Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

Along with Troeltsch (1865-1923), Adolf von Harnack was the foremost German proponent of a liberal theological program, and one of the most provocative and prolific theologians of his time. His influential studies of early Christianity and Christian dogma called for a historical-critical method, independent of meta-historical sources of authority, to extract the ‘timeless kernel’ of essential Christianity from the ‘husk’ of Church history. He distinctively promoted the absolute freedom of inquiry in theological studies and spoke out against speculative theology.

1. Background


Adolf (Karl Gustav) Harnack was born on May 7, 1851 in Dorpat, Livonia (Estonia). Adolf and his younger twin brother, Axel, were the second and third of five children born to Theodosius Andreas Harnack and Anna Carolina Maria Ewers. Despite their emigration to Estonia, the Harnack family clung tightly to their Prussian heritage and Lutheran faith, and raised their family according to traditional Prussian values. (Rumscheidt, 10). After his mother’s death in 1857, Adolf became especially connected to his father, a teacher of homiletics and church history at the Lutheran University in Dorpat. The elder Harnack made his primary contribution to academia in 1862 with a work on the theology of Luther, which was significant enough to reprint in 1926. His father’s pious loyalty to Luther’s ideas combined with his scholarly approach to the study of religion to make a decisive impact on Adolf Harnack’s understanding of theology as vocation (Glick 1967, 23). The young Adolf dedicated himself to the study of church history, and already expressed at an early age the importance of studying the basic languages and original sources (Bammel, 54).  When he was seventeen, Harnack wrote to his friend that he wanted to study theology, not in order to be given the ready-made statements of faith, but in order to understand every statement of faith before making them his own (Rumschaidt 1989, 11).  Subsequently, in 1869 he entered the University of Dorpat to study theology.


During his time at the University of Dorpat, his teacher, Moritz von Engelhardt, who introduced him to the necessity and rigors of textual criticism and the study of original sources, significantly influenced Harnack. In 1872, he went to study at the University of Leipzig, and Professor Engelhardt’s insistence on the study of original sources and use of textual criticism was clearly reflected in Harnack’s university dissertation on Gnosticism. Two elements that would mark Harnack’s mature work were present in this work. The first element was the application of historical method in theological study, which prepared him for the reception of F. C. Baur’s (1792-1860) and Albrecht Ritschl’s (1822-1889) historical approaches to theology. The second element was Harnack’s fascination with Marcion, which he would fully articulate only in 1920 with the work entitled Marcion, Gospel of the Alien God.

Early Career

Harnack received both his Ph.D. and first professorial post (Privatdozent) from the University of Leipzig in 1874. In 1879 he transferred to the University of Giessen to take the position of professor ordinarius of church history. Soon after arriving at Giessen, he met and married a Roman Catholic named Amalie Thiersch. During his time at Giessen, he began work on his monumental document of liberal Christian historiography, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (The History of Dogma). The Dogmengeschichte (3rd ed. in three volumes, 1894–1898; English translation in seven volumes, 1894–1899) traced the origin and development of Christian dogma. He equated dogma with the authoritative system of Christian doctrine that had been formed by the 4th century, and its development up to the Protestant Reformation. He proposed that the majority of Christian dogma in its conception and development is a product of the Hellenistic Greek milieu in which it developed.  The process of overcoming dogma by a recovery of the gospel’s sine qua non began with the Reformation can only be completed through the application of historical-critical methodology. Although he was already known in theological circles as the editor of the Theologische Literaturzeitung and initiator of a series on the Church Fathers, the publishing of the History of Dogma in 1885 placed Harnack at the center of the current theological discussions.

Berlin Period

These discussions became heated with the second volume of the History of Dogma, when Harnack was criticized for using the New Testament and the history of Christianity as scientific data rather than normative for Christian faith. (Rumscheidt 1989, 14). Fully affirming the principles of Ritschl’s historical criticism, Harnack questioned traditional belief in the authorship of the Gospel of John and Jesus’ institution of baptism. This approach caused a break that continued during his short, two-year period at Marburg University (1886-1888) between Harnack and the Lutheran confessionalism he had received from his father. As with many theologians, Harnack discovered that the same theological insights and innovations responsible for his scholarly success thrust him in the middle of controversy.  His liberal theological views, especially with respect to the validity of the historical Christian creeds, caused the Supreme council of the Evangelical Church of Prussia to vigorously oppose his appointment to a position at Berlin. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, however, acting on the advice of the newly appointed emperor, Wilhelm II, overruled the opposition and ensured Harnack’s place at Berlin.

