Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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A 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. [1]

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 really happened".

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 has created,

... his portrait of the personality of Jesus is remarkably ubermenschlich [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. [2]

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. [2]

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 himself. 

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. [3]

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. [4]

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.
[1] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967
[2] See Adolf Harnack
[3] What Is Christianity, 1900, Fortress Press
[4] Bible Reading in the Early Church, Williams & Norgate, 1912

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