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Martin Luther and the Renewal of Human Confidence
March 18,1959
H. Richard Niebuhr

Editor’s Note: Sixty years ago, as part of Valparaiso University’s centennial anniversary celebration, the university hosted a series of distinguished speakers from a variety of disciplines. H. Richard Niebuhr, the Sterling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School, presented the third lecture on March 18, 1959, to a full house in the university’s new Memorial Chapel. This talk, which we discovered in the Valparaiso University Archives, remained unpublished until 2015, when Jon Diefenthaler included it in The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (Fortress Press). In honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Niebuhr’s lecture, and because it was not mentioned by the Cresset in 1959, we are including it in this issue for your reading pleasure.

You have done me high honor in inviting me to celebrate with you the centennial of the founding of Valparaiso University and to lead you for a little while in your reflections on the past and future of a school that is devoted to the service of God and fellow men in the spirit or with the mind of Martin Luther. But now that I am about to discharge the task expected of me I am aware that the honor has tempted me to accept a responsibility I am poorly endowed to perform. I do not belong by long association to that closer community of Luther’s followers which mediates to its members its religious convictions, spiritual experiences and relations to reality. Nor on the other hand have I been presented with the opportunity or challenge to take part intensively in that diligent and often profound work of scholarship which has made Luther its object in recent times. The layman in this field is astonished and overwhelmed by the fecundity, the seriousness, the painstaking of an intellectual and religious devotion which, with the aid of ninety volumes or so of Luther’s writings is producing many times that number of new studies of the heart, mind, experiences, intentions and effects of the great Reformer. The questions raised about him seem innumerable. The scholars who turn to this mine to extract from it new gold or precious stones belong to many religious organizations; though mostly Lutherans themselves, there are Calvinists and Methodists and Roman Catholics and Friends and men of no institutional religious connection at all among them. Mostly they are probably theologians, but among them one finds also lawyers and literati, psychologists and many historians of culture or of one of its aspects from language to music to power politics. This company overawes me. Far from being able to speak for them, I am not even able to understand them during much of that brief time I spend in their company. So I cannot speak to those of you who are Lutherans and Luther-scholars as one who by training and concern has learned to deal discriminatingly with the profound issues that occupy you. Since I cannot take your ground so far as you are Lutherans and Luther-scholars I must ask you to take my ground with me for this brief hour. It is the ground of one who as a Protestant Christian of a perhaps rather nondescript sort is deeply concerned about the condition of man in our time, and as a scholar equally nondescript and unspecialized, looks to the past to discern there the broad outlines of those great movements which have imparted to men—not less beset by doubts than we are—new force and courage for life’s strange journey. These are movements which have given us direction and impetus; hence movements to be carried forward in our day. They are also movements that tend to come to a stop; they issue in institutions and modes of thought which become all too familiar to us and lead us to think that we live in a world in which all great possibilities have been realized. We can therefore always think of them in a double way; either they are great creative and revelatory periods whose inventions and revelations we must conserve, or they are prophetic and paradigmatic movements which show forth the kind of renewal we may expect and prepare for in our own future. Among such movements the Reformation is one of the greatest; it takes a secondary place in our history only to the nodal point in our whole human time—the coming of Jesus Christ—and perhaps to that earlier, preliminary junction point in our history when new life came into the world with the prophets and their contemporaries. I propose to you that we look at Martin Luther and the Reformation and at ourselves from the second point of view, with gratitude for the past to be sure, but even more with hope for the future.

A. Richard Niebuhr

The Newness in the Reformation

On one thing all the interpreters of Martin Luther seem to be agreed. He brought a marvelous newness, freshness and openness into our human existence. They seem agreed further on the fact that he was not so much the immediate source as the mediate instrument and channel of that newness of life. But when they deal with his relation to the old, to the heritage he had received and the Christian faith of which he was the heir, they seem to differ more in their interpretations. So do they also when they begin to describe the content and the sources of that newness of life of which he was the fullest, the overflowing channel in his time. These differences, of course, are not necessarily contradictions. We call the rare, gigantic figures that are given to us human beings now again as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh yet as towering over the rest of us by such names as geniuses and heroes and prophets. But they fit into no categories; not even into a common category save that of greatness; their work is so manifold, their effects on life so many that they must be described in many ways, from many points of view. Yet of course we discern differences of importance and value in the manifold interpretations; though the most myopic may contain moments of truth, there are those which do greater justice to the subject.

