D L Henderson
9 min readDec 12, 2023


December 12, 2023

Dear Mr. Breslin,

This is the homework you assigned. It is not a Doctoral Thesis, but my simple response to professor von Harnack's religious philosophy. I began my research using: https://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/harnack.htm. Then I used excerpts as a format for outlining my criticisms which follow each quotation. Usually, I will insert a Bible verse.

"Harnack strongly believed that the only way to nurture Christian faith is 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)."

"It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us." 2 Corinthians 1:21-22. So, Harnack's doctrine of "permanent uncertainty" is the first error, as I see it. It ensues therefore, that his religious doctrine is no better nor worse than the denominational credos he rails against. I would rather begin that, without relationship, religion is vain and worthless before God. However, his stance on "bland acceptance or indifference," that is, the rejection of a mechanical auto-response to denominational dogma is correct, as is the quote below.

"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."

However, I do find problems within the next excerpt:

"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)."

While agreeing that context is important, with the addition of not only the historical context but the literary context and social setting combining to unfold the basic understanding of what is being said, while also expounding on the original ideas within the languages in which it was recorded. Besides that , I would conclude that the proclamation asserting "the only," inferring finality of discussion, is simply quicksand for narrow-mindedness.

"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..."

"So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense." In a way, then, our discussion may simply be an exercise in futility. Opposed to scholarly apologetics, is personal revelation which surpasses human understanding:

"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

“Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being." - Matthew 16:13-17.

"...the ethical ideal of the kingdom of God within believers..."

The Greek word most often translated as "inside" or "within" is more correctly translated as "among." This is consistent throughout all the Gospels. Jesus, talking with His disciples is the King of the Kingdom of God, and in essence, therefore, Jesus is, in all practicality, the Kingdom of God. Jesus was among them and will be among all Believers. As the Scripture says, "Where two or three of you are gathered in my Name, there I will be among you." - Matthew 18:20.

God is not in every person. Human nature is. That's the problem. Man is not at all like a chrysalis - perhaps, we are more like rotting fruit.

"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.)"

That is true, as seen in the Crusades and other bloody ridiculous wars.

"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)."

James would disagree, as he wrote in James 1:27, "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." Certainly Jesus calls on His followers to be socially responsible and responsive. Read the Beatitudes and see if you can see His agenda. The very essence of the Biblical Christian walk is personal responsibility for the consequences of our choices and the hurt and harm we have caused to ourselves, and to one another, and to the wider world.

“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."

Yet, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father in His throne in Heaven. Jesus also promised His Second Coming. What Harnack thought of those and how he could jam them into his own dogma, I have no idea.

"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."

Now, Harnack takes the same approach and philosophy as did Thomas Jefferson when the Founding Father edited his personal Bible excluding all miracles - anything which made no sense to him... By what authority, again, I have no answer - arrogance maybe?

If you start throwing out ingredients and steps in a kitchen recipe, you're certainly no Master Chef!

"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)."

Close, but no banana. Early in John's account, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana - very excellent wine by the way - and its purpose was "This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him." Now, I have learned that "glory" in the original Greek had a lot to do with weight, that is this miracle gave substance to Jesus' claims. Of course, by discounting John, Harnock thinks he can escape dealing with the significance of Jesus' miracles... But the three other Gospel records are peppered with such.

"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)"

To me that seems counterintuitive to Harnack's previous position. Maybe that's just me, but I lost his phone number...

"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)."

Wow. That is truly an ignorant assertion. "Christ" (Greek); "Messiah" (Hebrew). "I say 'tomāto.' You say 'tomahto.' Let's call the whole thing off."

"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."

In sum, the only thing I can agree with Harnack, here, is that Denominational Christianity, starting with the Roman Church and the following Reformation's precipitate Denominations, prevented people who were entering. It is just like the religious leaders in Jesus' time:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’" - Matthew 23:1-7.

Even if a Christian doctrinal philosophy is mostly correct, it is also partly incorrect. A counterfeit twenty dollar bill is worthless - no matter how many times it is passed around.



D L Henderson

Born 1950; HS 1968; Born again 1972; Cornell ILR; Steward, Local President/Business Agent; Husband, father, grandfather; winner/loser/everything in between