Harnack, Adolf von

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HARNACK, ADOLF VON (18511930), was a German Protestant church historian and theologian. Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack was born in Dorpat (now Tartu), in the Russian province of Livonia, where his father, Theodosius Harnack (18171889), was a professor of theology at the German-dominated university. He was educated at the universities of Dorpat and Leipzig, received the Ph.D. in 1873, and began lecturing on church history at Leipzig in 1874. In 1879 he went, as full professor, to Giessen, in 1886 to Marburg, and in 1888 to the University of Berlin, where he taught until his retirement in 1921, thereafter lecturing as emeritus professor until the spring of 1929.

Harnack was the premier historian in modern times of early Christianity and, with Ernst Troeltsch (18651923), the foremost spokesman of a liberal Protestantism that sought to "overcome dogma by history." He insisted that the rise and development of Christianity could be understood solely by the use of the historical-critical method, that is, by impartial study of the extant Christian literature, to the exclusion of all metahistorical sources and standards of judgment such as authoritative church dogma or belief in an infallible teaching office or an inerrant Bible.

History, for Harnack, meant above all documentary history. Building on the seminal studies of early Christianity by F. C. Baur (17921860) and Albrecht Ritschl (18221889), he established early church history on secure textual foundations. Many of his more than sixteen hundred publications were critical editions of patristic texts, and he supervised the publication of hundreds of others, chiefly in the series "Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur" (1882), of which he was a founder. He summarized the results of this textual scholarship in his Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius (18931904).

Harnack wrote penetrating studies of monasticism and of church polity in Christianity's first two centuries. He also wrote what is still the foundational history of the early Christian missionary enterprise, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902; translated as The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, 1908). His true métier, however, was not institutional history but the history of doctrineresearch that culminated in his monumental Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (18851890; translated as History of Dogma, 18941899). Dogma, in Harnack's narrow definition, referred exclusively to the trinitarian and christological dogmas formulated by general church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries. Whereas Ritschl had stressed the gradual de-judaization of Christianity as the central factor in the development of early Christian doctrine, Harnack emphasized the progressive hellenization of Christianity, holding that Christian dogma was "a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel." This did not mean that the gospel (the original teaching of Jesus) had entirely disappeared into dogma, or that the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation were sheer speculation, but that Greek philosophy of religion and its attendant intellectualism had shaped Christian dogmatic thought from its inception. Thus Christian faith came to be dependent on metaphysics and, most shocking of all to Harnack, a "fancied Christ" had been put in the place of the real, historical one.

In Harnack's judgment, moreover, the mainline Protestant reformers had failed to break decisively with "dogmatic Christianity," though their root religious principles actually undermined the authority of all dogma. Martin Luther, for example, had delivered the Christian faith from moralism, ritualism, hierarchicalism, and philosophical speculation, yet he continued to adhere to the old dogmas, even grounding his piety on them, and thus gave them a new vitality and authority within the Evangelical church. The result of this "unfinished Reformation" was a Protestantism beset by ordinance, doctrine, and ceremony. What was urgently required, therefore, was a "critical reduction of dogma," to be carried out in fidelity to the animating concerns of Reformation religion and to be achieved by a rigorous historical criticism that would distinguish between the timeless "kernel" of Christianity and its timebound "husks." Harnack took up this task in his most popular book, Das Wesen des Christentums (1900; translated as What Is Christianity?, 1903), based on lectures to students of all faculties at Berlin in 18991900.

The "essence of Christianity"its element of permanent validity as distinguished from its transient historical formsis the gospel, above all as Jesus proclaimed it but also as it has repeatedly found expression in the course of Christian history. Appropriating the leading theological themes of his mentor, Ritschl, Harnack contended that the gospel is a simple and self-authenticating phenomenon, centering on the rule of the holy God in the trusting heart, on the experience of God as loving father and thus the assurance of the infinite value of the human soul, and on an ethical life marked by an abiding disposition to the good, under God's grace, and by neighborly love and mercy. Hence the gospel is essentially timeless, and it addresses a human nature that, religiously viewed, is also unchangingever yearning for "the presence of the Eternal in time" and so for a vindication of the ultimate worth of the human spirit over against an indifferent natural order. This gospel, accordingly, requires no metaphysical foundations, no articulation in binding dogmas, no elaborate ritual, and no institutional guarantees. The religion of the Christian gospel, Harnack concluded, is not only "undogmatic" and "perennial," but also shows itself to be a "cultural" religion in the proper sense, namely, one uniquely responsive to modern humanity's insistent quest for the meaning of life.

