Harnack on the Gospel

Recently I have been going through Adolf von Harnack’s What is Christianity?
which really is a published collection of lectures he gave in Berlin during the winter semester at the University of Berlin 1899-1900. While Harnack ultimately does not escape his own idiosyncratic understanding of Christianity, what he thinks is “pure untarnished Christianity,” he makes some profound and important declarations throughout his lectures.

The gospel, for Harnack, is simple, untainted by human additions, ecclesiastical dogmas, and Greek metaphysics. Simply put, it is the Fatherhood of God, as proclaimed by Jesus, the infinite worth of the soul, and the peace and brotherhood of mankind. Harnack was therefore weary not only of the rigid dogmatism of the church, but also the liberal social gospel that was so popular during the turn of the twentieth century. Harnack continually asserts that while God promises to provide for those in need, such material goods are not sufficient as an end in itself, for the kingdom of God is within you; neither is progress of civilization; nor science; nor social justice; nor technology; nor any other good that detracts from the individual soul finding peace and love in the Fatherhood of God.

In his seventh lecture he writes thus:

“Labor is a valuable safety-valve and useful in keeping off greater ills, but it is not in itself an absolute good, and we cannot include it amongst our ideals. The same may be said of the progress of civilization. It is of course to be welcomed; but the piece of progress in which we delight  today becomes something mechanical tomorrow, and leaves us cold. The man of any deep feeling will thankfully receive anything that the development of progress may bring him; but he knows very well that his situation inwardly—the problems that agitate him and the fundamental position in which he stands—is not essentially, nay is scarcely even unessentially altered by it at all. It is only for a moment that it seems as if something new were coming, and a man were being really relieved of his burden. Gentleman, when a man grows older and sees more deeply into life, he does not find, if he possesses any inner world at all, that he is advanced by the external march of things, by ‘the progress of civilization.’ Nay, he feels himself, rather, where he was before, and forced to seek the sources of strength which his forefathers also sought. He is forced to make himself a native of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Eternal, the kingdom of Love; and he comes to understand that it was only of this kingdom that Jesus Christ desired to speak and testify, and he is grateful to him for it” (Lecture VII, p. 121, Torchbooks ed.).

While Harnack lectured this over a century ago, it seems uncanny in its rather seemingly apropos application today. Case in point, things, even good things, must never replace, and can never replace, the gospel, which ultimately is the greatest “end in itself.” To know God and enjoy him forever.



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