What then was the newness that through Martin Luther came into our history and what were its sources? There are those who like Metzdee in some of his utterances see the newness mostly as one of human vitality and its source in a kind of biological elan vital of which Luther was a channel. Here life in all its urgency, in its revolt against the conventions that keep it in strait jackets, asserts itself in primitive power. And, of course, it is true that Luther impresses one as a man of super-abundant vitality, endowed with life force, with exuberant energy despite the many ailments of body and perhaps of psyche to which he was subject. It seems true also that in consequence of his work human energies, including physical energies, that had long been held leashed were given freedom. But when we think of his work and its effects in the spirits and minds of men, individually and in their societies, we shall not long be tempted to say—this was the important new thing and this the source of power—pure physical vitality. Strange psychosomatic creatures that we are such vitality is often doubtless an accompaniment, perhaps even a consequence of some of our resurrections from sleep or death, but indefinable and diffuse as it is, reference to its presence explains little or nothing.

It is pointed out by others that Luther was the German man in whom the new self-consciousness, the new aspirations, the new language and politics of the German people found their focus and their generative point. The nationalist interpretation of Martin Luther’s person and work has had a long history which culminated in recent generations in the travesties of a Hitlerian, Rosenborgian “Deutsch-Christeutum” for which Luther’s German Bible was almost a new creation, inspired by the German spirit that chose him as its instrument for the revelation of a German God destined to take the place of a Hebraic Jehovah. Apart from such caricatures there is, of course, more than a grain of truth in the idea that one of the new things that came into begin through the Reformer’s instrumentation was a German language, a German people, a German culture. But other nations also are indebted to that movement of which he was the foremost representative. All northern Europe and—because of later developments—North America also can celebrate the day at Wittenberg when Luther first challenged Rome as the symbolic beginning of liberation from the authority of the mind, the language and the law of southern, Latin Christendom. But to describe the newness of life that came into history with the Reformation as the new birth of national freedom and the rise of new nations is to put into the center of the interpretation something which belongs somewhat in the periphery. That was indeed a part of the newness of life that followed from the inspirations and struggles of the early sixteenth century; the maturation of independent nations and the release of popular energies are inseparably connected with the other generations and regenerations that then took place, but neither in the intention nor in the results of the Reformer’s work can they be given the central place, except perhaps by nationalists who have no other final term than nation to use in understanding, explaining or valuing human affairs. For this movement affected existence more extensively and more intensively than in its national confines and forms.

