A Theology for the Social Gospel

A Theology for the Social Gospel January 18, 2007

A Theology for the Social Gospel
by Walter Rauschenbusch

I read a great book over the holidays and have since had to write a paper on it for one of my classes. The class is called “Contemporary Theology: Barth to the Mid-Century,” and the book is called A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch was a Baptist minister in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City from 1886 to 1897. If you’ve seen the Scorsese movie “Gangs of New York,” that’s about the right time period and the same part of town. He was moved by the dire conditions of the tenements and the injustice of the social system which would allow crazy affluence and horrible poverty to exist on the same small island. What’s really interesting about Rauschenbusch is that he’s a rare breed among those who developed the social gospel idea in the early 20th Century. Most were liberals, but he was not. Rauschenbusch remained pretty conservative (in terms of his view of the Bible). He wrote this book in 1917 and it is essentially a transcription of lectures he delivered at Yale.

Throughout the rest of the book he works out a pretty detailed doctrine of the Kingdom of God and then works out his view of most of the other major doctrines, (Doctrine of God, Christology, Holy Spirit, Eschatology, Sacraments, and Atonement).

He’s a little weak on his Christology, in my opinion, and he also has a pretty low view of the sacraments, at least from one point of view. But I think the social conception of the Gospel is a needed component of the Christian faith which is portrayed in Scripture. I like that he says up front that this is not a replacement for the current individual conception of gospel, but a missing element which needs to be worked out. I know Atonement has been a bad topic on this blog but he’s got an interesting perspective on it so I’ve included some of my notes on that section here as well. This book is really great and for anyone interested in learning more about the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, this is well worth the time. I’ll probably write a little more about this guy, but here are a few quotes that really stood out to me:

“My main purpose in this book has been to show that the social gospel is a vital part of the Christian conception of sin and salvation, and that any teaching on the sinful condition of the race and on its redemption from evil which fails to do justices to the social factors and processes in sin and redemption, must be incomplete, unreal, and misleading.” P.167

“Theology needs periodical rejuvenation. Its greatest danger is not mutilation but senility. It is strong and vital when it expresses in large reasonings what youthful religion feels and thinks. When people have to be indoctrinated laboriously in order to understand theology at all, it becomes a dead burden. The dogmas and theological ideas of the early Church were those ideas which at the time were needed to hold the Church together, to rally its forces, and to give it victorious energy against antagonistic powers. Today many of those ideas are without present significance. Our reverence for them is a kind of ancestor worship. To hold laboriously to a religious belief which does not hold us, is an attenuated form of asceticism; we chastise and starve our intellect to sanctify it by holy beliefs.” P.12-13

“Upper-class minds have been able to live parasitic lives without any fellow-feeling for the peasants or tenants whom they were draining to pay for their leisure.” P.19

“The social gospel has already restored the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, which held first place with jesus but which individualistic theology carefully wrapped in several napkins and forgot.” P.21

“The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and the insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it and which act as temptations and incitements to evil and as forces of resistance to the powers of redemption.” P.95

“The social gospel furnishes new tests for religious experience…some who have been saved…are worth no more to the Kingdom of God than they were before. Some become worse through their revival experiences, more self-righteous, more opinionated, more steeped in unrealities and stupid over against the most important things, more devoted to emotions and unresponsive to real duties. We have the highest authority for the fact that men may grow worse by getting religion.” P.96

On Theodicy: “Social suffering serves social healing.” P. 183

“If the sense of common humanity is strong enough to set the entire social body in motion on behalf of those who suffer without just cause, then their troubles are eased and the whole forces are strong enough to suppress the reactions against injustice and…the suffering goes on.”p.183

ATONEMENT // Question One: how did he bear our sins?
“The bar to a true understanding of the atonement has been our individualism. The solution of the problem lies in the recognition of solidarity.” P. 245

If he bore our sins, how did it work? Imputation? Sympathy? Rauschenbush says that how it worked is tied to the concept of sin which is imbedded in the social systems. Public evil so pervades society that Jesus came under the effect of these public sins. “He will either sin by consenting in them, or he will suffer by resisting them.” P. 247. Jesus chose the second option. He “bore the weight of the public sins of organized society.” P.247 He enumerates six public sins which Jesus bore, they are all amazing.

Question Two: How did the atonement effect God?
Rauschenbusch says the first step is to treat his death as an integral part of his life, not as a distinct thing “making the life of Jesus a mere stage in for his death, a matter almost negligible in the work of salvation.” p. 260

“The spiritual and redemptive value of his death was not in the quantity of his mental or physical suffering; (that is a caricature of the atonement;) it was in the willingness with which he took on himself this highest and hardest part of his life work.” 261

So his death was the culmination of his life, “its most luminous point, the most dramatic expression of his personality.” P. 261

One of the key’s to understanding how God/man relationships were changed is to realize Jesus felt full solidarity with the Prophets and not with the Priests. He taught his disciples to follow in this as well. They were to see suffering on behalf of the kingdom part of their prophetic calling and not something to be avoided. Thus the non-resistance of Jesus is an essential part of the atonement.

“Christ was the first to live fully within the consciousness of God and to share in his holy and loving will. He drew others into his realization of God so that they too freely loved god and appropriated his will as their own…this was the embryonic beginning of the Kingdom of God within the race.” P. 165

“When men would learn to understand and love god; and when God could by anticipation see his own life appropriated by men, God and men would enter into a spiritual solidarity, and this would be the only effective reconciliation.” P. 265

Question Three: how did the atonement affect men?
1) “It was the conclusive demonstration of the power of sin in humanity.” P. 267 Jesus resisted all 6 of the social and racial sins of humanity and was destroyed for it.

2) “The death of Christ was the supreme revelation of love.” P. 270 He resisted the systems of sin not out of hatred, but love for humankind.

“Thus the death of Christ was the conclusive and effective expression of the love of Jesus Christ for God and man, and his complete devotion to the Kingdom of God. The more his personality was understood to be the full and complete expression of the character of God, the more did his death become the assurance and guarantee that God loves us, forgives us, and is willing to do all things to save us.” P. 273

“We can either be saved by non-ethical sacramental methods, or by absorbing the moral character of Jesus into our own character. Let every man judge which is the salvation he wants.” P. 273

3) “The death of Christ has reinforced prophetic religion.

“The priest is the religious professional…the prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God.” p. 274-5

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