attacking Freud or by defending 
Jung. These systems are more or less successful attempts in the di- 
mension of ordinary knowledge; they are to be judged on their own 
merits. However, if under the cover of ordinary knowledge matters 
of ultimate concern are discussed, theology must protect the truth of 
revelation against attacks from distorted revelations. Similarly, rea- 
son must protect ordinary knowledge from extraordinary ignorance 
masquerading as revelation. This is not a struggle between religion 
and science, but simply a struggle between true and false revelation 
on the one hand, or between true and false ordinary knowledge on 
the other. 

From beginning to end Tillich will not allow the permanent basis 
of Christianity to be relativized. Whether Christianity is true or 
half -true, Tillich is not prepared to say; he is a man, and not God; 
he is convinced that Christianity is the substance of Western culture, 
that a child of Christian culture is a child of Christ, that parenthood 
is existential, something given and therefore undeniable. Eor us in- 
escapably Christ is the revelation of our ultimate concern, and there- 
fore to us ultimate. Tillich's five dimensions, epistemology, God, 
Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Kingdom of God, are five excursions 
from one central citadel. He is prepared to defend that citadel against 
all attacks. In his words: 

" There can be no revelation in the history of the Church whose point 
of reference is not Jesus as the Christ. If another point of reference is 
sought or accepted, the Christian Church has lost its foundation. Final 
revelation means more than the last genuine revelation. It means the de- 
cisive, fulfilling, unsurpassable revelation, that which is the criterion of 
all the others. . . . 

" The unconditional and universal claim of Christianity is not based 

142 Major Voices in American Theology 

on its own superiority over other religions. Christianity, without being 
final itself, witnesses to the final revelation. Christianity as Christianity 
is neither final nor universal. But that to which it witnesses is final and 
universal. . . . 

" The appearance of Jesus as the Christ is the decisive constellation of 
historical forces. It is the ecstatic moment of human history and, there- 
fore, its center, giving meaning to all possible and actual history. The 
\airos which was fulfilled in him is the constellation of final revelation. 
But it is this only for those who received him as the final revelation. . . . 
This acceptance is a part of the revelation itself. It is the miracle of the 
mind which corresponds with the ecstasy of history. . . . Or, it is an 
ecstasy of the mind which corresponds with the miracle history. . . . 
The Christ is not the Christ without the Church, and the Church is not 
the Church without the Christ. . . . 

" He stands the double test of finality: uninterrupted unity with the 
ground of his being and the continuous sacrifice of himself as Jesus- to 
himself as the Christ. . . . 

" It would not have been the final revelation if it had not been received 
as such, and it would lose its character as final revelation if it were not 
able to make itself available to every group in every place. The history 
of the preparation and reception of the final revelation can be called the 
* history of revelation ' " (Systematic Theology, I, pp. 132, 133, 134, 136, 
137. The University of Chicago Press, 1951). 

One must understand further that the final revelation, which 
judges religion and nonreligion equally, does not deny, but rather 
confirms, both universal revelation and other religious revelations; 
by its nature it is the criterion of all revelation. While humanistic 
theology tends to identify the history of revelation with the history 
of religion and culture, thus removing the concept of final revelation, 
neo-orthodox theology and an allied liberal, that is, Ritschlian, the- 
ology try to eliminate the history of revelation by identifying revela- 
tion with final revelation. The latter group say that there is only one 
revelation, namely, in Jesus the Christ; to which the former group 
answer that there are revelations everywhere and that none of them 
is ultimate. In Tillich's view both contentions must be rejected. The 
final revelation precisely divides the history of revelation into a 
period of preparation and a period of reception, and this occurs not 
only in the total historical picture, but also in every culture and in 
every soul Missions could have reached no one if there had not been 

Beyond 'Religion and Irreligion 143 

a preparation for the Christian message in universal revelation. 
Where there is no question, there can be no answer. The period of 
receiving revelation began with the beginning of the Church. All 
religions and cultures outside the Church, according to the Christian 
judgment, are still in the period of preparation. . . . Even more, 
many groups and individuals within the Christian nations and the 
Christian Churches are definitely in the stage of preparation. They 
have never received the message of the final revelation in its mean- 
ing and power. Our Churches are not only communities of the New 
Being; they are also sociological groups immersed in the conflicts 
of existence. Nonetheless, revelation and salvation are final, com- 
plete, and unchangeable with respect to the revealing and saving 
event; they are preliminary, fragmentary, and changeable with re- 
spect to the persons who receive their truth and power. No one can 
receive revelation except through the divine Spirit and, if someone 
is grasped by the divine Spirit, the center of his personality is trans- 
formed; he has received, though he does not possess, salvation. 

Unlike Ferre, Tillich sees the real possibility of loss. The possi- 
bility of self-exclusion from existence cannot be eliminated from the 
revelation. Man lives under the threat of nonbeing, the threat of ex- 
tinction, the threat of loss of participation in the universe both here 
and hereafter, the sword of Damocles. Man can exclude himself 
from both relative and ultimate being. The wrath of God is not 
something other than his love; wrath is love's rejection of the re- 
jection of love. Saving power is meaningful only under ^the imme- 
diate threat of nonexistence. As long as the condemning function 
of revelation is experienced, saving power is effective. The absence 
of saving power is the flight from an ultimate concern, the compla- 
cency that ignores both the divine rejection and the divine accept- 
ance. Not to reach the threshold of the Spirit is to die with that 
which is subject to death. 

To Tillich, as to Ferre, the final revelation, and the final salvation, 
is love, for love conquers the contradiction between heteronomy and 
autonomy in the concerned soul and the concerned society. Uncon- 
cern is death, but concern is the beginning of salvation. The Church 
is the society of the concerned. As Tillich puts it: 

144 Major Voices in American Theology 

"There is an absolute law which can stand under the criterion of 
finality because it is not denied in the act of self-sacrifice but rather ful- 
filled. The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of 
law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete. The paradox 
of final revelation, overcoming the conflict between absolutism and rela- 
tivism, is love. The love of Jesus as the Christ, which is the manifestation 
of the divine love and only this embraces everything concrete in 
self and world. Love is always love; that is its static and absolute side. 
But love is always dependent on that which is loved, and therefore it 
is unable to force finite elements on finite existence in the name of an 
assumed absolute. The absoluteness of love is its power to go into the 
concrete situation, to discover what is demanded by the predicament of 
the concrete to which it turns " (Ibid., p. 152). 


Tillich both is and is not a detached academician. His is the role 
of the thinker, but his thoughts grip reality. His Christology tends to 
be Docetic, but there is nothing Docetic about his attempt to incar- 
nate theology in history. He is at his best as a critic of the present 
and a prophet of the future. To him, whatever is nonhistorical is 
nonsense. He is not primarily interested in tracing tendencies within 
the Churches or even within theology; rather, he is interested in the 
religious values of secularism, the religious depth in art, science, 
education, and politics. He is profoundly convinced that present 
civilization is not only on trial, but has been judged and found want- 
ing; yet he believes that creative forces are at work in the contem- 
porary chaos. He is a theological Diogenes looking for an honest 
movement. In his view hope is deeper than despair; triumph erupts 
through tragedy. He crusades against what he believes to be the de- 
caying element in the modern world, the self-sufficient spirit of 
bourgeois society, characteristic of capitalism and of Communism 
alike. Compared with his attack upon self-sufficient finitude, the eco- 
nomic revolutions of our time are reactionary. Every revolt against 
self-sufficient finitude receives his blessing, for the bourgeois spirit 
seeks human control over nature and mind, has no respect for the 
given, reduces man from person to thing, end to means, subject to 
object. He rejoices at the antibourgeois revolt which he finds in art, 
through Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin; in literature, through 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 145 

Strindberg and Nietzsche; in science, through Einstein, Planck, and 
Bohr; in philosophy, through Bergson, Simmel, and Husserl; in 
psychology, through Freud and Jung. He profoundly respects early 
Communism because it was prophetic, and profoundly loathes mod- 
ern Communism because it is capitalistic. Like Jeremiah, he is set 
to tear down and destroy self-sufficient society to make room for self- 
transcending community. He is a nihilist toward the present and an 
optimist toward the ultimate. 

To him, everything exists in perpetual relation to the Uncondi- 
tioned, a relation implicit in all life, explicit in religion. His belief- 
ful realism does not idealize or spiritualize what it sees. His skepti- 
cal, unromantic, unsentimental attitude accepts what it sees as it 
sees it. The real is not to be denied, but transcended. In his view, 
idealism transcendentalizes rather than transcends the real Faith 
and realism belong together; idealism evades both. Things as they 
are never reveal what they are to generalizing analysis but only to 
sympathetic intuition. All time receives its meaning from its relation 
to eternity; time is not meaningless but meaning-full; time both is, 
and can be, invaded by eternity. The eternal invades; it is not tangi- 
ble and objective. Disciples of the golden age always look to the 
past; utopianists always look to the future; \airos takes the present 
seriously to transform it. What is not real in our life and thought 
has neither present nor future. The Last Judgment is the judgment 
of our time by eternity, and that judgment can be negative, for the 
demonic power of bourgeois self-sufficiency is too strong to be con- 
quered by either romantic longing or revolutionary striving. Only 
the true can conquer the false absolute. When the relative masquer- 
ades as the ultimate, it provokes a sudden unmasking. Hence social- 
ism and religion not only can, but must, go hand in hand. Socialism 
without religion is self-sufficiency in sheep's clothing. 

Liberalism and Fundamentalism are both nonhistorical and in- 
tolerable, alike in their theology and their ethics. Fundamentalism 
ignores the problem; liberalism ignores the solution. The problem o 
religious socialism is the reconstruction of Protestantism, the re- 
building of the religious foundation of culture in Europe and 
America. Both personally and socially religion is a matter of ulti- 

146 Major Voices in American Theology 

mate concern, of the threat of nonexistence, or it is nothing. Tillich 
acknowledges with simple honesty that the position from which he 
examines the present is a matter of personal decision, that is, of ulti- 
mate concern. Every so-called objective interpretation is one part 
self-delusion and one part boredom. The shaking of the self-sufficient 
spirit, the shaking of time by eternity, is the desperate meaning of 
the moment. The present is neither the past nor the future; the pres- 
ent is eternity; that is, it has unconditioned meaning, depth, reality. 
To live spiritually is to live in the presence of meaning; without 
meaning life is the buzzing of chimeras in the void, " a tale told by 
an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." 

The demonic element of the present is self-sufficient finitude, the 
capitalist or bourgeois spirit of Western civilization, with its trinity 
of mathematics unrelated to meaning, technique unrelated to telos, 
and economy unrelated to theonomy. In education, means are sub- 
stituted for ends; natural sciences have forced humanistic studies off 
the highway. In politics, the right and might of the State are placed 
at the disposal of the capitalist class for the domination of the pro- 
letariat. Protestantism in England, America, Holland, and Western 
Germany formed an entangling alliance with capitalism at an early 
date, and remains locked in the illicit embrace. Nietzsche the phi- 
losopher, Strindberg the poet, and Van Gogh the painter all three 
were broken mentally and spiritually in their revolt against the 
bourgeois spirit, its self-assertion and self-sufficiency, its complete loss 
of self -transcendence, its divorce of life from source and meaning. 
All the tragedy notwithstanding, Tillich sees the eternal as the un- 
seen support even of the time that turns against it; solely to redeem 
the human spirit from its demonic enslavement, divine grace opens 
closed complacence, and brings self-sufficiency to judgment. The re- 
covery of meaning is the shattering of self-sufficiency. The demon- 
ridden swine rush madly into the sea, and are drowned, but the 
Gadarene demoniac sits quietly at the feet of the Master, clothed and 
in his right mind. The mind, as Husserl pointed out, is independent 
of the psychical processes in which it actualizes itself. War and revo- 
lution have revealed the play of mind upon process, the supremacy 
of meaning over mechanics. To some extent, modern catastrophe has 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 147 

disturbed even the precritical and prespiritual American mind. 

The bourgeois rejection of metaphysics is itself metaphysical; it is 
unconditioned faith in the self-sufficiency of the finite. With the 
modern breaking of self-sufficiency, the way is open to a new meta- 
physics of history, to an intuition of the Infinite in the symbols of 
the finite. In opposition to romanticism, the new metaphysics must 
be realistic; in opposition to cynicism it must be a belief -ful realism. 
No individual can discover or create the new metaphysics. It is the 
task of our century and of all mankind. The achievement will en- 
able our time to see itself and its situation in the presence of eternity. 

Nowhere in nineteenth century art, with its bourgeois arrogance, 
does one break through to the eternal; everything presents the meta- 
physics of a finite which postulates its own infinity. In modern art 
self-sufficiency is broken. A transcendent world is not depicted as in 
the art of the ancients, but the reference in things to the mystery be- 
yond them is expressed. The paintings of Jesus in liberal or capitalist 
Protestantism present a finite being without reference to the eternal. 
Tillich finds more of the quality of sacredness in a still life by 
Cezanne or a tree by Van Gogh than in a picture of Jesus by Von 
Uhde. The continuity of the religious tradition was broken by capi- 
talist culture; the modern consciousness of depth must find itself, 
without the aid of tradition or symbol, in a pure, mystic immediacy. 
And this may be done through any symbol. It may even be done 
through architecture. Not religious buildings, which are dull imi- 
tations, but economic structures today reveal something of self- 
transcendence, the will to break through the limits of finite self- 

Art cannot create, but .an express, metaphysical meaning. The 
ultimate is represented in temporal forms primarily through the 
impermanence and insecurity of the finite. Despair, in modern art 
and literature, is closer to the Kingdom than complacence. Eniile 
Zola attacked bourgeois self-sufficiency but possessed no self-tran- 
scendence. Ibsen was critical of bourgeois complacency but his stand- 
ards remained bourgeois; only in Peer Gynt is the self-sufficient 
spirit transcended. Stefan George provided the priestly spirit for 
many but not the prophetic spirit for all Love and suffering re- 

148 Major Voices in American Theology 

entered modern literature with Franz Werfel, and even more, with 
Dostoevsky, whose name is a pseudonym for depth. Two world 
wars constituted one catastrophe of culture, the unmasking of the 
demonic character of capitalist society. New Realism, which has un- 
covered the demonism present in the social world, may, or may not, 
develop into belief-ful realism. 

The unconditioned dominance of economic activity chiefly charac- 
terizes the bourgeois spirit. Capitalist society began with the emanci- 
pation of economics from spiritual and political control; an autono- 
mous economics developed, subject to no law but its own. Free 
economy tends necessarily toward infinite commercial imperialism. 
The fast buck and the big buck are the only interests, and infinite 
expansion in the sphere of the finite the only objective. Infinite ex- 
pansion exactly describes the self-sufficient finitude which is ever 
restless but never self-transcending. In the precapitalist era there 
was a transcendent element in man's relation to things. Property was 
a symbol of participation in a God-given world. The capitalist spirit 
has only a dominating, loveless attitude toward things. Personality 
is first exalted above property, then debased in slavery to mechanics 
without meaning. Nature, which is raped rather than reverenced, 
takes a costly revenge. Possessions that have lost their purpose leave 
the soul naked, empty, and cold. 

Secular socialism is a major triumph of the capitalist spirit, a 
symbol of its strength. Original socialism involved religious escha- 
tology. Tbe capitalist spirit achieved its greatest victory when it took 
captivity captive, and made its strongest enemy its ally. The tran- 
scendent goal of socialism was made finite and temporal With the 
loss of religious depth, socialism became bourgeois. Socialist pacifism, 
for example, is a bourgeois deception; socialism cries " Peace " only 
in international relations; when class interests are at stake, socialism, 
like capitalism, unsheathes the sword. Both socialism and capitalism 
secularize the State, empty it of meaning, make it a mercenary in 
the class war. 

In the practice of medicine the bourgeois spirit substituted means 
for ends, bodies for spirits; spiritual healing was lost and now strug- 
gles to reclaim its essential function through the art of the psychia- 
trist, the modern shaman or witch doctor. In Tillich's words: 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 149 

" It must be recalled that with the elimination of the priestly confes- 
sional and the loss of its real values the physician stepped upon the scene 
as a substitute. Yet he was not a substitute who could supply what should 
have been supplied, a healing process proceeding out of man's central 
function, that is, out of his religious relations. First of all the separation 
of body and soul, then the mechanization of the body, then the concep- 
tion of the psychic as a product of the physical machine. . . . The rela- 
tion of the physician and patient could only be an external, objective, 
and contractual relationship, not one of real community supported by 
love. Such a relationship corresponds to the fundamental lack of com- 
munity-love in the spirit of capitalist society " (The Religious Situation, 
tr. by H. Richard Niebuhr, pp. 104, 105. Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1932). 

Self -sufficient finitude is the tragedy of the past, but the hope of 
the future is the shattering of the present. The disintegration and 
transformation of bourgeois society today holds the center of the 
stage. The decisive feature of the nineteenth century bourgeois vic- 
tory was the loss of control by human reason over man's historical 
existence; the self-destruction of bourgeois society and the complete 
collapse of the bourgeois scheme of automatic harmony characterize 
the present transition. Russia leaped from the first to the third stage 
of social development, from czarism to totalitarianism, from feudal- 
ism to futility. In our own land, planning reason has in part replaced 
technical reason; it is therefore possible, and necessary, to regain 
some human control over history, to create a society that avoids both 
totalitarian absolutism and liberal individualism. The great danger 
is leviathan, a colossal social mechanism erected by fini$e self-suf- 
ficiency. Leviathan, always a quick-change artist, may appear in new 
garb and continue the deadly dissolution of personality and com- 
munity. Leviathan is the absolute master of modern education. Edu- 
cation, subjected to the self-sufficient social mechanism, has lost its 
primary interest in the truth and justice that transcend, and judge, 
the mechanism. Means have triumphed over ends. The failure in 
education has opened the modern mind to the standardized medi- 
ocrity of radio, movie, press, and fashion; standardized men are all 
too susceptible to propaganda for old and new totalitarian purposes, 
old and new standardized meaninglessness. True education enables 
youth to enter the community of ultimate reality, where humanistic, 
scientific, and technical elements find cohesive meaning. 

