Review: Reinhold Niebuhr (Makers of the Modern Theological Mind)


Reinhold Niebuhr (Makers of the Modern Theological Mind)Bob E. Patterson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017 (originally published in 1977).

Summary: An introduction to the life and theological contribution of this mid-twentieth century theologian, known for re-introducing a conversation about sin into liberal theological circles.

Reinhold Niebuhr was one of a group of “neo-orthodox” and more liberal theologians who dominated the theological landscape of the mid-twentieth century, along with Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann. Niebuhr’s distinction was that he was the one American in the group (Tillich emigrated to the U.S. during World War II). He may have been the most influential American-born theologian since Jonathan Edwards. His “Christian realism” informed the thinking of architect of Cold War era policy George Kennan and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and he was a favorite theologian of both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

This book marks the re-publishing of the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, originally published in the late 1970’s.  Each of the volumes provides a concise biography and  theological contribution for most of the above named figures. They are ideal for theological students preparing for comprehensive exams, but also as accessible summaries to the lives and works of these important figures who still exert influence in both theological, and in Niebuhr’s case, political circles.

Patterson begins with an extended biographical essay that traces Niebuhr’s formative years, his Detroit pastorate, his advocacy for workers and socialist causes, his pacifism and then the turn in his life as he renounced socialism and endorsed U.S. involvement in World War II. Likewise, he shook the theological world with his Gifford Lectures later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, where he enunciated his theology of what it means to be human, and particularly the reality and universality of human sinfulness, especially the sin of pride, evident even in the best of our noble political and spiritual pretensions. This marked a kind of summit in his life, during his years at Union Theological Seminary and as a highly sought-after speaker on university campuses and other fora. A series of strokes and heart trouble hampered his later life, although he continued to write prolifically, particularly on questions at the junction of theological and political life.

The rest of the book is devoted to his theology. Patterson begins with his anthropology and Niebuhr’s emphasis on the tension humans live in between their freedom and finiteness, and the anxiety that results from this. He goes on to show how this anxiety, when it is not turned to faith in God, inevitably leads to sin. One of Niebuhr’s distinct contributions, according to Patterson, is his focus particularly on the forms of pride that result from that anxiety, rather than the sensual sins, although Niebuhr also gives an account of this. The sin of pride colors all human pretensions to noble social, political and even spiritual ambitions. This leads Niebuhr to the “paradox of grace” which both empowers moral transformation, and yet extends the continuing forgiveness of the intrusions of sin through the atoning work of Christ.

Niebuhr’s understanding of sin and grace informs his “Christian realism” in the pursuit of love and justice. The grace of Christianity inspires us to acts of agape love, yet the pretensions of pride remain, and love may best be translated into the upholding of justice in society. For Niebuhr, he recognizes the structural as well as personal dimensions of sin and its impact on movements of social justice. We are, in the language of one of his books, “moral men in an immoral society.” Furthermore, realism cautions against the extremes of totalitarian efforts to bring in the good society and the utopian dreams of much liberalism. We will not bring in the kingdom in human history, only proximate goods that look toward an eschatological fulfillment.

Although some of the language and references in this 1970’s work reflects this time, the author is prescient, in my view, in his appreciation of the relevance of Niebuhr to our own day:

“We still need his genius to see that human behavior is complex, that demonic possibilities are built into church and social structures, that human pride and spiritual arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where they are closest to the Kingdom of God, and that advance brings vulnerability to new temptations. Since overweening self-regard is ubiquitous, religious and political groups need Niebuhr’s caution about special arrogance, about the self-righteous smoke screen laid down by the powerful, and about cheap grace” (pp. 130-131).

Niebuhr wasn’t an evangelical, and this perhaps accounts for why his influence has not shaped either evangelical political engagement or a suburban-oriented church growth movement in the last thirty years that has been blind to the “demonic possibilities” in our structures that have contributed to a racially divided church and a deeply divided political discourse. His trenchant analysis of the human condition and of what is possible in a fallen world, certainly not infallible in all its detail, nevertheless provides the lineaments of an intellectual, moral and spiritual framework we desperately need in our day.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the USand the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety.

