Harnack: Protestants vs Catholics

So last week we talked about the difference between faith and doctrine. For Adolf von Harnack, a German Lutheran theologian from the start of last century, faith is your valid personal belief in Jesus Christ, and doctrine is kinda this superfluous external cladding that doesn’t really do anything. It’s the furnishing of the restaurant, rather than the meal that you actually want. And that’s his idea, and that’s fine – but it’s a very individualistic way of looking at it. It’s very focused on what faith and doctrine do for the individual. This week, we’re approaching from the other direction, thinking about the role of the institution. If doctrine is just cladding, Harnack argues, then clearly churches are just trying to push it so they can control us. And the worst and most controlling church – you guessed it – it’s the Catholics.

Now obviously Harnack is a Lutheran, right, so he’s contractually obliged to bash the Catholic church. And we’ll go through his arguments and so on – but I’ll say off the bat that I’m not really interested in sectarian interdenominational conflict. This isn’t really a Protestant vs Catholic beatdown article. Rather, I think what we see with Harnack is this recurring theme that continues throughout twentieth-century theology. There’s a really strong consciousness of the church hierarchy as a political body, as a group of people striving for political power as well as all the other stuff about bringing people to Jesus. Politics is part of the picture – and it’s worth asking whether church leaders are working in our best interests, or whether they’re trying to take advantage of us by wielding their priesthood as a club. Harnack, in his Catholic-bashing way, gives us some mechanisms and language for thinking critically about whether our leaders are acting in a healthy manner.

  • 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.
  • Read it yourself: Lecture 14 over here.

In Lecture 14, then, Harnack characterises the Roman Catholic church as a continuation of the Roman empire: “Christ leads his disciples away from political and ceremonious religion and places every man face to face with God – God and the soul, the soul and its God, but here [in Catholicism], on the contrary, man is bound to an earthly institution with chains that cannot be broken, and he must obey; it is only when he obeys that he approaches God.” He identifies a controlling, domineering strain in the church: “There was a time when Roman Christians shed their blood because they refused to do worship to Caesar, and rejected religion of the political kind; today they do not, indeed, actually pray to an earthly ruler, but they have subjected their souls to the despotic orders of the Roman papal king.” It’s not just about the monarchic structure of the Catholic church either – it’s as much about their priorities, which (he says) display their lust for power. “It is just as essential to this Church to exercise governmental power as to proclaim the Gospel.” Further, as part of this pursuit of power, he claims, the Catholics are unwilling to recognise any form of Christian spirituality that does not submit itself to the Catholic church: “Accordingly it recognises no form of religious fervour which does not first of all submit to this papal Church, is approved by it, and remains in constant dependence upon it.”

And – you know, that’s a lot to process. A couple initial thoughts – firstly, if you’re Catholic, you might protest that the 1964 document Lumen Gentium from Vatican II recognised non-Catholic Christians as valid Christian believers (chapter II, paragraph 16). While that’s true, technically that document didn’t exist in 1900, when Harnack was delivering his lectures, so, you know. Also, while Harnack was obviously very invested in bashing the Catholics, that’s not so much what I want you to take away from this. We’re not here to criticise Catholicism. That’s Harnack’s intention, but I think we can detach some of his criticisms from their context and target and start thinking about them as independent criteria. Is it weird if a church is obsessed with political power? Is it bad to have explicitly religious political groups? Can you use the teachings of Jesus as the basis of a political system or a set of political values, and if so, should we trust the church as an institution to administer and defend those values? Those are all valid questions – and if we think about it, we can all probably point at some instances in the history of the church where those questions were answered in the wrong way. That’s really all that I want you to take away from this.

In the same way, when Harnack is talking up the value of the Protestant church, it’s maybe less interesting as a defence of Protestantism per se, and more interesting as a set of values that, again, we can use to evaluate the relationship between our personal faith and the institutional church. For example, in lecture 15, Harnack is very excited by the diversity of the Protestant church. “This community embraces Protestants in and outside Germany, Lutherans, Calvinists, and adherents of other denominations. In all of them, so far as they are earnest Christians, there lives a common element, and this element is of infinitely greater importance and value than all their differences.” In Harnack’s view, the diversity of beliefs present in the Protestant church is proof of its success, proof of our natural human freedom and our propensity to change over time. He suggests that there’s an unshakable, unmoving core of faith, a true core that represents “a return to Christianity as it originally was,” and that all the differences between Protestant sects are pretty unimportant by comparison. I think a lot of us can probably resonate with that today – maybe even some of the Catholics among us, too.

Harnack eventually opens his conception of a healthy church to include the Catholics, asserting that “our Church is not the particular Church in which we are placed, but the ‘societas fidei’ which has its members everywhere, even among Greeks and Romans.” He acknowledges that the church doesn’t just belong to Protestants; it’s something universal, something that crosses denominational lines, collecting believers from all places and periods. It’s what connects us to Augustine, or to Paul or the disciples – even though our faith today would be almost entirely unrecognisable to those lads. Harnack recognises that this change over time is a natural, organic part of being a believer: “we are well aware that in the interests of order and instruction outward and visible communities must arise; we are ready to foster their growth, so far as they fulfil these aims and deserve to be fostered; but we do not hang our hearts upon them, for they may exist to-day and to-morrow give place, under other political or social conditions, to new organisations; let anyone who has such a Church have it as though he had it not.” There’s something sweet in that too – if our faith would be unrecognisable to the disciples, if its form does naturally change over time, maybe that reminds us to hold our own beliefs with a bit of a light touch. Maybe they’ll change and fade as well. The important thing is the core; all the other stuff, the cladding – it’ll pass. It’s a reason not to invest too heavily in the authority and form of the institutional church – it’s just not the core of our belief. I think Harnack’s probably right to identify the relative importance of these different parts. He’s right to cut into the self-importance of the clergy, to remind them of their position relative to the transcendent divine. And he’s probably right to remind us that our first allegiance is to the divine, rather than to any earthly institution – even the religious ones.


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