Abstract:Jesus and the authors of the New Testament consistently link how Jesus’ followers are to live (ethics) with when they live (eschatology). Yet again and again in modern theology, this link has been severed. Eschatology has been reinterpreted, discarded, or demythologized. This article shows that, surprisingly, the severing of ethics and eschatology is present in the work of Albert Schweitzer. Further, it is argued that no one is better placed than evangelical pastor-theologians to recover and proclaim the New Testament’s fruitful, hope-giving connection between the Christian’s eschatological identity and moral life. This is a matter of great importance for the church.
The NT was written by pastor-theologians—men who thought and wrote about God within the context of Christian commitment and for the purpose of addressing pastoral questions and concerns. One particularly important example of this connection between theology and pastoral concern in the NT is the strong link between eschatology and ethics. By ‘eschatology,’ I mean the teaching of the NT writers that the last days have arrived in an inaugurated sense and will be consummated at the end of history, and by ‘ethics’ I refer broadly to NT instruction on how Christians should live. The authors of the NT closely connect the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ of Christian existence; the Christian’s eschatological identity shapes how he or she is to live in the present. In other words, theology (in this particular case, eschatology, the truth that God is bringing to completion his work in history) is tightly bound up with pastoral, ethical teaching.
In linking ethics and eschatology, the NT writers were following in the footsteps of Jesus, whose ethical instruction was closely connected to his eschatological preaching. Given this connection between Jesus’ ethics and eschatology, it is striking to note that again and again in modern theology scholars have attempted to sever the link by reinterpreting, discarding, or demythologizing Jesus’ outmoded apocalyptic eschatology (i.e., his theology) and retaining his teaching (i.e., his ethics).1 This approach is often associated with the nineteen-century liberal lives of Jesus, but one of my aims in this essay is to demonstrate that a similarly radical severing of eschatology and ethics is present in the work of Albert Schweitzer, ironically the scholar most often credited with putting the nail in the coffin of the liberal lives of Jesus. I will explore and critique this surprising divorce in Schweitzer’s work between Jesus’ eschatology and the modern application of Jesus’ ethics and argue, in opposition to Schweitzer, for the importance of preserving the close link between Jesus’ eschatology and ethics, his theology and his pastoral concern. For Jesus, as with Paul and the other NT writers, eschatology and ethics were thoroughly enmeshed, so that it is not possible to take over the latter without the former. I’ll conclude by reflecting upon the implications of my thesis for contemporary pastor-theologians.
1. The Problem of Holding Together Jesus’ Eschatology and Ethics
1.1. Nineteenth-century Approaches: The Reduction of Eschatology to Ethics
For many nineteenth-century liberal scholars, Jesus was a thoroughly non-eschatological figure, an ethical teacher more than anything else.2 For these scholars, defining the relationship between Jesus’ eschatology and his ethics essentially entailed reducing the former to the latter. The coming of the kingdom of God meant the universal extension of Jesus’ ethic of love and did not involve a supernatural act of God. For Albrecht Ritschl, the kingdom of God was essentially ethical—it was a human, this-worldly attempt to do God’s will. On this liberal view, Jesus functioned mainly as an example of ethical action.3
Adolf von Harnack in his What Is Christianity? suggested that Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God embraced ‘two poles,’ one in which the kingdom was the future, external rule of God, and the other in which the kingdom was present and inward. Harnack argued that Jesus simply took over the former of these modes of thought from his contemporaries and that it was therefore not central to his thinking. It was, in Harnack’s words, the ‘husk’ of Jesus’ thought. The ‘kernel’ of Jesus’ teaching was his own original conception that the kingdom is an inner, present reality. According to Harnack, Jesus’ parables reveal this:
The kingdom comes by coming to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it. True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals; it is God Himself in His power. From this point of view everything that is dramatic in the external and historical sense has vanished; and gone, too, are all the external hopes for the future.4
The problems of this nineteenth-century liberal approach to Jesus are obvious. For one thing, the view of Jesus as merely an ethical teacher is manifestly untrue to the Gospels, in which Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching is prominent and central, not a discardable ‘husk.’ Moreover, the liberal reduction of eschatology to ethics leaves unexplained Jesus’ death. If Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom was merely about the promotion of love, why would anyone have wanted to kill him?5 For the purposes of the present discussion, the important point is that, for liberal scholars such as Ritschl and Harnack, the message of Jesus himself was, at its core, an ethical, non-eschatological message. Eschatology and ethics in Jesus’ teaching and life were not held together because eschatology was reduced to nothing more than ethics.6
1.2. Albert Schweitzer on Jesus’ Eschatology
The historical interpretation of Jesus began to change decisively toward the beginning of the twentieth century, with a new emphasis on the importance of interpreting Jesus within the Jewish eschatological milieu of his day.7 Albert Schweitzer is central here. His interpretation of Jesus as an eschatological figure, following the earlier work of Johannes Weiss, was a major step forward for NT studies in terms of understanding Jesus.8 Schweitzer argued for ‘consistent eschatology,’ that is, the view that for Jesus, the kingdom of God was wholly future and wholly supernatural. On Schweitzer’s reconstruction Jesus expects the end of the world within his own lifetime.9 In fact, when Jesus sends out the twelve (Matt 10), he anticipates that the Son of Man will appear before they return. When they do return after all, he continues to expect the dawn of the Kingdom in the immediate future.10 This imminent expectation explains Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand; it is an anticipation of the imminent messianic feast, not a ‘miraculous feeding.’11 After the return of the twelve, Jesus eventually comes to realize (as he reads Isaiah) that, whereas earlier in his ministry he had expected God to bring the pre-messianic Affliction upon both him and his followers, in fact God is going to bring the Kingdom without the general Affliction. God will bring the Kingdom through the death of Jesus alone. This is why Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. He intends to force the arrival of the end of the world through his death.12
