Article Information

Daniel Buda1,2,3

1Department of Church History and Polity, University of Pretoria, South Africa

2Program Executive, Church and Ecumenical Relations, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland

3Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania

This article is a revised version of a lecture presented under the same title on 10 February 2011 in Leeds Trinity University College, as part of the Eastern Christian Studies Seminars. The Reverend Dr Daniel Buda is a research fellow, participating with Prof. Dr Graham Duncan, Head of the Department of Church History and Polity of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.

Correspondence to:
Daniel Buda

Postal address:
Route de Ferney 150, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland

Received: 01 Mar. 2013
Accepted: 12 Apr. 2013
Published: 18 June 2013

How to cite this article:
Buda, D., 2013, ‘Some aspects of Adolf von Harnack’s criticism on Orthodox tradition’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 69(1), Art. #1949, 6 pages.

Copyright Notice:
© 2013. The Authors. Licensee: AOSIS OpenJournals.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Some aspects of Adolf von Harnack’s criticism on Orthodox tradition
In This Original Research...
Open Access
Adolf von Harnack and his Das Wesen des Christentums
Criticism of Greek Catholicism
   • What did the Greek Catholicism achieve?
   • What are the characteristics of Orthodoxy?
   • What modifications did the Gospel undergo in the Orthodox Church?
Final remarks
   • Competing interests

The aim of this article is to present the critique that Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) formulated on the Orthodox tradition in his famous book Das Wesen des Christentums, as well as to comment on its affirmations in the context of his time and way of thinking and to try and find explanations for his criticism. The article concludes that although Harnack’s critique on the Orthodox tradition may have presented negative perception of Orthodoxy, particularly amongst Protestants and many Orthodox theologians who were furious after reading his paper, yet, his critical affirmations also have constructive aspects. However, some of the conclusions of Harnack’s criticism are genuinely rejected by the Orthodox theologians and are no longer sustainable. As a theologian, Harnack cannot be considered an opponent of the modern ecumenical movement, but rather as one of its pioneers. Harnack could be included in the category of frank ecumenists who prefer to express in a critical, but constructive way that which he believes about his own Christian tradition, as well as other Christian traditions.


Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) was doubtless one of the most influential Protestant theologians in history. His personality dominated the theological scene of the German-speaking Protestantism in the last part of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century. His enormous work containing around 1600 titles (Smend 1990; Biester 2002; Pauck 1968) continued to be influential especially after Harnack passed away. His most significant works have been translated into English and several other languages and were directly accessible to large groups of theologians and believers interested in theology. One can affirm that he influenced not only the theological reflection, but also the general perception of different phenomena of the history of Christianity. A complex personality, Adolf von Harnack has still today both enthusiastic supporters as well as furious contesters. For Orthodox theologians, Adolf von Harnack is unforgettable particularly for the critics formulated on the Orthodox tradition in his work entitled (in German) Das Wesen des Christentums (What is Christianity?). In this article, I examine, from a theological-ecumenical perspective, Adolf von Harnack’s critique of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, making use of my knowledge as an Orthodox theologian who has studied Church history for a few years at German Evangelical-Lutheran faculties and has experience with ecumenical work and research. Why is Harnack so critical of the Orthodox tradition? Are some reasons behind this criticism to be found in his biography? Does his criticism also have some constructive aspects and how should the Orthodox answer to them? It is generally accepted both by Orthodox and Protestant theologians that Harnack’s influence amongst theologians decreased significantly in the second part of the 20th century. The well-known North-American orthodox theologian John Meyendorff affirmed already in 1979, that ‘Adolf Harnack passed severe judgements on the ”Hellenized Christianity” of the Greek Fathers, but he is unlikely to be followed by many today’ (Meyendorff 1979:2). Even if Meyendorff’s affirmation is correct and is shared by a large majority of Protestant theologians, I can witness that Harnack’s criticism of the Orthodox tradition significantly influenced the common perception of Orthodoxy amongst Protestants, especially in Europe. His criticism formed the prejudices about the Orthodox tradition that survive even today amongst large Protestant circles. I experienced this as a student in Germany. Whilst discussing with my German Protestant colleagues their perception of Orthodoxy, they formulated a series of affirmations that surprised me. When I asked them about the source of their knowledge about my tradition, many of them pointed to Harnack and his famous Das Wesen des Christentums.

In order to achieve the aims of this article, I shall firstly present very briefly Harnack’s biography and the history of origin and influence of his work Das Wesen des Christentum, followed by a presentation and analysis of his criticism of the Orthodox tradition. Finally I will formulate a few concluding remarks.