We may then direct our attention to the newness which it brought into Western culture in its more spiritual aspects. The great achievement of Luther, says that discriminating and subtle historian Wilhelm Dilthey, lies in the fact that he represented and expressed in the religious and moral life, and then by consequence in political and social life in general that individualism and that inwardness of personal existence for which the great objective and communal systems of belief and moral rule had left little room. For faith as obedience to the doctrines of the great church he substituted the heart’s assurance of God’s mercy; for morality as conformity to the requirements of a system of laws he brought into his own and others’ experience the personal morality of the sensitive conscience obligated beyond all human rules to their ultimate source. “Luther divorced completely,” writes Dilthey, “the religious process from the objective imagery (PileDichkeit) of dogmatic thinking and the regimented externalities of the church.” (Ges. Schir. II – 53 et seq.) In him the movement toward inwardness and personalism in religion and ethics that had begun in Francis of Assisi and in the Mysticism came to its fruition. And when this happened in Luther is happened in the German nation and in European culture, for in the lonely monk and lonelier hero at Worms and loneliest soul struggling with great temptations the emerging new individual recognized himself; with that aid he discovered himself; this kind of life he reenacted in himself. The newness which came into the world — at least into the western world — with Luther was the newness of a new personal inwardness, of an intensely subjective life on the part of religious-moral man. Religion now came to be what man does with his solitariness; morality what he does on the hidden stage where the law in the members and the law in the mind carry on their struggle. The new individual is not a mystic separating himself from the world and sense; he takes his place rather in the world of tangible creatures, of politics, economic and ecclesiastical affairs, he is no subjectivist for whom the not-self is a projection from the self. In his own inwardness he meets always an Other, but the other is not the social system of beliefs, dogmas, rules. The Other also is a self who challenges the human self to self-identification and responsibility, who gives to the lonely yet social man freedom from social bondage but also liberty from fear about his own fate. I have gone beyond Dilthey and also fallen short of him in my effort to describe the newness that came into cultural, religious, moral Western civilization with Luther and his companions in the Reformation, for I have wanted to emphasize the particular point that this great movement did indeed bring forth something new in the style of life. It will not do to describe pre-Reformation man as collective man, as other-directed man, as dependent man and post-Reformation man as individual, autonomous and theonomous, free man. The lines cannot be drawn so clearly. But it seems very true that with Luther and partly through him there came into our historic human existence a new self-understanding of the individual and a new ethos of personal existence. In the later course this individualism expressed itself and developed or degenerated in scores of admirable and also despicable forms — in economic atomism and laissez faire, in political liberalism and license, in varieties of religious subjectivism from Spiner to Kierkegaard to Feuerbach. To those who see its bad fruits only the new individualism was a great departure from the desirable standard of human existence. To those of us who cannot quarrel with history but rejoice in the new creations that rise in it out of the eternal fountain of being, this emergence of a new sense and a new reality of individual existence is an object of wonder, however much we mourn over that sin in man which brings corruption to all that is good. Still, as we acknowledge the historic truth that such interpretations as Dilthey’s contain, we raise the question to ourselves: Was this individualism of the Reformation the important point in its creative and recreative action? Was it the important point for Luther; is it the important point for us as we ask what can we now derive from him in our present hour of need?

The Roman Catholic historian Joseph Lortz is more aware than many a Protestant of the freshness, the newness of Luther’s reformation. There is about it, as we look at it with his eyes, something of the character of a summer day’s clear sunrise hour, of an April morning. “The ultimate secret of Luther’s effectiveness”, he writes, “is his own vitality… Life is present only there where there is something that has not been worn out, something new. But everything that belongs to the world of creatures must wither. And to this belongs even the form in which God’s Word proclaims to us God’s never aging revelation. In this situation the church must over and again realize the word: ‘Behold I make all things new.’ Now there can be no doubt that the Christendom of late medievalism had become very old in this sense. Its formulae had been used in an unheard of measure and so had been used up; or otherwise they were new but not derived from the Word of God itself, distilled rather out of other previously derived formulae; they were strangely complicated, necessarily sterile. Luther sensed this in a measure beyond that of anyone around him… The secret of his success was that he broke through this sterile, antiquated, atomized conceptual language and forced his way to the sources of a new proclamation. He made things new. He spoke a new language.” (from Bornkamm. p. 349)

We can try to describe this kind of newness that Luther brought in another though not better way. We human beings grasp and represent all reality that presents itself to us or comes within our reach with the aid of analogies, metaphors, ideas and images. And our social custom is such on the one hand, our laziness or stupor such on the other hand that after a while we never grasp the reality afresh but always see in it the form or image originally used. We even tend to substitute the idea or image for the real. Thus, having encountered in the past men from the Orient and having called them “yellow man” or “slant-eyed” men we tend not only to see each individual as a simple specimen of a genus so that all Chinese look alike to us; but we also have in mind a picture of the genus we do not correct. We do not see an Oriental man but our mind’s eye picture, our stereotype of what we once upon a time long ago decided an Oriental looked like. As we all recognize, this common observation about ourselves applies to the whole range of our experiences. We live to a large extent in our world as in a kind of art gallery among representations of the real. Yet it is not often an art gallery containing pictures painted by those who freshly and personally grasped and re-enacted what they encountered; it is more like a room plastered with bad copies of copies of copies of such original paintings. We need only to think of the faded images that are in our minds when we use such words as truth, or spirit, or idea, when we employ the great Biblical words and phrases such as kingdom of God, redemption, judgment, grace and salvation.

