Neo-Supernaturalism’s View of Sin

By Cecil Willis

(EDITORS NOTE: The following article is somewhat different from the usual editorial in this magazine. For several years, it has been evident to some of us that some of our young intellectuals had adopted a Neo-Orthodox view of Scripture. Now Brother Edward Fudge has discovered a new definition of sin. His new definition boils down to an action that results from “imperfect knowledge,” but which action will be compensated for in the Judgment by the imputation of the perfect life of Christ to our account. Hence, according to Brother Fudge, actions like instrumental music in worship and the practice of institutionalism will not cause any soul to be lost, if these actions result from “imperfect knowledge.” Thus it is in order for us to now take a good look at the NeoOrthodox view of sin. The following article was written several years ago, but is now being published for the first time. Brother Franklin T. Puckett recommended that I now publish the article. The Neo-Orthodox concept of Revelation leads to the Neo-Orthodox view of sin, which inevitably will lead these adherents to the Neo-Orthodox view of salvation.)

One of the great themes that has merited the attention of thorough thinkers throughout the annals of human history, since the time of the fall of man has been that of an adequate view of sin. The pens of men have been voluminous in seeking to depict the nature of man, and the nature of sin. One’s view of sin is seen to be more inclusive when one understands that his view of salvation must be directly proportionate to his view of sin, since salvation is to redeem one from the consequences incurred by sin. In this article we are restricting ourselves to Neo-Supernaturalism’s haematology (view of sin).

Perhaps one of the greatest perplexities that we must face in this effort is that of arriving at a proper definition of neo-supernaturalism. This problem must be confronted before one may investigate it’s view of sin. Of course, the term “Neo-Supernaturalism” is being used synonymously with Neo-Orthodoxy. But what is Neo-Orthodoxy? And who are the proponents of such a view of sin? This precisely is the first problem which we seek to solve.

One may best understand Neo-Orthodoxy if he understands what gave birth to the movement. For several hundred years just prior to the twentieth century, so-called Christendom had become an almost stereotyped movement. Partially due to the monastic ascetical lives of the clerical members of the Roman Catholic Church, those who wore the name of Christ had sought to remove themselves from society rather than to make any effort to improve it. They sought to extricate themselves from their environment, but yet remain in it. Too, theologically, they had come almost to a stalemate. Men seemed to be content to go along with the same mystical theologies garnered from the middle ages.

It seems that it always takes a radical to overcome and to move the complacent majority, and so it was in this condition. There arose a group of very liberal preachers who began expounding what is now called the “Social Gospel.” Their idea was that the religion of Christ is not wholly an “other-worldly” movement, but has a very definite contribution to add to “this worldly” activities.) They maintained that religion must renovate society, rather than withdraw from it. This movement began in England about 1830, but it was near the end of the 19th century before the repercussions began reaching America with any overt result. But with the coming of this “social-gospel ethic” there also came, what was to “conservatives,” a horrifying wave of liberalism. As a result of this liberalism, orthodoxy was almost completely alienated from the social gospel movement, but there were individuals within both liberalism and orthodoxy who could not concur wholly with either of the two divergent views; consequently there grew up a movement which now bears the name of “Neo-Orthodoxy,” which was an effort to counteract the liberalism of the theology accompanying the social gospel movement.

Edward Leroy Long, Jr., who considered himself a part of the Neo-Orthodox movement, gave a clear statement of its roots and background.

“Where the social gospel has been qualified without being totally rejected, there has appeared a concern to relate Christian faith to social problems, which has been accompanied by a sober recognition of the contrast between the Christian ideal and what can actually be done in given situations. Many of the leaders of this new orientation, which for want of a more precise name may be called ‘neoorthodoxy,” are heirs of the social gospel.”2

Neo-Supernaturalism is therefore seen to be a revolt against the liberalism of the social gospel movement, and is an, attempt to maintain orthodoxy while being a participant in the view that “Christianity” has a social relevance, yet abstaining from some modernistic tenets accompanying the social gospel theology.

