For the past four decades Reinhold Niebuhr has significantly involved himself in a broad range of contemporary issues. A cursory glance at his writings will reveal his response to ethical, social, political and theological problems. This diversity of concern Niebuhr has focused around certain elemental factors which offer unity and perspective to his wide variety of writings. One of these factors is power. In what follows, the elemental significance of power in Niebuhr’s thought will be sketched with special attention to its theological implications.

Niebuhr has written, “All life is an expression of power. Human life, as other life, must have power to exist. The relation of life to life is therefore a relation of power to power” (“Politics and the Christian Ethic,” Christianity and Society, Spring, Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 24). This relation of “life to life” being defined as a relation of “power to power” Niebuhr employs as a tool both for analysis and construction.

The analyzing of life into power relationships is most evident in Niebuhr’s response to social problems. Human society is found to consist of various centers of power. For example, a center of power is a class, such as the capitalist or the proletariat class. There is a political center of power in the government. The church as a social organization is a center of power, and lesser centers of power are human families. The human community is a multiplicity of power centers.

These multiple power centers which constitute society are the source of social problems. They live in constant tension one with another. There is among them a degree of harmony which makes social life possible, but this harmony is never permanent. Power centers in society remain competitive and potentially threatening in their mutual relations. They are not only self-centering, but move toward the domination of all rivals. An illustration of this latter social movement is the class struggle. In his early writings Niebuhr quite uncritically accepts the Marxian analysis of history. With Marx he sees the dynamics of society as being primarily a power clash between capitalism and the proletariat.

After subjecting social power to a more detailed investigation Niebuhr moves beyond Marx. Where Marx defines social power as economic, Niebuhr progressively uncovers in social power a whole complex of natural, rational and spiritual factors. In brief, the most important factor that Marx neglected was the spiritual. In so doing Marx oversimplified the whole problem of historical and social power.

Article continues below

The spiritual dimension as a source of power is elaborated in Niebuhr’s analysis of man. He begins with man as an existing individual. Such a beginning diverges radically from the traditional approach to anthropology. Man is basically interpreted not along a historical horizontal continuum from creation forward to the present, but in a vertical continuum of consciousness. Man consists of various vertical levels of consciousness. These levels comprehend existence. They existentially ascend from nature, through reason, to the highest level which is spirit. These vertical levels of consciousness have a focal unity in the “self.” Consciousness in man is unified into self-consciousness.

The self is a given unity of power. Its environment is nature, reason, and spirit. Within this environment the selfdynamically exists. It exists with the inherent power to explore and exploit its total environment of nature, reason, and spirit. With this basic assumption that the self is a unity of power capable of exploring and exploiting its natural, rational, and spiritual environment, Niebuhr analyzes and constructs the nature of man. Anthropology becomes primarily a systematizing of selfhood through self-analysis.

According to Niebuhr a rigorous analysis of the self and its activity reveals an insoluble dilemma. The dilemma is situated particularly in the power aspect of the self. The self has the power to rise above or transcend its natural environment. This is manifest when the self through reason takes certain facts of nature and re-arranges them into a new level of coherence. A new level of coherence may be the rational reconstruction of facts and processes in nature into a technological product, such as a machine, or the rational reconstruction of human life into some new form of community and conceptual order. The latter forms of rational reconstruction may range from a simple communal order, such as a group of families organized into a tribe, to a detailed philosophy attempting to place the totality of life within a conceptual order. In either case a new level of coherence is produced through the power of the self to transcend its natural environment and, through reason, to indefinitely extend life into ever new orders, systems, and arrangements. This dynamic activity of the self through transcendence over its natural and rational surroundings produces scientific development, culture, and historical progress.

Article continues below
The Self and “Anxiety”

The transcending power of the self over nature and reason eventually reaches the level of spirit. The level of spirit is reached when the self raises its achievements, the new coherences and orders that it creates, to a context of ultimate purpose and meaning. On the level of spirit the self projects a final goal for its product to fulfill. For clarification let us trace out an example of how the self will raise a new coherence of natural facts to the level of spirit.

