Werner picht has produced an excellent biography that has been very well translated from the German by the Englishman Edward Fitzgerald and published in London by George Allen and Unwin, Ltd. The title is Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Work. The American edition, which is due any day now, is being published by Harper and Row and will be entitled The Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer. It is an understanding book in every way, to which I should like to give an understanding review. The basic problem with Schweitzer is whether his biographers and critics can come up to the measure of the man; my problem is whether I can do justice to the excellencies of Picht’s biography.

For all of us it seems that the life and works of Albert Schweitzer have been in our midst so long that we feel we know all about him. We need a book like this to remind us of many things we have forgotten, to impress us afresh with the magnificence of Schweitzer, and to force us to look more closely at some of our general impressions. A long, long time ago most of us read the writings of Schweitzer, but we have very rarely turned back to them. Meanwhile the man’s image has suffered in our judgment by an almost endless parade of worshipful or disenchanted critics. The book by Picht is a needed corrective.

Werner Picht’s approach to the task is that of an “admirer.” He recognizes the task ahead of him, that of a critical enthusiast. “The most difficult task which any admirer can be called upon to perform is to lay hands on a beloved image, since its features are threatened by every stroke of the chisel. Let this work, therefore, be regarded as the deep public expression of both gratitude and attachment.” Or again in the words of the author, “Albert Schweitzer is a divine gift in troublesome times. But unless the blessing it represents is to run away like sand between our fingers that gift must be cherished with a feeling of utmost responsibility.” Reading and rereading gives us the assurance that Picht is worthy of his chosen task.

A half century ago P. Carnegie Simpson wrote his little classic, The Fact of Christ. In it he tried successfully to hack away at the jungle of opinion and criticism in order to set before us the challenging question, “What are you going to do with the fact of Christ?” That Christ is an endless problem for both mind and heart is evident to any thinking person and might lead one to give up his researches in despair. Meanwhile the marvelous fact keeps shining through. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “God has placed the cross in the center of history and said to mankind, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ ” So Simpson keeps pressing the fact of Christ on our consciousness. What do you do about that fact?

Article continues below

Picht has the same approach to what he calls “the phenomenon of Schweitzer” or “the revelation of true greatness.” That Schweitzer is wide open to attack on many fronts is perfectly evident, but does any critic think he is big enough to deal with the total man, the phenomenon? If Schweitzer is to be judged by his peers, who are his peers? Watch the treatment of the truly great, when men without genius have tried to understand genius. History is full of big men who have had small followers. The great philosopher Aristotle was able to contain in himself all kinds of variances which his lesser followers could not contain in themselves and which they subsequently broke up into “schools” of philosophy. The great watershed thinking of Kant gathered together the diversities of centuries of human thought. His followers could not hold them together. Luther and Calvin and Pascal in a lesser fashion could also contain within their own minds what became bits and pieces in the minds of others.

So it is with Schweitzer from Picht’s viewpoint, and I find myself in complete agreement with him. “The analysis of the phenomenon is much more difficult than it appears at first sight. To begin with it is impossible for any one man to master truly the various spheres of Albert Schweitzer’s many-sided productivity: theology, philosophy, music and so on. That is a difficulty that must be accepted as inevitable if the author has no intention of seeking the easy way out … but the real difficulty lies even deeper; it is inherent in the paradoxical nature of Schweitzer’s personality …” (italics mine).

After a brief chapter called “Fundamentals,” the author takes up the three great areas of Schweitzer’s theological productivity in chapters called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” “Paul,” and “Ethics.” The first of these chapters takes the title of what has become Schweitzer’s most famous work, and the others indicate in brief some areas in which he has done other writing.

A review of these chapters reduces itself finally to a recognition of the paradox of Schweitzer, which reduces itself in turn to the twin centers of both his thought and life, namely, his personal (is it mystical?) experience of the person of Christ over against his devotion to the reasoning of a man under subjection to the Enlightenment. Coldly and purposely Schweitzer lays aside all dogma, all tradition, all authority, and by his own masterful reasoning powers pursues relentlessly wherever his trail leads. This makes him fearfully iconoclastic, and his critics from the orthodox side of things rise en masse to deny even his Christianity. Conversely his deep and personal “experience” of his Lord causes distress to his liberal friends, who think that perhaps he has gone soft or has spent too much time in the jungle. It is a strange synthesis: this liberalism that leads him to believe that Christ was so much a product of his time that he was in error about many things; and his idea that Christ must be understood finally only as an apocalyptic event, which makes Schweitzer appear like a fanatical premillennialist.

Article continues below

What is true of “The Quest” is reflected in his writings on Paul, where “anything goes” in higher criticism and extreme rationalism until it is stopped again by his recognition that Paul’s experience of Christ—one with Christ—is Schweitzer’s experience also. The “Ethics,” which rests on his doctrine of “reverence for life” (and here one must surely read Picht or read Schweitzer), seems to lead right out of the Christian frame of reference only to find its fulfillment in the preeminence of Jesus. How can you fault a man who says to a native coming out from the anesthetic, “It was Jesus who sent me to you”?

Time fails me to speak of Lambaréné or his music or Goethe or his critics. I am reminded of Goethe, when he speaks of the devil’s demanding the soul of Napoleon: “If you are bold enough to face him, in your kingdom you may place him.”

This fortnightly review is contributed in sequence by J. D. Douglas, British editorial director,CHRISTIANITY TODAY; Philip E. Hughes, guest professor of New Testament exegesis, Columbia Seminary, Decatur, Georgia; Harold B. Kuhn, professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Seminary, Wilmore. Kentucky; G. C. Berkouwer, professor of dogmatics, Free University of Amsterdam; and Addison H. Leitch, professor of philosophy and religion, Tarkio College, Tarkio, Missouri.—ED.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.