The point that Lortz makes and which others have made before him is not the simple one that Luther translated a Hebrew and Greek Bible into the common German tongue, or that he Germanized the Latin man, or that he took the well-known theological theory of man’s justification by faith and made it meaningful by using common illustrations and common words to communicate theological subtleties — as young students of theology today sometimes speak of the difficulty of translating their theology into homiletic language. The point is very different. It is that Luther wrestled for himself and by himself in direct encounter with those realities to which Biblical and theological words refer. He knew about conscience not because the doctors had taught him what synteresis and syneidesis meant; he knew about the wrath of God not from commentaries on the prophets; he had met Jesus Christ somewhat as Paul himself had met him, though not by way of vision or in mystic solitude; he knew grace and forgiveness with the knowledge of acquaintance, not with the knowledge about these experiences his teachers had mediated to him. Always with the Bible as his companion, his interpreter, the herald of God’s Word, yet in direct relation to that Word, in direct experience of wrath and mercy, judgment and forgiveness he forged a new language, new terms, new metaphors to set forth the real. He could translate the Bible into hard, gripping German not only or even primarily because he knew Hebrew and Greek but because he knew the faith and love, the hiddenness and revealedness of God, the cross and resurrection to which Hebrew and Greek sentences referred. So with Luther Western man’s religious symbolism and language, the means with which he approaches and grasps and understands his God, his sin and his salvation became new. The newness was not that of new wineskins containing old wine, but of new wineskins for new wine, albeit the wine was the product of grapes long cultivated.

The newness which Luther and the Reformation brought into our historic existence in this respect centered in man’s immediate relation to God and Jesus Christ, but it was not confined to that sphere. It may be difficult to trace the relations of the Reformation to the new art which, by means of color and form and sound, gave men new symbols with which to see and understand the meaning of the human face and of nature’s various objects. But there seems to be a kinship as has often been pointed out between Luther and his reforming companions on the one hand, Duerer and Cranach and Rembrandt on the other. The point again, however, is not so much that the Reformation was allied with a renewal in art; it is rather that the new art was both means to an expression of a new human encounter with the world. Perhaps the situation is similar when we think of the new science that flourished in the wake of the Reformation. Historians usually relate it more closely to the Renaissance and to humanism than to Reformation. Yet it has been observed that despite all tendencies to conflict on specific points of teaching about the natural world, the spirit of the new science was much like the spirit of the Reformation. It cast off the old formulae, the outworn patterns of interpretation which confined the mind to stereotyped visions of the natural world and to conventional patterns of their interpretation. It forget new symbols after direct meetings with the given phenomena of nature; it saw connections and relations to which minds dominated by old formulae had not been open.

When we consider the Reformation from this point of view as a great revelation in our symbolic, interpretive life the sense for the newness that was in it and issued from it increases. It was much more than a restoration of a system of religious doctrine and an ethos that had been corrupted by time. It was something rather different from the re-establishment of an ecclesiastical organization that had been ruined by the weather of centuries, the vandalism of unconverted powers, the neglect of the complacent custodians. Its relation to the early church seems like that of the eighth century prophets to the Israel of Moses and Joshua’s day. In Luther as in Isaiah the prophecy was fulfilled: “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth.” (Is. 13:13, 19)

The Newness of Faith

The newness and freshness that came into the religious-moral life of the West and hence into the rest of culture is only described, it is not accounted for when it is understood and interpreted as a revolution in the symbolic, interpretative life of the Western mind. Perhaps it cannot be accounted for. There is something as miraculous as spring itself, as the birth of a new person, about the major turning points in human history; or better—there is something about them like the effusion of the Spirit which comes and goes like the wind about whose whence and whither we remain ignorant. But we may make the attempt to locate with somewhat greater precision the point at which new life, new understanding, new moral sensitivity, new organization of social existence, had its beginnings. That point so far as I can see was in the moment of faith, of confidence, of assurance in Martin Luther’s soul and in the spirit of the people of his time. At bottom, in its origins the newness that came with Luther was a newness in man’s confidence; what was formed and re-formed in the Reformation was faith in being, confidence in reality, assurance of God’s good will, and out of this flowed forth—speaking in human terms only—the root of that renewal which is the mark of the movement. As I try to interpret Luther and the Reformation in this way I am aware that the words and forms of thought I am using are derived not only from his day but from ours, and that in interpreting him I am perhaps more intent on understanding our times than his. Yet I trust I will not do him a real injustice since the understanding of human faith and its effects in life that I have is derived, I believe, from him in this sense at least that he remains the teacher who points out to us in and with the aid of Scriptures what this thing faith is in our lives.

