Saturday, December 20, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, honestly…it’s been over a month since the last link post. What can I say? It’s been busy! AAR, Thanksgiving, giving finals, grading finals, and now we’re staring down the barrel of Christmas and New Year. I’m hard at work preparing syllabi for coming semesters and fulfilling other bureaucratic responsibilities, and I know that the other DET contributors are in similar situations.

For that reason, I’d like to announce that DET will be on hiatus until after Epiphany.

We’re going to have some good stuff for you once we resume, so mark your calendars and stay tuned! In the meantime, why not revisit some of the more recent DET posts listed below, or catch up on your reading from the wider theo-blogosphere. If all else fails, dig into the DET serials collection, or the Karl Barth Blog Conference archives. There’s more than enough kicking around to keep you busy.

We’ll see you after Christmas—all twelve days of it!

Recent DET posts:

Good reading from abroad:


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 4)

Paradigm 3. Jesus himself incarnates the kingdom in person.

"The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20b-21, NASB).

"[S]trait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life," (Matt. 7:14, AV).

“I am the way," (John 14:6, NRSV).

If we take the passages above -- and others from the New Testament -- and read them together, in a canonical conversation, something interesting emerges: Despite the diversity among the individual canonical writings, when the texts are read together a certain blurring or interpenetration seems to occur between the goal of salvation (e.g., the kingdom of God or eternal life) and the pathway to that goal. In both the passages from Luke and from Matthew above, the Greek work translated as "way" is ὁδός, which can also be translated as "road", "path" or "track". The locus classicus of this confluence between path and goal within a particular NT writing is in the "I am" sayings in John's Gospel -- hence, "I am the resurrection and the life"(John 11:25, NRSV). At the center of this confluence stands the figure of Jesus the Christ himself.

In the previous posts (post #1, post #2, post #3) in this series, I have looked at two ways of understanding the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom of God: 1) "Jesus as the proclaimer of the Kingdom" and 2) "Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom." I used Crossan's work as an example of the first paradigm, wherein Jesus points beyond himself to a reality that is either coming or already present in the life of the community. I suggested that this paradigm would tend to adopt the lowest Christology -- that is, the content of the message is clearly distinct from and superior to the messenger. In discussing the second paradigm, Jesus as bringer, I noted an increased focus on Jesus himself and his role in the present/coming kingdom. My go-to figures here also were NT scholars, present and past -- E.P. Sanders and Günther Bornkamm.

The third paradigm takes us into different territory. This is the christologically maximal way to understand the relationship between Jesus and the kingdom, and this approach links closely the presence of the kingdom with the personhood of Jesus himself. Jesus and the kingdom aren't two terms that have to be interrelated; rather, what we understand as the reign of God is redefined in terms of the Savior's identity and mission.

The key exemplar of this paradigm, as I've construed it, is Karl Barth. Now Barth is not terribly interested, as far as I can tell, in historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus, nor is he concerned too much with the Savior's subjective self understanding. Rather, Barth focuses on what the church confesses about and on the basis of God's self revelation in Jesus Christ. In his interpretation, the reign of God no longer has an independent interest apart from Christology.

Several passages from Church Dogmatics, 4/2 deal directly with the notion that Jesus just is the kingdom in the flesh; if we want to see this reality, we must look to him. The mystery of the kingdom is subsumed within the mystery of the incarnation and, more particularly, with the sanctification of human life in and through the personal identity and agency of Christ as "The Royal Man". Barth writes:
In Him, in His being as man, the reconciliation of the world with God has already taken place, the kingdom of God has already come on earth, the new day has already dawned (p. 117).
Note how Jesus' royal dignity subsumes and transcends the roles laid out for him in the first two paradigms; in dealing with the "Servant as Lord", we speak of "the man who has not only declared and inaugurated but in His own person is and will be the kingdom and lordship of the God who reconciles the world with Himself" (p. 161).

At first blush, it would seem that Barth's position excludes those sketched in the first two paradigms. On the other hand, we might see it as a way of encompassing and transforming the concerns in the first two models: Jesus proclaims the Kingdom; He also brings it; He proclaims it and brings by coming in the flesh.

