According to the Social Gospel

According to Walter Rauschenbusch

Tara Ingrid Ludmer

History of Christian Thought

March 19, 2000


Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) took it upon himself to write A Theology for the Social Gospel. In his introduction he explains that "the social gospel needs a theology to make it effective; but theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it" (1). This paper will examine how Rauschenbusch’s theology for the social gospel deals with the issue of sin.

To better understand this issue in the context of my paper, it is helpful to know that the social gospel is a way of thinking that understands Christianity in a social context, that is, in terms of relationships and interactions. It sees its basis in the Gospels, and understands true Christianity as the religion of Jesus Christ, which we can learn from the depiction of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. Finally, Rauschenbusch proclaims, "the social gospel is above all things practical. It needs religious ideas which will release energy for heroic opposition against organized evil and for the building of a righteous social life" (42). Rauschenbusch’s approach to sin directly reflects his understanding of the social gospel as fundamentally practical and capable of making the world a better place.

Rauschenbusch organizes his book by examining Christian doctrines "which would be affected by the social gospel" (31). How is the doctrine of sin affected? Rauschenbusch considers that the social gospel allows an increased consciousness of sin. He explicitly rejects the accusation of contemporary figures that the leaders of the social gospel "often fail to show an adequate appreciation of the power and guilt of sin" (32), by shifting responsibility for sin from the individual to the community or the environment. No more so than "the old theology," Rauschenbusch argues, which could shift blame from the individual to original sin or the devil (34). Rather, the social gospel increases our consciousness of sin by opening our eyes to new "classes of sins" (34). He illustrates this with a story he relates about a Mennonite farmer. The farmer was expelled from his congregation for swearing with the name of God after his cans of milk were marked as being unsafe for consumption. By excluding him for swearing, his church shows its appreciation of that class of sin. But Rauschenbusch argues that were this church under the influence of the social gospel, they would have recognized the farmer’s sin of endangering "the life and health of young children" through "unclean methods." This understanding of another class of sin would allow "the sense of sin [to] do its work more intelligently" (35). By ‘intelligently,’ I understand Rauschenbusch to mean ‘effectively,’ that is to say: consciousness of this class of sin contributes more directly to the improvement of the world as well as to the individual’s understanding of his affect in the world.

In fact, Rauschenbusch implies that the second sin of the farmer, "introducing cow-dung into the intestines of babies"(35), is greater than his first sin, swearing a worldly oath. Although he does not say this explicitly, what else can we understand from his statement that the result of the social gospel is "assigning a new valuation to different classes of sins?"(37). Attempting to measure the value of sins seems arrogant, to say the least. It seems to me, however, that he is not attempting to say which sin is more offensive to God. Rather, his valuation of sins here seems based on the very practical question: which class of sins is more significant for our efforts to improve the world?

The distinction between a private sin and a public sin is very important for the social gospel. Rauschenbusch uses the example of swearing in God’s name as a personal matter that must be "[settled] alone with God" (35). Despite the fact that Rauschenbusch here seems to be arguing simply for a revaluation of classes of sins later explicitly writes, "sin is not a private transaction between the sinner and God." In fact, sins against God have virtually no significance any more. Rauschenbusch refers to the first and second table of Decalogue, the first being sins against God and the second sins against men. The sins against God are the violation of the first three commandments, that is, "polytheism, image worship, and the misuse of the holy name." We are in danger neither of polytheism nor idol worship, Rauschenbusch states. Even the ‘misuse of the holy name,’ as in the story recounted above, "has lost much of its religious significance since sorcery and magic have moved to the back-streets" (49). According to this understanding of the Decalogue, there is practically no instance of sinning against God alone in this day and age. Rauschenbusch had to use a very narrow understanding of the commandment against the misuse of God’s name to achieve that conclusion, however.

But, even sinning against God alone is, at the very least, no worse than sinning against fellows. If it were, he argues, then our God would be a despotic God that is unacceptable to Rauschenbusch. He compares it to an "absolute monarchy [where] the first duty is to bow to the royal will. A man may spear peasants or outrage their wives, but crossing the king is another matter. When theological definitions speak of rebellion against God as the common characteristic of all sin, it reminds one of the readiness of despotic governments to treat every offence as treason" (48). The ideals of democracy are fundamental to the social gospel, but it is difficult to understand what Rauschenbusch means when he writes "We must democratize the conception of God," in order to achieve a better understanding of sin (48). His understanding of sin, that social sins are more significant than private sins, is only legitimate if we do not think of God as a power hungry despot.

