Early nineteenth century theology featured a competition between two opposing viewpoints of the Kingdom of God. The status quo understanding was that of a present or experiential kingdom popularized by Ritschl and Harnack: a kingdom within the heart that will grow out of the present. This point of view was being challenged by the bombshell Schweitzer/Weiss thesis of an apocalyptic Jesus who called men to repentance in preparation for the realization of the kingdom in a cataclysmic eschatological event. The implications of each perspective were far reaching and practical. Despite challenges presented by the Schweitzer/Weiss thesis, the social gospel movement staked its claim with Ritschl and a gradually realized, progressive kingdom.
Social gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch concurred and rejected any cataclysmic understanding of future kingdom consummation. He warned that belief in a suddenly realized eschatological kingdom would be detrimental to Christian engagement and service. He believed that the Old Testament prophets had described an organic kingdom that would grow out of the present. He suggested that first century Jews adopted an apocalyptic eschatology of desperation that grew out of their powerlessness under Roman domination. This was a corruption of the true, prophetic understanding, and in his teaching Jesus sought to return his disciples to the prophetic and earlier view. New Testament writers like Paul wrongly expected an imminent apocalyptic event, and acceptance of their confused views can lead the contemporary church to moral indifference. Wishing to avoid such indifference, Rauschenbusch believed his social gospel depended on a robust kingdom theology to compel believers to life that would “Christianize the Social Order.”
In this paper I will argue that Rauschenbusch’s view of the kingdom was a case of theological overreaction in the context of an emerging eschatological paradigm shift. I will suggest that theological overreaction is a myopic response to a perceived theological deficiency or threat. I will argue that Rauschenbusch’s reaction was rooted in a perception that the competing eschatological options were mutually exclusive, a response that characterized kingdom theologies until the mid-twentieth century. I will argue that his reaction was motivated by his prior commitment to develop a “social gospel” which he believed could only be served by an earthly, Ritschlian view of the kingdom. I will argue that his reaction was shaped by his misperceptions and concerns over premillennialism. Finally, I will conclude by suggesting ways that Rauschenbusch’s overreaction may alert the contemporary theologian to similar responses in his or her own theological process.