Crossan's low or even anti-christological depiction of Jesus, in particular, which seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the position of Barth, the "Christomonist" (as he was accused of being) who eschewed historical Jesus research as theologically suspect. After all, isn't Jesus for Barth the mediator of the covenant, and as such the ultimate broker of the reign of God? But from another angle, Jesus is not the broker of the covenant so much as he is its very fulfillment, the free gift of grace poured out into a fully human life. And I would raise the question: How can Jesus be the broker of the kingdom if he just is the reign of God in person?

If we were to imagine Crossan and Barth getting together at some pub to talk shop, we might expect them to get into a heated argument -- thus, Barth channeling Luke Timothy Johnson. Or we might imagine a polite and awkward silence. But maybe, if they decided to place the kingdom itself at the center of their conversation -- the brokerless realm of open commensality, radical truth and transforming justice -- they just might have something substantive to talk about after all.


Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G. W. Bromiley. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Book on Barth and Baptism is now available with Logos Bible Software

I was very happy to learn yesterday that the folks over at Logos Bible Software are selling my book on Barth and baptism - The Sign of the Gospel - as part of a package deal whereby you can get 15 volumes from Fortress Press’s Emerging Scholars series. So if you use Logos you can now read some fresh, top-notch scholarship.

Here is a link to the Logos site. My volume is at the bottom. That’s what I get for starting the title with an ‘S’…


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2:13–16

Malachi 2.13–16

[13] Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. [14] You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. [15] Has not the LORD made the two of you one? You belong to him in body and spirit. And why has he made you one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. [16] “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate it when people clothe themselves with injustice,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.


COMMENTARY: Calvin continues his hammering on the priests. Although vs. 13 seems to have the whole people in view, Calvin nonetheless blames the priests because they had lead the people astray. This is compounded in that the priests had compromised the institutional worship of God, so the people had no way to reestablish the proper relationship with God. “It was to be ascribed to the priests that no one could from the heart worship God, at least with a cheerful and willing mind; for God was implacable to the people, because the only way of obtaining favour under the law was when the priests . . . humbly entreated pardon in the name of the whole people. But how could God attend to the prayers of the priests when they had polluted his altar by the filth of wickedness” (550)? While Calvin does not make the connection explicitly, it is certain that he understands this situation as analogous to that in his own day with reference to the Roman clergy. He certainly made a lot of this comparison in the previous sections.

Vs. 14 brings up the question of spousal relationships. To begin he has to explain why the text would single out this issue when talking about Israel’s failings. To that end, he reads it as though Malachi singles out this one example from a long list of the people’s failings. To this end Calvin uses his fun rhetorical device: “as though he had said, ‘Your hypocrisy is extremely gross; but, to omit other things, by what pretext can you excuse this perfidy—that there is no conjugal fidelity among you? . . . There is then no ground for you to think that you can escape by evasions, because this one glaring vice sufficiently proves your guilt” (552).

Calvin has a lot of traditional baggage in his thinking about spousal relationships, but he makes a number of good points once you get past the patriarchal way that he couches / words them. Consider, for instance, the first line of vs. 15. The rendering given above follows Calvin’s interpretation, but the text itself requires interpretation. Calvin has to argue that it should be understood in terms of the unity between spouses, such that God makes them a single entity. (Coincidentally, along the way he gives a glimpse into his own developing interpretation of the passage.) So, Calvin explains “that man with the woman is called one.” But even more, Calvin describes the personhood of a man as incomplete without being joined with the personhood of a wife: “So also when we come to individuals, the husband is as it were the half of the man [i.e., the singular unity of human being], and the woman is the other half” (557). As far as Calvin is concerned, one cannot be truly male or female without having your being as such completed through relationship with your gendered opposite. Whatever criticisms we would level at this from our current socio-historical vantage point, the truth of the matter is that Calvin here provides women in the marriage relationship with quite a bit more theological weight than they were accustomed to have.

What about folks who are single? This was an important question for Calvin because he was single when he wrote this commentary. As far as I can tell, he lectured through Malachi in the late 1550s (1558/9-ish) and he had been a widower since the death of his wife Idelette in 1549. So Calvin clarifies: “I speak of the ordinary state of things; for if any one objects and says, that bachelors are not then complete or perfect men, the objection is frivolous: but as men were created, that every one should have his own wife, I say, that husband and wife make but one whole man” (557).