Although he maintained academic appointments in theology and church history, Harnack was denied ecclesial posts. Nevertheless, he exercised broad influences in Protestant churches; especially through the enthusiastic student following he won with his academic prowess and pedagogical skills. When Harnack began to teach at the University of Berlin, early morning lectures were visited by over four hundred students, of whom many rose to positions of ecclesiastical leadership. In 1892 Harnack’s support for his students’ desire to replace the Apostle’s Creed in public worship with a shorter confession more in accord with the results of historical critical scholarship initiated rancorous conflict.  (Harnack 1989c, 302-3). Still, with the Berlin university-wide lectures of 1899-1900 (published in 1900 as Das Wesen des Christentums or What is Christianity?), Harnack’s popular fame reached its peak. The lectures proved to be his most widely read work, rapidly going through multiple editions in numerous languages.

A staunch supporter of Prussia, Harnack channeled his patriotism into a wide range of administrative and cultural responsibilities. He was the editor of the Theologische Literaturzeitung for 29 years, the Rector of the University of Berlin, Director of the Royal Library, and the first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Foundation. Although deeply involved in the events of his time, Harnack never joined any political party. He twice refused the invitation to teach at Harvard, and also rejected an ambassadorship to the United States.

Harnack took responsibility for the development of freedom of thought to pursue truth without interference from human authorities or organizations, and it was precisely his insistence on the freedom of scholarship that marked him as one of the strongest advocates of liberal theology (Rumscheidt, 33). Harnack strongly believed that the only way to nurture Christian faith was to remain in the condition of permanent uncertainty. No student of theology, he believed, should be spared a profound crisis. In fact, he alleged that the worst condition is not to entertain doubts about theology or authority but to become mired in bland acceptance or indifference (Lohse, 19).

Harnack died in Berlin, in 1930. By this time his voluminous writings (books, pamphlets, articles, essays, etc.) had reached 1,658 items (Glick, 14). He was particularly prolific between 1900 and 1914, when he published 455 books, reviews, and lectures. His attempt to show how the gospel of Jesus, which in his view had nothing in common with authoritarian ecclesiastical statutes and doctrines, became embodied in the doctrines of the church was a common theme in many of his works. He retained his conviction that if the gospel is to exercise power in the modern world it must be freed from these unessential accouterments.

2. Works (Selected List)

Christianity and History (1896); Outlines of the History of Dogma (1898); History of Dogma (1896-9); Thoughts on the Present Position of Protestantism (1899); What is Christianity? (1901); The Apostles’ Creed (1901); Monasticism: Its Ideals and History and the Confessions of St. Augustine (1901); The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1904-5); The Constitution and Law of the Essays on the Social Gospel (with Wilhelm Herrmann) (1907); The Acts of Apostles (1909); Church in the First Two Centuries (1910); Bible Reading in the Early Church (1912); New Testament Studies (1908-25).

3. Themes

Historical Method and Theology

The centrality of historical-critical methodology in Harnack’s theology had three primary sources: the general tradition of Protestantism and its historical quest for the original meaning of the Scripture; Baur’s critical investigation of the history of Church and his suggestion that Christianity is an inherently historical phenomenon; and Ritschl’s "new theology" that rejected the a priori argumentation in historical analysis. Beginning with the premise that historical analysis attempts to exclude subjectivity, Harnack argued that history is the final level of scientific knowledge. He wrote that we first determine, analyze and order things, then understand their interrelationships, and then investigate life. Historical analysis is the fourth and final level, enabling human consciousness to truly grasp the spirit of a particular event (Harnack 1989d, 44-46). Although every historian faces a fundamental problem in the relation between the facts and their interpretation, historical research remains as the only device capable of understanding the past and constructing the present (Glick 1967, 108).

In the compilation of his lectures entitled What is Christianity? and in The History of Dogma, Harnack employed his historical method in order to uncover the immutable nature of Christian faith. Harnack further asserted that sound knowledge of the past is necessary for a personal appropriation of the message of the Gospel. For Harnack, historical knowledge was demanded from every Christian, not only the historian.

During the last years of his life, Harnack was very concerned about the decline of the theologians’ respect for historical research (Rumscheidt 1989, 30). Though their relationship remained affectionate, Harnack was especially disturbed by his theological encounter with Karl Barth, his former student. In their correspondence, the younger theologian disparaged Harnack’s scientific theology and argued that the main task of theology was the reception and transmission of the Word of the Christ (Harnack 1989b, 88). Although the influence of Harnack’s concept of theology declined with the rise of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, his insistence on the historical approach to study of religion is often accepted today.

