Reinhold Niebuhr’s Post-Providential Theology of History

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
12 min readJun 21, 2024

Friday 21 June 2024 is the 132nd anniversary of the birth of Reinhold Niebuhr (21 June 1892–01 June 1971), who was born in Wright City, Missouri, on this date in 1892.

It is entirely possible that you’ve never heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, but it’s almost certain that you’ve heard the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Niebuhr is credited with being the author of the original version of the serenity prayer, which is known in many versions; the wording has changed many times. (I have quoted the most familiar one.)

Niebuhr was a big deal in the mid-twentieth century, about the same time when Toynbee was popular, especially in the US. Americans seem to be particularly susceptible to this kind of mash up of theology and history found in Niebuhr and Toynbee, and it makes Walter Kaufmann’s criticism of Toynbee more understandable. In my episode on Toynbee I quoted this from Walter Kaufmann:

“If a single factor accounts more than any other for Toynbee’s popularity in the United States, it is surely his concern with religion — not simply the fact of his concern but above all the nature of his concern. In an age in which books become bestsellers because they seem to prove scientifically that the Bible is right, Toynbee could hardly fail to be a popular success. His frequent references to God and Christ and his thousands of footnote references to the New Testament, which record his every use of a biblical turn of speech, assure the Christian reader that the Bible is proved right, while his growing hope for a vast syncretism pleases those who feel that the one thing needful is a meeting of East and West. Toynbee makes a great show of religion, which the Hebrew prophets did not, but he presses no unequivocal or incisive demands, which the prophets did. Unlike the religion of most, if not all, of mankind’s great religious figures, Toynbee’s religion is ingratiating — like that of the politicians and our most successful magazines. He offers us history, social science, anecdotes, schemes, entertainment — all this and heaven, too.” (From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Chapter 20, “Toynbee and Religion,” section 3)

Similar comments could be made about Niebuhr. And Niebuhr, like Toynbee, had critics as well. Sidney Hook in particular criticized Niebuhr. In the book The Quest for Being Niebuhr is one of the examples that Hook uses in his essay “The New Failure of Nerve.” This is a mid-twentieth century reformulation of the idea of a failure of nerve, which I discussed in my episode on Gilbert Murray, who originated the idea. Hook attributes to Niebuhr a “rare courage” but also thinks that Niebuhr was deluded about the role of theology in his thought. Hook also wrote an essay specifically about Niebuhr, “The Moral Vision of Reinhold Niebuhr,” which is included in the book Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life, in which Hook wrote:

“The connection between Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology and his social and political philosophy is neither logical nor historical, but personal. The absence of the logical relationship does not disturb him because he sees in the self or person and its freedom something that radically defies rational connections. By the same token he cannot be surprised either by the failure of those who accept his ethical and political insights to swallow his ‘dialectical truths which are beyond reason’ or the refusal of many of his theological disciples to embrace the pragmatic wisdom of this thinking in social and political life.”

As a Protestant theologian, Niebuhr presented his work as a Christian interpretation of history, but Niebuhr’s religious interpretation of history has little in common with providential philosophies of history such as we find in Saint Augustine or Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet. There’s a lot in Niebuhr that is traditionalistic, but his use of the traditional Christian concepts such as divine sovereignty over history or original sin serve much as the Copernican principle serves in contemporary thought to remind us of human limitations and to see ourselves in a much more comprehensive context of meanings than is suggested by the immediate interests of our lives.

Robert E. Fitch in a 1952 paper, “Reinhold Niebuhr as Prophet and as Philosopher of History,” has given something of a sympathetic overview of Niebuhr’s conception of history, which he conveniently formulates as ten points:

  1. History is the scene both of mystery and of meaning.
  2. No one center of meaning within history is adequate to explain all of history. (This is the attack on ‘idolatrous centers of meaning,’ although, of course, Niebuhr excepts his ‘revelatory event.’)
  3. History exhibits only proximate solutions for man’s perennial problems. (History is not the Christ, is not ultimately redemptive.)
  4. History is morally ambiguous.
  5. Evil is an inevitable concomitant of even the highest spiritual enterprises.
  6. All men are equally sinners but not equally sinful. (Equality of sin but inequality in guilt.)
  7. Human freedom is the source of evil as well as of good.
  8. There are basic limits to human freedom.
  9. Secular philosophies tend to oscillate between idolatry and complacency, on the one hand, and atheism and despair, on the other hand.
  10. The law of love may be an antidote both to legalism and to ethical relativism.

