The Gospel: Individual Or Social? -- By: Robert M. Kerr

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 083:331 (Jul 1926)
Article: The Gospel: Individual Or Social?
Author: Robert M. Kerr

The Gospel: Individual Or Social?

Robert M. Kerr

There are two principles operating in human society: the principle of division, and the principle of association. Opposing schools of thought, with varying degrees of zeal and judgment, champion these diverse principles and wage a constant warfare, which aims to make one or the other principle supreme. But the fundamental problem of civilization is not to end a philosophic strife by enthroning either principle. It is rather to maintain a proper balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal forces of life, which appear to be mutually hostile but which in reality are complementary in a well-regulated world.

The issue is not confined to the realm of abstract thinking: it projects itself into every department of life. Thus the economic order is profoundly agitated by the strife between individualism and socialism. When the issue emerges in religion, it gives rise to the debated question, Should the gospel be individual, or should it be social? Does its message deal only with the individual’s relation to God? Or, does it deal chiefly with his relation to his fellowmen? There are exclusive advocates of both these positions, of which the following two opinions are representative: A certain minister wrote to Josiah Strong, “We have but one errand in this dispensation—that is to do as the Apostles did—preach the gospel of eternal life to individuals. I keep at the only work I am commissioned to do, ‘getting the jewels out of the mud-puddle,’ not trying to clean up the mud-puddle” (The Next Great Awakening, p. 64). Contrast with this the words of Prof. S. N. Patten, in “The Social Basis of Religion,” as reviewed in the Survey, 25:909, “Religion begins not with a belief in God but with an emotional opposition to removable evils. It is a psychic reaction, not an intellectual

conviction, and its one essential element is its program for saving social outcasts.” Other extreme and radical statements might be quoted, but these are sufficient to indicate how wide is the breach between these two schools of thought.

The most contrary kinds of advice on this subject are offered to the church. One says, Reform society, establish normal relations, cleanse the environment, and the individual will be all right. Another says, Save the individual, and by this means alone you insure the cleansing of the environment and the reformation of society. Some individuals, doubtless, have been able to reconcile these extremes, and to lay hold on the essential truth. But for the most part the church is confused, she hesitates at the parting of the ways, uncertain which course to take, which prophet to follow. In reality both roads diverge from the t...

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