Francis & Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, & Future Disciplemaking

I intended to continue a series on the Pre-Socratics and Plato this week. It will have to wait because the Lord put another blog on my heart. For the past several years, these blogs have been on political philosophy and theology. One of the major issues our society faces is the decline in community. This decline is found everywhere, and it lies behind the decline in many institutions. This blog is about discipleship and theological education but can be extended to other areas. Rebuilding and building a community is a central task of our era in every area of life.

Impact of Francis and Edith Schaeffer

Just after the Second World War, Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian minister and graduate of Westminster Seminary, felt called to move to Europe as a missionary to an increasingly religiously alienated and unchurched population. After a time, Francis and Edith Schaeffer began opening their home in Switzerland as a place where people might find satisfying answers to religious questions and a practical demonstration of Christian hospitality. [1]

The Schaeffer home became a place where people could find answers to their questions and a practical demonstration of Christian care. In other words, iL’Abri began as a community of Christian Love and Truth. Theologian and writer Os Guinness writes of Schaeffer, “I have never met anyone with such a passion for God, combined with a passion for people, combined with a passion for truth. That is an extremely rare combination, and Schaeffer embodied it” [2]

I am among those who benefitted from the life and work of Francis and Edith Schaeffer though I never met them nor visited L’Abri. [3] In the 1970s, I was part of a small Bible study one of the teachers and founders of which had been at L’Abri. My wife, Kathy, visited L’Abri briefly while in Europe. In my early years as a disciple, I read and profited from the books of Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

In Crisis of Discipleship, I acknowledged his impact on my  life:

Francis Schaeffer moved to his family in Switzerland and created a community known as L’Abri. Over the years, many people came to L’Abri and participated in the community. Many came to Christ and became Christian leaders. Scholars have critiqued some of the things Schaeffer taught. However, it is not possible to deny the reality and importance of L’Abri as a healing community. Francis Schaeffer was important in my early Christian walk as both a writer and example. Today, while I do not agree with many of his ideas, his example of relational discipleship continues to be important to me and to all Christians. [4]

L’Abri was successful in reaching so people precisely because it combined Christ-centered, Biblically sound, and theologically informed teaching with a transforming community based upon deeply sharing the love of Christ. Schaeffer was not a scholar. He was an apologist. For many young people, he was a window into the Christian faith and important in early faith development.

What Made L’Abri Life Changing

What made L’Abri so successful and life-changing for so many people? Without going into detail, it seems to me that there are three factors:

  1. A Community of Love created through Edith Schaeffer’s unselfish hospitality which eventually became a characteristic of the community itself;
  2. A Foundation in Historic Christian Faith and Doctrine; and
  3. A Conversational Process of questions and answers conducted in the context of a relatively small group. [5]

Community of Love

The term “L’Abri” means “Shelter” in French. The concrete “L’Abri founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer embodied the notion of a shelter in which lost seekers of a generation in Europe could find refuge, companionship, community, and training. As one former student put it, “…L’Abri was a genuine community where Christian faith was practiced.” [6] This former student, while recognizing some of Schaeffer’s limitations concludes:

L’Abri lived up to its name for me – it was a true shelter that fortified me in the truth of historic Christianity: its intellectual heritage and its practical piety. It exhibited the reality of living before God by faith, and seeking to worship and serve him as a whole person in the community of God’s people. [7]

The purpose of L’Abri was: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God.” [8]Schaeffer believed that the Spirit of Love that Christ embodied required they welcome visitors into their home in Huemoz, Switzerland. From this initial hospitality,  a community of discipleship emerged characterized by common meals, communal interaction, common work, and study. As the years have passed, I have come to see that the community Schaeffer created, both physical and the relationships that the community nurtured was and remains the most important element of his legacy. He and Edith are both gone, but the community remains and continues to touch people.

Historic Christian Faith and Doctrine

Schaeffer was committed to communicating  historic Christian faith to a new generation. He affirmed the truth of Christian doctrine and committed to acting upon this truth in daily life. This essential conviction is stated in the “basic principle of practical operation” of L’Abri, which involved a commitment to exhibit in word and in deed: the reality of the existence of God, the character of God revealed in Christ and. the reality of supernaturally restored relationship among those who, through faith in Christ, are brothers and sisters. [9]

Schaeffer put his educational theory as follows:

True Christian education is not a negative thing; it is not a matter of isolating the student from the full scope of knowledge. Isolating the student from large sections of human knowledge is not the basis of a Christian education. Rather it is giving him or her the framework or total truth, rooted in the Creator’s existence and in the Bible’s teaching, so that in each step of the formal learning process the student will understand what is true and what is false and why it is true or false. It is not isolating students from human knowledge. It is teaching them in a framework of the total Biblical teaching, beginning with the tremendous central thing, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It is teaching in this framework, so that on their own level, as they are introduced to all of human knowledge, they are not introduced in the midst of a vacuum, but they are taught each step along the way why what they are hearing is either true or false. That is true education. [10]

Many people, myself included, have critiqued the limitations of the scholarship and theology of Francis Schaeffer, but no one can deny that he was interested in communicating “the Faith Once Delivered” from a Reformed perspective. [11] Before he died, Schaeffer wrote twenty-two books with an apologetic focus involving faith, Bible, theology, philosophy, and culture. He taped innumerable teachings and sermons over his years of ministry. In recent years, the scholarship of Schaeffer has been attacked from many quarters, including among evangelicals. This critique often forgets that Schaeffer was not a professional philosopher or theologian. He was a missionary and apologist—a practical practitioner of the art of evangelism and disciple-making. Like the Apostle Paul, he was a restless person, who in later years spent his time traveling around the world carrying the message of Christ.