150 Major Voices in American Theology 

In economics, Christianity can and must insist that man's unlim- 
ited productive capacity be used for man's advantage; both capacity 
and advantage are now restricted by the struggle for profit and 
wasted by the struggle for power. Democracy as a constitutional pro- 
cedure is a means, not an end; the procedure must not prevent the 
realization of the purpose; the means must not prevent the end; 
democracy as an end may necessitate its limitations as a means. 
Power must be criticized and checked, but power paralyzed is pow- 
erless to create democracy as a way of life. Only those political pro- 
cedures are right which produce and maintain a community where 
the chronic fear of mass meaninglessness is abolished, where every 
man creates and shares the self-realization of the community. Bour- 
geois automatic harmony has not been conspicuously successful in 
international relations. Christianity inevitably supports world fed- 
eration the self -transcendence of sovereign states; the program 
must begin with a recognition of economic interdependence and the 
necessity of a common spirit. The alternative is the threat of non- 
existence that hangs over modern society, a threat perhaps best un- 
derstood in the aesthetic realm, always the most sensitive spiritual 
barometer. A panic-driven humanity reveals the onrushing doom in 
its artistic and poetic creations; modern surrealism and expression- 
ism offer an endless warning of the earthquake. 

The breakdown of technical truth has created the longing for ex- 
istential truth, but existential truth has no criterion beyond immedi- 
ate fruitfi^ness for life. Existentialism allows no rational criteria by 
which to judge its decisions. Existential truth must be reunited with 
ultimate truth. Early Christianity accomplished this reunion with 
the Logos, the concrete event passionately proclaimed as both exis- 
tential and universal truth for every man, the specific embodiment 
of the ultimate rationality. Organized Christianity today represents 
both adaptation to, and transcendence over, the bourgeois spirit; it 
is therefore part of the problem to be solved. Religion revolted 
against papal totalitarianism and prepared the way for self-tran- 
scending autonomy, but the autonomy that followed was secularized 
and self-sufficient. The necessary unity of cult and art can be effected 
only if the present sacred-secular separation can be overcome. Earth's 

Beyond Religion and Irreligion 151 

movement increased the separation; it did not attempt to conquer 
the Philistine Goliath but rather retired before him. The Churches 
have not exercised their critical freedom, and secularism has won by 
default. The Churches in part are mere agencies of the State, the 
capitalist class, and the status quo. To some extent the Churches 
have maintained their spiritual integrity against leviathan; they have 
remembered in the nick of time that totalitarianism invests its par- 
ticular loyalty with unconditional validity, that it puts itself in the 
place of the Church, that it can never tolerate an absolute claim in 
competition with its own. The Church must recover its sense of 
mission; it must refuse two cowardly capitulations: to adapt itself 
to leviathan, and to withdraw from the modern situation; it must 
fill the form of culture with Christian content. 

The Church must remember with gratitude that autonomous rea- 
son freed the individual from crippling religious absolutism; at the 
same time the Church must remember that autonomous reason by 
itself would have left Christianity without transcendence over bour- 
geois society. Whatever the cost, the Christian faith must maintain 
true Christian life against demonic secularism. One method is pie- 
tism, but pietism is transcendence without immanence; it accents 
the true in spite of but neglects the true because of; another method 
is moralism, but moralism is immanence without transcendence; it 
relativizes the Christian foundation. The third method is the " Yes " 
and " No " which accepts and criticizes every man and every move- 
ment at every moment. The third method transcends boti pietism 
and moralism. It makes religion the measure of ethics, rather than 
the reverse, and stresses that Christian movements and Christian 
men are denied and affirmed by God at the same time. 

Five things, Tillich insists, must be remembered if the Church 
is to succeed in falling present culture with Christian content, (i) No 
single thinker or movement can plumb the depths of modernity. 
(2) The present world situation as a historic fact must be accepted; 
it is what it is, and can neither be evaded nor avoided. Indeed, the 
Church must recognize the positive modern contribution, the eleva- 
tion of reason above authoritarianism and obscurantism. This is a 
Christian issue whether or not fought in Christian terms. Christian 

152 Major Voices in American Theology 

faith which proclaims Christ as Logos cannot resist the cleansing 
role o reason. (3) The Church anticipates no future without trag- 
edy even if the present demonries be conquered. The authentic 
Christian message is too revolutionary to be Utopian, too progressive 
to believe in automatic progress. (4) There can be no religious es- 
capism. The influences of divine grace must penetrate each historical 
situation. (5) The Christian answer must unite theory and practice. 
Churchmen have heard long lists of their sins, and repentance as 
well as faith may have come by the hearing. But it is pleasant, hon- 
est, and necessary for churchmen to hear upon occasion a list of their 
virtues. Prophets usually speak the divine " No " to all that is human, 
both sacred and secular. Indeed the " No " is always present, whether 
spoken by Amos or Jeremiah, by Niebuhr or Tillich, by Bible or 
bomb. Tillich the bridgebuilder builds one bridge often neglected, 
from critical rejection to creative appreciation* In his words: 

"Through Christianity's day to day resistance, both theoretical and 
practical, against the complete domination of technical reason and tech- 
nical economy over human life, the Church has succeeded in maintaining 
an authentic spirituality and transcendence. Despite its partial seculariza- 
tion, the Church has profoundly influenced " Christian " nations and 
secular culture. Its very existence was and is a signpost pointing beyond 
the mechanism created by man's technical skill and now turned against 
man's freedom and fulfillment. Through preaching, education, and ac- 
tion, the Churches have exerted a largely subconscious effect upon both 
masses and individuals. This often unrecognized influence became strik- 
ingly visible in the resistance of the Christian masses to the attempts by 
pagan totalitarianisms to replace Christianity by tribal cults. Moreover, 
despite the adaptation of the Churches to modern society, they have pro- 
duced individuals who recognized, exposed, and attacked the system and 
all Christian subservience to it. The deeper meaning of the present world 
situation is not unknown to many individuals and groups within the 
Churches. Indeed, against the nationalistic opposition to the religious and 
cultural unification of mankind, the Christian Churches have created 
the Ecumenical Movement uniting Christians of all countries, Christian 
and non-Christian, enslaved and free. This Movement is the only world 
unity left in the present demonic disruption of humanity. . . . 

" Despite the measure of their bondage to the present world situation, 
the Christian Churches are the historical group through which the an- 
swer must be given " (" The World Situation," in The Christian Answer, 
ed. by Henry P. Van Dusen, pp. 42, 43. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945). 




The Theology of Hope of H. Richard Niebuhr 

The Theology of Hope 


H. Richard Niebuhr 

Edwin Lewis stresses the seriousness of the human situation, that 
man exists in conflict between creative and discreative forces. 
Reinhold Niebuhr accents human insufficiency, that pride and will 
to power frustrate and distort man's secular, and religious, life. 
Nels F. S. Ferre emphasizes divine sufficiency, that man is justified 
by love. Paul Tillich asserts that neither atheists nor theists exist out- 
side of God, that man is justified by faith beyond doubt and dogma. 
With H. Richard Niebuhr, American theology makes a distinct dis- 
covery, that man is justified by hope. If creativity and discreativity 
exist from all eternity, on Edwin Lewis* terms, hope is ambiguous. 
If human pride and will to power are never transcended, on Rein- 
hold Niebuhr 's terms, the future is as hopeless as the past. If there 
is no possibility of failure, on Ferre's terms, hope is unnecessary. 
Tillich's Docetic Christ (an appearance if not a reality) kaves his- 
tory with Docetic hope, a depth content which ought to be, but 
never can be, realized in culture. H. Richard Niebuhr, alone in 
American theology, understands without utopianism that Chris- 
tianity is movement and life, a permanent revolution, that the world 
of culture, man's achievement, exists within the world of grace, 
God's Kingdom, that culture is therefore convertible, that sover- 
eignty and grace are organically related to every human society and 
every human soul, that nature and history are perpetually open to 
redemption. With Edwin Lewis, he is not unaware of the conflict; 
with Reinhold Niebuhr, he is not unaware that God's future is the 
critic of man's present. His theology of hope embraces both the Ferre 

156 Major Voices in American Theology 

theology of love and the Tillich theology of faith. Ferre's " reflexive 
superspective " centers in divine pedagogy for the soul; H. Richard 
Niebuhr's permanent revolution centers in divine pedagogy for so- 
ciety. The needs of society receive Ferre's attention, and the needs of 
the soul receive H. Richard Niebuhr's attention, but the interest of 
the one is the pilgrim in community, and the interest of the other 
is the community of pilgrims. Every present emphasis in American 
theology is a desperate necessity; it is Utopian to underestimate the 
conflict; it is demonic to underestimate pride and will to power; 
without love the people perish; if man's Christ does not exceed his 
grasp, then what is Tillich for? Nonetheless, in this age, like every 
other age of confusion, crisis, and chaos, while others curse the dark- 
ness, a theology is needed which lights the candle of hope, not alone 
for the future bliss of the saint, but also for the present beatitude 
of the society of sinners, one family of man plodding along in pain 
awaiting the manifestation of the Community of Love. 

Helmut Richard Niebuhr, clergyman, college president, theolo- 
gian, was born in Wright City, Missouri, September 3, 1894. From 
one home have come two major minds, Reinhold and Richard, both 
representatives of maximum as against minimum Christianity. Be- 
tween them, though the influence was primarily Reinhold's the two 
brothers brought to America the Thomas Aquinas of modern Prot- 
estantism, Paul Tillich. The Evangelical and Reformed Church is 
small among the denominations of Israel, yet out of it have come 
three thinkers to lead the people of God. That two masters of mod- 
ern theology have come from their home is tribute enough to Gus- 
tave and Lydia Niebuhr, the father and mother. Unlike Moses and 
Aaron, Reinhold and Richard carry equal weight equally well 
through the wilderness of the West. 

H. Richard Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst College, of the 
Evangelical and Reformed Church, in 1912, and from Eden The- 
ological Seminary in St. Louis, of the same denomination, in 1915. 
He received his Master's degree at Washington University in 1917, 
his Bachelor of Divinity at Yale in 1923, the Doctor of Philosophy 
at Yale in 1924, and the Doctor of Divinity at Eden. He was married 
to Florence Marie Mittendorff June 9, 1920. He expresses his grati- 

The Permanent Revolution 157 

tude for her advice, encouragement, and practical help in The Social 
Sources of Denominationalism (1929), dedicated to the memory of 
his father. The Kingdom-of God in America (1937) is dedicated to 
Florence and the two children, Cynthia and Richard. He acknowl- 
edges in several books an indebtedness to his sister Hulda, and to 
his brother, Reinhold, " without whose constant interest these pages 
would scarcely have been written." The critical Reinhold, with four- 
teen books, is better known; the constructive Richard, with five 
books, may be better loved. 

Ordained to the ministry of the Evangelical and Reformed Church 
in 1916, Richard was a St. Louis pastor from 1916 to 1918* He was 
a teacher at Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1922. In 1924, 
the same year that he received the Ph.D., he began his three-year 
presidency at Elmhurst College. He returned to Eden Theological 
Seminary from 1927 to 1931 as professor. From 1931 to 1938 he was 
associate professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, and 
has been full professor at the same institution since 1938. His present 
tide, recently changed, is: D wight Professor of Theology and Chris- 
tian Ethics. 

His theology of hope, ambiguous at the beginning, slowly matures 
through books two, three, and four, and is fully formed in the fifth. 
His first book, The Social Sources of Denommationatism, offers 
more despair than hope; it describes in sad detail the evangelical 
dismemberment of the body of Christ, the surrender of " one Lord, 
one faith, one baptism " to nationalist, capitalist, sectional, aud racial 
denominations. Americans can read the book only with repentance 
and self-examination, for it presents a blow-by-blow account of the 
scourging of Christ by culture, the triumph of miscarriage over mean- 
ing, the Babylonian Captivity of theology to sociology. Whether or 
not faith determines culture, culture certainly air-conditions faith. 
The Church may be more than a sociological institution, but not 
much more. The Church undoubtedly is both divine and human, 
but its humanity will be grasped with full realism after a patient 
reading of this historical horror story. So-called secular American 
history, a perversion of the sacred, can be better understood with the 
aid of this scholarly analysis. No one-sided view of the divinity of the 

158 Major Voices in American Theology 

Church can withstand this withering fire. A more critical treatment 
could not be written. The book should be read as a companion to 
The Kingdom of God in America, which presents the other side of 
the story, internal rather than external history, the living faith be- 
hind the grotesque facade of American Christendom. Medieval 
Christianity centered in the vision of God; Puritans, the seventeenth 
century founding fathers, were preoccupied with present divine 
sovereignty; the Great Awakening and the revivals of the eighteenth 
and nineteenth centuries exalted individual experience of the reign 
of Christ; the social gospel of the last seventy-five years directed 
primary attention to the coming Kingdom, but in losing the earlier 
accents upon sovereignty and grace emptied the Kingdom of mean- 
ing. " A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom 
without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without 
a cross." Each bursting forth of the permanent Christian revolution 
poured its energy white-hot into society; in time each movement 
cooled in the mold, and shrank into institutions. H. Richard Niebuhr 
acknowledges in the preface that The Social Sources of Denomina- 
tionalism was one-sided, though necessary, that it failed to explain 
the reality great enough to endure and survive its own cultural 
humiliation. Liberals of all shades read The Social Sources of De~ 
nominationalism with high glee; they pause for reflection in the 
sequel, The Kingdom of God in America. 

The two volumes describe the mystery, and the history, of Ameri- 
can religion. Between them appeared the symposium, The Church 
Against the World (1935). In the Introduction, entitled " The Ques- 
tion of the Church, 55 editor Niebuhr analyzes the internal and the 
external threat against the Church, and asks, "What must the 
Church do to be saved? " Secular culture threatens from without 
and from within, but the more serious threat comes, not from the 
world, but from God. In the third section of the book, entitled 
" Toward the Independence of the Church, 55 Niebuhr urges the lib- 
eration of the Church from its bondage to corrupt civilization, a 
withdrawal preliminary to new battle; he asks no flight from the 
world, only a purge of worldliness, the divorce of the Church from 
capitalism, nationalism, syncretism, and anthropocentrism. In his 

The Permanent Revolution 159 

view, only a churchly revolt can lead to the Church's independence; 
further, there can be no flight out of the captivity of the Church save 
into the captivity of God. The book included " The Crisis of Re- 
ligion," by Wilhelm Pauck, and " American Protestantism and the 
Christian Faith," by Francis P. Miller. Though small in size, the 
book packs a punch. Read in the context of Niebuhr's later books, 
it is a stimulating contribution in its own right. Every minister, and 
every layman who accepts responsibility for the Church, should 
spend a while with these pages. The tide suggests the Christ-against- 
culture exclusionism which Niebuhr later rejects; the content, stress- 
ing both withdrawal and return, is closer to Niebuhr 's later conver- 
sionism Christ the transformer of culture. 

The Meaning of Revelation (1941), presented to Douglas Clyde 
Macintosh and Frank Chamberlain Porter, is an admirable adven- 
ture in Christian epistemology. The book describes the inevitable 
tension between historical relativism and absolute revelation, be- 
tween external and internal history, between natural religion and 
historic faith. The problems, as you would expect, are never watered 
down. To Niebuhr, all our philosophical ideas, religious dogmas, 
and moral imperatives are historically conditioned; the most preva- 
lent source of error in all thinking, particularly in theology and 
ethics, is self-defense; the prolific source of evil in life is the absolut- 
izing of the relative, the substitution of religion, revelation, Church, 
or morality for God. Nonetheless, though both historical object and 
historical subject are relative, it is often overlooked that the object 
of study exists to be studied. It is not evident that a conditioned 
view must doubt the reality of what it sees. In any case, only faith 
that God exists can speak and think significantly about him. Man 
as object is infinitely less, and less interesting, than man as subject. 
Man as object can be known externally; man as subject, to be known 
at all, must be known internally. Historic faith does not cancel nat- 
ural religion; neither is it the product of natural religion; it is rather 
the transformer of natural religion. Christianity, seen from within, 
since from without it cannot be seen at all, is precisely a permanent 
revolution, a metanoia, which does not come to an end in this world, 
this life, or this time. In the Christian faith it is understood that man 

160 Major Voices in American Theology 

is justified by grace, that God is sovereign, that eternity possesses 
time. Niebuhr acknowledges in this volume his critical indebtedness 
to Ernst Troeltsch, and his constructive indebtedness to Karl Earth; 
he lists also among his creditors Henri Bergson, A. E. Taylor, 
Martin Buber, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich (whose 1926 The Re- 
ligious Situation he had translated from the German in 1932), 
Robert L. Calhoun, and brother Reinhold. The book is basic both 
to Richard Niebuhr and to Christian theology. Modern men, who 
pretend an interest in the relation between fact and idea, between 
thing and word, between science and literature, statistics and selves, 
external and internal, may wince as they read, but will welcome 
this book. 

The latest book from H. Richard Niebuhr's unhurried mind is by 
all odds the most valuable. The main problem of Christ and Culture 
(1951) is precisely the problem with which Niebuhr wrestled in 
The Social Sources of Denominationalism and The Kingdom of 
God in America, the tension between Christian commitment and 
secular involvement. The battle between Christianity and civilization 
is the main theme also of The Church Against the World; the re- 
lation between secular and Christian knowledge varies the same 
theme in The Meaning of Revelation. There are, in Niebuhr's view, 
five definable answers to the question, " What is the Relationship of 
Christ and the World?" The answers are never found without 
dilution, yet they are clearly distinguishable in character: the first 
is exclusion, that is, Christ against culture; the second is accommo- 
dation, that is, Christ both in and of culture; the third is synthesis, 
that is, Christ above culture; the fourth is dualism, that is, Christ and 
culture in paradox; and the fifth is conversion, that is, Christ the 
transformer of culture. The book accepts, supplements, and corrects 
Troeltsch: to Niebuhr more than to Troeltsch, the relative history 
of finite men and movements is under the governance of the abso- 
lute God; Niebuhr's five types of Christian ethics replace Troeltsch's 
three. Niebuhr excludes both exclusion and accommodation, though 
he acknowledges their positive contributions with care and love. 
Christianity unrelated to time is either irrelevant or hypocritical; 
Christianity comfortably domesticated in time is apostasy. The three 

The Permanent Revolution 161 

remaining answers have always dominated the majority of Christian 
minds. Synthesis carefully distinguishes the world of Christ from the 
world of culture, but conveniently arranges the one above the other 
in static hierarchy; it thus sanctifies, and possibly petrifies, the status 
quo. Dualism places man in unrelievable anguish between the deep 
blue sea and the devil, between divine holiness and human sinful- 
ness; it thus tends to paralyze action, or serves the State with one 
hand and the Church with the other, and lets not its right hand 
know what its left hand does. Conversion sees the world of man 
within the world of God, the present endlessly shaken and shaped by 
God's future, society and man open to revolution and redemption. 
Christ and Culture treats the problem of Church and world, faith 
and history, more profoundly than Reinhold's 1935 The Interpreta- 
tion of Christian Ethics. The latter volume rejects Fundamentalist 
exclusion and liberal accommodation, but fails to distinguish be- 
tween synthesis, paradox, and conversion, leaving the problem per- 
manently unsolvable in essential dualism, Richard moves more 
clearly toward revolution, conversion, transformation. 

