Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Rauschenbusch’s “The Social Principles of Jesus” and the Identity of Western Christianity

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 10 July 2010

It is said that Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was “the leading spokesman for the theology of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism” (from the introduction by Pelikan, 586).  Although a Baptist minister, Rauschenbusch apparently rejected biblical literalism in favor of historical criticism—a method of biblical analysis that originated in Rauschenbusch’s fatherland in the first half of the nineteenth century.  This method, quite popular even today, allowed Rauschenbusch to see the Gospel through the prism of the contemporary understanding of history, which in the age of social revolutions was dominated by the struggles of the lower classes.  In a series of books and essays, Rauschenbusch applied principles he believed were found in the Gospel as calls for social reform that continue to ring true for many modern Christian theologians.  In “The Social Principles of Jesus,” Rauschenbusch’s last essay published in 1918, the author attempted to use his reading of the Gospel as a foundation for social philosophy.  It is this reading, however, that, in our view, makes the foundation rather shaky.

The problem is in the fact that Rauschenbusch’s historical analysis turns Jesus into a failed Jewish revolutionary, and the Church into a piece of corrupted machinery with aimlessly spinning wheels (587-8).  Of course, Rauschenbusch curtseys to the traditional notions of Christ’s divinity in the opening paragraph of the essay, but immediately announces His losing in the “great spiritual duel … between him and the representatives of organized religion” (586).  As such, however, neither Jesus nor His Church can serve as a foundation for anything, except perhaps something like Vladimir Lenin’s “we will follow a different path.”[1]


Rauschenbusch sees Jesus as concerned with the “present good of men” and the kingdom of God as “the perfect social order” (587); and nothing in his essay suggests that this view is not exclusive.  Rauschenbusch quite obviously misinterprets his evidence to arrive at these conclusions, which indicates an ideological, rather than a scholarly approach.  For example, Rauschenbusch begins to build his argument on the premise that the God of the Old Testament wants just one fundamental thing—“righteousness in social and political life … and wants nothing else” (587).  What naturally results from this assertion is that all religious observances and rituals are not only unnecessary, but counterproductive.  Rauschenbusch dismisses everything—from Jewish religious clothing, to daily prayers, and from fasting to giving toward the support of the Temple—as obstacles to fulfilling what he calls “the fundamental obligations, … such as filial reverence and family solidarity” (ibid.).  It is a wonder that Rauschenbusch does not end his essay with “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!

According to Rauschenbusch, “other reformers have condemned religious practices because they were departures from the holy Book or from primitive custom” (ibid.), and he firmly places Jesus in this pleiad of reformers (apparently, referring to the Old Testament prophets).  Rauschenbusch’s Jesus, however, went even further as “he judged current religious questions” not by the standard of “ancient authority, but the present good of men” (ibid.).  Of course, it is not surprising that Rauschenbusch’s Jesus was a Protestant; wasn’t Peter the first Roman Catholic Pope?  Rauschenbusch’s Jesus protested against the Temple, its religious practices, daily prayer and fasting, and earned Himself the title of a reformer, much like the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.  People have always fitted Jesus to their needs, often against good logic or even common sense.

First, it is not at all clear what “holy Book” and “primitive custom” Rauschenbusch has in mind.  Is it the very “holy Book” which tells how Jehovah set explicit mandates for the Temple worship, hierarchy, prayers, fasting, ritual baths, and other religious practices?  And what “primitive custom” does Rauschenbusch find so appealing?  Erecting piles of rocks and cutting animals’ throats?  Rauschenbusch’s argument that “if men were deeply concerned about the taboo foods that went into their bodies, they would not be concerned about the evil thoughts that arose in their souls” (ibid.) is not different at its core from the reverse: “if men devour every kind of food without discretion and in large amounts (as 75% of adults in the U.S. are projected to be overweight by 2015[2]) they too will not be concerned about the evil thought that arise in their souls.  In fact, a man who cannot control his own belly is, perhaps, less likely to learn to control his thoughts than the one who learns self-control through fasting.  But this is beside the point, because taking Rauschenbusch’s argument to its logical conclusion, it must be noted that a man who concerns himself with evil thoughts that arise in his soul, will not be concerned with matters of social and political life.  Of course, it is easy enough to see that this logic is quite flawed; and men that led successful social and political lives also exhibited a measure of self-control in their souls and bodies (Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind).  Not to even mention the numerous instances of Jesus attending the synagogue, praying, fasting, and fulfilling the other religious obligations of His time…


Quite naturally, the next argument that Rauschenbusch brings up is the corruption of the Church—a prominent theme in Protestantism that has also been employed by the neo-Protestants against their Protestant forerunners.  It may be assumed that in Rauschenbusch’s opinion the corruption of the Church began almost immediately after Christ’s ascension, or certainly by the third or fourth century.  Rauschenbusch decries “the annual expense of maintaining the churches in the United States,” “the capital invested in church buildings,” and the “care, interest, and loving free-will labor … [that an] average village community bestow[s] on religion” (588).  Rauschenbusch implies that the church (or churches?) has “become an expensive consumer of social wealth, a conservative clog, and a real hindrance of social progress” (ibid.).