Conversational Method

From the beginning, L’Abri was about conversation and dialogue. People came with questions, and those questions were discussed in small groups, in casual conversations,  and in larger sessions  Dr. Schaeffer led. One writer puts it this way:

[Francis] Schaeffer’s style of connecting authentically with his conversation partners is legendary. [H]is unique conversational style of apologetics emerged out of his own concerns over how Christians address their differences and disagreements with each other. … Anecdotes abound with respect to the conversations Francis Schaeffer had with others that led to profound thought-shifts for the other person. He had a special way of bonding with that person on a level that created trust and openness. Dorothy Woodson, one of L’Abri’s first workers, explained it this way: “When Mr. Schaeffer would talk to you, there was nothing else in the world that was going on. He was totally focused on you and what you were talking about and was very involved, very interested. It wouldn’t matter who the person was. I’d never seen that degree of concentration and having that kind of attention with anybody else. [12]

Shaeffer did not just teach. He listened intently to the questions being posed and tried to respond in a way that allowed the Christian message to be heard by an individual. Schaeffer’s attention to people, his conversational style, and his interest in answering questions and dealing with the actual concerns of people are what set his apologetic ministry apart. Schaeffer created a place at L’Abri where people were free to bring questions and explore the possibility that the Christian faith was true and also to grow in that faith.


The example of Edith and Francis Schaeffer is of continuing importance for the church today and for anyone who wants to think about a possible future for disciple-making and theological education. I have noted that a few details, even some basic ideas of Schaeffer. can be questioned. It is unlikely that his exact approach would work in contemporary America. What cannot be doubted is the basic soundness of a program involving sound teaching, dialogue, and community. One visitor wrote:

Even more than the excellent teaching content of L’Abri, its transformational communal life may be its most powerful component. Each day has a set structure that typically includes time for personal study, work to sustain the community, group discussion over a meal, and recreation. [13]

I think that there are three basic lessons to be drawn from an examination of L’Abri relevant for discipleship, and training pastors and lay leaders in the 21st century.

  1. Theological depth;
  2. Communal experience; and
  3. A conversational method of teaching and sharing the Christian faith.

In order to make disciples and prepare future leaders, lay and ordained, congregations and groups require good teaching content, communal life, and openness to discussion or, as I put it, dialogue. In the context in which we now live communication of truth cannot be accomplished without the creation of a community. Young people are hungry, not just for truth or even primarily for truth, but for a life-transforming community—which can only be found in the church or similar institutions and only finally in the Kingdom of God, the ultimate life-giving community.

L’Abri’s success and the Schaeffers’ approach are a critique of “information-only” teaching methodologies and programs, which characterizes much theological education, including much “online training and discipleship.” L’Abri was a place, a physical space made beautiful and life-giving by the work of the community and especially by Edith Schaeffer. As churches and denominations ponder the future of disciple-making and theological and other leadership training, the importance of a place that houses a healing community of Christ cannot be overlooked. When people came to L’Abri they entered an environment that was conducive to change and growth, an environment that was physically, emotionally, and spiritually healing for many. The creation of such places is one of the most important objectives of our day and time.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] L’Abri Fellowship, “The Early Years” (downloaded January 27, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] Before I was a Christian in the early 1970s, while backpacking through Europe, I met a young man who just returned from L’Abri. He urged me to go, and I almost went. Unfortunately, I made a bad decision, went to Amsterdam instead, and returned to the United States. It was a big mistake.

[4] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship (College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 84.

[5] For those interested in a doctoral-level analysis, see Adam J. Rasmussen, “Francis Schaeffer and Educational Ministries at L’Abri: A Historical-Conceptual Study with New Qualitative Research,” Dissertation In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Studies (Biola University, CA, 2019) at (downloaded January 27, 2023). See also, D. G. Blomberg, Apologetic Education: Francis Shaeffer and L’Abri (Downloaded January 27, 2023).

[6] Gregory E. Reynolds, Your Father’s L’Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer” Banner of Truth at (Downloaded January 27, 2023).

[7] Id.

[8] Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 15-16..

[9] “The L’Abri Statements,” pp. 3-6 (1997), originally found at Accessed May 18, 2018 found at Mi Young Gerin Eeaton, The L’Abri Fellowship and the Spiritual Principles of Vital Community Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 19 (2018), 33-49 found at January 27, 2023).

[10]  Francis A. Schaeffer, “Priorities 1982”. Speeches given at the L’Abri Mini-Seminars in 1982 found at (downloaded January 27, 2023). This material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission. Copyright by Francis A. Schaeffer, 1982, “Priorities 1982”. Two speeches given at the L’Abri Mini-Seminars in 1982. Permission is granted for non-commercial purposes only, not the be reproduced for financial gain in any form. For additional information write to: Franky Schaeffer V Productions, P.O. Box 909, Los Gatos, CA 95031.

[11]  There are critics of Schaeffer’s scholarship, style of apologetics, and political associations. For a mostly critical review, see Molly Worthing, “Not Your Father’s L’Abri” Christianity Today March 28, 2008. January 27, 2023).

[12] Ted Lewis “Bridge-Building Conversations: Common Elements in Relational Peacemaking and Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetic Ministry” (downloaded January 28, 2023). The original quotation is found in Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008),145.

[13] Jim Watkins, “Christianity, Culture and the L’Abri Community n Transpositions: Theology, Imagination, and the Arts,” July 23, 2012 found at (downloaded January 27, 2023).

Plato 3: Plato on Growing Old

Having turned seventy- two last week, I could not resist the temptation to write this blog. I’m in the process of researching a series of blogs on Plato’s Republic. I hadn’t opened a copy of the Republic since I was a sophomore in college. Imagine my surprise when I opened up a copy only to remember that he begins with a discussion of old age! How timely. It’s a reminder that philosophy is the love of wisdom and involves loving wisdom in all of the stages of life. For the next few weeks, I am going to look at ancient Greek philosophy and then at one of the most important works of the 20th century, The Free Society and its Enemies by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who reads Plato as a totalitarian.

By all accounts, the Republic is Plato’s masterpiece. Plato lives from around 428 B.C. until about 348 B.C. He came from a fine family, about which we will learn more as we begin examining his political thinking. The book was written around 375 B.C. or somewhere in Plato’s mid-50s. By this time, Plato had seen a good deal of political corruption and intrigue and wrote the Republic seeking to examine the nature of justice and outline the character of an ideal state. There is every reason to believe that, before he died, his enthusiasm for the ideal society had waned in the face of political realities. Modern people, having lived through the disappointments of the Viet Nam War, the two Gulf Wars and other political misadventures and decadence can sympathize with Plato. We all seek an ideal community, but as our look at Political Realism underscored, our ideals are not attainable in this world and the attempt to attain them creates much suffering.