Controversy surrounded Harnack throughout his career. The most bitter conflict broke out in 1892, when he proposed that the Apostles' Creed be replaced in liturgical worship by a shorter confession of faith based on Reformation principles and on the results of modern historical scholarship. Though denied all official recognition by the Evangelical church, he was the most widely honored theologian of his time. In 1890 he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences and in 1900, on the occasion of its two-hundredth anniversary, he wrote the academy's official history. He was a founder and the first president (19031911) of the Evangelical-Social Congress. From 1905 to 1921 he was director general of the Royal Library in Berlin. He served as the first president (19111930) of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft for the Advancement of the Sciences (now called the Max Planck Gesellschaft). In 1914 he was raised to the dignity of hereditary nobility by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Harnack's theology went into eclipse soon after his death, largely owing to its repudiation by Karl Barth (18861968) and other leaders of the regnant Protestant neoorthodoxy. Church historians and theologians otherwise sympathetic to Harnack's program have criticized his narrow definition of dogma, his thesis of hellenization, and his cardinal notion of a "timeless gospel" for a "timeless humanity." Nevertheless, his reputation as the greatest modern student of the ancient church is secure, and his insistence that Christianity must be interpreted by the historical method has been upheld.


The indispensable biography is that by his daughter, Agnes von Zahn-Harnack: Adolf von Harnack (1936; 2d ed., Berlin, 1951). His collected essays and speeches were published under the title Reden und Aufsätze, 7 vols. (Giessen, 19041930). Friedrich Smend compiled a complete listing of his writings, Adolf von Harnack: Verzeichnis seiner Schriften (Leipzig, 1927), supplemented by Verzeichnis seiner Schriften (19271930) (Leipzig, 1931).

Harnack's thought has been discussed most fully by Karl H. Neufeld, S.J., in two works: Adolf von Harnack: Theologie als Suche nach der Kirche (Paderborn, 1977) and Adolf von Harnacks Konflikt mit der Kirche (Innsbruck, 1979). The best treatment to date in English is by G. Wayne Glick, The Reality of Christianity: A Study of Adolf von Harnack as Historian and Theologian (New York, 1967), to be supplemented by Wilhelm Pauck's Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (Oxford, 1968), a masterly essay by a former student of Harnack at Berlin. Harnack's interpretation of Luther and of Reformation thought is considered by Jaroslav Pelikan in his essay "Adolf von Harnack on Luther," in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck, edited by Pelikan (Philadelphia, 1968), pp. 253274. Harnack's indebtedness to Albrecht Ritschl and his controversy with Karl Barth are discussed, respectively, by E. P. Meijering in Theologische Urteile über die Dogmengeschichte: Ritschls Einfluss auf von Harnack (Leiden, 1978) and by H. Martin Rumscheidt in Revelation and Theology: An Analysis of the Barth-Harnack Correspondence of 1923 (Cambridge, 1972).

New Sources

Forni, Guglielmo. The Essence of Christianity: The Hermeneutical Question in the Protestant and Modernist Debate (18971904). Atlanta, 1995.

Pilhofer, Peter. "Harnack and Goodspeed: Two Readers of Codex Parisinus Graecus 450." Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies 5, no. 4 (19851986): 233242.

Pillay, Gerald J. "The Relation between Church History and General History: Reflections on Adolf von Harnack's View." Studia historiae ecclesiasticae 20, no. 2 (1994): 156168.

Rollmann, Hans. "Adolf von Harnack and the 'History of Religions' as a University Discipline." In Religious Studies, pp. 85103. Atlanta, 1991.

White, L Michael. "Adolf Harnack and the 'Expansion' of Early Christianity: A Reappraisal of Social History." Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies 5, no. 2 (19851986): 97127.

