Harnack’s “History Of Dogma” -- By: Albert Temple Swing

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 054:213 (Jan 1897)
Article: Harnack’s “History Of Dogma”
Author: Albert Temple Swing


Harnack’s “History Of Dogma”1

Professor Albert Temple Swing

Professor Adolf Harnack, of Berlin, is the most prominent church historian living. It was, therefore, desirable that English readers should have his principal Work, in an unabridged form, made accessible to them through the medium of a translation. Harnack is not hard to translate: his style is comparatively simple. But he deals in this volume with many closely related types of thought, which renders it sometimes difficult to understand him even in his mother tongue. No one, however, can -be clearer than Harnack when he wishes to be positive. His thought often flashes out with electrical brightness and surprise. That at other times one is left uncertain as to just what he purposes to teach, is probably not altogether unintentional on the author’s part, though it is mystifying to the reader.

That this first volume covers what he has well called the most important period in church history will be seen by noting some of the topics. After introducing the work with a valuable Prolegomena to the Study of the History of Doctrine, he treats at first hand such themes as the following: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to his own Testimony concerning himself”; “The Common Preaching concerning Jesus Christ in the First Generation of Believers”; “The Current Exposition of the Old Testament and the Jewish Hopes of the Future in their Significance for the Earliest Types of Christian Preaching”; “The Re-

ligious Conception and the Religious Philosophy of the Hellenistic Jews in their Significance for the Later Formulation of the Gospel,” etc. Of the monographs included in the appendix, that which treats of “The Different Notions of Preexistence “is of special value in coming to an understanding of Harnack’s historical method.

In the treatment of all these early questions, Harnack has no respect for authority as such. While he welcomes scholarship from whatever source, and while no one is more quick to recognize independent thought, and to use it, he pushes boldly back of councils, and canons, and of written documents, and seeks to have something to say of the world which he supposed to lie beyond the clear light of mere factual history. He makes it clear, however, that he is writing the history of dogma, and not of religion, or even theology. He recognizes and emphasizes the limitations of history in the work. These admissions of his, and his frankest and most generous acceptance of recent criticism in scripture and tradition—which must be a permanent cause of anxiety to those of conservative temper—must not be taken as necessarily his own views as t...

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