Harnack on Comparative Religion: Early Christianity, Warfare, and Darwinian Social Evolution

Harnack Image

I was recently re-reading Adolf von Harnack’s classic Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries, transl. David McInnes Gracie (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981 [1905]), given my recent interest in early Christian military martyrs. In working through this little book, I was not surprised to find the standard concerns arising: how do we reconcile the historical presence of Christians in the Roman military, when Christianity is supposedly a pacifist and/or anti-imperial religion? But there is so much more in Harnack’s tackling such a concern, moves that he makes that effectively illustrate his indebtedness to 19th century epistemological frameworks; namely, Darwinian social evolutionary thought. I’d like to briefly reflect on that link in this post.

Harnack opens Militia Christi with the following questions: “(1) Has the Christian religion continuously or at any time in its history assumed a warlike character and preached the right and duty of holy war? (2) Has the church, occasionally or continuously, adopted military organization (in a transferred sense) and disciplined its believers, or part of them, as soldiers of Christ? (3) What position has the church taken with regard to the secular military profession and to war?” (p.26). These three opening questions, or problems, frame his treatment of the topic and of his sources, including the military martyr accounts from the Great Persecution (see 93-104, especially 96-97).

This framing elucidates the concerns underlying Militia Christi as well as the theoretical model that Harnack uses in his study of religion. Harnack works with a typical 19th century Darwinian social evolutionary model, with a unilinear view of evolution, where “religion” moves from the “lower stages” (with warfare necessarily connected to religion) to “higher religions” (specifically Christianity) (Harnack, Militia Christi, 28; on the centrality of Darwinian social evolutionary thinking in 19th century scholarship, see Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd edition [La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986], 47-71). He speculates that shifts from literal to figurative articulations of military images are part of this development, yet with an enduring martial attitude present in Christianity (due to arising from the “womb” of Judaism) (Harnack, Militia Christi, 28, 32). His attitude toward Judaism situates his social evolutionary thinking within another, equally longstanding, historical model: Judaism as the mother of Christianity. Such a view of Judaism, of course, evokes the supersessionism theology that gives Christianity “historical” legitimacy and place of privilege, while justifying anti-Jewish or even anti-Semitic attitudes. Again, Harnack works with a linear view of history—a view that is not out of place with his contemporaries, but which has been replaced by much scholarship since the 1980s (e.g., the alternative model of competing “siblings”; see Hayim Goren Perelmuter, Siblings: Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity at Their Beginnings [New York: Paulist Press, 1989]; Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986]).

Yet it is his stress on “higher” and “lower religions” that allows him to propose a development from literal to figurative attitudes on war and violence. This coexistence of the literal and figurative, for Harnack, is tied into the influence of apocalyptic and prophetic traditions upon Christian thinking as well as occasional political necessity (Harnack, Militia Christi, 30-37, 61-62). For Harnack, like many who have studied the relationship of Christians and the military, there is an implicit bias in favor of a pacifistic ideal, yet with a recognition that such an ideal does not always fit historical data, data that indicates the presence of Christians in the military. Arising from a 19th century intellectual milieu, his solution is to view Christianity as a “higher religion” along social evolutionary lines.

Indeed, for Harnack, comparative research on various religions was not even necessary, because, along such a unilinear evolutionary trajectory, to study Christianity is to learn all one needs know about religion or religions:

“Wer diese Religion (das Christentum; R.A.M.) nicht kennt, kennt keine, und wer sie samt ihrer Geschichte kennt, kennt sie alle” (“Anyone who does not know this religion [Christianity], knows no religion, and anyone who knows Christianity, together with its history, knows all religion”) (Harnack, Reden und Aufsätze, Bd. 2 [Giessen: Töpelmann, 1906], 168; for a discussion of the controversy behind such a statement, see Sharpe, Comparative Religion, 127 [ET taken from Sharpe]).

Thus, for Harnack the privileged place given to Christianity and its history frames the tension between Christians and (participation in) the Roman military, such as we find narrated in the military martyr accounts. What I find fascinating here is that Harnack both evokes and breaks with the then prevailing (or growing) anthropological approach to comparative religion. Among especially the Victorian anthropologists, with perhaps Andrew Lang in the last period of his career being a major challenge to these assumptions, the notion of social evolution from “primitive religion” to “higher religions” allowed anthropologists to use both past cultures and modern “primitive” cultures to elucidate the real object of study: their own, Christian culture(s). Part of this comparative methodology was the belief in “survivals”; i.e., evolutionary remnants of stages we had gone through that are extant either in our culture (especially folklore) or in those extant cultures that have not reached our stage of social evolution. The linear evolutionary model allowed these anthropologists to see an earlier stage in their own culture reflected in that of these “survivals”.

Harnack seems to embrace much of this scientific paradigm, yet uses it to reject comparative analysis. For Harnack, if I’m reading him correctly, all valuable elements in primitive religions are already present in the higher (or highest) religion(s). There is no value in studying other cultures or religions because all that they have to teach us can already be learned by studying Christianity. The evolutionary progression, however, remains in Harnack’s approach—but it is a progression that is best studied within the bounds of Christian history, not cultural comparison. Comparison, for Harnack, is a strictly intra-Christian study. And for Harnack, such a focus elucidates other religions! As Sharpe summarizes, “…the student should not despair: he is far better equipped to study religion through Christianity” (Sharpe, Comparative Religion, 127).

To summarize, I think we can say that Harnack was a product of his time, yet in two significant directions. He embraced the dominant intellectual (or scientific) model of his day: evolution (be that biological or social). Yet he also exemplifies the resistance that many had to the emerging comparative religion endeavor (and the so-called world religions paradigm that has recently, though on different grounds, come under attack); namely, a preferential status given to Christianity, Christian mission, and Christian claims to truth. Today we may see this dual attitude as mere Christian apologetics—and it certainly was that, of course—, but such a judgment would misrepresent Harnack I think. He was an historian first and foremost, a researcher dedicated not to homilies and theologies, but to scientific exactitude. For Harnack (though not for me or many others reading him together I suspect) there was no conflict between scientific precision and claims to Christian superiority. In a sense, “science” obscured what Donald Wiebe would call “small ‘c’ confessionalism”. And such obscuring likely kept Harnack himself in the dark as to his own historical-critical and anthropological presuppositions and prejudices.


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