Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Brown on Schweitzer: Ironies, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard

Colin Brown, my dissertation supervisor, has an amazing encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Jesus research. I highly recommend his work, Jesus in European Protestant Thought, 1778-1860 (Studies in Historical Theology, Vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988).

Here I want to excerpt a section on Albert Schweitzer in his article "Historical Jesus, Quest of," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed., J. B. Green, et. al.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 326-41:
There were certain ironies in Schweitzer's position. Although Schweitzer was concerned with critical history, he made no attempt to deal critically with sources. He accepted the Synoptic narrative more or less at face value (though with a preference for Mark supplemented by Matthew, understood in a non-supernatural way). Consistent eschatology was the connecting theme which gave the story credibility as history, though not as something to be believed in the twentieth century. Schweitzer himself did not accept the eschatological views of Jesus and the Gospels any more than did Johannes Weiss or the the liberal scholars who treated them as a husk to be discarded.
The Quest [for the Historical Jesus] (403) concludes by remarking on how good it was that the 'true historical Jesus should overthrow the modern Jesus.' Jesus was not a teacher, but 'an imperious rule,' as can be seen from his belief in himself as the Son of man. However, titles like Messiah, Son of man, Son of God, are merely 'historical parables.' 'We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us.' Jesus comes to us 'as One unknown,' summoning followers and setting new tasks in each generation. Those who follow shall learn 'as an ineffable mystery' in their own experience 'Who He is.' For Schweitzer himself, this meant life as a medical missionary in West Africa, guided by a philosophy based on 'reverence for life.'
If Harnack's historical Jesus was a reflection of the liberal Protestant scholar, Schweitzer's had an element of the heroic 'superman' of Nietzsche, a philosopher whom Schweitzer admired...
The monumental character of Schweitzer's Quest is apt to conceal its omissions and apologetic character. It is no clear that the enterprise did not begin with Reimarus, but with the English deists on whom Reimarus had heavily drawn and whose ideas were already well known in Germany. Among the British writers cited by Reimarus in his Apology were Toland, Shaftesbury, Collins, Tindal, Morgan and Middleton. His personal library included most of the English deists. Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hume were among the philosophers who had already raised doubts about the historical reliability of the NT picture of Jesus. Schweitzer's work took little account of the interplay between philosophy and theology, especially the influence of Kant, though Schweitzer himself had already written a dissertation on Kant's Philosophy of Religion from the Critique of Pure Reason to Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1899).
Schweitzer confined his attention largely to works in German, plus a few in French. Having adopted the methodological principle, allegedly forced upon him by Strauss, of working strictly with the 'historical' which was juxtaposed to the 'supernatural,' the work of systematic theologians could safely be left out of the account. Consequently, scant attention was paid to the Mediating School of theologians like I. A. Dorner (1809-94) whose History of the Development of Doctrine of the Person of Christ (ET 5 vols., 1861-63) concluded with an attempt to restate christology drawing on contemporary philosophy. Also ignored were the confessional theologians, like J. C. K. von Hofmann (1810-77) and Gottfried Thomasius (1802-75)...
It was perhaps inevitable that not only Schweitzer but also nineteenth-century theologians in general ignored the thought of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) whose works remained largely inaccessible until the twentieth century. Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments (1844) provided a counterpart to the Fragments of Reimarus. Kierkegaard asked what conditions would have to be fulfilled if God intended to save human beings. He replied that God might communicate with human beings by becoming human and thus utterly like them. This entaills the paradoxical conclusion that, in reaching out to human beings in history, God remains incognito in Christ...

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