Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel

A loyal follower of this blog asked me to post something about Walter Rauschenbusch, which I am happy to do. He’s one of my heroes. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he wrote.

Rauschenbusch was the son of a German immigrant who became a Baptist in the US. His father taught church history at Rochester Theological Seminary, the oldest Baptist seminary in the US. Walter grew up in a very devout home and carried that devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord into his adult life. He became a professor at the same seminary as his father.

The department at Rochester Seminary where Walter and his father taught was the German department. In the 1940s it separated from Rochester Theological Seminary in New York and moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The new name was North American Baptist Seminary, my alma mater.

Walter developed a strong sensitivity to social problems and advocated a ‘Christianization of the social order’, by which he did not mean the establishment of a theocracy. He wrote a book with that title, which makes it clear what he meant. He meant a social order organized by love. The love he advocated would be socially expressed through justice for all. Walter advocated a form of socialism. For example, he believed that Christians should only establish cooperative businesses; he despised the profit motive.

Walter wrote three popular books, all of which are still in print. The first was Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). Then came the Christianization of the Social Order (1912) and finally A Theology for the Social Gospel (1918).

He was deaf for much of his adult life and died of stomach cancer in 1918. When I visited Rochester, New York, I went to the huge cemetery there where many people associated with the progressive movement are buried. Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong, a close friend of Walter, is buried there. I couldn’t find Walter’s grave, so I inquired at the office and was told he had been cremated.

Walter denounced the social conditions of the laissez-faire capitalism of America’s so-called “robber baron” era. He was in favor of a government policy that would make it possible for everyone to live a dignified life. He advocated wealth redistribution and laws to limit the power of corporations.

In his best-known book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter attempted to demonstrate the social relevance of every major tenet of the Christian faith. Ultimately, he reinterpreted each doctrine in light of the need for social transformation. He was indirectly influenced by the liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl, although he strongly disagreed with the radical liberalism of Ritschl’s student Adolf von Harnack. Walter’s theology could be called the moralization of dogma.

He was not so much interested in denying any doctrine as in reinterpreting it in light of the need for social morality. For him, the kingdom of God is not only eschatological, but also historical and could come about in part through social transformation. He was not a revolutionary, but a reformer.

Rauschenbusch’s orthodoxy has been questioned many times, but I have not found him to be heretical. However, it was clear that he was more interested in orthopraxy than in orthodoxy. He believed that orthodoxy was already well established, and for the most part this was the case in his day. He did not join the nascent liberal movement in theology that emerged from Schleiermacher and Ritschl, but he did believe that Ritschl’s ideas had merit, especially his ideas about the kingdom of God as historical and social and not apocalyptic or merely eschatological . He strongly disagreed with the ‘life council ethics’ of DL Moody and Billy Sunday.

On the other hand, Walter wrote a very long essay called “Why I Am a Baptist,” in which he stated that he was a Baptist because the Baptist tradition is an “experimental religion,” by which he meant “experiential religion.” His own Christianity was hearty and evangelical, even though he was socially and politically liberal.

Walter was too conservative for thoroughly liberals like Henry Churchill King, but too liberal for thoroughly conservatives like fundamentalist Machen.

I have been very influenced by Rauschenbusch, wanting to remain more orthodox than he seemed to be because of his neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity, which he could not find ethically fruitful. I believe that the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann later demonstrated the moral and ethical fruitfulness of the doctrine of the Trinity. Moltmann is (still alive at the time of this writing) an heir of Ritschl and Moltmann, but charted his own path with realistic, historical eschatology as recovered and reclaimed (from apocalypticism).

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