Adolf von Harnack and his Das Wesen des Christentums

Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) (Zahn-Harnack 1951; Katzenbach 1985; Hausschild 2000) was born in Dorpat (today Tartu) in Estonia, the son of the theology professor Theodosius Harnack. His family belonged to the German minority in Estonia. He studied theology in Dorpat (1869–1872) and Leipzig (1873–1874) and was active as a professor in Leipzig (1875–1878), Gießen (1879–1886), Marburg (1886–1888) and Berlin (1888–1921). Through his academic activities, his writings and not least through his political engagement, he became one of the most influential German theologians at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. His main works are: Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte in 3 volumes, 1886–1890; Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten, Leipzig, 1902, translated into English by James Moffatt and published in 1908 in London under the title The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the first Three Centuries; Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur in 3 volumes, Leipzig, 1893–1894; Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott, Leipzig, 1921. However, the most famous and influential work by Adolf von Harnack is a collection of 16 lectures delivered at the University of Berlin during the winter semester of 1899–1900 and published in 1900 as a booklet under the title Das Wesen des Christentum. By 1927 the volume had already been through 14 printings and had been translated into many languages. The first English translation was published under the rather inexactly translated title What is Christianity? (Harnack 1957). The exact translation of the German title would be ‘The Essence of Christianity’, as stated by Rudolf Bultmann, another famous German theologian and author of the ‘Introduction’ to an American edition (Bultmann 1957:vii). At the beginning of the 20th century this book ‘exerted an extraordinary influence not only on the rising generation of theologians but also on the educated classes generally’ (Bultmann 1957:vii). Its influence is primarily to be linked with the influence of the author however, there are also other factors that contributed to it. One of them is the time in which the book was published and translated into several languages. The first decades of the 20th century coincide with a large openness of Christian confessions to each other. After centuries of isolation, determined especially by the Ottoman yoke, the Orthodox tradition was ready to learn more about the other Christian confessions and to present itself to other Christians. Harnack’s popularity and influence gave weight to how he was perceived by large circles as the best address to learn more about Orthodoxy. In my understanding, his criticism of the Orthodox tradition had also a psychological impact, both for the Orthodox and for the Protestants. For centuries, the Protestants had read critics on the Roman-Catholic tradition. The Orthodox were ignored or sometimes cited as example of doctrine and practice that was different to Roman-Catholicism. The Orthodox were used for centuries as the object of Roman Catholic polemics, they perceived the Protestants as allies, since they had the same ‘enemy’, id est, Roman-Catholicism. When Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums was published, the Orthodox were shocked to see such a destructive criticism formulated by a Protestant theologian.

The model of Das Wesen des Christentums was followed by other theologians – even of other religions – who wrote books about the ‘essence’ of Judaism (Baeck 1905) and Catholicism (Adam 1924). It created a kind of theological-literary genre. These facts speak for themselves about the influence that this booklet had in Germany and in Western Europe.

Adolf von Harnack passed away on 10 June 1930 in Heildelberg.

Criticism of Greek Catholicism

Harnack refers to ‘Greek Catholicism’ as he calls the Orthodox tradition, in the last part of Lecture XII and in Lecture XIII of What is Christianity? In the first part of Lecture XII, Harnack speaks about the ‘Catholic Church’ which means in this context the ‘universal’ church, id est, this includes also the Orthodox Church. He acknowledges firstly that ‘this church repelled all attempts to let the Christian religion simply dissolve into contemporary thought, and protected itself against the acute phase of Hellenisation.’ In other words, the ‘Catholic Church’ has the merit to have avoided ‘acute Hellenization’ which means for Harnack Gnosticism, however, he adds, ‘still we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that it had to pay a high price for maintaining its position’ (Harnack 1957:210). The ‘Catholic church’ suffered in Harnack’s opinion the following ‘alterations’: (1) The ‘Spirit’ is ‘confined within the narrowest limits … he is never to lose his dependence on doctrine, on the priest, on public worship, and on the ”book”’; (2) ‘Christendom became more and more penetrated by the Greek and philosophical idea that true religion is first and foremost “doctrine”’; (3) ‘The church obtained a special, independent value as an institution; it became a religious power’; and (4) ‘The Gospel was not proclaimed … with the same vigour in the second century as it had been in the first’ (1957:211–214). These ‘alterations’ ‘denote essential changes which the Christian religion experienced up to the beginning of the third century’ (Harnack 1957:215). Only some personalities like Perpetua and Felicitas, Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian or Origen and their writings ‘attest inner and genuinely Christian life’ (Harnack 1957:215–217).

