H. Richard Niebuhr’s Understanding of Christian Ethics and Biblical Foundations

Professor, Reverend James Arcadi

BCM308 I: Christian Theology

Theologian: H. Richard Niebuhr

Topics: Christian Life, Nature of Theology

Niebuhr’s Symbols of Man and Understanding of Responsibility

Ethics—what is right or wrong? Ethics is “[t]he area of philosophical and theological inquiry into what constitutes right and wrong, that is, morality, as well as what is the good and the good life.” [1] The way we understand morality provides most of the reason for how we act or think we should act. Gordon College’s mission statement centers on the way it’s graduates will act out their lives: “Gordon College strives to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.” [2] Someone who is distinguished by Christian character earned that by their actions. How did they decide how to act in such a way that gave them the label of having Christian character? They had an ethical framework for deciding how to act. What ideas are that ethical framework based on, and what is the content of that framework? Much of Gordon’s entry level writing seminar, The Great Conversation: Foundations in Thinking, Reading, and Writing, is focused on the question, what makes up the good life? How do we live well? What is the good? These are questions we addressed by thinking through topics like “love, vocation, Christian character, community and justice/shalom” [3] . In community, should we forgive one another when we do wrong to each other? If so, why? Should we talk about our calling as something that is from God? Should we act and be chaste? Virtuous? Why? Furthermore, in an honors program I participated in called Elijah Project, we took a course, NON310 Foundations of Work and Vocation, where “attention [was] given to [the] nature of calling, life and work within biblical and ethical frameworks” [4] . We not only discussed what we should do, and who we should be, [5] but we spent a year living together in community, and spent a summer working in an internship related to the work we discerned God was calling us to. In this class I studied H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self (1963). In the course I’m writing this essay for, BCM308: Christian Theology, one of its aims is to teach “theology as … a primary resource for living reflective lives and engaging broader world with the gospel.” [6] In the core class, COR210 New Perspectives in Global Understanding, Dr. John Skillen poses that people act according to what they believe constitutes the good. Gordon’s classes are riddled with Christian ethics. Ethics is not only what we should do, but what is good and wrong, and therefore an outflow question of this is what do we do to attain that good and avoid that wrong that we now understand to be right and wrong. This paper will explore the theology of the Christian ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr, particularly his ethical imperative to the cathekontic, or the most fitting response, as opposed to ethical imperatives to the teleological, to the end of goodness, or the deontological, to actions which themselves are good, then I interact with the theologian’s argument by comparing and contrasting this with my own growing theological perspective.

            “All good theology ends in ethics”, says a professor who Dr. Robert Green, my Christian Theology professor, had. In Wayne Grudem’s tome of a text, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, every chapter of the book ends with section entitled “Questions for Practical Application”, encouraging thought in direction towards the way we should live in response to the assertions contained in the preceding chapters. In one of the statements in one of these chapters we can identify the underlying assumptions about what is good based on what action the author encourages. “God wants us to pray because prayer expresses our trust in God”. [7] If one has the belief that satisfying God’s desires is good, then the following question is, what does God desire me to do? That way the person can decide to act in accordance with their belief about what God desires them to do. In this quote, the ethical imperative that follows is to pray. Why? Because God wants us to. Why does God want us to pray? Because prayer expresses our trust in God. The examination of this statement about prayer reveals on the heart of ethics. What is good? Then, how do I act to attain that good?

In The Responsible Self, Niebuhr lays out three symbols humans have used to conceive of themselves: man-the-citizen, man-the-maker, and man-the-answerer. These symbols each have ethical implications. If man is a citizen, what he should do is follow the law, otherwise his identity is threatened (what I’m wondering though is how identity being threatened becomes bad, I suppose in this instance simply by the desire to stay within the definition one has taken on as man-the-citizen). If a man is a creator, what he should do is create various steps in order to attain the vision he has set out in his mind, or to attain the goal he has set. The people who primarily think of man as a law-abider define the good by what is right, while those who think of man primarily as maker define the right as that which propels one towards the good. Man-the-answerer is set as the third symbol used to conceive of humanity, which in turn aids in decision making. This symbol has man answering to his environment—what is going on around me? What is the most fitting response to my particular situation? It is a response that takes into account its environment as well as the effect it will have after it has been enacted.

