Q&R: Famous Niebuhr Quote — What Do You Think? (Part 1)

Here’s the Question:

Hi Brian. I continue to appreciate your facebook postings. They are always thought provoking. I also appreciate your efforts to build bridges between different points of view. As I look at theological trends, especially of mainline protestantism, I am reminded of a quote from H Richard Niebuhr, descibing his assessment of liberal theology. He writes, “a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross.” I would like to hear your response to this. From what you have seen, do Niebuhr’s concerns apply to today?

Here’s My Response:

Because I grew up in conservative Evangelicalism, I heard this quote quite a lot. It was our way of stereotyping our nemesis, liberal Mainline Protestants (MLPs) – who were essential to our self-definition, since we identified ourselves in opposition to them. From time to time people send me the quote via Facebook or my website, suggesting, I think, that it characterizes me. So let me respond in two ways, first with a reflection on MLP’s (today), and then with more personal reflections (next week).

As for context, the quote comes from 1937. By that time, turn-of-the-century “social gospel” liberalism had achieved many if not most of its immediate aims. (For more on this, see Paul Rauschenbusch’s new edition of Christianity and the Social Crisis …) Great progress had been made in worker safety, urban housing, and labor organizing. Any movement that achieves its aims either sets new goals or declines, and by Niebuhr’s time, the social gospel’s new goals were not clear. MLP’s settled into being the chaplains of the American century.

Niebuhr stood with Barth as an advocate of Neo-orthodoxy – a middle way between what he saw as a bland social-gospel liberalism on the one hand and a bold but reactionary fundamentalism on the other (the Scopes trial had occurred just 12 years earlier).

The essence of the critique was that liberal theology was like decaf coffee or warm Coke sans fizz. Boring and pointless. If divine wrath, human sin, and divine judgment aren’t the problem, what good is Christianity? What does it solve?

Based on my experience, I think Niebuhr’s negative diagnosis does describe some MLP congregations today. Words like “nice, pleasant,” and “calm” describe them. Words like “exciting, robust, dynamic, effective” don’t. Often, they are led by pastors who are nearing retirement; one has the sense that the goal is to hang on for another year or two and let somebody else face the problems of “shrinking and wrinkling” – declining numbers and advancing age. These churches feel like cradles or rocking chairs … comforting, familiar, safe … gently rocking their members to sleep with a lullaby and a prayer. There are fewer and fewer of these churches around, I think. Post-christendom, people don’t feel a great need for national religious chaplaincy.

At the other extreme, many people don’t realize how many MLP churches are opposed to all things liberal. (Many of these congregations are leaving their denominations for this reason.) People in these congregations may prefer organ music over “contemporary worship,” traditional liturgy over the sing-sermon-sing format, charitable acts over hard-sell evangelism, and books of order/discipline over charismatic personality-pastors. But apart from those cosmetic differences, they could be Southern Baptist or Assemblies of God. (I remember a Methodist minister in the deep South telling me that many Methodists in the South were actually “shallow water Southern Baptists.”)

These churches have a God with much wrath who brings men (sic) with much sin into a heaven after death* through much judgment that is effectively managed through the penal/substitutionary atoning work of Christ upon a cross. (*Going to heaven after death is the focus, not the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth so God’s will is done “on earth as in heaven.” In this way, these churches have little in common with the original social gospel as articulated by Walter Rauschenbusch and others.) In spite of these churches’ denominational labels, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Mike Huckabee have more practical influence on their values and behaviors than John Calvin, John Wesley, Martin Luther, or Thomas Cranmer.

Often, the clergy in these congregations are quite different from their members. Politically and theologically less conservative, they do their best to stretch their congregations without breaking trust. But many ministers are severely disheartened by the gap between the way of seeing God, the Bible, the gospel, and the world that they learned in seminary and the viewpoint their congregations learn from religious and secular media. An hour or two of songs and sermons on Sunday mornings is no match for five days of religious-right-radio during drive time and Fox News at night. Tension simmers.