However, Jesus is wrong in his expectation that his death will bring an end to history, and he dies heroically but mistakenly. The famous passage in The Quest of the Historical Jesus states Schweitzer’s position clearly:
Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.13
Schweitzer’s historical-critical conclusion with regard to Jesus’ eschatology was in direct conflict with the liberal, nineteenth-century approach to Jesus. While the liberal scholars excised eschatology from their historical understanding of Jesus and made his ethical teaching central, Schweitzer argued that Jesus must be understood eschatologically. His historical-critical agenda was thus to promote an understanding of Jesus as one who was different than contemporary expectations and approaches.14 Schweitzer famously noted that the liberal lives of Jesus often made Jesus into the image of their author, and claimed that ‘at the present day the Germanic spirit is making a Jesus after its own likeness.’15 Rather than reconciling Jesus with the current cultural milieu, Schweitzer sought to demonstrate the otherness of Jesus by placing him within his first-century apocalyptic setting.
1.3. Albert Schweitzer on Jesus’ Ethics
Schweitzer’s radical reassessment of the place of eschatology in Jesus’ life and teaching required an equally thorough rethinking of Jesus’ ethics. For Schweitzer, Jesus’ ethics must be understood within the larger context of his eschatological views.16 Jesus’ ethical teaching centers on the now-then contrast between his present (in which God’s kingdom is not here) and his imminent future (when the kingdom will arrive). Jesus’ ethics are therefore ‘interim ethics,’ instituted and intended only for the short period of time prior to the Parousia.17 Schweitzer describes the relationship between Jesus’ eschatology and ethics this way: ‘If the thought of the eschatological realization of the Kingdom is the fundamental factor in Jesus’ preaching, his whole theory of ethics must come under the conception of repentance as a preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.’18 Importantly, Schweitzer understands repentance not only as turning from sin in the past, but also as moral renewal and the fulfillment of positive ethical requirements.
In this period of preparation, ‘Service is the fundamental law of interim-ethics.’19 Service does not represent the morality of the kingdom of God;20 rather, service and suffering are intended for this age only as preparation for reigning in the kingdom of God. Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ teaching is that the kingdom of God itself, when it comes, transcends good and evil: ‘all moral criteria are to be abolished. The Kingdom of God is super-moral.’21 In fact, Schweitzer calls this hyper-ethical understanding of the kingdom the ‘indispensable assumption’ for the historical understanding of the ethics of Jesus. It is important for several reasons. For one thing, it underlines the fact that ethics is not to be an end in itself, nor is it capable of slowly bringing in the kingdom of God, as humans pursue morality (this was the liberal view). Rather, the kingdom of God requires a supernatural act that conditions ethics.22 Moreover, interim ethics determines Jesus’ view of the law, because in Jesus’ view the imminent kingdom will be super-legal and super-ethical. The law is therefore important insofar as it points toward the new morality taught by Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus sees no practical importance in laying out a view of obedience or disobedience to the State—the end is about to come and the State will soon pass away. The ‘ethics’ taught by Jesus are really his instruction to the disciples on how to survive the final woes and the assertion of Satan’s power that will precede the imminent end.23 Even the Sermon on the Mount is to be understood as interim-ethics.24
1.4. The Separation of Eschatology and Ethics in Schweitzer’s Dogmatic Agenda
It is evident even from this brief review of Schweitzer’s understanding of Jesus’ ethics that eschatology and ethics in Jesus’ teaching are very closely linked with one another. Schweitzer’s major historical-critical contribution is to demonstrate that Jesus was an eschatological figure and to show that Jesus’ eschatology and ethics were closely joined.
However, there is an irony at the core of Schweitzer’s work on Jesus, eschatology, and ethics. While Schweitzer’s historical-critical agenda was to interpret Jesus as an eschatological figure and understand his ethics in light of his imminentist eschatology, Schweitzer took a radically different position with regard to the dogmatic issue of what Jesus’ eschatological views mean for the present. As Simon Gathercole has penetratingly observed, Schweitzer’s ultimate aim in The Quest for the Historical Jesus was ‘to destroy dogmatically what had been re-established critically.’25 Gathercole convincingly argues that one of the reasons Schweitzer structured his Quest around the central figures of Reimarus, Strauss, and Weiss is that all three figures sought (like Schweitzer himself) to demonstrate that Jesus’ eschatological worldview could not be carried over into a modern view of the world. In the memorable phrase of John Wick Bowman, we have in Schweitzer ‘the anomaly of a scholar who does not belong to his own school of thought.’26 It is this paradoxical relation of historical-critical agenda and dogmatic agenda in Schweitzer’s work that I wish to explore. Why was Schweitzer driven to destroy dogmatically what he had sought to establish critically? How did he attempt to preserve the value of Jesus for his day? And was his project of preserving ethics and discarding eschatology ultimately successful?
