The German theologian and scholar Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) fashioned the historicopositivist approach to the theology and origin of Christianity, which characterized the study of religion in the first half of the 20th century.
Adolf von Harnack was born on May 7, 1851, in Dorpat, Estonia. His father, Theodosius Harnack, was professor of practical theology at Dorpat University. When Harnack had finished his university studies in 1874, he became an instructor in Church history and, 2 years later, professor extraordinarius at Leipzig. He was appointed full professor at Giessen in 1879.
Harnack's intellectual approach to Christianity started off within the orthodoxy of the Erlangen and Dorpat schools. He was soon drawn to the historicocritical approach of the Tübingen school, which emphasized the need of historical structures in order to understand the Christian message. From this, it was but one step to the view of Albrecht Ritschl, who held that an understanding of Christianity could be had only by relating it to the culture in which it originated and developed.
Harnack progressed beyond the Ritschlian position and proposed to separate dogma (ecclesiastical formulation of the Christian faith) from what he called the essence of Christianity. To do this, he proposed to avoid all abstract speculation and metaphysical deduction. Instead he set out to study the sources of knowledge about Christianity with a strictly scientific method of factual verification, historical cross-reference, and verification of documentary authenticity.
In 1882 he initiated with O. von Gebhardt the publication of a text series: Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur (Texts and Examinations on the History of Old Christian Literature). Harnack contributed 49 monographs to this series. In 1886 he became a professor at Marburg and in 1889 professor at the University of Berlin. Between 1886 and 1889 he produced his greatest work, Lehrbuch der Dogmen Geschichte (The History of Dogma), with his theory of Christian development.
Harnack's thesis was simple: Christianity of the first 1, 500 years resulted from the Greek spirit which the early Greek theologians of the Church infused into the originally Judaic message of Jesus. Furthermore, he maintained, in the 16th-century Reformation a first attempt was made to recover the essence from its 1, 500-year-old overlay of dogma. Harnack proposed that this work of the Reformation be completed by a strict historicocritical approach to Christianity. Harnack's view laid the foundation for the later Form School criticism and the demythologizing theology of the 20th century.
Harnack also composed a three-volume history of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. In 1902 he founded and became first president of the Evangelical-Social Congress. He was director of the royal library (1905-1921), and in 1914 he received a noble title. He continued writing and teaching and lecturing almost to his death on June 10, 1930, in Heidelberg.
In addition to the works mentioned above, some of Harnack's more important ones have been translated into English: What Is Christianity? (1901) and The Mission and Spread of Christianity in the First Three Hundred Years (1904-1905).
Some English-language sources on Harnack are in volume 2 of Kenneth S. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age (5 vols., 1958-1962); John Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (1963); and Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (1968). Also useful is James H. Nichols, History of Christianity, 1650-1950 (1956).