After affirming that the Greek Church remained ‘essentially unaltered for more than a thousand years’ (1957:218), Harnack proposes to his listeners to ‘descend several centuries … and to look at the Greek Catholicism (i.e. Orthodox tradition) as it is today’ (1957:217–218). He starts his analysis from three basic questions, namely, (1) What did the Greek Catholicism achieve?, (2) What are its characteristics? and (3) What modifications did the gospel here undergo and how did it hold its own?

What did the Greek Catholicism achieve?
Harnack mentions two major achievements of ‘Greek Catholicism’. The first achievement is that ‘it made an end of heathenism and polytheism’ in the ‘eastern part of the Mediterranean and northwards to the Arctic Ocean.’ In other words, ‘the gods of Greece’ died, but before dying they transferred ‘a considerable portion of their power to the Church’s saints’ (Harnack 1957:218). Harnack is not deepening this affirmation, but it is clear enough that for him the cult of Saints that is so lively in the Orthodox Church, is considered a pagan heritage. It seems that in Harnack’s opinion, this cult has nothing to do with the biblical message but it could be included in the natural admiration that human beings have for those who suffer as martyrs. I base this affirmation on the fact that, just one page later, Harnack seems to admire ‘men of these [orthodox] nationalities’ that are ready ‘to suffer themselves be cut in pieces for their religion’ (1957:219). On the other hand, it is not clear from the context if this readiness for martyrdom is only a religious commitment, or whether it is also a patriotic one, or whether they are both interrelated and inseparable.

The second achievement is that:

this Church managed to effect such a fusion with the individual nation which it drew into its bosom that religion and church became to them a national palladia, nay, palladia pure and simple. (Harnack 1957:219)

Harnack explains further: ‘Go amongst Greeks, Russians, Armenians etc. and you will everywhere find that religion and nationality are inseparable, and the one element exists only in alongside of the other.’ He underlines that this is not a result of ‘hostile power of Mohammedanism’ since the same phenomenon is present in Russia and the ‘Russians are obviously not subject to the pressure of Islam.’ As proof for the existence of a strong connection between the church and the nation in Russia, Harnack talks about the ‘Moscow press’ and Tolstoi’s Village Tales (1957:219). I am quite sure that no Orthodox Church historian or theologian can successfully combat Harnack’s observation, which is more admiring than critical, regarding the deep connection between the church and the nation. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, the connection between the church and the nation in Orthodox countries was even stronger than today. An objective orthodox theologian can only mention the efforts that the Orthodox tradition has made in the last century to combat unhealthy connections between church and nation (Kalaitzidis 2012). I mention here only one example from the time before Harnack wrote his Das Wesen des Christentums. In 1871, The Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus VI (1845–1848, 1853–1855 & 1871–1873) condemned ‘phyletism’ which could be best translated into English as ‘racism’ (Meyendorff 1987:56).

Other achievements of the Orthodox tradition which are mentioned briefly are, (1) the preservation of the ‘monastic ideal’ (Harnack 1957:219); and (2) the preservation of a certain commitment for mission. Somehow surprisingly, Harnack (1957) speaks very positively about monasticism:

The Greek and Oriental Christianity contain within itself an element which for centuries has been capable of offering, and still offer … a certain resistance to the combined forces of traditionalism, intellectualism and ritualism – I mean monasticism. (p. 239)

This is because in his opinion:

monasticism could provide a leaven and a counterpoise in that traditionalistic and ritualistic secular Church such as the Greek Church was and still is. Here there was freedom, independence, and vivid experience; here the truth that it is only what is experienced and comes from within that has any value in religion … (Harnack 1957:239)

In contrast to the Church:

monasticism, in its resolve to serve God by an ascetic and contemplative life, contains an incomparably more valuable element because sayings of Christ … are nevertheless taken as a standard. (Harnack 1957:220)

Regarding the spreading of the gospel, Harnack recognised that ‘the missions of the Russian Church are still overthrowing polytheism even today’ (1957:220) even if Orthodoxy lost large territories to Islam.

