Albert Schweitzer’s The Mystery of the Kingdom of God

We first discussed Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus as a means to summarize Christian theological developments in the early part of our modern era.  Predating The Quest was his own attempt to cut through dogma to the core of Christianity in The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, which was published in 1900.

This is a remarkable book.  In it Schweitzer discusses in great detail a number of different aspects of Jesus’ selfconsciousness as the Messiah and the development of that consciousness and of his notion of the Kingdom that is at hand.  My summary which follows cannot do it justice.  I highly recommend it.

Schweitzer divides Jesus’ ministry into two phases: the first in Galilee and the second in Jerusalem.  In the first he makes no mention of the Passion; the second is the Passion.

From the time that he was baptized by John the Baptist, his mission was to spread the good news: the Kingdom of God is at hand.  That time has been called the “Galilean spring time.” The last week of his life was in Jerusalem.

Schweitzer explores the development of Jesus’ self consciousness as the Messiah.  To some that may sound heretical.  For Schweitzer, the fact that Jesus brings together the notions of the Kingdom of God as both an ethical and as an eschatological fact suggests that Jesus must have developed those notions throughout his ministry, from beginning to end.  It suggests a transition from one to the other.  Such a development is necessary because although Jesus taught addressing each, the two are incompatible.  Schweitzer explores how that reasonably could happen:

Jesus may have entertained at first a purely ethical view, looking for the realization of the Kingdom of God through the spread and perfection of the moral – religious society which he was undertaking to establish.  When, however, the opposition of the world put the organic completion of the Kingdom in doubt, the eschatological conception forced itself upon Him.

That would require that Jesus came to reject the former conception for the latter.  That change must have been part of the process of his ministry.   It is reflected in his charge to his twelve disciples to carry throughout Israel the message: “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Matthew 10:7.  “Verily I say unto you, you shall not have gone through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man be come.  Matthew 10:23.  They were to call the people to repentance.

The question at issue is not about the course of conduct which they are to maintain after his death.  For such instruction not a single historical word can be adduced.  The woes precede the dawning of the Kingdom.  Therefore the victorious proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom must accommodate itself to the woes.

The account in Mark 10 concerning what dogmatically is interpreted as the argument of the disciples concerning their position in the Kingdom to come is too narrowly interpreted.   Schweitzer notes a “now and then” parallelism in Jesus’ speech which is the key to the meaning of those passages:

1                   Whosoever would become great among you, shall be your servant.(Mark 10:43)).

2                   Whoso ever of you would be first, shall be bondservant of all (others).- (v.  44).

3                   Therefore the Son of Man expected the post of highest rule because he was not come to be served but to serve, in giving his life a ransom for many. (v.  45).

The modern interpretation of the above passages has been severed from its context of the time.  It is false because it takes no account of Jesus’ “now and then” parallelism.  In the two older Synoptic gospels that time of reign was to be during an interim period in expectation of the Kingdom of God.

. . . [S]uffering is for Jesus the moral means of acquiring and confirming the messianic authority to which he is designated.

Earthly rule is ungodly because it depends upon force to maintain its power.  However, Jesus refers to the Kingdom of God in its eschatological aspect, as would be understood by Jews of his time looking back with hope to the prophets.  That connection between the Passion and eschatology is inherent in Mark 8:34 – 9:1.

Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God would come during the life of that generation.

Jesus never spoke of His coming again but only of the coming or the advent of the Son of Man. . . .  Christianity has made of that statement, “I shall die, but I shall be glorified through my coming again.”

Jesus’ statement, as recorded in Mark, would have been understood by his disciples as the dawning of the eschatological Kingdom, not in the modern – ethical notion that Christianity has given it.

Jesus did not openly preach of his messiahship.  When he took Peter, James, and John to the high mountain where they witnessed his transfiguration, he instructed them to tell no one, but to keep his secret.  Mark 9:23 13; Matthew 17:1 – 12; Luke 9:28-36.  At that time, as Matthew reports, Jesus disclosed to them that Elijah had already come but the people had not recognized him as such.  He then revealed that the Son of Man would also suffer at their hands.  It was then that the three disciples concluded that he was talking about John the Baptist as Elijah.

