Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

Modern Thinkers, II

From: JASA 13 (June 1961): 56-57.

Another monograph in the series, "Modern Thinkers," published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, is the essay by G. Brillenburg Wurth, Niebuhr. Like Dr. Herman Ridderbos, whose Bultmann we reviewed in our last column, Brillenburg Wurth is a professor at the theological school in Kampen, the Netherlands.

In dependence upon Davies, Brillenburg Wurth approaches Niebuhr's development through his experiences as a pastor in Detroit, which led to his break with liberalism and his development of a realistic theology. Not without some redundancy, a second factor in Niebuhr's development is discovered in his struggle against liberalism, orthodoxy, and Marxism. After this discussion, which revolves around the anthropology of certain of Niebuhr's earlier major works, Brillenburg Wurth turns to a discussion of some other aspects of Niebuhr's mature theology, namely, his view of the redemptive work of Christ and the revelation of the kingdom of God. The monograph then closes with a general evaluation.

In assessing this monograph, it is impossible for me to be unequivocal. It is possible to raise objections to certain details in the presentation. It is, for example, very doubtful that Niebuhr is as directly under the influence of Heidegger as Brillenburg Wurth claims (p. 30). It is also quite doubtful that Niebuhr now believes in the literal resurrection of Christ from the dead (p. 35). As late as his reply to his critics in the Library of Living Theology he threw doubt on the literal resurrection. To my mind Brillenburg Wurth also sadly overrates the major American denominations as a model of powerful activity" (p. 12).

It might also be possible to question this monograph on more fundamental scores. In his concluding criticism of Niebuhr, Brillenburg Wurth finds Niebuhr to be ". . . one of the most dangerous representatives of a new type of theology, usually classified in America as neo-orthodoxy" (p. 40). Like that of Bultmann, Niebuhr's theology is one of accommodation, having received its stamp from the dominant philosophy of the day, existentialism. Niebuhr lacks a clear-cut Biblical starting point, misunderstanding the doctrine of creation, etc. "In its place is substituted the Kierkegaardian dialectical opposition between time and eternity. And this dialectical tension is characteristic of Niebuhr's theology in all its manifestations" (pp. 40, 41). And yet, in an unwarranted irenic mood, Brillenburg Wurth says, "But, in the last analysis Niebuhr is gripped by the message of the Gospel. The Gospel has again become the only word of redemption, the only solution to the needs of a spiritually uprooted society" (p. 39).

It is nevertheless true, that in the course of his discussion Brillenburg Wurth opens up perspectives which to my mind are indispensable for the understanding of Reinhold Niebuhr, and which have not received enough attention among Niebuhr's American evangelical critics. I refer to Brillenburg Wurth's somewhat sporadic discussions of the dialectical structure of Niebuhr's thought, which he himself summarizes in his statement that the Kierkegaadian dialectic is characteristic of Niebuhr's thought in all its manifestations. If one keeps in mind that Niebuhr does not view the timeeternity dialectic precisely as Kierkegaard did, this statement is quite true. Brillenburg Wurth introduces his discussion of dialectic in connection with Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, and he continues to remark on it. To my mind, his comments are often valuable. It is only regrettable that when he was organizing his monograph he did not give Niebuhr's dialectic the prominent position he himself claims for it, The work would have been greatly improved had it been built more consistently around Niebuhr's dialectic and a criticism of this basic structure of Niebuhr's thought.

In spite of its weaknesses this monograph can serve as a corrective to certain American efforts to criticize Niebuhr, which offer splendid criticisms in detail, but then go on basically to accept the very dialectical structure around which Niebuhr's theology is built. For this reason I believe this monograph can make a contribution to our discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Westminster Theological Seminary Chestnut Hill

Philadelphia 18, Pa. May 4, 1961.