One of the fundamental reasons for the remarkable difference between historical-critical and dogmatic agendas in Schweitzer’s writings is his view that Jesus believed in an imminent Parousia. In other words, Jesus’ eschatological (theological) error is what forces a wedge between Schweitzer’s historical-critical and dogmatic agendas. For Schweitzer, Jesus’ error in expecting the imminent end of the world is central to the history of Christianity: ‘The whole history of “Christianity” down to the present day, that is to say, the real inner history of it, is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress and completion of the “de-eschatologising” of religion which has been connected therewith.’27
The important question is: if Jesus was wrong in his expectation of an imminent end of the world, how can he be relevant to the modern world? This was a question to which, by his own testimony, Schweitzer gave a great deal of thought. He devotes an entire chapter of his autobiography to the question. And he reports that, ‘As my two books on the life of Jesus gradually became known, the question was put to me from all sides, what the eschatological Jesus, who lives expecting the end of the world and a supernatural Kingdom of God, can be to us. My own thoughts were continually busy with it while at work on my books.’28
I see two main ways in which Schweitzer seeks to make the ‘eschatological Jesus’ (the ‘mistaken’ Jesus) relevant to the modern world. First and most importantly, he is forced to drive a wedge between Jesus’ eschatology and ethics, because (in his view) Jesus’ eschatology is mistaken. Although Schweitzer uses a different terminology than Harnack’s kernel and husk—that of the ‘mold’ and the ‘casting’—he reverts to a solution similar to Harnack’s. Schweitzer readily admits that Jesus combined an outdated eschatology with a profound ethic:
The error of research hitherto is that it attributes to Jesus a spiritualizing of the late Jewish Messianic Expectation, whereas in reality He simply fits into it the ethical religion of love. Our minds refuse at first to grasp that a religiousness and an ethic so deep and spiritual can be combined with other views of such a naïve realism. But the combination is a fact.29
These words are revealing: according to Schweitzer, Jesus’ view of an imminent end of the world is ‘naïve realism.’ In his autobiography, Schweitzer lays out his way of handling Jesus’ combination of a ‘deep and spiritual’ ethic with ‘naively realistic’ eschatological views. ‘And so we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that Jesus’ religion of love made its appearance as part of a system of thought that anticipated a speedy end of the world. We cannot make it our own through the concepts in which he proclaimed it but must rather translate it into those of our modern view of the world.’30 Schweitzer also speaks of the preacher working his way ‘up through the historical truth’ of Jesus’ teaching ‘to the eternal’ significance of that teaching.31 In the second edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer also addresses this problem. Here, he eschews the attempt to separate out the transitory from the permanent elements in Jesus’ worldview because he thinks such an attempt will detract from the greatness and unity of Jesus’ thought. Rather, Schweitzer finds it necessary to ‘translate’ the ‘basic thinking of that world-view into our own terms.’32 However, although Schweitzer speaks here of ‘translating,’ his imagery elsewhere of the ‘mold’ and ‘casting’ and his reference to Jesus’ death as ‘destroying’ his worldview suggests that his project is not simply a matter of translation. It is, in fact, about breaking free of Jesus’ antiquated Jewish apocalyptic worldview while retaining Jesus’ ethical teaching.
Schweitzer’s solution to the problem raised by Jesus’ imminentist eschatological views is to understand Jesus’ spiritual and ethical teaching as essential and his eschatological expectation as non-essential. That is, Schweitzer’s dogmatic solution is to separate ethics from eschatology.
We of today do not, like those who were able to hear the preaching of Jesus, expect to see a Kingdom of God realizing itself in supernatural events. Our conviction is that it can only come into existence by the power of the spirit of Jesus working in our hearts and in the world. The one important thing is that we shall be as thoroughly dominated by the idea of the Kingdom, as Jesus required His followers to be.33
Schweitzer’s historical-critical agenda of establishing a thoroughly eschatological Jesus collides head-on here with his dogmatic agenda of applying Jesus’ ethic to the present. The trouble is that, on Schweitzer’s view, Jesus’ ethic is profoundly eschatological—it is an interim ethic, established for a short period of time until the end arrives. But if this is the case, how can Jesus’ ethic be in any sense applicable to the modern world? Schweitzer admits that a key difference between Jesus’ ethics and modern ethics is that Jesus’ ethics are ‘oriented entirely by the expected supernatural consummation,’ whereas modern ethics are ‘unconditional’ in that they do not look forward to a supernatural act in history.34 His solution is to find a deep unity between Jesus’ ethics and modern ethics—he locates this unity in the ‘eternal inward truth’ of Jesus’ ethics, which is ‘indeed independent of history and unconditioned by it, since it already contains the highest ethical thoughts of all times.’35 This claim is important. Here it is clear that, in moving to the level of that which is ‘independent of history and unconditioned by it,’ Schweitzer has been forced to separate eschatology and ethics. He has taken back dogmatically the important connection he had previously established historically and critically in Jesus’ thought.
