Pragmatism 2: Logical Decision-Making, Fallibilism, and Freedom

Occasional readers of this blog will wonder why so much time is being given to the work of someone who was not a political philosopher nor well-known to the general public. As mentioned last week, C. S. Peirce was a seminal figure in philosophy and particularly in the fields of logic, semiotics (signs), and philosophy of science. Last week, we focused on Peirce’s development of pragmatism. This week, we explore his “logic of abduction,” which is central to the pragmatic way of thinking. Pragmatism begins with the “Pragmatic Maxim” first developed and published by Peirce:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object. [1]

For Pierce, this maxim was a “logical principle” connected with his ideas of what counts as reality (metaphysics), the proper methodology for philosophy to undertake to resolve its quandaries (epistemology), and even moral and other questions (ethics and aesthetics).

The maxim was designed to cure philosophy of the habit of channeling energy towards disputes with little or no practical value in the search for indubitable truth. In particular, Peirce opposed Descartes’ program of “doubt leading to certainty” via indisputable ideas. Pragmatism (or what he called “pragmaticism” to distinguish his personal program) has been many things to many people, but for Peirce pragmatism was the core principle of a way of doing philosophy and of solving philosophical problems in a more “scientific way.” [2]

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a rule designed to clarify our conceptions by directly relating them to actual or anticipated experience. In very broad terms, the pragmatic principle urges that thinkers anchor concepts and ideas in their potential practical application in actions to be taken, including “rules or modes of action” to be adopted as a result of inquiry. Transported into the language of politics and political philosophy, this maxim might be rephrased as follows:

In evaluating any aspect of a political philosophy, the inquirer should consider what practical impact the adoption of a given philosophical conception might have for the government of society, and the impact of such a conception would have on some action to be taken is key to understanding that concept.

Thus, a “Peircean approach to political philosophy” finds its ground in the potential application of its ideas to substantive problems and actions to be taken to solve them.

Three Methods of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic, which he called “Abduction.” Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain, in light of accumulated evidence. For example, suppose I use bleach on my sink 1000 times, and then conclude from experience that bleach is a good cleaner for sinks. This is an example of inductive thinking.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning starts with the assertion of a general rule and proceeds from there to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. In deductive reasoning, if the original assertion is true, the conclusion must also be true. In my example above, suppose I start with the general principle (A) that bleach is a good for cleaning porcelain objects. Then, I observe (B) that my sink is a porcelain object. The conclusion (C) is then logically certain that my sink can be cleaned by bleach.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experience has revealed. Let us suppose that I want to clean my sink with the best possible cleaner acceptable to my family as a whole. I might use plain soap, an all-natural soap my children recommend, a cleaner my wife recommends that contains hydrogen peroxide, a cleaner labeled “for porcelain” the woman who cleans our home prefers, or a cleaner which includes bleach which I prefer. Each of these options have a proponent in my family who strongly support its use. I initially prefer the cleaner containing bleach because my mother recommended it; however, I also try out all the other cleaners recommended before concluding that, given all the concerns of family members, the hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner is best choice. This is an example of abductive reasoning, which we consciously or unconsciously use in everyday life.  Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Abductive reasoning is at the center of any scientific approach to understanding. In all scientific inquiry, science begins with a problem that needs solving and one or more hypotheses or ideas about what might be the best solution to the problem at hand. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of sciences as based solely upon “facts alone”. Science is interested in developing and analyzing facts, but those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical framework, a hypothesis or theory about how the world is actually organized.

The ability of a thinker to engage in a pragmatic philosophical endeavor involves the ability to think in what Peirce called, a “scientific manner” about problems, which leads directly to an understanding of abduction as a logical method intimately connected to a pragmatic philosophy. In fact, the pragmatic approach is applicable in many situations where logical certainty is impossible, as is always the case with politics, where information is inconclusive and different approaches have support.

In the first stage of an abductive inquiry, a hypothesis is created. (For example, “I believe that shrinking the national debt without social instability is best achieved by selective tax increases on the wealthiest segment of society.”) In the second stage, deduction is used derive predictions. (“If selective tax increases were to work, small but significant increases in tax rates on the wealthy should bring down the national debt without increasing social inequality.”) In the third stage, induction is used to verify the assumptions by searching for facts. (“After enactment of a small increase in tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans, it was noted that they deficit fell by “x” while lower and middle-class incomes and purchasing power remained stable.”). When and if the process does not yield sufficiently fitting facts to validate the hypothesis, the abductive cycle is to be repeated until it a verified theory or course of action is established.

Abduction and Political-Decision Making

More than one author has worked out implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. [3] This is important because abduction is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty.

Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering.

One implication of this kind of approach to political decision-making is the observation that policy makers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality as they test the results of their policy choices. Small adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can established.

I have used a contemporary example of the importance of incremental approaches to policy formulation and implementation in the results flowing from the enactment of what was known as “Obamacare.” The time the proposal was made, most people familiar with a medical insurance business understood that charging lower than average rates for the highest risk category defied the logic of the insurance business as a whole. Congress, determined to make a radical change in the way Americans receive medical care, enacted the proposal as developed solely by the party in power without considering the views of the minority or experts who disagreed with their approach. There was little or no attempted compromise and policy adjustment. Once enacted, the problems that were foreseen by experts occurred and the program failed in many respects. The party which enacted the program suffered multiple electoral losses. A more graduated approach toward change, might have avoided successive election losses by the party that produce this legislation.