It may not be amiss to point out that Richard, as a writer, is blessed 
with a sense of humor almost wholly lacking in the published Rein- 
hold; the H. Richard Niebuhr style sparkles with pith and point, 
with color and fire. Reinhold Niebuhr asserts correctly that a sense 
of humor is the beginning of prayer; when a man perceives the in- 
congruity of the world, he may next perceive his own; but the treat- 
ment is as serious as Reinhold. Outside of Leaves from the Koteboo\ 
of a Tamed Cynic, only one smile can be found in Reinhold's vol- 
umes: a footnote quotes a doctor's article in The New Yorker de- 
claring that the basic anatomical differences between men and 
women are here to stay; to this bit of wisdom The New Yorker had 
added, " Goody goody." Neither brother, in fact, has to bow down 
and worship the other; neither would have time to do so; both are 
too busy alternately kneeling to God and shouting to men. 


To H. Richard Niebuhr, Christian revelation is both normative 
and descriptive for Christians, descriptive only for everyone else. 

162 Major Voices in American Theology 

When men stop thinking as Christians, they are outside the faith. 
Christian theology must begin with revelation; men cannot think 
about God except as believers, who are also historic, communal be- 
ings. The theologian must ask what revelation means for Christians, 
not what it ought to mean for all men. He can pursue his inquiry 
only by recalling the story of Christian life and by analyzing what 
Christians see from their limited and relative point of view. Chris- 
tian theology is inevitably circular; you end where you begin. Yet 
theology must distinguish original principles from intervening dis- 
tortions, and on its journey discover the world. 

To modern self-sufficient reason, revelation seems simply a device 
of defense. But reason, standing alone in the universe, cannot ac- 
count for its own existence; unaware of its own dignity and purpose, 
it is endlessly prostituted to mercantile ends. Skepticism then turns 
against reason as well as revelation. Indeed, defensive theology has 
always created the reactions against it. William Law's defense of the 
Gospels only furnished new objections to it. Wesley wisely aban- 
doned both the defense of revelation and the attack on reason and 
preached the gospel. In time the mutual imperialism of reason and 
revelation may be given up. 

Christianity is our history; it can be understood only from its own 
point of view. No significant political or economic change has ever 
taken place without a recollection of the past. The modern revival of 
revelation theology is not due to a conscious effort to resurrect ancient 
dogma biit to the emergence in our time of a problem similar to 
that with which the classic theologians dealt. Chaos is not an answer 
but a question. What has made the question about revelation con- 
temporary for Christians is the realization that a man's point of view 
determines what he sees. 

Schleiermacher understood half the problem, the lesser half. In his 
view, we cannot know God as he is, but only as men experience him. 
Try as he would to keep God at the center, his thought became es- 
sentially and inescapably a theology of experience. Nonetheless mod- 
ern theology, more than any theology of the past, must take into 
account that our reason is not only in space-time, but that space-time 
is in our reason. There is no escape from the dilemma of historical 

The Permanent Revolution 163 

relativism. The space-time situation of the observer must be consid- 
ered in every case; neither Kant nor Hegel nor anyone else can 
assume an absolute perspective outside history; if reason is to oper- 
ate at all it must be content to operate as historical reason. This is 
no counsel of despair. In our time the recognition of reason's space- 
time limitation can be for theology in particular, and the social 
sciences in general, the prelude to faithful critical work. Critical his- 
torical theology can, and must, seek an intelligible pattern within 
Christian history. 

Put differently, modern theology should be neither an offensive nor 
a defensive enterprise; no attempt should be made to prove the 
superiority of Christian faith to all other faiths; modern theology 
can only be confessional; it can carry on the work of self-criticism 
and self-knowledge within the Church. A theology that thus under- 
takes to understand and criticize the thought and action of the 
Church is inescapably dependent on the Church for its own criti- 
cism. Since it is a social enterprise, it can be neither personal nor 
private; since it is Christianity's self -analysis, it cannot dwell in some 
nonchurchly sphere of political or cultural history; its home is the 
Church; its language is the language of the Church; and with the 
Church it is directed toward the universal from which it is derived 
and to which it points. 

Historical relativism means relevance to history. Theology must 
begin with and within Christian history or it has no beginning at 
all; it is thus forced to begin with revelation, that is, witfe historic 
faith. Theology must begin and end with God, but find the world 
between; it must proceed with confidence in the absolute reality of 
what it sees from its relative viewpoint; and it must recognize that 
its assertions about that reality are meaningful only to those who 
look upon it from the same viewpoint. As Luther understood, God 
and faith belong together; neither is meaningful without the other. 
All statements about God made from another point of view than 
faith are not statements about him at all. All religious faith is uncon- 
ditionally concerned. Whatever ones heart clings to and relies upon, 
that is, properly, one's god. 

Schleiermacher understood that God is the counterpart of the feel- 

164 Major Voices in American Theology 

ing of absolute dependence. He understood further that it is neces- 
sary to keep the feeling of absolute dependence and God together; 
otherwise one speaks about the world, not about God. God is always 
"my God," or he is not God at all. Nonetheless, Schleiermacher 
gradually substituted absolute dependence for God, and thus pre- 
pared the way for a faith-centered rather than a God-centered the- 
ology, for faithology or religionology instead of theology. The God 
of religion became auxiliary; religion was substituted for God. Aes- 
theticism is similarly substituted for beauty, and moralism for virtue. 
Ritschl moved outside Christian faith to examine religion, and thus 
found its essential element in man over nature, an idea alien to 
Christian faith. Christian faith values God as infinitely superior to 
man and the source of man's own value; Ritschl valued man's con- 
fidence in his own worth as superior to nature. Deity became an in- 
strument, not an end; man became the measure of all things; an 
anthropocentric universe was created. Niebuhr believes both Schleier- 
macher and Ritschl ran into trouble because they attempted piously 
to defend religion. Christian faith simply makes the God of Jesus 
Christ the measure of all things, and proceeds from there; if it pro- 
ceeds from anywhere else, it never gets there; if it proceeds from 
anywhere else, it is not Christian faith. Nineteenth and twentieth 
century churchmen have regarded themselves primarily as members 
of national and cultural societies, not as members of the Christian 
community; to them therefore Christian faith at best has been only 
an auxiliary of civilization. Faith in the God of Jesus Christ is a rare 
thing; substitute faiths always wear Christian disguises. Theology 
has been taught by many sad experiences that Christian faith is the 
only point of view from which the God of Christian faith may be 
understood. As Niebuhr puts it: 

" Theology may try to maintain the standpoint of Christian faith, that 
is, of an interest directed as exclusively as possible to the God of Christian 
faith; or it may take the position of faith in some other being, that is, of 
an interest directed more or less exclusively toward religion, or toward 
the moral consciousness, or toward man's own worth, or toward civiliza- 
tion. When it follows one of these latter interests it does not become more 
disinterested and objective than when it takes the point of view of Chris- 
tian faith; it simply becomes primarily interested in something that 

The Permanent Revolution 165 

faith in God must regard as too narrow and finite to be a substitute 
for the father of Jesus Christ" (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 35, 36. 

*-pi r . 1 < _ \ o i f XT Jr J/" / 

ine Macmiilan Company, 1946). 

Even within the Christian faith, one must carefully distinguish 
between revelation and the God of revelation. Revelation and the 
" claim of the Christian religion to universal empire over the souls 
of men " are absolute incompatibles. Christian faith is directed to- 
ward God as the only universal sovereign, the one who judges all 
men, particularly saints, to be sinners wholly unworthy of sover- 
eignty. To substitute the sovereignty of Christianity for divine sover- 
eignty, though it be done by means of revelation, is to fall into new 
idolatry, to abandon faith in the God of Jesus Christ for faith in re- 
ligion or revelation. Every effort to deal with revelation must be 
resolutely confessional We can state in simple, confessional form 
what has happened to us in our community, how we came to be- 
lieve, how we reason about things and what we see from our point 
of view. A revelation that can be possessed cannot reveal God. The 
living God possesses us. The revelation that leaves man without de- 
fense before God can be dealt with only in confessors' terms. Every 
Christian confession is a confession of sin as well as of faith, a sin- 
ners* rather than a saints* theology. 

Christian faith has also its own historical method. The preaching 
of the Early Church was not an argument for the existence of God, 
nor an admonition to obey the common human conscience; it was 
primarily a recital of the great events connected with the historical 
appearance of Jesus Christ and a confession of what had happened 
to the community of disciples. As Whitehead understood, religions 
commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas. 
The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion. Similarly* 
idealistic and realistic metaphysics, perfectionist and hedonistic eth- 
ics, have been poor substitutes for the New Testament, and Churches 
fed on such nourishment seem subject to " spiritual rickets." The 
sphere of revelation is internal history, the story of what happened 
within the living memory of the community. 

We cannot say that what we mean can be known if men will but 
read the Scriptures. We must read the law with the mind of the 

i66 Major Voices in American Theology 

prophets and the prophets with the mind of Jesus; we must immerse 
ourselves with Paul in the story of the crucifixion, and read Paul 
with the aid of the Spirit and the Church. History recorded forward 
must be read backward through our history. The Bible arose, as 
form criticism has taught us, out of the life of the Church; hence 
we cannot know a historical Jesus save as we look at him through 
and with the community that loved and worshiped him. Neither 
concentration upon Isaiah and Paul nor detailed examination of 
their historical situation will enable the observer to see what they 
saw. One must look with them and not at them to verify their 

History as observed is external; history as lived is internal. Internal 
history is the domain of subjects rather than objects; it is therefore 
the domain of faith. In Niebuhr's words: 

"An inner history, life's flow as regarded from the point of view of 
living selves, is always an affair of faith. ... If man does not see the 
temporality and futility of the finite he will believe in the finite as worth 
living for; if he can no longer have faith in the value of the finite he will 
believe in the infinite or else die. Man as a practical, living being never 
exists without a god or gods. ... As a rule men are polytheists. . . . 
Sometimes they live for Jesus' God, sometimes for country, and some- 
times for Yale" (Ibid., p. 77). 

To Christian faith, history is both lived and observed; hence Chris- 
tianity is forever involved in two-world thinking. One-world think- 
ing, whether this-worldliness or otherworldliness, always betrays 
Christianity into the denial of half its convictions. Observed history 
alone does not lead to meanings. There is no continuous movement 
from an objective inquiry into the life of Jesus to a knowledge of 
him as the Christ who is our Lord. Only a decision of the self, a 
leap of faith, a metanoia or revolution of the mind, can lead from 
observation to participation, from observed to lived history. 

Revelation means that part of our inner history which illuminates 
the rest of it and which is itself intelligible. As Whitehead saw, ra- 
tional religion appeals to the direct intuition of special occasions, and 
to the clarifying power of its concepts for all occasions. The special 
occasion to which we appeal in the Christian Church is called Jesus 

The Permanent "Revolution 167 

Christ, in whom we see the righteousness o God, his power and 
wisdom. From that special occasion we derive the concepts that 
clarify all the events in our history. Revelation means this intelli- 
gible event which makes all other events intelligible. The obscurities 
it explains do not bother men who observe; they distress only men 
who participate, that is, moral agents and sufferers. It is the heart 
and not the head that finds its reason in revelation. 

The heart must reason; the participating self must seek its own 
meaning. It cannot make a choice between reason and imagination 
but only between adequate images and evil imaginations. There is 
an image neither evil nor inadequate that enables the heart to under- 
stand; the event through which that image is given Christians call 
their revelation. 

Niebuhr would have it understood that revelation is no substitute 
for reason; the illumination it supplies does not excuse the mind 
from labor; it gives the mind only its first impulse and its first prin- 
ciple. Without revelation reason wanders or serves self-interest; with- 
out reason revelation illuminates only itself. 

To Christians the revelatory moment is not only an event in their 
common past. In so far as we are Christians, Jesus Christ is the man 
through whom the whole of human history becomes our history, 
and all pasts our past. To remember the human past as our own 
past is to achieve community with mankind; to remember all de- 
nominational histories as our own is to achieve the unity of the 
Church. ^ 

To Niebuhr revelation can substitute no other starting point than 
Jesus Christ. Benedict and Luther must be interpreted through 
Christ, and not vice versa. Nevertheless revelation moves; that is, 
its meaning is realized only in relation to new human situations; 
revelation makes every moment a drama of divine and human ac- 
tion. The God who revealed himself continues to reveal himself, the 
one God of all times and places. 

Niebuhr insists further that a definition of revelation exclusively 
in terms of the human Jesus is manifestly inadequate. Unless there 
is a prior certainty, the value of the human Jesus is tenuous and un- 
certain. Revelation points to something in Jesus Christ more funda- 

i68 Major Voices in American Theology 

mental and more certain than the human Jesus. Revelation means 
God, God who discloses himself through our history as our knower, 
our author, our judge, and our only Saviour. From this point for- 
ward we shall listen for the remembered voice in all the sounds that 
assail our ears; we shall look for the remembered activity in all the 
actions of our world. The God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ 
is now trusted and known; he is the contemporary God, active in 
every event. The story of Jesus' birth, like the story of creation, must 
be read with God at the center of the story. He met us, not as one 
forever withdrawn from the world; he is rather the one who acts 
in and through and upon all things, not as the unconditioned but as 
the conditioner* 

Niebuhr's theology of hope is evident in his non-Barthian view of 
man. The God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ meets no un- 
responsive will but the living spirit of men in search of all good. 
We sought a good to love, and were found by a good that loved us. 
In a characteristic Niebuhr expression : 

" Science cannot abandon its faith in the intelligibility and unity of 
nature without destroying itself. ... In dealing with revelation we refer 
to something in our history to which we always return as containing our 
first certainty. It is our ' cogito ergo sum' though it must be stated in 
the opposite way as, ' I am being thought, therefore I am,' or f I am being 
believed in, therefore I believe.' . . . 

" This conversion and permanent revolution of our human religion 
through Jesus Christ is what we mean by revelation. Revelation is not 
the development and not the elimination of our natural religion; it is 
the revolution of the religious life " (Ibid., pp. 140, 190, 191). 


The divine-humanity of the Church is Richard Niebuhr's constant 
theme. The Social Sources of Denominationalism and The Kingdom 
of God in America must be read in sequence, for the first is a book 
of despair and the second a book of hope. The earlier volume de- 
scribes with painful realism the capitalist, nationalist, sectional, and 
racial dismemberment of American Christianity. The later volume 
accents the divinity which shines through our dust, the unfaltering 
faith which began with the sovereignty of God, moved to present 

The Permanent Revolution 169 

personal experience of the reign of Christ, and now looks beyond 
itself to the coming of the Kingdom- 
Fallible humanity and faithful divinity are examined with equal 
care. When Niebuhr began his study, he realized that the denomi- 
nations could not be distinguished primarily by their doctrines; the 
theological approach, by itself, was as bare as Mother Hubbard's cup- 
board. He was compelled to turn to history, sociology, and ethics to 
account for the diversity. Christendom, he discovered, has often 
achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder. 
He learned that it is easier to render unto Caesar the things that are 
Caesar's if one does not examine too closely the things that are God's. 
The Churches, he found, have perennially sacrificed the goal of the 
gospel for the sake of its growth, its intension for the sake of its 
extension. Compromise in some degree was inevitable, but com- 
promise unacknowledged was, and is, unforgivable. Denomination- 
alism, in Niebuhr's view, is simply unconfessed hypocrisy, the capit- 
ulation of Christianity to nation, class, and color. East, West, South, 
and North, Slav, Latin, and Teuton, have parted the garment of 
Christianity among them, and a skeptic world notes with irreverent 
amusement or reverent despair. The unity of Bethlehem has become 
the disunity of Bedlam. Pentecost reversed the story of the Tower of 
Babel; confusion became clarity; yet modern Christendom has re- 
versed Pentecost. Meanwhile the devout devoutly confess, weekly 
and weakly, " I believe in ... the holy Catholic Church." 

The evil of denominationalism lies in the failure of the -Churches 
to transcend their character as caste organizations. Sects rise of ne- 
cessity to preach the gospel to the poor. Because the Churches lose 
faith in the power and practice of the gospel, they adopt the psycho- 
logically more effective morale of nation, race, and class; they sup- 
port the popular morale by persuading it of the nobility of its mo- 
tives; thus they function as political and class institutions, not as 
Christian Churches; their principle of differentiation is conformity 
to social class and caste; their divisions represent the surrender of 
ethics to economics. 

