Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Strange Gospel

Approximately 300 years ago there arose a line of thought in pietistic Protestantism that God’s reign would progressively manifest itself through human action cooperating with God’s action. The belief that the gospel will gradually Christianize the world, bringing a reign of peace and harmony preceding the return of Christ, is known as postmillenialism.

In 19th century Germany, theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack concluded that most of the Scriptures were simply mythology or allegory used to convey spiritual teachings. This was called higher criticism of the Bible. Although they did not believe the Bible to be literally true, they taught that the life and teachings of Jesus carried a message of hope for the poor and oppressed. Rejecting the historical truth of the Bible, they also rejected the thought that evil was the product of the sinful nature of the heart of man. They rather taught that it is the evil in the social environment which prevents men and women from living as Jesus taught. This teaching infiltrated most of the major protestant denominations, and was called “modernism.”

Meanwhile, the success of the abolition movement in the USA led to a belief that it would be possible to cure all the ills of society. In His Steps, published in 1897, became the second-best selling book in the USA (after the Bible) for the next 60 years. This was the account by Charles Sheldon of the transformation of the fictional town of Raymond when people began to ask “What would Jesus do?” It seems an inspiring story, the Bible is read, powerful prayers are offered up, good things happen.

But when answers come to the question “What would Jesus do?” they do not come from Scripture or from the leading of the Holy Spirit, but rather from the intellect and imagination of the persons asking the question.

The theme of the book is that the liquor business and big business in general have created a social environment where people cannot live a Christian life. There is no hint that the great need of rich and poor alike is to repent of the evil in their own heart. The sin of society must first be addressed. This book played a large part in creating the Social Gospel movement.

Walter Rauschenbusch was the principal theologian of the movement. He was a Baptist minister of German descent, who had studied the writings of Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack. His work as a pastor in one of the worst slums of New York City led him to develop a theology to impel Christians to work towards the immediate correction of the evils in society.

His best known book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, appeared in 1917. Rauschenbusch quotes Scripture and uses the language of evangelical Christianity. But he does not believe in the divine inspiration of the whole Bible, leaving him free to select certain Scriptures as authoritative, and to reject others. The Scriptures he does use are interpreted according to social gospel theology.

According to Rauschenbusch, the kingdom of God includes all of humanity. Men are not inherently sinful, but live in a sinful environment which hinders them from living as God wants them to live. Sin is not committed against God alone, but since God resides in every human being, every sin against our fellow man is a sin against God. There is no thought of Jesus being the incarnate Son of God. He was simply a man who attained to a new level of understanding and living the kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch names six sins which caused the death of Jesus: religious bigotry; graft and political power; corruption of justice; mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt. There is no mention of a resurrection. The devil, hell and heaven exist only in a figurative sense. All people are somewhere in the unending process of growing closer to God and becoming more like him.

Rauschenbusch considered the production and marketing of alcoholic beverages to be a great evil. Even worse was the oppression of mankind by privately owned businesses operated for the profit of the owners. He called these businesses unsaved organizations. Collectively owned businesses, such as co-operatives and government owned businesses, are saved organizations. This is the Social Gospel and it is indeed a strange gospel.

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