Niebuhr 5: The Nature and Destiny of Man (Part 1)

Between 1938 and 1939, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was entering the final phase of his all-too-short life, Reinhold Niebuhr was in Edinburgh Scotland giving the Gifford Lectures on the nature of and destiny of the human race, the most comprehensive and fundamental account of the theological underpinnings of his Christian realism. In a previous series of blogs, we covered Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), which was a critique of liberal Protestantism as evidenced by the social gospel movement. Moral Man and Immoral Society was deeply impacted by Marxism and the promise of the Russian revolution, but by 1929, a decade before the lectures, Niebuhr had abandoned Marxism and resigned from the Socialist Party.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr advanced the thesis that a just society cannot be constructed on the basis of human altruism, even Christian altruism. The forces of self-interest are too strong. Because society is comprised of social groups with different objectives, justice, positive social change can be achieved only through an equitable use of power. [1] The role of Christian faith is not insignificant, but more or less restricted to critique of society in the light of its ideals. Thus, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr was attempting to set out a program for social change on what he perceived to be a more realistic basis than that of the Social Gospel Movement, a program that changed dramatically during his lifetime, but remained guided by the desire to see a more just society evolve.

Foundation of Christian Realism

The philosophical foundation of Niebuhr’s brand of “Christian realism lies in the conviction that both classical Greco-Roman Western ideas and the liberal Protestantism of his day underestimated the depth and pervasiveness of human finitude and sin. Thus, The Nature and Destiny of Man has as its major theme the need for a synthesis of Renaissance (classical) and Reformation (biblical) insights about the possibilities and limits of human existence, in light of Christian understanding of sin, grace and forgiveness.

The setting of the lectures could not have been more dramatic. By the time his Gifford Lectures were completed, the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were evident to wise minds in the West. Germany was in the hands of Adolf Hitler, a dangerous ideologue. The War in Europe had begun. By the time the lectures were complete, Poland had been conquered, France conquered, and the Battle of Britain begun. During some of the lectures, sirens that announced bombing raids were blowing and his audience was caught between the captivating speaker and a desire to run for safety. There could have been no better hour to remind the world of human fallenness.

Humanity as a Problem

Niebuhr began with a statement of the problem he explored in the lectures: the problem of human complexity: “Man has always been his own most vexing problem.” [2] The problem Niebuhr discerns is that the human race is both a result of the operation of nature, and subject to the laws of nature, and also a spiritual being who stands outside of nature, other human beings generally. Human beings are even capable of self-reflection, standing outside of him/herself. Human complexity results in the need to discern how the material and spiritual features of human life relate and interact. [3]

In Western civilization before the Enlightenment, two different worldviews vied for the dominance:

  • The Classical Greco Roman view of humanity; and
  • The Hebraic-Christian view of humanity.

In Niebuhr’s view, although the problem of how to understand the nature of human beings has always existed, in the modern world it is become more serious because of the inadequate solution proposed by the Enlightenment and the way a modern understanding grew up in revolt against the Judeo-Christian view..

The Classical View of Humanity

In the classical view, what made human beings unique was the existence of “Nous,” a term translated as “spirit,” but with the emphasis on the rational basis for spirit in the human race. In Aristotle Nous was seen as purely intellectual. This is not all of the story, however. Nous is the seat of consciousness and reflection in the human psyche. It includes the faculty of understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. This is to be compared with Logos, a term translated as “reason” or “word, in which the emphasis is on reason and (in the early Greeks) on the divine reason or plan imbedded in reality.

Greek philosophy tended to divide humanity into two natures, (i) an intellectual nature that reflected the divine reason and (ii) a physical nature, which was the source of human finitude and incapacity to act reasonably on all occasions. The Hebraic view was not dualistic but monist, in which the mind and the body are unitary. The Stoic view of humanity was also monist, and also pessimistic about the ability of reason to rule the human spirit. The Christian view was an adaptation of the Hebraic view of the human race impacted by its doctrine of the fall and its incorporation of Greek and Stoic ideas into its fundamental philosophy. Thus,

It must be observed that while the classical view of human nature is optimistic when compared with the Christian view (for it finds no defect in the centre of human personality) and while it has perfect confidence in the virtue of the rational person, it does not share the confidence of the moderns in the ability of human beings to be either virtuous or happy. Thus an air of melancholy hangover Greek life which stands in the sharpest contrast to the all-pervasive optimism of the now dying bourgeoisie culture,.….” [4]

The Christian View of Humanity

As indicated above, the Christian view was impacted by its interaction both with its roots in the Old Testament faith of Israel and its contact with Greek and Roman civilization. From its Hebrew origins Christianity took a fundamentally unitary view of human nature: the biblical view human beings are created as a unity of both body and spirit. [5] No account of the human condition, political or otherwise, can ignore this unity.

