Tuesday, 18 January 2011

On January 14, 1875: World renowned Albert Schweitzer was born - some reflections

I saw over at Mark Goodacre's blog an interesting bit on Albert Schweitzer's recent birthday

I will never again be able to write or think about Schweitzer without some emotions being stirred in my own heart. I did a short paper on his life and works in Durham in 2009. See it as a few preliminary thoughts, which obviously cannot do justice to all that can and should be said about him!

Nobel Peace Prize winner (1952), world-class organist, philosopher, ground-breaking theologian, doctor, surgeon, medical missionary, prisoner of war and anti-nuclear activist. Could these truly be among the achievements of one man? Indeed: Albert Schweitzer!

Schweitzer was born in Kaysersberg in Alsace on the January 14th, 1875. His father and maternal grandfather were both Lutheran pastors from the liberal German tradition, a tradition which was to become central to Schweitzer’s theological work.

Strong personality

Since his childhood Schweitzer had had an unquenchable passion ‘to accept nothing as a matter of course’, he was ‘to think out and examine carefully everything that he heard, saw, or read, as though no one before him had been occupied with the subject’[1]. In his fervour for and ‘passion for truth and light’[2], when he was only fourteen years old, he ‘...suddenly found his tongue and intruded into every conversation with a zealot’s compulsion to set straight anyone whose viewpoint seemed to diverge from what was obviously the correct one'[3] Schweitzer has always been a dissenter, a true individualist going his own way, moving beyond any supposed sacred frontier [4]. In his later life, it was said of him that he was ‘strong-willed’, and ‘often downright obstinate.’ ‘He had the ability to anger his closest associates by his unwillingness to change, an anger that in retrospect often turned to delightful recollection’[5]. These elements, at least in part, became important ingredients for his original and significant theological work (to which I will return), which encompassed the first thirty years of his life.

The softer side

Schweitzer’s strong convictions, individuality and focused determinism, on the other hand, also produced sacrificial love, evident from his ‘devotion to compassion and concern for all life’[6]. This he demonstrated among other things by his pioneering work as a medical doctor in Lambaréné (modern-day Gabon, Africa); his love for animals and all of life; his critique of colonialism’s exploits in Africa (he deemed his service to be giving back what colonialism had taken); his outspokenness against the nuclear arms race (see, for example, his letter from president John F. Kennedy in 1962) and the like. These activities made up the second part of Schweitzer’s life, in which he set out to work for the 'good of all humanity and the earth', instead of enhancing his professional and academic career [7]. The second part of his life, therefore, became the putting into practice of what he had written in the first three decades of his life [8].

Thus, Schweitzer’s strong sense of purpose and conviction, as indicated above, became his life orientation, permeating all spheres of his being. As I am particularly concerned with the way in which Schweitzer interpreted the New Testament, I will delve into aspects of his theological journey.

The making of a theologian

For as long as he could remember, Schweitzer wanted to become a minister, just like his father and maternal grandfather, for whom he had great admiration. After school he studied theology at the University of Strasbourg. There he sat at the feet of famous theologians like Holtzmann, Budde, and philosophers like Ziegler and Windelband. As a young student, he had a few experiences which became important building blocks for his later theological work. One such experience (the theological significance of which will be indicated later) became foundational:

One day, lying in the grass when he was on leave in the little village of Guggenheim, and reading over the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, there came to him in a flash an insight which he was unable to reject. It was the observation that if a certain text in the tenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel were correctly interpreted, Jesus was there announcing to His disciples an event which did not actually happen. He predicted to them much persecution and the imminent coming of the supernatural Kingdom of God. But they did not experience such events [9].

As a nineteen-year-old boy, this realisation led Schweitzer to the conclusion that the official theology of his day had in fact not followed the historical data concerning Jesus, and instead of following the real historical facts, ‘had dealt with them in such a way as to evade their impact, to... conceal their true bearing’[10]. Following these conclusions, this young theology undergraduate was no longer to be seen in the lecture-rooms of his famous professor Holtzmann that often. Instead (and following his growing suspicion of the latter’s theology), he entrenched himself for hours every day surrounded by high piles of books in his college and university library. As never before, and with fiery eagerness, he studied the Scriptures ‘in order to find confirmation of his theory’[11]. Soon after embarking on this intellectual journey, he outlined, as young as he was, a rough draft of what would become his future (and significantly eschatological) theological work.