What are the characteristics of Orthodoxy?
Harnack recognises that ‘the answer is not easy’ (1957:220). His response could be summarised as follows:

1. Orthodoxy – a natural religion. Harnack affirms that for a ‘spectator’, thus for somebody who looks at the Orthodox Church from outside, it is a ‘complex structure’ that is, a mixture of ‘feelings’, ‘superstitions’, ‘learning’ and ‘devotional philosophy of hundreds, nay, of thousands of years.’ He continues saying that:

no one can look at this Church from outside, with its forms of worship, its solemn ritual, the number of its ceremonies, its relics, pictures, priests, monks, and the philosophy of its mysteries, and then compare it on the one hand with the Church of the first century, and on the other with the Hellenic cults in the age of Neoplatonism, without arriving at the conclusion that it belongs not to the former, but to the latter. It takes the form, not of a Christian product in Greek dress, but of a Greek product in Christian dress … In its external form as a whole this church is nothing more than a continuation of the history of Greek religion under the alien influence of Christianity … We might also describe it as the natural product of the union between Hellenism … and Christianity; it is the transformation which history effects in a religion by ‘natural’ means … In this sense it is a natural religion. (Harnack 1957:220–221)

The notion of ‘natural religion’ suggested by Harnack conveys a negative sense. It means that the Orthodox Church is totally determined by the ‘natural forces of history’ and that it has lost its divine, its supernatural character. For Harnack, the Orthodox Church is a classic example of Helenisierung des Christentums (the Hellenization of Christianity). The process of Hellenization in the Orthodox tradition is, in Harnack’s opinion, not complete, as in the case of Gnosticism, but it deeply affected the vivid character of the gospel, making it dependent on the history and eventually only partly workable.

2. Orthodoxy – an inert religion. An immediate result of the natural character of Orthodoxy is the fact that it became inert in its own structures: ‘no prophet, no reformer, no genius, has arisen [sic] in its history since the third century to disturb the ordinary process by which religion becomes naturalised into common history’ (Harnack 1957:222). After listening to this affirmation, we are allowed to ask ourselves how well Harnack really knew the history of the Orthodox Churches? Every orthodox theologian could immediately mention the names of many Church fathers from the 4th century and later who earned, in the eyes of all Christians, to be called ‘reformers’ and ‘genius’. Much more disturbing is that for Harnack the Orthodox Church is not recognised as a legitimate successor of the early Church. For him, there is a break between the church of the first three centuries and the Orthodox Church. I consider this conclusion as the gravest affirmation by Harnack regarding the Orthodox tradition.

3. Orthodoxy – a traditionalist religion. For Harnack, the inert character of the Orthodox Church caused its traditionalistic character. The Orthodox Church is described as having an allergic reaction to everything that is new or could renew it. This defence against renewal ‘became the practical proof of religion.’ In order to defend its traditionalism, the Orthodox Church unconsciously developed a strategy:

Everything was designated ‘apostolic’ which was deposited in this Church in the course of the succeeding centuries; or rather what the church considered necessary to possess in order to suit the historical position in which it was placed, it called apostolic, because it fancied that otherwise it could not exist and what is necessarily for the Church’s existence must be simply apostolic. (Harnack 1957:224)

Also, ‘there are innumerable features of this church which are counted as sacred as the Gospel’ and in primitive Christianity no such tendency existed in this direction. This is ‘quite in harmony with antiquity and foreign to the Gospel’ (Harnack 1957:228).

4. Orthodoxy – a dogmatist-intellectualist religion. The Greek Catholicism ‘has started and restarted its doctrines with the greatest precision and often enough made them a terror to men of different creed’ (Harnack 1957:225). This dogmatism has immediate soteriological consequences because, for the Orthodox Church ‘no one … can be saved who does not possess the correct doctrine.’ This approach is defined by Harnack as ‘fanaticism’ that ‘has not been abandoned.’ There are, however, two elements which make up Christianity in nuce and radically distinguish the Greek Church from Greek religious philosophy: the idea of the creation and the God-Man nature of the Saviour. Starting from the last one, the Greek Catholicism developed the doctrine of deification as ‘redemption from death and therewith as elevation to the divine life.’ Harnack recognises that ‘this conception found a safe starting point in the gospel an…d support in Pauline theology’ but ‘conceived on Greek line’ (Harnack 1957:232) which means ‘mortality is in itself reckoned as the greatest evil, and as the cause of all evil, whilst the greatest of blessings is to live forever’ which is ‘a severely Greek idea.’ The whole process of deification is a ‘pharmacological’ one: the divine nature has to flow in and transform the mortal nature. Deification expresses the ‘egoistic desire for immortal existence.’ Even if this doctrine ‘has one of his roots in the Gospel’ it is ‘inadmissible’ because it avoids ‘any connexion with the Jesus Christ of the Gospel.’ In this Greek dogma ‘we have a fatal connexion established between the desire of the ancient for immortal life and the Christian message’ (1957:236). Strongly related to dogmatism is intellectualism which is ‘also of Greek origin.’ According to this, ‘knowledge is the highest good ... everything that is of an aesthetical, ethical, and religious character must be converted into some form of knowledge’ (1957:229).