Ancient Greece and Our Society

We live in a society, that worships youth, physical stamina, good looks, high intelligence, virility, power, success, and all of the external things of life. Interestingly, many observers attribute this to the victory of the Greco-Roman roots of our society over the Judeo-Christian roots. This victory gained intellectual dominance during the Enlightenment and has been gaining steam throughout the Modern world. For all intents and purposes, it is now utterly victorious.

I think that this view is incorrect. Why? Perhaps it is my training in theology, but the plain fact is that, while Greek popular culture worshiped the body, and Greek art celebrates a certain perfectionist view of the body, Greek thought was deeply ambiguous towards the physical world.  The Greek mind was captivated by the difference between the physical world,  which is always changing and in process, and the ideal world which is not physical and endures forever. In Plato’s thought the changelessness of the ideal world gives order to the changeability and instability of the material world.

By the First Century, what we call “Gnosticism” had developed as the fruit of the Greek ambivalence towards the physical world. The Gnostics held that human beings could be saved from the flux of creation by attaining secret knowledge. This idea resulted in many different Christian sects having many different ideas about the implications of Gnosticism. For some, there was a denial of the value of the body and of the physical world that resulted in asceticism. For others, the fact that the body did not matter resulted in pervasive physical immortality. In whatever form it took, Gnosticism exalted the importance of knowledge, and on that basis, we live in a deeply gnostic age.

We also live in an age in which the elderly are not necessarily respected. This is an interesting and relatively new phase of Western civilization and is not characteristic of other civilizations. For example, Confucian culture respects and honors the aged. [1] This past week, after certain public disclosures about the sitting president, a successful business person tweeted that there are too many older people in politics. I think that this was intended a jab at the former President, the current President, the current Minority leader of the Senate, and the former Speaker of the House. My take on this is that the problem with our political system is the age of its leaders, but with their basic character, which they had when younger. There must also be a problem with an electorate that continues to elect such people to public office.

The Republic on Old Age

The Republic begins with Socrates and Polemarches, the son of Cephalus, meeting on the road from Piraeus to Athens. When they arrive at his home, Socrates and Cephalus s discuss the benefits and burdens of old age. Cephalus welcomes Socrates, telling him that he wishes Socrates would come more often because as Cephalus’ physical desires have diminished his love for conversation has increased. Socrates replies, that he enjoys talking with the very old, for the elderly, possess, wisdom about aging and are further along on the road of life than those who are younger. By this affirmation, Socrates is affirming the traditional respect with which the aged were thought due.

Cephalus replies with the complaints of the aged:

A number of us, who are more or less, the same age, often get together in accordance with the old saying. When we meet, the majority complain about the lost pleasures they remember from their youth, those of sex, drinking parties, feasts, and other things that go along with them, and they get angry, as if they had been deprived of important things, and had lived well then, but are now hardly living at all. Some others moan about the abuse heaped on old people by their relatives, and because of this, they repeat, over and over that old age is the cause of many evils. [2]

The stage is set for the dialogue concerning old age. Socrates has given the traditional view that older people have wisdom denied by the young and so are to be honored. Socrates wants to know if old age is as difficult as some people claim. Cephalus, as an older man, agrees to give him wisdom drawn from his experience. He begins by relating that the old men often get together, as they still do in small towns for coffee. My father used to get together with old friends almost every day, and certainly every week to visit with his friends and talk about city politics and the like.

Cephalus is not certain that he agrees with the older men who incessantly complain about old age. He does not suffer any of the complaints that the others voiced. He does not mourn the loss of his earlier virality and the passion involved in youth: He quotes Sophocles:

I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master. I thought at the time that he was right, and I still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from all such things. When the appetites relax and ceased to importunes, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape from many mad masters. [3]

We live in an age that celebrates perpetual virility. Many of us take dietary supplements designed to keep us, young, stronger, more energetic, and more virile as if the loss of youth, strength, energy, and virility were without compensation. Cephalus points out that there are both losses and compensations in the loss of youth and its passions, compensations that many of his friends could appreciate. In other words, the Athenians of Plato’s day may not have been so different from us after all.

Financial Security and Aging

The Republic then deals with one common critique of persons like Cephalus, who was wealthy, concerning age: He is well-off and therefore can afford to avoid some of the dangers of old age. [4] Cephalus defends himself by recounting his family history. His grandfather had been responsible for amassing a fortune, which his father had diminished. Cephalus has tried to leave his children better off than he was left but not devoting himself to money above all things. [5] In this, Cephalus is voicing a kind of “golden mean” that Aristotle would later adopt as a guide to moral decision-making. Cephalus is neither greedy nor does he pay no attention to material matters.

Fear and Aging

Cephalus then goes on to discuss another aspect of aging: the pervasive fear and anxiety that can accompany old age.

What I have to say, probably wouldn’t persuade most people. But you know, Socrates, that when someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. …. And whether because of the weakness of old age or because he is now closer to what happens in Hades and has a clear view of it, or whatever it is, he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examined himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone. [6]

Cephalus introduces the major question of the Republic—the nature of Justice. In introducing it, he reflects upon the fact that older people, with most of their lives behind them and little time or energy to undo the mistakes of the past, are given to anxiety and fear. In particular, they are susceptible to the fear of divine justice.

There is a bit more to the passage than meets the eye. Plato probably included it primarily to introduce the major theme of the Republic, “What is the nature of Justice?” Nevertheless, the dialogue deals with the fears of the aged: the fear of death, of punishment, of leaving this earth with the business of life incomplete, of failing to undo old wrongs, and of leaving family and friends without the benefit of the love and wisdom that one might have given them.

Having been a pastor for nearly thirty years, I have often counseled the aged on just the issues that Plato raised more than two millennia ago. Many people worry about their spouses, children, and grandchildren. They fear that they may have injured them or left them without proper provisions. They fear death and what might happen after they die.

I try not to tell stories in these blogs, but a story from my past might be illustrative. Some years ago, I was asked to visit an elderly man who fought in World War II. He had been an elite soldier. He had killed many people. At least a few probably did not deserve to die and their death might have been avoided by a bit of restraint. Unknown to his family and friends, this past troubled him greatly—and he feared that a just God might just condemn him for his past deeds. Our conversations about the mercy of God helped him to resolve his fears and anxieties. I think he died without more than the ordinary fear of the future.