Very simply, this is a “Who’s Who” among Orthodox thinkers. In twenty-one chapters, Andrew Louth, professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies and an Orthodox priest, gives us sketches of the lives and theological contributions of twenty-eight significant thinkers within the Orthodox Church.

There are several things that keep this from simply being a disconnected collection of biographies. Foremost, perhaps is Louth’s appraisal of the significance of the Philokalia, a collection of texts published in Greek in 1782, translated first into “church Slavonic” in 1793, later into Russian in 1877, and more recently into English. The Philokalia represent teachings of a number of the early Church Fathers concerning contemplative prayer that provides the groundwork for the “hesychast” (quietness) movement. Louth states:

“It is my contention that the publication of the Philokalia in 1782 can be seen as marking a turning point in Orthodox theology, a move away from the defensiveness of early modern Orthodox theology – the theology of the so-called ‘Symbolic Books’ – to a more confident style of theology, based on the authentic sources of Orthodox theology, namely the Fathers of the Church. This movement of renewal had deep roots and led the Orthodox Churches out of the problems that dogged them at the end of the eighteenth century. It is difficult not to see St Nikodimos as preparing the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire for the independence it was to achieve in the course of the nineteenth century, providing it with what was needed for its spiritual, liturgical and canonical or structural well-being. The path before it was to be long and hard, and there is still much to be done, as we shall see.”

This book begins with the publication of the Philokalia and a discussion of its significance and concludes with a chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware), one of the major translators of the Philokalia into English, and one of the most significant translators of Orthodoxy for Westerners.

The organization of the book is roughly chronological, but also follows a course through several countries as well as topics. Louth begins in Russia with poet and thinker Vladimir Solov’ev. Then he follows two generations of emigrés to Paris following the Revolution, the first including Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdayaev, Florovsky, Myrrha Lot-Borodine and Maria Skobtsova. The second generation included Paul Evdokimov, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Schmemann, the latter two key in the development of modern Orthodoxy in America when they left Paris to take positions at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The trail goes on to Romania, Serbia, Greece and England.

Along the way Louth also explores thinkers significant in Orthodox dogmatic theology (Staniloe and Popovic’) Neo-Palamism (Meyendorff), liturgical theology (Schmemann, Foundoulis, and Vasileios), patristics (Zizioulas and Romanides), the rich tradition of lay theologians (Sherrard, Koutroubis, Yannaras, Ramfos, Behr-Sigel, and Clèment) and the spiritual elders.

One of the things that is striking is the number of women included in the narrative and the other is the number of lay figures who play a major role in Orthodox thought, particularly Philip Sherrard, who in partnership with Metropolitan Kallistos helped translate the Philokalia into English. In many ways, the Revolution, far from destroying Orthodoxy, created a diaspora that resulted both in the missionary spread of Orthodoxy and the theological flourishing of Orthodox thought.

One thing that might have been helpful would have been a glossary of Orthodox terms. Non-Orthodox readers may find themselves at a loss confronting terms like “hesychia” or “Archimandrite” or “Palamite.” Louth does include a helpful bibliography following the chapters of the book including books both by and about the different thinkers. This, and his chapters on each thinker, provides a doorway to further exploring the makers of modern Orthodoxy.

This review summary makes this sound like just so many names, but what Louth does is bring these people to life, with photographs, biographies, and a focus on their distinctive theological contributions, often given to us in their own words. The Orthodox would contend that it is really the rest of us who have split off from them and that they represent a Christianity connected to both conciliar and patristic Christianity. The book acquaints us with how these modern Orthodox thinkers have appropriated these sources, including the collection of writings that make up the Philokalia, to address the spiritual concerns of modern men and women. In recent years, both Protestants and Catholics have been rediscovering these sources as well. Might the Orthodox have something to teach us of the love of God and neighbor, of how God might be encountered afresh in liturgy, in silence, and in life? Louth’s book might help us discover some of those to whom we may listen.