We are seeking to define Neo-Supernaturalism. Max Black said that there are but two ways to define: connotatively and denotatively.3 We have been seeking to show what gave birth to the Neo-Orthodox movement, and consequently to show what it connotes. But to denotatively define the movement would be to show some examples of men who are Neo-Supernaturalisms. In speaking of the view of sin in Neo-Orthodoxy, one must select certain men who are representative of the field to study. In doing this we will be denotatively defining the movement.

In this article we will confine our remarks primarily to the widely heralded but recently deceased leader of the American portion of the Neo-Supernaturalistic movement, namely Reinhold Niebuhr. Those who have followed the movement are, perhaps, more familiar with the names of the outstanding German-Swiss theologians, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Other Americans, who maybe considered a part of Neo-Orthodoxy are Walter M. Horton, Robert L. Calhoun, John C. Bennett and H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold’s brother.4 But our remarks must be confined to him’ who was certainly the leader of the movement in America, Reinhold Niebuhr.

One can better understand what Neo-Orthodoxy is, and that for which it contends, against the background of that against which it revolted in Liberalism. Carl F. H. Henry, a moderate Fundamentalist, says that “liberalism modified Biblical anthropology with both idealistic and naturalistic emphases.”5 These “idealistic and naturalistic emphases” were the points with which those who now comprise the movement toward “orthodoxy” disagreed. Since, these liberalistic contentions are so wedded to the Neo-Orthodox view of sin, we must give some consideration to them.

Inevitability of Progress

Liberalism’s philosophical view of history was that of automatic progress. They thought that progress was inevitable. This concept of axiomatic progress of modern liberalism was quite a contrast with the ancient pessimism of the middle ages. There were several reasons why they thought of advancement as being certain. With the coming of the renaissance or the period of the enlightenment, there were vast technological advances. Modern science had progressed so far that some men even thought they had excelled the Biblical miracles by natural means. With such fantastic advances in technology, progress seemed inevitable.

Men were made overly optimistic by the fact that some then relatively insignificant nations, such as America and Germany, were coming to the forefront as world powers. They were advancing. Then, of course, Hegelian intellectual or logical evolution, and Darwinian biological evolution seemed to make progress inevitable. So overwhelming became this philosophy of history that “this faith in the power of life to establish and magnify itself through the progessive (sic.) mastery of its environment,” Perry called “the most significant religious idea of modern times:”6 John Randall also added that “all the scientists, from Descartes down, despised the ancients and carried the day for faith in progress.”7 Niebuhr recognized the fact that men almost universally had adopted this philosophical view of history which asserted the inevitability of progress. He says “the ‘idea of progress’, the most characteristic and firmly held article in the credo of modern man, is the inevitable philosophy of history emerging from the Renaissance.”8 Later he adds: “the idea of progress as the most dominant and characteristic article in the creed of modernity is powerful enough to use the most diverse philosophies as its instruments.. ..”9 But even though this theory of axiomatic progress was widely held, yet there were certain factors which pointed to its fallaciousness.

Liberalism had its development before the bleak war years of 1914-45, in which the world was engulfed in two world-wide conflicts. After the misery and wreckage of these two great wars, liberalism was less optimistic, or at least fewer were willing to consent to the optimistic positions of liberalism. “So quickly moved the world smashing events, hardly able to make room one for the other, that no chapter in political science is so replete with crisis. In our lifetime all nations have stood constantly in the judgment hour.”10 The world had gone into one of the most horrifying periods of its history in what was called a “cold war.” Even at the present hour men, by the thousand, are shedding their blood in great struggles that few understand. And while there looms over the world the threat of greater devastation than ever known by man, in the form of the hydrogen bomb which is a thousand times stronger than its relative, the atomic bomb which drove the Japanese nation into terror and surrender during the World War II, men are even less optimistic, and are now living a life of terror; anxiety and pessimism. Reality forced men like Niebuhr to deny the “idea of progress,” so that he said “the course of history, particularly in the past two centuries, has proved the earlier identification of growth and progress to be false.”11 The doctrine of the inevitability of progress was the first tenet of liberalism that forced a break toward “orthodoxy” on the part of many.

