von Harnack (1851-1910)
The son of a professor pastoral theology, Harnack was probably the most
outstanding patristic scholar of his generation. He was also extremely
influential in terms of his impact on Christian thought in the 20th century, his
views penetrating deep into Protestant congregations in Germany and elsewhere.
He was born in Estonia, where his father was a university professor. Harnack
studied and held chairs at various universities, before settling in 1888 at
Berlin University, where he stayed until retirement in 1924. During those years
he came to be held in great esteem throughout Germany.
Hundreds of students attended his lectures at the height of his career,
particularly the Berlin lectures of 1899-1900, later published as What is
Christianity? These proved to be Harnack�s most popularly influential work,
rapidly going through multiple editions in numerous languages.
To many he has come to be regarded as a pioneer of so-called liberal
theology. John Macquarrie writes of him that
... by the time he retired he had trained a whole generation of students in
the ways of liberal theology and in what he believed to be the unprejudiced
pursuit of theological truth. 
His History of Dogma (1886-89) traced Christian doctrine from early
times to the Reformation. He concluded that much if not most theology during
those times had been distorted by intrusions of non-Christian thought from
Hellenistic sources. Although Harnack thought that the Reformation had been able
to get rid of much non-Christian teaching, there still remained some
contaminated material which was unacceptable to the modern mind.
Harnack was regarded in his time as a foremost authority on early Christian
sources and thought. He ransacked the early Gnostic writings, Christian
apologists and particularly the works of Origen (185-254) to prove his
assertions. For example, the idea of God as absolute Being, beyond personality
and suffering, he thought to have been derived in part from Greek philosophy
during the early centuries when Christian teachers were searching for ways of
expressing their understanding of Jesus.
Similarly, the doctrine of the incarnation was, thought Harnack, a Greek
intrusion into pure Christian teaching and its essentially Hebrew roots. The
latter stresses, particularly in the writings of Paul, the personal impact of
Jesus. Greek thought, in contrast, is metaphysical. That is, in its Christian
form it degenerates (which is the characterisation given it by Harnack) into
abstract speculation about the nature of Jesus and God.
As an historian, Harnack thought that there was in the gospels a kernel of
historical truth which could be recovered with careful analysis. Anything more
than this kernel should be removed from Christian teaching - including any such
material in the gospels themselves. The historical Jesus should be the norm for
any Christian teaching, said Harnack. Building metaphysical castles from
non-historical data is not valid.
It's important to note that he was writing in this vein at a time when the
Roman Catholic Church was trying to regress to patristic authority and Thomist
philosophy in an attempt to stem the tide of what it regarded as secular
thought. One implication of Harnack's approach was that patristic authority is
as open to criticism and therefore to revision as any other. But perhaps more
fundamental was his marrying of the analytical discipline we call history to the
creation of a theological perspective. This marriage has proved the primal
source of a multitude of theologians who are now reluctant to draw conclusions
without first proposing an historical basis for them. This contrasts with the
Church over the millennia. As Harnack never tired of pointing out, it built a
vast edifice of doctrine upon patristic foundations rather than upon "what
An important part of the basic, primitive faith was, in his view, the truth
that Jesus had sought to ignite and fan a personal faith in God as Father. Thus
it was the individual rather than society as a whole that Jesus was trying to
reach. Later Christian thought had made the mistake of encrusting the early,
pure teaching of Jesus with philosophical speculation. Jesus' concern with the
salvation of humanity predates the Church's concern with a philosophy of Jesus,
and is consequently much more important.
His liberal theological views, especially with respect to the validity of the
historical Christian creeds, caused him some early career difficulties. His
application for a post at Berlin University was opposed by the Evangelical
Church of Prussia. Harnack was rescued by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who much admired
his administrative abilities and scholarly depth. Wilhelm had become emperor in
1888, the same year of Harnack�s eventual appointment at Berlin.