5. Orthodoxy – a ritualistic religion. Closely related to traditionalism and intellectualism, or rather as a result of their combination is ritualism, which is considered a ‘prominent characteristics of the Greek Church’ and it shows ‘how far it has departed from the Gospel.’ In the Orthodox tradition, the sacred element is ‘bound up with text and form.’ The ritual is seen as a barrier between God and Christians:

Intercourse with God is achieved through the cult of the mystery, and by means of hundreds of efficacious formulas small and great, signs, pictures, and submissively observed, communicate divine grace and prepare the Christian for eternal life. Doctrine as such is, for the most part, something unknown; if it appears at all, it is only in the form of liturgical aphorisms. For ninety-nine per cent of these Christians, religion exists only as a ceremonious ritual, in which it is externalised … it is only in these rituals that doctrine receives its correct application and obtains its due results. (Harnack 1957:237)

More surprising are the affirmations about the content of the hymns used in the Orthodox tradition: ‘Of the whole performance of the chief religious service … if certain words, like Christ, et cetera, are omitted, there is nothing left to recall the original element.’ The final conclusion is extremely critical and sharp:

There is no sadder spectacle than this transformation of the Christian religion from a worship of God in spirit and in truth into a worship of God in signs, formulas and idols. To feel the whole pity of this development, we need not descend to such adherents of this form of Christendom as are religiously and intellectually in a state of complete abandonment, like the Copts and Abyssinians; the Syrians, Greeks, and Russians are, taken as a whole, only a little better. (Harnack 1957:237)

Jesus Christ suffered and was nailed on the Cross, in order to destroy this sort of religion and ‘now we find it re-established under his name and authority.’ ‘Greek and Oriental Christendom religion has been almost stifled by ritualism’ (Harnack 1957:239).

At the end of his analysis on Orthodox Churches, Harnack (1957) concludes that:

this official ecclesiasticism with its priests and its cult, with all its vessels, saints, vestments, pictures and amulets, with its ordinances of fasting and its festivals, has absolutely nothing to do with the religion of Christ. It is the religion of the ancient world, tacked on to certain conceptions in the Gospel; or rather, it is the ancient religion with the Gospel absorbed into it. (p. 241)

In other words, Harnack considers that Orthodoxy looks more like a paganism that has adopted some principals of the gospel than it does like a Christian tradition which has its foundations in the gospel and successfully inculturalised paganism. This is, in my opinion, the most widespread prejudice about the Orthodox. Nowadays, there are no Protestant theologians who have not had a minimum exposure to the Orthodox tradition that would accept Harnack’s affirmations quoted above. The Orthodox liturgical services are rather highly appreciated and are presented by Protestant theologians as a possible source of inspiration for a liturgical revival within Protestantism (Ritter 2012:194–195). For me as an Orthodox, some of his affirmations could be accepted as a warning, not to give too much attention to ritualism at the expense of living the gospel authentically and to keep the balance between gospel and local culture (Niebuhr 1951). We would all agree that a Christianity that has no connection with the local culture is, on the one hand impossible and on the other hand most undesirable.

What modifications did the Gospel undergo in the Orthodox Church?
Schematically, responses to this question could be formulated as follows:

Monasticism was for Harnack certainly a result of the action of the gospel upon the Orthodox Church (for more details see references on monasticism presented above). Harnack admired also the ‘vitality of monasticism’ of the Roman-Catholic Church. In his opinion ‘the Christian community needs persons ”who have left everything” in order to serve those whom no one serve’ (Crouter 1972:298).