If this all sounds strangely like the liberal Christianity which Schweitzer took to task on a historical-critical level, that is because Schweitzer is actually very close to liberal Christianity at this point. In a remarkable passage in his autobiography, Schweitzer allies himself with liberal Christianity: ‘even if . . . liberal Christianity has to give up identifying its belief with the teachings of Jesus in the way it used to think possible, it still has the spirit of Jesus not against it but on its side.’36 Jesus, according to Schweitzer, formulates no doctrine and does not think dogmatically. Rather, Jesus sets up ethics as the center of religion. Schweitzer then goes a step further. ‘Further than this, the religion of love taught by Jesus has been freed from any dogmatism which clung to it by the disappearance of the late Jewish expectation of the immediate end of the world. The mold in which the casting was made has been broken. We are now at liberty to let the religion of Jesus become a living force in our thought, as its purely spiritual and ethical nature demands.’37 In other words, it is Jesus himself who, through his mistaken eschatological views, breaks apart eschatology and ethics. His eschatology is a broken mold, best discarded.
This passage in Schweitzer’s autobiography echoes something Schweitzer had written years earlier in The Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Schweitzer concludes that book by claiming that, ‘With his death [Jesus] destroyed the form of his Weltanschauung, rendering his own eschatology impossible.’38 According to Schweitzer, this destruction of eschatology is actually a great virtue: ‘Thereby [Jesus] gives to all peoples and to all times the right to apprehend him in terms of their thoughts and conceptions, in order that his spirit may pervade their “Weltanschauung” as it quickened and transfigured the Jewish eschatology.’39 In other words, Jesus’ error concerning the end of the world is freeing for theology, which is no longer ‘bound to graze in a paddock.’ Theology now ‘is free, for its task is to found our Christian view of the world solely upon the personality of Jesus Christ, irrespective of the form in which it expressed itself in his time. He himself has destroyed this form with his death.’40 Jesus’ death, in Schweitzer’s view, frees his (eternally true) ethics from his (mistaken) eschatology.
And yet, although the ‘mold’ of Jesus’ mistaken eschatological worldview must be thrown away, Schweitzer sees two enduring values in the fact that Jesus’ world-affirming ethic of active love is set up within this world-denying, imminentist worldview. First, the apocalyptic worldview offers a necessary antidote to the modern Christian tendency to ‘externalize Christianity’—to make it about what we do, and about ‘busy service for the Kingdom of God.’ The teaching of love within a worldview expecting the imminent end of history leads modern Christians to affirm the world, but to do so from a position of ‘spiritual freedom from the world’ and in the strength of the ‘spirit of the Kingdom of God.’41
Second, Schweitzer boldly argues that the very reason that Jesus’ ethics are similar to modern ethics is because they are ‘absolutely dependent’ on Jesus’ eschatology.42 Schweitzer’s argument is that Jesus taught that the supernatural kingdom of God would be hastened by reason of religious-moral renovation43 and this is what distinguished Jesus’ eschatology from the eschatology of his age. Instead of passively waiting for the kingdom, Jesus taught his followers to bring it to pass through moral renovation. Jesus’ mistaken eschatology gradually faded, but there remained an ethical worldview ‘in which the eschatological persisted in the form of an imperishable faith in the final triumph of the good.’44 As the supernatural, eschatological element faded, it gave way to the idea that the prerequisite moral renovation actually is the kingdom. Therefore, Jesus, by connecting the coming of the kingdom with moral renovation, established a worldview of ‘ethical eschatology,’45 one which Schweitzer sees as quite modern.46
The second way in which Schweitzer connects the ‘eschatological Jesus’ to the modern world is by focusing on Jesus’ personality and will. This is explicit in the short ‘Postscript’ to Schweitzer’s early work The Mystery of the Kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, the aim of this book is ‘to depict the figure of Jesus in its overwhelming heroic greatness and to impress it upon the modern age and upon the modern theology.’47 Schweitzer voices concern that the ‘heroic’ has disappeared from the modern worldview, from modern Christianity, and from the modern conception of Jesus. His solution: ‘We must go back to the point where we can feel again the heroic in Jesus.’ People must encounter the heroic personality of Jesus, for it is in this encounter that the heroic in modern Christianity and in the modern worldview can be restored. This focus on Jesus himself is notable—by drawing attention to his heroic personality rather than his teaching, Schweitzer can bring Jesus directly into contact with the modern world while bypassing Jesus’ erroneous belief in the imminent Parousia.
