Rauschenbusch No. 2: Jesus and the Social Gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century continue to impact Christian response to political questions. For this reason, if for no other, taking a few weeks to come to understand the Social Gospel movement is important for the project of understanding American political and social theology.


By the time Rauschenbusch wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis, [1] Enlightenment rationality and what is called “Higher Criticism” was impacting Biblical scholarship in American Protestant circles. Since the 17th Century, scholars had engaged in a “Search for the Historical Jesus,” which was a project of “demythologizing” Scriptural interpretation to try to determine the human character of the historical person, Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth. Under the impact of the Enlightenment and its skepticism towards the supernatural, these scholars attempted to construct a life of Jesus and an interpretation of his ministry consistent with the view that he was a human being working from a premodern world-view.

Rauschenbusch was profoundly impacted by the early “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in writing Christianity and the Social Crisis and brought its conclusions into his work. [2] He was, however, careful not to cut himself entirely off from the Baptist tradition in which he worked, especially in Christianity and the Social Crisis. His goal was to educate and motivate not just theologians and pastors, but lay people has well. He was not disappointed, as the book sold well and was extremely influential among American Christians.

Begining with Albert Schweitzer (1875- 1965), the Enlightenment “Quest for the historical Jesus” faced increasing and devastating criticism, in particular because of the participants’ obvious inability to distance themselves from their own naturalistic assumptions. According to Schweitzer, the scholars of the Quest for the Historical Jesus went searching for the “real Jesus” but instead found a typical, post-Enlightenment critical scholar with the views and prejudices of the time during which they wrote. This insight has been true both of participants in the initial quest and its modern and postmodern participants. [3]

Rauschenbusch was particularly impacted by Albert Harnack (1851-1930), who interpreted Jesus as a prophet whose message was remarkably similar to the and social ideals embraced by 19th-century liberalism. As one commentator put it:

Harnack believed that the doctrine of Jesus as the divine savior was an invention of the early church. He saw Jesus instead as the ideal ethical humanist. The essence of Christianity, according to Harnack, lay in a few timeless spiritual principles that Jesus taught: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Jesus’ primary message was to individuals and their inward spirituality. The kingdom of God was an invisible spiritual kingdom in the hearts of well-mannered men and women which would gradually grow in the world through human efforts of personal morality and civic duty. [4]

Before going further, to give credit where credit is due, the “timeless spiritual principles” of which Harnack spoke are, in fact timeless principles that are embedded in the Christian message, the essential humanity of all people, the value if human life, and the need for social morality and Christian activity in public life.

The Social Aims of Jesus

Rauschenbusch begins his analysis of the social thought of Jesus by confessing that he believes that the human race is in a revolutionary period. The modern world ushered into existence a new era in which the study of history and the interpretation of nature had vastly changed. As a part of that revolution, new histories of Jesus and the new interpretations of his life in ministry had developed, and Rauschenbusch proudly places himself within that tradition. [5] Nevertheless, before launching into a discussion of the political importance of Jesus, he connects himself to the Christian tradition by expressing the view that Jesus was not primarily a social reformer but a religious figure whose life and teachings have social importance. [6] Thus:

No man is a follower of Jesus in the full sense who has not through him entered into the same life with God. But, on the other hand, no man shares his life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all the relations of life and reconstructs everything that it touches. [7]

Here again, we see a view with which every disciple of Christ can agree: To enter into the life of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is to enter into a life from which there must issue “rivers of Living Water” (John 7:37-39). It is, therefore, not possible to uncouple one’s religious self from one’s social self as if they were two entirely separate regions of life.

Rauschenbusch believes that it is important to observe that Jesus’ ministry was preceded by the ministry of John the Baptist, whose message was one of repentance, including repentance from national sin. In Rauschenbusch’s view, John’s message of preparation for the Messianic kingdom of God involved repentance from personal and social sin and the institution of a brotherly life that would involve the equalization of social inequality. [8] In support of this view, Rauschenbusch quotes Luke 3, where it is recorded:

What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14).

In Rauschenbusch’s interpretation, in this and similar passages, contain the essential message of the prophets of the Old Testament and the roots of Jesus’ social gospel. Jesus was not the initiator of the movement of the prophets, but its consummator as he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. [9]

Jesus’ Use of the Kingdom of God

The Gospels reflect that Jesus’ preaching was profoundly impacted by and contained the essential message of the Messiah as the institutor of the Kingdom of God. From the time of the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the Jewish people had look forward to a restoration of the kingdom of David. In the beginning, their hope was for the physical restoration of the dynasty that David had begun. During and after the Babylonian captivity, that hope of Israel began to take a different and more universal turn. According to Rauschenbusch, by the time of Jesus, the idea of the kingdom of God included not only a physical restoration but also a time of social justice, prosperity and happiness for which the people of Israel longed. [10]When Jesus used the term, “kingdom of God”, it was Inevitable that people would hear him in light of the collective history of their people, and a way of thinking that had developed in the post-exilic era. On the other hand, Jesus brought new thinking to the whole concept of the kingdom of God.

At this point, it is helpful to think about how language works. Whenever one wants to communicate an idea to another person, one must use terms with which the hearer is already familiar. This is true and important in every translation of the Bible or any other document into another language. For example, if we want to talk about “God” then we must use a word from a language that has that or a similar meaning.

