Adolf Harnack and the Search for Missing Christianity

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Adolf von Harnack was a German (Lutheran) theologian of the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries who taught at the University of Berlin. His most popular and enduring work What is Christianity?is still required reading for a basic theological education today. In this book Harnack asserts that at the heart of Christianity was a simple message that was subsequently obscured, particularly by the philosophy, dogma, and metaphysics of the post-apostolic and Nicean periods. Harnack produced a wide ranging corpus of scholarship throughout his career, but the effort to answer the question in the title of his signature work remained the project closest to his heart. Along with his colleagues Harnack pioneered new methods of scholarship that changed the field of biblical studies forever, but he ultimately enlisted those methods in the search for the missing heart of Christianity

The Movement

Harnack was one of a select few theologians who could collectively be regarded as the fathers of Protestant liberalism, which began as a distinctively German movement and whose influence was primarily rooted in the development of critical biblical scholarship as well as for its association of the Gospel with social compassion. Harnack's academic career was a spectacular success even though he labored under a constant firestorm from the ecclesiastical authorities for his insistence on complete academic freedom in the study of the Christian scriptures. In spite of the church's resistance his ideas were ultimately spread from the pulpit as his many admiring students found their way into the professional ministry. Harnack's theology was especially influential in Europe, Britain, and North America. The rise of liberalism set the stage for the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, a theological drama that dominated American Christianity during the first half of the twentieth century. The hallmark of Protestant liberalism can be seen, in simplest terms, as the inversion of authority. Dating from the Reformation, authority for the Protestant faith was rooted in the concept of sola scriptura, in which the Christian canon of scripture was considered to be an epistemological given backed by a divine guarantee, thus assuring an unquestionable source of certainty for Christian faith and practice. While human reason was considered by the reformers to be part of the imago dei (the image of God within man), they nevertheless insisted that truth could only be understood when reason submitted to the authority of scripture. Harnack and his colleagues essentially reversed this equation and proceeded on the assumption that truth could only be understood when everything, including scripture, submitted to the authority of reason.

The Method

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Based on this understanding of the primacy of reason for Christian faith and theology, the German liberals introduced the historical-critical method to the field of biblical studies. Basically this academic approach to the Bible has two components: (1) the Bible, like any other document, is a product of history and therefore can only be properly studied and understood within its own historical context, and (2) the Bible must be subjected to the critical scrutiny of reason in the same way that we would treat any other object of examination. In summary we could say that where the church regarded the words of scripture as face-value truth, the liberals saw those same words as reflecting the historical limitations and cultural conditioning of their authors. The truth was something to be discovered beneath the words. This line of thinking obviously presented a formidable challenge to the popular and devotional use of the Bible in which it is read purely in the context of one's personal faith or community of faith.

One important example of the kind of work the historical-critical method pursued was the effort to establish the authorship and/or authenticity of the various books of the Bible. Genesis, for instance, was traditionally attributed to Moses but critical scholars have established that it is in fact a collection of sources redacted by several editors. This was quite disturbing to many conservatives who considered traditional assignments of authorship to be virtually part of the canon. German scholarship also led to an historically important field of study known as the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The underlying thesis for this movement was the idea that the Jesus who is presented to us in the New Testament is already so overlaid with mythology as to be unrecognizable and so the historical-critical method was employed, with mixed results, by a number of scholars in the effort to discover the "real" Jesus behind the myth. Harnack's search for the essence of Christianity can arguably be seen as a variation of the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The Meaning

In spite of sometimes being demonized by their ecclesiastical detractors, most of the German liberals were faithful men of the church who understood themselves to be working in the service of the Christian Gospel. For Harnack, the historical-critical method was more than an end in itself. The rigorous application of reason was essentially a way of serving truth and restoring authentic Christianity, and the historical-critical method was the best tool for that purpose. Harnack spoke of the Christian religion in terms of "the kernel and the husk¹," a metaphor for the missing heart of Christianity in which the "kernel" had come to be buried beneath the "husk" of church tradition as well as obscured by the Greek philosophy that became the language of doctrine. For Harnack, the spiritual path taught by Jesus, a carpenter surrounded by fishermen, was very simple, practical, and altogether devoid of metaphysics and the supernatural. It was a simple life of loving God, loving one's neighbor, and discovering the Kingdom of God within. In What is Christianity? Harnack spells out what he believes to be the common factor underlying the religious impulse in general, and why the Christian Gospel uniquely satisfies that impulse in the hearts and minds of humanity. He reveals that the human heart, more than anything else, longs for the presence of the eternal within time, and that the Gospel validates its own truth by satisfying this longing for all that come to Jesus Christ and follow his simple teachings on the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite worth of the soul.

Other titles by Harnack

  1. History of Dogma
  2. Essays on the Social Gospel
  3. Thoughts on the Present Position of Protestantism
  4. New Testament Studies Multi-volume
  5. Monasticism,, Its Ideals and History
  6. The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries
  7. Outlines of the History of Dogma

See also

  1. Religion and Essence and Manifestation by Gerardus Leeuw
  2. Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jean Jacques Waardenburg esp. Part 3, The Phenomenology of Religion Reconsidered