H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937)
Niebuhr argues that the kingdom of God stands at the center of American Christianity. He attempts “to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which finds its center in the faith in the kingdom of God” (ix). No, not all of his sentences are that bad. In fact, one sentence still echoes in our field. In an influential form of liberal Christianity, Niebuhr charges, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (193). To appreciate what this famous sentence is getting at, we have to return to the beginning. According to Niebuhr, American Christians have persistently believed in “the kingdom of God.” However, the meaning of the concept has changed over time. Americans have adapted this key gospel concept to their own needs. For the earliest Protestant colonizers of America, the kingdom of God meant “the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history” (51). Establishing this “kingdom” meant living properly under God’s sovereignty. For their evangelical descendants, the kingdom of God became the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom sought to establish itself in hearts, achieving the regeneration of society through faith and love. Later, American Christians wanted to see the kingdom come. They hoped for “its manifestation in power,” for the earthly reign of Christ in his millennial kingdom or for a Christian takeover of society (Social Gospel). For Niebuhr, the evangelicals (Edwards and co.) came the closest to getting it right. They didn’t wed their “kingdom” to social institutions but demanded social change, they understood God’s judgment and sovereignty, and they insisted on individual change through faith in Christ. Hence his criticism of liberalism.
My edition of this book contains a nice little introduction by Martin Marty. Marty reminds that Niebuhr considered himself a theologian, not a historian. He links Niebuhr’s approach to Weber’s, suggesting that both show the consequences of religious ideas for societies. He points out that this book was once revisionist. He admires Niebuhr’s insight into “the American spirit.” I’m not interested in arguing with Marty tonight.
Niebuhr outlines three of interesting “convictions” about American Christianity. First, he sees his work as a first step to something larger. He wants nothing less than to inspire a future Jonathan Edwards or “American Augustine” who will change people’s understanding of the relationship between faith and society. Theological claims like this make me queasy, but one has to admire his lofty ambitions. Second, he insists that Christianity cannot be adequately understood as only otherworldly or this-worldly. While he elaborates some dense theological points about the dialectical movement by which the church progresses toward its ultimate union with God, his main concern is that historians recognize their own partiality. Rather than chastising our predecessors for being too much of this or that, Niebuhr demands that we take them as interlocutors with whom we can argue fruitfully. Finally, Niebuhr studies American Christianity as a “movement,” not “an institution or series of institutions” (xxiii-xxiv). Again, Niebuhr’s theology motivates this “conviction.” But it does seem an interesting accident of history that most of us now write about movements, not particular institutions. Would any of the big university presses even consider publishing a denominational history of the Presbyterian Church of America? Almost certainly not. The times may be a changin’ in our guild, but we still live with Niebuhr’s legacy…
Review by A.T. Coates