This same theme is struck in Schweitzer’s autobiography: ‘Even if the historical Jesus has something strange about Him, yet His personality, as it really is, influences us much more strongly and immediately than when He approached us in dogma and in the results attained up to the present by research. . . . The true understanding of Jesus is the understanding of will acting on will.’48 In the second edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer again emphasizes the importance of the will: ‘The ultimate and deepest knowledge of all things comes from the will.’ For Schweitzer, Jesus ‘cannot be an authority for us at the level of understanding, but only at the level of the will.’49 In a letter dated December 24, 1910, Schweitzer wrote, ‘He is my Lord in spite of the fact that inwardly I stand free in relation to his ideas and opinions. He is my Lord through the great and pure will in which my will finds its way and becomes brilliantly simple.’50
2. Assessing Schweitzer’s Dogmatic Separation of Ethics and Eschatology
I want to offer here four critiques of Schweitzer’s dogmatic separation of eschatology and ethics in bringing Jesus into contact with the modern world.
2.1. A Historical-Critical Problem
First, the fundamental problem with Schweitzer’s project is a historical-critical problem. Schweitzer’s view that, for Jesus, the end of the world was certainly to occur within his own lifetime is deeply mistaken. This claim is central to Schweitzer’s reconstruction of Jesus’ life and also forms the basis of his reading of Jesus’ ‘interim-ethic.’ Beyond that, it is one of the main factors leading to Schweitzer’s dogmatic separation of ethics and eschatology: the ‘mold’ of Jesus’ agreement with ‘the late Jewish expectation of the immediate end of the world’ is broken by his death because his death proves his error, and the ‘casting’ of his eternal ethic of love is therefore free to be embraced within the modern worldview. What is striking, given the centrality of Jesus’ expectation of the imminent end within Schweitzer’s reconstruction, is that Schweitzer mainly asserts this view of Jesus rather than arguing for it.51 Matthew 10 is the central passage upon which Schweitzer bases his claim that Jesus believed the end was imminent.52 Matthew 10:23 is particularly important here: ‘When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’53 Based on verse 23, Schweitzer conceives of Jesus’ instructions to the twelve in Matt 10 as intended only for the brief period before the coming of the Son of Man, not for the time after Jesus’ death.
But Schweitzer’s understanding of Matt 10 is unconvincing for several reasons. For one thing, it seems highly unlikely that Matthew, writing some years after Jesus’ claim in 10:23, would have recorded the claim if he understood it to indicate that Jesus had been in error. Matthew certainly demonstrates no embarrassment regarding Jesus’ claim. Moreover, Jesus’ words in Mark 13:32/Matt 24:36 suggest it would be unlikely that he would claim definite knowledge of the imminent end of the world: ‘But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’54 The parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1–13) indicates similarly that the time of the Bridegroom’s return is unknown.55 In interpreting the rest of Jesus’ eschatological sayings, these passages must be given due weight.
One important interpretive question regarding Matt 10:23 is whether Jesus’ reference to the coming of the Son of Man is necessarily an eschatological reference. Witherington suggests that it is possible to interpret Matt 10:23 in an entirely non-eschatological sense. He argues that Matt 11:19 (‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking’) indicates that in Matt 10:23 Jesus may refer simply to his rejoining of the disciples after their mission, rather than to the Parousia.56 While numerous other references in Matthew to the coming of the Son of Man are clearly eschatological (e.g., Matt 16:27; 24:27, 30, 39; 25:31), many of these passages explicitly note that the coming will be with the angels and in glory. Matthew 10:23 does not make these explicitly eschatological references. Moreover, the comparable reference to the coming of the Son of Man in Matt 16:28, given its narrative location immediately before Matt 17:1–13, most likely refers to the transfiguration as an anticipation of the eschatological coming of the Son of Man, not to the eschatological event itself. For these reasons, Witherington’s proposal is possible. If he is correct, his interpretation rules out Schweitzer’s reading of the passage.
I incline however, toward seeing an eschatological reference in Matt 10:23, given the other eschatological contexts of references to the coming of the Son of Man in Matthew and the similarity of Matt 10:16–23 with the eschatological material in Mark 13:9–13.57 But this certainly does not prove Schweitzer’s ‘imminent’ reading. On the contrary, Jesus’ charge to the twelve should be understood as encompassing the continuing mission to Israel until the Parousia.58 In favor of this interpretation are the following points. First, Matt 10:16–22 seems to describe an extended period of time rather than merely the short missionary trip upon which the disciples are immediately embarking. For example, in these verses, Jesus predicts the appearance of the disciples before governors and kings.59 Second, in Matt 10:18 Jesus says his disciples will bear witness before the Gentiles, but in his instructions for the immediate, short-term mission of the twelve, he forbids the twelve from going to the Gentiles (10:5). Again, this indicates that 10:16–22 refers to events beyond the immediate trip the twelve will make. Third, the fact that in Matthew we don’t read of the return of the twelve (contrast Mark 6:30) increases the likelihood that Jesus is referring not merely to the immediate mission of the twelve, but also to the continuing mission to Israel. Matthew is not interested in describing merely this one, immediate mission of the twelve.60 Fourth, Jesus’ address to his disciples in John 13–16 provides an example of Jesus speaking to his original disciples while also having in mind those who will come after them (14:16; cf. 17:20). It seems to me that this is what is happening in Matt 10.