Yet there are beams of light across the shadows, light that makes 
the shadows darker. The denominational movements develop their 

i^o Major Voices in American Theology 

tremendous historical energy only because they are religiously in- 
spired. Religion is their content, social stratification their form. Be- 
cause the poor are neglected, they reshape Christianity to meet their 
needs, and religious discipline quickly lifts them to a new economic 
status. Then, impressed by their freshly acquired respectability, they 
neglect the new poor. Niebuhr is convinced, with Troeltsch and 
Toynbee, that unconditioned religions always begin among the* 
poor, that all-relativizing religions are the creations of the rich. 
Christianity itself began as a religion of the poor. When the new 
faith became the religion of the sophisticated, dry rot set in; spon- 
taneous energy was lost to studied quibbling; ethical rigorousness 
was compromised by the policies of governments and nobilities; 
apocalyptic hopes were abandoned as irrelevant to ecclesiastical suc- 

Protestantism, from the beginning, has been the religion of the 
businessman. The Roman Church, despite the failings of scholastics, 
popes, and priests, lost its absolute power, not because it did not 
meet the needs of the lower classes, but because it did not sense the 
needs of the middle classes; it did not accommodate its inflexible 
structure to humanism, capitalism, and nationalism. Because Prot- 
estantism became middle-class Christianity, the poor were automati- 
cally disinherited. Peasant and Protestant were separated by Luther 
and Zwingli. American Protestantism, which began with the dis- 
inherited of Europe, was for a time unique. The men and women 
who fouri4 refuge at Plymouth, Niebuhr believes, were true heirs of 
the apostles: their piety was simple and fervent, their brotherhood 
sincere. But the metal cooled in the mold. 

In England, from Diggers to Levelers to Quakers, two ideas were 
central: inner experience as the source of authority, and common 
hope of the coming of the Kingdom. However, in England and 
America alike, the disinherited, once in possession of middle-class 
wealth, settled down in the decent bed of middle-class respectability. 
They found godliness conducive to economic success, and with suc- 
cess lost godliness. Again, the poor were without a gospel. The time 
was ripe for another outbreak of the permanent Christian revolution. 
Eighteenth century England was skeptical and indifferent. The 

The Permanent Revolution 171 

theology of the comfortable produced a brilliant and varied litera- 
ture, distinguished for sobriety of judgment and elegance of ex- 
pression, but deficient in depth, unimpassioned, and unimaginative. 
The universities were paralyzed by moral and intellectual rigor 
mortis. Prosperity, which the poor had helped to create but could 
not share, flaunted its luxuries in their faces. The fortunate felt that 
sense of superiority which flourishes where possession has no rela- 
tion to merit. Soft religion soothed the well-to-do, and the poor were 
cast out. Among the disinherited, Methodism arose. The rich re- 
jected Methodism: it was monstrous to be told that "you have a 
heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth." Un- 
fortunately Methodism developed personal rather than social ethics, 
was more interested in the vices of the poor than in their economic 
status. Because Methodism did not attack social injustice, it was tol- 
erated by the complacent and the successful, who could not follow 
but were not offended. 

As Niebuhr sees it, the character of a religious movement is de- 
termined by its definition of sin. To Wesley, sin was vice and laxity, 
not greed, oppression, or social maladjustment; to him, sin was 
sensuality, not selfishness. Wesley was more offended by the blas- 
phemous use of God's name than by the blasphemous use of God's 
creatures. Yet Wesley understood, as in a glass darkly, that when 
riches come in at the door, religion flies out of the window: the 
form remains, the spirit vanishes. In time Methodism, the religion 
of the disinherited, became a respectable servant of the status quo. 
Niebuhr believes that Methodism was the last great religious revolu- 
tion of the Christian poor; he considers Marxism, perhaps prema- 
turely, a secular revolution, confusing its form with its content. One 
of secularism's chief causes, he finds, is the absence of effective social 
idealism within the Christian Churches; they are concerned to re- 
deem men from the hell beyond and hold out little hope for salva- 
tion from the various mundane hells in which the poor suffer for 
other sins than their own. There is, Niebuhr is convinced, no effec- 
tive religious movement among the disinherited today; they are 
simply outside organized Christianity. Accommodation to capitalism 
has been one major factor in the rise of denominationalism, but ac- 

172 Major Voices in American Theology 

commodation to nationalism has been equally potent. As Niebuhr 
puts it: 

" The Churches became nations at prayer, but even in prayer Chris- 
tians found it difficult to transcend the limitations of national conscious- 
ness. The kingdoms of the world became the Kingdom of our Lord and 
of his Christ, but only by subdividing the latter along the boundaries of 
the former and by accommodating the rule of the divine Sovereign to 
the peculiar needs of his various mundane retainers " (The Social Sources 
of Denominationalism, pp. 133, 134. Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1929). 

In America sectionalism, East against West, North against South, 
immigrant churches with their idolatries of language and culture, 
and the color line have accounted for their share of disunity., Nie- 
buhr finds that motives are always mixed, that only omniscient psy- 
chology is able to determine which psychic source of action is de- 
cisive. From a more finite point of view the balance of power between 
theology and sociology is harder to determine. 

Racial division in American Christianity draws Niebuhr r s particu- 
lar scorn. Race discrimination is so respectable in America that it 
is accepted by the Church without subterfuge of any sort; no the- 
ological rationalization is necessary, only the anthropological myth 
of white superiority. By virtue of the marvelous inconsistency of 
human reason, racism and the self-evident truth that all men are 
created free and equal are maintained together. Niebuhr is con- 
vinced that the ideal of equality will never be realized until the in- 
ferior graup, whether women or slaves, asserts itself and compels the 
Church to translate its principles into practice. 

Slaveowners resisted the preaching of the gospel to the blacks on 
the ground that Christianity made slaves less diligent and less gov- 
ernable, and because a baptized black was automatically exempt from 
slave status. In general the whites encouraged their slaves' salvation 
from Satan but not from servitude. The slave gallery inevitably led 
to black churches. The causes of racial schism are not difficult to de- 
termine. Neither theology nor Church policy furnished the occasion 
for it. The sole source of color denominationalism was social; the 
Church of Christ was clearly invaded by the alien principle of caste. 
In Niebuhr's words : 

The Permanent Revolution 173 

" Something more than a sociological cure seems necessary for the 
healing of this wound in the body of Christ. The color line has been 
drawn so incisively by the Church itself that its proclamation of the 
gospel of brotherhood of Jew and Greek, of bond and free, of white and 
black has sometimes the sad sound of irony, and sometimes falls upon 
the ear as unconscious hypocrisy but sometimes there is in it the bitter 
cry of repentance " (Ibid., p. 263). 

In some degree fellowship has always existed as the Church within 
the churches. Always there has been some recognition, as Niebuhr 
puts it, that 

" the road to unity is the road of repentance. It demands a resolute turn- 
ing away from all those loyalties to the lesser values of the self, the de- 
nomination, and the nation, which deny the inclusiveness of divine love. 
It requires that Christians learn to look upon their separate establish- 
ments and exclusive creeds with contrition rather than with pride. The 
road to unity is the road of sacrifice which asks of churches as of indi- 
viduals that they lose their lives in order that they may find the fulfill- 
ment of their better selves. But it is also the road to the eternal values of 
a Kingdom of God that is among us " (Ibid., p. 284). 

Niebuhr has given the sociological air-conditioning of the Chris- 
tian revolution a thorough factual and historical treatment, but he 
has not left the subject with a catalogue of the Church's failures. 
The Kingdom of God in America presents Niebuhr's positive in- 
terpretation of American Christianity as a dynamic spiritual move- 
ment, expressed and suppressed by institutions. He explains that The 
Social Sources of Denominationalism left him dissatisfied v The so- 
ciological approach explained why the religious stream flowed in 
particular channels; it did not account for the force of the stream. 
Institutions were explained, but not the movement behind and be- 
yond them; the diversity was explained, but not the unity; the cul- 
ture was described, but not the faith which empowered it. He had 
appealed to good will to overcome the stubborn inertia of class pride 
and race prejudice, in the hope that vision would conquer division. 
This appeal, upon later reflection, seemed wholly inadequate. Yet 
Niebuhr continues to believe that abstract theology and ethics must 
always be tested in the laboratory of history. 

He began to see that the Kingdom of God was always the domi- 

174 Major Voices in American Theology 

nant idea in American Christianity, as the idea of the vision of God 
was paramount in medieval faith. The Kingdom of God, however, 
has meant three distinct things: in early American history the King- 
dom meant immediate divine sovereignty; later, it meant personal 
inward experience of the grace of Christ; more recently it has meant 
the expectation of the Kingdom on earth, the social gospel. The 
Kingdom of God on earth without the sovereignty of God and the 
reign of Christ is meaningless to Niebuhr, yet sovereignty and grace 
are incomplete without it; neither idea is sufficient alone. The Puri- 
tans accented divine sovereignty; the Great Awakening and the 
revivals stressed the inward reign of Christ; the social gospel moved 
out to redeem the world but denied its redemptive foundation. 

Increasingly Niebuhr is impressed that Christianity can continue 
its social line of splendor if it remembers not only its goal but also 
its starting point and the middle of its course. In his view the sov- 
ereignty of God and the grace of Jesus Christ must endlessly redeem 
society. Christianity is primarily neither institution, doctrine, nor 
ethic, but movement, revolution; it is not static law but dynamic 
gospel. The true Church is not the organization but the organic 
movement of those who have been called and sent. Institutions are 
halting places between journeys. The Franciscan revolution, not the 
Roman Church; the Reformation, not the Protestant Churches; the 
Evangelical Revival, not the denominations which conserved and 
curtailed its fruits, show what Christianity is. Since its goal is the 
infinite and eternal God, only dynamic movement toward the Ever- 
transcendent can express its meaning. Similarly, Niebuhr is im- 
pressed that Christianity means neither simple progress, either this- 
worldly or otherworldly, nor static dualism, but constant two-way 
movement: worship toward God, and work with God toward the 
redemption of this world. 

Christianity's revolutionary and creative strain refuses to be re- 
duced to pattern, yet its universalism must always take on particu- 
lar historical and relative character, whether in Italy or America, 
whether in the thirteenth or the twentieth century. The Kingdom 
of God to which the early Americans were loyal was not simply 
American culture; it was not political or economic interest exalted 

The Permanent Revolution 175 

and idealized; it was rather a Kingdom prior to America, to which 
this nation, in politics and economics, was required to conform. The 
instrumental value of faith for society is dependent upon faith's con- 
viction that it has more than instrumental value; objectivism rather 
than pragmatism is the first law of knowledge. We must take our 
stand within the movement; outside we shall never see what it has 
seen. Nor can we assume that the critic's standpoint is universal 
while the object criticized is relative: no relative standpoint is abso- 
lute. This-worldliness may seem more objective than other worldli- 
ness to those who have never examined their own presuppositions. 
When presuppositions are examined, critics become aware that their 
this-worldly dogma is as much a matter of faith as the dogma of 
otherworldliness. We must interpret American Christianity on its 
own terms; we must seek the pattern within it, not superimpose 
an alien pattern upon it. 

Behind early American Christianity was the Reformation, with 
its fresh insistence upon the present sovereignty and permanent ini- 
tiative of God. It is God who forgives and saves, not men; it is God 
who reveals the truth and the life, not human reason. The Roman 
Church was primarily interested in God's changeless perfection; 
Luther and Calvin were primarily interested in God's forceful real- 
ity, his activity and power the regnum dei rather than the visio 
del. Early Protestantism never made the free man the starting point 
either of theology or of ethics. Human freedom was not presupposi- 
tion but goal. Not the millenarian myth, but the conviction that life 
is critical and transient, occupied the center of thought. 

The dilemma of Protestantism lay precisely in its rejection of 
absolutism and its need for power. Its denial of all human absolutism 
made it effective against the Roman political colossus, but ineffective 
in its effort to replace what it had destroyed. It was strong in destruc- 
tion, weak in construction. Freedom from religious absolutism left 
the house swept and clean, but open for occupancy to seven secular 
demons filthier than the first. Society thought itself emancipated, 
but was only unbuttoned. How persuade emancipated persons and 
governments to accept a new discipline? Protestantism, in view of 
its principle, could have no will to power: supreme power belonged 

176 Major Voices in American Theology 

only to God; from every human arrogation of his dominion evil re- 
sulted. Catholic critics seemed amply justified in their charge that 
Protestantism and anarchy were two words for the same thing. The 
emancipated promptly made themselves absolute. Churches, princes, 
and businessmen quickly became competing absolutes. The problem 
of Protestantism, in simplest terms, was this: how live in a divinely 
governed world which is still corrupt? how give up power and still 

The Protestant effort to solve this problem has met impossible 
alternatives: seeking to escape anarchy it has created new absolut- 
ism; reaction against absolutism has created new skepticism. Luther- 
anism capitulated to the State, Calvinism to Biblical legalism; the 
sects preached, but could not practice, the separation of Church and 

The early American Protestants believed that the Kingdom of 
God was not a society of peace and concord to be established by men 
of good will; it was rather God's actual rule in nature and in his- 
tory. His Kingdom was not dependent upon human effort; men and 
their efforts were dependent upon it; loyalty and obedience meant 
temporal and eternal welfare. The Pilgrims were nonconformists, 
dissenters, protesters, independents, only because they desired to be 
loyal to the government of God: in that positive allegiance they were 
united, however much their unity was obscured by party quarrels. 
In result they developed three constructive principles in dealing with 
necessary gower: Christian constitutionalism, based upon the Bible; 
the independence of the Church from the State; and limitation upon 
human sovereignty through a system of checks and balances. They 
did not believe that God belonged to America, but that America 
belonged to God. 

To live under the Kingdom was to live under revelation. Life un- 
der the rule of God meant directed revolution rather than safe dwell- 
ing in unchanging institutions. As divine determinists, they could no 
more begin with political construction than economic determinists 
can begin with religion. Building the independent Church was the 
first task not a stable institution once and for all, but free move- 

The Permanent Revolution 177 

ment Godward and in God's name world-ward. When institutions 
replace movement, creativity is past. In medieval times Franciscans 
and Dominicans revolted from secular, institutional Christianity and 
thus restored the Church; in more recent times Methodist preachers, 
with their saddlebags and books of discipline, were Franciscans 
and Dominicans in new apparel The Great Awakening and the 
revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reasserted dyna- 
mism against institutionalism; they also attacked autonomous individ- 
ualism, for absolute individuals had replaced absolute kings and 
absolute Churches. Regeneration was badly needed and badly em- 
phasized, for the reconstruction of the individual was accented, and 
the reconstruction of society excluded. In any case, the movement 
cooled in the mold. When the revivals went to seed in the later nine- 
teenth century, prudery took the place of promise and power. Emo- 
tion, originally released in the redirection of the whole man, ran 
wild. Bourgeois society held at a distance every influence that might 
disturb its tight, complacent self-sufficiency; the world was made safe 
for self-seeking. 

Self-sufficient finitude excluded the knowledge of the heart, and 
with it spiritual insight. To be a member of the Kingdom is to be 
one who sees the excellency and the beauty of God in Christ, and 
so loves him with all for his own sake alone. Indeed, as Niebuhr 
defines it, the Kingdom of Christ is the Kingdom of love, and love 
is not primarily an emotion; it is a tendency to action, or action it- 
self, and practice is the test of its genuineness. Patriotisypa. is not 
enough; the love of persons is not enough; reverence for life is not 
enough; love of humanity is not enough. All such love is self-love, 
though the self be made very large. The Great Awakening and the 
revivals produced fanatics and lost social vision in individual vision, 
yet produced great humanitarian activity. As Niebuhr describes the 

"There were spiritists among them who made worship an escape, 
there were activists who used worship only as an instrument if at all, and 
there were sentimentalists who mistook aesthetic or erotic thrills for the 
love of God. The essence of the new awakening to the reign of Christ 

178 Major Voices in American Theology 

was to be found in none of these, but in faith working by love. . . . For 
America it was a new beginning; it was our national conversion " (The 
Kingdom of God in America, pp. 1x8, 119, 126. Willett, Clark & Com- 
pany, 1937). 

However, attention was drawn to the individual's hope of heaven, 
and society was conceived in static terms, " The happy imprudent 
were ready to take a chance ot the canceled reservations of the 
saints" (Ibid.,' p. 135). Social hope slackened. Nonetheless, the idea 
had been firmly implanted that beyond judgment lay a new world. 
If the seventeenth was the century of divine sovereignty, and the 
eighteenth the time of Christ's inward reign, the nineteenth may be 
called the period of the coming Kingdom. The social gospel is older 
than 1907 or 1890. William Ellery Channing understood that Christ 
comes in the conversion, the regeneration, the emancipation of the 
world. Alexander Campbell conceived of the coming Kingdom in 
political as well as religious terms. Finney proclaimed that God's 
Kingdom had come in reconciled hearts, that men converted from 
self to God must bring forth fruits in social righteousness, that world 
reformation awaited their obedience. Finney's center of interest was 
the reign of Christ rather than the coming Kingdom, yet he preached 
immediate repentance for the sin of slavery and immediate freedom 
for the slave; his preaching produced many humanitarian enter- 
prises. He understood better than modern social gospelers that the 
coming Kingdom involves inevitable judgment. Samuel Harris in 
1870 taught that redeeming power descends upon humanity from 
God, and works in human society to redeem it. Gladden and Rau- 
schenbusch believed because they saw though in a glass darkly 
and, seeing, were ready to count all things but loss that they might 
know the power of Christ's resurrection in the total life of man. 

The Kingdom of God in America was precisely a New World 
symphony. Its weakness lay in the fact that men moved toward 
social justice without remembrance of their point of departure and 
without knowledge of their plan of march. Puritanism and Quaker- 
ism, the Awakening and the revivals, poured white-hot convictions 
into the souls of men, only to have these cool into crystallized codes, 
solidified institutions, petrified creeds. Creeping paralysis extended 

The Permanent Revolution 179 

from Connecticut to the frontier, until every order of American 
" friars " became a denomination, and every denomination settled 
down to self -defense. When God's sovereignty is reduced to law and 
divine-human fellowship to dogma, the dialogue between God and 
man is dissolved into incompatible doctrine. Man, it is said, is com- 
pletely determined; man, it is claimed, is free to obey or disobey. 
What can truly be said of a living process is untrue and unintelli- 
gible of the petrified product. The divine Kingdom became an insti- 
tutional possession, and the permanent revolution a dead memory. 
It is a familiar picture that Niebuhr paints: 

" As the Kingdom of Christ is institutionalized in Church and State 
the ways of entering it are also defined, mapped, motorized, and equipped 
with guardrails. Regeneration, the dying to the self and the rising to new 
life now apparently sudden, now so slow and painful, so confused, so 
real, so mixed becomes conversion which takes place on Sunday morn- 
ing during the singing of the last hymn or twice a year when the revival 
preacher comes to town. There is still reality in it for some converts but, 
following a prescribed pattern for the most part in its inception and 
progress, the life has gone out of it. It is not so much the road from the 
temporal to the eternal, from trust in the finite to faith in the infinite, 
from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, as it is the way into the insti- 
tutional Church or the company of respectable Christian churchmen who 
keep the Sabbath, pay their debts promptly, hope for heaven, and are 
never round drunk either with sensual or with spiritual excitement" 
(IUd. f pp. 179, 180). 