When now we speak of faith we have in mind in the first place not a system of beliefs about God and men—necessary as it is to formulate and express our understanding of our total environment and our relations to it in such beliefs. What we mean by it is what Luther always meant in the first place—confidence, assurance, trust. By such confidence men live and without it life comes to a stop. Ultimately the question of human confidence or trust is always a question of confidence in the ground, the source, the nature of total and central being itself, that is of confidence in the last power, trust in God.

But as Luther so often pointed out, faith as such and God go together. What the heart clings to, what it relies upon, that is its God. And for most men, most of the time the object of trust on which they rely to give worth to personal life and all its works is the social reality in which they seem to live and move and have their being. They have confidence in it as an ongoing movement in which their own lives are secured against futility and worthlessness by being made part of this larger, enduring whole. They accept its ethos, its morals, and its beliefs as the true law and true belief on which they can depend. Hence they live in confidence, go about their work with assurance, accept the disciplines of this social life without rebellion, contribute even with enthusiasm to its glory. In this confidence in our community we accept it not as meaningful in itself, or as the last power with which we have to deal, but as representative of the ultimate power. Its beliefs—whether as the religious beliefs of medievalism or as the naturalistic beliefs of modern civilization or as the metaphysical beliefs of a Greek city—are accepted as truth; its laws are reverenced as emanating not from itself but from the nature of Being itself, from God. And indeed it is true that at some time in the past each such society formed its convictions about the true and the right, the just and the beautiful in some critical moment of encounter with reality.

When this ordinary confidence of men in their society as enduring, as representative of the real nature of things, as divine and representative of the divine, fails, then life tends to come to a stop. Then issue the questions about the worthwhileness of human endeavor, about the meaningfulness of moral striving, about the value of maintaining by infinite labor the social institutions and organizations. In speaking of the failure of confidence in this fashion I am evidently using the words and experiences of our day rather than those of the Reformation. We speak of meaninglessness and of futility, of nothingness and chance where the men of that time spoke of death and hell, of the wrath of God and his capricious will. Doubtless their choice of symbols was wiser than ours. But I believe that there is a fundamental likeness between the failure of assurance about the goodness and meaningfulness of human existence of which we are now aware.

The newness of assurance, of confidence in God and so of confident living which marks the life of Martin Luther and of the Reformation began negatively in a great and spreading doubt, with an eroding process of distrust. The faith by which men had lived, the confidence they had in church and law and the system of beliefs and in their whole structured world was deeply shaken. It was shaken by the revelation of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of institutions that were not what they seemed or claimed to be, by the great distance that opened between the image they had or presented themselves and their appearance in actual behavior. The holiness of the church and the unity of the Empire became ideals that had no relation to what men experienced in direct relation to them. The social faith was shaken also by the coming into view of actualities and powers, by the experience of forces and realities that did not fit into the established systems of belief and ordered conduct. The rediscovery of ancient learning and classic art, the discovery of America, the new recovery of the Bible—these acted upon many, less as exhilarating prospects of new worlds into which man might enter than as ominous portents of a familiar world falling into ruins. By no act of will, not by a resolution like Descartes to doubt the wisdom of the ancients but by necessity, Luther became the representative disbeliever, the great distruster of his time. The faith of the fathers in church, in the great intellectual structure of beliefs, in the moral laws of society was destroyed in him by no willfulness of unbelief but by what he saw and witnessed and in his singular honesty had to acknowledge. The new confidence that was born in him was conceived in doubt, distrust, in a soul left empty as it were by the failure of that social truth by which his fathers had lived.