Wrestling with the fear of what his new found and radical conclusions envisaged (not just for himself but also for the church at large), remarkably he found peace (solace?) for his soul by remembering a St. Paul verse from his childhood: ‘For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth’ (2 Cor. 13. 8). In one sense at least then, Schweitzer’s whole future theological programme can be traced back to his second year as a theological student, in which one groundbreaking thought and one verse from the apostle Paul informed a monumental theological enterprise.

But why was this regarded as groundbreaking in New Testament Scholarship? To answer this question, one has to refer to Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus in which that theological bombshell was launched [12]. In the latter, Schweitzer made a detailed and meticulous analysis of almost 130 years of life-of-Jesus (or historical Jesus) research. In it he critiqued the likes of S. Reimarus, D.F. Strauss, W. Wrede, E. Renan and most of the other important contributions up till then severely, in favour of his view that Jesus was in fact a self-conscious eschatological prophet [13]. This led Schweitzer to the conclusion that, amongst other things:

It is not given to history to disengage that which is abiding and eternal in the being of Jesus [his eschatology] from the historical forms in which it worked itself out, and to introduce it into our world as a living influence. It has toiled in vain at this undertaking. As a water-plant is beautiful so long as it is growing in the water, but once torn from its roots, withers and becomes unrecognisable, so it is with the historical Jesus when He is wrenched loose from the soil of eschatology, and the attempt is made to conceive Him historically as a Being not subject to temporal conditions... The very strangeness and unconditionedness in which He stands before us makes it easier for individuals to find their own personal standpoint in regard to Him [14].

Rejecting both the orthodox and liberal portrayals of Jesus in his own day, Schweitzer discovered an eschatological Jesus who, although unsuccessful in his ultimate endeavour (fulfilling the eschatology he envisioned) [15], knowingly gave up his life, resulting in a selfless dying on a cross for those he loved. In one sense at least, this is also what Schweitzer set out to do, by healing African wounds festering from colonialism’s injustice, by peaceful protest against the nuclear arms race and countless other humanitarian projects.

On the last page of Jean Pierhal’s biography of Schweitzer, however, he suggests that ‘[t]he primitive oasis which Schweitzer gradually created [at Lambaréné] will no doubt have to yield, within measurable time, to the inevitable progress of technology’ [16]. Not being here to witness it, Schweitzer’s African hospital, developed over the course of thirty years is diminishing and making way for a small airport, a major road network crossing, and a new petroleum and industrial centre [17].

Schweitzer’s life and work reflected that which he intended it to be. A remarkable man with incredible passion and drive. Schweitzer found ‘a’ Jesus who was not able to achieve that which he had set out to achieve: a Jesus who set out to be an eschatological prophet, but never managed to overcome death in the end. Similarly, (at least in one instance), Schweitzer became a man whose labors, (which includes his intellectual and humanitarian achievements, including the building of a hospital with eventually more than seventy rooms) is also caming to an end. However, contra Schweitzer, I propose there remains somewhere in old Jerusalem, an empty tomb, deserted for more than 2000 years. The final word of its eschatological significance is still to be fully grasped and experienced. And that, I believe (with millions of other Christians) will come to pass, when He will indeed come back as He himself believed and promised, and taught simple Palestinian Jews, some twenty centuries ago [18].

Some key and influential theological works of Schweitzer:

Schweitzer, Albert, Das Abendmahl im Zusammenhang mit dem Leben Jesu und der Geschichte des Urchristentum, 2 volumes, (Tübingen and Leipzig: J.C.B Mohr, 1901)

Heft 1. Das Abendmahlsproblem auf Grund der wissenschaftlichen Forschung des 19. Jahrhunderts und der historischen Berichte, (trans.) A.J. Mattill, Jr., The Problem of the Lord’s Supper according to the Scholarly Research of the Nineteenth Century and the Historical Accounts (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1982).

Heft 2. Das Messianitäts- und Leidensgeheimnis. Eine Skizze des Lebens Jesu, (trans.) Walter Lowrie, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: the secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion, (London: Adam & Charles Black; New York: Dodd, ead & Co., [1914], 1925, 1956)

Schweitzer, Albert, Von Reimarus zu Wrede. Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Hohr, 1906) (trans.) W. Montgomery, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, (London: A & C. Black, 1910)

Schweitzer, Albert, Geschichte der paulinischen Forschung von der Reformation bis auf die Gegenwart, (Tübigen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1912), (trans.) William Montgomery, Paul and His Interpreters: A Critical History, (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1912, New York: Schocken Books, 1964)