The Great Awakening has become in our century a method for 
arousing God from slumber. Billy Sundayism, and possibly Billy 
Grahamism, manipulates mass suggestion. To be reconciled to God 
now means to be reconciled to the established custom of a more or 
less Christianized society. In the liberal wing of the Church a God 
without wrath and a Christ without a cross bring men without sin 
into a kingdom without judgment. The liberal children of liberal 
fathers operate with ever diminishing capital. The splendid vision 
of the transalpine good, of the Kingdom beyond, has faded into the 
light of common day. Radios have been substituted for golden harps, 
and motorcars for angels' wings. Heavenly rest is now called leisure. 
In institutional liberalism as in institutional evangelicalism, the ag- 

180 Major Voices in American Theology 

gressive Kingdom has apparently come to a stop. Yet, Niebuhr in- 
sists, institutions can be pregnant sources of new aggression, new 
breaking forth of water from the rock. There is abroad an unmistak- 
able restlessness, an increasing interest in the great doctrines and 
traditions of the Christian past, aware that power has been lost be- 
cause the heritage has been forgotten, aware that there is no way 
toward the coming Kingdom save the way taken by a sovereign God 
through the reign of Jesus Christ. 


From first page to last in his writing, H. Richard Niebuhr is ab- 
sorbed with two- world thinking the dilemma of the serious Chris- 
tian as he attempts to live a God-centered life in a man-centered 
culture. He is interested in this problem both personally and pro- 
fessionally; he is himself confronted with the dilemma; and he must 
find, and interpret, its meaning for others. All his books deal with the 
agony, and the responsibility, of the Church in the world. And 
the Church is precisely the community which sees in and through 
the diverse virtues of Jesus the authority of Christ. Each radical 
virtue of Jesus may be taken as the key to the understanding of his 
character and teaching; but each is intelligible only as a relation to 
God accurately symbolized by no other figure of speech than the 
one that calls him Son of God. 

It is just the authority of Jesus as the Christ that creates the Chris- 
tian's pmblem, for this absolute authority impinges upon another 
absolute, the authority of civilization. Both pagans and Christians 
find Christ's claims beyond easy reconciliation with the claims of 
their societies. Christianity itself moves endlessly between Christ and 
culture; one authority is publicly, the other privately, acknowledged. 
It is not a problem of liberalism or orthodoxy. However great the 
variations among Christians in experiencing and describing the 
authority of Jesus Christ, they have this in common: that Jesus 
Christ is their authority, and that the one who exercises these vari- 
ous kinds of authority is the same Christ, always identified by his 
extreme devotion to one God, a devotion uncompromised by the love 
of any other absolute good. As Niebuhr puts it: 

The Permanent Revolution 181 

"The power and attraction Jesus Christ exercises over men never 
comes from him alone, but from him as Son of the Father. It comes from 
him in his Sonship in a double way, as man living to God and God 
living with men. Belief in him and loyalty to his cause involves man in 
the double movement from world to God and from God to world. Even 
when theologies fail to do justice to this fact, Christians living with 
Christ in their cultures are aware of it. For they are forever being chal- 
lenged to abandon all things for the sake of God; and forever being sent 
back into the world to teach and practice all the things that have been 
commanded them " (Christ and Culture, p. 29. Harper & Brothers, 1951). 

The competing authority, which must also be defined, is the total 
process of human activity, and the total result of such activity, to 
which now the name culture , now the name civilization, is applied 
in common speech. Culture is the artificial, secondary environment 
that man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, 
ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, tech- 
nical processes, and values. The New Testament writers frequently 
had this social heritage in mind when they spoke of " the world." 
The problem is the conflict between the continuity of culture and the 
discontinuity of Christ, between man's present and God's future. 
Christ is in but not of culture; he is for the world but not from the 

Niebuhr wrestles with this dilemma in The Social Sources of 
Denominationalism, in The Kingdom of God in America, in The 
Church Against the World, and in The Meaning of Revelation; after 
a lifetime of wrestling, Christ and Culture presents both definitive 
analysis and definitive conclusion. Christians, reading this book, will 
take their double task more seriously: to live to God, and to be lived 
by God in the world. In five characteristic ways Christians have 
sought to solve the problem; the fifth, conversion, or transformation, 
or revolution, is to Niebuhr the most meaningful. 

The first solution, exclusion, is both necessary and inadequate. 
From I John through Tertullian to Tolstoy men committed to 
Christ's authority have attempted to " love not the world." For two 
reasons, they have never wholly succeeded : they withdrew from the 
world, but could not withdraw the world from them; the world 
which was in them went with them into the cloister; more seriously, 

i8a Major Voices in American Theology 

they could not wholly surrender their assigned task of saving the 
world. They understood the " in spite of," but not the " because of "; 
the necessary withdrawal, but not the equally necessary return. The 
position is inevitable among churchmen. So long as eternity cannot 
be domesticated in time, so long as Christ and Belial cannot be 
united in holy wedlock, so long will the radical solution be at- 
tempted. Yet the position affirms in words what it denies in action; 
men cannot speak or think without language, and language is a 
cultural achievement. Against the world waiting to be redeemed, 
exclusion builds a high wall. Its attention is focused upon the ulti- 
mate, but not the interim; upon the Kingdom of God, but not upon 
the kingdom of man within it; upon " Thy Kingdom come," but 
not upon " Thy will be done in earth, as it is heaven." 

From Gnosticism through Abelard to RitschPs "culture-Protest- 
antism," the second solution, accommodation, has sought wisely but 
not well to reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of 
the time. Continuity is emphasized and discontinuity is lost; Christ 
becomes a hero of culture, the best representative of the human race. 
Eternity is comfortably at home in time. Christ is an object of ven- 
eration, and the noblest authority, but no longer the Lord of heaven 
and earth. Christ is indistinguishable from the best of culture. He 
becomes with Hegel and Emerson the founder of a religion of, as 
well as in, humanity. God and man have in common the task of 
realizing the Kingdom; and God works within the human com- 
munity tjurough Christ and through conscience, never upon it from 
without. Rauschenbusch, Harnack, Garvie, Shailer Mathews, D. C. 
Macintosh, and Ragaz in Switzerland, usher in the Fatherhood of 
God and the brotherhood of man. The culture-theology of accommo- 
dation seems never to understand that man's fundamental situation 
is conflict, not with nature but with God, that Jesus Christ stands 
at the center of the conflict as victim and mediator. Yet the accultura- 
tion of Christ has profoundly aided the extension of his reign. 
Culture-Protestants, for example, see that Protestant Fundamental- 
ists always reflect prescientific and dated cultures, that Roman 
Catholics always identify Christianity with the thirteenth century. 
Culture has its martyrs as well as the Church; and from their graves 

The Permanent Revolution 183 

have also flowered regenerative movements in society. Accommoda- 
tion has a genuinely pious motive, and in some degree always 
achieves piously; it takes seriously the necessity of speaking to the 
cultured among the despisers of religion. Accommodation is usually 
antiprovincial; it understands that the world, not a selected little 
band of saints, waits to be saved. Accommodation perceives the truth, 
that the otherworldliness of Jesus is always mated with a this-worldly 
concern; that his future Kingdom reaches into the present. And 
culture-Protestants are usually preachers of repentance to industrial 
and political imperialists. There is light in their darkness. 

Yet there is also darkness in their light. The offense of Christ's 
discontinuity with culture and the offense of the cross are removed. 
Loyalty to culture so far qualifies loyalty to Christ that he is often 
abandoned in favor of a fragment, an idol called by his name. Ex- 
tremes meet, and the Christ-of-culture folk are strangely like the 
Christ-against-culture people: both reject theology with its mediat- 
ing task; both reject the revelation which transcends its defenders 
as well as its critics. To the accommodators, revelation is merely 
rational truth in fabulous clothing for the sake of people with a low 
I.Q.; or it is merely a religious name for the historical growth of 
reason. Christianity is all very reasonable to the accommodators, yet 
it requires one thing that goes beyond reason the acknowledg- 
ment that Jesus is the Christ. This surd remains. Culture-Christians 
partly recognize that revelation cannot be completely absorbed into 
the life of reason. Like other men, they encounter the metaphysical 
surd, the question of existence itself: whether the ultimate is blind 
and pitiless force, or the Father of Jesus Christ. It is increasingly 
clear that it is not possible honestly to confess that Jesus is the Christ 
of culture unless one can confess much more than this. 

The one holy Catholic Church, through and in spite of its divi- 
sions, has never gone all out for either exclusion or accommodation. 
The main body of Christians have tended rather to one or another 
of the three remaining solutions: synthesis, paradox, and conversion. 

From Justin Martyr to Thomas Aquinas and his followers synthe- 
sis has recognized the gap between Christ and culture that accom- 
modation seldom sees and exclusion always widens. To the synthe- 

184 Major Voices in American Theology 

sizers Christ is both Logos and Lord; as Logos he is the reason of 
God the Creator; hence the form of the world is not alien to him. 
Yet as Lord he is in conflict with the false content of the form, the 
corrupt world which claims man's undivided attention apart from 
God. Synthesis considers Greek philosophy the schoolmaster lead- 
ing men to revelation, Aristotle as Christ's Macedonian John the 
Baptist. In synthesis, Christianity is not against the world, and not 
accommodated to the world; it has rather accepted full responsibility 
for the world. Aquinas believes in both Christ and culture; his 
Christ is far above culture; the highest reach of culture does not 
grasp Christ. Thomas relates Christ and culture in hierarchy: culture 
occupies the first floor with science, and the second floor with phi- 
losophy, but Christ alone occupies the third floor with revelation, 
contemplation, and the vision of God. The escalator between the 
floors moves down but not up. There is a place for everything, and 
everything is in its place. But movement, dynamism, the endless 
break-through of grace, from below as well as from above, is almost 
wholly absent, and the hierarchy itself becomes fixed and final, an 
idolatrous substitute for God. The wild dance of creation and redemp- 
tion becomes a stately minuet. The Aquinas synthesis makes of the 
relative an absolute, reduces the infinite to finite form, and crystal- 
lizes the dynamic. Life is frozen; cultural conservatism is endemic; 
synthesis underestimates both the demonic and the divine. 

All three major solutions are dualist, but the second, paradox, re- 
jects the status quo of synthesis, accents the endless battle between 
irreconcilable opponents. It does not withdraw from the battle with 
the disciples of exclusion, nor deny the existence of the battle with 
the apostle of accommodation. The battle is both real and perma- 
nent. Christ is Christ, and culture is culture, and never the twain 
shall meet; yet every Christian must live forever in both worlds. To 
the paradoxical dualists, from Paul and Marcion to Luther, man can 
escape neither sin nor grace. Man is a sinner, and all culture is cor- 
rupt. Before the holiness of God there are no significant differences; 
comparisons between the highest skyscraper and the meanest hovel 
are meaningless beside the Milky Way. Niebuhr describes man's 
paradoxical situation thus; 

The Permanent Revolution 185 

"The sense of sordidness, of shame, dirtiness, and pollution is the 
affective accompaniment of an objective moral judgment on the nature 
of the self and its society. Here is man before God, deriving his life from 
God, being sustained and forgiven by God, being loved and being lived; 
and this man is engaged in an attack on the One who is his life and his 
being. He is denying what he must assert in the very act of denial; he 
is rebelling against the One without whose loyalty he could not even 
rebel. All human action, all culture, is infected with godlessness, which is 
the essence of sin. Godlessness appears as the will to live without God, to 
ignore him, to be one's own source and beginning, to live without being 
indebted and forgiven, to be independent and secure in oneself, to be 
godlike in oneself. . . . The hand of power is never wholly disguised 
by its soft glove of reason. . . . The true dualist continues to live in the 
tension between mercy and wrath. . . . Living between time and eter- 
nity, between wrath and mercy, between culture and Christ, the true 
Lutheran finds life both tragic and joyful. There is no solution of the 
dilemma this side of death" (Ibid., pp. 154, 156, 159, 178). 

The position of paradox is both necessary and inadequate. Its vices 
and its virtues go together. Its dynamism is itself static; there is no 
motion forward. The Christian must live forever in unbelievable, 
unrelievable agony, in unresolvable tension. If there were no prac- 
tical buffer of worldliness between the dualist's faith and his nerves, 
he would go insane. He therefore develops a Christian right hand, 
and a^worldly left hand. He places love in God and wrath in the 
State. Christ's commands, projected into the future, have little to do 
with the present. Basic in the view is its failure to distinguish be- 
tween Creation and Fall: to be created is to be fallen; th^re is no 
direct relation between God and the world. The Christian must 
attempt the intrinsically impossible, to hold together two mutual ex- 

But the virtues of paradox must not be overlooked. No human 
power may be substituted for the divine; all human absolutes are 
idolatrous usurpations. Further, the dualist sees the unique in the 
world of grace and the world of law each has value in its own 
right. More than any leader before him, Luther understood that pre- 
cisely in the sphere of culture Christ could and should be followed; 
more than any other he discerned that the cultural rules were inde- 
pendent of Church law. As a Christian cannot derive medical pro- 

1 86 Major Voices in American Theology 

cedure from the gospel in a case of typhus, so he cannot deduce from 
the commandment of love police procedure in a commonwealth con- 
taining criminals. As there is no way of deriving knowledge from 
the gospel about what to do as physician, builder, carpenter, or states- 
man, so there is no way of gaining the right spirit of helpfulness, 
hopefulness, and humility from any amount of technical or cultural 
knowledge. If we look to revelation for knowledge of geology, we 
miss the revelation; if we look to geology for theology, we wind up 
on the rocks. Technique and spirit interpenetrate; as Michelangelo 
knew, they are not easily distinguished and recombined in a single 
act of obedience to God. Technique is directed toward the temporal, 
spirit toward the eternal Similarly, in human relations, so far as a 
person is responsible only for himself and his goods, faith makes 
possible what the gospel demands,, that he refuse to defend himself 
against thieves or borrowers, against tyrants or foes. In so far as 
he has been entrusted with the care of others, as father or governor, 
he must use force to defend his neighbors against force. 

Kierkegaard was true to Luther; the Christian is to live in absolute 
relation to the absolute, and in relative relation to the relative. But 
Kierkegaard's exclusive interest was the individual; he thereby lost 
altogether the Christian social dimension. 

Richard Niebuhr would have us see the permanent relevance of 
the fifth solution, conversion. From the Fourth Gospel to Augustine, 
Calvin, and F. D. Maurice, conversion has involved three basic con- 
victions :,j(i) since Christ is the Logos of Creation, the world to be 
redeemed is redeemable; it is neither to be excluded nor neglected; 

(2) the Fall of man is man's action, not God's; man's Fall is there- 
fore moral and personal, not metaphysical; man's nature is misdi- 
rected good, not evil; the world is perverted good, not evil; the goal 
of nature and man is therefore not destruction but redemption; and 

(3) with God all things are possible in history, for history is a drama 
between God and men; the Christian is therefore not to live between 
the times but in the divine now, the eschatological present. Eternity 
is the presence of God in time, a quality of existence. God sent not 
his Son into culture to condemn culture, but that culture through 
him might be saved. 

The Permanent Revolution 187 

The theme of the Fourth Gospel, Niebuhr finds, is primarily con- 
version, secondarily exclusion. The Fall is perversion of created good; 
sin is the denial of the principle of life; both Creation and Fall are 
present; new life is the beginning with God in the spirit; the Para- 
clete replaces the Second Coming. John's interest is the spiritual 
transformation of man's life in the world, not the substitution of a 
spiritual for a temporal existence, nor the replacement of the physical 
by a metaphysical body, nor the gradual ascent from the temporal 
to the eternal. The flesh profits nothing; neither its beginning nor 
its ending is significant. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, the 
Christian life is converted cultural life, life proceeding from the re- 
generation of man's spirit, but the elect community is the focus of 
interest. The rebirth of the spirit of all men and the transformation 
of all cultural existence by the incarnate Word, the risen Lord, and 
the life-giving Paraclete do not enter into his vision. He has com- 
bined conversion with exclusion. 

With Augustine and other Christian revolutionaries, the Roman 
Empire was converted from a Caesar-centered community into me- 
dieval Christendom. To Augustine, Christ redirects, reinvigorates, 
and regenerates the total life of man; the new life expresses itself 
in all man's cultural creations. Present culture is the perverted and 
corrupt expression of a fundamentally good nature. In Niebuhr's 
words : 

" To mankind with this perverted nature and corrupted culture Jesus 
Christ has come to heal and renew what sin has infected withfethe sick- 
ness unto death. By his life and his death he makes plain to man the 
greatness of God's love and the depth of human sin; by revelation and 
instruction he reattaches the soul to God, the source of its being and 
goodness, and restores it to the right order of love, causing it to love 
whatever it loves in God and not in the context of selfishness or of idola- 
trous devotion to the creature " (Ibid., p. 213). 

Augustine began with universal conversion, but eventually devel- 
oped exclusion, and passed both along to Calvin. To Augustine, the 
alpha, and to Calvin, the omega, of the medieval Church, the elect 
exclude and do not redeem the world; they do not give rise to a 
new humanity; they save themselves others they cannot save. The 

i88 Major Voices in American Theology 

Christian religion, a cultural achievement, is substituted for Christ. 
Defensiveness, not God, is the author of exclusion: the God who 
chose all men for life became the God who chose some men for 
death. Hell and heaven were separated, and both catapulted into 

To John Wesley and to F. D. Maurice, Christ was the transformer 
of life. Things that are impossible with men are possible with God. 
There can be some present fulfillment of the promise. Man in time 
can become a child of eternity, though Wesley, like Kierkegaard, 
thought in individual, not in social, terms. Wesley's movement, how- 
ever, was more profound than its modern offspring: on the one hand 
Methodism has developed the psychological mechanics of shabby 
revivalism, with mass production of renovated souls, and on the 
other salvation by sociology. Methodism at times has capitulated to 
a spurious social gospel which expects " to change prodigal mankind 
by improving the quality of the husks served in the pigsty." 

