Niebuhr against Barth

Niebuhr, Reinhold - Essays in Applied Christianity

“If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr


I do not have an invested interest in situating Barth or Barthianism in regard to “political theology.” I am just offering this as an interesting bit of criticism from Reinhold Niebuhr in his volume, Essays in Applied Christianity:

The Barthians are very critical of present society but they are also very critical of every effort to improve society. They regard it as necessary but dangerous; dangerous because moral and social activity might tempt men to moral pride and conceit and thus rob them of salvation. If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.

It ought to be said that the moral sensitivity and the lack of social vigor in Barthian thought flow from the same source, and that source is religious perfectionism. God, the will of God, and the Kingdom of God are conceived in such transcendent terms that nothing in history can even approximate the divine; and the distinctions between good and evil on the historical level are in danger of being reduced to irrelevancies.

True religion does save man from moral conceit in the attainment of his relative goals. But if the sense of the absolute and transcendent becomes so complete an obsession as it is in Barthian theology all moral striving on the level of history is reduced to insignificance.

[Reinhold Niebuhr, “Barthianism and the Kingdom,” in Essays in Applied Christianity, New York: Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 148-149]

It is important to recognize that Niebuhr is writing in response to Barth’s early essays in the volume, The Word of God and the Word of Man, which was the first introduction to Barth for many English-speaking readers. It is from these essays that Niebuhr quotes Barth. He is not engaging with Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

I will allow others to decide whether that makes a difference — as it certainly does in other regards — or whether Niebuhr is even on target in regard to the early Barth or his disciples.



  1. I know Barth opposed the Nazis early. Was that at all unusual among continental theologians at the time?

    • Yes, Niebuhr recognizes that, and he realizes that it is the obvious counterexample to his criticism. Nonetheless, he believes that Barth, shall we say, overreacted by locating the divine in an entirely transcendent realm in order to effectively “disrupt” our social conventions or mores.

      That’s well and good, so far as it goes, but it is inadequate. That’s Niebuhr’s criticism in a nutshell, but I am no expert.

      Once again, I am simply presenting Niebuhr. I have my own criticisms of “the early Barth,” by way of Barth’s own self-criticism in the CD, but I generally avoid the complications of political application. Whether that is cowardice or ineptitude on my part, others can judge.

  2. I’ll be generous and presume that, early or late, Niebuhr is writing about some other Karl Barth. Otherwise he’s torching a Strohmann. And if there are Barthians on the political right, it can only be because they nod off when reading him. (I mean, just look at what American evangelicals have done with Bonhoeffer.)

    • Yes, I assume that you are invested in the revolutionary potential and ambitions of radical (dialectical) theology. But, Niebuhr is concerned about the imperative of “moral striving on the level of history,” with its compromises and necessary pragmatism in order to achieve a greater result than righteous indignation.

      “All history is compromise. But the ‘nicely calculated less and more’ with which we must deal when we deal with the ethical problems of history is really important. Any religious idealism which absolves us of responsibility for finding the best possible means to the highest possible social end is dangerous to the moral struggle.” (p. 149)

  3. The thing is, Niebuhr has Barth right, here. But he risks for that reason reproducing Zwingli’s perrumpamus in his desire for a transcendent significance to moral struggle, as well as his desire for unambiguous moral values. What he insists upon as irrelevance is merely the reduction of ethics to human scope under the gaze of the ultimate Critic. Do something, by all means, and pick as best you can which thing—but don’t imagine God wants the thing you pick enough not to be critical of it in turn!

    • While the emphasis will shift to direct obedience to the living God as a living person in the world, Barth will never go with “socialism” to the places Niebuhr and company find moral obligations. The question isn’t whether they make the right choices, but how good and how bad the results really are. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, these mean the harnessing of cultural values to cultural projects that are all inalienably ours. And it’s no surprise when the Americans all run after religious particularity as morally positive that they run away from Barth.

      • That makes sense, and — of course — Niebuhr finds it very unhelpful: to elevate “direct obedience to the living God” over “cultural projects that are all inalienably ours” in such a way that the latter is left to its own devices. That, at least, seems to be his criticism.

      • Yeah, I see that he thinks that, and if he wanted to, Barth could have been directly helpful in response to Niebuhr—but that’s never something Barth wants to have been when it comes to critics!

