Essay / Theology

Happy Birthday, Rudolf Stier

Today (March 17) Rudolf Ewald Stier (1800 – 1862) was born. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him, he is little noted nor much remembered these days. Partly because he was so awesome that our puny age cannot handle his sheer awesomeness.

Stier did a lot of interesting things as a conservative Lutheran churchman in nineteenth-century Germany. Not only is there an interesting biography of him, but it’s available in English, and scanned at Google Books. It’s a nice life story, including an unusually detailed and especially passionate theological courtship.

But the reason you might consider looking him up and reading him is that he was a biblical expositor of unusual power and insight. Many of his books were translated into English and are in the public domain now. He was very conservative, but his way of handling the text of Scripture is unparalleled. Among his commentaries, his best are the “Words of…” series. He did detailed studies of the words of the Apostles (speeches in the book of Acts), the words of the Angels, and (perhaps my favorite) the words of the risen Savior. By focusing on the actual speeches and sayings of his chosen subjects, Stier won the right to examine every word lovingly, studying all the nuances and expecting to find meaning in the smallest details.

And among the “Words of…” series, the major project was the multi-volume Words of Jesus. Here, Stier devoted himself to expounding the sayings of Jesus in the gospels, and the result is hundreds of pages of powerful exposition.

I recommend reading some Stier; he’ll make you wonder why modern commentaries don’t have the same sheer muscle and magic. And here, just as a sample, is one of the most striking passages I’ve read in Stier lately. It’s from volume 5 of the Words of the Lord Jesus series, translated by Methodist genius William Burt Pope in 1856. This excerpt is from the postscript, and is partly about how the doctrine of the Trinity is really in the Bible, no matter what all the New Testament scholars say. Stier moves on from there to defend his right to enter meditatively into the full meaning of Scripture.

That the prosecution of my contemplation, upon ch. v. 19, 20, into the mysterium Trinitatis should be condemned (p. 12) as passing beyond the immediate meaning of the text and its exegetical design, results from the fundamental difference between my relation to the Word and that of Luthardt as representing systematic university theology.

Whatever the sacred Word speaks to our thoughtful meditation abidingly exercised upon it, and to our “systematic theological thinking” quickened by its influence –I include within the range of pure exposition, as developing the principles and exhibiting the kernel of the word of God, or in scriptural language as opening the Scripture. Nor can I submit to sacrifice the backgrounds of deeper meaning which unfold speculative truth, to the system of historical hermeneutics, in any such manner as that which Hofmann has brought into vogue.

As to this question we cannot admit that in St. John’s Gospel the doctrine concerning the Father and the Son is to be confined within the rigorous bounds of the mere historical relation and significance of these terms in the scheme of salvation, and that no legitimate exposition can go beyond. If it is said that the Son is the man who came forth from God, and is come into the world” –we maintain, on the other hand, that He is God also proceeding, and who hath proceeded forth from God, who hath become man, and is come into the world; –as is most expressly declared in ch. xvi. 28, xvii. 5. Luthardt’s refusal to admit “an eternal going forth within the Being of God,” springs from the arbitrariness of a restricted and prejudiced devotion to a system. Just as certainly as the economical Trinity must be developed in theology, all that is spoken concerning it must rest upon the deeper foundation of the immanent Trinity; we are therefore necessarily referred to this innermost application of the term, and required to make it prominent.

Elsewhere, as at p. 15, (touching the krisis, ch. v. 22), the question of the maintenance of a full and deep meaning beyond the limits of the immediate and obvious meaning is again discussed. For myself, I am firmly convinced that an “arbitrary limitation” may be alleged against the narrow school exegesis with at least as much propriety as an “arbitrary extension” may be alleged against me. And I am further persuaded, that, as time rolls on, and the injurious influence of our past and present merely human school-commentators declines, as decline it does and will, very many of the new race of school-theologians, rejoicing in a living faith, will come to take a supreme delight in exploring the depth and fulness of the Words of God. “

Share this essay [social_share/]