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Steinmetz, David C.
Taking the Long View. Christian Theology in Historical Perspective.
Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press 2011. IX, 187 S. 23,4 cm x 15,5 cm. Kart. £ 13,99. ISBN 978-0-19-976894-3.
This Book is written by David C. Steinmetz, former Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke University. S. is a well known scholar of medieval and reformation history, not least famous for his work on Luther and Johann von Staupitz. S. has also worked profoundly with a series of other topics, for instance Calvin, and also the secondary theologians of the Reformation: witness the book Reformers in the wings: from Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza. In recent years he has made close studies of the history of biblical scholarship in the late me-dieval and Reformation period. Besides his scholarly career S. serves as a United Methodist Minister.
The book is a collection of lectures given at American Universities and articles previously published in American newspapers, magazines and journals. It consists of 17 chapters and an appendix, notes to the different chapters, scripture index and a general index. To a large extent it draws on the content of S.’ previous work: with reference first and foremost to sources from the medieval and Reformation era, S. comments critically on various contemporary topics such as historical criticism, revisions of the church confessions and public worship, intelligent design, ecumenism, ministry, marriage, celibacy and ordination, Christianity as a world religion, and religion and politics.
In the introduction S. himself formulates a thesis for the whole book, this being »that the memory of the past is essential to proper functioning in the present« (VIII). It seems to him that contemporary protestant churches, not the least in America, are too concerned with their passion for action rather than thought to find time to ponder upon and appreciate the history of Christianity. This ought to be otherwise, because, as he formulates it: »The Christian past […] places a question mark over Christian thinking and acting in the present« (VIII). The aim of S.’ book is therefore to give an account of the diversity, richness and importance of the historical past in order to enlighten contemporary Christians and admonish them to rumi-nate on the complexities of the gospel in their daily life.
In two chapters at the end of the book we come even closer to S.’ view of the uses of history, and of church history in particular. In »The Necessity of the Past« he delineates how to a large extent it marks America as orientated towards the future and not the past. The immigrant history, of Europeans leaving their old worlds behind and starting afresh in the New World, points ahead and not backwards. This general attitude places »the American Church in an awkward position«, since the nature of the Christian faith »rests on an appeal to certain past events« (139). Christianity is history, he asserts, and is thus unable to thrive in an unambiguously forward-looking society. Christianity cannot be reduced to philosophical ideas or moral precepts, since it is bound up with the historical presence of Jesus of Nazareth and influenced by the Christian tradition, which has pondered upon His existence ever since. And thus »church history« according to S. »has an indispensable role to play as a theological stimulus and corrective« (143). Again: »by interpreting what the church did in the past, by clarifying what it believed, [historians] provide Christians with a more universal perspective within which to clarify their own faith and to formulate their own actions in the present. The first task for church history as a theological discipline is to free Christians from their own parochialism and make them truly catholic« (143).
In the next chapter, »Taking the Long View«, S. holds up two church historians from the 20th century, Jaroslav Pelikan and Heiko A. Oberman, as examples. They had diverging profiles – Pelikan tried to embrace the Christian tradition as a whole in a »broad vision of the Christian past« (150), whereas Oberman worked in a more specialized field with late medieval and early modern Europe– but they were united in the attempt to read the Christian past critically, yet out of a genuine affection for it. And their readings are exemplary, since they »still challenge the church to remember its past and, by doing so, take the long view on its present« (156).
In the reprinted articles S. tries to illustrate his point. With re-ference to the mulitifaceted picture of the Bible which one gets when studying the biblical interpretations passed down by history, he criticizes the search for a single meaning of a text, all too evident in historical-critical exegesis, in the chapter called »The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis«. As he chooses to put it: »with all its demonstrable virtues, [the theory of a single meaning] struggles because it is false« (14).
In »Inclusive Language and the Trinity« he turns against contemporary attempts to substitute the traditional reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit in public worship with more inclusive, non-patriarchal language such as creator, redeemer and sustainer. This he does by giving examples of, and explaining, the complex trinitarian thinking in the early church. In his view it is not pos-sible to substitute the language of God’s being with the language of His doing. The Christian tradition has taught us, he says, that »trinitarian language is ontological language« (35), and it needs to stay so. – In further articles he emphasizes the differences between the diverse confessions on various issues such as the image of Mary, the interpretation of Luther, the understanding of prophecy, ministry and the Eucharist. He underlines that the different opinions and views in Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Zwinglian thought are all crucial insights that cannot be set aside, for all that they each may need to be corrected by other voices in the Christian tradition. Thereby he demonstrates his ecumenical openness towards the diverse theological interpretations and displays an extensive willingness to apply them all if possible.
In the article »Starting Over. Reformation and Conversion« we get a notion of S.’ interpretation of justification in Reformation theology. In his interpretation, penitence or conversion in protestant thinking is clearly to be understood as a process. True protestant repentance requires growth in grace – as he expresses it, »the more one grows in the love of God, the more perfect one’s repentance« (75). He quotes Luther on God’s alien and proper work in this context, but even though he explicitly emphasizes Luther’s understanding of their dialectical relationship, he nevertheless seems to explain them consecutively as one stage followed by the other: »God destroys the old decadent self in order to create in its place a new reality almost too glorious to be imagined. Suffering is for the sake of joy« (76). In this way the distinction can more easily be fitted with a progressive view of justification.
Altogether S.’ book is valuable, not least as regards his emphasis upon the importance of historical work with the Christian tradition for contemporary Christianity and church life. The form is essayist and the content thus less investigative and profound than inspirational and thought-provoking. A scholar might wish for more explicit references and detailed analyses of texts, but on the other hand one could defend the work by saying that this is not the aim of the book. The outward appearance when it comes to language and style is spotless, and the appendices and the formal layout are unexceptionable.