Having used an example of relative to a decision made by one political party, let us take another in which the other party was a leadership. After the bombing of the Twin Towers there was a political consensus that America had to go into Afghanistan and eliminate the terror base of Osama Ben Ladin. There was massive political unity that this was a proper policy to follow. However, following the successful initial invasion two decisions were made that did not have widespread acceptance nor did the majority of the members of government believe the wisest course of action. The first decision was to stay in Afghanistan for a long period of time engaging in “nation building” in a society with little commitment to democratic principles. The second decision was to invade Iraq with the same objectives. These policies were not enacted after extensive dialogue and with a sense of national unity and were ultimately unsuccessful. The party of the institutors of this policy suffered electoral defeat.

Both of these policy failures illustrate the importance of a dialogue, compromise, and rational adjustment among members of the political community in responding to national problems, including considered attempts to meet objections and adapt policies to factual circumstances, rather than take ideological grounded actions on the basis of preconceived notions.

Fallibilism and Freedom

The fact that abductive reasoning takes place under circumstances where there is a diversity of opinion, are many facts to be explained, and no absolutely certain decision available, leads to another principle central to Peirce’s way of doing philosophy: Fallibilism. In his view, the kind of truths that pragmatism is able to generate is never absolute, and always subject to revision based on additional information or a better explanation of the information at hand. In other words, where rules of action are involved, all opinion is subject to change and any theory or explanation of the facts could be wrong. In political terms, this principle of fallibilism means that any decision made by those in leadership in principle could be wrong and require adjustment, however certain we may be at the time a policy is adopted. [4] Fallibilism is a principle of humility—a characteristic notably lacking in much contemporary political conversation.

Fallibilism is also important to another value of our society: Freedom of Thought and Speech. If I think I possess the unquestionable truth about matters of policy, then I may ignore, suppress, or distort others positions, since my opponents are obviously wrong. If, however, I understand that I am fallible in my opinions and policy preferences, then it is important and essential to my own participation in political life and to the operation of our political system that other views be able to access the public square, so that policy-makers, and in a free society, citizens, can make wise judgments about matters of importance.

Freedom finds its most secure grounding in a sense that no one person or group has access to the truth about matters of public policy nor is everything a matter of “Will to Power” as the Nietzscheans would have it. Instead, our understanding of political reality is of necessity limited and subject to incompleteness and the necessity for change and adaptation.


Our political system is subject to rampant irrationality, increasing intolerance, emotional and social manipulation and a host of evils that can be and should be ameliorated by a pragmatic approach to decision-making. In politics, there is rarely certainty or complete consensus. There is always conflict to some degree. It is the function of leadership to mitigate the weaknesses of a democratic system by wisely considering and discussing policy matters with a willingness to make slow, incremental, and rational changes for the public good. The great challenges we face as a society cannot be healed by irrational conflict, public anger, demonstrations and other similar programs. The greatest single change we could make in American politics is to embrace a pragmatic and logical approach to policy making at all levels of government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 105, hereinafter, “AP.”

[2] Peirce was in disagreement with the ways in which Dewey and James developed pragmatism, especially as to the reality of universals, and so he coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his approach.

[3] See for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 (down loaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[4] Fallibilism sits under any “critical realistic” philosophical position. This blog often defends critical realism as a philosophical position. It is the view that all of our opinions are subject to critique and change, but that the theories we develop are, nevertheless, insights into reality.


Pragmatism No. 1: What Difference Does Theory Make?

For the next several weeks, we will be looking at the political implications of the American pragmatist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To begin, we return briefly to perhaps the most brilliant philosophical mind that America ever produced, Charles Sanders Peirce, who began that movement—and in so doing began the movement from what I would call “the modern age” to the “constructive postmodern age.” Peirce is an important figure on the number of levels. He was a brilliant logician and made important contributions to the study of logic. He was the founder of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. He was a practicing scientist, familiar with the scientific method. He was skilled in mathematics. He understood the fundamentals of the physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines of his day.

Born into an academic family, Peirce was not an easy person, managed to get himself blackballed from the academia of his day, and earned his living writing for fees. Friends like William James and Josiah Royce did the best they could to support him, Peirce died in poverty. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by James, Royce, and others as the founder of the movement we call “Pragmatism” and one of the great minds of the 19th and early 20thcenturies. He split from James and others who he believed had taken Pragmatism in the wrong direction and created his own version, which he called “Pragmaticism.” This will later become important to understand.

Tradition vs. Doubt

The modern world began with Descarte and his program of systematic doubt. [1] Peirce was the first philosopher to recognize that the kind of philosophic doubt that Descarte represented was a “false” or “fake” doubt. Peirce points out that Descarte did not in fact doubt in his every day and professional life what he proclaimed to doubt philosophically. Therefore, his doubt was a “philosophic” or “fake” doubt designed to support a conclusion he had already reached. Peirce, a scientist who worked within the scientific community of his day, responds to Descarte, observing:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by maxim, for their things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception and not a real doubt; …. [2]

It is at this very point that pragmatism begins to emerge. Real doubt is not philosophic doubt. Real doubt is a doubt that leads to action to undo some kind of real doubt as to some feature of reality, so that it may be understood and responded to appropriately.

