Albert Schweitzer

1875-1965. German theologian, medical missionary, and musician. Born in Alsace, he gave himself to his own study till he was thirty, achieving much in theology and music (he became an expert on J.S. Bach and organs). From 1905 he studied medicine, and in 1913, loosely associated with the Paris Missionary Society, went to Gabon to found a hospital at Lambaréné. Except for interruptions in and after World War I, and for money-raising lecture and recital tours, he gave the rest of his life to developing the hospital on idiosyncratic lines, incurring criticism sometimes for old-fashioned paternalism, sometimes for his slowness to make Western standards normative for his people.

As a theologian Schweitzer was an heir of the nineteenth- century German Protestant tradition of historical and critical theology at the time of its high prosperity. Yet his work is part of that self-questioning and loss of confidence that beset it already in the 1890s. In his study of Jesus (cf. especially The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906; ET 1909), he believed he had discovered the real Jesus from the gospels by historical means, thus bringing the century-long quest to a successful conclusion. The common assertion that he ended the quest by showing that it is impossible is false, but he argued that the historical Jesus was so different from the figure beloved by the Christian humanism of liberal Protestantism that the latter position could claim no foundation in historical fact.

He maintained that Jesus was dominated throughout His career by the world-negating expectation of the imminent coming of God's kingdom as that was understood in contemporary Jewish apocalyptic, and that Jesus finally tried to force its coming by seeking His death. This view (“consistent” or “thoroughgoing” eschatology) meant that the teaching of Jesus, with its radical demand, was to be seen as appropriate to the situation in which there was only a short time left to the world (“Interim Ethic”). It implied too that Jesus' life was centrally directed by His mistaken expectation. But Schweitzer argued paradoxically that Jesus' saving achievement was partly to destroy, in His death, the eschatology by which He had lived and so to free men from it. Thus Schweitzer revealed how much of a liberal Protestant he remained. He followed the same method in his interpretation of Paul, treating Jewish eschatology as the distinctive basis of Pauline mysticism and sacramentalism. He has had considerable influence in NT scholarship, though few would now hold his extreme and distinctive positions.

Schweitzer was uncertain about traditional Christian dogma; for instance, he veered between theism and pantheism. But his own life shows how seriously he believed that Jesus' call to discipleship could still be heard in a way that determined the whole of life. Ethics was in fact a predominant concern of his. He thought philosophical ethics had failed by becoming too remote from life; in Africa he discovered and developed the ethical principle of “reverence for life” as an answer to this problem. Like many Germans of his generation, in the shadow of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he was dismally assured of the decay of civilization, and he became well known for his thought on its restoration.

In his last years Schweitzer was much honored, notably in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He had shown himself to be something of a polymath and a modern St. Francis together.

A. Schweitzer, Aus meiner Kindheit und Jugendzeit (1924: ET Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, 1925), Aus meinem Leben und Denken (1931; ET My Life and Thought, 1933), and Afrikanische Geschichten (1938; ET From My African Note-Book, 1938); E.N. Mozley, The Theology of A. Schweitzer (1950); G. Seaver, A. Schweitzer: the Man and His Mind (5th ed., 1955); N. Cousins, Dr. Schweitzer of Lamberéné (1960); G. McKnight, Verdict on Schweitzer (1964).