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
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.
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“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.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards