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.