In my view, Rauschenbusch has an incomplete understanding of the metaphorical use of language in any form of human inquiry, which causes him to assume that Jesus must have meant at least as much, if not more, by his use of the term “Kingdom of God” than was intended by the people of his day. [11] This is not correct. He may have used the term metaphorically to carry his own and different interpretation of the term. Nevertheless, I think Rauschenbusch is correct in his view that Jesus is using the term “Kingdom of God” to mean both and internal blessedness and the impact of that blessedness on the ordinary lives of his hearers.

In one of my favorite passages, Rauschenbusch attributes to Jesus an understanding of the organic nature of human society and human social growth, an view that rejects the violent and revolutionary elements of the millennial thought of his own days, and instead embraced the slow, sure and organic growth of the Kingdom of God in the little things of life and human history:

It takes more faith to see God in the little beginnings than in the completed results; more faith to say that God is now working than to say that he will someday work. Because Jesus believed in the organic growth of the new society, he patiently fostered its growth, cell by cell. [12]

Rauschenbusch believes Jesus rejected just what modern people are anxious to see.  revolutionary change. Jesus, however, was content to see the Kingdom of God grow one human life at a time.

Having set the stage, Rauschenbusch moves on to a discussion of whether the Kingdom of God should be seen as a future, eschatological reality, never accomplished within human history or a present reality. In an eloquent passage, he sets out his view;

This, then, is our interpretation of the situation. Jesus, like all the prophets and like all his spiritually minded countrymen, lived in hope of a great social transformation, of the national, social, and religious life about him. He shared the substance of that hope with his people, but by his profounder insight and loftier faith he elevated and transformed the common hope. He rejected all violent means and thereby transferred the inevitable conflict from the field of battle to the antagonism of mind against mind and of heart against heart. [13]

Nevertheless, Jesus is still, in Rauschenbusch’s view urging the complete transformation of the social order of his day and of ours. The Kingdom of God which Jesus prophesies and the salvation Jesus offers involves the complete social organism we know as “human society.”[14]


There is much for the contemporary Christian to learn from Rauschenbusch’s analysis. It is clear that Jesus was in fact concerned with the human person, and through the human person with all of society because changed hearts cannot but change the social order in which they live and work. By focusing on the human Jesus, his sociability, and his connection with the common people and society of his own day, Rauschenbusch does a service Christian thinking about politics and society at large. [15] Neverthless, one can at the same time recognize that the naturalistic impulse of the Englightenment and the tendency of modernity to attempt to construct a perfect world (“Kingdom of God”) within history is present in his thinking. As I was preparing this blog, one of my quiet time readings included Jesus’ confrontation with his disciples over leadership in the church, where he says:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles sexercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-29).

The most natural way to interpret this passage is that Jesus is contrasting the nature of leadership among the secular nations with leadership within the body of believers who have become part of his “kingdom,” which would be the extension of Israel into human history through the ministry of the Apostles. This kingdom is not a current reality in any age, but a future reality towards which his followers work in their own lives and communities within the boundaries of human history.

Rauschenbusch is committed to a kind of millennialism in which the church brings in a physical millennium within history by a process of social change which does involve changing human hearts and minds as Jesus did but also a kind of social transformation. I am inclined to believe that his view underestimates the inevitable results of human sin and brokenness, which renders that vision incapable of accomplishment within any secular history.

He is to be commended for his rejection of the revolutionary violence that accompanies the Marxist and Nietzschean vision of human history and for this understanding of the organic roots of human society and the need for gradual, rational, organic change. It is a message that needs to be heard in our own age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] The quest for the historical Jesus was an attempt by scholars determine what words and actions contained in the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels could be properly attributed to Jesus in the attempt to create a biography and picture of the historical Jesus. It continues to this day in the work of the so-called, “Jesus Seminar.”

[3] The Tablet: The Internaytional Catholic Weekly (downloaded March 2, 2022) puts it this way: “In The quest for the historical Jesus Schweitzer concluded that the quest was largely futile and that scholars’ reconstructions of the historical Jesus were subject to Feuerbach’s comment in The essence of Christianity (1841) “Man … objectifies his being and then again makes himself an object to the objectivised image of himself thus converted into a subject” In other words, “what man wishes to be, he makes his God”; the historical Jesus became a projection of what the scholars questing after him wanted him to be.”

[4] Kurt Struckmeyer, “The Search for Jesus” in Following Jesus: The Life of Faith in the Post-Modern World https://followingjesus.org/the-search-for-jesus/ (downloaded February 28, 2022).

[5] CSC, 45-46.

[6] Id, at 47.

[7] Id, at 48.

[8] Id, at 50.

[9] Id, at 54.

[10] Id, at 56-57.

[11] Id, at 57. Rauschenbusch defends his view of the social intentions of Jesus by assuming that he would not have used the term Kingdom of God unless he intended to mean by it the entire cluster of hopes that the collective people of Israel had invested in the term. I think this is not correct.

[12] Id, at 60.

[13] CSC, at 64.

[14] Id, at 65.

[15] Id, at 69.