Last month on Thanksgiving evening, one of the leading church historians of our time died at age 79. David Curtis Steinmetz was a brilliant scholar who shaped much of the way study of late medieval and early modern Christianity is conducted today, and many of his former students are now leaders in their respective fields.
Steinmetz spent most of his academic career at Duke Divinity School as Ragan Kerns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity. A native of Ohio, he studied at Wheaton College, where he majored in English and graduated with highest honors in 1958. He completed seminary studies at Drew University, where he came to know Franz Hildebrandt, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a close personal friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From Drew, he went to Harvard to study with the Dutch scholar Heiko Oberman, whose groundbreaking work on the late medieval context of the Reformation Steinmetz would deepen and extend. In 1967, Steinmetz received a ThD for his brilliant dissertation on Martin Luther’s mentor, Johannes von Staupitz.
I first met Steinmetz a decade later when he returned to Harvard as a visiting professor. I took his class on “Calvin and the Reformed Tradition,” the same course he himself had taken with Oberman. Steinmetz also served on my doctoral examination committee.
Historian Patrick Collinson once said that it is better to be wrong than to be boring, but that to be neither is best. Steinmetz was seldom wrong, and he was far from boring. He was the best classroom teacher I have ever had. He was not only brilliant, but also passionate and insightful. He never lost sight of the larger context of the texts and traditions he was so adept at bringing to life. I shall never forget his early morning lectures in Andover Hall, as he presented Calvin’s life and thought like a great actor commanding the stage. He never took roll; no one dared miss his lively lectures—replete with chalk-drawn diagrams on the blackboard, lively interrogations of 16th-century texts, and dramatic enactments of Reformation debates. You felt like you were there with Luther and Zwingli at Marburg, with Calvin and Bolsec in Geneva.
In 1980, Steinmetz published an essay with an edgy title, “The Superiority of Precritical Exegesis” in Theology Today. He did not deal directly with 16th-century exegesis—a line of research he and his students would exploit in the decades to come. Rather, he offered a frontal assault on what C. S. Lewis—one of Steinmetz’s favorite authors—once called the “chronological snobbery” of scholarly methods that dismiss as antiquated traditional ways of reading the Bible. Returning to Augustine and the early church, Steinmetz showed how the “fourfold sense of Scripture” that became widely used in the Middle Ages was a way of taking seriously the words and sayings of Scripture, including implicit meanings beyond the original intentions of the human authors. This did not mean abandoning the primacy of the “literal sense” of the text, an emphasis already found in Thomas Aquinas. But it did mean recognizing the increasing complexity of the “literal sense” which in the Reformation absorbed more and more of the content of the spiritual meanings.
Much of what is known today as the “theological interpretation of Scripture” proceeds from assumptions clarified by Steinmetz. A new generation of scholars has come to see the interpretive tradition of the church not as a problem to be overcome, but rather as an indispensable aid for rightly understanding the inspired Word. As Steinmetz once said in my hearing, sola Scriptura does not mean nuda Scriptura but rather prima Scriptura—not Scripture only but Scripture asthenorm by which all other writings and teachings are judged.
Nearly 20 years ago, Richard Muller and John Thompson, two of Steinmetz’s former doctoral students, compiled a collection of essays in his honor, titled Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation. In one essay, historian Scott Manetsch said,
Professor David Steinmetz was one of our generation’s most insightful interpreters of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Straddling the traditional divide between the Middle Ages and the early modern period, Steinmetz’s meticulous scholarship exposed the rich medieval inheritance that shaped Protestant theology and exegesis. His forceful defense of “precritical” biblical exegesis will no doubt continue to serve as inspiration for scholars studying the history of biblical interpretation and its relevance for the church today.
For example, the kind of work set forth in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and its sequel, the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Steinmetz.
Respecter of the Text
Steinmetz was also a great fan of detective novels, and my favorite of his many essays is “Miss Marple Reads the Bible.” Here Steinmetz points out that reading the Bible is like reading a mystery story that has two narratives. The first narrative is the one the reader of the mystery story encounters as the tale unfolds: clues not fully revealed, false leads, shadowy characters who may or may not assume a larger part as the story goes on, unexplained encounters, altogether a haphazard and puzzling sequence of events. The second narrative is revealed by the master detective—a Miss Marple or a Sherlock Holmes—who near the end of the story brings the suspects and interested spectators all together into a room and reveals in short order what has been happening all along. If the master detective performs his or her task well in presenting the second narrative, the whole story makes perfect sense, a kind of psychological closure takes place, and we are free to go on to the next novel. According to Steinmetz, this is what happens in the New Testament and in its summaries such as the Apostles’ Creed. They disclose at the end, as it were, the structure of the whole biblical narrative from the beginning. This is one reason, Steinmetz argued, that precritical exegesis is superior to many more recent reductionist construals.
German church historian Adolf von Harnack once said:
We study history in order to intervene in the course of history and we have a right and duty to do so; for without historical insight we either permit ourselves to be mere objects of the historical process or tend to mislead people in an irresponsible way.
Steinmetz warned against the “aimless meanderings and nervous activism” of much of contemporary Christianity. The mission of the church in the present will make sense “only when we have regained our identity from the past.” It is the church historian’s duty to jog the memory of the church, which suffers from collective amnesia.
Not just a scholar, Steinmetz was also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He had a high view of the ordained ministry and encouraged young ministers to remain faithful, rather than original, in their preaching of the gospel. In a sermon preached to undergraduates at Duke University Chapel in 1997, he said:
The good news for the members of the graduating class who plan to enter the ordained ministry is that you don’t have to invent your own gospel. All of the church hopes you will be imaginative and resourceful. It doesn’t expect you to be original. Actually, it rather discourages originality with respect to core convictions. The church will authorize you to preach an ancient gospel you didn’t cook up and that is true whether you believe it or not. You will be commissioned by bishops and elders who have done it before you to preach the whole counsel of God, including the awkward bits we don’t understand very well. What you will not be ordained to do (though some of you will yield to the temptation to do it anyway) is to preach only those parts of the Christian tradition you have found personally meaningful. God doesn’t intend to mold the church in your image, you’ll be relieved to know, but in the image of the crucified and risen Christ.
The tribute Steinmetz once paid to Oberman applies now to him. He continues to be “a seminal thinker who sets other historians in motion. He has left the next generation … a rich collection of stimulating ideas and suggestions and defined for them unfinished tasks to do.”
In his work, Steinmetz saw God’s faithfulness displayed throughout the history of the church. He pondered God’s faithfulness in a sermon titled “Turned from Idols and Still Turning” preached at Resurrection United Methodist Church in Durham in 1987, Steinmetz reminded his hearers that the God who raised Jesus from the dead always kept his promises, in contrast to the idols which so often lay claim to our loyalties.
God keeps the promises he makes, never abandons his worshipers in their distress, and can be counted upon to be faithful to them even when there seems to be no earthly reason he should be. Someday a funeral procession will go to a cemetery and after a brief ceremony, everyone will go home except me. At that moment, the vain and threadbare claim of the idols to be the final arbiters of human destiny will be shown up as the poor and empty thing it is. Only God can be God; only God has the power and the will to be God. Whatever claims to be God but is not God will abandon us one final time at the grave’s edge. On that day, the only question that will matter is whether underneath us are the everlasting arms of the living and true God.
Steinmetz teaches us to look backward so that we might see more clearly not only who we are, but who God is.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.