For Peirce, doubt is in an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves so that we may pass into a state of understanding or belief. All intellectual progress begins with some kind of doubt or uncertainty. A scientist is motivated to inquiry by doubt that a current understanding is complete. Furthermore, doubt cannot be permanently removed from the human situation for it is the motive for continuing human inquiry.[3] Every understanding of any reality is temporary. “Real Doubt,” unlike “Philosophic Doubt” is a part of the human condition.

Peirce was familiar with the scientific method, which is normally not the activity of a sole individual but of a community of inquirers (for example the community of cancer researchers), whose joint efforts produce a better understanding of reality. Thus, he is also opposed to the radical individualism of Descartes’ method. This is an extremely important feature of Peirces philosophy on knowledge, a taken up by others.

We cannot reasonably hope to attain progress in philosophy or any other aspect of reality without participation in an historic community of inpuuiry and their understanding of reality. [4] Thus, pragmatism in its original form reinstates tradition as an important aspect of any kind of reasoning. We cannot reason effectively except within a tradition of inquiry, which is one reason this series of blogs had attempted to survey much of the history of political philosophy.

Pragmatism and Progress

As early as the late 19 century Peirce was developing a notion of how intellectual progress occurs, a pragmatic notion that relies upon a continuing course of inquiry by human beings. This notion of truth includes the idea that to believe a proposition to be true is not merely an intellectual commitment or removal of doubt, but instead a belief that includes a willingness to conduct ourselves on the basis of the truth we believe ourselves to have discovered to satisfy the desires that motivated our inquiry. [5]

Peirce compares the method of pragmatic inquiry with other methods of establishing truth often adapted by the human race:

  1. The Method of Tenacity. The method of tenacity removes the dread of doubt by holding a belief irrespective of the evidence. Interestingly, person is aware that this method is often used by highly successful individuals in practical day-to-day affairs. It is not however, result in a kind of progress in human understanding that inquiry six.
  2. The Method of Authority. A second method of inquiry establishes some kind of power, government, and administrative group, a bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to prevent any contrary doctrine from being established or spoken.
  3. A Priori Method. The final method with which person disagrees is the method of deduction from a priori first principles, characteristic of European rationalism. The A Priori method actually does not differ from the method of authority, except that individual human reason becomes that authority. Nothing new can be discovered because nothing new can ever be discovered without new information and the results of investigation. [6]

It is at this point that a connection with political philosophy is easily seen. Governments, throughout human history, have tried to enforce their legitimacy, and the wisdom of their policies, by creating bureaucracies, administrative centers of power, educational institutions, and other social organs, the purpose of which is to establish and promulate certain views as obviously true and even a priori true and a segregate those which disagree from any possible influence upon public policy. [7] In an important passage Peirce sets out the terrifying nature of this approach:

Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time the power to prevent country doctrines from being taught, advocated or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions let them be kept ignorant less they should learn and some reason to think otherwise they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. [8]

We see this kind of behavior at work today in our schools and universities, in their intolerance of certain ideas, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in the “cancel culture movement,” in political movements left and right, and even in our governments.

The method of authority is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by stigmatizing those who hold contrary views. It is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by a process designed to prevent real though so that ordinary persons will simply concede. Throughout human history, this method has been used by governments, and particularly by those governments dominated by an aristocracy or an oligarchy, to prevent the expression of any views which might undermine the power of those in authority.[9]

The Pragmatic Alternative

Having critiqued the methods of tenacity, authority, and reliance on a priori ideas,  Pearce outlines his pragmatic alternative. He begins by noting that willful adherence to a belief in arbitrary forcing beliefs upon others must be given up in a free society so that people may find rational means of fixing their beliefs. This rational method is analogous to the method of science in that it involves appropriate investigation and experiment in order to establish a new belief.

In addition, the pragmatic method begins with the realization that there are real things that exist independent of our opinions about them. That is to say, notions such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and the like are not subjective as the modern postmodernist would have it, but real in the sense that they have the capacity to impact our behavior and adaptation to an environment, including a social environment, for good or ill. These things are not just material but also immaterial, before they have a reality born of their capacity to enlighten and inform human action. [10]

One implication of Peirce’s method is that it discourages impulsive, dramatic, or radical solution to problems unless the situation demands it. Most of the problems of a society require sober inquiry, careful experiment as to alternatives, and wise implementation by persons of capacity and practical wisdom.

Another implication involves maximizing freedom of speech and action. For a wise course of social action to be taken, the maximum number of views possible needs to be heard and studied by those responsible for a decision. Otherwise, the best practical solution may be missed.

