Since my university days I have been familiar with the name of Albert Schweitzer, his work having come up repeatedly during my study of Biblical Higher Criticism. Over the ensuing years his name has come up on several other occasions, and most compellingly in the context of a particular story about his life—that Schweitzer, unable to enter the mission field directly, pursued a medical degree so he could become a medical missionary. This spoke to such a measure of resolve, and to such unusual spiritual devotion in a scholar, that I wanted to know more about the man. The result was a journey through Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of my Life and Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949), a book that in the end left me wondering if in fact Schweitzer was a Christian at all.
Schweitzer very nearly defines what it means to be a polymath. Born in 1875 in what was then the Alsace region of Germany, he grew up bilingual, later publishing books in both French and German. Educated in Germany and in the midst of the heyday of German Higher Criticism, his seminal contribution was the book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Having earned a PhD in theology, he became a theological instructor as well as a licensed minister in the German Lutheran church. In addition to his academic pursuits, Schweitzer was also a performance organist, traveling and giving concerts, penning manuals on the proper execution of Bach’s organ pieces, and even writing tracts on organ repair and organ building. To the shock of his friends, family, and peers, at thirty years of age he resigned his post as a theology instructor and curate and entered into medical school so that he could become a missionary. His resolve to do this was formed some years before, and Schweitzer’s own words are worth recounting here,
The plan which I meant now to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, which I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering… Then one brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” (Out of My Life and Thought, 84-85)
Medical degree in hand, he then headed to what is today Gabon in Africa, where he and his wife built a medical clinic from the ground up and served faithfully for a number of years, through the first World War, returning to Europe to raise funds through concert tours, and returning again to Africa to continue his service.
Schweitzer’s autobiography ends in the late 1930s, but after the Second World War he was awarded the Nobel Prize for a speech he gave, “The Problem of Peace,” and he later worked with Einstein to advocate for the abolition of nuclear bombs. He died in 1965 at age 90.
Schweitzer was a truly remarkable man—clearly brilliant, gifted, motivated, and compelling. His sacrifice and dedication to his work shines a poor light on our own weak contributions to the benefit of humanity. But one looming question lurks in the background of Schweitzer’s life—was he actually a Christian?
This is a scandalous question. Who am I, after all, to attempt to judge the faith of another professed Christian, and above all one whose service seems so unobjectionably clear? And yet what Schweitzer’s life exhibits is the tension between confessional and ethical Christianity. Is a person made a Christian by his profession of faith, or by his works before the Lord? Romans 10:9 is a passage (among others) that makes it explicit that the confession of Jesus is of paramount importance, while the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 seems to make it clear that our conduct is the standard of judgment. Which is it, and where does Schweitzer fall, and are we even fit to make these kinds of judgments?
Let’s consider the final concern first—are we fit to make these kinds of judgments? The answer must be yes—for each of us, and especially for me as a member of the clergy, it is doctrinally, pedagogically, and missionally imperative that we outline the proper boundaries of Christian faith. It is doctrinally imperative because when we confess the truth of Christianity we are confessing a specific truth—being a Christian means a specific, bounded thing. Pedagogically it is imperative because we must instruct believers on what it means to be followers of Jesus—uncertainty in the definition of Christian faith means uncertainty for the people of God. Finally, it is missionally imperative because the profession of faith is actually central to our witness—how will we tell others how to become Christians if we are uncertain of what it means to be a Christian at all? And therefore we make judgments—we must make judgments—outlining the boundaries of Christian faith, seeking to faithfully declare what is “in” and what is “out.” We must do this of course with both humility and grace. Humility, because we are not omniscient and therefore don’t know the work the Lord is doing in a person’s heart at a given moment; grace because God is clearly more liberal with His salvation than we would be were we Him.
