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Roger Olson: Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas: Can Their Approaches to Christian Political Ethics be Bridged?

Roger E. Olson, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas: Can Their Approaches to Christian Political Ethics be ‘Bridged?’” Patheos (February 27 and 28, 2017). Part 1. Part 2.

Roger E. Olson

This two-part article by the noted Evangelical scholar, Roger Olson, should be of interest to practically every reader of Pneuma Review. The article deals with two prominent theologians of the modern era who espouse very different views on the morality of the Christian’s participation in war. Olson’s article masterfully summarizes their opposite theologies. The first is that of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) who formulated a modern variant of the Christian “just war” theology that traces its roots to St. Augustine (354-430). Olson then summarizes the Christian pacifist theology of Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) which has garnered a wide following in recent decades.

Olson is well credentialed for his attempt at describing these opposite positions. He is professor at Baylor University, and has been editor of Christian Scholar’s Review and Christianity Today, and as such is well acquainted with Christian thought of all persuasions. Olson declares he loves and has been influenced by the theology of both Niebuhr and Hauerwas. He admits it is a seemingly impossible task to reconcile these two theological views, but makes a valiant effort at it.

For Niebuhr, war is a tragic necessity and never completely successful.

To summarize Olson’s summary: Reinhold Niebuhr was the most widely read and influential Protestant theologian of his generation. He was pastor and then professor at Union Theological Seminary for decades immediately before and during World War II. As a young pastor in Detroit he fought for the rights of the auto workers to unionize. At the same time, he noted the rise of Fascism and Communism and the genocidal outrages perpetuated by the totalitarian dictators. In Niebuhr’ most famous book Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued against pacifism and for the position that the state may use violence to limit injustice, conquest and tyranny.[1] He strongly advocated for American entry into World War II, and later supported America’s Cold Wars.

Christoph Blumhardt

For Niebuhr, war is a tragic necessity and never completely successful. Man’s sin nature would ensure that mistakes would be made in the course of the war or in the peace process. In fact, nothing would be definitively just until the Second Coming. Yet inaction and pious pacifism would lead to catastrophe. When Niebuhr began airing his view on war and the use of force, it was contested strongly by other pastors and theologians, as many were disillusioned by the failed peace after World War I. However, as the tragic history of World War II unfolded, his arguments seemed self-evidently true to most Christians.

All to the contrary, a resurgent Christian pacifism has been elaborated by the Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas came to maturity during the Vietnam war, when the Berrigan brothers, two Catholic priests, were formulating a pacifist argument against the Vietnam War. For many, Vietnam seemed anything but a “just war.” Hauerwas was especially influenced by the Mennonite theologian Howard Yoder who preached a form of Christian absolute pacifism and non-violence.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2017

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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