The knowledge that the gospel has been kept. Harnack recognised that the Orthodox Church (‘The Church as a Church’) keeps up – although to a modest extend – the knowledge of the gospel. ‘Jesus’ words, even though only mumbled by the priests, take the first place in this Church.’ This is mixed with a ‘magical apparatus’ the ceremony which is ‘the caput mortum’ (Harnack 1957:242). Harnack was deeply convinced that the kerygma of the gospel is able to survive in any cultural setting and to penetrate it, keeping its pure divine character and having transforming effects. In the Orthodox Church, Jesus’ sayings ‘are read in private and in public and no superstition avails to destroy their power’ (Harnack 1957:243). Harnack (1957) values much more the personal witness of the gospel that he experienced by individuals who are members of the Orthodox Church:

Among these Christians, too, priests and laity … there are men … who love Jesus Christ, not because they know him as the person with two natures, but because a ray of his being has shown [sic] from the Gospel into their hearts, and this ray has become light and warmth to their own lives. (p. 243)

Harnack speaks about his own contact and experience with Russian peasants or humbler priests ‘a power of simple trust in God is to be found, a delicacy of moral feeling and an active brotherly love, which does not disclaim its origin in the Gospel’ (1957:243). Whilst giving credit to the authentic Christian life of some Orthodox believers, Harnack affirms that the structure and the system of the ‘oriental churches’ are ‘foreign to the Gospel.’

Harnack ends his presentation on ‘Greek Catholicism’ on an optimistic note. Two elements could elevate the Orthodox Church from the level of the ‘ancient world’ with its ‘depression of religion’: the monasticism, with the condition that it does not become ‘entirely subject to the secular Church’ and the gospel. The Orthodox Church ‘possesses the corrective in its midst’ (Harnack 1957:244). It depends on it how these tools are used.

Final remarks

Firstly, apart from the short explanations and comments that I have inserted next to every criticism presented before, I consider that it is necessary to make some additional remarks regarding Harnack’s criticism on Orthodox Churches. Why is he so critical of the Orthodox Church? There are two reasons mentioned by Orthodox theologians: firstly, the ‘political Russophobia’ that dominated in Germany in Harnacks time and before’ (Benz 1952:146) and secondly his German Baltic origin and certain experiences with the Russian population (Kalogirou 1989:70). Prof. Kalogirou also relates the personal statement of Prof. Alivisatos from Athens University who was Harnack’s disciple in Berlin and who heard from Harnack personally that he had built his opinion on the Orthodox Church mainly from his direct contact with the Russian Orthodox Church in Estonia. Also from the book What is Christianity, we can easily see that Harnack mainly judges the Orthodox tradition ‘as it presents itself to the spectator’ (1957:220).

The question is: Can we entirely explain Harnack’s criticism of the Orthodox Church based on his origin and context? The response can be only negative. I believe that Harnack’s criticism of the Orthodox churches and of other Christian traditions (like Roman-Catholicism or Protestantism) had also something to do with his theory of dogma. As Capps indicated, Harnack’s conception on Dogmengeschichte cannot be separated from the way in which he perceived the essence of Christianity (das Wesen des Christentums) (Capps 1966:491). The Orthodox Church failed in maintaining the purity of the kerygma of the gospel. For Harnack none of the actual Christian traditions preserved it entirely. That is why he criticises, in different measures and with different tones, all mainline Christian traditions: Orthodoxy, Roman-Catholicism and Protestantism. It is also important to underline here that his criticism is dominantly constructive. In my opinion, the Orthodox can learn from Harnack’s criticism. Personally I can live with it – with the exception of the following points: perception of the saints’ cult as a transfer of power from the ‘gods of Greece’, misunderstanding of the form and role of the Orthodox liturgical services; the perception of the Orthodox Church as not being the genuine continuer of the early church.

Secondly, in spite of the fact that Harnack is considered an ‘arch-Protestant’ without great openness for other Christian traditions, there are enough reasons to sustain the opposite thought. In 1891, nine years before writing Das Wesen des Christentums, Harnack published a study in which he openly analysed how and what Protestants could learn from the Roman Catholic Church (Harnack 1951). This fact did not stop him from writing quite critically about the Roman-Catholic tradition in his Das Wesen des Christentums. However, his criticism of the Roman-Catholic church has been interpreted, objectively, in a positive way (Crouter 1972). When it was the case, he valued the modern orthodox theology. I can only mention here the famous information that Harnack learned Russian only to be able to read a scholarly study of N.N. Glubokovsky on Theodoret of Cyrus (Meyendorff 1996:185). Finally, it is not exaggerated to consider Harnack as one of the pioneers of the modern ecumenical movement. His contribution to the ecumenical movement was first of all a scholarly one. It is known that he was so impressed by the book of the Oxford professor Edwin Hatch (1835–1889), published in English in 1881, The Organization of the Early Church that he translated into German. Hatch’s book has an important influence amongst the pioneers of the ecumenical movement (Rouse & Neill 2004:276).


Competing interests
The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationship(s) which may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article.


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Crossref Citations

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