Are the Neo-Reformed/Evangelicals Niebuhrians? and therefore ill equipped for Post-Christendom?


Warning: The following is a theological post requiring citing theologians, histories of tradition, hemeneutical and cultural concepts,  in order to better understand the influences, assumptions and sources of our beliefs that shape our practice of church in the world.


It’s always dangerous to use a big word in a blog post. But the word “Niebuhrian” is just too important to leave to academics. I think it’s important because it helps understand issues in Neo-Reformed theology (as well as other versions of evangelicalism) that handicap it when it comes to engaging the new post-Christendom cultures of the West.  Let me explain the term and then draw this out a bit.

“Niebuhrian” refers to the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, the famous theologian-brothers who led American mainline Protestantism after WW2. They guided (what some have called) a Neo-Orthodox “liberal” vision of church in society that emerged in U.S. after WW2. Through Reinhold’s books (for example Moral Man and Immoral Society) and position at Union (in NY) and H Richard’s Christ and Culture and other books and his position at Yale, they established a broad consensus of how the church was to inhabit its space within post WW2 American society. Reinhold’s “Realism” argued that Jesus was for individual spirituality. That we must be “realistic” about society (and social sin) and manage it appropriately. We can’t apply Jesus to the problems of society.  H Richard argued for a “transformationist” view of the Christian in society which took on similar lines of argument. Jesus is a principle which points us away from the world. We must be transformationist seeking the goods of the creator. Jesus is inspirational, but we must be practical. Together the two brothers became the vanguard for not only mainline churches but later on evangelicals as well. Again, for the Niebuhrs, Jesus is a personal ideal, but we must turn to nature (or creation) to understand how to make practical (ethical) decisions in the world.

Yoder executed a significant critique of the Neibuhrs during his time. The most notable critique was eventually published as “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture” in this collection of essays (Authentic Transformation). This critique of Niebuhrianism became one of  Stanley Hauerwas’ staples (as found for example here in ch. 3 of this book Wilderness Wanderings or in ch. 4,5 of this book).  It is the Yoder/Hauerwas account of Niebuhrianism that I find particularly helpful. It is striking in its insights into the political habits of evangelicalism – my own tradition.

I would summarize this definition of a Niebuhrian with the following:  A Niebuhrian is someone:

  1. Who elevates Jesus to a principle so that now He is in some sense unapplicable to the political-social problems of organizing our life together in the world. Jesus is relegated to a personal aspiration, not someone directly related to the course of human societal affairs.
  2. Who defaults to the orders of creation/nature as the source of ethics, and in so doing elevates God the Creator over God the Son as the source of ethics. Over against this move, Yoder pleads that Jesus the Son cannot be separated from the Father. A true Trinitarian ethic starts with Jesus (ala Barth).
  3. Who sees (as a result of the above) culture as something inherently good, stable and monolithic (Vocation, orders of creation). The church’s job is therefore to be the training ground for sending individuals into these institutions who already know what is best, bringing each order it to its true created intent. The church is NOT a dynamic culture-creating entity in itself in dialogue (and sometimes in subversion to) with surrounding culture by which culture is transformed. Instead church takes up a posture of chaplain to the culture operating out of a posture of Christendom, as opposed to entering a culture in humility.  Such a church presumes to know what is best for society as opposed to living justice incarnationally allowing God to extend his work for justice in Christ into the world.

I claim evangelicalism has become Niebuhrian. You can tell by:

  1. How Jesus has been relegated to concept to be applied to individual life. Evangelicals notoriously make Jesus into soley one’s “personal Savior.” The Anabaptist says “Huh?” Wherever two or more gather in His name, a new social reality is birthed in and for the world. This is a social reality worked out in the world not merely for a personal relationship.
  2. How in matters of politics, government, economics, business, money, art, we default to making judgements based in nature (not Jesus) that apply to everyone regardless of belief.  Evangelicals do this regularly, say when we argue for capitalist forms of economy based on the inherent self interest of human beings (Reinhold Neibuhr). But are the ways capitalism shapes individuals over against each other opposed to God’s working in Christ for reconciliation, justice and renewal revealed in Jesus Christ? Should we be more resistant to its formation? The Anabaptist Yoder argues that appeals to creation/nature alone sets one over against Christ. This is Trinitarian heresy.
  3. How evangelicalism minimizes the church as the agent of transformation in society. Instead it prefers to send individuals into the world’s institutions to transform them. But how do we discern whether these institutions should not be resisted as opposed to participating in them? How do we know these institutions are not in outright rebellion? Evangelicals are notorious for sending individuals into the world completely ignoring ecclesiological engagement.