Inherent Goodness of Man

A second position of liberalism was that of the inherent goodness of man. This position came logically from the theory we just discussed, the assurance of advancement. This surety of advancement was certified because man was inherently good. By this good which they affirmed to be inherent within man, liberals did not mean that man was born free from sin, but that by nature he was good. Some of the Calvinists who affirm that man is inherently evil have tried to weave their way into the Neo-Supernaturalistic movement. Man is deterministic toward neither good nor evil. He` has the freedom to choose. But it was not in relation to a condition at birth that liberalists spoke of goodness. It was in relation to activities which are the result of choice that they affirmed the essential goodness of man.

Niebuhr, championing the cause of Neo-Orthodoxy, countered by affirming, or restating the essential sinfulness of man. We must defer a discussion of his view of sin for a while in order that we also might understand the result of naturalism on Liberalism, and its counterpart; reconstructed liberalism or Neo-Supernaturalism. We already have seen that Liberalism’s idealistic anthropology, which affirmed the inevitability of progress and the inherent goodness of men, was rejected by Neo-Orthodoxy.

During the years when this optimistic outlook of Liberalism was developing, another movement which was giving potency to this modernism, was likewise being formulated. This was biological evolution. It stated that man was essentially a beast in an advanced state, and that sin was a natural step in man’s advancement; so that eventually man would have so developed that he would be beyond the state in which he would sin. Man’s sensuousness was described as the remnant of the brute instincts which survive in him as a consequence of his animal ancestry. “It was the drag of brute instincts on the higher spiritual ideals which pulled men down.”12 One readily can see that if man was going through a natural process over which he had no control, and this natural process included the stage which man called “sin,” then the individual had no moral responsibility in these “sinful” activities, for they were beyond his control. It became apparent that there had to be some middle ground between this liberalistic, deterministic system of irresponsibility, and an equally deterministic system of inherent total depravity propagated by Calvinistic Evangelicals. Consequently, there arose the Neo-Supernaturalistic view of sin. This new view, in some circles, now wears the name of the “realistic” view of sin.

For the first authoritative statement by an American of the Neo-Orthodox attitude toward in, one may look to the year 1932 when Reinhold Niebuhr published his Moral Man in Immoral Society. This compromising system was developed in a series of articles in 1934 called Reflections at the End of an Era; and then the most complete statement of this new view of sin appeared in 1943 in the two-volume statement of his 1939 Gifford Lectures, entitled, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In these different writings, Niebuhr affirmed that sin was lodged in the will of man, and not in some animal instinct carried over from a former state.

As to the origin of sin, Niebuhr’s explanation is rather circumlocutious. He states that sin is present because of original sin, but that original sin is not inherited, or is not actually original. Man still has a moral responsibility for the existence of original sin in his life. Both “original” and “actual” sin have their roots in the will of man. Niebuhr says that in the “Biblical myth” man was tempted by the devil, and as a result of this temptation original sin was introduced. But even though the devil misrepresented the injunction of God, man still had to persuade himself that this misrepresentation was true. He says that this self-deception was partly unconscious, but partly deliberate. Therefore, man has a responsibility for he was deliberately selfdeceived. The fact that man was partially self-deceived is evidenced by the fact; says Niebuhr, that he

confessed that he was not wholly deceived, when he expressed regret or remorse.13

Niebuhr says that man has freedom, and since he has freedom, therefore he is in constant anxiety concerning this freedom, but that this anxiety is the basis of sin. Freedom is the Ainternal precondition of sin,@14 says Niebuhr. He affirms, though, that sin cannot have its roots from any source outside of man himself, else man is not morally responsible. This is why he holds that man was self deceived in the AFall.@ Thus he is responsible.

