(Saving Power, Ch. 8) H. Richard Niebuhr on Atonement: Treason and Reconciliation

Put yourself in the following situation: You have the cure for a desperately painful disease of which everyone hr-niebuhr.jpgsuffers. Yet, in order to explain the disease and prescribe the cure it requires you to find a language with which everyone can relate – a language that enables the diseased (alienated) to find touchstones that relate to them.

This is the situation into which H. Richard Niebuhr believes he must speak: A modern world that has no use for religious language, diverse faith communities unable to relate to one another, and those outside of or alienated from Christian faith. So Niebuhr writes “for the unbeliever and those in the faith community who still engage in the struggle for faith” not using language dominated by doctrinal or religious usage but places the conversation in the “tension of belief and unbelief, trust and mistrust” (Saving Power [SP], 263).

Schmiechen places Niebuhr’s theology in the context of his larger section on reconciliation. He describes Niebuhr’s theology as one of several theories in which the central theme is the “restoration of the knowledge of God.” So what does this mean for Niebuhr? According to Schmiechen, Niebuhr sets his conception of faith within a universally relatable frame of reference: “the quest for that which is trustworthy in a world of broken trust.” Who hasn’t had their trust broken, been betrayed, or let down?

“When we contemplate our human history, this network of interpersonal relations, it is not difficult to describe it as the history of reason…There is no area of human conduct – not economics, not religion, not the family – which is free from the wreckage of broken worlds” (Faith on Earth, 81).

The starting point for thinking about Christ then is not the fall but the persistent hope of salvation in the midst of the cain-and-abeltitian1.jpgbrokenness of life. Even in the face of the worst, our distrust presupposes a prior state of trust (FOE, 78). And into this world (with which we can all relate) we hear the story of Jesus: “his loyalty to God, the betrayal by thosee threatened by him, and God’s vindication of the forsaken one.” The main theme running throughout is trust and fidelity. Schmiechen sums up the significance of this view as that of reconciliation:

“There is the reconciliation of the parts of an individual life, of one person to another, and of groups of persons. Niebuhr describes all of these moments of human life as marked by brokenness, mistrust, and betrayal” (SP, 269).

When we come up against this reconciling God he appears at first as our enemy revealing all the idolatry and mistrust in our lives: “When our sacred ideas and practices are shattered, we feel forsaken and God appears as our enemy. This breaking of the idols is the inevitable consequence of our propensity to invest ultimate trust and loyalty in things of this world. But Jesus is the Way not only in resisting false faith, but as our companion in the struggle for a more truthful faith” (SP, 270).

Consider what it would mean to proclaim the Cross in terms of its confrontation of the idols and mistrust in our lives. Niebuhr offers us a startling manner of proclaiming God’s saving power: judgment. We don’t like judgment and so we avoid it when talking about God’s saving love, but we lose a critical component of the Gospel when doing so: “The Way of the knowledge of God…takes the form of judgment but ultimately of grace, a shattering of our world of faith as well as its reconstruction in ways that defy our claims to justice or grace” (SP, 270).
We need more of this kind of shattering work proclaimed in our message of the Cross! Don’t we?
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One thought on “(Saving Power, Ch. 8) H. Richard Niebuhr on Atonement: Treason and Reconciliation

  1. Pingback: Views of the Atonement « Signposts 02

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