One of my favorite passages from Psalms reads, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). In a culture that attempts to avoid old age and even thinking about it too much, it is wise to remember that there is an end to life and before that end, there is often an end to strength, coordination, mental agility, and a variety of things our culture prizes. Approaching old age wisely is important.

Cephalus was right: old age is not a curse nor is it without its benefits. His friends were also right: old age involves losses. The Bible is not unaware of the difficulties of old age. Proverbs says that The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old (Proverbs 20:29). It also says:

Remember now your Creator while you are young, before the difficult days of age come, and the time draws near when you say, “I have little pleasure in my days”: Remember there comes a time the sun and the light, the moon, and the stars, are darkened, by age and clouds do not return after the rain. Remember there comes a time when the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men bow down, when our teeth cease to function because they are few. This is a time when our vision grows dim. … There comes a time when sleep is difficult and one rises at the sound of a bird. Also, there is a time when one is afraid of heights and fears leaving the house. Perhaps worst of all, there is a time when desire fails—even the desire to live. Then, a person goes to an eternal home, and the mourners gather for a funeral.

If you are wise you will remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel is broken at the well. Then, the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. (Proverbs 12:1-7, GCS paraphrase).

The Bible is realistic. Old age carries its blessings and its dangers and difficulties. Working hard, saving for retirement, taking care of physical health needs, dealing with others fairly, and avoiding violence and injustice, all these things are important in the quest to live well and leave this world without regrets. None of us does this perfectly or without error and injustice, which is why we need grace. This is Christianity’s great contribution to the world.

Christian faith does not deny or avoid the tragedy and losses of life. It does not minimize the fears and anxiety of age or attempt to cover them up with therapeutic words. It accepts the inevitable and plans for it. In fact, as Augustine realized, Christianity answers many questions for which Platonism had no adequate answers–and grace is the most important among them.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Before this series of blogs is complete, I intend to write two blogs, one on Taoism and the other on Confucianism, which have both deeply impacted Chinese culture. In both Taoist and Confucian thought, the wisdom and importance of the elderly are important.

[2] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 3.

[3] Id, at 4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 5.

Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History

Human beings see their lives, and therefore human history, as embodied in a story. As for individuals, this story is a narrative interpretation of their own lives. As to human society, the story is a narrative interpretation of the ideas and institutions that make up that society. Niebuhr’s analysis of the end of history is profoundly narrative in its character. He begins his analysis of eschatology with this poignant observation:

Everything in human life in history moves toward an end. By reason of men’s subjection to nature and finiteness this “end” is a point where that which exist ceases to be. It is finis. By reason of man’s rational freedom, the end has another meaning. It is the purpose and goal of his life and work. It is telos. This double connotation of end as both finis and telos expresses, in a sense, the whole character of human history, and reveals the fundamental problem of human existence. All things in history move toward fulfillment and dissolution, toward the fuller embodiment of their essential character and towards death. [1]

Human beings live with an awareness, conscious and unconscious, of the fleeting nature of their own lives, and the threat age, illness, death, and the like pose to their goals and purposes. Like Huey Long, human beings cry out in their hearts, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.” [2]

Christianity does not minimize the finiteness and futility of human life. It understands the threat of death before the completion of our life projects. It also accepts the inevitability of death and futility. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings are inevitably self-transcendent, always seeking more from life. As creatures of the earth, human beings are doomed to die, and nothing can prevent this end. [3] None of us leave this life with all of our potential human projects complete. I have a bucket list. That list is never complete. As soon as I make any progress, new things end up on the list, which remains incomplete. On the morning I die, this will still be true.

The problem of human finitude and death is made more difficult by the human propensity to create what Niebuhr calls, “False Eternals,” and what the prophets and theologians might call “False Idols.” [4] Human beings are inclined to place their trust in and worship created realities that themselves are doomed to fall into dissolution. This is particularly true of our personal political and economic ideals. There are things on my bucket list that are of no eternal or other significance.

The Kingdom of God

The prophets Old Testament warned of the danger of placing trust in human institutions and powers, including the earthly kings of Israel. Israel was to make God its king and await with patience his Kingdom, which in the person of the Messiah would be brought to a concrete realization in human history. The Messianic Kingdom was the goal, the end, the telos, of human history. Despite Israel’s messianic hope, idolatry and apostasy were present and led to destruction.

In the New Testament, the messianic kingship of the people of God is identified with Jesus of Nazareth, and the Kingdom of God is identified with his presence and power in human life and human affairs. While a future consummation is expected, the Kingdom of God has already come in the revelation of Christ. The telos, the goal of history, has been revealed and its meaning fulfilled. It is not fully revealed but will be fully revealed at the end of history, its finis. [5]

One implication of the notion of an already present kingdom is that human beings need not fear the end of history or their lives. The end has been revealed and its gracious results experienced in the presence of Christ. “The light of revelation into the meaning of life illuminates the darkness of history’s self-contradictions, its fragmentary realizations of meaning, and its premature and false complications.” [6] The Cross and Resurrection signify the victory of God over the threat of ultimate meaningless and give an assurance of the meaningfulness of human existence.

The New Testament and the Idea of the End

By using the phrase “signify,” Niebuhr alerts us that the Second Coming, the realization of the Kingdom of God at the end of history is a symbol. Thus, he says:

The symbol of the second coming of Christ can neither be taken literally nor dismissed as unimportant. It participates in the general characterization of Biblical symbols’ which deal with the relationship with time and eternity, and seek to point from the standpoint of the conditioned. If the symbol is taken literally the dialectic conception of time and eternity is falsified and the ultimate vindication of God over history is reduced to a point in history. The consequence of this falsification is expressed in the hope of a millennial age. [7]

There is a great deal in this passage that illuminates the eschatology of Niebuhr.

  • He does not believe that the Second Coming is a literal event.
  • He does not believe that a human utopia is possible within history.
  • He believes that any literal interpretation of the Second Coming is dangerous and falsely portrays the human situation.

On the other hand, Niebuhr opposes those who think that the Biblical imagery of the Second Coming is unimportant. Like all imagery, the Second Coming expresses the ability of the human spirit to conceive of and seek a transcendent good beyond the possibility of realization in the historical present or concrete future.[8] This transcendent ability creates a constant flow to human history as human beings seek greater justice than experienced in the present. The imagery of the New Testament enables Christians to live within history without hope but without false expectations.

