- Harnack, Adolf von
- ( 1851-19 30 )liberal German theologian and New Testament scholarAdolph von Harnack, the leading German theologian and church historian of his time, was a powerful proponent of using historical methods to clarify the Christian message. Harnack was born in 1851. His father taught homiletics and church history, and Harnack developed an early interest in the field. At the University of Dorpat, he first learned to pursue theology with historical insight. He also became fascinated with Gnosticism and the career of the heretic Marcion. Von Harnack accepted the historical methodology and the liberal theology of Ferdinand C. Baur (1792-1860) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89).In 1874, Harnack received his Ph.D. and joined the faculty at the University of Leipzig. He began work on a multivolume History of Dogma. Its publication made Harnack the focus of theological debate in German-speaking lands. Some accused Harnack of using the New Testament as a historical source, rather than as a norm for shaping faith. Harnack's personal charisma, however, kept him a popular lecturer.In 1888, Harnack moved to the University of Berlin, where in 1901 he wrote What Is Christianity? The book tried to separate the teachings of Jesus from the church's teachings about Jesus. Harnack concluded that Christian thought had been reshaped by Greek philosophy into something quite alien to Jesus and his simple message. After stripping away the layers of theology, he believed the core of what Jesus taught was: 1) the coming Kingdom of God; 2) God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul; and 3) the commandment to love, which is to be lived out in a social context.Harnack's conclusions were startling for his time and alienated many conservative Lutherans. He created more opponents when in 1892 he proposed removing the Apostles' Creed from public worship, and offered a briefer creed that reflected his historical conclusions.In addition to his writing and lecturing, Har-nack edited the Theologische Literaturzeitung for 29 years, served as rector of the university, was director of the Royal Library, and was the first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Foundation. He died in Berlin in 1930.Most of Harnack's writings were translated into English, including the History of Dogma (1896-99); The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1962); Outlines of the History of Dogma (1957); Thoughts on the Present Position of Protestantism (1899); and preeminently, What is Christianity? (1957). Though both theology and church history have moved beyond Harnack, he is remembered as a significant force in changing the discipline of church history by bringing the life of Jesus and the early church into the realm of critical historical investigation.Further reading:■ G. Wayne Glick, A Study of Adolf von Harnack as Historian and Theologian: The Reality of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1967)■ Adolf von Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1908); , History of Dogma, 7 vols. (Peter Smith, 1976)■ ----, What Is Christianity? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)■ Martin Rumscheidt, Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at Its Height (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1989).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.