Much more could be said with regard to Matt 10, but the points raised here are sufficient to refute Schweitzer’s interpretation of Matt 10:23, his linchpin passage. There are, of course, other ‘imminence’ passages61 but in none of these does Jesus unambiguously teach the imminent appearance of the Son of Man.62 For instance, Witherington and others have argued well that Mark 9:1 and parallels do not unambiguously refer to the Parousia, but may well refer to an event during the ministry of Jesus.63 The most likely referent, in light of the narrative location of Mark 9:1, is the transfiguration.
Schweitzer’s failure to argue for this key element of his understanding of Jesus—Jesus’ expectation of an imminent end of the world—is repeated in the work of one of his modern successors, Bart Ehrman. In his 1999 book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Ehrman argues for a view of Jesus quite remarkably similar to that of Schweitzer. Ehrman, like Schweitzer, sees Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who thinks the world will end within his own lifetime.64 For Ehrman, as for Schweitzer, Jesus’ ethical teaching must be understood within the larger context of his belief in the imminent end of the world. According to Ehrman, Jesus
did not propound his ethical views to show us how to create a just society and make the world a happier place for the long haul. For him, there wasn’t going to be a long haul. The judgment of God was coming soon with the arrival of the Son of Man—and people needed to prepare for its coming by changing the way they lived. Preparation for the Kingdom—that’s what ultimately lies at the heart of Jesus’ ethics.65
Jesus’ belief in the imminent end of the world is an important part of Ehrman’s depiction of Jesus. It is therefore disappointing to find that he does not argue that Jesus thought the end was imminent but simply asserts it. He cites some important NT passages66 but never even attempts to prove that his way of interpreting these passages is the correct way.
Schweitzer’s mistaken view that Jesus expected an imminent end to the world means that his entire formulation of Jesus’ interim-ethics is flawed. Although he correctly saw that for Jesus eschatology and ethics were closely connected, he erred profoundly in how he attempted to fit them together.
2.2. A Mistaken Discarding of Jesus’ Eschatological Worldview
My second critique of Schweitzer’s separation of ethics and eschatology is that it simply does not work to take over Jesus’ ‘eternal religion of love’ while discarding Jesus’ eschatological worldview. When we correctly interpret passages like Matt 10 as non-imminentist, we are no longer confronted with Schweitzer’s understanding of a mistaken Jesus. Instead, the picture of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is of one who proclaims the already/not-yet kingdom of God and who teaches ethically from within this eschatological framework. In Jesus’ own understanding, his life, ministry, death, and resurrection bring the kingdom of God (Luke 11:20) in an inaugurated sense, even though it remains to be consummated (see the parable of the mustard seed in Luke 13:18–21). God has asserted his reign decisively, though not yet finally. He has defeated Satan (see Paul’s words in Col 2:15), although that defeat must yet be fully implemented (Rom 16:20). Christians live between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ and both of these matter profoundly for ethics.
When we examine Jesus’ ethical instruction and the ethical instruction of the rest of the NT, we see that it is very closely connected with eschatology.67 George Ladd has said this well: ‘There is an inescapable unity between eschatology and ethics. Ethics are eschatological, for life must be lived in this age with a view to the eschatological consummation. However, eschatology is ethical, for it will see the perfect accomplishment of the pure will of God.’68 There are numerous examples throughout the NT of this unity between eschatology and ethics. To take an obvious one, it is clear that the motivation for the beatitudes of Matt 5 is eschatological. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt 5:8). If the eschatological promise is not real or if God is unable to act in power to fulfill the eschatological promise, the motivation for obedience is severed. The same is true with the eschatological sanctions (e.g., Matt 6:1, 14–15). In Paul’s letters, eschatology and ethics are profoundly and consistently connected. To take one example, the ethical exhortations of Rom 12:3–13:10 are bracketed by the call not to be conformed to this ‘age’ (12:1–2) and the reminder that the eschatological ‘day’ is at hand (13:11–14). Ethics and eschatology are closely interwoven here.
In light of the unity between eschatology and ethics in the NT, J. Christiaan Beker’s comment is apropos: ‘Our manner of treating the future apocalyptic of the NT in purely aesthetic terms or as an ornamental husk that adds poetic beauty rather than theological substance to our Christian convictions is both morally dishonest and intellectually shallow.’69 Schweitzer correctly argues for the inextricable link between eschatology and ethics in Jesus’ teaching, but then seems to naively believe that the two can be separated after Jesus’ death. What results is nothing much more than a reversion to liberal theology. Holmström has seen this clearly: ‘Schweitzer’s consequent eschatology entails a consequent liberal Christology; his formal championing of eschatology actually becomes a liquidation of eschatology; his ethics remains a moralism which is even farther removed from true Christianity than was Rischl’s ethicism.’70
It should be said that, on this score, Bart Ehrman’s work is even less satisfying than Schweitzer’s. Ehrman sidesteps the crucial question of whether Jesus can be relevant for our day given that his ethical teaching is based on a mistaken understanding.71 Although Schweitzer goes badly wrong in his attempt to bring Jesus over to today, at least he addresses the issue head on. By contrast, Ehrman offers nothing more than a vague response: ‘Many people—Christian and non-Christian alike—think of Jesus as a great moral teacher whose ethical views can help produce a better society for those of us who are determined to make our lives together as just, peaceful, and enjoyable as possible. On one level, I think that’s probably right.’72 Ehrman does not explain how this can be the case given that his own portrayal of Jesus’ ethics is that they are radically world-denying.