It is impossible to know whether Rauschenbusch is advocating dismantling church buildings and ending his own stipend as a Baptist minister.  On its face, such seems to be the call, but it is more likely to be a rhetorical device that is not meant to be a call for any real action.  Certainly, evicting people from the single-family homes they own and placing them in communal quarters would be a better distribution of social wealth.  With the notable exception of such experiments as the United Workers Cooperative Colony (the Coops), such calls fall on deaf ears, and Rauschenbusch was hardly worried about losing his stipend and joining the proletariat.  But such remarks certainly reveal a crisis in Protestant ecclesiology.

For Rauschenbusch, “religion is a bond of social coherence” (589).  In the absence of the sacramental view on ecclesiology, the Church becomes a movement, a social construct that falls apart if not supported by a social ideology.  The eschatological task of the Church, in the view of Rauschenbusch and other Social Gospel proponents, is the building of the kingdom of God on earth, a possibility that is supported by Western soteriology, which is shared by both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the sense that both are mechanical, rather than organic in nature.  Rauschenbusch does not hesitate to place his religion at the service of the ever-changing socio-political trends.  He writes that “it must be geared to the big live issues of today if it is to manifest its full saving energies” (ibid.).  And the big issue in Rauschenbusch’s day was what he calls “solidaristic organization” (ibid.).


This is not a question of making religion relevant; rather, this is a matter of Rauschenbusch’s inability to find any use for it whatsoever, unless it helps make “progress toward a just social order” (590).  All matters of faith are dismissed as “antiquated observances,” “dwarfed systems of truth,” “lost cause in religion,” and “relics” (589).  Clearly, Rauschenbusch has little use or tolerance for what has been traditionally understood as religious life and faith.  Any divisions among the various Protestant denominations are seen as social, not creedal:

Our denominational divisions are nearly all an historical heritage, imported from Europe, and coming down from a controversial age.  Their issues all meant something vital and socially important in the midst of the social order of that day; but in many cases the real significance has quietly crumbled away, and they are not really the same issues that deeply engaged our forefathers. (591)

In this deeply insightful comment, Rauschenbusch reveals the sacramental, theological, and historical emptiness of his tradition (if the word “tradition” is even applicable in this case).  This is a very honest observation of the state of affairs.  The tradition to which Rauschenbusch belongs rejects any notion of the sacramental significance of the Church, preserving just a few symbols, whose meanings are dubious at best, as they rest on a version of “because Jesus said so.”  Having rejected the heritage of patristic thought in favor of literal solo scriptura and later historical criticism, Rauschenbusch’s tradition found itself generating a multitude of opinions, all of which necessarily have to be presumed valid as products of private insights and revelations.  Any challenge to these opinions on the basis of logic, the tradition of the Church, or even theological consensus, is impossible and meaningless.  Finally, if the Church is declared to have been corrupt from its earliest years and through the Reformation, then any notion of historical continuity is useless, and Rauschenbusch can build anew, without any regard for the Church which was established by Christ Himself, and against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18).  After all if Christianity is a social ideology, then it can be changed, reinterpreted, adopted, applied in any way by any group strong enough to apply it—without any regard for the religion itself.  Fundamentally, there appears to be little difference between the version of Christianity offered by Rauschenbusch and the atheist social philosophies of the late-nineteenth-early-twentieth centuries.

*          *          *

A century of Social Gospel has shown this theory hard at work, morphing Christianity to fit the socio-political environment.  In Latin America, Liberation theologians have used the Gospel to justify their support for militant organizations employing terrorist tactics.  After all, if the end is the building of the kingdom of God on earth, then what means couldn’t be justified?  In the United States, it was deemed necessary to justify materialism and consumption, so the Prosperity Gospel reared its ugly head.  Both of these exaggerations, however, appear to have just as much validity as does Rauschenbusch’s version, if the only criterion of truth is a personal interpretation of the Scripture by the one who readeth.  And thus, Western Christianity often and perhaps intentionally resembles the face it sees in the mirror, rather than that of Christ.  May this be the reason why our attempts to build the kingdom of heaven on earth have always fallen short of their mark?  Of old, God stopped our attempt to build a tower that reaches to the heavens (Gen. 11:1-8).  Will He be so merciful again?

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Rauschenbusch, Walter. “The Social Principles of Jesus.” Pelikan, Jaroslav. The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990. 586-92.

[1] The words that Lenin reportedly said after learning that his older brother Alexander had been hung for a failed terrorist attack on the Tsar.

[2] Wang, Youfa; Beydoun, May A (2007), “The obesity epidemic in the United States—gender, age, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and geographic characteristics: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”, Epidemiologic Reviews (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), doi:doi:10.1093/epirev/mxm007


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