What we call the Transfiguration is in reality nothing else but the revelation of the secret of messiahship to the Three.  A few weeks later comes then its disclosure to the Twelve.

This revelation to the Three is handed down to us in the form of a miracle – tale.  It has undergone the same transformation as have all the incidents of that voyage along the north coast.  The scene on the mountain, like the feeding of the multitude and the encounter of Jesus with his Disciples at dusk, bears evident marks of the intense eschatological excitement of the moment.  For this reason the historical facts are no longer clear in detail.. . .

There is in fact an inward connection between the baptism and the transfiguration.  In both cases a condition of ecstasy accompanies the revelation of the secret of Jesus’ person.

As one might expect, the Three betrayed Jesus’ trust and shared “the secret” with all of the Disciples, after which Jesus discussed the secret with them, also.   Christianity has made of Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom an apotheosis, i.e., a culminating act in which Jesus would return in all his Glory.  However, the Jews of Jesus’ time would have understood it eschatologically: the appearance of the Son of Man would inaugurate the eschatological Kingdom.

The fact that the Passion idea was a secret stands opposed to the modern – historical solution. . . .   not the ethical but the hyper – ethical, the eschatological, notion of the Kingdom dominates the Passion as Jesus conceived it.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus assumes that the Kingdom of God is already present “as a dispensation of forgiveness” for the people of Israel.  Jesus came to believe that his people needed atonement; that was very real to Him.   The advent of the Kingdom depended upon it.  That Jesus would provide that atonement was the essence of his secret of the Passion.

Jesus’ idea of the Passion is in the end completely absorbed in that of the Deutero – Isaiah.  Like the servant of God, he too is destined to reign in glory.  But first he appears, meek and unrecognized, in the role of a preacher who works righteousness.  He must pass also through suffering and humiliation ere God permit the glorious consummation to dawn.  What he endures is an atonement for the iniquity of others.  This is a secret between himself and God.  The others cannot and need not understand it, for when the glory dawns they will recognize that he has suffered for them. Wherefore Jesus did not need to explain his Passion to the people and to the disciples, and ought not to do so.  It must remain a secret, – so it is written in the scripture.

In his charge to the disciples, Jesus addressed only the eschatological Kingdom.  That was the focus of his ministry at that time.  Because of the eschatological nature of Jesus’ preaching, it must have been related to his call to repentance in preparation for the Kingdom, much as the earlier prophets of the Old Testament called the people of Israel to  wash and make themselves clean; put away evil; give relief to the oppressed, shelter the fatherless, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1: 16, 17.  Such repentance is not a mere formality, but as Dietrich Bonhoefer was later to described, it is “costly grace.” Such discipleship makes a difference in the world by relieving its suffering.

As such, the Sermon on the Mount is a call to repentance.  Only those in right relationships to the world and with their neighbors can enter the Kingdom of God.  Likewise the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3 – 12.  Each includes verbs of both the present and the future tenses.

Nothing but the maintenance of the new morality in all relations of life guarantees entrance into the kingdom.  Hence Jesus can say to the Pharisee who agrees to the summary of this new morality as it is expressed in the commandment of love: thou art not far from the Kingdom of God.  Mark 12: 34.

Schweitzer explains that Jesus’ use of “not far,” is not an assessment of his near perfection, but an expression of chronology.  Right relationships prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.

Modern – Christian theology is permeated by Hellenistic – rationalistic ideas and has undergone a development of two millenniums. . . .  [A]ll notions about ethics of the Kingdom, or about the development of it, have been forced upon Jesus by our modern consciousness – simply because we could not readily familiarize ourselves with the thought that the ethics of Jesus is conditional.

As I interpret it, Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ conditionality is akin to that of James: a Christian’s works will reflect his or her faith; faith without works is dead.