2.3. A Mistakenly A-Historical Emphasis
A third critique of Schweitzer’s separation is that, while the historical-critical work of Schweitzer emphasizes the importance of history, Schweitzer’s dogmatic agenda evidences a deeply a-historical emphasis. Marcus Borg has seen this clearly: ‘Schweitzer argued for a radical separation between historical research and theology: what Jesus was like as a figure of history is irrelevant to the truth of Christianity which, for Schweitzer, is grounded in the present experience of Christ as a living spiritual reality.’73 Schweitzer’s a-historical emphasis manifests itself in two ways. First, Schweitzer, in arguing that Jesus was mistaken concerning the time of the end of the world, expresses no concern regarding this error, since ‘knowledge of spiritual truth is not called upon to prove its genuineness by showing further knowledge about the events of world history and matters of ordinary life.’74 Schweitzer’s claim that Jesus could be in error on such a fundamental matter as the time of his return and the end of the world and still totally trustworthy in matters of ‘spiritual truth’ is unconvincing, in large part because God’s consummation of history is a spiritual matter, not simply a matter of ‘world history.’ But it also suggests that, for Schweitzer, historical claims are less important than spiritual claims. This is certainly not the view of the NT (e.g., 1 Cor 15:14–19).
A second evidence of Schweitzer’s a-historical dogmatic approach is his emphasis, noted above, on Jesus’ personality: ‘The true understanding of Jesus is the understanding of will acting on will.’75 By emphasizing Jesus’ personality, Schweitzer bypasses historical considerations and seeks to bring Jesus directly into contact with the modern situation. This seems, in important respects, to anticipate the later approach of Rudolf Bultmann.76 Interestingly, Bultmann too was influenced by the work of Johannes Weiss77 and understood Jesus and early Christianity as holding an imminentist eschatological view.78 Recognizing that the eschatological hopes of Jesus and the early Christian community were not fulfilled, Bultmann poses a question very similar to the one asked by Schweitzer before him: ‘is it possible that Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God still has any importance for modern men and the preaching of the New Testament as a whole is still important for modern men?’79
Bultmann’s solution is well-known: the early Christian eschatology must be demythologized. Bultmann explicitly differentiates his program from one that would ‘retain the ethical preaching of Jesus and abandon his eschatological preaching.’ Instead, Bultmann seeks to find the deeper meaning of NT eschatology ‘concealed under the cover of mythology.’80 For Bultmann, the deeper meaning communicated through NT eschatology is the insecurity of the present in the face of the future81 and the call to be open to God’s future, which is imminent for each of us.82 Bultmann writes in his Theology of the New Testament, ‘The essential thing about the eschatological message is the idea of God that operates in it and the idea of human existence that it contains—not the belief that the end of the world is just ahead.’83 According to Bultmann, the process of demythologizing Jesus’ eschatology has begun in the NT itself in the writings of Paul and especially John. In Paul and John it becomes clear that Jesus Christ is the eschatological event and that to respond in faith to the preached Word of God is to live an eschatological existence.84 Eschatology therefore is interpreted in radically existential terms. Schweitzer’s a-historical dogmatic emphasis on the ‘personality’ of Jesus and the will of Jesus acting on the will of his followers anticipates Bultmann’s own radically a-historical project.
2.4. Schweitzer’s Replacement of Jesus’ Eschatology with His Own
Finally, a fourth critique of Schweitzer’s dogmatic separation of eschatology and ethics is that Schweitzer, after discarding Jesus’ eschatology, establishes his own eschatology in its place. Ironically, Schweitzer’s contemporary translation of Jesus’ ethics results in a Jesus who looks very much like Schweitzer.85 As Beker has noted, Schweitzer transposes Jesus’ apocalyptic into his own philosophy of ‘reverence for life.’86 One of the key passages here is found in Schweitzer’s autobiography: ‘The essence of Christianity is an affirmation of the world that has passed through a rejection of the world. Within a system of thought that rejects the world and anticipates its end Jesus sets up the ethic of active love!’87 Schweitzer’s description of Christianity’s ‘affirmation of the world’ sounds very much like his own philosophy of ‘reverence for life,’ a view he came to quite suddenly in 1915 while traveling by canoe through a herd of hippopotamuses on an African river.88 Schweitzer believed that as his philosophy of ‘reverence for life’ was increasingly accepted, it would lead people away from ‘uncivilization’ and toward true civilization. ‘Sooner or later there must dawn the true and final Renaissance which will bring peace to the world.’89 This, then, for all practical purposes, is Schweitzer’s own modern eschatology—the universal acceptance and resultant peace of his own philosophy of ‘reverence for life.’ But this is far removed from the biblical gospel and the message of Jesus. Jesus’ robust eschatology of divine intervention has been watered down into an over-optimistic dream that sounds quite like the liberal nineteenth century theology and is difficult or impossible for those living in the twenty-first century to accept. It certainly does not seem that, in the years since Schweitzer published his autobiography, humankind has moved any closer to the universal adoption of his ‘reverence for life.’ On the contrary, there seems to be less reverence for life than ever.