Conclusion: Freedom of Speech and Pragmatic Inquiry

Before going on to other pragmatists, and especially before reviewing Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had a enormous impact on American jurisprudence, I wanted to spend some time with Peirce, who was the originator of the pragmatist movement of which Holmes and others of more direct political significance were a part. We will return to Peirce before this study is over, because he is such an important figure. For now, I want to end with the importance of this thought for Freedom of Speech, a right that we see being undermined in our society. In one of his passages that has a definite bearing upon political philosophy Peirce comments:

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organizational force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give us through approval. [11]

Those who believe that they are surely correct in their political views, and those who value social peace and the maintenance of the current social, political or economic order, whatever it may be, will always be tempted to use the method of authority to secure their position in society, and the social piece which they enjoy. It is a method that has both a benefit and a danger to human progress. However, in the end, such a method can lead only to intellectual and social decay. Instead, there needs to be a pragmatic approach. Peirce believed that he had found this approach in the pragmatic method, which begins with the logical task of ordering ideas and recognizing inconsistency and incompleteness in those ideas, but which also involves further research and analysis before doubt is resolved and correct action can be taken.

Motivated by the doubt caused by the incompleteness or inconsistency of our understanding (and a corresponding unwillingness to take action based upon that incomplete or inadequate information), the pragmatist engages in further inquiry so to better understand that world and how to respond to it. This can be the physical world, as in science, the moral world, as in philosophy, the spiritual world, as in religion, or the social world, as in politics and government. The exact nature of the method will vary depending upon the community of inquiry and subject matter of the inquiry. So, for example, the method of politics is not the method of science or the method of religion. Each of these disciplines have their own adaptation of the pragmatic method.

The goal of the pragmatic method is the discovery of new information that will permit us to develop a new rule of action with confidence, that is a new mode of adapting ourselves to the environment. [12] In politics and government that new rule of action is intended to solve some social or political problem which the society of which we are a part faces and needs to solve.

The desired result of the use of the pragmatic method is to develop a course of action, what Peirce calls a “habit of action,” that will produce a beneficial result that is tangible and practical. [13] In one of his clearest statements of the pragmatic method, Peirce urges that, in the course of any intellectual inquiry, the best course of action is to consider what conceivable effects having practical bearing on the problem, might result from the conceptions developed as a result of our inquiry of some aspect of reality. [14] In the case of politics and social policy, the careful consideration of potential results is absent from much political discourse. For example, the impact of increasing government debt is rarely seriously considered as a restraint on policy desires by whichever party is in power.

One of the most attractive features of Peirce’s pragmatism as relates to practical matters of political thought, has to do with the “Critical Common-sensism” he endorses. [15] Unlike all systems based upon the premise of doubt, Peirce bases his system upon human “common sense,” upon the reality and reasonableness of our common sense understanding of the world and all of its attributes. However, this is not a naïve common sense. Or common sense is not always right. What Peirce recommends is a critical common-sensism, that is subject to revision based upon future discovery.

As mentioned earlier, the pragmatic method is always controlled by the result of criticism, doubt, and further inquiry, and there is no definite, established limit or end to the human search for understanding in any area in such a system of thought, including politics and government. In other words, our current ideas are always subject to revision based upon new evidence. Included within the scope of our ideas are our current political ideas, whatever they might be, which is why freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, respect for a diversity of opinions, including religious and other opinions, is important to a wise and good government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Descarte, if you will remember, claimed to doubt everything except for this ability to think. “I think, therefore, I am. His inquiry was not unmotivated however, a factor of which Pearce takes note. In fact, his method of doubt was designed to defend the Catholic religion and the consensus of his day.

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “The Rules of Philosophy” (originally published in 1868) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists(Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 80-81, hereinafter referred to as “AP” with essay title included. The “maxim” to which Peirce referes is “Cognito Ergo Sum,” or” I think therefore I am.”

[3] “Fixation of Belief” in AP, at 87.

[4] “The Rules of Philosophy” in AP, at 81.

[5] Id, at 89.

[6] This important discussion is in AP, “Fixation of Belief” (1877), at 89-96.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Id, at 91.

[9] Id, at 92.

[10] Id, at 95 ff. I do not have time to deal with the reality of universals in this blog. For those with an interest, see my prior blog, “Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi” at, May 28, 2020.

[11] Id, at 97.

[12] “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in AP, at 105.

[13] Peirce uses the term, “habit” to refer to a rule of action or mode of action that can be repeatedly embraced to lead to successful behavior.

[14] Id at 108. See also, “Issues of Pragmatism” (1905) in AP, at 119.

[15] Id, at 119. I take Peirce’s “Critical Common Sensism” to be a form of Critical Realism, a principle of humility that holds common sense ideas of a time and place subject to revision upon further inquiry.