Evangelicals are Niebuhrians. So What?

I contend Niebuhrianism is a disease that undercuts the church’s witness in post Christendom. It disables the church from having a social witness over against the powers. It relegates Jesus to personal spirituality as opposed to an inbreaking ruler setting the world right. We therefore too often default to government and societal justice to set the world right. It presumes a posture of power for the church (sometimes unconsciously) when it has none.  And this kind of power is not the way God works anyway.  The church, as a result, ends up trying to be relevant in a world that no longer believes. The church loses its integrity, is inherent vitality as the Kingdom, and becomes mute. So, admittedly, I need to tease this out quite a bit more, but contrary to what one might think, NIEBUHRIANISM NEUTERS THE CHURCH’S WITNESS IN THE WORLD FOR GOD’S KINGDOM IN CHRIST. It is a Christendom theology of church and culture that renders the church impotent in a society/culture turned post Christendom.

Diagnosing Niebuhrianism

For all these reasons, those of us finding ourselves in (increasingly) post Christendom cultures would do well to diagnose our Niebuhrian habits and instead pursue a discipleship of Jesus as Lord, who forms a community under His Lordship in the world, which gives us the posture to participate in the rule of Christ over the principalities and powers.

images-4My question for the coming weeks? Is how much of Neo-Reformed Puritianist theology/ecclesiology is Niebuhrian? If so, these people (whom I love) may be doomed to a mute witness outside of Christianized peoples. I will take a look in the coming weeks at Tim Keller’s Center Church for these kinds of theological habits. I hope to tease out how Tim Keller (whom I love!) may have fallen victum to Niebuhrian habits that neuter the church’s witness for the Kingdom. I suggest that certain versions of Kuyperian theology and church show tendencies of these same Niebuhrian habits (James K A Smith strongly disagrees with me on this, but has his own critique/revision of Kuyperian categories). For example, this thoughtful Kuyperian’s article seems to suggest this is so. Of course, Kuyper himself would never explicitly separate spheres of creation ethics from Jesus. But the point is, how did his system open/make possible the independence of creation spheres from Jesus.I also suggest the influence of Kuyperianism on Neo-Reformed Puritianist church and culture positions is noticeable (Tim Keller’s book shows a large influence from this sector of Calvinist theology).

OK, there’s my argument. Comments? Pushback and misunderstandings are all welcome!

Posted in Missional Theology, Neo-Reformed, Post-Christendom, Stanley Hauerwas, Tim Keller, Uncategorized
20 comments on “Are the Neo-Reformed/Evangelicals Niebuhrians? and therefore ill equipped for Post-Christendom?
  1. Shu says:

    Deep and fascinating read! Had to read it a few times…

    Some thoughts:

    1. “Wherever two or more gather in His name, a new social reality is birthed in and for the world. This is a social reality worked out in the world not merely for a personal relationship.”
    - Gold, pure gold.

    2. I agree we should be culture creating and not assuming that the church (scattered) has the “power” to influence “the world”… Are there some kind of counter-cultural examples we can learn from especially since we’re all engaged in various areas of the world (even in Toronto here, it is quite different from our “sister city” Chicago)???

    3. 1 Peter 2:13-21 – this may be a stretch to ask but, as God calls serve our earthly masters (bosses in institutions), do we do that without being an agent of transformation (by the Spirit of course)? Most people work regular jobs in the world so I’m trying to differentiate between ecclesiological engagement in a gathered vs. scattered way?