            In Joseph Bush’s review of The Responsible Self, he discloses four aspects of responsibility: responsiveness, interpretation, social solidarity, and accountability. [8] These are four aspects Niebuhr uses to define responsibility. Niebuhr says they fall within that concept. Responsiveness is that an action that is responsible must be a response to the action of another person. Interpretation, meaning that we find meaning and interpret the meaning of various actions that we encounter in the world. So if I see someone talking, using words like, “Father, please help me get through this separation between my friend and I”, then I’ll wonder, hmmm… They’re praying, and that means that they’re talking to God. God is hearing them. That’s an example of interpreting another’s action. Responsible action has accountability, in the sense that it is going to affect others, and in trying to make a decision we realize that it’s going to affect another. If I free write this whole essay, then submit it without revising spelling errors, whether or not I anticipated the way that that lack of revision would affect my grade determines whether or not my action was accountable. It will be accountable though because someone else is going to see it. Finally, in order for an action to be responsible, it must possess social solidarity.


Niebuhr’s Ethics Match Scriptural Portrayal of Reality

Niebuhr says that Christians should do what is most fitting. He gives a basis for how to live the Christian life. I’m most interested in what beliefs about the good lie underneath of Niebuhr’s statements about what we should do, and I have a hunch that I’ll begin to spill over into epistemology. If we can agree on what we know, and how we can know, then we can develop a group of beliefs that are similarly known; we’ll come to a common understanding of the good. Theology provides description of what is. [9] And Christian theology is married to study of the Bible. Sharon Ketcham, in the opening to my Christian Theology undergraduate course, described theology as the place where faithful interpretation of life meets with living out life. Theological reflection seeks to understand what God’s redeeming activity in the world is. Theology centers around God. I want this essay to focus on theology, and not just philosophy. It seems like a hard distinction for me to make—between theology and philosophy. Philosophy asks what is right and wrong. [10] Its questions cannot be answered by science. [11] Theology answers questions about and related to God, so if there is an ethical question related to God, that falls within the domain. Theology is “a religious belief system about God or ultimate reality” [12] . Therefore, where this religious belief system has beliefs about what should be done, that is ethical theology. Grudem defines systematic theology as “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.” [13] There, theology answers particular questions about what the Bible teaches us today. This overlaps with McDonough’s view that theology answers questions about what is, while Biblical studies answer questions about what was. They both pertain to today’s reality.

Compared to my own understanding of what Christians should do (a seemingly theological, philosophical question), this system seems quite abstract from reference to the Bible. That’s what makes it seem so philosophical and not very theological. Niebuhr is not defending his ideas with reference to Scripture, but his is a Christian, and calling this study “Christian moral philosophy.” However, the ideas he presents do relate to God. Man-the-answerer is a view of humanity that conceives man as one looking to answer things that are going on around him. That’s a purely philosophical conception about the nature of man. Whether that is true or not, whether that’s really how man is or not falls into ontology and epistemology, what is and how do we know. But you could also come at it from a theological perspective. What does the “whole Bible” teach us about the nature of man? (This ethical framework with the goal of acting responsibly is based in a conception of man). God acted first, which fits into Niebuhr’s conception of man-as-answerer. Adam needed to answer an action that had been previously taken on him, and that action taken on him partly determined what would ultimately be right and good for him. God said to obey, and that action taken on Adam played into determining what was right and wrong. Disobedience would have been wrong. Why? Because God warned Adam to do that. Warnings have something bad to them. Adam would learn of evil if he ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was disobedient, and therefore wrong, because God said to do so. What about God’s commands make disobedience to those commands wrong? Now we’re starting to feel the man-the-law-abider imagery. God made a law to not eat, and therefore it was right to not eat, because that was the law. But was it wrong to eat that fruit before God said so? Perhaps. Because maybe the fruit of the tree would have always been harmful to humans, but on the other hand, perhaps there was a moment when this act became wrong. Perhaps the moral nature of reality changes over time. I have an intuition that that may be a dangerous assertion. Or different parts of morality are revealed at different times. What about the fittingness of the act, in a specific time a particular action is very unique, because there is such grand difference in context for me making a decision in my kitchen vs. a hunter making a decision 3000 years ago in North America. There may be threads of moral law that carry on constantly though. I’m looking for a basis for morality – is it conforming to God’s character and commands? Niebuhr explicated a description of different ways humans have conceived of themselves, and especially the ways that have oriented human ethical life.