So, to recap: Calvin’s thinking about marriage and gendered relationships is severely problematic by today’s standards but—in his context—he had a higher estimation of the importance of women and wives than did many.

Moving on. Calvin concludes by addressing divorce in vs. 16, and this provides him with the opportunity to make a distinction between what is “desirable” and what is “possible”: “It is indeed desirable, that no vice should be tolerated; but we must have a regard to what is possible” (559). This is a deeply pastoral point for Calvin and is tied up with the practice of church discipline in Geneva. He was always concerned to discern not only what should be the standard for Christian life, but also what it was possible to enforce. This leads Calvin into a discussion of why it is better to permit divorce than it is to practice polygamy. His reasoning comes down to the idea that the latter causes deeper pain and suffering for the man’s first wife: in polygamy “the husband impurely connects himself with another woman, and then, not only deals unfaithfully with his wife to whom he is bound, but also forcibly detains her: thus his crime is doubled. . . . And when any one introduces a harlot [i.e., second wife], how can a lawful wife bear such an indignity without being miserably tormented” (560)?


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that though we daily in various ways violate the covenant which thou hast been pleased to make with us in thine only-begotten Son, we may not yet be dealt with according to what our defection, yea, the many defections by which we daily provoke thy wrath against us, do fully deserve; but suffer and bear with us kindly, and at the same time strengthen us that we may persevere in the truth and perform to the end the pledge we have given to thee, and which thou didst require from us in our baptism, and that we may each of us so conduct ourselves towards our brethren, and husbands towards their wives, that we may cherish that unity of spirit which thou hast consecrated between us by the blood of thine own Son. – Amen.


Friday, December 12, 2014

David Fergusson on Science and Religion

Reading through David Fergusson’s new book on the doctrine of creation, I was pleased with how he handled the doctrine of providence especially as it relates to evolutionary science. It seems to me that he strikes a good balance in stressing the importance for Christian theology in allowing science to be science, while also registering gentle warnings against what increasingly gets labelled as “scientism” – that is, a reductionist scientific materialism.

So, without further ado, here’s Fergusson.

David Fergusson, Creation, Guides to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 88–89.

Even after science has done all its work, there will be ways of understanding and describing phenomena that draw upon different conceptual resources. There are questions, commitments, and insights that by their nature require description in terms not reducible to the methods of the natural sciences. No single discipline has an exhaustive or totalizing role to play. If the engagement with Darwinism has taught theologians one thing it might be this: the sciences must be given their place freely to investigate and hypothesize according to their methods and findings. A clearer account of the differences with theology will result in a recognition of complementarity rather than a misplaced anxiety about the directions in which science might lead us. The converse of this is that “scientific” description will itself need to be challenged when it steps beyond its boundaries by seeking to “explain away” other types of description. This clearer differentiation of forms of description does not exclude constructive conversation at important points of contact between science and religion. But it does move the debate beyond models of contest that tend to overstate the frequency of clashes between the two.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Announcing the 2015 Karl Barth Pastor’s Conference

Dear Gentle Readers,

I have been asked to inform you of an exciting new development in the world of North American Barth Studies, namely, the inaugural convening of a “Pastors Conference” in conjunction with the usual Princeton Seminary Barth conference. The conference theme is “Karl Barth and the Mission of the Church.” The conference will be held at Princeton Theological Seminary on June 24-26. The conference website is here. Make your plans!



P.S. Today is the anniversary of Barth's death in 1968.


Monday, December 08, 2014

DET Contributor Scott Jackson to Chat with "Barth for Dummies"

You're no dummy. You track the theological and ecclesiastical scenes. As a faithful DET reader, you've probably read some Karl Barth and some modern theologians -- at least a little, probably a whole lot more. You go to church from time to time, maybe a lot, or at least have seen churches depicted on TV.

Nonetheless, you might want to head on over to the "Karl Barth for Dummies" page on Facebook this Thursday, December 11th (9 p.m. CST), where I will be holding forth on the topic of ... well, whatever page admin wants to ask me. And I believe you also will have the opportunity to lob thoughtful and courteous questions or adulatory comments at me. Be sure to "like" the FB page -- it's a nice one, replete with humorous memes and pithy quotation (or paraphrases) from Barth's sprawling oeuvre.