For Jesus the Kingdom of God lay beyond good or evil.  “To this height of hyper – ethical idealism the modern consciousness is no longer capable of soaring. . .  We have a prejudice against this conception of conditional ethics.  . .. [T]o render the ethics of Jesus unconditional and self sufficing is not only unhistorical, but it means also the degradation of his ethical idealism.  Jesus made clear the social character of his ethics.

We moderns tend to see the parable of the sower of seeds (Mark 4:11) through scientific, horticultural eyes,

. . . but the exposition is rather devised to place the two conditions so immediately side by side that one is compelled to raise the question, how can the final stage proceed from the initial stage?  . . .  So small, considering all that was lost, was the sowing; and yet the harvest so great!  – Therein lies the secret.

Likewise, with the parables of the mustard seed and of the woman adding a little leavening to a mass of dough.

These parables are not at all devised to be interpreted and understood; rather they are calculated to make the hearers observant of the fact that in the affairs of the Kingdom of God the secret is preparing like that which they experience in nature.

Jesus gave the Great Commission to the twelve Disciples expecting that the Kingdom of God would be established before they had spread the good news and called for repentance to all cities of Israel.  While they were on that mission, the crowds gathered about Jesus and Jesus received some disciples of John the Baptist.

John is Elijah, i.e., the personality whose advent marks the immediate dawning of the Kingdom. . . .  He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 11:12-14.

Schweitzer observes,

. . . [the phrase, “he that hath ears to hear let him hear”] occurs only in connection with the parables of the secret of the Kingdom and as the conclusion of apocalyptic sayings. . . .

. . .

Hence Jesus’ eschatology was rooted in his age and yet stands so high above it.  For his contemporaries, it was a question of waiting for the kingdom, of excogitating and depicting every incident of the great catastrophe, and of preparing for the same; while for Jesus it was a question of bringing to a pass the expected event through moral renovation.  Eschatological ethics is transformed into ethical eschatology.

Jesus commission to his disciples is not universalistic.  Rather, it is directed to “the lost sheep of Israel.”   Jesus’ concern was not with the law, but with a new morality: “Salvation comes out of Israel.”

Jesus’ ethics is modern, not because the eschatology can be reduced somehow to a mere accompaniment, but precisely because the ethics is absolutely dependent upon this eschatology!  Every moral – religious performance is therefore labour for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Schweitzer considers that the Disciples’ mission must have been successful, because multitudes came to hear Jesus by the sea.  They would not let him go.  Schweitzer considers that was the occasion for a “cultus – meal!”  He notes, “We have absolutely the same solemn ceremony at the Last Supper.”  The only difference is that of the table company: in the first it was a multitude, in the second it was the Disciples:

The celebration, however, was the same. . . .

The gathering at the feast is of an eschatological character.  The people that gathered about him by the seaside were waiting with him the dawn of the Kingdom in replacing now the customary full meal with a sacred ceremonial meal, at which He distributed food with thanksgiving to God, He acted at the prompting of His messianic consciousness.  As one who knew himself to be the Messiah and would be manifested to them as such at the imminent dawn of the kingdom, he distributes, to those whom He expects soon to join Him at the messianic banquet, sacred food . . .  The time for earthly meals is passed: hence He celebrates with them a foretaste of the messianic banquet.

The story of this event has been distorted into a miracle: the cultus-meal which Jesus improvised by the seashore has been represented as a hearty and filling supper.  That the scanty provision which was at hand, the food designed for himself and his disciples, was solemnly distributed to the people is historic.  That this meal took the place of the evening repast likewise corresponds with the fact.  But that through a supernatural process the multitude was filled by it, – that belongs to the miraculous character which the later age ascribed to the celebration because its significance could not be apprehended.

When the Disciples partook of the meal which is now known to Christians as the Last Supper, the Disciples understood the messianic significance of the meal because Jesus revealed it to them.

Schweitzer addresses the parables of Jesus in the latter period of his ministry.  Those are God’s vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46); the royal marriage (Matthew 22:1 – 14); the servant watching (Matthew 24:42-47); the virgins (Matthew 25:1 – 13); and the talents (Matthew 25:14 – 30).  Schweitzer notes the contrast of these latter parables with the earlier parables concerning the secret of the Kingdom.  The Passion now becomes the focus of his ministry.  He becomes aware of the redeeming death that he must accept:

Therewith Jesus comes to the aid of the men of violence who are compelling the approach of the Kingdom.  The power which He thereby exerts is the highest conceivable – He gives up His life.