Rauschenbusch 4: Concluding Analysis

This is the final installment (for the time being) covering the life and work of Walter Rauschenbusch. By profession, Rauschenbusch was a pastor and church historian, and his arguments are buttressed by historical analysis. Rauschenbusch achieved prominence with the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, which is why this book is being analyzed. [1] From 1907 until his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the American “Social Gospel Movement,” which had great influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,

Among Rauschenbusch’s other writings are Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). It is my hope to return to his thought and later in this series with a look at Christianizing the Social Order.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Rauschenbusch was of German, Lutheran heritage. He studied in Germany and admired and respected the German People. He was sensitive about the public dislike of Germany that accompanied the run-up to American involvement in World War I. His opposition to war generally, and to the war with Germany in particular, resulted in much criticism, and his popularity waned. Rauschenbusch completed his final work A Theology for the Social Gospel, in early 1917. Thereafter, Rauschenbusch’s health declined. He was hospitalized in June 1918 due to colon cancer and died that July. [2]

The Social Crisis

As Rauschenbusch analyzed the social crisis of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, he came to believe that the Industrial Revolution and prevailing capitalist form of economic organization had stripped the working class from the land, from the security of the European Guild system, and from the dignity of ownership of the enterprises from which they gained a living. I found his discussion of the nature of pre-industrial land ownership intriguing. It was his conviction that the United States would soon see the same kinds of problems as Europe because of the centralization of land ownership and the decline of agriculture as the primary occupation of most people.[3] Interestingly, the ultra-rich of our society are increasingly purchasing farm land.

In his view, the existence of large numbers of people without significant ownership of property nor any claim on the profits earned by their labor was bound to work to the detriment of labor and their families. [4] The growth of laisse faire capitalism had so severed the social bonds and diminished the dignity of labor, that fear, not pride in labor was the primary motive of many workers. In a passage of great beauty, Rauschenbusch concludes:

For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life is a profound satisfaction, and antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, and be turned as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation. [5]

In my view, there is no question but that Rauschenbusch is at least partially motivated by a longing for a simpler, more organic, agriculture-based economy. He is taken by the notion that human beings need space, light, physical labor, and a healthy diet to remain active, all of which were lacking in the New York City of his ministry. He believes that the secret of the energy and prosperity of America was just those features lacking in an industrial (and perhaps even more in a post-industrial) economy.

In Rauschenbusch’s opinion, the crisis created by the Industrial Revolution undermined the moral foundations of American democracy. In his mind, “approximate economic equality” was a foundation of democratic government. [6] For example in Revolutionary America, most people were landowners and small farmers. Great fortunes existed, but nothing like the great fortunes that characterized the Industrial Revolution or America today. Where there is a proximate social equality, and people live in community with one another, the normal social intercourse of life bonds society together. [7]Where the rich and poor are separated by a great economic distance, and the rich live in enclaves of wealth removed from the life and problems of ordinary people, this bond is dissolved.

This is an aspect of Rauschenbusch’s analysis that coheres with current social analysis of the wealth disparity that characterizes contemporary America. We might well consider Rauschenbusch’s conclusion:

Politics is embroidered with patriotic sentiment and phrases, but at bottom, consciously or unconsciously, the economic interest dominate it always. If therefore we have a class which owns a large part of the national wealth and controls nearly all the mobile part of it, it is idle to suppose that this class will not see to it that the vast power exerted by the machinery of government serves its interests. And if we have another class which is economically dependent and helpless, it is idle to suppose that it will be allowed and equal voice in swing political power in short, we cannot join economic inequality and political equality.[8]

It may well be that political polices designed to give the middle and lower classes greater ownership in American business is essential to sustaining our democracy.

The Stake of the Church in the Social Crisis

In Rauschenbusch’s view, the social crisis has profound implications for the Christian church. The church, as a social institution rooted in the common life of a people, suffers if the society in which it is located suffers.[9] As in prior chapters, Rauschenbusch argues for the religious and moral necessity for the church to act. As a social institution, the church is bound to suffer the impoverishment of its members, the high cost of goods, the lower capacity for giving, and the loss of good pastors that economic decline causes. [10] Institutional maintenance aside, the church cannot remain indifferent to chronic and acute poverty. The church has a moral and spiritual obligation, to remedy human suffering. A loss of capacity to undertake this task would be a great loss to the church. [11] Finally, if the church cannot act to undo the commercialization of life, then the church itself will inevitably decline and be captured by commercial forces. [12]

Rauschenbusch attacks the use of Darwinian and Nietzschean theory to justify the current social order. Thus, he concludes:

With many of the Darwinian theory has proved a welcome justification of things as they are. It is right and fitting the thousand should perish to evolve the higher type of the modern businessman. Those who are manifestly surviving in the present struggle for existence can console themselves with the thought that they are the fittest, and there is no contradicting the laws of the universe. There is an atomistic philosophy crowds out Christian faith in solidarity. The law of the cross is superseded by the law of tooth and nail. [13]

Rauschenbusch goes on to reflect upon how the philosophy of Nietzsche had been used to justify the current social order with its opposition of “Christian slave morality” to the morality of self-asertion. This is not to say that Darwinian theory is not a true account of evolution, but with the emergence of the human race, a new factor is at work in the universe.

In our own society, political considerations prevents the honest admission that many of our economic and political leaders hold just such views.  In a few weeks, I will address the decline of the atomistic view of the universe to which Rauschenbusch refers, and the decline in the fundamental world view at work behind the thought of Nietzsche and others. For now, it is enough to observe that Rauschenbusch is clear about the fact that these views are not compatible with a Christian view of social relations.  A Christian view of social relations is inevitably a view based upon the goodness of God and of God’s creation, the inherent worth and value of the human person, the underlying unity of the human race, and the power of love in human social relations.