Our intrepid DET founder, W. Travis McMaken, has led the way with a fine interview on this page (read the transcript at here), and he assures me the subsequent media frenzy hasn't ruined his life. So I hope to chat with you there.

Editorial UPDATE -- You can access Scott's indexed interview here.


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Peter Martyr Vermigli on the Holy Spirit

I’ve enjoyed occasional dips into Peter Martyr Vermigli’s writings over the years (if you don’t know anything about Vermigli, I recommend this recent blog post that tells the story of the Reformation through Vermigli’s biography), and I have been doing so again lately. This was occasioned by my leafing through the first volume of the Peter Martyr Library and discovering that he had written an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed within a year after leaving Italy (he wrote it in Italian) and establishing himself as an important intellectual contributor to the Protestant cause.

While reading tonight, I came upon this paragraph where Vermigli disambiguates the term “spirit” and explains how it is used with reference to the third divine mode of being, and I thought that it deserved to be shared. Bold is mine.

Peter Martyr Vermigli, Early Witings: Creed, Scripture, Church, The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 1 (Di Gangi and McLelland, trans.; McLelland, ed.; Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994), 54-55.
By “spirit” we usually mean invisible power which has strength to drive and to direct. Thus the winds are called spirits, and so also are the means by which the soul governs, moves, and operates the body. Such unseen powers, although enclosed in our physical frame, relate in a subtle and invisible way to the bodies in which they operate. Hence the same word has come to mean natures and essences divested of that frame, and naked. That is the case with God, the angelic choirs, and the deceased whose souls are already separated from their bodies. Thus the divine nature is called spirit. Christ plainly declared this in John’s Gospel, when he said that God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit [Jn 4.23]. For that reason there is no difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the final analysis the name “Holy Spirit” not only represents the divine nature, invisible and incorporeal, but indicates how the third person is distinct form the Father and the Son. His name, Holy Spirit, expresses his proper office: driving, moving, persuading, governing, consoling, illumining, and carrying out the work of sanctification effectively in the souls and hearts of believers. The saints know of these wonderful effects from personal experience. Not by the exercise of reason, nor through the human senses, are these blessings understood or made visible. Therefore it is not without reason we say that we believe in the Holy Spirit. Although he exceeds our natural capacities, we know him from what is set forth distinctly in the Scriptures.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 3)

"Christendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder." ~ H. Richard Niebuhr (Social Sources, p. 3).

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies." ~ Amos 5:21 (NIV).

"All theology really begins with Amos." ~ Reinhold Niebuhr (quoted in Paeth, p. 4).
In the eighth century BCE, the prophet Amos, herdsman and pruner of sycamores, left the comfort of his day jobs in the southern kingdom to deliver urgent oracles of judgment to the northern Kingdom of Israel. We might well think of him as the first "crisis" theologian.

Israel was enjoying unprecedented prosperity while the Assyrian threat was held at bay by infighting within the empire. Amos' message was stark: The nation had squandered the spoils of its covenant with God, despoiled its cultic purity through religious syncretism and, amid great abundance, had exploited the poorest and the weakest members of society. "For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate" (5:12, NRSV). The prophet's prognosis was bleak: Doom and national destruction for all but a remnant who might yet repent (Kraft).

* * *

In the era between two world wars, two German-American brothers came of age as pastors, teachers and intellectuals. Like the prophet, they began their vocations somewhat as outsiders within the small German Evangelical Synod. The elder brother would become, arguably, the leading Christian public intellectual of the 20th century, spending most of his career at Union Theological Seminary in New York; the younger, less famous one would train generations of pastors, theologians and ethicists at Yale Divinity School. As Fox convincingly shows in his superb biography, the former, Reinhold Niebuhr, was driven in part by an anxiety to fit into North American society and to prove his loyalty as a defender of liberal democracy and a patriot of the United States. His brother, H. Richard, seems to have shared this attitude; he taught classes in English at the synod seminary and, during adulthood, he stopped going by his first name, Helmut.