F. D. Maurice, almost alone in his generation, understood that the 
Christ who came into the world came unto his own, that Christ 
himself exercises his kinship over men, not a viceregent whether 
pope. Scriptures, Christian religion, Church, or inner light. Every 
man is in Christ, and Christ is in every man. Christ is Lord of all 
now. Some men disbelieve and walk after the flesh; some men be- 
lieve and walk after the Spirit; but all men are in Christ. Maurice 
attacked with equal fervor both unsocial Christians and unchristian 
socialists, To him, the heresy of our age is religion against God, and 
Christianity against Christ. In his view, the abyss of love is deeper 
than the abyss of hate. He preached the participation of all organiza- 
tions and nationalities in Christ's universal Kingdom. Man is not 
Christ; man is an unbeliever and a sinner; yet Christ remains the 
head of every man. The Christian's task is to realize with humility 
that he is not the head, and with exaltation accept his assignment 
from the head. Maurice was not opposed to cultural variety: variety 
brings disorder only because men mistake their partial truths for 
the whole truth; Christian transformation, conversion, revolution 
occur when humility and service replace self-assertion and self -glori- 
fication. Christ's Kingdom is both actuality and possibility. Eternity 
is not a dimension of time, but a dimension of divine action upon 

The Permanent Revolution 189 

time. The point is not human progress in culture, but the divine 
conversion of the spirit of man from which all culture rises. Every 
moment, every period, is the eschatological present, the invasion of 
time by eternity; in every moment men are dealing positively or 
negatively with God. 

Whether the individual adopts exclusion, accommodation, synthe- 
sis, paradox, or conversion, his conclusion is not an abstraction but a 
decision. Richard Niebuhr lists the many writers who have helped 
him to " seine out of the sea of history" the typical answers: John 
Baillie, Karl Earth, Nicolas Berdyaev, Emil Brunner, Charles Norris 
Cochrane, Christopher Dawson, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Rein- 
hold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Arnold Toynbee. From his point of 
view no single conclusion can be " the Christian answer." The claim 
of finality by any finite mind, with limited and little faith, usurps 
the Lordship of Christ; at the same time it violates the liberty of 
Christian men and the unconcluded history of their culture. None- 
theless each man must decide; every man is responsible to reach con- 
clusions in present decisions and present obedience. For four reasons 
our conclusions are relative: our knowledge is fragmentary; our 
faith is feeble; our perspectives are partial; and we often give first- 
class allegiance to second-class values. We need continually to be 
reminded that science is no substitute for morals, but also that morals 
are no substitute for science. Humility and hope look well together 
in Niebuhr's words: "There is perhaps a little Christianity in our 
answer " (Ibid., p. 236) . 

In his view, we are not farther from Christ because we Eve nine- 
teen and a half centuries after Jesus' birth than disciples in the thir- 
teenth or the first century. Necessarily we see Christ against our own 
background; we hear his words as particular men in particular times 
with particular duties. We are relative men; with relative view- 
points, relative evaluations, and relative values, we make our deci- 
sions. We are not free not to choose; rather,* we are forced to decide 
whether we will choose with reasoning faithlessness or with reason- 
ing faith. As Niebuhr puts it: 

" If we have no faith in the absolute faithfulness of God-in-Christ, it 
will doubtless be difficult for us to discern the relativity of our faith. Be- 
cause that faith is weak, therefore we shall always endeavor to make our 

190 Major Voices in American Theology 

personal or our social faith into an absolute. But with the little faith we 
have in the faithfulness of God, we can make the decisions of little faith 
with some confidence, and with reliance on the forgiveness of the sin 
that is involved in our action. . . . 

" The present moment is the time of decision; and the meaning of the 
present is that it is the time dimension of freedom and decision. . . . 

" Our decisions must be made in the present moment but in the 
presence of historical beings whose history has been made sacred by the 
historical, remembered actions of the one who inhabits eternity. . . . 

" We do not trust the God of faith because we believe that certain 
writings are trustworthy. Yet it is our conviction that God is faithful, 
that we can say ' Our Father * to that which has elected us to live, to die, 
and to inherit life beyond life. Faithfulness is the moral reason in all 
things. Yet without the historic incarnation of that faith in Jesus Christ 
we should be lost in faithlessness. He is simply there with his faith and 
with his creation of faith. . . . 

" The world of culture, man's achievement, exists within the world of 
grace, God's Kingdom " (Ibid., pp. 239, 246, 249, 255, 256). 




The Theology of WorJ{ of Robert L. Calhoun 

The Theology of Work 


Robert L. Calhoun 

The trend in our time is evident in the name given by Paul Til- 
lich and Nels F. S. Ferre to their departments at Union and 
Vanderbilt " Philosophical Theology." Theology is everywhere 
rediscovering both its inner integrity and its essential relation to 
modern history and modern thought. The distinctiveness of the 
Calhoun contribution is the exploration of theology's essential rela- 
tion to modern science, and, in particular, to the necessities of mod- 
ern work. His theology is philosophical, but, even more, humane. 
The theology of Edwin Lewis is dualism; the theology of Robert 
Calhoun is dynamic monism. Where Nels Ferre is primarily inter- 
ested in final universal salvation in one or many worlds to come, 
Calhoun is primarily interested in both personal and social salvation 
in the midst of the struggle of this world. Where Reinhold Niebuhr 
is critical of the pride and pretense of human achievement, Calhoun 
is hopeful that work and worship can be constructively united. 
Where Paul Tillich is, ia appearance, Docetic and abstract, Calhoun 
is concrete and practical, and in late years Calhoun has moved to- 
ward a new appreciation of the Biblically oriented theology largely 
ignored in Tillich's philosophical preoccupation. Calhoun and Rich- 
ard Niebuhr are not far apart; both are filled with hope; both are 
primarily interested in the increase of divinity in the dust of history; 
both seek the universal salvation that embraces and redeems man 
and culture in the here and now. The difference between them is 
between a theoretical and a practical approach. Richard Niebuhr 

194 Major Voices in American Theology 

looks at the world of culture, man's achievement, from the world of 
grace, God's Kingdom. Calhoun looks at the Kingdom from the 
world of culture the perspective of the common man. To both, 
God is a working God, a maker, an artist, laboring to complete an 
unfinished world and an unfinished man. To both, Christ is the 
transformer of civilization, and eternity is neither against time nor 
identical with time, nor above time, nor in paradoxical tension with 
time, but a larger world which includes time. To both, eternity is not 
a dimension of time, but time a dimension of eternity. A world exists 
to be completed in the image of God, and man's work toward his 
own completion is man's true measure. To both, the Kingdom of 
God is both actuality, for God rules, and possibility, for God is at 
work to finish his creation. 

Christianity and the daily work of the world, the Church, and the 
proletariat too long have maintained separate residences. They have 
not been divorced, only alienated. Calhoun is uniquely a mediator, 
to bring them back together. As a theological marriage broker, he 
has arranged their reunion in modernity. To him ivory-tower the- 
ology is irreverent and irresponsible; reality involves true worship 
and true work. Calhoun hangs a sign on the universe: "God at 
Work." He summons men of every race and class, mechanics as well 
as musicians, plumbers as well as preachers, to roll up their sleeves 
and sign on with the divine Foreman. The world of God and the 
work of man groan and travail together in pain awaiting their own 
completion. The Calhoun theology is both in heaven and " down to 
earth." He does not bring heaven down, but earth halfway to heaven. 

He was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, December 30, 1896, son of 
David Thomas and Lida Brooks (Toomer) Calhoun. He received 
the B.A. (1915) from Carleton College, and the same school gave 
him the LL.D. (1946). He holds three degrees from Yale: the B.D. 
(1918), the M.A. (1919)5 and the PhD. (1923). He has received the 
D.D. from both the University of Chicago (1941) and Oberlin (1944) . 

Robert Calhoun married Ella Clay Wakeman, December 24, 1923, 
and there are four children: David Wakeman, Edward Thomas 
Davidson, Robert Maurice, and Harriet Huddleston. The second 
child was named for Robert's younger brother, Edward Thomas 

A World in the Making 195 

Calhoun, M.D., who died in 1927 at twenty-seven years of age. To 
him, and to a brother-in-law, Alfred Maurice Wakeman, M.D., who 
died in 1929 at thirty-two years of age, Calhoun dedicated God and 
the Common Life (1935). 

Robert Lowry (sometimes spelled Lowrie) Calhoun was instruc- 
tor in philosophy and education at Carleton, 1921-1923; from 1923- 
1926, he was an instructor in the history of theology at Yale. He 
came up, as one of his students expressed it in private conversation, 
" the hard way." He was assistant professor of historical theology for 
six years, and associate professor for four. He has been full professor 
at Yale since 1936. 

His special lectures include a series at Yale (1934), Ohio Wesleyan 
University (1935), Colgate-Rochester Divinity School (1937), Prince- 
ton University (1938 and 1943), the Theological Seminary of the 
Reformed Churches in the United States (1940), the Jewish The- 
ological Seminary of America (1940), the University of Virginia 
(1941), the Pacific School of Religion (1942), Harvard (1943 and 
1944), Vanderbilt University (1944), and the University of Chicago 
(1947). He is a member of the American Philosophical Associa- 
tion, the American Theological Association, the American Society 
of Church History, The American Academy of Political and Social 
Science, Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Sigma Rho, and Book and Bond at 
Yale. With Nels F. S. Ferre, he is a Congregational contribution to 
modern theology. 

More research per cubic centimeter has been necessary i%the Cal- 
houn study than in any other. Unlike the other theologians, with 
the exception of H. Richard Niebuhr, he seems loath to bring him- 
self to book. Possibly he has intended to be slow to publish, and 
plenteous in mercy upon his readers. Apparently he has written only 
when forced to do so, and only in fragments. His articles and essays 
are legion, his books three: God and the Common Life, What Is 
Man? (1939), and God and the Day's Wor\ (1943). God and the 
Common Life describes man and God at work; properly used, it 
should enable C.I.O. and A.F.L. to receive Christian baptism. Seven- 
teen years after its publication, the book is given the following Cal- 
houn comment in a personal letter: 

196 Major Voices in American Theology 

" The position presented ... is one that has a good deal in common 
with what is often called natural theology. It represents only a part, 
though a sufficiently representative part, of my theological thinking. 
Actually, even in this relatively early book, the position I tried to main- 
tain was not simply natural theology, but a position in which faith and 
reason, revelation and the data supplied to sense perception and inter- 
pretable by understanding, are kept in suitable balance. ... At the same 
time, it must be said that the perspective of my thinking has altered 
substantially during the past fifteen years, in the direction of a view that 
gives very much larger place to Biblical and traditional theology." 

Next in time is the small but alert book What Is Man? published 
by the Hazen Foundation. The two abstract fields of science and 
philosophy, on their own terms, are related to the two practical 
fields, common sense and religion. The four approaches are four 
necessities, and each is thoroughly examined. At the end you have, 
not four men, but one man, and the man is taken seriously as God's 
half-finished handiwork. God and the Days WorJ^, a Y.M.C.A. 
publication, describes Christian vocation in an unchristian world, 
but adds little to the earlier books. 

For this study the extended debate between Robert L. Calhoun 
and Henry N. Wieman in Christendom, 1936 and 1937, proved of 
immense help. Wieman attacked the idea that God and mind are 
in any sense similar. In his view God is the maker of meaning, and 
mind is the maker of mechanism: no correlation exists between 
them. Calhoun insisted that God is more than mind, but not wholly 
other, tr^at God makes mechanism as well as meaning, since the 
earth, the stars, and the human body are mechanisms. Further, that 
mind makes meaning as well as mechanism* The debate was no 
shadowboxing; the divergence was, and remains, real between Wie- 
man's God of evolutionary philosophy, God as a nebulous thing 
called interaction, and Calhoun J s God of Christian theology, God as 
personal, and more. The two men never came together in their de- 
bate, though they found, or pretended to find, or attempted to find, 
common ground. Calhoun ended the series with Christian love: 

" God, if unambiguously good, is not simply growth of organic con- 
nections, but a discriminating Power of which growth or unification may 
be thought of as one function, separation as another. . . . 

A World in the Making 197 

" Shall we suppose that God can only grow? I believe, rather, in the 
Logos of God, alive through and through, aware and unwavering. In 
him is growth, but more than growth. In him is life that is also Light. 
I believe that he is, as growth alone cannot be, Creator of heaven and 
earth, as well as Saviour of men. . . . 

" These beliefs of mine are theology, not primarily faith. When two 
men differ in theology or religious philosophy, they necessarily differ, 
more or less, in religion. But if both trust unreservedly the God whose 
being is * uncomprehended ' by any theology or religion, they have basis 
for communion in the midst of continuing difference " ("A Final State- 
ment," Christendom, spring 1937, pp. 217, 218). 

A dozen additional essays, found in a dozen additional places, 
proved a dozen additional floodlights on Calhoun's comprehensive 
theology. His Lectures on the History of Christian Doctrine (1948), 
multigraphed in three volumes for private circulation only, cry aloud 
to be issued by an alert publisher as a text for colleges and semi- 
naries : the treatment of men and movements is faithful yet original. 
Calhoun is possibly the exception that proves Lao-tse's rule that wise 
men are never scholars, and scholars are never wise men. No de- 
ficiency of scholarship is apparent; rather, a lifetime of patience with 
primary sources. His address, " The Gospel for This World," in 
Making the Gospel Effective (1945), offers practicing parsons who 
would serve the present age a pulpit theology that covers the message 
and uncovers its meaning. Theologians and philosophers will be 
pleased or irritated, depending on their point of view, by Calhoun's 
essay, " The History of Philosophy," published in the Hazen Foun- 
dation study, College Reading and Religion (Yale University Press, 
1948, pp. 1-27) . The treatment analyzes twenty-three texts on the his- 
tory of philosophy from Schwegler to Russell, and from Stockl 
to Copleston: eighteen general, five Roman Catholic. From 1893 to 
1914 the dominant attitude toward religion was critical appreciation; 
from 1917 to 1939 active disparagement prevailed; since 1941 there 
has been a noticeable return to critical appreciation. The diverse 
treatments of religion may well represent university trends in the 
same periods. Among the Romanists, Calhoun found either discrimi- 
nating or undiscriminating advocacy of papal religion. As he sees it, 
" the tide is coming in once more." He found that superior scholar- 

198 Major Voices in American Theology 

ship and philosophical competence accompany discerning rather than 
disparaging or uncritical treatments o religion. Another essay was 
especially helpful: "Theology and the Humanities," in The Mean- 
ing of the Humanities (Edited by Theodore Meyer Greene, pp. 119- 
150. Princeton University Press, 1938). Calhoun pleads for an alliance 
between history, philosophy, and theology on the one hand, and be- 
tween literature, fine arts, and theology on the other. In procedure he 
finds theology closer to history and philosophy, in intent closer to lit- 
erature and the fine arts, but more than any of them directly seeking 
to move men's wills. Theology, Calhoun believes, concerns the crucial 
question, "What must I do to be saved? " A discipline approaches 
theology in the degree to which it approaches the theme " Man Saved 
by God." Theology is not faith, but the logic of faith; it needs faith 
to keep its heart, but the humanities to keep its head. 

The Calhoun essay on " Plato as Religious Realist," in the book 
Religious Realism, edited by D. C. Macintosh (pp. 195-251. The 
Macmillan Company, 1931), redresses the balance from philosophy 
to religion in the Greek thinker. The interpreters often neglect the 
religious depth, and stress only the philosophical surface, in Pla- 
tonic thought. To Calhoun, Plato was both devotee and critic of 
religion, an antinominalist, concerned with the eternal reality of 
forms, and specifically a theist. In the essay, " Church, State, and 
Human Devotion," in the symposium Church and State in the 
Modern World, edited by Henry Pitney Van Dusen (pp. 43-82. 
Harper Brothers, 1937), Calhoun deals with the problem familiar 
in Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. The Church, ever in 
danger of uncritical conformity to the State, must bear witness to a 
reality greater than Church and State. On Calhoun's terms, God is 
the ultimate term in man's environment, transcendent beyond every 
fact and form. To identify him with the human community, or his 
will with government policy, is absurd. A needed word for educa- 
tors, whether public or private, is found in Calhoun's essay, " The 
Place of Religion in Higher Education," in the book Religion and 
the Modern World (Pp. 63-70. University of Pennsylvania Press, 
1941). Calhoun understands that civilized living is possible only for 
people at once disciplined and free: to this end three things are nee- 

A World in the Making 199 

essary specialized skills, specialized knowledge, and a perspective 
or unifying frame. Thus high religion and intellectual enterprise be- 
long together. Each has something to give, something to gain. Both 
are stronger together than apart. 

Men concerned with Christian conscience in a world at war will 
find more light than heat in the report of the Federal Council Com- 
mission on the Relation of the Church to the War in the Light of 
the Christian Faith. Calhoun was final editor of the report, and 
chairman of the Commission that prepared it. John C. Bennett was 
Commission secretary; Edwin E. Aubrey, Roland H. Bainton, and 
H. Richard Niebuhr were responsible for empirical, historical, and 
theological subsections. Calhoun, Bennett, and John Knox made the 
final revisions; and the study, in significant part, was published in 
Social Action, December 15, 1944. The report contains both mature 
theology and practical counsel for the Church and the Christian in 
wartime. The document, like the \airos theology of Tillich, urges 
that the Christian revelation and the contemporary situation must 
both be understood. War is an event in the providential reign of 
God, whom we know best through the crucified and triumphant 
Christ. For Christian faith the cataclysm of war is a tragic movement 
in God's work of creating and redeeming man, and in man's long 
struggle with himself and his Creator. Man is a sinner, but salvable, 
both individually and institutionally. Hence, war can be abolished. 
Tension in the Church is inevitable: its members are divinely re- 
quired to aid and abet their governments, and at the same time to 
take the Church seriously as an ecumenical society, transcending all 
governments. The Church is literally on both sides of every war: it 
is with its people as their minister, where they are and as they are; 
yet it is also one community, one communion, across all national 
barriers. Its own unity must increase, that the world's disunity may 
decrease. Our interlocked society must be transformed into world 
community, that great nations may play contributive rather than 
destructive roles. A free international community must be built, 
without paternalism or servitude, in spite of the fact that freedom is 
decreased and disunity increased by modern total war. The Church 
must oppose unfalteringly the calculated ruthlessness of war, yet 

200 Major Voices in American Theology 

take into account its own divided loyalty, human weakness, and 
secular involvement. The primary ground for a distinctive Christian 
understanding of any situation is the revelation of God in Jesus 
Christ; in this understanding the New Testament and the Church 
are inseparable. 