    Anyways, great thoughts overall! Trying to wrestle with what that means in my context…


  2. Adam Metz says:


    Thanks for this post. I resonate greatly with your perspective here and while I am not a card-carrying Anabaptist, my experience from within the Churches of Christ tradition continues to resonate greatly with the Anabaptist. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we haven’t spent a great deal of time reflecting on Reformed and Neo-Reformed thinking and so I often find myself really struggling to understand their perspective.

    I am a D. Min student at Fuller and was completely committed to the class you taught there a few weeks ago as I resonate with your ecclesiology greatly – at least the good stuff ;-) Instead, I decided to take a class offered in NYC at Redeemer Presbyterian later this summer with Dr. Mouw where we’ll be wrestling with this very topic. I’m having to do some catch up work in learning more about Kuyper – my Neo-Reformed friends I’ve met through Fuller have introduced me to his work, as I know his theology will be a major point of conversation.

    I am curious to see how the discussion goes and the perspective they espouse – I’m hoping to represent Yoder well! I, like you, resonate more with his critique of Niebuhrism and feel the political theology of this other group of folks (who I also love) leaves a church completely ill-equipped to engage a post-Christian world. They pump out students with knowledge of questions nobody asks anymore, with skills that serve an institutional church that is on its last leg (I know I’m overstating it a bit here – at least I think I am).

    We certainly don’t have the answers (I’m a local church pastor). But we’re wrestling to overcome the default reaction of our ingrained political theology to outsource social problems. We preach and teach about salvation and a personal aspect to our relationship with Christ – but try so hard to emphasize the communal aspect of that relationship. We’re a small church so I think we have a little bit better go at it than some. We’re trying to learn to partner with other groups. We’re trying . . . I’m trying . . . and I’m really bummed I missed the chance to hang out with you for a week. Maybe someday . . . thanks again for the post!

  3. Shain Willison says:

    Dr. Fitch, my bookshelf has an empty space next to Niebuhr’s C&C; besides the dated article by Yoder in “Authentic Transformation,” Niebuhr has no true counter. Perhaps it’s time for a new work to surface on the subject and fill the void?

  4. Robb Davis says:

    I look forward to the exploration of this topic. I think you have defined well a dynamic I see in my community when you write:

    “How evangelicalism minimizes the church as the agent of transformation in society. Instead it prefers to send individuals into the world’s institutions to transform them. But how do we discern whether these institutions should not be resisted as opposed to participating in them? How do we know these institutions are not in outright rebellion? Evangelicals are notorious for sending individuals into the world completely ignoring ecclesiological engagement.”

    For those who have not read it I would also recommend Yoder’s “The Christian Witness to the State” which is a more developed response to Niebuhr’s charge that Christian pacifists had made themselves irrelevant and had little to offer to the broader social order. Yoder wrote at the outset of that book.

    “Our purpose is to analyze whether it is truly the case that a Christian pacifist position rooted not in pragmatic or psychological but in Christological considerations is thereby irrelevant to the social order… (W)e shall here attempt to ascertain on what grounds, according to what standards, and with what hope of success it is nevertheless not only possible but obligatory that the Christian should witness to the social order in a relevant way.”

    I, along with a few others, am attempting to bring Yoder into the present on these themes specifically around the issue of public policy “advocacy” that has become increasingly popular among evangelicals. Yoder did not talk about spiritual warfare in this little book and we hope to develop that concept alongside the idea of Christian witness.

    Thanks for launching this discussion.

  5. Madison says:

    This is going to be a great series – it is time for Christians to be thoughtful about Niebuhr’s influence. I am also a Keller fan, and eagerly await a thoughtful anabaptist reading of his books/sermons – I think Keller is aware of these kinds of issues, and will be surprised if DFitch nails him, but will stick around for the party.

    To jump on the bandwagon w/ DFitch, for an example of the kind of thing David is talking about, check out Rick Warren’s comments here:
    For Rick, being is a Christian is a matter of one’s faith, as opposed to other ways of being, which are primarily about mere ‘politics.’