In conclusion, it seems to me that what Schweitzer gained in terms of his understanding of the historical Jesus, who held together eschatology and ethics, he lost in bringing Jesus to bear on the modern world. His breakthrough in understanding the historical Jesus was to connect eschatology and ethics. But his great dogmatic reversal in applying Jesus to the modern context is to give up on the connection between Jesus’ eschatology and ethics, letting eschatology go as a non-essential, ‘outward form’ of a Jewish worldview.
3. Implications for Contemporary Evangelical Pastor-Theologians
Of the many implications that could be drawn for contemporary evangelical pastor-theologians, I’ll highlight three.
First, it is crucially important for evangelical pastor-theologians with a biblical understanding of NT eschatology to engage in the study of NT ethics. If Schweitzer’s dogmatic project is indeed mistaken, and Jesus’ eschatology and ethics are necessarily closely linked, then it follows that true teaching about Jesus’ ethical instruction must be set firmly within the eschatological context of the NT. Holding firm to this context has huge benefits. The eschatological context of Christian ethics promotes humility since it is clear that the conclusion of world history is ultimately an act of God, not of human effort. At the same time, the eschatological context of ethics promotes hope since present ethical activity is pursued within the context of God’s own future activity.90 Beker has argued that, with the surrender of early Christian apocalyptic thought in the first centuries of Christianity, ethics lost its main future motivation and became ‘an ethics of excess, superabundance, and condescension.’91
Those who despise, eschew, reject, or demythologize this eschatological context cannot properly understand, teach, or practice NT ethics. As Craig Hill has said, ‘Those who would reject Jesus’ eschatology while upholding his ethic have no idea what they are up against. Eschatological demands require eschatological commitments and eschatological resources.’92 But NT scholars within the secular academy have already rejected the eschatology of the NT. At a general session of the 1999 SBL meeting on ‘The New Millennium: The Origins and Persistence of Biblical Apocalypticism,’ the following question was posed: ‘How is it that an archaic world view, forged in ancient Jewish circles, and exported into the world by the early Christians, has persisted into our own time—indeed into the Third Millennium?’93 The language and tone of the question indicates an assumption that the eschatological worldview must be discarded or demythologized. My contention is that when this happens, the ethics brought over to the modern day are not truly Jesus’ ethics. The academic ethicists have discarded the eschatology. There is no group better positioned to hold together Jesus’ theology (eschatology) and pastoral concern (ethics) than evangelical pastor-theologians who are committed to the truth of God’s word and Jesus’ worldview and to working out the relationship between Jesus’ eschatology and ethics.
Second, it is crucially important for evangelical pastor-theologians to engage in the study of NT ethics because of their ecclesial location. The eschatology of the NT clearly has to do with the church, not merely with the individual. No one has seen or said this more clearly than Richard Hays:
[T]he whole vision for New Testament ethics developed in [The Moral Vision of the New Testament] calls for a fundamental transformation of the church. To do New Testament ethics as I have proposed requires far more than the reconceptualization of an academic discipline; it requires the recovery of the church’s identity as the eschatological people of God, prefiguring God’s healing transformation of the world.94
If Hays is correct, there is no group better placed to do NT ethics than evangelical pastor-theologians, whose theological and ethical reflection occurs within the church and for the church.95 If the church is to recover its identity as the eschatological people of God, it will need this kind of theological recovery project to be led by those who are devoted to the church, attentive to its needs, and committed to its future.
The third implication for contemporary pastor-theologians concerns how they are to conceive of, and move forward with, their pastoral and theological task. Marilynne Robinson has described preaching as ‘parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.’96 I would add that, in addition to ‘parsing’ and ‘praising,’ the pastor has a responsibility to pursue the obedience of God’s people to Jesus in response to the gospel (cf. among many texts Matt 28:19–10). And the parsing of brokenness, the praise of Christ, and the pursuit of obedience will be most fruitfully undertaken where there is a biblically rich and informed understanding of the eschatological identity of God’s people. Richard Hays, although he speaks specifically of Paul in the following quote, captures this well:
The church community is God’s eschatological beachhead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world. All Paul’s ethical judgments are worked out in this context. The dialectical character of Paul’s eschatological vision (already/not yet) provides a critical framework for moral discernment: he is sharply critical not only of the old age that is passing away but also of those who claim unqualified participation already in the new age. To live faithfully in the time between the times is to walk a tightrope of moral discernment, claiming neither too much nor too little for God’s transforming power within the community of faith.97
The pastor-theologian who wants to help God’s people negotiate the tensions of life in the ‘already-not yet’ will think and teach and preach to God’s people about their eschatological identity and how they are to live in light of that identity.98 NT ethics should not be conceived of as the teaching of a set of timeless truths, but rather as helping God’s people to live out their eschatological identities in light of God’s end-time work through Jesus Christ.