Review: The Pastor as Public Theologian

Pastor as Public TheologianThe Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Summary: The authors contend that at the heart of the pastoral calling is a vision of doing theology with the people of God, pointing them to what God is doing in and through the Christ, and how they may participate in that work.

The central thesis of this book addresses something I’ve long thought–that there is a growing divide between those who teach and write theology, and those who teach and shepherd the people of God. Many theological works on issues that are actually important for the life of the people of God read as written only for the academic guild of theologians. Meanwhile, pastors increasingly are viewed as those who are church growth technicians, counselors, and inspirational worship leaders. The authors contend rather that pastors are public theologians, in that they communicate the truth that is in Christ to the people of God, who then bear witness to Christ in every sphere of public life.

The authors then develop this thesis using four of the disciplines that classically define the theological academy: biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology. They seek to show that the core of what is taught in these disciplines is in fact not something to be confined to the academy but is vital to the life of the church.

Under biblical theology, they consider the prophet, priest, and king roles as they find fulfillment in Christ and are expressed in pastorates that are prophetic, telling forth the word of God; priestly as those who minister grace in the message of the gospel; and kingly in both speaking wisdom and serving diligently as did the servant King.

With regard to historical theology Owen Strachan traces the pastorate from the earliest days, through monasticism and scholasticism, into the reformation and the Puritan and Edwardsian expressions in early America, to the professionalization of the pastorate, and an Evangelical recovery in the twentieth century. In this section, it seems the reformers, Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards are held in highest esteem as approaching the model of public theologians the writers envision.

Then Kevin Vanhoozer turns to systematic theology. He makes a startling contention here: that pastor-theologians both cultivate life and cope with death and that much of their work is helping people who inevitably will die understand how to live in light of this. It is a ministry of teaching the indicatives of theology: what is already reality for us through new life in Christ. It is ministry of the word: cultivating both biblical literacy and a biblically-informed cultural literacy. And it is the ministry of the imperative: how we should then live in light of the realities true of us in Christ.

Finally, Vanhoozer discusses practical theology, and the work of pastors as artisans in the house of God through the work of Evangelist, proclaiming what is in Christ in counsel, visitation, and sermon; the work of Catechist, as teaching what is in Christ through careful instruction of new converts and all of God’s people; the work of Liturgist in worship, prayer, and communion; and the work of Apologist, demonstrating what is in Christ against the alternatives that are in error.

Each section of the book is concluded with testimony from one of twelve practicing pastor-theologians. These are a highlight of the book in many ways in practically translating theory into theological practice. It was striking how many emphasized the priority of study and wide reading as essential to the life of the pastor-theologian. Lastly, the book concludes with fifty-five theses that essentially are a summary of the main points of the book.

If I were to have any reservation with this book, it would be that it should more accurately be titled “The Male Reformed Pastor as Public Theologian”. Both authors and all twelve contributors are men writing and, in the case of the twelve, pastoring churches in the Reformed tradition. Yet I would contend that this theological perspective is not central to the contention the book makes, with which I would heartily agree, but it may serve to limit the book’s audience. I would contend that Martin Luther King, Jr. was just as much a public theologian as Harold John Ockenga, and King’s leadership in the civil rights movement is perhaps the signature example in the twentieth century of the impact public theology can have both upon the people of God and the public square. The contention these authors are making for the noble role of pastor as public theologian, indeed public intellectual, is vital both for the equipping of a people of God saturated by a secular culture, and for the engagement of that culture. I hope it can contribute to a wider conversation throughout the church of the vital role pastor-theologians can play in equipping the church for a witness both cogent and charitable in a world that desperately needs it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”