In between these two groups, I think most MLP’s are trying to find their way forward.

The phrase that describes most MLP churches in my experience is “confused but open.” They are coming to realize that what they’re doing isn’t sustainable. They know that the future will be different from the past and present. They’re organized on a denominational level to do much good (e.g. Methodists organizing to eliminate malaria). But on a congregational level, it’s not sufficiently clear what purposes their committees and polities are intended to achieve beyond maintenance … and for many, they’re even losing ground in that regard.

They think they’ve left some things behind, but they aren’t so sure exactly which ones, and they’re less sure what has replaced those things. They dislike the certainty and culture-wars polemics of more conservative churches to their right, and as a result, are more clear on what they’re against than what they’re for. They’re open for new possibilities … more than even a few years ago. But they’re going to have to make some bold and courageous choices to turn their statistics around and seize the imagination of younger generations.

In Part II, I’ll offer some personal responses to Niebuhr’s famous quote.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Janice Prindle

    I think Niebuhr was just plain wrong. Regardless of whatever label anyone wants to put on theology. Seeing God as love and people as one with God, not inherently evil, and worthy of love, is exactly what put Jesus on the cross. His equations didn’t stack up then and they don’t now.

  • Steve

    I like what Julian of Norwich taught about wrath, i.e., that in God there
    is no wrath, it’s something we make up and impose upon ourselves.

  • Yonah

    Brian’s analysis of mainline is the most accurate I’ve ever read. I look forward to the next part.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Spot on about mainline churches. That most mainline protestant churches espouse a “liberal theology” (often the reason why conservatives say their numbers have declined) is pure myth. The problem with MLCs is that they have lost their prophetic voice. Most wade in a shallow middle that is not inspiring nor vibrant. It foregoes the judgmentalism of conservative fundamentalism (for the most part) regarding personal sex lives but fails to decry any of the excesses that need to be judged . . how we as a society treat other human beings as commodities, the destruction of God’s creation etc. Nor does it seem pastors know how to preach a theology that isn’t stitched to the old played out narratives and assumptions of the past. No-one wants to upset anyone . . .if you want just an hour of some prayer and feel good pat on the backs, you might as well just go to the neighborhood bar

    • Andrew A

      . . .if you want just an hour of some prayer and feel good pat on the backs, you might as well just go to the neighborhood bar
      Amen! It might even do you more good!

  • Y. A. Warren

    “a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross.”

    What if we focused on the exemplary life, rather than the death, of Jesus?

    “Going to heaven after death is the focus, not the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth so God’s will is done “on earth as in heaven.”

    A wise man once said to me, “It’s easy to be perfect if you do nothing.” We must look for The Sacred in our everyday lives, or it seems we are missing the whole point of Jesus’s joyful Jewish life on earth.

  • 1PeterW

    Much of this is accurate, but the idea that “conservative” MLPs are leaving denominations because they prefer organ music or 1940s orders of worship, or even, e.g. the UM Book of Worship’s well-informed Word and Table liturgical framework is far from the case. The churches leaving are the ones who are those closet “shallow water” Southern Baptists in much of their theology, frontier Holiness camp meeting and/or Pentecostal in their worship, and are influenced by right wing religious and secular politics, all of which depart both from historical Wesleyan teaching and current doctrinal affirmations. In some churches there are many “non-discriminators” (“I don’t know much about art [faith], but I know what I like.”) and side-by-side liberals and conservatives who coexist by agreeing not to talk about certain things or to use the same words to mean entirely different things.

  • Andrew A

    Was there wrath poured out on Jesus on the cross anyway? Many sermons say so but does even the bible teach this? Was the cup Jesus submitted to the cup of wrath to spare us,his followers from wrath to come?
    Paul does say Jesus was accursed by hanging on a tree,yet in another place Paul says it’s a sin to call Jesus accursed.
    So is grace God being angry with Jesus unfairly? which was the predetermined plan,so he could unfairly be kind to his believers?
    And this is the God of justice?
    Just be a good Christian,bow and say thank you Amen.?