One of the most important theologians and thinkers in the past 150 years is Walter Rauschensbusch whose social gospel movement continues to challenge orthodox Christianity and remains popular among many well-intentioned, yet misguided postmodern evangelicals. One cannot read the writings and listen to the lectures, sermons, and presentations of people like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, and others (like Walter's great-grandson Paul Rauschenbusch) without seeing Walter Rauschenbusch standing on their shoulder.
In other words, many liberals today continue to stand on the foundation built by Rauschenbusch and in his recent biography The Kingdom is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch Christopher Evans shows us just why Rauschenbusch was so influential, what he really believed, and why he still matters.
Evans has written the best biography on Rauschenbusch in recent years. Evans is an academic who has clearly done his homework and presents a thorough survey of his life, ministry, theology, and thought. Rauschenbusch is the most recognizable voice in the social gospel movement, but he was not the first. Rauschenbusch, though not the best theologian of his time, made a case for the social gospel that was popular and timely and Evans shows how he did this.
I am currently writing a paper on Rauschenbusch for a Ph.D. class highlighting his understanding of the atonement and was directed towards Evans new biography as a starting point to understand better Rauschenbusch's world and thought. I have found that when focusing in on someone's theology, it is important to understand their story and biography and Evans is without a doubt the best place to start. Evans offers the reader great insight into what made him tick, the challenges he faced academically, pastorally, theologically, and in his own family.
A couple of things I found particular helpful. First, Evans' survey of August Rauschenbusch, Walter's father, was insightful. In many ways, Walter was following in his father's footsteps. Though August was a pietist and Walter essentially left it behind (though his pietist background greatly influenced him), his father remained a huge influence in his life. August instilled the families German heritage by returning his children to their home country and Walter continued this practice for the rest of his life and for his family. In order to understand Walter, in many ways one must understand his father. Evans offers a great survey of this relationship and who August was as a man.
Secondly, though Evans does not offer a robust survey of Rauschenbusch's theology, he does give the reader some great insight into what drove his theology. One cannot separate theology from biography and Evans shows how his experiences as a pastor in New York, his reading of theologians like Horace Bushnell and Albrecht Ritschl, his reading and study of political scientists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and his upbringing as a German pietist in America shaped his theology. The social conditions of his congregation, for example, led him to reject American capitalism and to call Christians to abandon a "too heavenly minded" faith.
Thirdly, Evans takes us into the world of Rauschenbusch as a husband and a father. We know him as a professor, writer, theologian, historian, preacher, pastor, and social activists, but few of us think of him as a husband and a father. I would love to know more about his wife. Evans quotes her as saying how she was so dedicated to her husband that she was driven by how else she could help his ministry. At the same time, Walter's schedule kept him away from home a lot and this caused some problems with his relationships with his children.
What I found particularly interesting about his children is the direction of their own theology - something that says a lot about the implications of Rauschenbusch's own theology. The social gospel is dependent on liberalism. You can't separate the two. Thus naturally many who embrace Walter's theology are liberals and liberalism is a spiraling theology. It continues to sink deeper and deeper towards Process Theology and then towards Deism, Theism, and to Christian Atheism. That's exactly what we see in Walter's family. And that is exactly what we saw in modern liberalism and what we are seeing in postmodern liberalism.
For those interested in understanding the story behind the leading thinker in the social gospel movement, I can think of no better place to turn than to Evans' helpful biography. He's a great writer who understands Rauschenbusch. Walter is a hugely important thinker and Evans shows why. Though Evans fails to dive deep into Walter's theology, he offers some great insights into what he believed and why. A great read.
For more on Walter Rauschenbusch:
You can read Waltar Raushenbush's groundbreaking book, "A Theology for the Social Gospel" online here.
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