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When I was younger, I came across a book in the public library titled The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity. The author was Albert Schweitzer, the renowned theologian and humanitarian. This book made a great impression on me. Its concepts were new and quite strange.
The dust jacket described the book as follows: This is the last book, and the final theological testament, of one of the great minds of this century. Dr. Schweitzer restates and summarizes the revolutionary views developed in The Quest of the Historical Jesus and his other earlier works. But this book is intended for a wider public, to whom it brings the mature reflections of an old man, dwelling in the loneliness of the primeval forest, with the text of the Bible and little else before him, seeking to lead the reader into the presence of Jesus.
I had heard much of Schweitzers The Quest of the Historical Jesus but nothing of this. What was this book, The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity, which was characterized as his theological testament? Where did it come from? The book seems to have been written in the years 1950-51, much of it during a voyage across the Atlantic.
The introduction includes this statement: After the death of Albert Schweitzer his daughter discovered in Lambarene, packed in a white linen bag, the manuscript of this last theological work of his ... It is not so much an exposition of the meaning of the idea of the Kingdom of God for present-day Christianity as an historical investigation of the biblical belief in the Kingdom from the Old Testament prophets to the Apostle Paul. The heart of the book lies in the chapters on Jesus and Paul, concerned with the field which has always been the centre of Schweitzers research. Here he gives once more an exposition from the point of view of the Kingdom of his thorough-going eschatological interpretation of the Gospels.
Schweitzers revolutionary views - his eschatological interpretation of Jesus teachings - were what struck me about the book. It was written in the context of late Jewish belief in the final days. Certainly this type of thought is not unfamiliar to present-day Christians expecting to experience the Rapture. But Schweitzers interpretation seems largely to have been ignored. Here was this man, the foremost Biblical scholar of our time, expressing views about Jesus that were quite amazing; and few seemed to be listening. The English-language edition of the book is now out of print. What was happening here?
Schweitzer himself has a towering reputation. Winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, he was perhaps best known for his work as a medical doctor in west Africa. He was born in the German province of Alsace in 1875, studied medicine at the University of Strasbourg, became famous as an accomplished organist and a Biblical scholar, and then, in 1913, established a medical clinic at Lambarene in Gabon where he lived until his death in 1965. Albert Schweitzer was an ethical philosopher who coined the phrase reverence for life. Of interest here, he was a leading specialist in the search for knowledge about the historical Jesus.
Building upon 19th Century German scholarship, Albert Schweitzer searched the historical record to see what we really knew about Jesus life. The most important record, by far, is the body of writings contained in the New Testament. That is also the primary source of information for The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity. Schweitzer brought years of research, his immense powers of analytic thought, and a conscientious, reverent attitude toward his subject to the study of Jesus undertaken in his final years.
I have long thought that the public deserved another shot at Schweitzers ideas. Perhaps people were not paying full attention the first time around. After all, it was 1968 when The Seabury Press published the U.S. edition of The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity. The growing sense of war in Vietnam, turbulent race relations, rock n roll music, getting high on acid, and even the flight to the Moon may have interested people more than an old mans view of Jesus. Scholarship of Schweitzers depth was fast disappearing from American life.
Today, even farther into the television culture, we are still interested in Jesus; but he has become, like Superman, a cartoon-like character or a name showcased in sermons or preaching. Would we, with our notoriously short attention spans, accept any prolonged, careful study of him as a figure in history?
I am myself not a Biblical scholar. Next to Schweitzer, I have nothing new to say about Jesus. Then why write this book? Let me explain it this way: My father was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in the late 1930s. A corporate history describes him as a talented rewrite man. Evidently someone interviewed for that book thought my father had a talent for editing and rephrasing stories submitted by others. I am following the same approach in this book about Jesus.
Schweitzers work stands, in my estimation, as an ideal expression of Jesus thinking. But it may be too long, too full of detail, and too abstract in its thinking, to interest contemporary readers. If it were otherwise, the Seabury Press edition would still be in print. I think I can provide a service to todays generation of reader by condensing Schweitzers message somewhat, eliminating some of the supporting Biblical quotations and peripheral discussion while retaining his essential flow of argument. Also, todays reader may lack historical context for that discussion. Here I supply material of my own, without reference to Schweitzer.
This then is the plan: The first three chapters and the last two chapters (Chapters 14 and 15) are historical or interpretive narratives representing my own thoughts and scheme of organization. This part of the book will place the story of Jesus in historical context. Political events in Israel and Judaea were important to that story and to the production of prophetic scriptures; readers today may have an inadequate picture of them. It should be understood that this section is mine and not a representation of Schweitzers views.
Sandwiched in between the historical chapters, however, are Chapters Four through Thirteen, which are a condensed rewriting and quoting of arguments in The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity. It is not my aim here to be an original thinker but be a talented and faithful a rewrite man in revising Schweitzers incomparable work.
So we have, hopefully, fidelity to the original text of Albert Schweitzer combined with historical elaborations. Equipped with the product of Schweitzers powerful scholarship, I doubt that humanity will ever have a better insight into the Messianic self-consciousness of Jesus.
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