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 ...1
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