Atomic energy is a product which the self or man has produced by transcending nature. The processes and givens of nature, through a rational reordering and rearrangement, have by man been raised into a new coherence which is a technological product called atomic energy. This technological product is raised still higher or transcends nature to a yet greater degree when man or the self projects for this product purposes and goals. There are immediate goals which remain close to nature. In reference to atomic energy such goals may be electrical power or powerful submarines. Goals, meanings and purposes reach the level of spirit when they become more ultimate and final. When atomic energy is interpreted as meaning human progress and lasting security it is involved in the realm of spirit. When the self projects such terminal goals as human progress and lasting security it is involved on the level of spirit which is the terminal level of life.

As soon as man raises his achievements to the level of spirit ethical dilemmas and contradictions arise. For example, atomic energy is a great technological achievement that readily seems to offer to man the more ultimate goals of progress and security. It has the potential to promote human welfare and to win a position of security. However, this same atomic energy can be given the goal not of progress but of destruction, not of security but of constant insecurity. In fact both goals for atomic energy coexist right now in this world.

This dilemma, as exemplified in atomic energy, of confronting both progress and destruction, security and insecurity is expressive of the basic dilemma in all human power. This self has power to accomplish great achievements, but all its achievements are subject to the ethical ambiguity of progress and destruction, security and insecurity.

Within this dilemma man has proved himself ethically weaker than he is willing to admit. He corrupts his achievements in two ways. On the one hand he ascribes to his achievements an unwarranted progress and security. On the other hand he obscures in his achievements their destructiveness and insecurity. All historical accomplishments, ranging from the simple technological ones to the construction of complex conceptual and philosophical systems, are more or less corrupted by man on the level of spirit. Man inevitably interprets his accomplishments as being more ultimately perfect and secure than they actually are.

Article continues below

Man will not understand his ethical dilemma and his inevitable acts of sin until he understands his nature. In human nature there is a deep spiritual consciousness which Niebuhr terms anxiety. Out of anxiety arises power. This power drives the self into transcendence over nature and reason. It motivates man toward scientific progress and historical achievement. However, anxiety by definition can never rest content with mere historical accomplishments. Anxiety is that deep spiritual drive in search of ultimate perfection and final security which means God. But man, as fallen man and sinner, prematurely attempts to satisfy his anxiety with something human and historical. He takes his achievements or something in history and makes them false gods. He may take anything, a simple stone, a machine or a system of thought, deify it, call it an absolute or claim it to be a source of ultimate perfection and security in order to abate his anxiety.

These false solutions to anxiety result in intolerance and conflict among men. A false god or absolute will not satisfy human anxiety. It will keep man basically insecure. In his insecurity man will resort to pretense and pride in order to maintain his claim that his particular achievement or system of thought is the absolute. In his pretension and pride man is betrayed into using his power of transcendence over nature and reason destructively. Pride tempts man into using his power for dominating others. Pride also provokes opponents into using their power defensively and offensively. This power tension, because of conflicting pretentious claims to false absolutes, accounts for man’s intolerance of man.

Power for Niebuhr, whether rooted in society or the existing individual man, is filled with ethical ambiguity and duplicity. The relation of “life to life” as a relation of “power to power” unavoidably makes history filled with ethical tension and discord. This conception of historical power forms much of the background to Niebuhr’s reconstruction of theology. He makes his theology conform with and answer to the problem of power as uncovered in society and man.

Article continues below

Niebuhr has challengingly traced out the fundamental character of power in the social and individual experiences of man. His diagnosis of power relationships disturbingly corresponds to human experience. Society does manifest various power centers vying for prominence and living in constant ethical tension. Man does experience life as an ambiguous power that offers both opportunities of progress and destruction. Power in life does have a deep motivation of anxiety that deludes man into creating false gods, false absolutes, and pretentious claims. Niebuhr has so convincingly analyzed human experience that no one can read him without engaging in some form of self-indictment. He makes human experience witness to its immoral and unethical use of power.

Divergence from the Christian View

The juncture at which Niebuhr’s argument makes its great impact is also the juncture at which it crucially diverges from historic Christianity. This juncture is experience. Niebuhr with exceptional ability traces out the function of power as it is found in human experience, but a power in history which by origin and nature is free and independent of experience Niebuhr does not adopt as a starting position. Historic Christianity has as one of its fundamental assumptions the existence of a power in history which in origin and nature is to be completely differentiated from the limitations of our present experience. This is the redeeming power of God fully incarnated in Jesus Christ, revealed through Scripture and presently operative through the Holy Spirit. This redeeming power of God unto salvation is unique and self-defining. It enters and radically effects our experience, but its reality cannot be qualified by or more conformable to our experience.

