Niebuhr against Barth

August 3, 2015

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.