An important work in systematic theology is on the way. In 
February, 1952, Calhoun delivered four addresses for the Yale Uni- 
versity Christian Mission, and transcripts were made from tape re- 
cordings. These fragments are parts of a body of material in process 
of development over a considerable period of time. When complete, 
the project may be issued as a text in systematics, and should prove 
a major publishing event. 

Genuine humility, patient accuracy, and profound insight charac- 
terize every Calhoun paragraph. His approach is always broadly, 
not narrowly, behavioristic; he warns the reader against the preju- 
dices of his Western masculine viewpoint, and against his layman's 
lack of competence in technical fields. Upon investigation, his tech- 
nical competence needs no apology, and is always wedded to depth 
and breadth of meaning. He reunites practical and speculative 
thought, and examines boldly both the oldest, homeliest practice and 
the newest far-flung theory. 

Dean L. A. Weigle and Professor J. E. Boodin, Calhoun acknowl- 
edges, introduced him to undergraduate philosophy. Professors 
A. K. Rogers and C. A. A. Bennett furthered his philosophical de- 
velopment^ and D. C. Macintosh awakened his interest in theology. 
He acquired the scientific method and spirit, and a firsthand ac- 
quaintance with the natural sciences, from Professors F. F. Exner, 
L. A. Headley, R. S. Lull, Raymond Hussey " chiefly through my 
brother," Clark Hull, and Dr. A. J. Wakeman. From two young 
medical men, Edward Thomas Calhoun and Alfred Maurice Wake- 
man, close to him in love and memory, Calhoun believes that he 
has learned, in scientific matters, most of all. 

Colleagues, he confesses, have helped him immeasurably. Among 
them are: Roland Bainton, Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, Cor- 
nelius Kruse, Filmer Northrop, Edwin Aubrey, John Bennett, Her- 
man Brautigam, and John K. Benton. " A small ungloved, tough- 

A World in the Making 201 

minded circle called * the Club ' " widened Calhoun's horizons. 
Twenty-six " assorted and strenuous " companions saved him from 
premature maturity. We have met this discussion group in our study 
of Tillich. A. N. Whitehead's later writings proved a kind of revela- 
Calhoun ranks high one influence often underestimated: 

" The household in which Ella Wakeman Calhoun, and David, Ted, 
Robert Maurice, Harriet, and I have lived together at close range has 
done more to my thinking than any of them suspects. It is these, with 
my mother while she lived, who have made it seem to me intolerable to 
think and write theology without continual reference to everyday needs 
and facts" (God and the Common Life, p. xi. Charles Scribner's Sons, 


Man and his world are in the making; no resting place is final; 
the end is not yet. God is precisely at worJ^. Herein lies our anguish 
and our hope. Calhoun begins and ends with this idea. 

Ground-clearing operations were completed before we were born, 
before Christianity was born. Judaism worshiped, and now wor- 
ships, a God high and lifted up, whose law is love. Neither Babylon, 
Greece, nor Rome could induce the Jews to bow down before man- 
made gods, and modern paganism has not been more successful. In 
this moral and virile faith Christianity was born. In its youth, it 
was powerful enough to incorporate and transfigure Hellenism, the 
mystery cults, and Roman discipline. The backbone of Christianity 
was, and remains, Hebrew monotheism and Hebrew morale vitally 
embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In him a plain fisherman saw the 
Christ, the Son of the living God; from this belief came the convic- 
tion of Pentecost that in him men had seen God face to face. 

Christianity, the end of preparatory religion, increased both Jew- 
ish pessimism and Jewish optimism. When the two are separated, 
world hatred or world idolatry results. Together they form the pow- 
erful Christian counterpoint of desperation and hope. 

Christian pessimism sees man as he is; Christian optimism sees 
God as he is. Pessimism, which takes seriously the plight of man, 
understands that intellectual and moral education does not get to 

202 Major Voices in American Theology 

the root of the trouble. Man's problem is centered in his feelings and 
desires, beneath the level of conscious thought and will. A man is 
what he loves. Man is a mass of misdirected cravings: he possesses a 
"second nature" of acquired depravity; he cannot choose as he 
ought; he cannot, by willful effort, fulfill the law of God. In Cal- 
houn's words: 

" There is no need to exaggerate. Nor is there any need to leave the 
firm ground of experience and the familiar atmosphere of modern 
thought to see what the Christian analysis of man's plight has in view. 
It has its eyes on man the animal, as we know him in business, in politics, 
and in war; in the hypocrisies of home and school and church, and all 
polite society; in the secret lusts and hates of his most private imaginings, 
and in the waking nightmares of his rnadness when these lusts and hates 
come out frankly, inside hospital cells or in lynchings and pogroms. Who 
indeed shall deliver man, ourselves and our fellow animals, from the body 
of this death? 

" Not high ideals and moral discourses. Not common sense,, nor science, 
nor philosophy. They can all help, but not enough. And above all, not 
the cults of race and class that sanctify hatred and lust, seeking to free 
man from conscience and the claims of right by handing him over to the 
whirlwinds of raw power. Man is an animal, predatory, deceitful, cruel. 
But he is no less incurably a social, responsible, aspiring animal, who can 
no more rid himself of conscience than of his memory or his powers of 
speech, without ceasing to be a man " (What Is Man?, p. 70. Association 
Press, 1939). 

Man the world child seeks animal escape from world responsi- 
bility: he adopts Nazi tribalism or Communist dynamism. But drugs 
wear off. Human nerves can stand just so much marching and 
shouting and regimented cruelty. Then comes nausea, and the cold, 
drab light; men temporarily gone animal have to face once more 
the fact that they are men, with the problem that is man still un- 

Man is precisely the question, " What is man ? " The question is 
not theoretical at all, but fearfully practical: " What must I be and 
do to be human? " The answer is not, " Go on as you are." The an- 
swer is not in man, but in the power and goodness of God. Our only 
hope is that God in some sense loves us powerfully enough to rescue 
us from our own ambiguity. Just this is the affirmation of Christian 
faith. " God so loved." 

A World in the Making 203 

Nobody knows literally how God, the Creator and Lord of a uni- 
verse measured in light-years, could have an " only Son " on earth; 
nobody knows how God himself could come in human form to save 
men from themselves. Nonetheless the language of myth expresses 
a faith that has thrived on suffering, a hope and a love that have 
heartened men through dark centuries of struggle. The fact remains 
that, with the coming of Jesus as the Christ, redeeming energy was 
liberated among men. That renewing power has made headway 
against overwhelming obstacles, bettered millions of lives, and 
dredged deep channels through history. This is not to say that men 
were not saved before Jesus appeared. It is to say that never before 
did this saving power manifest itself with equal effect, that the turn- 
ing point in human life has been reached. Personal trust in the 
transforming power of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, is Christian 
faith. The transforming power of God, at work in this world, is the 
ground of Christian hope. The blackest pessimism concerning man 
is thus transcended. The Christian's hope for men is inexhaustible 
because his hope is not in men; he believes that God is, and that he 
is Creator, Father, and Saviour. Yet in all religious affirmation there 
remains a basic venture, an inescapable risk. But one thing is sure. 
The Christian understanding of man, including both relentless pes- 
simism and exultant faith, offers no ordinary Utopia; it goes deeper 
than dream; it sees man not merely rehoused and re-educated, but 
remade. It does not crudely glorify man, but sees him, even at his 
worst, as never alone but always surrounded with God. Irgthe divine 
presence man lives, and moves, and has his being. God holds man in 
his hand. If hope exists for man the animal, stresses Calhoun, it is 
because something like this is true. Because God is a Man of Work, 
it does not yet appear what we shall be. We are less than gods, and 
more than historians; both actuality and possibility possess us. 

Calhoun's own faith illustrates both the precariousness and the 
predictability of the Christian venture. He writes : " My own belief 
in God, and I suspect that of many others who believe, has been 
generated painfully enough, not by argument but by the concrete 
ebb and flow of living, in ways that I do not fully understand and 
cannot control'* {God and the Common Life, p. 3). Man in the 
making moves forward by steadiness and by riskiness through a 

204 Major Voices in American Theology 

world in the making toward the unfinished City o God. Man and 
world are in motion together, like sailor and ship upon troubled 
seas. The believer realizes that he can neither fully understand the 
Master's purpose nor fail to trust it. In clear weather our more ex- 
pert human navigators would chart a truer course by the stars. But 
at the moment the experts are having difficulties of their own. We 
plain mariners must find our way by compass and dead reckoning, 
that is, without celestial observation. Man is ambiguous; even nature 
is not clear. Within our own generation nature has ceased to speak 
the plain, downright, British English of Newton and Darwin, as 
five hundred years ago she abandoned the dry, lucid Latin of Aqui- 
nas on Aristotle. The best we can do is to gain what Cusanus called 
"instructed ignorance" (docta ignorantid), the complicated tenta- 
tiveness of those who expertly know that they know not, and some- 
what expertly why. 

The prime concern of theology, Calhoun insists, is to help men to 
keep rightly oriented in the midst of actual living. Neither abstract 
principles nor detailed techniques are outside the theologian's do- 
main. However, he must devote himself, as a specialist, neither to 
the one nor to the other. He must try to see how facts and principles 
illumine one another. Where relevant data are inaccessible, where 
specialists do not agree as to what is open for inspection, exactitude 
is not to be had. In any case, something more is needed than evolu- 
tion, the idol of liberalism, and something more as well than dis- 
illusion, thf idol of Marxian and Barthian reaction. We need more 
than stars and stout shipmates; we need some idea of direction. 

Modern man's place to begin, after all, is the day's work and the 
yearly round. By nature and of right God and work belong together, 
for man is product of the past and participant in the present. Secu- 
larized weekdays and formalized Sabbaths are scarred fragments; 
neither separately nor together is there life in them. If we are to be 
more than hypocritai, play actors, we must be more than spiritual 
starvelings; we need stronger food than discriminating words, 
thoughts, misgivings, and regrets; we need heavier exercise than 
diffident reform. Our Protestant grandsires, with their sinewy piety, 
knew plenty of restraints, but nothing of thin-blooded diffidence. 

A World in the Making 205 

Without positive, concrete convictions there can be no effective sense 
of day-to-day urgency, opportunity, and obligation. In simple zeal 
the thinner sorts of Christianity do not compare favorably with 
youthful Communism. 

Work is required of man, because God is a worker. Against the 
monastic ideal, that monks were more pleasing to God than ordinary 
folk doing the ordinary work of the world, Luther and Calvin ap- 
plied to these common pursuits the impressive term vocatio, " divine 
calling." A few mystics had roundly asserted that the highest level 
of perfection was possible not only for the monk but equally for the 
humblest laborer the man flailing corn or braking nettles: any 
earthly occupation wherein one toiled faithfully and lovingly in the 
service of his neighbor could be a medium for the vision of God 
yet in Tauler's view, contemplation was higher than action. The Re- 
formers took a further drastic step: they extended the call of God 
from saints to sinners, from Church to world. On their terms, mo- 
nastic austerities for excess merit were worse than useless; only 
through faithfulness in the appointed daily task was obedience ac- 
ceptable to God. Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries created a 
genuinely new estimate of everyday life and work. It was freshly 
understood that the adoration of God included daily toil. But Luther, 
Calvin, and their heirs were primarily interested in ecclesiastical re- 
form, not in social reconstruction. They were economically naive and 
politically conservative. Neither was willing to concede man's ability 
to find salvation in this world. Lutheran quietism and Calvinist 
asceticism alike ignored social economics. In New England, for a time, 
daily work was rightly understood as divine vocation, something 
more than a theological abstraction. The plain man was not dis- 
obedient to the heavenly vision as he went from meetinghouse or 
chapel to carry on the daily round. Once again, God was served 
through common toil. But the individualism of the Puritan, accom- 
panied by his toil, in time created capitalism. The poetry of earthly 
divine calling cooled into middle-class prose. Vocation secularized 
was vocation emasculated. Give was replaced by grab. Proud na- 
tionalism and economic imperialism flexed their muscles round the 
world. As Weber understood in 1905, specialists without spirit and 

206 Major Voices in American Theology 

sensualists without soul this nullity imagines it has attained the 
highest level of civilization. Secularism has created the abomination 
o desolation. Calhoun describes the capitalist spiritual vacuum thus : 

" Machine tools that finally insured the triumph of middle-class capi- 
talism have now mechanized the lives of all but a privileged few who 
live within its sway. Most of those who work are slaves now to subways 
and steam whistles; and these leave less marginal energy and freedom for 
savoring the present, and dwelling on the future, than even field laborers 
had in the old regime. Moreover, the part of the ordinary worker in 
much of modern industry and trade has been trivialized to the point of 
boredom and preclusion of self-respect. Snipping endlessly the pieces of 
cheap cloth for shoddy garments; punching endlessly the paper and split 
leather soles for bargain shoes; feeding endlessly the rods, wire, and sheet 
metal that become ten-cent hardware; selling endlessly cheap merchan- 
dise in a cheap market; finding romance in cheap movies and wood-pulp 
magazines. Who is fool enough to look for God, even if one were sure 
there is a God, in this dreary modern warehouse? " (Ibid., p. 30). 

It is time for a new beginning. No one-sided return to Calvin or 
Luther or Paul will suffice. They lived by vocation, as holy men, but 
their doctrine of vocation was inadequate. They were flame-touched 
insurgents who lived beyond their doctrine. Their lives demonstrated 
that commitment to things as they are, in an imperfect world, is 
the death of moral and religious aspiration, yet that contempt for the 
world as it is keeps aspiration unsullied but cuts the nerve of action. 
The Voice in our own day commands us to go forward in the name 
of God. v 

All men are called to become fully human, to work in a world 
unfinished, full of unexplored resources and demands. The first re- 
quirement of divine vocation is that our work be needful: this is our 
general calling. The second requirement is that our work fulfill our 
need to work, that our work be fitted to our powers : this is our spe- 
cial calling. The third requirement is that we accept our full con- 
tributive share in the world's work and the common life. We are 
called to live, not our neighbor's or our nation's or our church's life, 
but our own, yet we must lose our lives to find them, even in work. 
For most of us the carpenter shop precedes the cross, and it is re- 
quired that we be faithful over a few things. As Calhoun puts it: 

A World in the Making 207 

" To do needful work, then; to lose oneself and find oneself therein; 
to participate thus in a common task and a shared life: this, and the sum- 
mons to it, we shall mean by vocation, which may serve to guide in part 
a serious effort to live in the world as it is and toward a world as it 
ought to be. . . . While steadily refusing to look for a Kingdom of 
Heaven on earth, past, present, or to come, in which men would be gods 
and life one grand sweet song, we steadily hope for a time when more 
men can be more fully men. . . . Our hope is first of all in what the 
world order may portend: that order which with silent condemnation 
and promise calls mankind back, again and again, from the bogs of un- 
bridled competitive war to the road of contributive work. Not dogmati- 
cally, but quite soberly ... we regard that call as coming ultimately not 
from men, nor from dialectically moving matter, but from God " (IKd., 
p. 71). 

In simplest terms, there is in everything and in every man a yawn- 
ing discrepancy between what ought to be and what is. Come to 
terms with this world, with all its discrepancies, we must, or go mad; 
but acquiesce we may not, and keep morally sane. Religious realism 
is neither final pessimism nor final optimism; it is convinced that 
the actual ought to be, and can be, changed for the better. The cru- 
cial line between better and worse cuts not between sacred and secu- 
lar groups, the elected and the rejected, the saved and the damned, 
but through every occupation, every group, and every life. The un- 
ambiguous ideal has always an ambiguous relation to this world: it 
is pertinent to and partly exemplified by, but neither identical with 
nor completely present in, any actual thing or event. Marmleans and 
sometimes lifts, but he lifts most and leans least when he realizes that 
he himself is lifted, and called to lift by a weight-lifting God. When 
competence becomes technical mastery, and conscious responsibility 
becomes intense love for one's work, the workman is an artist, in 
the basic meaning of the word. For every man at every moment the 
tension between what is and what ought to be cannot be relaxed. 
Perfection is not to be looked for here, but we must refuse to acqui- 
esce in the finality of anything less. 

The human mind is both immanent in, and transcendent over, 
every present situation. It is immanent in so far as it enters into direct 
causal and stimulus-response relations with what is actually here. 

208 Major Voices in American Theology 

It transcends the immediate situation in so far as, by way of symbolic 
behavior, it takes account also of what is not actually here. Man is 
therefore product, a world child, and problem, a world project. It is 
his glory that he may become in some degree a participant in the 
world process. 


Calhoun paints his portrait of God the Worker with Thomas 
Aquinas* "principle of sufficient reason": from the existence and 
order of the world as perceptible and intelligible, it is permissible to 
argue to the existence and actuality of a Being sufficient to account 
for the facts observed. If you saw a large field slowly filling with 
piles of brick, bags of cement, stacks of lumber, and steel construc- 
tion equipment, with trucks and bulldozers roaring to and fro, with 
gangs of men at work on foundations, and other men with blue- 
prints surveying the scene, consulting, measuring, directing, you 
would certainly conclude that somewhere a mind was at work with 
a purpose, that a school or office building would shortly appear. 
Endless preplanning, prefiguring, and rearranging are inevitable in 
such an undertaking all evidences of purposive, or mental, activ- 
ity. Similarly Calhoun argues from the evidence of the natural and 
historical process to ultimate Mind, the cosmic Designer or Con- 
tractor or Creator. Our universe, like the large field filled with build- 
ing materials, is in process. The completed structure does not yet 
appear, ami only a fraction of the blueprint. One step is enough for 
us. Sufficient unto every day is the work thereof. Man is product, 
problem, and participant in God's unfinished world. Flux and form 
are always present: at every moment the world has the look of per- 
petual incompleteness and partly ordered becoming. God is at work. 
" My Father worketh even until now," said Jesus, " and I work." 

