The other day when I was reading George Eldon Ladd’s New Testament Theology (published in 1974) I came across his description of “the old liberal view” of Christianity, represented by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930).
Ladd begins with a quote from Harnack (page 55): “In the combination of these ideas – God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul – the whole Gospel is expressed.”
Ladd then describes Harnack’s understanding of the kingdom of God as “the pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the infinite value of the individual soul, and the ethic of love” (page 58).
1. From my work with Christian college students, I suspect that a number of today’s young evangelical Christians would summarize Christianity similarly and would find this vision of Christianity to be quite appealing.
2. Harnack highlights some important biblical ideas here. God is called Father in a number of places in the Bible, and people are called children of God in certain passages. We do share a common humanity as individuals, and we all have been created in the image of God. Love is central to Christian living.
3. Harnack also leaves out crucial clarifications of these topics. For instance, the Bible reserves the “Father-child” (or “Father-son”) language specifically for believers – those who have been adopted into a new relationship with God through the sacrificial and saving work of Christ on the cross, and by the life-giving and transforming action of the Spirit (see John 1:12-13, Galatians 4:4-6, for instance). In addition, to limit Christianity to the teachings of Jesus (the “pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus”) ignores the purposeful, saving work of Jesus (namely, his sufferings, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return).
4. Harnack’s summary of Christianity basically amounts to an incomplete picture of biblical love: God’s universal love as Father of all and our need to love others by affirming their worth as a valuable part of God’s creation.
5. Once Harnack’s vision of Christianity is embraced (either explicitly or inadvertently), topics such as a final judgment, the distinction between the church and the world, Jesus Christ being the only way to God, the experience of conversion and new birth, and the need for evangelism and church planting seem more and more foreign and unnecessary. How does judgment fit into the picture if all people are children of God? What makes people within the church any different from people outside the church? If Jesus simply teaches about God, couldn’t others fill that role adequately as well? Why do I need to believe in Jesus and be “born again” if I am already a child of God? Isn’t it more loving simply to affirm others as valuable rather than to challenge them to repent and believe?
6. Back to my work with Christian college students, the topics mentioned in point #5 (judgment, church/world distinction, Jesus as the only way to God, conversion/new birth, evangelism/church planting) are the very topics that I find young Christians expressing misgivings about. There may be a cause and effect relationship here. Love can be defined so generically, apart from the broader biblical story, that the resulting definition no longer leaves room for these other biblical topics.
Evangelicals – those who value the evangel or euaggelion proclaimed by Christ and explained by the apostles – will notice the gospel being flattened or distorted in various ways in the culture around them. As currency specialists point out, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be well-studied in the real thing. The full, rich gospel of Jesus Christ (regarding his person, teaching, and works) is presented clearly in the Scriptures for those who have ears to hear.