Harnack On The Essence of Christianity

By: Gregory S. Neal

Adolf Harnack, in his book What is Christianity? outlines what he considers to be the essential core precepts of the Christian faith. It consists of three parts, each of which interacts with the other two so as to be mutually interdependent. They are: (1) The coming of the Kingdom of God, (2) God’s essence as our Father and the “infinite value of the human soul,” (3) the aim of faith is the “higher righteousness” to be found in the commandment of love. It is this three-fold gospel which Harnack understands as simple, Jewish in background, anti-philosophical, and utterly true on a universal scale (pp. 55-60).

The imminent coming of the Kingdom of God is critical because the other two are grounded in this expectation. The Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus is understood by Harnack as having two basic aspects. The first of these two views is the traditional one, which understands the coming of the Kingdom as a future event, establishing the rule of God on earth. This is a view that finds its roots in the historic milieu of Jewish apocalypticism and, most importantly, within the teaching of John the Baptist, which Jesus fully accepted, supported, taught, and also surpassed (pp. 52-54). With regards to the Kingdom of God, Jesus surpassed the prevailing concept by positing an understanding which contrasted directly with the first. This second aspect understands the Kingdom as a present, internal event, happening within the hearts of women and men of faith. The tension present in the dual proclamation of these two concepts is only visible from our present perspective; according to Harnack, Jesus would have seen them as serving as complimentary aspects, each to the other (pp. 59-61). According to Harnack, it is the second of these two understandings of the Kingdom of God which played the most important role in Christ’s teachings, and in the truth of the Gospel. The Kingdom, therefore, is to be understood as “coming to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it,” (p. 60) to fill that Christian with the life of God.  The Kingdom, in this construction, is the rule of God “in the hearts of individuals” (p. 60).

This Kingdom of God is described as being a supernatural gift from God, and in no way a production of the created world. This Kingdom links God and human beings into one unity, and it is because of this that it can be said to be the most important experience humans can have. After all, everything which follows depends upon this unity between divine and human. Certainly, a proper understanding of the following essential element is reliant upon this understanding of the Gospel and the real presence of the Kingdom in each and every Christian. The second essential element is that of the “infinite value of the human soul,” and the nature of God as “our Father.” Humans are of infinite value since they are children of God, made children through the presence of the Kingdom of God within them.  As children, the relationship between the Father and the Father’s children is direct, intimate, and utterly without parallel in the created order.  Humans are elevated above both animals and the earth in God’s acceptance, and this relationship is most perfectly found in the Lord's prayer, and the words “our Father.”

The man who can say "my Father" to the Being who rules heaven and earth, is thereby raised above heaven and earth, and himself has a value which is higher than all the fabric of this world (p. 72).

This aspect of the Christian condition is set within a dynamic relationship between God the first person of the Holy Trinity and the infinite value of the human soul. That dynamic framework is manifested through the third essential element in Harnack’s outline of the Christian faith: the higher righteousness and the commandment of love.

Through this expression, Christians practice their humility in love, and their longing to reach out to others, and to God, in response to the gift of God’s ruling power in God’s Kingdom. The higher righteousness, of which love is the motivation, is that aspect of righteousness which depends only upon God. The higher righteousness stretches all the way to the very foundations of being, pulling up from there the true acts of love which are called forth by the commandment to love one another (pp. 76-80, 83). In other words, this is the active motion and expression of the love of God in the coming of God’s Kingdom to the lives of all Christians, and the relationship of all human beings to God, the Father.

The present and inner Kingdom of God, the dynamic relationship between God, the Father, and we, God’s children, and the expression of this fellowship in humble acts of love, are all to be seen as working in tandem to focus and shape the view of all Christians toward the truth of the Gospel.  The source of this Gospel is of greatest interest next, and especially regarding the thought of Martin Luther as understood by Harnack. The Protestant Reformation, as with all rebellions and reformations, was a “critical reduction to principles,” which succeeded in returning the church to the “simple core” of faith with which it began.  Through its history, Harnack views the Church as having adopted “much alien matter,” producing corruption which witnesses contrary to the truth of the Gospel in Christ (pp. 288-289).  Luther accomplished his critical reduction by:

… victoriously declaring that the Christian Religion was given only in the Word of God and in the inward experience which accords with this Word (p. 289).

The Word does not include Church doctrine, nor oral tradition, nor even the Bible, but, rather, the Gospel message of the “free grace of God in Christ which makes guilty and despairing men blessed. . .” (p. 289), which is contained within the scriptures.

Among the many aspects of Christian life which require purification and return to the “principles,” worship and  authority are among the most immediate and important.  Regarding worship, it must be purged of it sacerdotal and sacramental additions.  The preaching of the Gospel must replace sacraments, with only Baptism and the Eucharist (more “properly” understood in this context as Communion, or the “Last Supper”) remaining as a sign and a memorial to the truth of the Christian community and an act as prescribed by the Lord (pp. 291-292, 298-299).  Regarding authority, it is not to be seated in formal exterior prelates, councils, bishops, or popes. Indeed, only the internal authority – that of the spirit of God – should rule in the Church. Hence, Church structures, hierarchy, traditional services, Holy Weeks, and other sacerdotal and authoritarian conventions must be put off so that the pure worship of God, through the preaching of the Gospel, might prevail (pp. 296-299).

Interestingly enough, for this commentator, is that fact that nowhere within this list of Harnack’s “essentials of Christianity” is the cross or the resurrection reflected – indeed, these two utterly important points in the early Church’s kerygma are not even mentioned! For me, this is the greatest flaw in his entire presentation.  By eliminating the earliest witness to the glory of the risen Lord (see the Apostle Paul, in written form to the Church at Thessalonica, by at least by 50 CE – if not a few years sooner), Harnack has reduced Jesus Christ to just the human teacher of a social ethic and a prophetic voice, crying in the wilderness.


Harnack, Adolf.  What is Christianity?  Trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders, 2nd Edition New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903.


© 1989 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.