Harnack: Was Jesus God?

Alright: last week I ended with a Shock Twist Ending about how Harnack doesn’t believe that Jesus was actually God. It’s actually a pretty common strain of thought within liberal Christianity – which we haven’t really touched on explicitly so far. Essentially, liberal Christianity was an attempt at modernizing the faith, at bringing it up to speed with the modern day. It was kinda early twentieth century, nineteenth century – and today many of its key ideas are part of the furniture – things like integrating theories of evolution into the faith, or using textual criticism to analyse and understand the origins and development of the Bible. Other ideas have maybe faded into irrelevance – for instance, this ‘Jesus wasn’t actually God’ stuff. It maybe exists a little more in secular culture, where you get people who admire Jesus as an activist or a socialist or whatever – they kinda treat him as Gandhi or something – but it’s not so much something you see inside the faith. In a sense, liberal Christianity was looking to make a more rational, reasonable religion, something that didn’t seem as out of step with the secular world. Critics will say that it went too far towards secular humanism, that it essentially devolved into a well-meaning ethical system with no real concept of God or the supernatural. And that’s certainly how it can seem from our perspective.

Today, liberal theology is kinda the precursor to all the main stuff that’s happening now. The main currents of the faith exist as a response to liberal theology, as the next stage, superseding what came before. You’ve got neo-orthodoxy, which put the divine or supernatural back in Christianity, and you’ve got liberation theology, which took the political dimension and just went further. Neo-orthodoxy takes the principles of textual criticism and all the other analytical tools, and then quite happily continues to assert that Jesus was also God. I’d almost call it a return to the normal function of Christianity, a course correction that incorporates modern insights without being embarrassed to believe in the supernatural. Liberation theology, on the other hand, takes the socialist and ethical dimensions of liberal theology, the understanding of Christianity as a political institution, and just fucking runs with it. This is the stream of thought that goes hey, yeah, Jesus did like the poor, and also white supremacy is a tool of the anti-Christ. It’s the stream that uses the historical insights of liberal theology to point out that Jesus was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee. In a sense, I actually feel bad for liberal theology. Its advances are too widespread and commonplace to be properly appreciated, and its missteps and limitations are so sharply apparent because we’re living in a world created by the people who critiqued it. It’s too much and not enough. It’s obvious and old-fashioned, clumsy and overstated – and ultimately that’s more a reflection on where we are today than on the genuine value and importance of the advances of liberal theology. Anyway, let’s listen to Harnack argue that Jesus wasn’t actually God.

  • The text: What Is Christianity?
  • The author: Adolf von Harnack
  • Notes: This is a series of lectures presented in Berlin over the summer of 1899-1900. We’re dealing largely with lectures seven and eight.
  • Read it yourself: Nice PDF over here.

So a lot of what Harnack says isn’t necessarily that objectionable. It’s pretty close to traditional Christian theology, and only really noticeable as a certain hesitancy to refer directly to Jesus as divine. There are a few references scattered throughout these lectures that just quietly hint at Harnack’s position. In lecture eight, he describes Jesus as “the king of Israel anointed by God.” He says that Jesus had “to look forward to the cross with confidence in God,” and that as the Messiah, Jesus “does God’s work and sits at the right hand of God in the clouds of heaven.” None of these statements are shocking or outrageous – structurally they’re all more or less correct. There’s always just quite a deliberate distinction between Jesus and God. Jesus is anointed by God, he has confidence in God, he does God’s work, he sits at God’s right hand. Jesus is described as the Son of God, but never as God the Son – and even Christ’s Sonship has a very restricted role. Back in lecture seven, Harnack delineates Christ’s role as Son of God, ringfencing it strictly.

“It is knowledge of God that makes the sphere of the Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came to know the sacred Being who rules heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God.”

Again, it’s almost not objectionable – you can incorporate parts of this thinking into traditional Christian faith. But there are clear signs that Harnack sees Jesus as not actually God. Rather than being God Incarnate, he comes to know God as Father. His consciousness of being the Son of God is nothing – nothing – but the claim that he knows God in some special way. Later, in lecture ten, Harnack gives us the smoking gun, asserting that “Paul became the author of the speculative idea that not only was God in Christ, but that Christ himself was possessed of a peculiar nature of a heavenly kind.” According to Harnack, it’s not something that Jesus believed himself, or any sort of part of the Gospels or the core of Christ’s nature and teaching – it’s a speculative idea dreamt up by Paul.

And it’s not really something I’m going to argue with one way or the other, as a belief – it’s Harnack’s faith, and that’s fine. Something that is worth thinking about, though, is whether or not Harnack’s interpretation has any historical or textual validity. It’s worth having a look back through the Gospels to double-check – does Jesus ever explicitly say that he’s God? He calls himself the Messiah, he claims that nobody will come to the Father except through him – but does that mean he thought he was God? Could he have been thinking of himself as God’s apostle, as God’s prophet? What does the text actually say, and how much of it is interpretation superimposed over the top by centuries of religious belief? These are questions worth asking. Even if Harnack’s conclusions are controversial to mainstream Christianity, they challenge us to return to the text and reexamine it in a new light. If you want to be a Protestant, and if you want to hold to sola scriptura, you have to confront these alternate readings, and seriously consider whether two thousand years of doctrine could have warped your understanding of the Bible away from what it actually says. Harnack might not have been coming from a traditional Christian perspective, but he still has valuable things to say about how the Bible is written and what it means. That’s part of the legacy of liberal theology: there are a bunch of non-traditional Christians, and just non-Christians in general, who add value to our understanding of the Biblical text. On balance, it’s probably a good thing.

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