Nevertheless, as it being made in the image of God, the human person stands outside of itself able to judge itself and the world and to act in accordance with or against both reason and in some cases natural law. [6] Because human beings are created as a unity of nature in spirit, the human spirit enables the human race to break the harmonies of nature and, human pride and fallenness prevent human beings from being able to use the forces of nature properly, resulting in personal and social chaos. [7]

The Modern View of Humanity

With the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, both the classical and Christian view of human nature was jettisoned in favor of a dualistic view that has turned out to be unsustainable. Descartes began this dualistic move with his distinction between the human mind and physical matter. In addition, with the advent of the Modern World, human beings began to think of themselves as beings independent of God (as creator) and became thus subject to human pride. The romantic side of the Enlightenment began with the view that human beings are basically good, not fallen creatures as Scripture, tradition, and (in my view) human experience indicate. Thus, humanity became subject to unbounded pride and lost the humility inherent in Christian faith. Politically, the errors of Laisse Faire Capitalism and Marxism are founded on the victory of pride and human confidence. Speaking of Capitalism, Niebuhr puts it this way:

Modern capitalism really expresses both attitudes at the same time the spirit of capitalism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature, conceived as a treasure house of riches which will guarantee everything which might be regarded as the good life the human race will master nature but the social organization of capitalism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that nature masters man and that her preestablished harmonies will prevent the human enterprise from involving itself in any serious catastrophes…. [8]

One could easily rephrase the quotation as, “The spirit of Marxism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature conceived as a treasure house of riches which under the control of human reason will guarantee everything that might be regarded as the good life. The human race will inevitably master nature as a result of the operation of the invisible hand of economic forces operating in human history. The social organization of Marxism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that these politico-economic forces, in the form of the gradual emergence of the proletariat to power, will by a preestablished harmony prevent any serious catastrophe in human history.” In fact, both of these Enlightenment-born ideologies have resulted in the exploitation of nature and in various human catastrophes.

Niebuhr ends this discussion with a brief review of modern philosophy and the emergence of what he calls the easy consciousness of the modern person. Because human nature is seen as basically good, modernity has been an able to deal with the problem of evil. This inability is an essential part of modern thinking. It results in a doctrine of progress ungrounded in an adequate view of human nature, a view of progress that is doomed to failure. It results in a kind of worship of the human Will (characteristic of Nietzsche) and an oppressive government (characteristic of the thinking of Hobbes). The result of the emergence of a post-Christian optimism and faith in human progress has been a proliferation of interpretations of history all relying upon the gradual emergence through natural processes of a better society. Speaking in the shadow of Nazism, Niebuhr ends this discussion with a sentence with which we should all completely agree, “The fateful consequences in contemporary political life of Hobbes cynicism and Nietzsche’s nihilism are everywhere apparent.” [9] If they are not already apparent, they should be and will be.


This would seem to be a good place to end this weeks discussion. For frequent readers of this blog, the fundamental points being made by neighbor will not be new. For sometime it has been obvious that the optimistic view of the enlightenment concerning many things is not entirely correct. This week we have only begun to touch on Niebuhr’s argument, which will take several weeks to cover. Fundamentally, the history of the past 300 years shows that:

  1. Human reason is not sufficient to solve human problems of faith, morals, and polity. Human beings are not fully reasonable nor can they be made so.
  2. Human beings may be in some way “basically good” (made in the image of God, in Christian terms) but that goodness is marred by sin, anxiety, finitude, and inevitable self-centeredness.
  3. The Enlightenment notion of inevitable progress, even in its materialistic capitalist or communist formulations are false. All attempts to create anything like a perfect society have failed and created great human suffering.

Therefore, what is needed is some kind of synthesis of the Enlightenment and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian view from which the modern world emerged. This conclusion is at odds, for example, with the solution proposed by the radical members of the Critical School reviewed last week. Instead of revolution, we need a kind of tradition-bound evolution of society. This does not, however, mean that the critique of such groups can or should be ignored, for they too are part of the tradition in which we all (should) operate.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, The Gifford Lectures: Over 100 Years on Natural Theology “The Nature and Destiny of Man” at (Downloaded November 2, 2022).

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 1. All quotations will be cited hereafter as NDM, volume and page number.

[3] Id, at 5.

[4] Id, at 9. I have changed Niebuhr’s use of the word “man” to humanity and rational person for modern readability.

[5] Id, at 12-13.

[6] Id, at 13-17.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 20.

[9] Id, at 25.