Adolf von Harnack on Biblical Exegesis

Adolf von Harnack on Biblical Exegesis

The purpose of this article is to explain Adolf von Harnack’s view of the proper method of biblical exegesis, and the role of history in that method. First I will explain the primacy of the historical-critical method in Harnack’s approach to biblical exegesis. Second, I will explain Harnack’s rejection of Karl Barth’s Spirit-led approach to biblical exegesis as a subjective and unscientific approach to scripture.

I will limit my exposition to Harnack’s letters in “The Debate on the Critical Historical Method: Correspondence between Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth,” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 165-187 (cited as H).

Biblical Exegesis and the Historical-Critical Method

For Harnack, the key to biblical exegesis is the historical-critical method: the Bible is to be understood through “historical knowledge and critical reflection (H-165).” Although he is not explicit on this point, Harnack seems to view scripture as a series of more-or-less historical accounts. Since scripture was written from ancient cultures in ancient languages, Harnack questions the notion that its teachings are clear and self-evident such that “no historical knowledge and no critical reflection are needed to understand their meaning aright (H-165).” Harnack sees historical knowledge and critical reflection as crucial for unpacking the temporally and culturally distant idioms, events, and teachings of the scripture.

Moreover, for Harnack, Jesus is central to the gospel—faith cannot be awakened apart from the knowledge of Jesus Christ (H-174)—and historical-critical methods are the only means of arriving at “a reliable and common knowledge of” him (H-166). Furthermore, Harnack denies that the scripture is univocal in its teachings; he wonders whether it is even “permissible to speak simply of the ‘Bible,’ (H-165, emphasis mine)” when its teachings on faith, worship, and life are so diverse. Given this diversity, the historical-critical method is also the crucial tool for sifting the kernel from the husk, separating the eternal truths of scripture from those culture-bound teachings that are irrelevant to moderns (H-165).

For Harnack, the point of biblical exegesis is to recover “the determining content of the gospel (H-165).” This content is partially composed of basic theology concerning “God’s holy majesty and…love” for humanity (H-166). Harnack places no emphasis in his gospel on the divine nature of Jesus Christ, but prefers instead to emphasize the key role of the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, as the teacher of the gospel (H-172). The other key component of Harnack’s gospel is ethical teaching, especially captured in the command to love God and neighbor, “which constitutes the heart of the gospel (H-165).” He sometimes refers to this combination of basic theology and ethics as “the simple gospel (e.g., H-172).”

Harnack understands the historical-critical method to have a direct “blood relationship to science (H-166),” and frequently used the synonym “scientific theology” to describe the fruit of his historical-critical approach to biblical exegesis (e.g., H-166). Given the Enlightenment view that science yields true and certain knowledge of the universe, the term “scientific theology” suggests that Harnack attributes a high degree of certainty to his “simple gospel.” The historical-critical method is for Harnack the scientific method of theology, and his presupposition is that its results are true and reliable. For Harnack, only such a scientific approach to theology has value and the “power to convince (H-166).”

Harnack Against Barth: Subjective Biblical Exegesis

Harnack is skeptical of Barth’s Spirit-led approach to biblical exegesis, viewing it as ultimately grounded in subjective religious experience. For Harnack, there are two options for religious experience. First, if it is not equivalent to the awakening of faith, then it is impossible to distinguish such experience from “uncontrollable fanaticism (H-165).” Second, if it is equivalent to the awakening of faith, then it comes about “through the preaching of the gospel,” and such preaching is dependent on historical-critical study (H-165). Thus, religious experience is either subject to historical-critical study or it is fanaticism.

Given Barth’s subordination of historical-critical study in his approach to scripture, Harnack suspects that Barth wants to interpret scripture according to fanatical religious experience. For Harnack, such an approach is one of many “subjective theories (H 172)” of reading scripture, and cannot lead to objective or publicly true interpretations—i.e., those which are verifiable in a positivist fashion (H-186). On the one hand, Harnack denies that interpretation of the genuine gospel can be left to subjective experience given the diversity of teachings in the scripture (H-165). On the other hand, he denies that the Bible is so difficult to understand that it can only be interpreted by experience of its meaning shining “forth in the heart (H 165).” Harnack fears that if Barth’s approach to biblical exegesis were the norm, the gospel would no longer be taught at all and that interpreters would “freely create their understanding of the Bible (H 174).” A “scientific” (historical-critical) approach to scripture alone provides “pure knowledge of its object (H-186),” and escape from “occultism,” “fantasy,” and “theological dictatorship (H-174).”

In summary, Harnack emphasizes the central role of historical-critical study in biblical exegesis. For Harnack, such a scientific approach to scripture is the only objective means of identifying the true gospel message and producing knowledge of Jesus Christ, who stands at the heart of the gospel.


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