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June 10 Von Harnack, Theology of Culture and the Jesus of History

Today we remember the death of Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack , an influential German theologian and historian; who had a huge impact on Liberal Protestant Theology in the 19th Century and the formation and training of many academics and bishops. Karl Barth was both one of his most promising students and later one of his fiercest critics. He lay the foundations for Protestant Christianity to be co-oerced into line by the Nazi State


He pioneered the efforts to free Christianity from what he called its "acute Hellenization" in the early church's development in the Roman Empire. Although best known for his achievements in theology and church history, Harnack, was also a major force in German scientific circles, serving as a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and other major institutes. In recognition of his achievements in Germany he was ennobled in 1914 leading to his name to become von Harnack. His acceptance of this title, may have compromised his much vaunted academic freedom and also made him closer to and a supporter of the establishment. One of the distinctive characteristics of Harnack's work was his insistence on absolute freedom in the study of church history and the New Testament. He held that there could be no "taboo" areas of research that could not be critically examined. For instance, his radical views on John’s Gospel. Although the four gospels had been regarded as canonical since Irenaeus in the second century, Harnack—like earlier German scholars—rejected the Gospel of John as without historical value regarding Jesus' actual life. This is now dismissed as an extreme thesis.

He wrote: The fourth Gospel, which does not emanate or profess to emanate from the apostle John, cannot be taken as an historical authority in the ordinary meaning of the word. The author of it acted with sovereign freedom, transposed events and put them in a strange light, drew up the discourses himself, and illustrated great thoughts by imaginary situations. Although, therefore, his work is not altogether devoid of a real, if scarcely recognizable, traditional element, it can hardly make any claim to be considered an authority for Jesus’ history; only little of what he says can be accepted, and that little with caution. Perhaps Harnack’s thesis showed a naïve view of historicity. All of the Gospels passed from an oral tradition into a final written form and it is currently the settled consensus that John’s Gospel, although the latest of the canonical gospels, written around the year 110 , was finally edited by a ‘Johannine Community’ after Johns Death. Raymond E Brown in his influential book The Community of the Beloved Disciple published in 1979, identified three layers of text in John: 1) an initial version Brown considers based on personal experience of Jesus; 2) a structured literary creation by the evangelist which draws upon additional sources; and 3) the edited version that readers know today. Brown has been described as “the premier Johannine scholar in the English-speaking world”.

What now appears to be the blunt historical approach of Harnack has since been criticised by many biblical scholars in recent times, included fellow German intellectual Joseph Ratzinger. When he had become Pope Benedict, and published Jesus of Nazareth in 2007, he acknowledged the importance of the historical critical method as a useful first step. However the Pope goes on to critique the views of “Jesus as history” scholars, such as von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann (both Protestants). Saying that they were constrained by a type of reductionism where they viewed the probable and measurable as solely of value, relegating miracles to the realm of doubt or myth. Their hermeneutical suspicion sparked ‘‘anti-Christologies,” leaving genuine seekers for Christ submerged in endless scholarly conflicts and questioning, wondering if the Gospels themselves were genuine. When historical research was in danger of becoming “the highest doctrinal authority of the Church - it ignored the importance and value of Churches intellectual tradition and conciliar authority” For more about the critique of the quest for the historical Jesus see pod of Jan 14

Following the line of Von Harnack – tradition Christologies are rejected - Jesus is not the only-begotten Son of God sent to earth to die for our sins. Rather, he is one of us who, as a man, simply had an unusual degree of experiential contact with God. Harnack argues that he says remarkably little about himself. Having found freedom himself, his only goal is to help us find it. Harnack saw Jesus as a liberal religious reformer who was opposed by the legalistic tradition of the Pharisees. His view that Jesus' thought was original and had little in common with the Pharisees, however, was criticized as a lapse in his usually fine scholarship by the German Jewish theologian Leo Baeck. Baeck pointed out that the Pharisees were a diverse group that included liberal as well as conservative elements, and that some of Jesus' teachings appeared to have been borrowed from great Pharisaic sages such as Hillel the Elder. Hartack's methodology, his hermeneutic of suspicion, lead him to be sceptical about the miracles reported in the Bible, arguing that Jesus and other biblical figures may well have performed acts of faith healing. "That the earth in its course stood still; that a she-ass spoke; that a storm was quieted by a word, we do not believe, and we shall never again believe; but that the lame walked, the blind saw, and the deaf heard will not be so summarily dismissed as an illusion."

His influence was widespread and long lasting as Harnack was one of the most prolific and stimulating of modern critical scholars. Although he held academic appointments in theology and church history, he was denied ecclesiastical posts. Exercising broad influence in Protestant churches, his masterful teaching and his solid learning earned him an enthusiastic following among his students, many of whom rose to positions of ecclesiastical leadership. He thus influenced a whole generation of teachers who carried his ideas and methods throughout the whole of Germany and beyond. There has since been a realignment, led by the reformed theologian Karl Barth (see pod of May 10. He saw the dangers of Von Hartack’s liberal theological position which he argued tended to identify the earthly cultural accomplishment especially in Germany with Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God.