Each of these claims is footnoted with a reference to Niebuhr’s works. After naming these ten propositions, Fitch goes on to formulate eight more, which he presents to Niebuhr’s advantage:

  1. Attitude is more central than method.
  2. Insight takes precedence over technique.
  3. Niebuhr’s language is often the language of symbolism.
  4. Niebuhr has an extraordinary sensitivity to all “life in its richness and contradictoriness”
  5. Niebuhr apprehends the height and the depth of life
  6. Niebuhr has a feeling for the cultural Gestalt.
  7. Niebuhr is saturated with the lore of human nature.
  8. Niebuhr’s perspective on life is a uniquely comprehensive and powerful one

Though mostly sympathetic, Fitch also has criticisms of Niebuhr, as, for example: “…it is quite obvious that many of the propositions that Niebuhr allegedly gets from his ‘transcendent’ perspective are in fact empirically derived.” Fitch’s paper cites more than a dozen works by Niebuhr relevant to the philosophy of history, implying the scope and scale of the material available for anyone seeking a philosophy of history in his work. David V. Smith in his 1968 thesis “The Early Development of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Philosophy of history” further extends this scope and scale, concluding with this observation about the books remembered as Niebuhr’s most influential:

“…to know only these masterpieces is somewhat like appreciating an iceberg only for its exposed tip, and forgetting its massive base. A man’s thought cannot be profoundly understood if one merely skims off the ‘finished’ ideas and neglects the development which produced them. The tangle of ideas from which Reinhold Niebuhr’s philosophy of history developed illuminates that vision in a way which the finished philosophy taken alone cannot accomplish.”

Obviously, these are the words of an enthusiast, but let’s consider Niebuhr himself rather than critics or disciples. Niebuhr explicitly addressed philosophy of history in the context of the Cold War, implying that each side in the Cold War had its own philosophy of history, and that neither of these competitors were adequate. What follows is from Niebuhr’s Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History:

“There is a grim irony in the fact that mankind is at the moment in the toils of the terrible fate of a division between two great centres of power, one of which is informed by the communist and the other by the bourgeois liberal creed of world redemption. Both creeds imagine that man can become the master of historical destiny. The communists assume that the rationalization of particular interest will disappear with a revolutionary destruction of a society which maintains special interests. The very fury of communist self-righteousness, particularly the identification of ideal ends with the tortuous policies of a particular nation and its despotic oligarchy, is rooted in its naive assumption that the rationalization of partial and particular interests is merely the product of a particular form of social organization and would be overcome by its destruction.

“Meanwhile the liberal world dreams of the mastery of historical destiny by the gradual extension of the ‘scientific method’ without recognizing that the objectivity and disinterestedness which it seeks by such simple terms represents the ultimate problem and despair of human existence. The two creeds are locked in seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Whether the conflict eventuates in overt hostilities or not, it has already produced an historical situation which cannot be encompassed in the philosophy of history of either creed. An adequate frame of meaning to encompass it would have to contain the motif of the Tower of Babel myth of the Bible. In that myth God reduced the pride of men who wanted to build a tower into the heavens by confounding their languages, thereby reminding them that they were particular, finite, and conditioned men, who do not find it an easy matter to become simply ‘man’.”

In Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History, Niebuhr makes a similar point, formulating what he calls the “chronological illusion,” which is a failure to understand that “The realm of fulfillment is at the end of history,” and that, “The end of history is not a point in history.” (p. 22) Thus:

“The chronological illusion, that [fulfillment] is a point in history, so characteristic of all myths which point to the trans-historical by a symbol of time, is particularly fruitful of error in the doctrine of the second coming. It has led to fantastic sectarian illusions of every type. Yet it is significant that the dispossessed and disinherited have been particularly prone to these illusions, because they were anxious to express the Christian hope of fulfilment in social as well as in individual terms. Sectarian apocalypticism is closely related to modern proletarian radicalism, which is a secularised form of the latter. In both, the individualism of Christian orthodoxy is opposed with conceptions which place the corporate enterprises of mankind, as well as individuals, under an ultimate judgment and under ultimate possibilities of fulfilment. In these secular and apocalyptic illusions the end of time is a point in time beyond which there will be an unconditioned society.”

The criticism I take from thus is like Karl Löwith’s criticism of philosophies of history as disguised forms of Christian eschatology, masking Christian hope as secular hope for a better tomorrow. What Niebuhr here calls the chronological illusion is the conflation of sectarian apocalypticism and proletarian radicalism with the hope of Christian fulfillment, which is a theme that we have seen in many philosophers of history, and not only those who are theologians like Niebuhr. Eric Voegelin’s admonition to not immanentize the eschaton is an expression of the same concern. Salvation history and secular history are two different things, which is why St. Augustine posited the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man can be overthrown, as Rome was sacked in 410 AD, prompting Augustine to write his City of God to argue that all was well despite appearances.

