Niebuhr’s Caveat

Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning, given in 1945 is encased in his discussion about the necessary dialectic of mercy and justice; the peace of God, authentic Christian forgiveness and not confusing inner peace with stoic detachment. He also lays out in some detail the importance of recognising that we cannot fully comprehend God, but are fully apprehended by Him in Jesus Christ.

Iron Cannon

As far as this ”warning” (which is really more a caveat because ”warning” can wrongly imply that the prophetic is involved here) goes, it is certainly closer to Orwell’s ‘1984’, than P.D James’ brilliant ‘Children of Men’. However, it is fairly evident to me that modern Western culture is already moving over into this ‘sea of relativity; into complete anarchy’ with the totalitarian rule of chaos that is able to deceive so many by creating and inciting the mob to revolt. Despite whether or not the mob understands why and what they are revolting against. Critical thinking, just democratic representation and fair debate are sidelined.

Such is the result of ideological movements based the false promise of absolute freedom; or as Karl Barth (Freedom in Limitation; Church Dogmatics) or Albert Camus (The Rebel) critique it: freedom without necessary limitation is not true freedom.

It is important to point out that Niebuhr is cautious in who and what the ‘canons of righteousness’ are to be. He understands this to be a problem because everyone has an agenda – self-interest plays a part, but Niebuhr presupposes a framework for ‘canons of righteousness’ to be one grounded on, guided by and founded in Jesus Christ, and informed as such by Christian forgiveness, mercy and justice.

‘If there were no canons of righteousness by which conflicting ideas and values could be judged, human society would be a sea of relativity, a complete anarchy of values and interests.’ [i]



Niebuhr, R. 1945, Discerning the Signs of the Times, Kindle Ed.

Image is mine: Inside the barrel of an Iron Cannon located at Fort Scratchley, Newcastle.


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