The Way Forward

Rauschenbusch concludes his great work with a chapter devoted to the broad outline of what is to be done to remedy the social crisis. The world and the Christian movement were (and are), as Rauschenbusch sees matters, at a moment of crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis of its history, as the force of industrialization and the formation of a society formed on materialistic principles becomes the dominant form of social organization.  Rauschenbusch begins with an analysis of the responses that show little promise of success.

  1. First among these unworkable responses is the vain hope that somehow human society could return to an earlier stage of development. The progress of democracy and the benefits of the scientific and industrial progress of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be turned back. All that can be done is to rationalize and humanize the results. Rauschenbusch believes that some form of socialistic modifications of society are required for such an endeavor.[14]
  2. Secondly, it is not productive to attempt to reconstruct society on purely Biblical principles, as if the social organization of ancient Israel could be imported into the 20th or 21st In particular, the social structures of ancient Israel were created for an ancient agricultural society, distant in time and character. Rather than attempt to reconstruct ancient Israel in the modern world, the proper adaptation is to look for the timeless principles of justice and quality that motivated the Mosaic law and Jewish social organization in the years before Christ. [15]
  3. Finally, it is not reasonable for the church to retreat into a kind of monastic or communal retreat from modern society. While some of the Christian, socialistic and communal experiments of the past have proven useful, they can only make large scale changes when their ideals and principles ae put into practice on a larger scale. In particular, Rauschenbusch was aware of some of the experiments in cooperative ownership in Great Britain, which had gained much attention but little lasting influence. [16]

Rauschenbusch believes that the church should use its moral influence, but should not attempt to regain the kind of power that it possessed in the Middle Ages. The experience of the church in the Middle Ages, and the ultimate decline in its moral and spiritual power, are sufficient evidence of the temptations to power that did and would ultimately corrupt and undermine the church as a spiritual institution. The church can only assist in the transformation of the social life of a nation if it is content with inspiring a social movement on the basis of its faith. It must not attempt to control that movement for its own benefit or it is unfaithful to the spirit of Christ. [17]

The church in general, and every Christian in particular, can make their best contribution to the social restructuring of society by repenting of their own social sinfulness and receiving the spiritual and emotional power to create a more just society. Creation of a just society is ultimately based upon our common humanity and the organic nature of human society, for  no one can truly be an island or live solely for his or her own desires.[18] In the creation of this society, the church is a servant dedicated to transforming human lives in the service of a just society.

By creating a new kind of human individual, dedicated to the creation of a more just society, the church has a role to play both through its leadership and lay membership. Rauschenbusch believed that there was a need for pastoral leadership trained and willing to accept the call of using their position to enhance social righteous. [19] On the other hand, the kingdom of God can only be created when carried into social life by the common consciousness and personal faith of ordinary Christians. Therefore, any movement towards social righteousness must also be a movement of laity. [20]

One notion that runs throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis is the idea that the church has done a relatively good job of preaching and enhancing private morality, and Rauschenbusch was a believer that the private morality of his day was an improvement over prior periods in history. [21] On the other hand, he believed that the church as an institution had not been successful in promoting a social morality. Therefore, to him, there was no moral question more pressing than the question of public morality. [22]


Christianity and the Social Crisis is an important book, and its author one of the most important American contributors to any kind of a social political theology. Rauschenbusch exemplifies the best of 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism. He never cut himself off from the evangelical roots of his childhood or the fervency of his early faith. His book walks a delicate line between bringing into the social conversation of the church new ideas and maintaining historic Christian faith. Rauschenbusch was heavily influenced by modern critical scholarship and the political winds of his day, but he never cut himself off from his Christian roots. Perhaps most important in this regard is his understanding that human society, governments and law rest on something deeper—a moral and spiritual reality without the support of which no society can endure. [23]

If Rauschenbusch was attracted to both Socialism and communism, it is to be remembered that he died before the horrific results of the Russian Revolution became known. He died before Lenin’s leadership and the emergence of Stalin. He did not see the end of the communist regimes we have witnessed. What he did see was the hope they presented for a more organic and Christian society. It is for our day and time to think through what might productively transmit of that hope to a new generation, perhaps in a different way. We must leave Rauschenbusch for now but hope to return to his thought before these blogs are complete.

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] For further biographical information, see “Walter Rauschenbusch” in the online Encyclopedia Britannica at (Downloaded March 10, 2022)

[3] CSC, 211-230.

[4] Id, at 234.

[5] Id, at 237.

[6] Id, at 247.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 255.

[9] Id, at 287.

[10] Id, at 287-304.

[11] Id, at 304-305.

[12] Id, at 314.

[13] Id, at 315.

[14] Id, at 344.

[15] Id, at 345.

[16] Id, at 346-7.

[17] Id.

[18] Id, at 352-353.

[19] Id, at 357.

[20] Id.

[21] I’m not sure it’s possible to agree with his conclusion, but he’s to be remembered that he lived at the time of prohibition, and the victory of conservative groups over the force of alcohol. He was actually a supporter of probation. He may have not seen that the social mores of the industrial society were becoming corrupt. In addition, he did not live to see the results of the First and Second World Wars.