I think Fox perhaps has put his finger on a possible root some common worries that critics of the Niebuhrs voice. The most ostensibly damning criticisms (in my view) are as follows:

  1. Such posliberal thinkers as Yoder, Hauerwas and Willimon have faulted H. Richard for uncritically embracing a "conversionist" model of the relationship between Christ and culture; this "Constantinian" strategy (say Hauerwas and Willimon) ostensibly has the affect of promoting the socio-political status quo (Paeth, p. 155). I think this criticism, stated so baldly, is probably unfair.
  2. If anything, the critiques Reinhold tend to be sharper than on his younger brother: Numerous critics chide him for taking on the mantle of the establishment theologian -- who, as a preacher, teacher and writer ostensibly becomes a tool of U.S. imperialism in its struggle against Soviet communism (Paeth, p. 157, citing an article by Bill Wylie-Kellerman as representative of this viewpoint). I too share this worry and, indeed, would argue that any contemporary appropriation of Reinhold's work would have to account for and correct this tendency to downplay the problems in U.S. policy post World War II.

Such critiques notwithstanding, though, I think it's unwise to dismiss the brothers Niebuhr so summarily as "establishment" theologians. The main reason I continue to wrestle with the writings of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr is that I believe we need to come to terms with the history and prospects of theology and ethics within our North American context. In a time when postliberal, postmodern and contextualist paradigms have come to the fore in constructive Christian thought, are some of us too quick to abandon the Niebuhr legacy? I think so, and I hope to retrieve the more radical and prophetic side of the brothers' lives and though.

In brief, the Niebuhrs offer us an unflinching commitment to understanding the churches as fallen human institutions, through which the Word of God for today may yet shine. Tillich, similarly, referred to this openness to honest criticism from within or even from without the community -- and thus, the willingness to accept the need for change -- as "the Protestant principle". The church, as the Reformation slogan has it is always reformed and always reforming (Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda!). Any prophetic word the churches might offer to the broader world must be grounded in this prior, self-critical movement under the cross of Christ, or else any agenda we promote will be an exercise in propagating hypocrisy.

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion

Back in the day, I read a few of the Niebuhrs' writings in graduate seminars. Now that I'm trying to study their work more systematically, I'm especially drawn to their early books. For anyone who cares about the vocation of the churches for justice in the polis, Reinhold's autobiographical Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic (1929) is a must read. Here we see the young, fiery pastor and activist seek to navigate the perilous politics of Henry Ford's Detroit. He bravely takes the side of labor against the capitalist, who was favored by many liberals for his ostensible benevolence to his workers. This German evangelical pastor -- who later would befriend Rabbi Stephen Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism -- comes to appreciate the commitment of prominent Jewish leaders to social justice causes and develops a keen eye for the pervasive anti-Semitism of which most liberal Protestants at that time were barely aware. Throughout these diary entries, he struggles with the problem of how to motivate the faithful to step outside their religious solipsism to engage the pressing problems of the real world.

H. Richard Niebuhr's first book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), mines the best social scientific research of his day to paint a blisteringly honest critique of fractious character of the Christian sects and denominations, a series of divisions rooted in interests of class, race and national identity. We learn, for example, how the Methodists and Presbyterians muted their earlier objections to slavery as the Southern economy became increasingly dependent upon slave labor throughout the 19th century. We Episcopalians like to brag about the activist and martyr Jonatahn Myrick Daniels and others of our fold who stood up bravely for racial justice in the 1960s, but what the things I learned here about our earlier legacy in the 18th and 19th centuries are almost too painful and humiliating for me to write about. We learn from H. Richard Niebuhr to second guess the notion that purely religious concerns forge the key distinctions in church doctrine that can be mapped out along lines of social class.

Still, Richard's interest is not merely descriptive and critical; it is also constructive and normative, a work of Christian social ethics. In that vein, I like to read it alongside Rauschenbusch's Theology of the Social Gospel; in some respects, Niebuhr offers the more critical, penetrating and mature example of that genre of Christian activist literature. He writes:

In its denominational aspect, at least, it [Christianity] has become part and parcel of the world, one social institution alongside many others, a phase of the total civilization more frequently conditioned by other cultural tendencies than conditioning them. The old vision of the time when the kingdom of this world should be transformed into the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ has faded into the light of a common day in which the brute facts of an unchanging human nature, of the invincible fortifications of economic and political society, of racial pride, economic self interest and Realpolitick appear in their grim reality (pp. 264-265).