The Essence of Christianity

As described above, Adolf Harnack believed that the Hellenistic philosophical context in which it developed had the original essence of Christianity embodied in the teachings of Jesus. He championed the use of critical historical investigation in order to recover the lost and corrupted “kernel” of Christianity from the “husk” of dogma in which it had been passed on.

Greatly influenced by Ritschl, Harnack agreed with his ethical understanding of the Christian gospel. The gospel preached by Jesus had been obscured by the progressive hellenization of the Christian movement. Hellenization channeled Christian development into speculative ventures aimed at defining group boundaries, that is, into dogmatic stasis. Dogma, for Harnack, refers paradigmatically to the Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. The gospel was not lost entirely, nor was dogma purely speculative, but the pernicious effect of this development was the dependence of Christian faith upon a metaphysics, of the historical Christ upon an “imagined Christ” (Ibid., 87).

Rigorous historical criticism at last provided the means to winnow the timeless nucleus of Christianity from its various time bound trappings. Harnack proposed that the essence of Christianity, its element of permanent validity, addresses an essentially unchanging core of human nature that yearns for that “presence of the eternal in time” which would vindicate the human spirit’s sense of its own value over against an indifferent natural order. The gospel’s simple satisfaction of this yearning is its self-authentication. It presents itself through the very experience of the heart’s trusting submission to a holy, loving God, a submission that renews the desire for an ethical life enamored with the good, energized by grace, and at the service of the neighbor. Jesus’ teaching is encompassed in three notions: the fatherhood of God, the infinite worth of the human soul, and the ethical ideal of the kingdom of God within believers. The gospel does not depend upon metaphysical foundations, dogmatic formulae, or ritual and institutional guarantees. It thus perfectly answers the plight of modern men and women wearied as they are with theological and metaphysical hocus-pocus. Christianity in essence is a practical affair. Although the right ordering of life implies certain beliefs concerning God, humanity, and the world, which deserve articulation, the development of dogma in the church is a regrettable hypertrophy, too-often pursued violently and vindictively. (Cf. Harnack 1986, 124-25.)

Thus, the encounter of Harnack-theologian and Harnack-historian in his lectures on the nature of Christianity resulted in the simultaneous use of the historical concept of change and theological categories of essence. Therefore, the awareness that Jesus and his disciples were situated in their times (Harnack 1986, 12), did not prevent Harnack from concluding that Jesus directed the message of the Gospel to an eternal human being who, despite the external situation, remains fundamentally unchanged (Ibid., 17). Furthermore, Harnack evaluated all the historical expressions of Christianity with regard to the Gospel. He declared that “the Christian religion is something simple and sublime; it means one thing and one thing only: Eternal life in the midst of time, by the strength and under the eyes of God” (Ibid., 8). Put differently, Harnack understood the message of the Gospel to be directed to the inner man. He recognized the social content of the Gospel and its proclamation of the higher righteousness. However, he saw the Gospel as being bound up with the idea of the infinite value of human soul. Harnack thus rejected the idea that the Gospel has an inherently socialist character, or that it offers a political and social agenda. Christian faith is the religion of liberty, Harnack proclaimed, and the Gospel is not a legal code. The Gospel “has only one aim – the finding of the living God, the finding of Him by every individual as his God” (Harnack 1986, 191).


Harnack rejected the issues of traditional Christology and historically analyzed Jesus’ relation to the Gospel and God the Father. On the one hand, Jesus portrayed the Lord of Heaven as his Father and subjected himself to his Father’s will. On the other hand, Jesus was the only one who knew the Father, a knowledge proving his Divine Sonship (Ibid., 128). Harnack treated Jesus’ unique status as Son of God as a matter of inscrutable self-consciousness on Jesus’ part:

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 of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God…However, 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, and into this invocation he puts something which belongs to no one but himself (Ibid., 128.).

Harnack’s historical criticism makes it clear that the gospel of Jesus concerned God alone; equally his Father and Father of everyone. Only the historical Jesus is normative for any true Christology, and Jesus’ message is much simpler than that of the Christological formulations. “The Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with the Father only and not with the Son” (Ibid., 144). Jesus is personal embodiment of the Gospel, and fulfilled his Christological role in so far as he leads people to God the Father.

