Harnack – What is Christianity? (Part 2)


My task is to cover the second part of Harnack’s What is Christianity? I really appreciated Part I and found his interpretation of scriptures to be interesting. I also enjoyed his discussion about the social nature of the gospel. His position is that Christians must be in solidarity with the poor to be true followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, despite his individualistic emphasis on the gospel being about what happens between God and the soul.

Four observations:

1) Pauline ambivalence and Christological anxiety – I expected Harnack to deride Paul as someone who had perverted the gospel and transformed a living, praxis-based faith into a doctrinal faith, but his stance is more nuanced. On the one hand he praises Paul because he ultimately liberated Christianity from the shackles of legalistic Judaism. On the other hand, according to Harnack “it is a perverse proceeding to make Christology the fundamental substance of the Gospel is shown by Christ’s teaching, which is everywhere directed to the all-important point, and summarily confronts every man with his God” (198). As Harnack had said earlier, the Gospel is about the Father not the Son (154). This is a fairly standard liberal trope that pits the historical Jesus vs. the Christ of faith. I don’t know how Harnack can maintain this position, since Christianity has always been eminently concerned about the Son. In fact the very identity of the Son (Christology) is what gives rise to the consideration about the nature of the Godhead (Trinity). Although Harnack would consider this doctrinal emphasis an aberrant development in the history of Christianity, he has to avoid so much of history to argue for his sublime, simplistic individual religion that takes place between the soul and God. In fact, as much as Harnack wants to argue for some time in the past when Christianity was not ‘perverted’ with a focus on Christ, there never was a time when Christianity was not absolutely centered on the Son. I’m not simply attacking Harnack’s denial of Son’s unique identity with the Father, but the fact that he seems to think Christianity is about the Father (although to be fair many traditions implicitly act as if only the Father is really God). One could potentially deny Jesus’ divinity and still recognize that Christianity is primarily about the person and work of Christ. Instead, Harnack (much like Schleiermacher) seems intent on defending a strong monotheistic reading of the tradition. However, Harnack, unlike Schleiermacher who recognizes that the redemption won by Christ is central, ends up elevating a simple relationship with the Father to be THE essence of Christianity. I have sympathy with Barth’s rejection to Harnack by rightly shifting dogmatics back to the Trinity, which is ultimately grounded in a Christological re-reading of doctrine.

2) Mistrust of dogma – Harnack scapegoats Greek philosophy for being responsible for the corruption of the simple gospel Jesus preached into a complex doctrinal system. Primarily, Harnack takes aim at what he dubs the “intellectualism” of Greek philosophy that threatens to diminish, if not completely annihilate, the zealousness of primitive Christianity.

3) Prejudice against the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church – Harnack is especially critical of “Greek Catholicism”. He goes so far to claim that for over 99% of these believers the Christians religion means nothing more than adherence to “ceremonious ritual”. Harnack goes so far to claim that these Greek Catholics are like the Jews and that “[i]t was to destroy this sort of religion that Jesus Christ suffered himself to be nailed to the cross, and now we find it re-established under his name authority!” (255). He also suggests that the Greek Catholicism is, in actuality, simply Greek religion dressed up in Christian drag. His next victim in this declension narrative is Roman Catholicism. Similar to the way he sees Orthodoxy as being a continuation of Greek religion, Harnack believes Roman Catholicism is nothing more than a continuation of the old Roman Empire, except the Pope has replaced Caesar. He is especially distrustful of Roman Catholicism because it emphasizes the importance of liturgy and sacrament as opposed to the soul’s personal (unmediated) relationship with God.

4) Lutheran leanings – Unsurprisingly, Harnack is a big fan of Lutheranism (I’m sure Luther’s German heritage has nothing to do with this). Harnack believes Luther was both a reformer and revolutionary. He is especially in favor of Luther’s reduction of sacraments down to two (Eucharist, baptism) and his emphasis on the importance on the individual’s faith in God. However Harnack believes Luther was not revolutionary enough because he still was dogmatic in believing the creeds and thinking that “[w]e are the true Church because we have the right ‘doctrine’” (314). One also gets the sense that Harnack’s obsession with his Greco-Roman-Germanic narrative can simply not allow for expressions of Christianity outside of these three national identities. Perhaps this explains why he has no use for Calvin in his chapter on Protestantism and diminishes the significance Reformed thought has had on Protestant religion.

Closing thought: After reading Part 2, I was not at all surprised that he had signed the Manifesto in 1914 since he seemed excessively fixated on the relationship between religion and nationalism.


2 Responses to “Harnack – What is Christianity? (Part 2)”

  1. A.J. Smith Says:

    I’ll combine my post from the other thread with this.
    For me, the most interesting facets of Harnack’s thought are not included in What is Christianity? Harnack, in his capacity as a biblical scholar, has a (somewhat proto-feminist) contention that Priscilla wrote the Book of Hebrews. Here is a summary of his argument http://polumeros.blogspot.com/2009/01/is-priscilla-author-of-hebrews.html

    One of Harnack’s other interesting and idiosyncratic views is that the OT should be removed from the cannon (he says this in his works on Marcion), and that it should be treated like we treat the Deutero-cannon as something edifying to read but no more. (Karl Barth briefly quotes this view in CD 1/II, pg 74). To me, this is an especially interesting scripture principle, and not sure who is really reconcilable with his view on dogma. How would Harnack understand Christianity? As something totally separate from Judaism.

    My biggest problem with Harnack though is his incredible suspicion of any dogma that is influenced by Greek thought, as if there could be no legitimate appropriation. His whole declension narrative is seeing Christianity as a Hellenization. I don’t think this necessitates a rejection of dogma so much as it does a recognition of its relativity and historical contingency. Had Christianity arose in another cultural context or in another historical epoch, it no doubt would have been interpreted through the lens of anther philosophical system or religious or cultural antecedents.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks for the comments, and it’s especially interesting to hear his view on the canon.

    As something totally separate from Judaism.

    This is exactly what he finds so exemplary in Paul, namely, that he could sever the ties between Christianity and Judaism. Although I’m not sure what Harnack would do with Romans 11, which argues for the ingrafting of the Gentiles into Israel’s covenant with God.

    My biggest problem with Harnack though is his incredible suspicion of any dogma that is influenced by Greek thought, as if there could be no legitimate appropriation.

    He seems to possess a lack of ontological imagination. Couldn’t another ontological framework better explain the Christian narrative? Or is ontology an evil in and of itself? I mean he seems to take Tertullian too seriously! Certainly Athens has something to do with Jerusalem.

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