Actually, to Niebuhr sin is divided into two categories; original and actual. Original sin is not an act, but is postulated as a defect in the will. This defection of the will must be present before there can be any act. He maintains that Athe Bible knows nothing about a good mind and an evil body@15 precisely because the body can do nothing without the consent of the mind, and so the original sin is the precondition of the mind, which he calls anxiety, which leads one to the overt action, to which he refers as actual sin.

The clearest (?) explanation of the origin of sin, as expressed by this influential American theologian, is voiced when he adapts the phrase of the philosopher, Kierkegaard, stating that “sin posits-itself,” which is a logical contradiction, for certainly first or original sin could not come from sin, unless one is willing to sacrifice the principle of causation; for from nothing, nothing can come. Where did the first sin come from that gave birth to what Niebuhr would term the first “actual sin?”

But Niebuhr attempts an explanation when he says that the “precondition of sin” is postulated in man’s freedom, for freedom creates anxiety, and anxiety is the root of sin, although not sin itself. Anxiety might be spoken of as being amoral. Freedom is a God-given attribute of all men, and this freedom gives birth to anxiety which is the foundation for sin. In an ideal situation, faith might overrule anxiety, but in reality, it never does. Therefore, sin is the “unnecessitated inevitability.” “I ought,” which implies freedom of choice, but “I cannot” says Niebuhr.

Thus Niebuhr, and other Neo-Supernaturalists affirmed that if man is going to be saved, he must be saved as a sinner, although “selfishness” (or sin as defined by Niebuhr), in the light of the Biblical view of sin, is an inadequate definition of sin. Salvation would then be the suppression of one’s own egoistic, self-centered interests, and the renovation of one’s will into an altruistic spirit. But Biblical salvation or redemption is viewed much more importantly.

Sin in the light of Biblical teaching is the setting of man’s will against the will of God. God’s infinite holiness is the standard or essence of all holiness. Man is given the responsibility to emulate the holiness of God, but he does not. This failure of man’s holiness to correspond with the infinite holiness of God is sin, and salvation is the redemption of man from the guilt incurred by this failure in his life to correspond with the holiness of God.

It is doubtful whether the views of Neo-Supernaturalistic theology are less divergent from those of “orthodox theology” than from those of liberalism. They are more liberalistic than orthodox. In fact, Neo-Orthodoxy is a misnomer. It should be called “The New Modernism,” as Cornelius Van Til so appropriately labeled it.


1. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Chapters 13.

2. Edward Leroy Long, Jr., Conscience and Compromise, p. 32. 3. Max Black, Critical Thinking, pp. 192-194.

4. Mary Francis Thelen, Man as Sinner.

5. Carl F. H. Henry, The Protestant Dilemma, p. 127.

6. Ralph Barton Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies, p. 47.

7. John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, p. 382. 8. Reinhold, Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, pp. 154, 155.

9. Niebuhr., Op. Cit., Vol. II. p. 165.

10. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind, p. 19. 11. Niebuhr, Op. Cit., Vol. II, p. 206.

12. Henry, The Protestant Dilemma, p. 130. 13. Niebuhr, Op. Cit., Vol. I, p. 205.

14. Ibid., p. 182.

15. Niebuhr, Op. Cit., Vol. I, p. 7.


Black, Max, Critical Thinking, Second Edition, New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952.

Henry, Cart F. H., Remaking the Modern Mind, Second Edition, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1948.

The Protestant Dilemma, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1949.

Long, Edward Leroy, Jr., Conscience and Compromise, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, c. 1954.

Perry, Ralph Barton, Present Philosophical Tendencies, New York, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1912.

Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume I, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.

The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume II, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.

Randall, John Herman, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, Boston, Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1940.

Rauschenbusch, Walter, A Theology for the Social Gospel, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Thelen;-Mary Francis, Man As Sinner, Morningside Heights, New York, King’s Crown Press, 1946.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:5, p. 3-7
November 29, 1973