4. Outline of Major Works

History of Dogma

In his major work, the History of Dogma, Harnack historically approached the origins and developments of Christian dogma in order to ground the knowledge necessary for the further assessment and development of Christianity. He began by defining dogma as the objective content of faith affirmed by the religious authorities, determining the boundaries of the Christian community. Traditionally, the Christian Church viewed dogma as the revealed truths of the Gospel. However, the historical study of the Gospel shows that these formulations did not exist the earliest Christianity but developed later through theological debates concerning Christological and Trinitarian issues. Although dogma had its origin in the Gospel, as it developed the simple message of Christian faith became intertwined with the objectified knowledge of Hellenistic. In other words, Harnack saw the development of Christian dogma as the intellectualization and Hellenization of the gospel.

Although the Protestant Reformation recognized this historical situation to some extent, Harnack argued that it stopped short and did not finalize its critical relationship toward the dogmatic contents of Christianity. The 16th century reformers revived the gospel’s independence from moralism, ritualism, hierarchizing, and philosophical speculation, yet they themselves continued to adhere to the ancient dogmas and to a dogmatic mode of expression. Thus, the Reformation was an unfinished program that confused the essentials and non-essentials of the faith. Harnack urged a “critical reduction of dogma,” that in the spirit of reform retrieves Christianity from the misadventures of the historical church.

This critical retrieval of the essence of Christianity resulted in his conception of the gospel and Christology summarized above.

What is Christianity?

In What is Christianity? Harnack applied his historical-critical method in order to explicate the true nature and definition of Christianity. He began by articulating his conviction that Christianity is not a community effort or a social philosophy concerned with civilization and human progress. “No! the Christian religion is something simple and sublime; it means one thing and one thing only: eternal life in the midst of time, by the strength and under the eyes of God.” Christianity can only be defined in terms of “Jesus Christ and his Gospel” (Harnack 1986, 10). Harnack also believed that one must take into account what Jesus’ gospel became in the Apostolic Church, and indeed throughout the subsequent history of Christianity (Ibid., 10-12). Harnack had little regard for the Gospel of John or the Johanine community, but viewed the Synoptic Gospels as essentially faithful records of the first century Palestinian tradition about Jesus.

Before the Church took up the role of teaching authority, the Christian religion “had a founder who himself was what he taught” (Ibid., 12). Jesus was a real human being who possessed power. However, Harnack did not define this power in terms of the ability to work miracles. Though miracles in the traditional sense do not occur, nevertheless, “the marvelous and the inexplicable” are clearly present. Miracles after all do not matter, for the “question on which everything turns is whether we are hopelessly yoked to an inexorable necessity, or whether a God exists who rules and governs, and whose power to compel nature we can move by prayer and make a part of our experience”(Ibid., 32). The New Testament portrays two main aspects of the gospel: (1) the preaching of Jesus, and (2) the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ who died and rose again for the sake of sin, giving the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life. (Ibid., 65) He finds three circles of thought in the Jesus’ preaching: (1) the Kingdom of God and its coming; (2) God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul; and (3) the commandment to love. “That Jesus’ message is so great and so powerful,” Harnack states, “lies in the fact that it is so simple and on the other hand so rich…but more than that—he himself stands behind everything that he said” (Ibid., 55).

According to the report of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus believed the Kingdom to be an order expected in the near future along with his contemporaries, but there was another strand of Jesus’ teaching that portrayed the Kingdom as a present and inward reign of God. Harnack argued that the second strain is the most original and essential aspect of Jesus’  instruction. Jesus teaches the absolute necessity of good living, but he severs the tie between ethics and external forms of worship. Instead, he centers attention on the disposition and intention lying behind moral action, distilling ethics down to humility and love.

Next, Harnack discussed the way in which Jesus applied this ethic to real life problems (Ibid., 84-163). Self-denial and self-renunciation are essential, but the gospel is not a message of ascetic and rejection of the world. Today, Jesus would side with those trying to help the poor, and his gospel is a social message (Ibid., 110). However, it is not a social program for the suppression of poverty and distress. “Jesus was no social reformer or a political revolutionary. We ought to work to better social conditions, “but do not let us expect the Gospel to afford us any direct help” (Ibid., 125)

Harnack went on to discuss the relationship between Jesus, the “Son of God,” and God the Father. Jesus thought of himself as the anticipated Messiah (Ibid., 141), but this concept had only a temporary value for the church. The mission of this title was unfulfilled, and Jesus “left it far behind” (Ibid., 152). Though he did affirm that Jesus “is the way to the Father… is the judge as well” and that “here the divine appeared in as pure a form as it can appear on earth,” he stated emphatically that “the Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with the Father only and not with the Son” (Ibid., 154). Thus Harnack found it erroneous to put a Christological creed before the gospel. The title “Son of God” does not indicate divine nature; it only indicates that Jesus as man knew God as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God (Ibid., 138).