        Barth never leaves us to our own devices, any more than God does, would be the simple response. We leave ourselves to our own devices! But Barth’s view of God is singularly unhelpful to Niebuhr when what he wants is morality. Same with Robin Lovin in his analysis of Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer. If you want the ability to categorize and respond to social situations in terms of right and wrong, sin and virtue, the rigorously Pauline answer is not going to land well. Which is why so many of these folks go for readings of Calvin, of whom Barth is as thoroughly critical as he is appreciative. A Calvinism will do what is desired.

  4. I appreciate your sharing this, because I think it’s important. My (somewhat ad hoc) responses: 1) Though I can’t explore it here, I’m not convinced Niebuhr understood Barth’s political theology very well. It’s perhaps not entirely his fault, though, and he’s certainly not alone in this. Some of Barth’s closest pupils disagreed sharply about Barth’s socialism and it’s relevance to his dogmatics. 2) RN does not mention Barth at all in the passage that you quote. Maybe he does elsewhere in this essay, but at least here he seems to be dealing with unnamed Barthians. 3) I suspect Niebuhr might not have read Gollwitzer or Cassalis. If that’s the case, so much the pity. 4) All that said, even if Niebuhr and Barth had understood each other better, I’m not sure they would have been kissing cousins when it came to political issues.

    • Thanks, Scott. He portrays Barth and his colleagues as “disappointed socialists” (p. 150). He engages with Gogarten but not Gollwitzer. He does offer quotations from Barth at the beginning of the essay — excerpts from The Word of God and the Word of Man. It’s a lengthy essay — over 50 pages — which you would presumably find rather fascinating, given your interests.

  5. This is apart of the question of the Church’s relation to culture. And, allow me to be polemical, Niehbuhr is one to talk: he is a conservative of American interests, and a preserver of Western values, but hardly a Christian. Reinhold Niehbuhr is an apostate, and based alone on his political considerations, a reprobate.

    Barth’s disciples may have been apathetic and disappointed, but at least they didn’t abandon the Church to the power of the State.


    • PS. In my view, R. Niebuhr is the neo-con, fanged, apotheosis of liberal Protestantism. As Billy Kristol (I believe) said, he’s a liberal mugged by reality.

      And I’m not saying this as a Barthian or a progressive theologian.

    • Don’t hold back, Cal. 😉

      I would need to read more R. Niebuhr to say. I’ve only read The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness and the collection of letters to his wife, plus this essay. I do remember my criticism in class of his ‘Children of Light’ book. I told the professor that Niebuhr only refers to Jesus at the very end of the book because he wants to defend the faith to its cultured despisers. Jesus is basically a minor appendix. But, that’s just one book.

    • Going by Donald Bloesch’s own evaluation of Niebuhr in Essentials of Evangelical Theology (in the chapter on total depravity), it seems that Niebuhr also underemphasized the Gospel’s ability to transform people’s lives.

      • Interesting point, Ivan. The question of transformation is also a difficult question in interpreting Barth’s CD. In the section, “The Act of Love” (IV.2: 783-824), you can see how Barth works dialectically to say yes and no.

  6. I think the criticism of Neibuhr most common is his lack of ecclesiology, however he was brilliant and his thoughts about historical situatedness were incisive. Typical of Barth, he critiqued the captivity of N. to the categories of his own theology and ethics. In this quote N. demostrates his captivity to a sort of practical/ethical flavor of ethics that were simply built on the pragmatism of William James. So it seems in an important way that each had a prophetic element to their teaching. N. was a public theologian and did some significant work in underlining the doctrine of sin in public sphere. Barth was simply not really interested in being “relevant” in this way. So the critique, though fair based on N.’s own interests, seems a bit flat footed. I get where his critique is directed, i just don’t see how Barth would respond in the same kind of pragmatic categories. Maybe i need to read the whole article…

    • Yeah, I think that’s right, and that seems to also be Matt Frost’s point above. Very different paradigms at work, though Barth would probably not want to call his theology a “paradigm.”

    • Yes! That’s it exactly. The last thing Barth will ever validate is an approach that begins in applied ethics. There is a definite prophetic role to be played in applied ethics, which both of them know, but Niebuhr the pragmatist cannot get beyond the situation to seek answers to it. He gets angry when the theorist (who has his own situated context) will not use theology to speak only of what there is and what seems likely or possible on that basis. He gets even angrier when what seem to him to be moral imperatives (manufacturing an Israeli state in place of historically Arab and Muslim Palestine for the sake of a harmed and displaced European population) are seen from outside the situation as bad and unnecessary choices.

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