Theology for the Social Gospel: a Book Review

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October 27, 2010

Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917. 279 pp.

Culturally speaking, Walter Rauschenbusch may have been years ahead of his time. From the very first chapter of his most famous work, Rauschenbusch’s passion for social justice is quite evident. He certainly had his finger on the pulse of his current generation, noting the compelling movement of the college students of his day to social service (3). It could be argued that the current generation shares this passion and perhaps even his theology. Unfortunately, while as believers we are called to “act justly and love mercy” (Micah 6:8), Rauschenbusch’s system of theology to uphold this love for social justice begins with his own values making it a shaky theology at best.


Rauschenbusch begins his book with his main proposition: “to show that a readjustment and expansion of theology… is necessary” and to give “concrete suggestions how some of the most important sections of doctrinal theology may be expanded and readjusted to make room for the religious convictions summed up in ‘the social gospel’” (1). Even at the outset of the book, he intends to adjust theology to “make room” for his own convictions. The first three chapters are dedicated to demonstrate the need for a new theology. In chapter one, he throws down the gauntlet in front of the so-called dead and ineffective systems of theology that have been followed traditionally (1). His appeal specifically revolves around the college men and women of his day. He argues that “if our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel college men and women, working men and theological students to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (7). In chapter two, he discusses the challenges that arise in changing systems of theology. He calls theology “esoteric” and argues that the gospel was given by and to laymen (15). Since the social gospel centers all religious interest on “the great ethical problems of social life” (15), it demands a theology that does the same. Finally, in chapter three, Rauschenbusch makes the argument that he is not adding to the gospel in any way, bringing elements into theology that are not “new or alien” (23). He cites the work done in the social gospel prior to and concurrently with his own writing. In the remaining sixteen chapters, Rauschenbusch identifies major areas of theology that must be examined to make room for the social gospel. In chapters four through nine, he addresses the doctrine of original sin. He discusses the contradiction between a believer’s awareness of sin and their dismissal of justice, the weight of contemporary sins as opposed to original sin, and sins in a collective, communal sense. He also argues that sins are socialized just as much as they are inherent to human beings and that there are powers that drive sin in society. All of these elements are wrapped up in what Rauschenbusch labels a “kingdom of evil” (81) where evil is conceived socially and therefore must be dealt with socially. The kingdom of evil leads into the heart of the social gospel in chapter ten. In chapters ten through fourteen, Rauschenbusch addresses the doctrine of salvation. While he sees the salvation of the individual as essential, he views salvation also as a communal work. He argues that salvation will ultimately lead to the reform of society as a whole, especially with regard to human power. Rauschenbusch views the church as the “super-personal force which is organized around Christ” (119) and that when the church is under the law of Christ, all of society experiences a sort of redemption. In opposition to the kingdom of evil is the Kingdom of God, the doctrine which Rauschenbusch views as most basic and central force in the social gospel. In the final chapters, Rauschenbusch discusses the implications of the social gospel on the doctrines...
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