In the winter term of 1899-1900 Adolf von Harnack, Berlin University's Professor of Church History, delivered sixteen lectures in a course entitled What is Christianity? Subsequently published under the same title and extensively translated, von Harnack's book was a literary sensation. Both within Germany and internationally he was acclaimed as the liberal Protestant scholar who had stripped away the dogmas of the Christian Church and revealed to contemporary humanity the abiding significance of the real, historical, Jesus. Von Harnack was already established as the greatest living historian of early Christianity and his best-seller gave him a global influence as a thinker—one whose industry and learning typified German culture at its most profound. Twenty years later von Harnack's beliefs and character were coming under sustained attack from a younger generation of Germans, many of whom had studied under him, and his reputation never really recovered. What had gone wrong? And what does the essentially tragic story of Adolf von Harnack tell us today about truth and power, freedom and constraint?

Rowan Williams brought his customary learning to bear in answering these questions before an audience that was enraptured by his lecturing style. He transported his listeners to early twentieth century Germany and von Harnack's personality was once again brought to life. This tour-de-force was an object of wonder as well as of delight—and the product of Lord Williams's original research in preparing his lecture.


In What is Christianity? von Harnack stated that the Gospel is not socialist and that the Christian faith is a religion of liberty. Christianity had converted millions because it espoused the infinite value of the individual human soul and revealed glimpses of 'eternal life in the midst of time’. The Gospel therefore is not a legal code. Ritualism is alien to it. Through the means of grace—freely given—Christianity helps the human spirit to gain a sense of its self-worth. And energised by grace we enter into the service of our neighbour—freely and creatively.

Von Harnack's impassioned prose communicated these truths to the person in the street as well as the thinker in the study. But he came a cropper, as Rowan Williams explained, because he could not detach himself from the traditional hierarchies of power. This was, in a way, unsurprising. His brand of liberal theology and hostility to dogma made von Harnack unpopular in his own Church. Lutheran church leaders opposed his appointment to the Berlin chair and he only got the job as a result of pressure brought to bear by the German Chancellor Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II. They also ennobled him—hence the 'von'. Even so the infamous manifesto that von Harnack helped to organise in the autumn of 1914, and which affirmed support for the German war aims, was a step too far. Eighty three 'public intellectuals'—all of them liberal in their politics and religion—signed up to this rampantly bellicose statement and von Harnack's involvement explains why the reaction against him in the 1920s , led by his brilliant ex-pupil Karl Barth, was so furious. 'Liberalism' had shown itself to be spiritually corrupt and German Protestantism reacted by veering towards conservative theology. Von Harnack was the product of a German political milieu which considered itself to be, in Williams's words, a 'benign and patriarchal consensus'.

Opposition to that consensus seemed incomprehensible—even a form of treason—in the eyes of those who called the shots. And by bowing the knee to power von Harnack besmirched his own reputation. Our words matter because they offer others a guide to our thoughts and intentions. And who can doubt the beauty of Adolf von Harnack's words? They leap from the pages of What is Christianity?. But actions matter even more in a human life. And the tragedy of this great but flawed scholar was located in the gap that yawned between the word and the deed.


A transcript of the lecture is available for download here.

This was the final instalment of the Legatum Institute’s salon series, titled ‘Prosperity on the Edge: 1913-14 The Last Year of Peace’.

About the Speaker
Rowan Williams, who was Archbishop of Canterbury 2002-12 and is now Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge, is one of Britain's leading intellectual figures. He first established his scholarly reputation as an historian of the early Church and of Christian spirituality, and in 1986 he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. In 1992 he returned to his native land as Bishop of Monmouth and in 1999 he was elected Archbishop of Wales. The immense diversity of his writings reveal a unique ability to make connections between different subjects, cultures and societies.

Russian thought and literature has been an abiding preoccupation for Rowan Williams and in 2008 he published Dostoevsky: Language,Faith and Fiction. He is as drawn to literature as he is to theology and The Poems of Rowan Williams (2002) has made its mark in contemporary English verse. As a theologian Williams has been preoccupied with the question of how to express the Christian gospel in a secular age, and as Archbishop he was unafraid to stir controversy when commenting on political and social issues.

About the 'Prosperity on the Edge: 1913-14 The Last Year of Peace' Series
An extraordinary period in human history came to a sudden and cataclysmic end in the summer of 1914. Nineteenth century Europe was an expansionist and prosperous civilisation. Its economy boomed, the arts and humanities flourished, scientific progress accelerated, personal liberty became the birthright of increasing numbers of people. And from 1871 onwards, Western Europe was at peace.

The Autumn lecture series relived the last year of peace as experienced in the lives of key individuals. Their achievements and pre-occupations in the year 1913-14 illustrate the multi-faceted nature of a brilliant culture—one whose legacy helped to shape the world we live in today. International in their perspective and multi-disciplinary in approach, these lectures will make an original contribution to the understanding of human prosperity and liberty.