Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 2)

(Continuing on from yesterday)

  • Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel

Walter Rauschsnbusch (1861-1918) gained notoriety in 1907 for Christianity and the Social Crisis, at which time he was a professor of church history at the Rochester Theological Seminary (now the Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School).  In the time between completing his seminary training in 1883 and returning to Rochester to teach in 1897, he served (beginning in 1886) as pastor to the Second German Baptist Church in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen district.  Although much of his pastorate was part-time so he could travel and research, the conditions of the poor congregation he served were formative for his social theology.[1]

The most compact and comprehensive of Rauschenbusch’s thought is to be found in his 1917 A Theology of the Social Gospel.   The book started its life as the Taylor Lectures at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in answer to a call to articulate the theological background for his famous 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis.  He had developed a short program of voluntary study on the topic in 1916, published as The Social Principles of Jesus, directed toward undergraduates.  His final work was more directed at church professionals and those training for ordained ministry. Both works are referenced here.   Rauschenbusch refused to say that his work was ‘the’ theology for the social gospel, as the implications of the gospel for society were far too complex for any one generation, let alone individual, to give a single definitive set of theological pronouncements.   His intention was to offer a set of theological justifications, with the expectation that others would be encouraged to offer additional and different means to the same end of encouraging cooperation towards the realization of God’s peaceable reign on earth.

However, one claim resonates throughout the book:  the gospel is nothing if it is not social. The good news of Jesus Christ is only in small part about individual or personal redemption.  Moreover, the individual is not ‘saved from’ society, but saved as a result of social transformation in this world. The social gospel does imagine that good individuals make a good society, but that a good society is required to make persons good.   Rauschenbusch is aware that this is a significant departure to earlier theologies which focused on individual salvation and the hope of an afterlife.  But from the start, he insists on the need for change and adaptation to the world in which it is set:  “If theology stops growing or is unable to adjust itself to its modern environment, and to meet its present tasks, it will die.”[2]  Furthermore, this transformation of society is what “takes the place of conventional religion in the lives of many outside the Church”[3], and thus has a missional aspect; this should make it attractive to Christian churches today.  It seeks less to bring people into the church as ‘members’, and more to cooperate those who are not congregants (or Christians) who share a vision of the Kingdom of God—even if they do not articulate their hopes for a more just society in religious terms.

The Kingdom of God is the key concept of the social gospel.  This is an inescapably corporate and political construct.  Although Rauschenbusch is clear that social justice is a basic impulse of the fully human conscience (religious or not), and therefore could attract the cooperation of people from other faith traditions or none at all, Jesus’ teaching was based on and in continuity with the vision of the Hebrew Prophets.   He believed that

When the early Christian Socialists, Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, first asserted solidaristic ideas on theology and social questions, they justly felt that they were preaching a new and prophetic gospel in the midst of competitive selfishness.[4]

The religious experience that the social gospel would evoke was this prophetic type.  “It fuses the Christian spirit and the social consciousness”, and was “the most youthful, modern and effective form of present-day religion.”[5]

In addition to being prophetic, social gospel thought as Rauschenbusch conceived it, is also entirely practical.  For Rauschenbusch, prophetic religion concentrates on “present and active sources of evil” rather than the origins of evil.[6]  He recognized that

On some of the more speculative doctrines the social gospel has no contribution to make.  Its interests lie on earth, within the social relations of the life that now is.  It is concerned with the eradication of sin and the fulfillment of the mission of redemption.[7]

And so, those two areas of Christian doctrine—sin and redemption—are the ones on which Rauschenbusch concentrates his energies.  He refuses, however, to see this as a narrowing or weakening of the content of faith:

Surely theology will not become less Christian by widening the scope of salvation, by taking more seriously the burden of social evil, and by learning to believe in the Kingdom of God.[8]

Indeed, it is a serious shortcoming in the fascination with more speculative theology that it has not adequately explored and promoted the Kingdom:

. . . doctrinal theology has failed to cherish and conserve for humanity the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.  Christ died for it.  Theology has allowed it to lead a decrepit, bed-ridden and senile existence in that museum of antiquities which we call eschatology.[9]

But for Rauschenbusch, the Kingdom of God is at the heart of the religion of Jesus—it is where the interests of God and humanity are identical.  Anything less was, in his way of thinking, pre-Christian.[10]  “Theology has not been a faithful steward of the truth entrusted to it.  The social gospel is its accusing conscience.”[11]

To briefly summarize Walter Rauschenbusch one might say the following.  The Kingdom of God is the prophetic vision of a perfect identity of the interests of God and humanity; it is personified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Sin is rooted in social evil more than in the individual, and it is the social evil that causes the vast majority of personal ill.  Sin is overwhelmingly identified with selfishness, and it is corporate selfishness (from which the Church is not exempt) that needs to be overcome.  Speculative theology has helped to mask the selfishness of the Church.  Prophetic and practical religion that emphasizes the Kingdom of God is the most effective means available for the redemption of humanity, both individually and corporately, and will gain the sympathy of those who are unmoved by speculative theological arguments.

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel; introduction by Donald W. Shriver, Jr. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 1.

[3] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 3

[4] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 29.

[5] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 20.

[6] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 44.

[7] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 31.

[8] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 21-22.

[9] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 53.

[10] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 50.

[11][11] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 53.

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