When it comes to Scripture, then, what do we make of the difference between Romans 10:9 and Matthew 25? Is our salvation based on what we have done, or what we have confessed? The answer is abundantly both. The confession of faith is essential—that we believe Jesus came, died, and rose from the grave on the third day, and is today Lord of all. The essence of Christianity is the confession of the resurrection of the Son of God. But that confession alone is insufficient—it is not enough to say the words, there is also an expectation of conversion—as a consequence of our confession, our way of life must exhibit our belief. James 3:14-17 says it clearly,
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
And yet works themselves are not a substitute for faith, because we cannot purchase God’s favor. If we believe our works earn us good things from God, then we believe that we can effectively buy God, and thereby we make Him a debtor—putting God under our own, human power. This is a line of thinking that Paul in Romans is at pains to eradicate. There is no way to win salvation by our work, but work must be the natural fruit of our salvation.
This has been a point of contention throughout the history of Christianity. Good people are not saved because of their goodness, and sacrificial people are not saved because of their good deeds. People are saved because of their belief in the Christian witness, in their confession of the person of Jesus Christ. But saved people are expected to display that salvation in works.
And this brings us back to Schweitzer. Throughout reading his autobiography, I found I was never entirely certain of whether or not he was actually a Christian. There is no recounting of his own conversion, instead he appears to be a product of a kind of nationalistic Lutheranism—a cultural Christianity which is as inherited as his Alsatian heritage and which assumes that he is Christian because he is Lutheran. Furthermore, the thoughts he recounts about faith and Christianity focus on the purely ethical—he appears to envision Christianity as a solution to the ethical dilemmas of his day, but he appears to do this to the exclusion of the traditional Christian witness. Christ, in other words, is a supreme example, but not a resurrected Lord. “Reverence for life,” Schweitzer’s primary ethical formulation, in context appears to be less indicative of studied Christian faith and more of German higher education in the early 20th century. And while it seems abundantly clear that he lived out what he believed to be Christianity in his time and context, it is also clear that Schweitzer would identify as an ethical, rather than a confessional, Christian.
The conflict between these perspectives was most clearly exhibited when Schweitzer applied to enter the mission field as a medical missionary. What follows is his own record of that situation when his application went before the committee:
But the strictly orthodox objected. It was resolved to invite me before the committee and hold an examination into my beliefs. I could not agree to this, and based my refusal on the fact that Jesus, when He called His disciples, required from them nothing beyond the will to follow Him. I also sent a message to the committee that, if we are to follow the saying of Jesus: “He that is not against us is on our part,” a missionary society would be in the wrong if it rejected even a Mohammedan who offered his services for the treatment of their suffering natives. Not long before this the mission had refused to accept a minister who wanted to go out and work for it, because his scientific conviction did not allow him to answer with an unqualified Yes the question whether he regarded the Fourth Gospel as the work of the Apostle John. (Out of My Life and Work, 114-115)
Refusing, then, to meet with the committee, instead he made personal visits to each member. In time, they explained further their theological concerns (that he would confuse the missionaries), and their concern that he would wish to preach. Schweitzer continues,
Thus on the understanding that I would avoid everything that could cause offense to the missionaries and their converts in their belief, my offer was accepted, with the result indeed that one member of the committee sent in his resignation. (Out of My Life and Work, 115-116)
It was clear, even in his own time, that Schweitzer held unorthodox positions, and that he was admitted to the mission field on restricted terms (for the record, he later breaks his commitment and preaches anyway). But his unwillingness to be theologically examined is in itself troubling, and would exclude him today from service in almost any missions organization.
Schweitzer did indeed live out what he believed to be a kind of Christianity in his time and context, and compared to many of his higher theological peers, he shines as a paragon of faith. And yet, Schweitzer’s ethical faith was a thing mostly of his own construction, albeit shaped according to the particular needs of his time. From the perspective of orthodox Christian confession he falls far short, and does not appear to contain either a confession of the Lordship of Jesus or belief in his resurrection (the two components of Romans 10:9). Final judgments, of course, are restricted to us, because the salvation of a man’s soul is ultimately the business of God and God alone, and therefore what work He did and has done in Schweitzer’s heart is unknown to us. And yet, from the evidence we possess, it would appear that Schweitzer’s life and work eschew the confession of Christ as Lord, and uphold a noble, if insufficient ethical practice. Good deeds are great, but can never win salvation, and if good deeds are all that Schweitzer offers, then for all his learning, we must conclude that salvation is not his.