Schweitzer, Albert, Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1930), (trans.) William Montgomery, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London: A.R.C. Black, 1931)


Clark, Henry, The Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer, (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1962)
Pierhal, Jean, Albert Schweitzer. The life of a Great Man, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956)
Marshall, George and Poling, David, Schweitzer. A Biography by George Marshall and David Poling, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971)
Paget, James C., “Schweitzer, Albert (1875-1965)” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology, (ed.) Trevor A. Hart, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000)
Schweitzer, Albert, Reverence for Life, (collection of sermons) (trans.) Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1970)
Wrede, William. The Messianic Secret, (trans.) J.C.G. Greig. (Cambridge and London: James Clarke and Co., 1971)
Gathercole, Simon J., ‘The Critical and Dogmatic Agenda of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ (Cambridge: Tyndale Bulletin, 2000)
Saver, George, Albert Schweitzer. The Man and His Mind. 6th edition, (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1969)
Kümmel, W.G., The New Testament. The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, (trans.) S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. Kee, (London: SCM Press, 1973)

1. Jean Pierhal, Albert Schweitzer. The life of a Great Man (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956) (Great Man), p. 39.

2. George Marshall and David Poling, Schweitzer. A Biography by George Marshall and David Poling, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971) (Schweitzer), p. 5.

3. Marshall & Poling, Schweitzer, p. 8.

4. Ibid, p. 290.

5. Ibid, p. xvii.

6. Ibid, p. 5. See also George Savers’ quote from Schweitzers Civilization and Ethics from which he quotes: ‘I am thrown, indeed, by Reverence for Life into an unrest such as the world does not know, but I obtain from it a blessedness which the world cannot give’ (George Saver, Albert Schweitzer. The Man and His Mind. 6th edition, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1969) (The Man and His Mind), p. 311.

7. E.g., Schweitzer describes in a letter to Gustav von Lupke (a fine French music critic) why he decided to spend the rest of his life (following his professional training) in service of others: ‘At last it became clear to me that the meaning of my life does not consist in knowledge or art but simply in being human and doing some little thing in the Spirit of Jesus’ (Pierhal, Great Man, p. 59.

8. All of these projects were the result of Schweitzer’s ethical orientation, at least in one way influenced by a neo-Kantian morality which included among others the belief that morality is to be the crucial ingredient in the Christian life (Henry Clark, The Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer, (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1962), p. 22. Cf. also Schweitzer’s sermon Reverence for Life in which he states emphatically: ‘I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality’ (Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life, (trans.) Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1970), p.116. It cannot be argued here further, but see Schweitzer’s doctorate in philosophy The Religious Philosophy of Kant (1899).

9. Pierhal, Great Man, p. 39.

10. Ibid, p. 41.

11. Ibid, p. 41.

12. Cf. Saver, The Man and His Mind, pp. 221-229

13. In modern New Testament scholarship, the likes of E.P. Saunders and N.T. Wright are well known for following an adaptation of Schweitzer’s eschatological and Jewish understanding of Jesus (James C. Paget, “Schweitzer, Albert (1875-1965)” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology, (ed.) Trevor A. Hart, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), p. 517.

14. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. William Montgomery (London: A & C. Black, 1910), p401. Cf. Kümmel, W.G., The New Testament. The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, (trans.) S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. Kee, (London: SCM Press, 1973), pp. 235-241.

15. Schweitzer and the other ‘liberals’ shared the view that no imminent eschatological parousia came (or will come), but they arrived there from different angles. Schweitzer saw Jesus as an eschatological prophet whose project collapsed, while others like William Wrede denied Jesus believing himself to be an eschatological prophet in the first place. The latter (which of course included the Messianic Secret motif), was a later theological projection onto the real historical Jesus (William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, trans. J.C.G. Greig. Cambridge and London: James Clarke and Co., 1971), p. 228.

16. Pierhal, Great Man, p. 160.

17. As for the nuclear arms race, Schweitzer would’ve been devastated by the fact that more and more nations are aspiring to develop nuclear weapons, what to say of nations like Britain, France, China, India, and Pakistan who have been added to the list since his death.

18. Cf. Gathercole who states that ‘it is (also) vital that Christian theology today faces up to the task of defending and proclaiming the eschatology to which Schweitzer and the nineteenth century were so implacably opposed’ (Simon J. Gathercole, ‘The Critical and Dogmatic Agenda of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ (Cambridge: Tyndale Bulletin, 2000), p. 283.

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