Richard Fox compiles a very informative, but complex resource in his full-scale biography about America's greatest twentieth-century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Although sometimes over-indulging the reader with somewhat trivial facts, the material covered provides an in-depth portrayal of the life of this religious thinker, political organizer, preacher, and famed teacher.
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892. He was the son of a pastor in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, Gustav, who had immigrated to America in 1878 and then attended Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri, which was associated with the German Evangelical Synod of North America. Karl's father had a tremendous impact on his life. Daily, Gustav read from the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. His father considered himself an American and a liberal. Reinhold took hold of his father's liberal values and followed his example to Eden Seminary in 1912.
Niebuhr studied at Eden for a year and then entered Yale Divinity School, receiving both bachelor's and master's degrees within two years. In 1915, the mission board of his denomination sent him to Detroit as pastor where he served for 13 years. The congregation numbered 65 on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 when he left. In 1928, Niebuhr became Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
During the Great Depression, Niebuhr became a leading spokesmen for "religious socialism," a political ideology drawn from both clergy and laity who took seriously both the "prophetic" moral values of the Bible and the apparently insoluble contradictions of the capitalist system. During the early 30's he supported socialist candidates, but became disenchanted with socialist politics and, in 1940, voted for Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat (Fox 45).
In 1932, Niebuhr wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, his first significant writing. In 1952, he wrote The Irony of American History in which he shared with his readers the various struggles - political, ideological, moral and religious - in which he participated. His writings reflect "a penetrating criticism of the Social Gospel liberalism of his youth and his search for alternatives" (245). He tried to synthesize various elements of Marxism and Christianity. However both his political experience and his deepening Christian values caused him to abandon the work in favor of an ideology he called "Christian Realism". These views meshed the Augustinianism of the Reformation with his own hard-won political wisdom. His views were formulated in The Nature and Destiny of Man, a book considered to be the magnum opus and comes as close as he ever came to a systematic presentation of his practical theology (215). Niebuhr made perceptive observations on the human condition, emphasizing its social and political aspects. Niebuhr, more than any other, was able to see the good and bad of the fundamentalist-liberal controversy. He became a mediator between them. No other theologian has made such a deep impact upon the social sciences. For two decades his ideas were the most important influence on theology in American seminaries.
Niebuhr gave his life to the application of theology in the ethical and political arena. He focused more on the doctrine of man than on the doctrine of God, and it showed more concern for life in society than for life in the church. Consequently, he has been criticized for showing more interest in the paradoxes of human life than in the salvation offered through Christ (36). In addition, Niebuhr believed the theologian must describe God in the thought forms of our world. He believed theology attempted to express the dimension of depth in life. Niebuhr used the term "myth" often. By this, he meant that although it deceives, it nonetheless points to a truth. We must take "myths" seriously, but not literally. For example, the story of Adam and Eve was not historical, rather a mythical statement of the situation on every man and woman.
Niebuhr thought that doctrines affirming the divinity and humanity of Jesus verge on contradiction in that they ascribe both conditioned and unconditioned qualities to him. Niebuhr thought it possible for a historical person symbolically to point beyond himself to an unconditioned eternity, but considered it impossible for any person to be historical and unconditioned at the same time. (Nature and Destiny II, 61).
Richard Fox, a distinguished historian, researcher, and professor of history and humanity at Reed College, views Reinhold Niebuhr as the most important twentieth century theologian. Fox has expressed significant interest in religion and culture in modern America, and uses Niebuhr as a focal point for those studies. Fox appears to educate and express himself extremely well and uses an innumerable amount of resources. Anyone interested in the life of Reinhold Niebuhr will find this biography to be a central, detailed source for almost all information. However, this book probably should be used only as a reference source, not as a weekend read except for historians or advanced theology students. The amount of material is sometimes overwhelming and difficult to remember. Re-reading is necessary with this work. In all, this biography is a well organized, definitive resource for detailed information about the life, practices, thoughts, and teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr.