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The Kingdom of God in America Paperback – October 1, 1988
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"A truly seminal book."―Perry Miller
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Paperback : 247 pages
- ISBN-10 : 081956222X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0819562227
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.56 x 8.5 inches
- Publisher : Wesleyan University Press; 1st edition (October 1, 1988)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #829,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Robert Frankenfeld, MD
He wrote in the Preface to this 1937 book, “The following chapters attempt to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which finds its center in the faith in the kingdom of God… it can be suggested only vaguely and in outline. In [The Social Sources of Denominationalism] I sought to discover the nature of the relation of religion to culture and to throw light on the complexity of American Christianity by examining the influence of social forces on faith and by tracing the sociological patterns of race, class and sectional interests as it manifested itself in denominations. This account left me dissatisfied at a number of points… the sociological approach… did not explain the Christian movement which produced these churches… it did not explain the unity which our faith possesses despite its variety… it left unexplained the faith… which molds culture instead of being molded by it… The pursuit of these and related problems led me to renewed study of American Christianity…” (Pg. ix-x)
He continues, “The attempt to analyze American Christianity by means of this idea of the kingdom on earth failed. It was simply impossible to force Puritans, Quakers, and the great leaders and movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into the mold of the modern social gospel… Kingdom on earth without the sovereignty of God and reign of Christ was meaningless… If the danger of Puritanism lay in its effort to attain security by means of faith in divine sovereignty alone, and if the danger of Evangelicalism lay in the tendency to make sufficient the reign of Christ within all, the danger of the social gospel was in its idealism and in its tendency to deny the presuppositions on which it was based. Christianity… could follow its grand line, avoiding the perils to right and left, if it remembered not only its goal but also its starting point… Such is the theme of ‘The Kingdom of God in America.’” (Pg. xi-xiii)
He states in the Introduction, “we ask today whether there is in the history of American Christianity a pattern… Perhaps it might not only indicate the meaning of the present situation of Christians in America, but might also illustrate something of the significance of Christianity as a universal faith which must nevertheless take on particular historical and relative character, whether in Italy or America, whether in the thirteenth or in the twentieth century.” (Pg. 2)
He observes, “Protestantism could not fail to draw the conclusion that renunciation of power by the church was the inescapable corollary of its acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God. Whereas others had said… that because God is king therefore we … have a right to rule in his name, the gospel required Protestants to say, because God is king we---who are always prone to pride and sin---have no right or reason to assume rule… Nevertheless the religious life needed to be organized, and mere reference to the divine Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler of the church seemed to leave the way open … to all the wild plans of self-appointed spokesmen for God. It was good to say that the Word of God alone should rule the church, but… who was to declare it, when and where and to whom was it to be proclaimed, by whom enforced?... Was not the alternative … between an authoritative church and the religious anarchy of wild sectarianism in which every group and every individual could claim to speak for God?” (Pg. 33-34)
He points out, “America became the land of opportunity. Here Protestantism could turn from protest and conflict to construction… There were no settled institutions defending the special privileges of the religiously, politically or economically powerful; but by the same token there were no social organizations of any kind to provide for orderly procedure in the conduct of men with men. Whatever else then America came to be, it was also an experiment in constructive Protestantism.” (Pg. 43)
He summarizes, “through insistence upon constitutionalism, upon the primacy and independence of the church, and upon the limitation of all human power, the faith in the kingdom of God became a constructive thing in early America. It brought forth a movement which had definite meaning and character despite the rich variants of its manifestations. Though Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers and sectarians may have believed that in America they might construct a society of secure institutions in which to dwell until the end of time, their obedience to the sovereign God led them to produce something better---a life directed toward the infinite goal.” (Pg. 86-87)
He notes, “the kingdom of Christ into which the revivalists bade men press in dependence on God’s grace was not identified with the visible church… The kingdom of Christ was understood … [as] the rule of self-restraint in lives which had become repentant of their evil tendency… The kingdom of Christ was the rule of sincerity in lives which had been made to understand the deviousness and trickery of the well loved ego… The kingdom of Christ was the liberty of those … who reflected in their lives the measure of their knowledge and devotion.” (Pg. 104-105)
He states, “The expectation of the coming kingdom upon earth which the Quakers had brought with them and the Great Awakening had made vivid was nurtured by the continuing revival until it became the dominant idea in American Christianity… Among the Christians of America… the optimism of the nineteenth century was intimately connected with the experience of the anticipated Christian revolution.” (Pg. 150-151)
He says, “[Walter] Rauschenbusch and their colleagues carried with them a vision and a promise which had been written … [in the] nation-wide experience of the resurrection… So their children were directed to march in their own time toward the coming kingdom not by a rationalism which regarded cross and resurrection, redemption and atonement, as ancient superstitions, or by liberalism which denied the divine sovereignty, but by their memory of a loyalty to the kingdom of God which has not been ashamed of the gospel.” (Pg. 163)
But in modern times, he laments [in the most famous passage in this book], “Since no reconciliation to the divine sovereign was necessary the reign of Christ, in the new interpretation, involved no revolutionary events in history of the life of individuals… In similar manner the idea of the coming kingdom was robbed of its dialectical element. It was thought to be growing out of the present so that no great crisis needed to intervene between the order of grace and the order of glory… this liberalism was indeed naively optimistic. A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Pg. 193)
This is an important work of American theology, that will be “must reading” for serious students of the subject.
