25 August 2006

Niebuhr’s Presuppositions 1

“How should a Christian view his obligations to society?” As I said before, we are going to use the seminal work of Richard Niebuhr, The Cross of Christ. Niebuhr’s five classifications are exceptionally valuable for understanding the different ways the church has typically understood its obligation to culture. However, substantially harmful presuppositions often colored Niebuhr’s analysis of church history.

So I’ll get to a description of Niebuhr’s five historical types very soon, but first it will be helpful to understand something of Niebuhr’s background. To state it briefly, Niebuhr is a liberal Trinitarian, and a postmillennial universalist. But I’ll only get to the “liberal” part today.

As far as the Scriptures are concerned, Niebuhr evidently took a basically liberal stance. Instead of submitting to the authoritative truth claims of the Scriptures, Niebuhr believes each author of Scripture was communicating merely his own understanding of his relationship with God or Christ. He does not understand each author to have communicated God’s truth infallibly. This assumption is nowhere more obvious than when Niebuhr places the different authors of Scripture into different historical categories: each contradicting the others. The idea of a revealed, inerrant, coherent book the very words and authority of which originated in the mind of God himself is out of the question.

As a result of his low view of Scripture, Niebuhr lacks attention to how the various groups understood the Scriptures as a whole. He focuses narrowly on the commands of Jesus as they relate to culture, but he does not adequately treat their view of the authority of the Scriptures as a whole. If he would have taken this category into more thorough consideration, he may have placed Luther and Calvin in closer relation to each other, and he would have placed himself in a camp separate from each of them.

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