Niebuhr’s philosophy of history, however, is strikingly different from the providential philosophy of St. Augustine. Sidney Hook’s response to this was that nothing in Niebuhr’s philosophy of history was derived from his theology. According to Hook, Niebuhr was deluding himself. But Niebuhr returns time and again to theological themes as sources of meaning, and we could argue that the need to appeal to these themes, and the appeal to traditional moral lessons like the story of the Tower of Babel, referenced in an earlier quote, is part of what is involved in seeing history through the lens of theology. Niebuhr wants to be relevant to the concerns of his time, so he discusses the Cold War, but he frames the Cold War in theological terms, and critiques both parties to the Cold War from a theological perspective.

Niebuhr returns to the problem of the fulfillment of life in the final paragraph of Beyond Tragedy:

“The Christian view of the future is complicated by the realization of the fact that the very freedom which brings the future into view has been the occasion for the corruption of the present in the heart of man. Mere development of what he now is cannot save man, for development will heighten all the contradictions in which he stands. Nor will emancipation from the law of development and the march of time through entrance into a timeless and motionless eternity save him. That could only annihilate him. His hope consequently lies in a forgiveness which will overcome not his finiteness but his sin, and a divine omnipotence which will complete his life without destroying its essential nature. Hence the final expression of hope in the Apostolic Creed: ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ is a much more sophisticated expression of hope in ultimate fulfilment than all of its modern substitutes. It grows out of a realization of the total human situation which the modern mind has not fathomed. The symbols by which this hope is expressed are, to be sure, difficult. The modern mind imagines that it has rejected the hope because of this difficulty. But the real cause of the rejection lies in its failure to understand the problem of human existence in all its complexity.”

Near the end of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr gives his interpretation of the relation between time and eternity — a perennial concern for Christian philosophers of history in particular — and in this context invokes a famous line from Ranke:

“In so far as the freedom of man to be creative in history implies a freedom over history itself, there are tangents of freedom which stand in direct relation to eternity. This dimension of history prompts, and would seem to justify, Leopold von Ranke’s famous dictum that each moment of time and history is equidistant from eternity. But the dictum is only partially justified, for it leaves the other dimension of history out of account. History is also a total process which requires understanding of its totality from some ‘last judgment.’ In so far as every act and event, every personality and historical construction is immersed in an historical continuum it takes its meaning from the whole process. If we look at history only from ‘above’ we obscure the meaning of its ‘self-surpassing growth.’ If we look at it only from a spatially symbolized end we obscure all the richness and variety which is expressed in its many parts.”

Earlier in the same section Niebuhr makes explicit the two dimensions of the relationship of time to history:

“Eternity stands over time on the one hand and at the end of time on the other. It stands over time in the sense that it is the ultimate source and power of all derived and dependent existence. It is not a separate order of existence. For this reason the traditional connotation of the concept, ‘supernatural,’ is erroneous. The eternal is the ground and source of the temporal. The divine consciousness gives meaning to the mere succession of natural events by comprehending them simultaneously, even as human consciousness gives meaning to segments of natural sequence by comprehending them simultaneously in memory and foresight.”

We also saw in the work of Simone Weil a Christian conception of eternity taking a prominent place. Weil seemed to want to substitute eternity for time and to be rid of history entirely. She offered an especially austere providentialism that can be compared to what I called Fichte’s a priori providentialism. Both Weil and Fichte wanted to preserve the providential conception of history, but to purge history of any vulgar providentialism in which the hand of God interferes in history, suspending laws of nature by divine fiat.

Niebuhr is not so austere or radical. For him, history remains even as eternity hovers over it. History, then, is not to be abandoned in favor of eternity, since, as we saw in an earlier quote, that would annihilate humanity. And history is not to be assimilated to eternity, or denied outright. History is to be given a Christian meaning that completes life in the here-and-now without destroying its essential nature. Niebuhr sought to show the Christian meaning of contemporary events, and we can understand his departing from the long tradition of providential philosophies of history, which had been the established method of infusing history with religious meaning, as an extension of the increasingly rigorous methods of historians who have endeavored, first and foremost, to avoid distorting history in order to make it fit an preconceived plan.

Providential philosophy of history appears as the paradigmatic exercise in demonstrating an extra-historical agenda through the means of history, and the very fact that Niebuhr avoided this, avoided even the appearance of providentialism, showed that he wanted to be true both to the historical record, and to his faith, as a theologian. This was a difficult balancing act, and Niebuhr shows us one of the more effective examples of maintaining this delicate balance.