Three Aspects of Niebuhrian Eschatology

Niebuhr outlines three symbols that are central to Christian thinking about the end of human life and human history. The three symbols are the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Dead. These symbols should not be taken literally but interpreted as windows into important features of the nature of human life and God.

For Niebuhr, the symbol of the Second Coming is important for it upholds the ultimate victory of God, and therefore of justice, over the threat of finitude and failure, and the sufferings of the oppressed. It thus undergirds constructive action. The Second Coming is not to be seen as an event in history, but as a transcendental goal outside of history not to be completed within history. It signifies the final victory of the love and harmony God intends for human existence.  [9]

The Last Judgement functions as a symbol of God’s ultimate victory of good over evil, of justice over injustice, and of the ultimate justice over the historically limited results of human striving for justice. [10] It validates and supports the moral strivings of Christians throughout history.

In his analysis of the Last Judgment, Niebuhr makes an important distinction. Human failures in history result from both sin and finiteness, that is human limitation and finitude. The final judgment is a judgment against sin not finitude. [11] The judgments of God are judgments against evil, not mistakes. It is our deliberate choices for selfishness and self-seeking that are judged. The Last Judgment functions to drive the human spirit into the mercy of God because no human achievement of justice is ever free from the taint of sin. No human work of justice will finally survive the perfect judgment of God. [12]

The final eschatological symbol is the symbol of the Resurrection. The symbol of the resurrection implies that “eternity will fulfill and not annul the richness of the historical process.” [13] By faith, Christians believe and live on the promise that, as the Apostle Paul put it:

… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

All the structures of meaning that human reason can build face the chasm of meaninglessness when human beings discover that no humanly constructed edifice of meaning is possible. Only faith in a God of love has an answer to that problem. For Christians, the answer to the ultimate meaningless of life is faith in God revealed in Christ, and from his love, from which neither life nor death can separate us.[14]

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body embodies faith that God will not only bless our spiritual yearnings and desires but will vindicate our physical existence as well. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul gives significance to the spiritual part of the human person. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body assures believers that there is a meaning to the unity of human physical existence and human history as a whole. [15] The God who loves us will, in the end, vindicate not just our spiritual longings but our physical strivings as well.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead can be interpreted in an overly concrete way. The idea of human history being consummated at the “end of time” carries with it the implication that the “end of time” might be within human history as we understand it. Niebuhr believes that this interpretation is both false and misleading. The End of History is an event outside of history as we know it. At the Parousia, Resurrection, and Last Judgement human history as we experience it has already ended. Whatever these terms mean, they must be interpreted as signs of something that we cannot fully know in material terms.

Niebuhr argues for this interpretation based on the implications of I Corinthians 15. In his discussion of the resurrection, he tries to explain the spiritual meaning of the resurrection. He is clear that the resurrection appearances of Jesus involve a body, but not exactly a body as it was before the crucifixion.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. I Corinthians 15:42-44).

The Christian doctrines of the Second Coming, the Resurrection, and the End of History is more logical and more humane than the materialistic explanations and more satisfying to the human spirit. [16] The excesses and violence of Communism, Nazism, and all forms of Imperialism testify to the fact that all attempts to create an end of history, within history and on the terms of our physical existence, not only fail, but they create enormous human suffering as well. Every attempt to create an end of history, and a perfect world within the boundaries of human history, ultimately relies upon finite, imperfect, and fallen human persons and institutions. This inevitably involves fanaticism and a resort to violence.

The End and Meaning of History

From the standpoint of the Christian faith, any effort to understand human history must derive from three aspects of life:

  1. The life of individuals who are born, create finite meanings and die.;
  2. The partial fulfillment and realizations of human striving seen in the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures; and
  3. The unfolding process of history revealed in human and social histories. [17]

To make sense of the process of history, it is necessary to create a narrative explanation of current history in light of a perceived process and end of history as a whole. Within history, human beings live and die and human cultures rise and fall. In each case, there is created a meaning, that is to say, a relationship of the individual life in society to human history as a whole. Materialists believe that this end of history is to be seen in material terms and the full functioning of history is conceived as a result of historical forces. This ignores the human spirit and the fact that human cultures are influenced by the choices, made by individuals and societies. [18]

As one might expect given neighbors, Christian realism, he gives a fatalistic analysis of the potential of human civilizations:

Every civilization makes some fatal mistake in the end and perishes. But these mistakes are not under the law of natural necessity. Unlike individual life, the collective and social organisms of history could ideally be perpetually replenished by new life and strength. But this would require that they be perpetually adapted to new historical circumstances. Their final failure to do so is always a fate into which they are tempted by their freedom and is not due to natural necessity. [19]

Civilizations perish for various reasons. Sometimes, they perish because pride and power tempt them to extend themselves beyond physical limits. Sometimes, an elite that was instrumental in organizing the society becomes repressive. Sometimes, through foolishness and error, outmoded strategies and techniques are applied to new situations and problems. Sometimes, leaders flee from an understanding of the realities of history to some mystical, ideal divorced from any reality. [20]

And what I think may be one of Niebuhr’s most pertinent observations to contemporary society, he notes that modern technical civilization may perish because it falsely worships technical progress as a final good for human life. In a technical society, one part, an economic and technical elite, may harness technology as a vehicle to control society as a whole for its purposes, which may turn out to be destructive. [21]


It is impossible in one or an entire series of blogs to do complete justice to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis of the nature and destiny of human beings and the societies they create. While I find myself disagreeing with some of his ideas and conclusions, he is a constant spur to further thought. As I sometimes do, I think I will give the last word to the author:

Thus wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding is the fruit of “grace” in which fruit completes our ignorance, without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

In the end, Niebuhr’s Christian realism is based upon a recognition that human sin and fallibility—our capacity to be ignorant and self-deluded concerning the most pressing and important matters of life—should drive the human race as a whole and each of us individually to a deep humility and a sense of our fallibility, however great our powers of thought and action.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 287. Hereinafter “NDM.”

[2] These are the reputed last words of the Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, who was assassinated while governor. (downloaded, January 10, 2023).

[3] NDM, at 287.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 288.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, at 289.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 290.