In sum, Harnack was convinced that Christian dogma (i.e., the doctrine of the trinity, the two natures of Christ, the infallibility of the church and of the papacy, and subsequent doctrinal development) was the product of temporal historical decisions and situations. The gospel cannot and must not become identified with the philosophical intellectualism and with the juristic- legalistic systems that are the inevitable preconditions and products of the dogma. Indeed the gospel is not dependent upon authoritative theological doctrines and an infallible church, nor is it conceivable that any specific kind of doctrine and institution was implied in its nature from the beginning.

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Harnack’s theory of the development of doctrine and the church may be illuminatingly contrasted with the theories of John Henry Newman and Ernst Troeltsch. For Newman, Christian doctrine has arisen as the mysterious, inexhaustible idea of Christianity, in which all was given at the apostolic reception of Christ, gloriously unfolds through the changes of history. The essence itself is ultimately ineffable, but its integrity and efficacy are never impugned. While Harnack believed that the inevitable development of the church was only excusable in light of reformation, Newman viewed doctrinal development in a more faithful relation to the essence because the authority of the church—ultimately in papal infallibility—served as a control. With Troeltsch, development is understood through rigorous historicism: even the norms for identifying Christianity are changing—not as quickly as Christianity itself, admittedly, but the essence of Christianity is a developing, wandering thing.

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Bammel, Ernst. 1968. The Life of Adolf von Harnack. New York: Scribner’s Sons.

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1986. What is Christianity? Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Glick, Garland Wayne. 1967. The Reality of Christianity: A Study of Adolf von Harnack as Historian and Theologian. New York: Harper and Row.

Harnack, Adolf von. Essays on the Social Gospel. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907.

_____. Das Wesen des Christentums. Tbingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1950; Harper & Brothers, 1957.

_____. History of Dogma. Trans. by Neil Buchanan. New York: Dover Publications, 1961.

_____. What is Christianity? Translated by Thomas Bailey Sanders. Philadelphia: Fortress Press., 1986.

_____. "What has History to Offer as Certain Knowledge Concerning the Meaning of the World Events?" in Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height. Edited by Martin Rumscheidt. London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1989a.

_____. 1989b. “Revelation and Theology: the Barth-Harnack Correspondence” in Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height. Edited by Martin Rumscheidt. London: Collins Liturgical Publications.

_____. 1989c. “The Apostles’ Creed: An Historical Account with an Introduction and Postscript” in Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height. Edited by Martin Rumscheidt. London: Collins Liturgical Publications.

_____. 1989d. “Stages of Scientific Knowledge” in Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height. Edited by Martin Rumscheidt. London: Collins Liturgical Publications.

_____. 1989e. “Introduction: Harnack’s Liberalism in Theology: A Struggle for the Freedom of Theology” in Adolf Von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height. Edited by Martin Rumscheidt. London: Collins Liturgical Publications.

Lohse, Bernhard. 1985. A Short History of Christian Doctrine. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Loisy, Alfred. 1976. The Gospel and the Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Lotz, David W. 1987. “Adolf von Harnack” Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 6. Edited by Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 198-199.

Macquarrie, John. 1967. “Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3. Edited by Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. and The Free Press., 414-415.

Pauck, Wilhelm. 1968. Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratte, John. 1967. Three Modernists: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, William L. Sullivan. New York: Sheed and Ward.

Rumscheidt, Martin (ed.) 1988. Adolf von Harnack: Liberal Theology at Its Height. London: Collins.

Stuhlmacher, Peter. 1977. Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Zahn-Harnack, Agnes von. 1951. Adolf Harnack. 2nd Edition. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Company.

7. Internet Resources

Harnack at ReligionFacts; a concise biographical summary.

A historical timeline of Harnack’s life

Harnack at Wikipedia

Harnack at Bautz; an excellent German language encyclopedia entry.

Harnack Recording (A RealAudio recording in German).

Harnack at the Irish Theology Site (An Irish site with several Harnack links).

8. Related Topics



Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material from students.


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