Adolf Harnack was born in 1851 in Dorpat, in one of the Baltic provinces of Russia. His father, Theodosius Harnack, was professor of pastoral theology in the University of Dorpat. Harnack studied in Leipzig and began to teach there in 1874. He was called to the chair of church history in Giessen in 1879. In 1886 he removed to Marburg and in 1889 to Berlin. Harnack’s earlier published work was almost entirely in the field of the study of the sources and materials of early church history. His first book, published in 1873, was an inquiry as to the sources for the history of Gnosticism. His Patrum Apostolicorum Opera, 1876, prepared by him jointly with von Gehhardt and Zahn, was in a way only a forecast of the great collection, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschickte der alt-christlichen Literatur, begun in 1882, upon which numbers of scholars have worked together with him. The collection has already more than thirty-five volumes. In his own two works, Die Geschichte der alt-christlichen Literatur bis Eusebius, 1893, and Die Chronologie der alt-christlichen Literatur bis Eusebius, 1897, are deposited the results of his reflexion on the mass of this material. His Beitrage zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament, 1906, etc., should not be overlooked. He has had the good fortune to be among those who have discovered manuscripts of importance. He has had to do with the Prussian Academy’s edition of the Greek Fathers. A list of his published works, which was prepared in connexion with the celebration of his sixtieth birthday in 1911, bears witness to his amazing diligence and fertility. He was for thirty-five years associated with Schurer in the publication of the Theologische Literaturzeitung. He has filled important posts in the Church and under the government. To this must be added an activity as a teacher which has placed a whole generation of students from every portion of the world under undying obligation. One speaks with reserve of the living, but surely no man of our generation has done more to make the history of which we write.
Harnack’s epoch-making work was his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 1886-88, fourth edition, 1910. The book met, almost from the moment of its appearance, with the realisation of the magnitude of that which had been achieved. It rested upon a fresh and independent study of the sources. It departed from the mechanism which had made the old treatises upon the history of doctrine formal and lifeless. Harnack realised to the full how many influences other than theological had had part in the development of doctrine. He recognised the reaction of modes of life and practice, and of external circumstances on the history of thought. His history of doctrine has thus a breadth and human quality never before attained. Philosophy, worship, morals, the development of Church government and of the canon, the common interests and passions of the age and those of the individual participants, are all made tributary to his delineation.