Niebuhr begins The Kingdom of God in America, writing:
“The following chapters attempt to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which find its center in the faith in the kingdom of God.” (ix)
This is a bold claim which echoes Jesus’ early teaching following that of John the Baptist in the synoptic Gospels:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15 ESV)
Niebuhr goes on to observe:
“In the early period of American life, which foundations were laid on which we have all had to build, ‘kingdom of God’ meant ‘sovereignty of God’; in the creative period of awakening and revival it meant ‘reign of Christ’; and only in the most recent period had it come to mean ‘kingdom on earth’”. (xii)
Niebuhr expands on this introduction citing three convictions. The first conviction is that: “The true church is not an organization but the organic movement of those who have been ‘called out’ and ‘sent’” (xiv). The second conviction is that this movement is dialectical:
“expressed in worship and in work, in the direction toward God and the direction toward the world which is loved in God, in the pilgrimage toward the eternal kingdom and in the desire to make his will real on earth.” (xv)
The third conviction is that: “American Christianity and American culture cannot be understood at all save on the basis of faith in a sovereign, living, loving God.” (xvi)
In launching into this historical study of American Protestantism, Niebuhr takes as a presupposition that faith in Christ is not an epiphenomenon, by which Marxian interpreters mean a secondary consequence (4), but rather fundamental to understanding who we are. Much like the exodus from Egypt is the touchstone of Jewish identity; our identity likewise lies in our faith experience. An historical exploration of our faith origins is likely therefore to yield insights into our present and our future and patterns that we might discern (1). The present challenge being the preservation of “American civilization.” (5)
This heady charge for a book written in 1937 deserves a bit of attention. In 1937, the split between fundamentalists and liberals in the American Presbyterian church (1925) was still fresh and incompletely consolidated (Longfield 2013, 158), in part, because even liberals still grew up steeped in the church and cultural accommodation in response to postmodernism was still in its infancy. In 1937, the Great Depression was ongoing, the Second World War had yet to include the United States, and the evangelical revival of the Billy Graham years (1940s through 1960s), a response, in part, to the split, the depression, and the war, was just getting started. The idea that a book written in 1937 would in some measure anticipate the problem of secularism—the challenge of preservation of American civilization—in the postmodern period is simply astounding. Yet, clearly the seeds had already been planted.
These seeds are real and Niebuhr characterization of liberal Protestantism, which is widely cited, comes in a single sentence:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” (193)
While this characterization might be hotly debated, it is worth pointing out that Niebuhr himself generously spoke about the dialectical nature (conviction two above) of Christian faith that could encompass both liberal and evangelical articulations of faith, at least at in characterizations.
Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) received his doctorate from Yale University (1924) and taught ethics there for several years. His older brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, was also a well-known theologian and author. His book, Christ and Culture, is also still widely cited and was the focus of a recent book by D.A. Carson.
In part 1 of this review, I have given a highlight of Niebuhr’s work. In part 2, I will delve deeper into his arguments.
Longfield, Bradley J. 2013. Presbyterians and American Culture: A History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Niebuhr, Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.