The purpose of this study is to give a critical exposition of the
theological and ethical thought of H. Richard Nlebuhr (1894-1962). After a brief
introduction to "the man and his work" (Chapter I) the theoretical structure
of his thought is set forth. A relational theory of value centering on the concept of "the center of value" (Chapter II) and a relational theory of action
centering on the concept of "responsibility" (Chapter III) are distinguished and
described. Two main criticisms of the relational theory of value are offered.
First, it is argued that an unexceptionally relational theory of value is Incompatible with Niebuhr's primary theological interest in maintaining the absolute priority and Independence of the being and value of God to all contingent
being and value. Second, it is argued that Niebuhr's radically monotheistic
value theory need not entail (as he thinks it does) the complete relativity of
all finite values and value systems. There is nothing in his relational theory
as such that requires the prohibition of normative ethical principles so necessary for providing guidance for moral decision making. Furthermore, this prohibition seems to be contradicted by other statements made by Nlebuhr, and it is
also inconsistent with his advocacy of such principles for the construction of a
viable Protestant ethic.
Niebuhr developed his relational theory of moral agency—the theory of
"responsibility"—by way of a comparative analysis of teleological and deontological ethics. His chief dissatisfaction with these two traditional ways of conceiving human moral agency lay at the point of the view of man which each presupposes. Both theories accept a view of man that is too individualistic, nonhistorical and intellectualistic. The theory of responsibility accredits itself
as a more adequate conceptual scheme insofar as it embodies a view of man that
avoids these defects. Beyond this, according to Niebuhr, both teleological and
deontological theorists understand the primary moral relation to be between the
self-as-will and previously cognized moral principles, rules or demands. For the
ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, the Tightness or wrongness of specific
moral actions is not determined by universal moral principles or norms, but by the
self's "Interpretation" of the objective moral character of that infinite Being
upon which the self and all finite beings are absolutely dependent.
Both Niebuhr's relational theory of value and of action deny any place
for general moral principles or rules in a theological ethic. The absence of such
rules or principles is directly related to, and in part occasioned by, his understanding of the limitations Imposed on all knowledge of God by his acceptance of
1) a modified version of Kant's distinction between theoretical and practical
reason and of 2) the historically relative character of all knowledge (Chapter
In the final chapter two theological principles are identified which structure Niebuhr's ethics. The principle of "radical monotheism" and the principle of
"transformation" or "conversion" represent Niebuhr's positive answer to two questions that must be asked and answered by any ethic that makes a serious claim to
be a theological ethic. First, "How is God known, and what may be known of him?"
Second, "What are the consequences of this knowledge for understanding and ordering moral experience and action?" Both questions are explored further by means
of a critical analysis of an important essay in which Nlebuhr deals with each.
The answer which he gives to the first question raises two other critical issues.
First, it is argued that Niebuhr falls to maintain the priority of the being and
value of God to all human being and value—a failure which he himself argued was
the major weakness of all post-Kantian liberal theologies—so long as he also
maintains that a sufficient criterion for distinguishing experience of God from
experience of any other being is the satisfaction of the constitutive human need
to know that life is worth living. When Niebuhr stresses the relational and
valuatlonal aspects of his religious eplstemology, his description of knowledge of
God is anthropomorphic. On the other hand, when he addresses himself to the question of what it means to affirm that God reveals himself in historical events, he
so stresses the objectivity and otherness of God that his description of knowledge
of God is agnostic. It this is the case, then the legitimacy, or at least the
adequacy of the "personal-encounter" model of revelation is called in question.
Finally, attention is given to Nlebuhr's description of the transformation
that all our natural religion and morality undergo as a result of receiving the
gift of radical faith in the one God present in all events. Revelation is that
event through which the self is given a new image of God as an absolute unity of
power and goodness by means of which 1t is enabled progressively to reinterpret
all the events of its individual and social existence, past, present and future,
as related in a meaningful universe.