The distrust of previous objects of faith went deeper than that. When men lose confidence in the fixed structures of the social life as enduring and trustworthy, as reliable sources of meaning and as fit objects of at least mediate devotion, they tend to turn to themselves. In Stoic fashion they turn to the reason that is in them, to the moral law in their conscience, or to the human spirit which has manifested its power in the past. This is what the humanists in their own way did in the days of the Reformation. In them faith robbed of its objects of trust in the social world sought something on which to rely in the creative powers of mind and in the free will of the moral self. In his own highly personal way Luther also took that road only to discover that his will examined under the microscope of Scriptures was neither free nor good. Many a … in Luther…substituted the …and…objective social structures of the medieval world as the families on which man could not rely. But this is to misunderstand thoroughly the man and the movement who found in human inwardness the foundation on which they could build. There was a deep distrust in Luther of human reason and of human will as powers that could save man from destruction, from the hell of conflict and of alienation, in the self, in the society, in the world, in the relation of man to God. And this distrust also was not willful; it was not based on a determination to rely on, to believe first of all in something else. It issued out of agonizing experience with himself and in himself as he saw himself and knew himself in the mirror of the Scriptures.

The distrust, the suspicion of the finite objects of faith as representative of real power, as able to save his and any life and all life from nothingness, meaninglessness or worse—from continuation in everlasting conflict and an endless movement of disintegration—found their goal in the great distrust; the great questioning of the reliability, the goodness, the faithfulness of the ultimate power on which all being is absolutely dependent, whence all things come into existence, whither they all return. God might be defined by Luther as whatever object Faith relies upon and the heart clings to. But when all the images of God, and all representatives of God became objects of his deep distrust, he stood in the presence of God beyond all Gods, of the power that in cosmic wrath negates the idols and little gods that are not gods. And the God beyond all Gods appeared to him in no way as the kind Father who loves but as dark and inimical power—as God of wrath and destruction. Faith in Luther made no easy transfer from childhood God or church God to Bible God. For the God of the Bible who was the God of being appeared in the Bible as in experience as the hidden Deus absconditus, known in his wrath but not as a God of faith. Now doubt had reached its deepest point. There was no further God for faith, for human trust to seek, no ground on which to stand.

Luther’s wrestle with the final problem of human faith, his Jacob-like wrestle with God himself was resolved in the strange manner in which it has been resolved over and over again in our history—by the coming into his view of the darkest fact of all—the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—and by its illuminating, lightful sequels—resurrection and session at the right hand of power. How the great reconciliation took place, how God of wrath became God of grace, how confidence was established not in any human or finite power, not in church or even in Bible but in God himself no one has ever made wholly clear in the case of Luther any more than in the case of Paul, or of the early church or of all the others in whose lives such struggles of unbelief, despair and faith have been re-enacted. We have our theological and our psychological theories. But they seem as far removed from the actuality of life in distrust and faith, before wrath and mercy , as fleshless, bloodless battle-maps in history books are distant from the actualities of Gettysburg or Okinawa. The struggle of faith and despair, the reconciliation of God and man, the victory of a faith that relies on the last, the ultimate power of being, the crucifixion and the resurrection of the self with Christ are enacted in the living self. And there is an almost impenetrable mystery at the heart of every great renewal of faith in a man such as Martin Luther. But one thing seems clear: confidence such as came to birth in him, confidence, joyful assurance in the marvelous good will, the glorious mercy at the source and center of all being is not established until the hardest, the most difficult barriers to faith have been encountered, have been thrust upon men—as they are in the cross, in the wrath of God falling upon the very best that men can offer in the way of obedience, in the way of faithfulness, in the way of brotherly love.

In the sweep of human history I must think then of Martin Luther not so much as a restorer of true doctrine, or as a reconstructor of a church threatened with utter ruin, or as true interpreter of previously misinterpreted Scripture. To all this he doubtless also made his great contributions. But I must see him first of all as the soul in whom new confidence in God was born, through whom the gift of faith—not in a God who may or may not exist but in the power and source of being itself—was given once again by the mediation of the pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus Christ. And I believe that all the other newness which came with the Reformation—the new vitality, the new social existences and institutions, the new inwardness of individual life, the new symbolic structures by which man learned to understand himself, nature and his destiny—that all this other newness was rooted in the new confidence, the new trust and the glad affirmation of life and all being that accompanied it. I cannot verify this thesis with the aid of extensive and profound scholarship. Take it, I can only beg, as one poor draughtsman’s effort to sketch his personal portrait of a hero of faith.