The baptism by John the Baptist signified “the inception of Jesus’ messianic consciousness.”  At Ceasarea Philipi he revealed that secret to all of his disciples, that secret having been already exposed by the three Disciples to which Jesus entrusted it.

One thing is certain: up to the time of the mission of the Twelve no one had the faintest idea of recognizing in him the Messiah.

Schweitzer notes some editing of that actual history in several passages of Matthew: 9:27 – 31; 12: 23; 14:33; and 15: 22.  The last cited verse of Matthew has it that the Canaanite woman addresses Jesus as the son of David, whereas Mark simply has her fall at his feet and cry for help.  The disciples knew Jesus’ secret, but the people did not.  In Jerusalem Jesus addressed a legal question and ordinary matters, but he did not reveal his selfconscious messiahship.

Of the arrest of Jesus, Schweitzer notes that there was no need for the Pharisees to pay Judas to tell them where Jesus was.  Jesus was not in hiding, nor were his Disciples. They could have determined that without bribing Judas.

When Jesus was arrested the Disciples fled.  Jesus was led away to his trial before the Pharisees and the high priest.  They had bribed witnesses to give testimony against Jesus, but it was insufficient to convict Him.  So the High Priest asked Jesus directly whether he was the Messiah.  Jesus was not required to give testimony against himself.  Without His admission the High Priest would have had nothing to condemn him.  And so, Schweitzer asks, where Jesus kept his Messiahship secret, how did the High Priest know of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah?

Since the Pharisees needed no disclosure of Jesus’ whereabouts, that being within their power to determine, it became evident to Schweitzer that Jesus’ secret which he did not openly proclaim, but entrusted to the disciples, was the subject of Judas’ betrayal.  Jesus’ death was very much a willing sacrifice.

Schweitzer asks,

If Jesus taught the Disciples to understand the ethical significance of his death, why did the primitive Christian explanation of the Passion confine itself to the notion of conformity with scripture and the “forgiveness of sins”?

To this question the modern – historical solution furnishes no answer.  The eschatologico-historical solution, on the other hand, is able to take account perspectively of the necessary distortion which Jesus’ idea of the Passion underwent in the primitive church.  It indicates which elements alone of the Passion secret could still subsist after his death.  Because it grasps the connection between the early Christian interpretation and the thought of Jesus the eschatologico – historical solution is the right one.

The abolition of the causal connection between the death of Jesus and the realization of the Kingdom was fatal to early Christian eschatology.  With the secret of the Passion, the secret of the Kingdom likewise perished. . . .  Thus the eschatology of the early church was “dechristianized” by Jesus’ death. . . .

This dechristianizing was manifest specially in the matter of the final Affliction.  According to the Passion idea of the first period, the believers must suffer along with the Messiah; according to that of the second, he was resolved to endure the affliction for them. . . .  Early Christian  eschatology was therefore still “Christian” only through the person of Jesus, no longer through his spirit, as was the case in the secret of the Kingdom of God and in the secret of the Passion.

In his post script, Schweitzer notes that various people will pass judgment upon his realistic account of the life of Jesus, according to their own points of view and interpretations of faith.

Only, with the aim of the book may they not find fault: to depict the figure of Jesus in its overwhelming heroic greatness and to impress it upon the modern age and upon the modern theology.

Shortly thereafter, he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the subject of the prior post in which he examines the efforts of other theologians to find the historical Jesus.  At the conclusion of that book, Schweitzer summarizes the significance of that enterprise despite the fact that a complete picture of the historical Jesus is inaccessible.  From my perspective, these two books together are essential for the modern Christian.  As Tolstoy concluded, the sayings of Jesus are to be taken seriously in that they describe an ethic of life which is life changing.  In my father’s language, it describe the way to a “life of eternal significance.”

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