Three Convictions for the New Year

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While browsing at a used bookstore earlier this week with a friend, I came across a book by H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation. I read his brother’s first book a couple months ago, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, and absolutely loved it, so I figured this would be worth reading, not to mention that it is on a topic which holds a lot of interest for me at the moment. Before heading over to a friends’ house to watch (read: wrestle with) their kids while they went to a New Year’s Eve party, I read the preface to The Meaning of Revelation. The paragraph outlining the convictions underlying the study begged to be read several times. Seems like these are good convictions to affirm as we stand at the threshold of another year.

Among the convictions which in part appear explicitly in this study and in part underlie the argument even where they do not become explicit, three seem to be of fundamental importance, though I may presuppose others of which I am less aware. The first is the conviction that self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking and perhaps especially in theology and ethics. I cannot hope to have avoided this error in my effort to state Christian ideas in confessional terms only, but I have at least tried to guard against it.

The second idea is that the great source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God.

The third conviction, which becomes most explicit in the latter part of this essay but underlies the former part, is that Christianity is “permanent revolution” or metanoia which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time. Positively stated these three convictions are that man is justified by grace, that God is sovereign, and that there is an eternal life.


4 Comments

  1. JD

    Thanks for such a challenging passage to start the New Year, Stephen. The quotation take quite a bit of energy to process and time to really understand. I’ll give it my best shot.

    I think Niebuhr is expressing the truth that we have to get outside of ourselves to really understand how God works. Spirituality is so easily bounded by prejudice, self-defense, even cult/religion. The work of God’s prophets in the Bible was to break through these barriers–Christ’s attacks on temple-based theology being the best example.

    Can I reach the point where I leave self behind to see myself (and my neighbor) as God sees them? It is a quest–one aided by this brilliant quotation.

  2. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Thanks for engaging with this passage, JD. It does take a bit of energy to process. I would agree with your thoughts on the passage – and your pursuit to leave self behind to try to see through God’s eyes – but I would also advocate (as Niebuhr does) a humility in the words we use and the positions we hold, realizing that we will never fully achieve that viewpoint, tainted as we are by our humanness.

  3. Myles

    See, I have to differ here: the Niebuhrs ultimately opt for a track called “Christian realism”, which is to say that when dealing with the extra-church world, you can’t deal in Christian terms, but only in analogies. Reinhold does it ways that deny that things like the Sermon on the Mount can have any corporate application for the church, but here’s how Richard plays it out:

    “I cannot hope to have avoided this error in my effort to state Christian ideas in confessional terms only, but I have at least tried to guard against it.” So when Niebuhr writers this, he has in mind that one cannot speak of revelation in only Christian terms, but in terms that are publicly identifiable. He does that, in part, so that Christians aren’t defensive about their own language (first paragraph), but also so the result of defining revelation in terms that aren’t captured by religion, etc. (2nd paragraph). His concern is that Christianity shouldn’t be identified with religion. Fair enough. There’s a lot of crap in religion. But, does this mean that we should go the opposite road and NOT identify revelation in Christian terms?

    The problem here is that in Niebuhr’s scheme that anything which corresponds to the idea of revelation works, whereas Christ came in a specific way in a specific life–not in everything. Through Christ, we can see all things, but it doesn’t work the other way around: the revelatory power of God is everywhere, but we know who God is through Christ, so that the world now has a lens, a standard by which we can say what is the working of God.

    The way that Niebuhr sets it up in describing revelation as something extra-religious FIRST gets the cart before the horse and ultimately makes it impossible for Christians to ever identify what is NOT God, by locating revelation in phenomenon instead of centering revelation in Christ. For example, if we start with a general idea of revelation, why can’t things like genocide be revelatory? It fits the general concepts of “power”, and “might”, right? Genocide isn’t revelatory precisely because we start with the specific revelation of Christ and see the anti-Christ character of genocide as death and destruction and exclusion.

    Just my thoughts: it’s a challenging book, but I worry for where it ends up.

  4. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Thanks for the comment, Myles. As I said above, I have just started this book, so I am not yet able to defend or further explain Niebuhr’s positions from my perspective. But I appreciate your words. I’ll keep them in mind as I read.

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