Redemptive power, particularly as it has been incarnated in Jesus Christ, Niebuhr has reconstructed to fit the dimensions and limitations of human experience. Human experience reveals that no form of historical power and achievement is without ethical and moral ambiguity. Analysis discloses that all forms of social and individual power corrupt themselves by prematurely claiming perfection and security at the expense of others. In brief the historical plane cannot embody a power capable of offering perfect and final security. In order to make the doctrine of Christ fit this conclusion about historical power, it is reconstructed into trans-historical categories. According to the conclusion of Niebuhr the perfection of Christ must have a locus on some plane of existence other than the historical. This Niebuhr achieves by introducing the non-biblical category’ of the trans-historical.

Article continues below
The Shadows of Docetism

The trans-historical category, though a modern term, is related to a very old problem in Christology. The problem in the history of doctrine is termed Docetism. In its early and primitive form Docetism rejected the reality of the physical body of Christ. Christ had only the appearance of a body. What is really the issue, though stated at first in an elementary way, is the true and complete historicity of Jesus Christ. In its later and more refined forms Docetism qualifies the historicity of Christ. In one way or another Docetism attempts to define Christ independent of his history as found in the Gospels. This may be done radically by rejecting all historical data or by being selective. In being selective certain data are considered irrelevant or discarded and others theologically normative.

When handling the subject of perfection in Christology Niebuhr selects the cross as the only normative datum. The cross is the locus where the power of Christ is ultimately perfect and secure. “For faith has consistently regarded the Cross as the point in history where the sinful rivalries of ego with ego are transcended; and it has not tried with too much consistency to fit every action of the historical Jesus into the symbol of this perfection” (Human Destiny, p. 73).

In defining the cross as “symbol” it is further abstracted from history. The necessity of further abstraction is that perfect power and history cannot be coextensive. History cannot embody perfection. As “symbol” the cross makes transparent and meaningful to history the perfect power that history cannot embody. This discontinuity between perfect power and the historical cross as “symbol” is theologically comprehended within the category of the trans-historical.

This whole reformulation of Christology raises serious questions similar to the ones that any Docetic approach raises. Is Christ really historical or is he not? To abstract Christ out of his historical setting as given in the New Testament and to select one datum as being normative comes perilously close to making Christ nonhistorical.

Christian Theology and Power

Niebuhr assumes power to be one of the basic elements in life. Life constitutes a multiplicity of powers. In man power is unified into selfhood. In selfhood power functions on three levels, the natural, rational, and spiritual. These are vertical levels in the consciousness and experience of man. The self operates on all these levels. These levels can never be ethically unified. The natural and rational never meet the full demands of the spiritual. The unfulfilled demands of the spirit are disclosed in human anxiety. Anxiety in human consciousness which keeps motivating man towards the true spiritual, the eternal, or God never meets God in the forms and categories of nature, reason or history. In his anxiety man believes that he has the power to grasp the absolute or God in natural and historical categories, but all such attempts are abortive.

Article continues below

The conclusions about power that Niebuhr draws from experience he makes determinative for his interpretation of theology. The implications of such an interpretation reduce perfection in Christology to one significant event, the cross. The cross is further accommodated to the assumed structure of consciousness by being transposed into a “symbol.” In consciousness the spiritual never ethically harmonizes with the natural and rational level. The cross as a revelation of perfect spiritual power and security cannot be continuous with rational and natural categories. Its discontinuity with the rational and natural levels of human consciousness and history is preserved bv Niebuhr by means of the existential category, the trans-historical.

Niebuhr’s concept of power has implications for every branch of theology. Its crucial difference with historic Christianity originates in methodology. Historic Christianity begins not with the complexity of experience, but the Bible. In the Bible the power of God is not in structural conflict with history. The great message of the Bible is that the perfect power of God is in history. It is readily spoken of as entering history in the Old Testament (Deut. 4:37; 8:18; Isa. 40:29). It becomes fully incarnated in Christ (John 1:14), and is communicated to the Christian through the Spirit and faith (Acts 1:8). The impossibility of a perfect power in history is not the conclusion on which to build theology. Christian theology must begin with the simple good news that a perfect power is in history. “It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth …” (Rom. 1:16).


South Olive Christian Reformed Church

Holland, Michigan

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.