Adolf von Harnack Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111206331-Harnack.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Harnack’s writings on the history of early Christianity remain the standard for all work done in this field. Harnack became an absolute master of the literature of the early Christian era and definitively shaped the perception of this era and its literature not only through his interpretation of the texts but also by his careful editing of the sources.

Early Life

Adolf von Harnack was born in 1851 in Dorpat, Estonia. His father, Theodosius Harnack, was a professor of practical theology at the University of Dorpat. In 1853, the family moved to Erlangen when the father was named to the faculty at the University of Erlangen but returned to Dorpat in 1866 when Theodosius rejoined the faculty at the university. Adolf attended the Gymnasium in Dorpat, where he initiated his study of church history and began his university studies at the University of Dorpat. In 1872, Adolf left Dorpat to attend the University of Leipzig, where he completed his studies for the doctorate in church history in 1873 and his thesis on Apelles the Gnostic in 1874.

The University of Dorpat surrounded Harnack with a faculty that was Lutheran, strongly devotional, and passionately committed to issues relating to Christology. His decision to focus his studies on church history put him under the tutelage of Moritz von Engelhardt. Engelhardt proved to have a determinative influence on Harnack’s later life. Engelhardt inspired in Harnack a conviction about the role of history as the means for recovering and liberating the core of the Christian religion. Engelhardt is also the source of Harnack’s commitment to a method of study that began with a critical text and grounded all conclusions in a thorough examination of the original sources.

Harnack’s years at Leipzig brought him into contact with the work of Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl’s influence on nineteenth century German Protestant theology was profound, leading to the establishment of the so-called Ritschlian School with which Harnack is often associated. Ritschl wanted to ground Christian theology in history and practice and remove it from the realm of the speculative, the mystical, and the metaphysical. In concert with sixteenth century Reformers, Ritschl emphasized justification and reconciliation, the corporate and historical nature of the Christian community, and that the Christian religion is a way of life, a manner of living which expressed a set of ethical convictions. Harnack absorbed much of this and later reflected it in his historical, nondogmatic approach to Christian theology and his insistence on the ethics as the core of the Christian proclamation.

After the completion of his studies at Leipzig, Harnack began his long and illustrious career as a professor of church history. His first faculty appointment was at Leipzig in 1876, and this was followed by brief tenures at Giessen and Marburg. While at Marburg, Harnack met and married the daughter of Professor Hans Thiersch.

Life’s Work

William II appointed Harnack to the University of Berlin’s chair in church history in 1888. The appointment caused considerable controversy, as Harnack’s writings had earned for him a number of critics in ecclesiastical circles. The appointment was upheld, but the friction between Harnack and the members of the ecclesiastical establishment remained and served as a source of sadness and alienation for Harnack throughout his career.

Harnack remained at the University of Berlin until his death in June of 1930. His career is vivid testimony to a man with extraordinary intelligence, energy, and organizational skills. Besides having to his credit more than one thousand publications, Harnack was the editor and founder (or co-founder) of Patrum apostolicorum opera, Theologische Literaturzeitung, and the series entitled Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. In addition, Harnack was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences and asked to write the history of the academy in connection with the celebration of its two hundredth anniversary in 1900. In 1906, Harnack was appointed Director General of the Royal Library in Berlin, and in 1911 he was given the post of the president of Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft. Harnack’s service to the state was recognized by the award of the Order of Merit in 1902, and in...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)