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The Historical Jesus and Apologetics

By Sebastian Moll
Theological Faculty
University of Mainz, Germany
March 2012

“If the existence of the historical Jesus could be refuted, Christianity would lose much, but by far not everything.”

Who said it?

A: Rudolf Bultmann B: Paul Tillich
C: Albert Schweitzer D: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The answer is C. In his famous work “Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung” (first published in 1906) Albert Schweitzer comes to the above stated conclusion. This short essay obviously cannot comment on the question whether his conclusion is in itself right or not. Instead, I would like to point out a feature of Schweitzer’s theology which is often missed: his concern with the historical Jesus is motivated by an apologetic agenda.

This idea first entered my mind when I read a comment by Schweitzer on the history of the early church: “It should be remembered that between Paul and Origen Christianity was led by men of average minds – with the exception of the Apologist Justin.” Maybe it took a Patristic scholar to notice this fascinating statement. Of all people Schweitzer picked Origen, whom he values as the defender of Christianity against the philosopher Celsus, and Justin, that is, the Apologist Justin, whom he clearly distinguishes from the author of the Dialogue with Trypho. (Schweitzer does not actually deny the identity of the two, but he finds it hard to believe that one man should have written two so different pieces of work.)

This remark made me wonder. Then, in a letter to his friend Martin Werner, I found these remarkable lines by Schweitzer:

“I believe to be able to show that when thinking dares to think to the end, it will get to the absolute ethics of Jesus and to mysticism. This is the decisive factor to me. The deepest beliefs of Christianity are logically necessary.” If this is not a line by an apologist, then what is?

As recently pointed out again by Pope Benedict himself in his outstanding work on Jesus, the Christian faith is based on “history which took place on the face of this earth.” This is a distinctive characteristic of Christianity, which it does not share with every other religion. In fact, this feature proved to be an apologetic challenge from the earliest beginnings of Christianity. How do you combine universal religious thinking with the idea of a singular event in time and space? What about people who lived before that event? Or about those who lived in different parts of the world? This is the challenge that men like Justin and Origen took up in their apologetic works. In order to make Christianity more acceptable to his pagan audience, Justin identified the historical Jesus with the logos, the rational force operative everywhere and at all times, thereby justifying the Christian adoration for Jesus, but at the same time downplaying his importance, as it was possible to be in touch with the logos without being in contact with the historical Jesus.

With this brief, and certainly superficial, summary of Justin’s Apology in mind, it becomes understandable why Schweitzer showed so much appreciation for him. In a way, Schweitzer has a very similar agenda. What the logos is to Justin, the will is to Schweitzer. The ethical will of Jesus is the universal concept which everybody can get united with through mysticism (s. a.), and this is what constitutes Christianity in the eyes of Schweitzer. The ethical will was in the world, in us, before the appearance of the historical Jesus – just as the logos already existed before the incarnation. Jesus represented this ethical will in truth and perfection, and thus his appearance helped establishing this ethical will within us. However, his appearance was not a conditio sine qua non.

This is, again in daring brevity, the apologetic concept of Albert Schweitzer. As stated in the beginning, this is not the place to examine the sustainability of his system. But it is important to realize that even for a man like Albert Schweitzer, known as the incorruptible champion of the quest for the historical Jesus, it is not enough simply establishing historical results. He may have contributed to the ‘destruction’ of the traditional image of Jesus, but his real aim was to show that we do not really need it.