    For a Niebuhrian evangelical who has been influenced by Kuyper, Christians are faithful individuals who have hearts oriented toward God, and who spend their days in pockets of grace in God’s creation. Because their hearts are cleansed by the blood of the lamb, they are free to get involved in the messy fallen places in creation, where they can push back the darkness using their newfound superhuman abilities brought about by their properly oriented relationships w/ God. They are apolitical individuals who can do amazing works of recreation within the fallen political spheres within which humans live. And this is what Warren is pumped about.

    One has to wonder:
    a) if Jesus was this kind of person (if he was, why did they kill him?),
    b) either way, if Jesus intended for his followers to live according to this vision, why would he would anticipate that they would encounter opposition? indeed, why did they encounter opposition? why initiate a campaign to systematically slaughter a number of supernaturally empowered do-gooders?, and
    c) why did these Christians allow themselves to be slaughtered? why not just claim to be a good citizen, while secretly in their hearts worshipping Jesus? wouldn’t it have been more *effective* to publicly deny Jesus as a matter of lip service, if it allowed them to serve Jesus by occupying powerful public offices, at which point they could then whisper to their co-rulers that their ability to be successful rulers came from having accepted Jesus into their hearts?

    All of which is to say that this rather popular picture of Christianity has a number of shortcomings. It does not fully embrace the testimony of scripture as to the person of Jesus or his embodiment in the early church. It misses the mark on how Jesus intended for his followers to live, relate, worship, and evangelize. And it fails to correctly emphasize the ultimate telos of a Christian life at any stage in history.

  6. Need to try and translate this for my non-theological/non-academic followers/readers. Let me make a summary and you indicate right/wrong/partial:

    The church is operating in paradigm where the church simply uses existing culture and means to bring about change rather than the church creating/expressing a different culture and utilizing different means based upon a Jesus as our model.

    • davidfitch says:

      That’s OK, but I think the subtleness of Nieburhian categories have been used to justify the way the church engages the world… and so the intellectual and cultural habits need to be deconstructed or at least uncovered.

  7. jim poole says:

    your post = excellent!
    this series = excited to see it unfold!
    these comments = great!
    the challenging comments that we lost in the re-design = suspicious!
    the re-design = YIKES!!!

    fwiw: many creatives chant Michelangelo’s “critique by creating.”
    and Andy Crouch’s “the only way to change culture is to create more of it”
    …yet they also cling, cling, cling to transformation view in Niebuhr’s Christ & Culture. And when it plays out, its a mish mash.

    So we need this kind of clarity. Thanks.

  8. davidfitch says:

    Sorry to all my friends who wrote some great stuff because we lost it in doing some badly needed blog maintenance. If you have the comments please repost. My own responses were also lost and I cannot promise I can find em. :)

  9. David
    I agree that this is a really important issue. The problem is that “matters of politics, government, economics, business and money” are too much for the message and person of Jesus in the gospel and the epistles to carry, too. They gospels and the epistles do not contain enough material for a system of government or economics. The church is then forced back to nature to find solutions. So as you say, it defaults to a government for of justice, with the church trying to take political power.

    The thing that is missed by both the Anabaptists and Reformed of all types is that God gave his system of government and economic system in the Torah. His is a radically different approach, with no central government, where leaders and judges emerge out of local communities, where problems of poverty and inequality are dealt with in local communities, where defence is controlled by local communities no a centralised standing army.

    Jesus pointed back to the Torah on many issues of economics and government. He confirmed the teaching of the Torah in the sermon on the Mount after talking about being the light of the world (Matt 5:13-20). He rejected the teachings of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, because they undermined Torah teaching, so the people could wiggle out of it. His teaching about giving and lending was a challenge to his listeners to get back to the Torah economy that the Romans and the Sadducees were destroying. He was able to speak about unrighteous money, because it was clearly defined in the Torah.

    Christians seem to have missed this, because they cannot see the trees for the dead leaves of legalism. They are forced instead to either look in vain in the gospels, or go back to nature for teaching about political and economic systems.