David W. Lotz (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Harnack, Adolf von

views updated May 21 2018


Church historian and patrologist; b. Dorpat, Estonia, May 7, 1851; d. Heidelberg, June 10, 1930. Of a staunch Lutheran family, Harnack studied in Dorpat and Leipzig and achieved his doctorate in Church History at Leipzig with a dissertation (Habilitationsschrift ) on the sources of Gnosticism. During his professorship at Leipzig (187479) he produced 90 publications; entered into friendly relations with E. Schürer, W. Graf Baudissin, O. v. Gebhardt, and F. Loofs; and became acquainted with the liberal theology of A. ritschl in reaction to the Tübingen school of F. C. baur with its application of the Hegelian dialectic to historical and theological studies. Unsympathetic with metaphysics, he judged the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christianity as perverse, and accepted Ritschl's moralistic interpretation of the eschatological quality in Christ's annunciation (kerygma) of the kingdom of God. He taught at Giessen (187986) and Marburg (188688) and was called to a professorship at the University of Berlin despite the opposition of the Lutheran Church Senate, which felt that his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (3 v. Tübingen 188589; 4th ed. 1909) was a betrayal of early Christianity. In 1905 he became an influential member of the Berlin Academy and wrote his Geschichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin 1900) for the 200th anniversary of that institution, thereby gaining the friendship of the kaiser and court.

An excellent organizer as well as a meticulous scholar, Harnack participated in many projects for the furtherance of science and knowledge and served as president of the Evangelical Social Congress (190311). His primary writings are divided between historical and doctrinal theology. His friendship with Theodore Mommsen led to the formation of the Kirchenväterkommission devoted to the edition of the Greek Fathers of the first three centuries (the Berlin Corpus or Griechischen Christliche Schriftsteller ) whose foundation he laid in his edition of the Patrum Apostolicorum Opera (3 v. Leipzig 187577; 2d ed. 1920) with O. v. Gebhardt and T. Zahn, and in his Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur: I Überlieferung und Bestand (2 v. Leipzig 1893); II Die Chronologie (Leipzig 18971904; 2d ed. 1958). The last, together with O. Bardenhewer's similar work (though a dispute broke out over the title, Bardenhewer opting for Ancient Church writers) is a standard source for a critical approach to the Fathers. He likewise founded a series of publications known as the Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur (ed. by O. v. Gebhardt and A. v. Harnack, 15 v. Leipzig 188297; Neue Folge, 15 v. 18971906; Dritte Reihe, ed. by A. v. Harnack and C. Schmidt, 1907).

Harnack's Das Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig 1900) is a history of the development of Christianity, tracing its evolution from the Old Testament to the Gospels, the recession caused by doctrinal preoccupations introduced with Greek metaphysics, and finally its emancipation through Luther's rejection of dogma, and the modern return to the simplicity of the original Gospel teachings.

In his Marcion, Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott (Leipzig 1924) he demonstrates a mépris for the Old Testament, and stripping Marcion of his Gnostic leanings, describes his teaching as a kind of dualism not far removed from Luther's, but concentrating on an ethical approach to the God of goodness. J. wellhausen judged him devoid of true philological appreciation, and that would account for his distrust of comparative religion concepts. His desire to return to the simplicity of primitive Christianity made him undervalue the institutional Church, the Creed, dogma, Sacraments, miracles, and consecration rites; and he moved closer to R. Bultmann than barthianism in his final evaluation of early Christianity, adopting an almost traditional approach to the authenticity of the New Testament.

Out of his circle of students developed the influential periodical Christliche Welt, and with E. Schürer he founded and edited (18811930) the Theologische Literatur-Zeitung. As a scholar he resembled Erasmus rather than the German humanists, in the opinion of E. Peterson. As the most learned non-Catholic proponent of early Church history at the turn of the 19th century, he had an incalculable influence on historical scholarship; and although Catholic scholars such as P. batiffol opposed his conception of early Church institutions and doctrines, in many instances his judgments and discoveries have proven a support to Catholic positions.