[22] Id, at 358.

[23] Id, at 373.

Rauschenbusch No. 3: The Church and the Social Gospel

In Rauschenbusch’s analysis the message of Jesus was fundamentally social, concerning the coming of a kingdom of righteousness and social justice as a continuation of the ministry of the prophets. If Jesus’s message was essentially social, concerned with the Kingdom of God and its victory in reorganizing human societies around the Gospel, then the question is immediately raised, “How did the message of Christ fail to activate the kind of social change its founder intended?” The answer given by Rauschenbusch in Christianity and the Social Crisis is that the church failed to proclaim and enact the message of its founder in the way he intended. [1]

It is appropriate to locate Walter Rauschenbusch both theologically and ecclesiologically within the Christian movement. Rauschenbusch was a liberal Protestant, raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran. He went to a Northern Baptist seminary, where he embraced progressive theological ideas, ideas which powerfully impacted “Mainline Protestant Denominations” of his and our day. [2]

Rochester Theological Seminary (formed in 1850) was the central founding institution of what is today known through a series of mergers as “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.” It has been for many years a significant force in American liberal theological education, impacted by liberal biblical and theological scholarship and the Social Gospel Movement.  Throughout its history, the seminary has been known for its commitment to academic freedom, a quality that led it to support Rauschenbusch in publishing what, at the time, were extremely forward thinking ideas. Another faculty member, William Newton Clarke (1840-1912) wrote An Outline of Christian Theology (1898) that became, in the words of a leading historian, “virtually the Dogmatik of evangelical liberalism.” Yet another faculty member, Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) served as president of the seminary while producing theology that incorporated the doctrine of evolution and the emerging practices of biblical criticism within its scope. [3] The seminary distinguished itself for academic rigor and social witness, traits remarkably combined in its most famous faculty member, Walter Rauschenbusch.

I have given this lengthy introduction in order to reflect upon both the strength of Christianity and the Social Crisis, as well as what I believe is one of its limitations. It is the definitive work of the Social Gospel Movement in the United States of America. It is, however, influenced by the Protestant suspicion of the Catholic Church and of the veracity of the Church Fathers in transmitting the message of Jesus. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch’s work is infected with the suspicion of tradition as a reliable source of wisdom and knowledge that is a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment. In many cases, this defect leads Rauschenbusch to overstate his case and slightly misunderstand and underestimate the positive role of the Church in social progress that has marked Christian civilization.

What Went Wrong

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Jesus was a great man, and like all great men and founders of movements, his disciples were not of the same caliber. Thus, he begins his analysis with the following:

There are a few men who maintain their first love and shield to their colder age and their earlier purposes untarnished by policy and concession to things as they are. But as soon as the thoughts of a great spiritual leader passed to others and form the animating principal of a party or school or set, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples cannot keep pace with a sweep of their master. They flutter where he soared. [4]

In Jesus, a lofty mind and powerful spirit had proclaimed the Kingdom of God in a powerful and motivating way. His followers, alas, were not so gifted or energized for the task—at least until the Reformation and post-Reformation scholarship. This dismissive attitude towards the Christian tradition is the major defect in Christianity and the Social Crisis.

From an orthodox position, one wonders if Rauschenbusch has somewhat overstated his case. It is difficult to think of the apostle Paul as not gifted or energized for the task of sharing the gospel. It’s equally difficult to think the same thing about Dr. Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. It is, in fact, difficult to fully agree with Rauschenbusch’s conclusion as to all the apostles and leaders of the first 300 years of the faith, many of whom went to their death as martyrs for the Gospel. One might wonder if twelve ordinary men were gifted for the task, but one cannot easily deny that they were energized and committed to the task Jesus gave them.

A second factor at work in the failure of the church to accomplish the social mission of Jesus, in the mind of Rauschenbusch, has to do with its organizational development. As the church developed, and particularly as it became institutionalized, a structure was established (including the office of Bishop) which was both organizationally committed and conservative. Naturally, like all institutions committed to survival, there was a tendency to give way before the powers of the Roman Empire. In the end, it is Rauschenbusch’s view that the church distorted the true aims of its founder. [5]

Impact of Millennial Hope

A final factor has to do with Rauschenbusch’s view of the role that the millennial hopes of the first and early generations of the church played in the lack of social progress made by the founders of the movement. There is no question but was the early Christians anticipated that Christ would return relatively quickly, certainly within their own lifetimes. While there is evidence that the church was forced to come to grips with the fact that the return of Christ would not occur during the lifetime of the Apostle’s themselves, the fact is that the early return of Christ was a motivating factor in the mission of Paul and the other Apostles (See for example, I Thessalonians 4:13-18; I Peter 2:11-12). Through the time of Revelation, there is the constant hope that Christ would come quickly and soon (Revelation 22:20).