[10] Id, at 290-291.

[11] Id.

[12] Id, at 293.

[13] Id, at 295.

[14] Id, at 295.

[15] Id, at 296-297.

[16] Id, at 298.

[17] Id, at 301. I have somewhat reordered and restated in different terms Niebuhr’s insights.  The third aspect which Niebuhr gives, the process of history, reflects an impact of both Hegel and Darwinism, as well as merging process thinkers, on his thought.

[18] Id, at 298. Niebuhr gives a most interesting analysis of both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. I cannot take time to explore the differences between them, but recommend reading Niebuhr’s analysis and the primary sources.

[19] Id, at 303.

[20] Id, at 303-304.

[21] Id, at 304.

Niebuhr 9: Justice, Love, and Human Institutions

Niebuhr recognizes that the human search for justice is an inevitably communal project. Solitude creates no need for justice, but a community does. Individuals are inevitably communal and become themselves in the context of a specific, historically bound community. In its fundamental nature, love properly understood is an inevitable element of justice. [1] The capacity of human beings to reach out of themselves in self-giving love creates the potential and necessity for the creation and maintenance of community.

Human Nature and Justice

Human nature, however, limits the realization of justice in any specific context due to both the nature of human sin and the limitations of reason, both fundamental and practical within the boundaries of any human society. The vital forces of human nature create limitations on human reason as well as provide the power for its realization. [2] In addition, the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence also creates the potential for good and evil, just and unjust social structures.

Because of what Niebuhr calls, “the indeterminate character of human possibilities” (i.e. the human capacity to transcend nature and natural instincts), human societies are dynamic, and characterized by change. Liberal Protestantism, Marxism, and the various “isms” of the post-Enlightenment era came to view the trajectory of change as inevitably progressive, a view that Niebuhr challenges. There is no inevitable “right side of history” to which selfish and self-centered human beings will agree. There is a slow process of seeking to make change within the constraints of human history at any given point in time. Therefore, a Christian view of human destiny must take into account both the transcendent aspects of human nature (made in the image of God) and its sinful limitations (cast out of Eden).

The Relationship of Justice to Love

Niebuhr makes a distinction that is central to his approach to law and principles of justice. For Niebuhr, the term “nature” refers to the currently existing historical possibilities of justice in society while “grace refers to the ideal possibility of perfect love potentially present in any society. [3] In every society, the search for justice is always a process whereby a set of institutions are for med and a degree of justice is attainted, but there remains an unfulfilled quality to the justice attained which is illumined by love.

The process Niebuhr is describing might be described as follows:

State A: A society achieves a degree of justice (The historical phase).

State B: Love illumines the limitations of State A and new possibilities of justice (Grace).

State C: New ideas of justice and institutions of justice are created (New Historical State).

This process is a never-ending process within human history because historically bound and limited human institutions can never achieve perfect justice and the melding of justice and love. Love in this analysis has a twofold character. Mutual love is a disinterested love in the other that evokes a historical response. It is a love that can be achieved within history. Sacrificial love represents the self-giving love of God that is never fully realized in history.[4]

Law and the Principles of Justice

In discussing law and justice, Niebuhr begins with another distinction, this time between the principles of justice and the institutions of justice. The principles of justice are abstract ideals, that are reflected in our notions of justice and in theoretical principles of law. The institutions of justice are the actual structures of justice that are embodied in a concrete human community within human history. [5] In any given society, these rules and institutions are only approximations of the ideals of a society as regards justice.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation toward the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relations between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and the “others”; and finally, from the obligations discerned by the individual self to the wider obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective. These communal obligations evolve slowly in custom and law. [6]

Niebuhr’s idea may be a bit difficult to grasp without an example. Let us take the modern Social Security and Medicare system as an example of what Niebuhr is getting at. In the beginning, an individual or individuals saw the predicament of elderly parents in an industrial society when they could no longer work. Over time, a fixed principle of justice, the notion that we should provide some minimum amount of financial security for the aged, evolved. This personal sense of justice became over time a communal obligation and was seen as such by the majority of people. In the end, a set of laws were enacted that embodied a wider communal sense of obligation. The Social Security Administration and Medicare were created, institutions that embodied this moral ideal. Over time, these institutions have further involved bringing drug prescriptions and other items within the ambit of the initial ideal intuited by members of society.

Beginning with a sense of mutual obligation (mutual love), the intuition of love is translated into ideals of justice and then into laws and institutions that embody that initial intuition. This is a social process and the results are communal, not individual. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr states:

The definitions of justice arrived at in a given community or the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems, have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be fully synthesized into a common solution, disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interest until power from above subdued the anarchy. [7]

Here Niebuhr sets out a democratic ideal amid the struggles for a justice society in which, at least in the West, people are involved. The “social mind” is different from the individual minds that make it up, and cannot be reduced to something more fundamental. A society’s social mind evolves as debate, disagreement, dialogue, and further study merge to improve a concrete set of social problems, and solutions that become “common” over time. The fact that Western democracies have been able to achieve the degree of justice that they have achieved is a testimony to the human potential for change and social progress.

But Niebuhr includes a final warning: If a society degenerates into egoistic self-seeking of individuals and groups, a kind of social anarchy results, and tyranny can result. Western democracies at the time of Niebuhr had shown themselves capable of the kind of reasoned practical adjustments that are required in a functional democracy. There is room for hope.

If the hope that Niebuhr outlines is to be achieved, people must be willing to live within a society in which there are constant adjustments, pressures, and counter-pressures characteristic of a human community. There must be a willingness to move from calculations of personal self-interest, what Niebuhr refers to as egoistic calculations, to a broader social calculation based upon a communal reason. [8]

Structures of Justice

Niebuhr begins his analysis of the structures of justice with a helpful distinction. The structures of justice are the laws and institutions enacted by a particular community to guide its communal life. Niebuhr refers to these structures as positive, meaning created by the participants of a society. Natural law, on the other hand, consists of those rational principles of justice that guide the formation of law and institutions. These abstract principles have a normative power and reflect a society’s ideals of justice. [9]

In any living human community, there is constant interaction, dialogue and inevitable tension between the normative conceptions of morality and law and the laws and institutions that are developed as a result of the interplay of reason and vitality, which readers will remember is the vital search for power that human beings possess. In any existing society, there is always tension and a balance between moral and rational forces and the organizing and coercive power of government. [10] This balance is important for any society that wishes to remain free, for the coercive and organizing principles may result in tyranny, and a failure of a society to maintain order can result in anarchy. [11]

As any political scientist understands, power has a place in all political thinking. Because human beings are embodied, physical creatures with powers of reason and the vitality of the body, there can be no society in which the use of power is not present. On the other hand, because of human sin, that power can always degenerate into the tyranny of individual or group self-seeking. The duplicity of human nature is such that human reason, even moral fervor, can be used to create tyranny. [12]

Against this danger, free societies attempt to create an equilibrium of power among groups. This equilibrium of power is always capable of dissolving into either tyranny or anarchy.