One author observes that although Harnack's Jesus derives from the historical
person, and not from the inflated repository of speculative doctrine the Church
... his portrait of the personality of Jesus is remarkably
[Superman-like] ... One wonders how much Harnack shaped the reception of
Nietzsche in 1930s Germany. His account in What is Christianity? of why
Jesus is the "founder" of Christianity and not [merely] a Jewish reformer
seems almost a rationale for German Christian participation in the Holocaust.
Few commentators remark upon this strand in Harnack's thought. The truth is
that he perceived himself as a patriot. He supported the prevailing notion that
Germany was a superior culture, proposing that its greatness was founded upon
its warlike nature and its scholarship. He was affirmed in his views by being
made Rector of Berlin University for a period, Director of the Royal Library and
the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Foundation. Further formal State
recognition came when he was awarded the hereditary title "Von" at the outbreak
of the First European War in 1914.
Balancing and perhaps far outweighing this aspect, was his commitment to
... the freedom of thought, of pursuing truth on every path the freedom from
interference by those who have been given authority in human institutions.
Not even the most sacrosanct doctrines were immune to the virus (as some saw
it) of his liberal thought and methods. For example, the concept of Jesus as
"son of God" was for Harnack "�nothing more than the knowledge of God". Jesus
was able to attain a depth of intimate contact with and knowledge of God which
has never been matched in history - and only in that sense was he God's son. In
Harnack's words, "The gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do only with the
Father and not with the Son."
Harnack treats Jesus� unique status as a self-conscious awareness on Jesus�
part. Because Harnack breaks with traditional teaching on this point he is worth
quoting at length. Interestingly, his thesis has become stock-in-trade for many
liberal theologians today:
The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is,
therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the
Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name "Son" means nothing
but the knowledge of God.
Here, however, two observations are to be made: Jesus is convinced that he
knows God in a way in which no one ever knew him before, and he knows that
it is his calling to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and
by deed - and with it the knowledge that all men are God�s children. In this
consciousness he knows himself to be the Son called and instituted of God,
to be the Son of God, and hence he can say: "My God and my
Father". Into this title he puts something which belongs to no one but
How he came to this consciousness of the unique character of his relation to
God as a son; how he came to the consciousness of his power, and to the
consciousness of the obligation and the mission which the power carries with
it, is his secret. No psychology will ever fathom it. 
It was those who followed Jesus who made his teachings into a religion of
"strong feeling" or of the "heart". In the hands of theologians it then
developed into a religion of custom, form and law. Harnack wrote: "It is a case
not of distortion but of total perversion". Thus it was the Protestant wing of
Christianity whose duty it was to halt misguided elaboration and strive to
regain the primitive gospel. The Reformation
... shattered authoritative doctrine and the allegorical method, and brought
Scripture again into the foreground ... but with the Scripture as the
fundamental document of primitive Christian life men found themselves
caught in the dead letter of its thousand pages. 
Harnack's view evoked strong opposition from contemporary theologians whose
more conservative views led them to oppose his academic advancement. Perhaps in
reaction to this opposition, he entered into a long and bitter battle over the
Apostles Creed, eventually stressing that Christian morality supersedes any
statements requiring orderly assent.
He held that human brotherhood was,
however, more important than doctrines, thus echoing the stresses he no
doubt endured from his fellow academics. But Jesus was not, in his view, a
social reformer - an important reservation at the time, when revolution was
infecting the European air. Harnack affirmed that Jesus would have been on
the side of the poor and dispossessed, but separated God and Caesar into
distinct spheres. Revolutionaries should expect no help from the Gospel.
In summary, it can be said that Harnack's contribution to Christian thought
was less through innovation and more through influence. His basic ideas were
not new. But such was his energy and dedication that few failed to be
affected by his well-expressed views.
 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967
 What Is Christianity, 1900, Fortress Press
 Bible Reading in the Early Church, Williams & Norgate, 1912