Rauschenbusch’s valuation of sin seems to be moving further and further from any connection with God. Even when he agrees with past theology in stating that "sin is essentially sinfulness," he goes on to qualify this definition as "ethical and social," rather than religious or theological (47). But his conception of sin is reconnected with God when he expands on his idea of a ‘democratic’ God. He describes the universe as a "spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us" (49). This could be interpreted as degrading God, bringing God down on a level with humanity. But a key idea here is that sins against our fellows are not sins against God in the sense of personal rebelliousness or insult, but rather sins against the Reign or Kingdom of God.

Through his doctrine of the Kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch effectively relocates the second Decalogue, that is sins of humans against humans, to sins of humans against the divine. This is a theological justification for Rauschenbusch’s argument based on pragmatism. Fundamentally, it does not suffice for him to say that sins against people are more significant to the social gospel because attention to them is a more practical way towards a better world. Sins against people are more significant because they are ultimately against not only God alone, but against God’s kingdom, which includes God and humanity, but is designed and revealed by God.

Whence these sins? Traditional Christian theology often locates the beginning of sin with Adam and the so-called ‘fall of Man.’ Rauschenbusch rejects this doctrine for the social gospel. He argues that it is not an essential part of Christian doctrine but rather theological speculation formed long after Jesus’ life (43). It also fails to meet the needs of his new theology because it "diverts attention from the active factors of sin which can be influenced, and concentrates attention on a past event which no effort of ours can influence" (42).

The doctrine of the fall hurts our consciousness of sin, Rauschenbusch argues, because it "has made the catastrophe of the fall so complete that any later addition to the inheritance of sin seems slight and negligible" (42). Thus it obscures the evilness and powerfulness of sins in more recent times and makes them less significant by comparison with the first humans’ act of disobedience of God. This is somewhat ironic since Rauschenbusch believes that one of the reasons for the development of the doctrine of the fall was to make men conscious of their guilt and their need for salvation: "There was no need to prove the guilt of any one individual when all were in a state of corruption" (39). Furthermore, by contrasting our current state with the pre-fall state of Adam, we are supposed to recognize the extent of our fallen-ness. This is perhaps a viable consciousness of sin in a context of personal salvation through faith in the grace of God, but for Rauschenbusch it is unworkable because it teaches that sin can be overcome "only by the grace offered in the Gospel and ministered by the Church" (43). It does not compel people towards public social action against evil.

Rather than regarding evil as an "unvarying racial endowment," beginning from Adam, it must be seen as "a variable factor in the life of humanity, which it is our duty to diminish for every young life and for every new generation." Essentially, the social gospel depends on the optimistic idea that humanity can improve the world, therefore any understanding of sin that limits the human capacity to make a difference for the better must be re-hauled in order for the movement to have any theological legitimacy.

To achieve this re-haul, Rauschenbusch once again relies on his idea of the Kingdom of God. As before, where he redefined sinning against fellow people as sinning against the Kingdom of God, here too, he replaces the theological role of Adam with the Kingdom of God. We should not contrast ourselves with Adam in order to realize our sins. Not only because this promotes an individualistic and personal understanding of sin which is not conducive to social reform, but also because the perfection that Adam represents is not valid for the social gospel. The conception of Adam, according to Rauschenbusch, is first of all anachronistic. Theologians, he suggests, learned a conception of perfect from Jesus Christ and super imposed it on Adam. Furthermore, because "Adam’s situation gave very limited opportunities for selfishness, which is the essence of sin," Adam’s state of being will never give us a contrast by which to measure and be conscious of our social sins (51). In the place of Adam, we must contrast ourselves with "the positive ideals of social righteousness contained in the person of Christ and in the Kingdom of God. (51)" As individuals, our understanding of Jesus’ "spiritual perfection…[which] consists in the fact that he …gave himself to the task of the Kingdom of God without any reservation," allows us to comprehend the extent of our own imperfection(52). As a community, our conception of the Kingdom of God as a "realm of love… and a commonwealth of labour" allows us to comprehend the extent of our social imperfection (54). By replacing Adam with Jesus and the Kingdom of God, our understanding of sin must propel us towards action, according to the model of Jesus, towards the end of building a community according to the model of the Kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch’s incorporation of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God and the figure of Jesus Christ here answers multiple purposes. It is symptomatic of the social gospel, which claims the life of Jesus as its heart and also heavily stresses the idea of the Kingdom of God. It also provides a cosmic significance for Jesus that is potentially threatened when the doctrine of original sin and recapitulation is toppled.

Where are these sins? Although Rauschenbusch rejects the doctrine of the fall, he accepts the idea of the universality of sin. He learns this from the life of Jesus, whom, he writes, "presupposed [the universality of sin] in all his teaching," but did not concern himself with its origin (40). But if sin did not start with Adam and was not passed down as a racial endowment, how is it that it is universal in every generation?

