Niebuhr on Internal / External History

My next-door neighbor, Justin P. Farrell, is a junior (first year student) here at Princeton Theological Seminary. I have been trying to get him to start a blog ever since I met him, but to no avail. However, he has given me permission to post the short reflection found below. So, meet Justin theo-blogosphere, and welcome to theo-blogging Justin!


In the latter part of Chapter Two of H. Richard Niebuhr's The Meaning of Revelation he distinguishes between two ways of looking at history-- internal and external. The goal of this short paper will be to introduce this ‘paradox,’ and then offer one way that we can relate the external to the internal in a manner that is beneficial to one's Christian life.

Niebuhr is concerned with understanding revelation in regards to our lived history (internal), and claims "revelation must be looked for in the events that have happened to us, which live in our memory.”[1] However, he does not simply rely solely on our experiences, he also claims that we must ask "ourselves how this history relates to the external accounts of our life."[2] Therefore, a tension is established between lived internal history and 'objective' external history.

In an effort to synthesize or dissolve this tension (if that is even possible), I wish to purpose a functional relationship that I believe Neibuhr is getting at toward the end of chapter two. External, or 'objective' history offers valuable commentary on our internal experiences. They both work in a system of reciprocation that I believe can work together for one's future progress. That is, a person can in a way internalize external events such as Christian anti-Semitism in order to help shape that person’s future internal experience. In a sense, external histories can become part of our internal history. There is space where they come into conversation. I believe this can begin a healthy process that recognizes the importance of where one comes from in their history, as well as where one should go as they seek out God's revelation for their life.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, Louisville, KY, 2006, page 42.

[2] Ibid.


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