Conclusion

It may be that we stand near to another nodal movement in human history. Modern man has come to live by faith in the structures of social life, the systems of beliefs, the moral codes and standards that gave concretion to the personal convictions and experiences of the Reformation. He has conceived confidence in the doctrines and institutions that expressed the faith in God given at that time. Many a man to be sure, in the course of the Protestant centuries and in our time has indeed re-enacted or been forced to reproduce the very wrestle of the soul with the God of wrath and grace that Luther enacted as the father of Protestant faith. But to a large extent it seems true that as in all periods of the past a social faith has largely taken the place of the faith that is directed immediately to God beyond all gods. The Kierkegaards may protest all they want to against the kinds of trust we put in our institutions, our doctrines, our ways of life as impersonal men who share a kind of common mind, a common faith which has small intensity because it is so secure, because it is anchored in such nearby, familiar things as doctrines and churches and very well-known Bibles—so well known that they are taken for granted. Despite such protests against Protestantism we tend to put our trust in it. Or otherwise we live in a more political confidence in the value, the endurance, the meaningfulness of national life, or of Western civilization, of its systems of belief, of its more or less well-ordered ways of behavior in which we play our part and have our personal meaning.

There is no use in crying out against this fact; there is no justice in accusing our fellowmen of leading inauthentic existences. There is something authentic and right in all conservatism. There is a grace and providence of God apparent in the manner in which he preserves the past for us and makes us preserves of the past. Even the Reformation was not all newness of life. It maintained or was made the instrument of conserving a large part of its own past.

But despite the prevalence of social faith, in which God is mediated to us in the symbols and the doctrines of the church, in which we rely on social laws believed ultimately to be founded on his will, it has long been apparent that some great cracks are running through our structure. No century is like another but there is something in our time that reminds us of the fifteenth rather than of the sixteenth century. The glad confidence we once had in our civilizations, in our Christendom, in our nations, has been deeply shaken. It has been shaken by the great distance that has opened up between our images of ourselves and our actuality in behavior. We have become distrustful in religion itself of our human religion, but vainly seek to separate with Barth true revelation from Christian religion. The new developments in science do not so much open up to us vistas of the future into which we would gladly move forward as threaten the stability of the world-picture to which we have become accustomed.

To a greater extent than was true in late medievalism, the formulae and symbols we have used with which to grasp reality, to understand ourselves and God and Jesus Christ, have been worn out, have become often as characterless as coins that have passed through too many hands.

Meantime also the power of evil has become so manifest in our world that is has become easier for many a modern to believe in the reality of devils or demonic powers that in gracious forces and ministries. But there is no need to multiply testimony to the presence among men today of deep distrust of existence; it is saddest when it appears in the form of boredom, most agonizing when it comes as despair. The temper manifests itself in our whole society; it invades the churches which try to erect dogmatic defenses against it. But sometimes the very dogmatism of the systems seems to indicate the presence of the foe— distrust, suspicion, despair of life, belief in the infinite distance of God from our common human scene.

In this situation our attitude to Martin Luther and the Reformation may be a twofold one. On the one hand we shall try to reappropriate the truth of that old struggle of man with God, of that new appearance of the cross at the heart of life and of the great reconciler. But on the other hand we shall look forward with hope to the renewal not of the fruits of faith but of faith itself. Such a renewal will not come without travail; no youth will, knowing what is involved, offer himself easily to become its prophet. It will not come by our design or any human will. Yet as we look at our past human story, at Isaiah and Paul and Martin Luther and many another, our confidence in their God and Savior will at least take the form of trust that he will renew our trust. Not as lonely individuals only, but as members, one of another. Behold, says the Lord, I will do a new thing.

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) is best known for his books Christ and Culture and The Responsible Self. He served as the Sterling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School from 1954 until 1962. His papers, including a handwritten draft of this address, are held at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

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