This Millennial hope was the hope of a return of Christ in which he would establish God’s kingdom of righteousness. In the words of Rauschenbusch:

The return of the Lord meant the inauguration of the kingdom of God. What the prophets had foretold, what the people had longed for, and what John the Baptist had proclaimed as close at hand, would come to pass when Jesus returned from heaven to reign. He had not achieved his real mission during his earthly life; the opposition of the rulers had frustrated that; it had been God’s will so. But he was still the Messiah of Israel; the national salvation was bound to come; the kingdom of God would yet be restored to Israel. In a very short time he would descend from heaven and then all their hopes would be fulfilled in one glorious and divine act of consummation. [6]

Sitting within this passage are several points of interest. First of all, Rauchenbusc assumes that Jesus failed to achieve his “real mission” during his life. This, of course, denies that the Cross was the central mission of Christ’s earthly life. [7] Second, implicit in this statement is that, at the time of Jesus’s death, he was seen as and saw himself as “the Messiah of Israel” and not a universal savior of the world. As Russian Bush goes on to say, it’s a national salvation that Jesus was intending.

Rauschenbusch is not unaware of passages in the Bible that cast doubt upon his analysis. I want only to mention one, the final passage of Revelation where, relying on Isaiah 63:17, the writer describes a “New Heaven and New Earth” descending from heaven:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:1-5).

A close analysis of this passage reveals that there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth.” The New Earth that is the creation of God will be seen in “the holy city” that is descending upon the earth. This is not the historic city of Jerusalem (the center of Jewish prophetic hopes), but the church of Jesus Christ, “the new Jerusalem”. In a change of metaphor, this New Jerusalem is clearly the church the Bride of Christ. In this new Jerusalem, God himself will be present by the Holy Spirit empowering its witness in mission.

This analysis is made even more clear by Chapter 22 where in the image of the writer, “a river of life” flows through the city of God, that is the new Jerusalem, bearing fruit as it flows out of the city through the witness of Scripture in the old and New Testaments and of the Apostles. In the words of one commentator, the vision of John, written after the destruction of the earthy city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is a vision of eternal blessedness of the people of God. [8]I would add, it is a vision of the spiritual task of the people of God to bear fruit within the earthly kingdoms.

Rauschenbusch clearly identifies the millennial hope of the Jewish people, and his analysis of that hope in the life of Jesus and the early church with an earthly kingdom to be created by the people of God: “The millennium was the early Christian utopia. It occupied the same place in the imagination in hopes of the first generations of Christians which the cooperative commonwealth occupies in the fancies of modern socialists.” [9] Rauschenbusch describes this hope as a “revolutionary hope”. [10] The hope of the early church was a “hope of social perfection.” [11]

It is at this point but I think one can easily see that Rauschenbusch has gone beyond a careful interpretation of the words of Jesus. For example, when brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). When discussing leadership with his apostles before his death, he indicates that his style of leadership will not be the style of glory leadership of earthly rulers, who lord it over others (Mark 10:41-45). An analysis of the relevant texts appears to reveal that Jesus was identifying himself as the Messiah of Israel, but not identifying that Messiahship with an earthly rulership of the Jewish people (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-40).


In my view, Rauschenbusch overstates the impact of the Kingdom of God in the thinking of Jesus; and therefore, he blames the early church for its failure to adequately establish the social message of the Gospel. This is not to deny that there are social implications to the gospel, implications that Rauschenbusch points out. Consistent with a point often made in these blogs, impacted by a kind of Enlightenment ideology and materialistic millennialism, Rauschenbusch isconcerned with the establishment of an earthly, material kingdom of God within history, and therefore, is automatically led to a prophetic analysis and interpretation of the meaning of Jesus and the gospels. A more careful analysis might conclude that Jesus was primarily concerned with creating a Spirit empowered people of God which would always be at work within human history to redeem and save human beings in their totality, physical, mental, moral and spiritual. This is not at all to deny the importance of the prophetic impulse in the life and ministry of Jesus or that there are profound social implications of the gospel.

One of the insights that a study of history brings is that one should not expect too much of those who went before us nor critique their failings too strongly. Each generation builds upon the achievements of the last, and it is not given to anyone to see the future and what changes it will bring. Rauschenbusch was a creature of his day—and a fine example of his day and time. He had a true Christian sympathy with the poor and downtrodden of his and every age. As we shall see next week, he also had a vision of what might be done to make things better. May we do as well in our own day and time.

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

[2] When referring to the “Mainline Denominations” one is normally referring to the Northern Baptists (American Baptists), Congregationalists (United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ), Episcopalians (The Episcopal Church), Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or “ECLA”). and Methodists (United Methodist Church) and Presbyterians (Presbyterian Church USA or “PCUSA”). In recent years, all of these groups have experiences schisms and departures involving the formation of more evangelical groups (The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of such a split). Because of the similarities in these groups, I refer to the split off groups as the Neo-Mainline, since the experience many of the same problems as their more liberal traditional mainline groups.

[3] See, “Who We Are” on the website of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, at (downloaded March 7, 2022).

[4] Id, at 92.

[5] Id, at 94.

[6] Id, at 104-105.

[7] I do not have the time to completely discuss this important point; however, it is to be noted that the Gospels use about one third of their text to describing the last week of Jesus’ life, which leads to the assumption that the Gospel writers thought that the cross and resurrection of Christ were the central purpose of the incarnation, not the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

[8] William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Series Volume 2 Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 202.

[9] CSC, at 108.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 111.

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 (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.