The principle of the equilibrium of power is thus a principle of justice in so far as it prevents domination and enslavement; but it is a principle of anarchy and conflict in so far as its tensions, if unresolved, result in overt conflict. [13]

As a result of the compromises and tensions that inevitably result in any concrete set of laws and institutions, human governments are always morally ambiguous. [14] for this reason, every free society must embody some ideals and institutional protections for resistance to a government where necessary.

The Christian Attitude towards Government

For Christians, secular governments have a two-fold character. Governments are an ordinance of God for the maintenance of social order. On the other hand, governments are morally dubious as the creations of fallen human beings, always tempted to oppress certain groups, particularly the poor and outsiders. [15] The result is a paradoxical relationship. Christians are to render unto Caesar and obey rulers (Matthew 21:21; Romans 13:1-3). On the other hand, those same rulers are subject to judgment and prophetic criticism.[16]

Augustine, in his City of God, analyzed the problem with human governments as resulting from the inevitable conflict in which they were constantly engaged, both internally for power and among the nations of the world seeking security and power. [17] In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic teaching only partially embodied Augustine’s critique. The Medieval synthesis combined the Stoic view that governments are relative goods and required for human flourishing with an understanding that human governments as relative, human-created institutions can be criticized and changed. [18]

Calvinism accepted the basic Augustinian notion of human governments are protections against evil. Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and how even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, Calvin finds some room for disobedience captured under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and owe obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32). [19]

Justice and the World Community

As Niebuhr was giving his lectures, it had become obvious that the League of Nations had failed. The results of World War I, and the reparations that the victors demanded of Germany, had created the very conditions that caused the Second World War. Niebuhr realized that the economic interdependence of the world created a need for an enlarged human community with principles and structures of law that might eliminate or mitigate conflict. Nevertheless, Niebuhr is also aware that the factors that make justice difficult to achieve on a national level are also present on an international level. These factors are often ignored by the idealists most in favor of creating a viable international system of government. [20] For a viable international system to evolve, Niebuhr foresaw that there would need to be a system of checks and balances so that dominant powers did not take advantage of their situation, just as national governments require such checks and balances for freedom to flourish.


Next week, we will finalize this look at The Nature and Destiny of Man with a look at the notion of the Kingdom of God as it impacts Niebuhr’s thought.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 244.

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 246.

[4] Id, at 247. One of the limitations of contemporary understanding of Niebuhr and of the limits of human achievement has to do with the notion that “justice/love” implies the possibility of the achievement of such a thing within human history, something Niebuhr denies.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 248.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 250-251.

[9] Id, at 256-257. I must add that I have included the formation of institutions, such as a judicial system within the ambit of what Niebuhr refers to as law.

[10] Id, at 257.

[11] Id, at 258.

[12] Id, at 258-259. In this section of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr speaks particularly about Gandhi and his notion of soul force, and how even pacifism can be misused. One questionable feature of Niebuhr’s thought is his constant dislike of Gandhi and of pacifism.

[13] Id, at 266.

[14] Id, at 267/

[15] Id, at 269.

[16] Id, at 271.

[17] Id, at 273.

[18] Id, at 272-275.

[19] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). The quotation in the text is from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section. This paragraph is largely taken from an earlier blog.

[20] NDM, at 284-285.

Niebuhr 8: Tolerance, Freedom of Speech and Thought

Reinhold Niebuhr’s view of human nature leads inescapably to a kind of fallibilism. (Fallibilism is the view that all human knowledge is limited, and we can always be mistaken, even concerning our most fundamental beliefs.) We live between the creation and consummation of all things. Within history, the final meaning of all things cannot be known. God is the author of creation and human history. Like any good mystery story, the ending of the story, and its ultimate meaning will not be fully and finally revealed until the end of history.

As a result, all of human history is lived within what Niebuhr refers to as “the Paradox of Grace”. [1] The Paradox of Grace means that all human activities are limited by our sin and finitude. All of our achievements are partial. All of our achievements of knowledge and understanding are capable of revision. At any given time, we have and do not possess the truth, particularly the truth about the ultimate nature of things. In the end, human beings, including Christians, live within the ambit of grace and are reliant on grace for any and all achievements, however great. All of our human, historical activities, fall under the paradox of grace. In particular, our request for truth, and our request for a just and fair society are subject to human limitations.[2]

All of the historical strivings of the human race take place under the shadow of the paradox of grace. That is to say, no aspect of human life is untainted by human sin and finitude. In particular, our rational apprehension of the truth is likely to be tainted by our ideological convictions. [3]  These convictions are apt to predispose human beings to make premature decisions concerning the truth or falsity of socio-political views.

Classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment View

In classical culture, the problem of ideology was avoided by the view, that reason, and the eternal truths of reason, could overcome the finiteness and imperfections of history. In the renaissance era, and increasingly, in our own time, there is the view that history itself is a process of overcoming finiteness and imperfections of humanity. This is evident in all progressive thinking, including Hegel and Marx. I might add, that it is also present in the often-quoted statement by political persons in the United States, left, and right, that the other side is “not on the right side of history.” This political statement embodies the enlightenment view that human progress is inevitable, and can be known by human beings through the exercise of reason.[4]

The Christian Alternative

For Christians, the emphasis of the Christian faith on humility, and our belief that the truth was not revealed in prepositional form, but in the form of a person, should provide some defense against the human propensity to make absolute our personal or group ideological convictions. The Doctrine of the Fall, and the Christian view that all human life, including our thinking about social and political views, is corrupted by sin and finitude, should create a constant sense of human fallibility that is conducive to tolerance. Unfortunately, neither Catholics nor Protestants have been able to c avoid human sinful self-assertion and will to power. [5] As Niebuhr eloquently puts it:

The history of Christianity proves that such grace as is manifested in the Christian life, does not lift men above the finiteness of the mind; nor yet save them from the sin, of claiming to have transcended it. [6]

All major streams of Christian faith have been from time to time guilty of intolerance to their detriment. For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the Church forecloses proper humility in many circumstances. For Protestants, the view that the absolute truth is revealed in an errorless scripture can also prevent proper humility about our own opinions. This is particularly true of our political and social opinions. [7] In all cases, the problem is the difficulty Christians have in recognizing the contingent and sinful elements that remain present in whatever truth claims are made by sinful humans, even those possessing the truth of Christ. [8]

Niebuhr’s analysis of the problem of Christian intolerance flows naturally from his view of the fall. The anxiety and self-centeredness of human beings are bound to impact everyone, Christians and non-Christians. All human beings are prone to intolerance, and Christians cannot assume that they are untainted by the same flaws that afflict human beings generally. In my view, what is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is a recognition that the danger of intolerance in post-Enlightenment Western society comes not from the church, which has been decentered from power, but from secular governments.

The Renaissance Alternative

Niebuhr sees the hope for continued tolerance in Modern western civilization (and by inference, post-Modern civilization) in a recapturing of the synthesis of faith and reason that gave Western civilization its entry into the modern world:

The toleration, whether in religious or in socio-economic disputes, which has made life sufferable amidst the cultural and social complexities of the modern world, and which enabled modern society to achieve a measure of domestic tranquility without paying the price of tyrannical suppression, is obviously the fruit, primarily, of the movement which we have defined broadly as “Renaissance.” [9]

Following the Renaissance, various groups contributed to the maintenance of tolerance in Western societies, especially in America. The lack of an established religion and the many sects that inhabit American culture contributed to the high-value Americans placed on tolerance. From the secular side of culture, the philosophical tradition of Anglo-American philosophy and religious thinkers all supported the value of tolerance in Western society. Two arguments, have particular importance:

  1. The utilitarian argument that truth has a power of its own to triumph and does not need coercion to triumph where beliefs conflict;
  2. The progressive belief inherent in Enlightenment thought that societies were progressively evolving and that progress would allow truth to emerge as victorious on its own without the assistance of coercion. [10]

By the time Niebuhr wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, it was obvious that these two arguments are limited. Both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia engaged in extreme persecution of religious and other minorities. In Germany, both Jews and Christians experienced persecution. In Russia, terrible atrocities were committed against Jews and Orthodox Christians, with the communist party engaging in a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Russian Orthodox Church. Communism and practical Marxism had not been able to achieve a free, tolerant societies.  Unfortunately, we see a similar form of intolerance emerging in the United States of America.

Niebuhr’s analysis of the sinfulness of human nature means that tolerance will always be a fragile value in the face of social and political pressures. [11] Niebuhr recognizes this problem. In a particularly important passage, he writes:

It is significant that so much of modern toleration applies merely to the field of religion; and that the very champions of toleration may be exponents of political fanaticism. It is simple enough to be tolerant on issues which are not believed to be vital. The real test of tolerance is our attitude towards people who oppose truths which seem important to us, and who challenge realms of life and meaning towards which we have a responsible relation. [12]

Achieving a tolerant and just society requires more than the elimination of religious and other prejudice. It requires faith, faith in the truth, as well as faith in the ability of human beings to sort out the truth over time. It requires patience because it normally takes time for a society to sort out its largest and most central disagreements. It requires humility and a sense of our own fallibility even where our most deeply held convictions are at stake. These are not normal human qualities. They require education and the formation of the heart, a kind of formation of the heart that religion provides.


Niebuhr’s proposed solution to the problem of human intolerance is a combination of the best aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Renaissance. His solution is also similar to that proposed in this blog on more than one occasion.

As he ends his analysis, he sets out his conclusion:

Loyalty to the truth requires confidence in the possibility of its attainment; toleration of others requires broken confidence in the finality of our own truth.[13]

In other words, for a community to achieve tolerance, it must believe in the reality of truth and the possibility of human beings attaining it. It must believe in the reality of justice existing outside of and beyond our historically limited understandings of justice.

At the same time, freedom and tolerance require humility that flows from a deep belief in our fallibility and the potential that we are wrong as regards our deepest and most strongly held beliefs. If human beings do not believe in the existence of truth, they ultimately give up the disciplined search for truth. If human beings think that they already possess the truth, then they will be intolerant of those who think differently. This is the precise situation in which Western civilization finds itself today.

Niebuhr warns that under such circumstances human beings either embrace a hopeless nihilism or a fanatical assertion of their version of the truth. In either case, the result is disastrous to the creation of a just and tolerant society. The behavior of the far right and left of our society demonstrates the accuracy of his warning.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 213. One author puts it this way, “The paradox itself can be summarized as follows. The moral vision of the New Testament, specifically as revealed in the life of Christ, declares the Law of Love to be the normative ideal for Christian behavior. Given the conditions of history, however, this norm is impossible to follow. Alongside the Impossible Ideal is the possibility of approximating those ideals. Given these options, in the face of sufficiently grave political evil, the Law of Love requires that we overrule love.” Mark LiVecche, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Paradox” (July 7, 2017), downloaded December 18, 2022. The result is that we human beings are completely reliant upon God’s grace within the boundaries of human history.

[2] Id, at 213.

[3] Id, at 214. The term ideology is a consequence of the Enlightenment and his emphasis upon the importance of ideas. An ideology is a manner or way of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture. It includes the political and sociological of a group.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 217.

[6] Id, at 219.

[7] Id, at 220-231.

[8] Id, at 225.

[9] Id, at 231.

[10] Id, at 234-235.

[11] The legacy of John Dewey’s view that religious thinking was outmoded and his confidence that it would be ultimately eliminated from public life has contributed to this problem, Dewey’s analysis of intolerance supposes that religion is the problem, failing to understand that human nature is the problem. Secularists have turned out to be just as intolerant as religious believers. Id, at 237, footnote 23.

[12] Id, at 238.

[13] Id at 243