A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch (Mansifeld Centre: Martino Publishing, 2011; originally published in 1918. 290 pp)

Walter Rauschenbusch was the leading proponent of the Social Gospel Movement whose mission was to reform society to meet the social needs of the poor through the ministrations of the institutional church. PBS recently called him “one of the most influential American religious leaders of the last 100 years.”



The Nature of Sin and Salvation 

When attempting to manufacture a systematic theology, the nature of sin and salvation becomes integral components of the position. Slight changes in these core beliefs cause vast differences externally. Having previously labored toward the notion of “the social gospel,” Walter Rauschenbusch writes A Theology for the Social Gospel with the aims to fill in the gaps.

Interestingly, Rauschenbusch begins his endeavor under clearly inductive principles. Where many theologians begin with wide-sweeping, theoretical principles and work down toward specifics, Rauschenbusch begins with the assumption that:

“We have a social gospel. We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it” (1).

Thus, the bedrock principles of theology must fit around the idea of a social gospel.

On Sin

Next, Rauschenbusch defines the nature of sin. Rauschenbusch rejects the classic conceptions of sin which center on the notion of personal morality. Instead, he offers,

“Sin is essentially selfishness. That definition is more in harmony with the social gospel than with any individualistic type of religion. The sinful mind, then, is the unsocial and anti-social mind” (50).

As the basic tenets of the social gospel recommend, the notion of sin must transform from an individual perception to a collective perception. Sin is not defined by the “do’s and don’ts” of individual morality but the involvement of an individual in a larger group. Rauschenbusch later suggests that sin takes effect in social scenarios; without the opportunity to inflict injustice on another human being, sin lacks an ethical bite.

Sin and the Collective Body

Having established a social setting under which sin finds meaning, Rauschenbusch expands the meaning of sin to include social groups. For his justification of the moral value in collective organizations, Rauschenbusch quotes Josiah Royce who stated,

“There are in the human world two profoundly different grades, or levels, of mental beings,—namely, the beings that we usually call human individuals, and the being that we call communities.—Any highly organized community is as truly a human being as you and I are individually human” (71).

The collective actions of a community carry as much weight as the actions of an individual. If a human being is capable of sinful selfishness, an organization is as well.

On Salvation

Given the notion of both human and communal sinfulness, Rauschenbusch’s view of salvation carries a similar dualistic nature. On one side, Rauschenbusch affirms an individual salvation when he asserts,

“If sin is selfishness, salvation must be a change which turns a man from self to God and humanity” (97).

Even though he adds the caveat of turning toward humanity, Rauschenbusch aligns himself for the most part with classic views on salvation.

Yet Rauschenbusch takes an extra step, asserting that communities also carry the responsibility of salvation. He writes,

“The Salvation of the composite personalities, like that of individuals, consists in coming under the law of Christ” (111).

In ways similar to the legal standing of corporations as individual citizens, Rauschenbusch believes that the collective actions of an organization are a source for salvific consideration.

On the Church

For Rauschenbusch, the entity that ties together his theology of sin and salvation is the church. Rauschenbusch argues:

“The Church is the social factor in salvation. It brings social forces to bear on evil. It offers Christ not only many human bodies and minds to serve as ministers of his salvation, but its own composite personality, with a collective memory stored with great hymns and Bible stories and deeds of heroism, with trained aesthetic and moral feelings, and with a collective will set on righteousness” (119).

Therefore, the connection between personal and collective sin and salvation lies with the church. It possesses the ability to speak into the life of an individual and against the injustice of a collective.

Questions on Sin and Grace

Even though A Theology for the Social Gospel explores the importance of adding collective moral weight to the notions of sin and salvation, certain assertions from Rauschenbusch are questionable. First, he decries the classic notion of universal sin. He writes,

“Theologians have erred, it seems to me, by fitting their definitions to the most highly developed forms of sin and then spreading them over germinal and semi-sinful actions and conditions” (45).

Most Christian traditions consider sin to be sin no matter the depth or consequence. A white lie is as sinful as committing murder. Yet, Rauschenbusch clearly believes that sin is too widely defined. Certainly, we see Christians who take liberty to declare many “gray areas” as sinful.

Despite no clear “thou shalt not drink alcohol of any kind at any time,” many moralists consider such an action as sin. However, the attempt to define a “semi-sinful” state seems dangerous. On the whole, Rauschenbusch argues against a legalistic morality, but I worry he wanders too far in the other direction.

In addition, I see no mention of grace in Rauschenbusch’s theology. There is no note on the Ephesians passage that states, “For by grace we have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:8). For Rauschenbusch, salvation occurs during alignment with God and alignment with the Church body. Given his inductive approach to the social gospel, Rauschenbusch has no need for grace. But isn’t grace the first step and those alignments a response to the original offer of grace? Clearly, Rauschenbusch does not stress a Pauline view in his social gospel. But I am wary that without mentioning grace, Rauschenbusch ignores a portion of the gospel.

Conclusion

In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch sets forth an attempt for a systematic theology that fulfills the social gospel from an inductive approach. Focusing on sin and salvation that includes both personal and collective pieces, Rauschenbusch believes that the social institution of the church acts as the fulcrum between the individual and society. Nevertheless, Rauschenbusch’s view of sin and his lack of interest in grace leaves question marks. The gospel offers social aims, and Walter Rauschenbusch’s theology endeavors to provide system around it. If you are interested theology and social justice, Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel is a must read. However, if you find unorthodox or non-conservative theological positions dangerous, I suggest you steer clear.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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4 Comments Leave a comment
  • Robb

    Have you read Timothy Keller's Generous Justice? I am reading it now and learning quite a bit so far.

    • Donovan Richards

      I haven't read any Tim Keller. I know he does good work though. Does Generous Justice cover similar themes to Rauschenbusch?

    • Robb

      Yes, I would say it is quite relevant. In the introduction, Timothy Keller describes Rauschenbusch's ministry to the neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, NYC.

      Regarding his and other Social Gospel proponents' shift from orthodoxy, he states, “In the mind of many orthodox Christians, therefore, 'doing justice' is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine and spiritual dynamism.”

      One of the main points of the book is why Keller thinks these are not exclusive, and how social justice should flow directly from true orthodoxy.

    • Andrew Jacobson

      Funny story, I'm that very same Keller book currently!

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