Bibliography: j. de ghellinck, Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 26 (1930) 962991. j. de ghellinck, Patristique et moyenâge: Études d'histoire littéraire et doctrinale, v.1 (2d ed. Paris 1949), v.2, 3 (Brussels 194748) 3:2102. a. von zahn-harnack, Adolf v. Harnack (2d ed. Berlin 1951). w. vÖlker, Theologische Zeitschrift 7 (1951) 209227. y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme 5:516519. e. peterson, Theologische Traktate (Munich 1951). a. seitz, "Harnack als Zeuge für die Katholische Kirche," Die Schönere Zukunft 5 (1930) 958959, 962984. l. dixon, "Adolf von Harnack," Historians of the Christian Tradition (Nashville 1995) 389-409.

[f. x. murphy]

Adolf von Harnack

views updated Jun 27 2018

Adolf von Harnack

The German theologian and scholar Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) fashioned the historicopositivist approach to the theology and origin of Christianity, which characterized the study of religion in the first half of the 20th century.

Adolf von Harnack was born on May 7, 1851, in Dorpat, Estonia. His father, Theodosius Harnack, was professor of practical theology at Dorpat University. When Harnack had finished his university studies in 1874, he became an instructor in Church history and, 2 years later, professor extraordinarius at Leipzig. He was appointed full professor at Giessen in 1879.

Harnack's intellectual approach to Christianity started off within the orthodoxy of the Erlangen and Dorpat schools. He was soon drawn to the historicocritical approach of the Tübingen school, which emphasized the need of historical structures in order to understand the Christian message. From this, it was but one step to the view of Albrecht Ritschl, who held that an understanding of Christianity could be had only by relating it to the culture in which it originated and developed.

Harnack progressed beyond the Ritschlian position and proposed to separate dogma (ecclesiastical formulation of the Christian faith) from what he called the essence of Christianity. To do this, he proposed to avoid all abstract speculation and metaphysical deduction. Instead he set out to study the sources of knowledge about Christianity with a strictly scientific method of factual verification, historical cross-reference, and verification of documentary authenticity.

In 1882 he initiated with O. von Gebhardt the publication of a text series: Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur (Texts and Examinations on the History of Old Christian Literature). Harnack contributed 49 monographs to this series. In 1886 he became a professor at Marburg and in 1889 professor at the University of Berlin. Between 1886 and 1889 he produced his greatest work, Lehrbuch der Dogmen Geschichte (The History of Dogma), with his theory of Christian development.

Harnack's thesis was simple: Christianity of the first 1, 500 years resulted from the Greek spirit which the early Greek theologians of the Church infused into the originally Judaic message of Jesus. Furthermore, he maintained, in the 16th-century Reformation a first attempt was made to recover the essence from its 1, 500-year-old overlay of dogma. Harnack proposed that this work of the Reformation be completed by a strict historicocritical approach to Christianity. Harnack's view laid the foundation for the later Form School criticism and the demythologizing theology of the 20th century.

Harnack also composed a three-volume history of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. In 1902 he founded and became first president of the Evangelical-Social Congress. He was director of the royal library (1905-1921), and in 1914 he received a noble title. He continued writing and teaching and lecturing almost to his death on June 10, 1930, in Heidelberg.

In addition to the works mentioned above, some of Harnack's more important ones have been translated into English: What Is Christianity? (1901) and The Mission and Spread of Christianity in the First Three Hundred Years (1904-1905).

Further Reading

Some English-language sources on Harnack are in volume 2 of Kenneth S. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age (5 vols., 1958-1962); John Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (1963); and Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (1968). Also useful is James H. Nichols, History of Christianity, 1650-1950 (1956). □

Harnack, Adolf Von

views updated Jun 11 2018

Harnack, Adolf Von (1851–1930). Christian theologian and historian. He gained his doctorate from Leipzig in 1873, and after a short period (1886–9) as professor at Marburg, he moved to Berlin where he remained until his retirement in 1921. The move to Berlin was challenged by the Lutheran Church because of the doubts expressed by Harnack in his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (History of Dogma, 1894–9) about the authorship of various New Testament books, miracles, the resurrection, and Christ's institution of baptism. Influenced by Ritschl, he regarded hellenization as an intrusion into early Christianity, which had distorted the original, simpler gospel, whose content he summarized in Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity). Harnack was a particular target of his pupil K. Barth, for allowing liberal thought to control his understanding of early Christianity and of dogma.