The Anxiety of Inheritance: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Literal Truth of Original Sin

Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (1):75 - 99 (2003)

Abstract

Widely regarded as the most influential proponent of the truth of original sin in the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr worked hard to excise any "literalistic" element from his interpretation of the doctrine. In his attempt to "correct" the Augustinian tradition on original sin by purging it of all "literalistic errors," however, Niebuhr assumed as his starting point the most characteristically modern objection to the doctrine: that birth is a thoroughly natural, animal, and morally meaningless event. As a result, Niebuhr unnecessarily constrained his vision of the dimensions of human freedom, and hence his description of the dynamic of anxiety and freedom that energizes sin. Through a careful reading of Reinhold Niebuhr's writings on original sin, in light of the truth that the end of human life is inseparable from its origins, a reappraisal and recovery of the meaningfulness of the assertion of original sin as a literal inheritance is possible. The result of such a reappraisal and recovery is an amplified insight into the existential anxiety that Niebuhr otherwise described so convincingly

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