For Rauschenbusch this knowledge is critical because we must understand how sin is propagated if we are to continually "diminish [it] for every young life and for every new generation" (43). He compares this process to the study of disease with the purpose of curing it. He finds his answer in the doctrine of original sin, which he considers "one of the few attempts of individualistic theology to get a solidaristic view of its field of work" (57). The solidarity is the understanding of the human race as somehow united across all time. Because of this unity, sin is universal, and it is transmitted "wherever life itself is transmitted" (58).

This seemingly biological view is curious because of Rauschenbusch’s dismissal of the idea that sin originated with our first parents. He takes two steps to reconcile these two views. Firstly he somewhat retreats from his hostility towards old theology’s understanding of the source of sin. Old theology simply "overworked" the doctrine by trying to "involve us in the guilt of Adam as well as in his debasement of nature" (59). He implies here, though doesn’t state, that in fact he does agree that we participate in the debasement of Adam’s nature. Adam is thus somewhat restored to his role in the propagation of sin. The difference, according to Rauschenbusch, is that the theology of the social gospel does not insist that each of us bears Adam’s guilt, which would seem to dwarf our own and thus call attention from it. Rather social gospel theology understands the guilt of Adam in terms of its biological and social effects on future generations.

Rauschenbusch does appeal directly to biology in making this argument. He points out that the scientific observation of the transmission of idiocy and insanity within a family supports the idea of biological transmission of evilness. "A faulty equipment has come down to us through the reproductive life of the race," he states (59). His second argument appeals directly to Darwinism. "According to evolutionary science," he claims, selfishness and lustfulness are much better established in the race than spirituality and social responsibility. The conscious use of evolutionary thought shows the place of the social gospel in history. Also, despite the seemingly negative gist of this argument, which essentially states that sin comes more naturally to humans than goodness, the fact that it is made in the context of evolution also betrays the optimism of the social gospel. Further development is possible and even, in a sense, inevitable.

The second step he takes to clarify his problem with old theology is to insist that, however correct, or close to correct, old theology may have been about the physical transmission of sin through intercourse, it neglected to understand that "sin is transmitted along the lines of social tradition" (60). He illustrates this with the example of boys who are induced to begin smoking or lying under the influence of their peer group, or the group of boys just older than they are. "One generation corrupts the next" (60). Similarly, the sins of adults are passed down by being socialized; he cites the examples of foot binding, corseting, ear piercing, alcoholism, etc. This is not just the power of a bad example, he insists, but rather an expression of "the spiritual authority of society over its members" (61). The power that any society has to idealize sin and cultivate sin in its members, now and in the future, must be understood as part of original sin. He thus expands the understanding of original sin to which he subscribes beyond that of the old theology.

One of the ways that society cultivates and propagates evil is by romanticizing it. Rauschenbusch uses the example of countries where "wine is praised in poetry and song" (63). But, he maintains, the most powerful inducement to sin is profit. There is a natural limit to the alcohol an individual may eat or drink, but there is no limit on the amount of money a person may have in a bank; earned off of the eating and drinking of others. Therefore, as long as wealth and power are coveted in any particular society, the temptation to sin will be great. "This is the most difficult field of practical redemption" (67). Rauschenbusch states, and this is the field to which the social gospel is dedicated.

This social understanding of sin is a basic tenet of the social gospel. If the optimism of the social gospel does not actually require it, without it the social gospel could become a frightening thing indeed. If the conviction that people and societies can improve were combined with the conviction that evilness is transmitted solely biologically, the only method to achieve improvement would be eugenics. But societal sins can be combated through social action, according to the sin in question. Finally the argument that societies can cultivate sin is in itself an affirmation of the optimism of the social gospel, because its corollary is that societies can cultivate righteousness. Thus, individual sin and communal sin, like individual and communal righteousness, are inexorably intertwined.

In conclusion, the theology of the social gospel according to Rauschenbusch is primarily concerned with achieving an understanding of sin that emphasizes its social nature. Rauschenbusch achieves this by re-interpreting the seemingly more mundane sins of humans against humans as sins against the Kingdom of God. By speaking of the Kingdom of God rather than simply God alone, Rauschenbusch impels us to see ourselves not only as individuals struggling for our right place in relation to God and in the image of God, but as a community that must also continually strive to overcome sin, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and for the sake of the redemption of individuals now and in future generations. This understanding of our society compels us to follow Jesus in building the Kingdom of God. This building, and thus ultimately redemption, require activism and commitment to the social, political, and economic ideals upheld by the social gospel, such as true economic democracy, justice, and freedom from exploitation.


Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianizing the Social Order. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915.

Smith, Shelton. Changing Conceptions of Original Sin. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1955.

Tennant, F.R. The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1903.

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