So, after playing with biblical origins of morality, we see these various images helping us understand portraits in Scripture, and these images help us understand how we orient ourselves ethically today. I agree with Niebuhr’s models. I see them in reality.

What about his four aspects of responsibility? They seem a description of what constitutes responsible action. He doesn’t make the statement that we should do what is responsible. But that seems assumed. I must believe that acting responsibly is in line with what is good. The underlying tone of the essay seems to be that responsibility is good, and I’m curious how that shows through, where that can be found in his writing—more explicit reference to responsible action being good. He seems mostly to describe what is, as opposed to what should be but isn’t yet. The type of responsible action he describes: having social solidarity, accountability, responsiveness, and interpretation. Each of these I could look for examples of in Scripture, but again, that’s me looking to see if this framework of reality he’s posing exists in Scripture. Does it jive with my operational theology? Or my operational philosophy about what constitutes responsible action? The underlying assumption is that responsible action is something the Christian is called to. Where is that shown? In the title of the book: “An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy”. A moral philosophy is going to describe what exists that is good, and what follows from stating that something is good is figuring out how to attain that good, so even if he seems in a more descriptive mode here than prescriptive, he’s still advocating for a particular kind of life. I agree with his description and positive valuation of teleological, deontological, and fitting response ethics, as well as his four part understanding of responsibility. From here on we could take his theory of ethics and use it as a guiding principle for understanding and deciding how to act.


The Most Fitting Church

What would it look like for a church to take on his ethics of the most fitting? This church would first need to understand the symbol of man-the-answerer as a symbol which affects how people orient themselves in their decision making. Then an understanding of responsibility could be taught. As a practical lesson to what these are, people would be urged to go out and think about a decision, now that they’ve been acted on by an outside group, they have an opportunity to respond in the most fitting way. The ethics of the most fitting are a response to actions upon an agent, then those actions are interpreted, and the response anticipates the reaction of the world around him. It is accountable to those whom one lives with, including the far reaches of this planet for some decisions. Finally it is aware of its continued impact as a part of history, as an act of social solidarity, affecting a large group and number of people. This church would take on a character of more than rule following, but careful, situational judging. They, like William Wilberforce, who spent two years considering committing to Christ before he did, would begin to take longer in weighing some decisions. Perhaps people they evangelize to would take more time to consider whether or not they want to commit to Jesus, like the deliberation the story in Scripture paints, of a person who took time to consider how much it would cost to build a certain structure, or how his number of soldiers would fare against the soldiers of the opponent.




Bush, Joseph. “Review essay of Niebuhr’s The responsible self. Reflective Practice: Formation And Supervision In Ministry” Volume: 30 p. 59-63, 2013-01-01.


Gordon College,  Gordon College Undergraduate Academic Catalog 2013-2014. Accessed 5 May 2015: (http://www.gordon.edu/page.cfm?iPageID=387&Registrar&Academic_Catalogs) 2013.


Grenz, Stanley J., David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.


Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. 1994. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000.


McDonough, Sean. “The Bible and Theology”. Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Accessed 5 May 2015: (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/The-Bible-and-Theology.cfm) 2010.


Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy. Library of Theological Ethics ed. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1999 (1963).

Perry, Bratman, and Fischer, Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. 2013


Schwehn, Mark R., and Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.


[1] Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, 1999, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, 47.

[2] Gordon College Academic Catalog 2013-2014, 7.

[3] Ibid. 64.

[4] Ibid. 214.

[5] Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass, Leading Lives That Matter.

[6] Gordon College Academic Catalog 2013-2014, 64.

[7] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 376.

[8] Bush, Joseph. “Review essay of Niebuhr’s The responsible self. Reflective Practice: Formation And Supervision In Ministry” Volume: 30 (2013-01-01) p. 59-63

[9] McDonough, “The Bible and Theology”, 2010

[10] Perry, Bratman, and Fischer, 2013, Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed., 4.

[11] Russel, Bertrand 1969 “The Value of Philosophy”, part of Introduction to Philosophy, 19.

[12] Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, 1999, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, 113.

[13] Grudem, 1994, Systematic Theology, 21.


I wrote this paper for Gordon College’s core course, Christian Theology. Below is an outline for the course.