Reinhold Niebuhr

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Reinhold Niebuhr
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr
BirthplaceWright City, Missouri
Political Commentator
Professor (1930–1960)
Magazine Editor (1941–1966)
EducationElmhurst College Eden Theological Seminary Yale Divinity School
Known for Christian Realism
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Niebuhr, Reinhold


Born June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Mo.; died June 1, 1971, in Stockbridge, Mass. American Protestant theologian; representative of dialectical theology.

Niebuhr was a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928; in 1928 he became a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. During the economic crisis of 1929–33, when many became disenchanted with liberalism, he led the majority of American Protestant theologians in the transition from modernism to what was called crisis theology. In the book that marked this turn, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr declared that the hopes that the “social gospel” would bring society into line with the requirements of Christian morality and would overcome evil were illusory and naive.

In his subsequent works, The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols., 1941–43), Faith and History (1949), and The Irony of American History (1952), Niebuhr repudiated the entire progressive heritage of bourgeois enlightenment, the defense of which he termed dangerous quixotism. He rejected ideas of social progress and of the perfection of the human personality, contending that all attempts to build a just social order always end up in conflict with the evil and egotistic (“sinful”) nature of man. He viewed all altruism as hypocrisy that conceals the egotism of a personality, a class, or a nation shrewdly passing off its egotistic interests as universal ones. History, the sphere in which the irrational free will of the people conflicts with the will of god, cannot be fully apprehended nor is it subject to man, who, in trying to subordinate it to himself, always obtains results contrary to what he desired. That is the “irony of history.” From this Niebuhr drew the conclusion that man should abandon all attempts at radical social reorganization and limit himself to direct practical activities aimed at mitigating contradictions that are in principle unsolvable.


Mel’vil’, Iu. K., and A. N. Chanyshev. “Ironiia istorii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1954, no. 2.
Harland, G. The Thought of R. Niebuhr. New York, 1960.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.