1851-1930. German scholar. Son of the Lutheran scholar Theodosius Harnack (1817-89), he taught at Leipzig (1874) before becoming professor at Giessen (1879), Marburg (1886), and Berlin (1889-1921). The last appointment was challenged by the church because of Harnack's doubts about the authorship of the fourth gospel and other NT books, his unorthodox interpretations of biblical miracles including the Resurrection and his denial of Christ's institution of baptism (see his History of Dogma, 7 vols., 1894-99). The appointment was, however, upheld by the Prussian cabinet and the emperor. But the dispute cast a shadow over the rest of his career, and he was denied all official recognition by the church, including the right to examine his own pupils in church examinations. Nevertheless, Harnack was perhaps the most influential church historian and theologian until World War I.
Harnack's main field was patristic thought, on which he published numerous monographs. His standpoint was a form of Ritschlianism that regarded metaphysics in early Christian thought as an alien intrusion (“Hellenization”). In the winter of 1899-1900 he delivered a course of public lectures assessing Christianity in the light of modern scholarship. They were taken down in shorthand and published as Das Wesen des Christentums (ET, What is Christianity?, 1901). Jesus was depicted as a man who had rest and peace for his soul and was able to give life and strength to others. The gospel that he preached was not about himself, but about the Father. It concerned the kingdom, the fatherhood of God, the infinite value of the human soul, the higher righteousness and the command to love. The work was a best seller and the center of much controversy.
In many ways Harnack was positive. Though liberal in theology (later clashing with his former pupil Barth*), he was conservative and perceptive in his studies on the NT. He held that Acts was written by Luke while Paul was a prisoner in Rome, assigning an early date to “Q,” the synoptic gospels, and Acts. Such views would undermine much contemporary liberal and radical scholarship. His studies were published in English as Luke the Physician (1907); The(1908); The (1909); and The Date of the Acts and of the Synoptic Gospels (1911). English translations of other works include The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (2 vols., 1904-05), and The Consitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries (1910).
In 1906 Harnack was appointed director of the Prussian Royal Library (the largest in Germany), and he became also president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft for learning and science. His numerous honors included the title “von Harnack” in 1914. He was interested in social questions and published with W. Hermann Essays on the(ET 1907). He declined the post of German ambassador to Washington (1921).
Agnes von Zahn-Harnack (his daughter), Adolf von Harnack (1936); G.W. Glick, The Reality of Christianity: A Study of Adolf von Harnack as Historian and Theologian (1967); W. Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (1968).