I'm not a sociologist of religion, but as I read it, much of his interpretation seems plausible. When it comes to his constructive conclusions in the final chapter, however, his proposal seems to me less compelling. Here he offers his own vision of Christianizing the social order that to me seems still too dependent upon 19th century liberal Protestant notions of intrinsic human solidarity as being self evident. Richard's social gospel vision, at this early stage, is still based on model of faithful praxis within the realm of Christendom.

Richard himself soon perceives this problem and tries to correct it in his seminal work in American Christian history, The Kingdom of God in America (1937). Despite its presentation as a work of historical interpretation, this work is deeply constructive and theological in character. Theologically, Richard has discovered the Reformational motif of divine sovereignty as a driving force within the history of North American Protestantism, a motif that weaves from the Puritan emphasis upon an ineluctable providence to the revivalists' theme of the reign of Christ in heart and society to the notion of the coming kingdom that has driven modern social reformers. The present and coming Kingdom, in his view, is a revolutionary force for ongoing renewal and transformation; it never comes to rest in any settled ecclesiastical-institutional framework but always remains in motion and imbues the Christian life with an attitude of humble expectancy and openness to the future. As in the work of Karl Barth, which Richard had come to appreciate more deeply in the late 1930s, and, more recently, of Kathryn Tanner, a robust notion of radical transcendence is explored linked to a notion of perpetual critique and reformation in theology and ethics.

Let justice roll down like waters

How might we start to re-read the work of the Niebuhr brothers in our day, when our nation is embroiled in dissention and strife about issues of racial injustice, the militarization of the police, runaway economic inequality and ubiquitous surveillance? What if we took a fresh look at his 1934 manifesto, Moral Man and Immoral Society? In this text, the critical and prophetic vistas that, I have suggested, must first begin with a critical look at the churches themselves, are turned outward, toward the struggles between classes and nations themselves. (For some hints about how we might situate this book among the classics of modern political theology, see this helpful bibliography.)

Though it is a work of political philosophy and not theology proper, we find in this text the early threads of the Christian realism for which Reinhold would become famous (or perhaps notorious), a critical stance that, for example, takes orthodox Marxism to task as a form of secularized, yet quasi-religious idealism. Thus, "The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone can take without restraint from the common social process 'according to his need,' completely disregards the limitations of human nature" (p. 196). Does this put the early Reinhold, then, firmly in the camp of those who advocate gradualism in social reform? Does he advocate limiting our praxis to reform of existing institutions? To some extent, perhaps: For example, elements of democratic socialism have been introduced by parliamentary means. But the groups and individuals who benefit from holding onto privilege and power are loathe to voluntarily forgo these advantages without some measure of coercion, even if it be in the form of economic or political action rather than physical force.

Such questions of political ethics are complicated enough in themselves without even raising the question of how the praxis of Christian communities might relate to these broader social concerns. That latter concern bespeaks a broader debate within Christian social ethics -- a heated conversation that was prefigured in a debate between the Niebuhr brothers themselves (see my second post in this series). Clearly, though, what we see in the early Niebuhr is a stern refusal to accommodate the social status quo as a given of divine providence.

Whether or not the Niebuhrs can serve as Amos-type prophets for us today, 40 years after theologians of liberation began to carry such a banner more explicitly, I'm not sure. Still, as we try to get our bearings with the pressing challenges of the 21st century, I think we could all stand to do a little work of critique and retrieval in historical theology and ethics. To that end, I think we need to try to hear what Richard and Reinhold said afresh. In this vein, I take a cue from someone who claimed to be influenced by Reinhold's work and who, himself, quoted Amos in one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century -- the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Works Cited:

Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biograhy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

Kraft, Charles F., "The Book of Amos" in Charles M. Laymon, ed., The New Interpreter's Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971) pp. 463-472.

Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York, Meridian: 1957).

-----, The Kingdom of God in America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan, 1988).

Niebuhr, Reinhold, Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic (Meridian, New York: 1957).

-----, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribners, 1932).

Paeth, Scott R., The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014).