Persons, whether divine or human, can reveal themselves to other 
persons only through their works whether words or deeds; here 
also the principle of sufficient reason operates. We know God and 
each other only through our works; we argue from the existence and 
order of events as perceptible and intelligible to the existence and ac- 
tivity of persons sufficient to account for the events experienced. 

A World in the Making 209 

God works even until now, and we work. The world is not yet 
fully made, nor wholly good; and at the present, whatever may have 
been true in the prehistoric past, other factors than God are also at 
work. But God is primary, central, and sovereign over all. World- 
making is the meaning of creation and redemption : God's Kingdom 
is both actuality and possibility. As Calhoun sees it, God's relation to 
the actual world is like my relation to my own life not my body 
merely, but the total of my experience. At one and the same mo- 
ment, I am immanent in my experience and transcendent over it; 
thus God is both transcendent over his experience, which includes 
our world, and is immanent within it. He is thus omnipresent in 
the total process, as I am omnipresent in my total life. No event is 
hidden from him. His apprehension encompasses all that has tran- 
spired and is transpiring in the total time span. Through his tran- 
scendence he has access as well to all that can happen. Like us, God 
is Subject, known through his activity; and, like us, God cannot 
know in full what has not yet corne to pass. His foreknowledge is 
not complete, and this means not deficiency but definiteness. Omni- 
present throughout the world order, though not of it nor encom- 
passed within it, he is everywhere near. His knowledge, like ours, 
is selective. God's mind is not occupied impartially with relevant and 
irrelevant possibilities, ad infmitum. There is a world in the making. 
God is occupied with specific problems, that is, he works upon us, 
not according to our wishes, but according to our needs. 

God is Omnipotent Doer as well as Omnipresent Knowe%He acts 
to realize the good, the Kingdom of what ought to be. This is the 
center of religious faith. The world is great: that needs no proof. 
The sovereign power is good: this admits no proof. But to affirm it 
with all the mind and heart is to believe in God, great beyond our 
conceiving, yet not too great to be good. God is not hampered by 
our limitations: ignorance, inner conflict, space-time restriction, in- 
feriority to particular finite forces. And he is no more bound by 
past behavior patterns than is a skilled physician by the memoran- 
dum he has made at an earlier stage in a patient's illness. Unlike us, 
God's conflicts are with the world, not with himself. His work can 
be hindered, but not defeated. Yet the divine omnipotence is not 

2io Major Voices in American Theology 

absolute: his power is limited by his nature his wisdom, justice, 
and mercy. Perfection involves limitation, that is, inner harmony 
and balance, not indiscriminate and infinite aggregation. God is not 
only limited by his own intrinsic nature, which cannot act other- 
wise than to realize the good, but he is also limited by certain ex- 
ternal rigidities, not evil but good elements which contribute to 
constructive work. God cannot build a fifty-foot house on a forty- 
foot lot; though he can and does turn evil into good, he cannot re- 
verse the actual series of events that is, the future is not actually 
present. God is limited also by the social rigidities: inertia and fa- 
tigue. For God as well as for men, in Calhoun's judgment, these 
hindrances have to be transcended; at no actual point in the world 
process are they completely eliminated. God is limited also by the 
fluence of flux, the crude movement of the process, the real con- 
tingency and indeterminacy of events. No event is rigorously deter- 
mined until it happens. As Plato understood, God, and with God 
chance and contingency, governs human affairs. Every concrete in- 
dividual, from electron to quanta, and from amoeba to man, has a 
certain waywardness: none is fully amenable to God's will. Finite 
persons can and do oppose their wills to one another and to God. 
God's . radical transcendence means that he is wholly other, as we 
are wholly other to each other, yet his transcendence is relative and 
not absolute. Love in God, however far beyond anything I know, 
has something in common with love in me; and so with power, 
justice, and joy. Herein lies the reasonableness of the command, 
" Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." 
And God's immanence is communicative: by revelation and inspira- 
tion he makes himself known to us and quickens us into life. God's 
very refusal to be what I want him to be can draw me nearer to 
that which he is. Our relation to God is the relation of subject to 
Subject, yet between God and the self a more intimate relationship 
can exist than between one self and another. In Calhoun's words : 

" God . . . , by revealing himself to men, awakens in them responses 
that well up from the deeper springs within them. But these deep springs 
themselves have been called into being by the God who now arouses 
them to action. . . . The goal . . . toward which a God-quickened man 

A World in the Making 211 

finds himself newly oriented may be called either the good, or God. . . . 
The good is not more than God. ... If we say, then^that the Spirit of 
God comes upon men, and that they are filled with the Holy Spirit, we 
should mean, I think, that by the perpetual summons of God, which 
comes through the whole natural and social network within which God 
and men are continuously side by side and face to face, men are quick- 
ened now and again to respond on new higher and deeper levels " (Ibid., 
p. 200). 

The way of man with God is work and worship; the two must not 
be separated, yet are not identical. Human extremity is worship's 
most poignant occasion, and repentance and moral regeneration 
worship's meaning. In true worship, a man recognizes that the 
source of dislocation is in himself, that the thwarting of his hopes 
is not only deserved and necessary but to be welcomed. Worship is 
more than appreciation; it is the venture of self-commitment, the 
cautious recklessness of God. 

The way of God with man involves communication, co-working, 
and transcendent sovereignty. Words may point toward God, but 
cannot make him known. He makes himself known as Mind, Spirit, 
Holy Will at work within and upon our half-made actual world. 
Men are not parts of God, nor one with God, nor gods in their own 
right. They are selves who may become sons, colaborers with God 
in the task of world-making. Man is called to be a contributing par- 
ticipant in the shared task and the common life. The call is not 
coercive: each man's response is his own. But the initiative is first 
and forever God's. The starry heavens above and the moral law 
within offer general revelation; illuminating crises, disturbing but 
driving forward the stream of events, offer special revelation. Jesus* 
life and death is not self-explanatory: the meaning exists for faith, 
insight, and devotion. God is both discontinuous and continuous 
with man and the world : the world is God's but not God. There are 
real problems for God as well as for man. 

Calhoun's humility is sincere. He understands that we must tell 
our stories of God as best we can, and know when we have finished 
that silence is better. Nonetheless, we must act on the basis of our 
beliefs. Our basic conviction, as Calhoun sees it, is this: 

212 Major Voices in American Theology 

" Christianity, at its best, has both depth and breadth and height. 
Its primary trust is neither in individual men nor in social groups, nor 
in mankind, but in the God and Father revealed in Jesus Christ. The one 
true God is universal sovereign. He is not a tribal deity; neither is he 
merely an indwelling, evolutionary urge, nor a humanly conceived ideal. 
He is a transcendent God, and therefore has authority for all 'man- 
kind. . . . 

" We are asking that the essential Christian gospel may once more 
come into our world with life-transforming power. . . . The story is not 
the decorous children's tale told in churches at Christmas and Easter; 
it is the gospel that once moved with power through the mighty Roman 
Empire and unseated its ancient gods. . . . The inmost core of life, 
strong and sweet and caustic as flame, has been in that story " (God and 
the Day's Wor\, pp. 3, 6. Association Press, 1943). 

True religion calls forth a person's entire range of capacities and 
skills into worship and devoted work for the common good; the 
Power that calls is not only greater than man but greater also than 
the earth and the stars. 


Many advocates of the gospel in our time accent its usefulness for 
public morals or morale, its value as insurance against eternal or 
even temporal loss. All such advocacy of the gospel, in Calhoun's 
opinion, misses the point. Anyone who seeks to make use of re- 
ligious faith for political or economic advantage misconceives it. 
Nonetheless, the gospel is an invaluable resource, a power for full- 
scale living. To the eye of faith, our time, like every other, is marked 
with guidelines for thought and action, and the present is charged 
with eternal promise. 

Since the gospel is permanent and universal, it can afford to speak 
to every time in its own tongue. The ancient gospel looks well in 
modern dress. The divine sovereignty is always present tense. 

The preaching of the gospel in this age, thinks Calhoun, must 
stress three things : the necessity of repentance in view of the reality 
of sin; the good ground that exists for hope; and the unavoidable 
demand for righteousness, at once impossible and imperative. 

In recent years the sinner as helpless victim has held the center 
of attention, and the emphasis in part was long overdue: it cleared 

A World in the Making 213 

away some of the vindictiveness of the saints from the Inquisition in 
Spain to witch-burning in New England or Negro-lynching in the 
South. But the " helpless victim " idea has been overemphasized, for 
the sinner is cause v as well as effect. By definition sin involves re- 
sponsibility. Where there is no responsibility, there is no sin. The 
gospel neither condemns nor coddles the sinner. 

A good doctor, in his struggle against disease, neither condemns 
nor coddles his patient. Something of the same precision and pa- 
tience, not wholly unlike the aim and attitude of the Good Physician, 
has long been needed in our dealing with personal and social sin. 
Nonetheless, sin is still sin, and the concept is indispensable. Sin is 
wrongdoing, not misfortune. Sin, unlike misfortune, is personal de- 
cision, self-commitment, active self-identification with what is wrong. 
Sin is therefore more than antisocial: it is anti-God; it is perversion 
of personal existence, not natural disaster. In war and in peace, in 
every human enterprise, in every human life, in every response to 
the natural and human environment, there is sin. 

The source of sin is unfaith, that is, lack of trust in God and man, 
the fear and the falsehood called anxiety. The devil is indeed the 
father of lies. Sin is both individual and corporate, though group sin 
is ambiguous: not every member of the sinful group is personally 
committed to its sin. Because responsible individuals participate, the 
group becomes a seedbed of sin. 

Because sin is a reality, repentance is a necessity. True preaching 
can neglect neither the one nor the other. Repentance is Called for 
individually and socially, in class, race, country, and coalition. Re- 
pentance is an absolute essential in all healthy human living: it is 
not morbid and inverted self -righteousness. Doleful egoism is not 
penitence. Genuine repentance has an objective reference: it is a re- 
covery of perspective, a reorientation of aim; clear thinking and 
active decision, not feeling, are primary. The healthy soul rejects 
wrong, once it is seen to be wrong, as a healthy body rejects poison. 
Repentance that is more than a mild glow of virtuousness begins 
most often in moral frustration. A man discovers that the fault lies 
within, not outside, his struggling will. He recognizes an inner dis- 
tortion, which can be corrected neither by exertion nor by change of 

214 Major Voices in American Theology 

fortune. In oneself, not elsewhere, is the blame. The badly set bone 
must be rebroken to grow straight. Repentance is not just being 
sorry; it is the drastic resetting of a crooked life. True repentance is 
a gift of God: to the blind light must be given it cannot be grasped. 
To see ourselves as God sees us is to be illumined by his Spirit. 

The crucial decision to accept and follow the new light is 
a man's response to God's redemptive summons. Repentance is easier 
for individuals than for groups: groups are afflicted, more than in- 
dividuals, with self-righteousness. Group laws are always the laws 
of the Medes and the Persians which cannot be changed: they are 
inflexible in operation and infallible in assumption. Health in the 
nations, united or separated, more obviously than in individuals, is 
a divine gift : the initiative of necessity comes from God, first through 
the critic, and when the critic is ignored, through judgment, the 
dead-end street of false absolutes. 

Sin and repentance are realities, but real also is the ground of our 
hope. There is hope both in man and in God: in every situation 
human strength exalts itself against divine order, and in the strength, 
as well as in the order, the better is promised. Human strength is 
good, though misdirected; there is always hope of its redirection. 
Human energy of mind and hand achieves greatly when one in will 
with God. Secondly, there is real hope for man in God's historical 
self-disclosure. One God and one man made one Christ; one God 
and one mankind make one Kingdom. God has accomplished much 
in history, with or without the pessimists' permission : there is irre- 
versible movement, and it is always forward, though sometimes 
through strategic retreat. Control over the material conditions of life 
is clearly on the increase; the promise is real that within a hundred 
years men everywhere may be freed from famine, from futility in toil, 
and from the false grandeur and factual misery of the caste system. 
Technological progress is not moral progress, not a substitute for the 
Kingdom of God: as man's master it is his enemy; as his servant, his 
friend. Technology, on Toynbee's terms, has made of many pasts 
one economic present; two tasks remain to build one political and 
one religious future. 

There is hope in mankind's long-demonstrated toughness and 

A World in the Making 215 

adaptability. Mankind's survival through a thousand centuries of 
bloodshed is miracle enough for ecstatic faith. The farther back 
biologists push mankind's beginning, the greater the miracle. How 
come man has not perished of his own stupidity? There is more to 
man than meets the eye: his very longevity is ground for hope. To 
the man who adds meaning to measurement, human survival is the 
evidence of present salvation, and the assurance of future comple- 
tion; toughness and adaptability are not original achievements but 
original gifts, not cause, but result. Even our present woes are evi- 
dence, not of futile weakness, but of fearful strength. 

God was here before we were; God is stronger than we are; his 
concern is greater than our own. This is our ultimate hope that 
God is God. Our moral failures are understandable and curable, not 
chaotic. This world, on any account, necessitates physical and moral 
learning: It is God's educational institution to teach us both liberal 
and mechanical arts; it is God's schoolmaster to bring us to our- 
selves, to himself, and to one another. God speaks in the total proc- 
ess, but most clearly in Jesus Christ and his Church. Our knowledge 
is not an end, but an instrument to bring men to God and Love 
to men. Jesus Christ and his Church, Head and body together, pre- 
sent in history the purpose of history. His life was, and remains, the 
end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end, in man-making. 
In Jesus Christ and his Church the ground was broken for the build- 
ing of the commonwealth of God. The creation, the redemption, as 
Augustine affirmed, began with human history, was r^/ealed in 
Christ and his Church, has continued without a break to this mo- 
ment, and will continue to and through the millennium. Herein is 
still man's hope. In human flesh has been revealed the power, truth, 
and love against which human wickedness and physical disaster are 

The working gospel involves not only the reality of sin and the 
necessity of repentance, not only the real ground for hope, but also 
the endless anguish of absolute demand. The gospel is both impera- 
tive and impossible. The absolute demand is not a set of rules but 
a set of soul. " Be ye perfect," said Christ. We can neither fulfill nor 
evade the demand. Our best intelligence and integrity are required; 

2i6 Major Voices in American Theology 

at every moment we must accept, and reject, ourselves as we are and 
our world as it is. By faith and hope and love we are to move at 
every moment with the Church Godward, and with God world- 
ward. With unstinting generosity in thought and action we are to 
acknowledge each day the complex excellence and the incomplete- 
ness of all human behavior, including our own. Callous or cruel 
action reacts promptly upon our own character; generosity and for- 
giveness do likewise. In very truth life is measured to us with the 
same measure we ourselves use. As we give, so we receive. God's 
justice is not for its own sake but for our sake; it is never vindictive; 
it is always creative and gracious; for this reason we call God Father. 
In Calhoun's words: 

" Our gospel . . . begins and ends with imperatives that are grounded 
in the nature of man and the presence of God. It centers m the revelation 
of God in human history, especially in Jesus Christ crucified and the 
community of grace that widens around him. The God who has given 
himself and his Son thus freely has not yet failed those who trust him. 
He will not fail us in the hard years ahead" ("The Gospel for This 
World," in Making the Gospel Effective, ed. by William K. Anderson, 
p. 34. Nashville, Methodist Commission on Ministerial Training, 1945). 

We live in a century of war. As Calhoun sees it, war is neither 
simply a natural fact nor an act of God nor a sinful choice of man. 
It is a complex event in which all these factors are present and need 
to be recognized. In every war, God is not neutral and he is not 
helpless. Jrle is maintaining invincibly an order that men cannot 
overthrow. Moreover, he is taking sides through the struggle, not 
with Communist or capitalist powers or with the United Nations, 
not with any church or with any churchman, but with the impulse 
toward good, and against the impulse toward evil, in every man and 
every movement at every moment. God is not a combatant, nor a 
neutral onlooker, nor a helpless victim. In war as in peace he is the 
Creator and Sovereign whose power sustains and governs, but does 
not annul, the activities of nature and of men. 

War is overcome in principle only in the Church, for the Church 
is the union of God and man. Because God is God, and God is just- 
judging Love, the Church is the Gunga Din on both sides of every 

A World in the Making 217 

conflict, minister to all men the critic and the servant o oppressor 
and oppressed. The task o the Church is reconciliation, between 
man and God, between man and man, and between the present and 
the future. The Church is not a partner of any state, but the con- 
science of every state. It is the organ of hope, the nucleus of world 
community; its business is not to rule, but to heal. In Calhoun's 
words : 

" The Church that began as a handful of unknown disciples has 
grown, tenaciously and irrepressibly, through the centuries. Its breadth 
now, around the globe, is undergirded with the depth and power of 
proved vitality. . . . 

" Within its walls, men of all races and cultures have their rightful 
homes. It will need to make their claims to brotherhood more evident 
and effective. . . . 

" With all its faults, the Christian Church in our time is an actual mas- 
sive embodiment of growing community, and the only one whose organ- 
ized membership is world-wide. . . . 

" The Church . . . with its faith grounded in the Everliving God, 
whose Spirit moves still within his half -finished creation, can by its very 
existence as faithful Church help the world to find the way. The Church 
must seek to realize yet more fully its own growing unity of spirit, to 
bring into its communion of faith and love an even more inclusive com- 
pany of God's children, and to make its own awareness of divine judg- 
ment and forgiveness pervade, like widening daylight, the whole tortured 
life of our time " (Social Action, Vol. X, No. 10, December 15, 1944, 
PP- 77> 7 8 )- 

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