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It has been almost eighty years since the publication of H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Kingdom of God in America and we are still talking about what Niebuhr called the problem of constructive Protestantism. This problem lurks behind the recent talk about the future of Protestantism unleashed by Peter Leithart’s initial volley.

For Niebuhr, Protestantism was always a revitalizing movement grounded in the kingdom of God as “the apprehension of God’s primacy, immediacy, and nearness.” It presupposed the divine initiative in the life of every person without the need for mediation. Justification was the Word’s direct address to the soul in which, as Luther put it, “the Word infused its qualities.” Hence the freedom of a Christian was grounded upon the free initiative of God. On this basis, Protestants could question all institutional forms of mediation as falling short of the living Word of God who called such institutions to account, whether they were ecclesiastical or political. They could stand on scripture alone as the Word’s final address to fallen human beings.

Having announced the freedom of the Christian in the immediacy of the kingdom of God, Protestantism emancipated persons from all forms of institutional authority. It went further, however, and placed prophetic criticism in their hands by declaring them all priests who received directly from the living Word. While Niebuhr differentiated this prophetic mode of Protestantism from medieval mysticism, it was in fact the mystics’ conception of an unmediated union with God taken as a doctrinal presupposition. This is the importance of the connection between the early Luther and the Rhineland mystics like Johann Tauler, or between Luther, Calvin, and Bernard of Clairvaux. It could also be viewed in the Radical Reformers insistence on the new birth as a powerful baptism in the Spirit.

The Protestant principle, as Niebuhr conceived it, “was not self-organizing but threatened anarchy in every sphere of life.” Having proclaimed the sole authority of the Word of God to rule the Church and the world, the immediate question was, “how so?”—a question Protestants have been debating ever since. This was another way of declaring the problem of a constructive principle within Protestantism. Niebuhr saw facing this problem as returning to the early Christian attempt to formulate a way to live in a world both under the sovereign rule of God and corrupted and in rebellion against God.

In America, Protestants had the opportunity to move from protest to construction, which meant that the American experiment was also in part the Protestant experiment. Niebuhr viewed this construction in terms of developing the institutions and social organizations that could embody the essence of the Protestant spirit as “a life, a movement, which could never come to rest again in secure habitations.” Lurking on either side of this task was the Scylla of institutionalization and the Charybdis of secularization.

The ongoing role of awakenings in the American experiment kept Protestantism from veering too close to institutionalization in which the Church becomes an organization of self-preservation, a mechanism that metes out laws. By his own day, however, Niebuhr thought that Evangelical Protestantism had become just such an organization, and it fed the reaction that became liberal Protestantism and social gospel. What liberal Protestantism gained in recovering the dynamic of movement, it shipwrecked on the shoals of secularization. Hence Niebuhr’s famous line: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Liberalism favored evolution and development beyond traditional beliefs in the service of civilization rather than a return to the more radical idea of the direct rule of God.

It seems clear that for Niebuhr, central to constructive Protestantism is its capacity to produce new forms of Christian existence through ongoing retrieval and renewal. When he wrote Christ and Culture in the 1950s he sought to provide a framework that would maintain the dialectic between revitalizing movement and the development of institutions and organizations. To describe this dialectic in terms of Christ and culture was to maintain, in Niebuhr’s mind, the classic Protestant idea of a direct, unmediated rule by Jesus Christ over against the forms of life that humans constructed.

The problem of constructive Protestantism became the enduring problem of “how one may live as a loyal citizen of the universal, divine empire in a rebellious state which, though it assumes independence, is yet under the sovereignty of the heavenly Caesar?” Asked in The Kingdom of God in America, this question was reframed in Christ and Culture as a relationship between a social tradition that seeks to conserve its customs and “the power and attraction Jesus Christ exercises over men.”

What guides Niebuhr through the various ideal types in Christ and Culture is the desire to resist institutionalization, which is why even Augustine comes up short by substituting “the Christian religion—a cultural achievement—for Christ.” The best the believer can do is maintain an ongoing dialogue between the living Incarnate Word and social traditions because to give any definitive answer would be to deny God’s primacy in the Lordship of Christ. Given the shifting historical contexts, more than one answer is possible. Christians must give their answers in each historical moment by faith alone, an act that occurs amidst the tension between life in the invisible communion of the saints and the fact that no visible institution embodies that communion fully. It is to live, most of all, before the Word whose free initiative brings freedom.

Niebuhr’s desire to maintain Protestantism as a revitalizing movement grounded upon the primacy, immediacy, and nearness of God guided his thought. He will broke no compromise with institutionalization, which is ultimately what he thought the social traditions of human cultures promoted, even as he resisted a liberalization that secularized the gospel. Part of his conclusion in Christ and Culture was a call to be a responsible self who acts in the present under the weight of his personal history and in connection to an invisible community. With this claim he pointed toward the moral essay he would publish in 1963.

One wonders why Niebuhr did not see the dialectic preserved through ongoing renewal in the life of the Church. If constructive Protestantism is a revitalizing movement that seeks to preserve the Church catholic, then why not through the ongoing creation of cultural forms of life that proclaim the kingdom even if that kingdom cannot be fully realized by human hands? Why can’t mission be culture formation given ongoing renewal? As with all of us, in his own finitude, Niebuhr could not have anticipated the Christianity of the Global South. It will renew us all through the new forms of cultural life it is already creating.

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