    • davidfitch says:

      Blessed Economist,
      I’m fine with going back to the OT, as long as we realize the completion of OT is in Christ. It therefore makes no sense to interpret OT or isolate OT as if it were apart from Christ. :)

  10. len says:

    This Anabaptist take by Bruce Guenther is a helpful summary —

  11. Richard C says:

    Hi David,

    I commented before your “move” that this looks really really great!

    I asked if you will be prognosing as well as diagnosing Niebuhrism and Keller.
    By this I mean will you be looking at the past/present/future impact of a “neutered” mission on the church and society? This could be under headings like depth of discipleship, missed opportunities (the recent financial crisis and evangelicals in the “sphere” of finance?) or something else. Also in what way would a neo-Anabaptist approach be different while being aware that Hauerwas would say it is about being faithful rather than “successful”!

    • davidfitch says:

      Richard, not completely sure how to answer, except to say that I’ll be reviewing Pastor Keller’s book and his understanding of church in his book – Center Church. As things come up where this fatal flaw is revealed, I’ll make a point of it … and hopefully have fruitful debate. There is a thin line between Kuyperian Reformeds and Yoderian Neo-Anabaptists, and it most often is a matter of posture in the world. (To me this is no small deal). I hope to have a good conversation over the next year as I tap into Keller’s mammoth wisdom on the church in the city.

  12. jimpoole says:

    ok. Dave – the design looks good now. Very clean & its a nice look. For some reason when i visited this morning, maybe it was during your ‘maintenance’ …the paragraph alignment was all goofy & hard to read. Sorry for the delay in responding & the false alarm.

  13. Ric Hudgens says:

    This is great. Thanks. In the most recent issue of Geez Magazine Dr. John Stackhouse of Regent (Vancouver) wrote an article entitled “A Dash of Cold Water for Christian anarchism.” Whether you are sympathetic to Christian anarchism or not Stackhouse makes his Niebuhrian evangelicalism quite clear in this critique.

  14. Can’t linger, alas, but Brother Ric is right to suggest I am not in accord with Brother David’s take on things here. I’m much more in line with Bonhoeffer than Niebuhr, as my book “Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World” (Oxford) makes clear, although I am indebted to both. In that book I also challenge (which is a courteous way of saying, “explode”) the Yoder/Hauerwas misunderstanding of H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology and then carry on a running argument with John Yoder (and, by extension, Brother Stanley) throughout the book. Here all I can do is indicate that I find Brother David’s conflation of the two brothers (who notoriously disagreed deeply) very odd, his understanding of how Jesus figures in evangelical Christian realism (vs. Niebuhrian thought per se) off the mark, and his championing of Yoder & Hauerwas to be decidedly unhelpful since I find their politics and ethics to be decidedly unhelpful–truly and ironically otherworldly. To say more here, though, would be to start repeating my book, so I’ll just signal, for those who care, that there is an evangelical alternative out there to both Christian imperialism and the Yoder-Hauerwas approach.

  15. I’d better say at least one more thing, though. I think Brother David is RIGHT ON in his indictment of (1) how Reinhold Niebuhr is often understood and appropriated; (2) how evangelicals have too often restricted Jesus to an ideal or a truly “personal” Saviour; (3) how many American (and some Canadian) evangelicals pine for the restoration of a Christian hegemony; and (4) how comfortable so many evangelicals are with the state of things, when the state of things in North America, and especially the state of the church, is generally so woeful. So press on, Brother David, in your worthy work! I just think the direction I’ve found fruitful is more promising for most NAm Christians these days than the Yoder-Hauerwas approach, even as we must also eschew (eschew, I say!) simple Niebuhrianism–of either brother!

    • davidfitch says:

      Bro John Stackhouse,
      I am deeply honored that you would visit this humble blog. And of course, I’ve read “Making the Best of It” and disagree intensely with your read of my bro’s Yoder, and Stanley. In fact, I would suggest you slip sublty into error of Nieburhianism yourself (as I have defined it)… But til we meet again,or faceoff (you do play hockey don’t you?) at an AAR meeting, I appreciate your work and count you a good dialogue partner for the future of God’s Kingdom in N America.

      Blessings and peace!!

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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