Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith

Title of Work:

Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith

Author of Work:

Todd Hains


Pastor Joshua Becker

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“We have no slight reasons for treating the Catechism so constantly [in sermons] and for both desiring and beseeching others to teach it, since we see to our sorrow that many pastors and preachers are very negligent in this, and slight both their office and this teaching.” In essence, Todd Hains’s book is an exploration of this opening remark from Luther’s Large Catechism. Throughout this amply footnoted volume, readers gain a sense of just how constantly Luther made use of the catechism in his preaching. Luther’s heirs today will appreciate such an examination given the growing Biblical illiteracy of our age. 

In the first introductory chapter, Hains raises the issue of “Scripture against Scripture,” or how to correctly interpret Scripture. This was an issue Luther faced both as he dealt with the emphasis on tradition among the papists, and reason among the Reformed. In answer to that issue, Hains argues that Luther used the analogy/rule1 of faith to determine true interpretations as opposed to false ones. Chapter two explores what Luther meant by the analogy of faith. In his sermons, Luther lays out that the analogy of faith is the summary of Scriptural truth found in the catechism. A word of explanation may be in order. When modern Lutherans think of the catechism, they can easily default to Luther’s Large or Small Catechism. However, in Luther’s mind, his Large and Small Catechisms were commentaries on the catechism. Hains shows that for Luther the catechism was the Creed, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, along with the sacraments (34). For Luther this catechism was not a rule above Scripture, but “the Bible’s own key made from the Bible itself” (54). After spending chapter three summarizing the catechism, most of the remaining chapters display how Luther used the analogy of faith in his preaching on different portions of Scripture. A set of five theses on Luther’s use of the analogy of faith and a brief conclusion round out the book. 

When it comes to the main point of Luther’s use of the catechism in preaching, Hains delivers a valuable series of case studies. Using select examples, Hains shows how the basic truths of the catechism shaped Luther’s understanding and application of Scripture for the benefit of his hearers. For instance, the third-article truth of Christ’s gracious rule through forgiveness and bearing our sins is drawn out from Luther’s sermons and lectures on Isaiah 9 (126-9). Of special note is chapter eight, where Hains focuses on Luther’s Easter Monday sermons on Luke 24 to treat absolution and the Lord’s Supper. Here Lutheran pastors will find much of value to imitate in their own preaching. Above all, these glimpses into Luther’s preaching reveal the truth that he did indeed make himself a student of the catechism throughout his life. The sheer number of times that he references portions of the catechism in his sermons reveals his familiarity with it (158). Such a model is a good reminder for pastors to imitate Luther in never growing beyond the catechism as they go about their ministry. 

In addition to the main encouragement to read and apply Scripture in the light of the analogy of faith, there are several other valuable points. Since so much of the book looks at examples from Luther’s preaching, many valuable points on preaching come up in passing. Often these come in the form of small nuggets of wisdom from Luther’s own preaching and writing, many of which resonate with modern struggles in preaching. For instance, Luther observed, “When we preach the article of justification, the people snore and cough, but their ears immediately perk up to stories” (39). How many preachers today have struggled with the same issue of balancing doctrinal meat with the homiletical fluff of stories? Or consider Luther’s observation: “No matter how clear and easy the gospel is, it isn’t so for common people. To them nothing is more profitably preached than the catechism” (159). That is a solid reminder for preachers whose hearers are more likely to need a refresher on the basics of the Bible than an exploration of the obscure details of the Bible. 

Of course, Luther’s ability to see Christ at the heart of all of Scripture is evident throughout the book, and a welcome encouragement. Hains sums up Luther on this point well when he writes, “The Bible witnesses to Jesus. So much so, in fact, that Jesus points people to the Bible’s testimony of himself rather than to the testimony of the women at the tomb or the angels or the dead—even rather than his own testimony!” (146-7) 

This leads to perhaps one aspect of the book that may at times make WELS pastors a little uncomfortable.  At times Hains seems to present Luther as being opposed to aspects of the historical-grammatical method of Bible interpretation. For instance, he shares this thought from Luther about grammar: “Indeed grammar is necessary for declining nouns, conjugating verbs, and construing syntax, but for the proclamation of the meaning and the consideration of the subject matter, grammar is not needed. For grammar should not rule over the meaning” (9-10). Or at another point Hains summarizes, “To read the Bible only by grammar and human history is to read light by darkness” (166). It is helpful when reading such sections to remember that Luther is not opposed to grammar and history. Rather, he sees these tools as helpers rather than rulers in determining meaning. The key to which all these tools must remain subservient is Christ. This is illustrated well by an incident Hains relates about a Hebraist who pointed out to Luther and his associates that the Rabbis understood a verse of the Old Testament differently than they had translated it. Luther’s response: “Could you make it so that in grammar and pointing, it fits with the New Testament?” (167). 

However, the frequent mentions of allegory throughout the book may be what catches WELS pastors off guard the most. While Luther has critical things to say about allegory (“An allegory is like a beautiful harlot who fondles men in such a way that it is impossible for her not to be loved,” 89) and forbids its use to establish doctrine (89), he also approves of its use rhetorically to help hearers understand the meaning of a text (89) and even calls it necessary for certain texts (124). Particularly surprising may be that Luther’s comment about allegory being necessary comes from his lectures on Isaiah dated 1543-44 (124). Thus, one cannot simply dismiss this comment as a remark from early in Luther’s life before he had broken with allegory. Yet, given that Luther himself makes distinctions about different types of allegory, modern readers may want to recognize that what Luther calls allegory may not be exactly what we would always call allegory. For instance, in discussing Isaiah 9, Luther speaks of Gideon as an allegory of Christ in his lectures, while Hains calls Gideon a type of Christ. The bottom line is that discernment and charity will be needed in reading certain sections of this book. 

In the final analysis, this book is a handy and helpful summary of Luther’s use of the catechism in preaching and teaching God’s Word. Hains himself sums up the enduring value of such an examination well when he wrote, “The catechism is like the ABCs of the Bible. It’s brief and accessible for young or old, learned or unlearned, and it can’t be replaced. You can never move on from the ABCs without losing the ability to read and write. In the same way, you can never move on from the catechism without losing the ability to read and hear God’s word. If you want to read and write, learn the ABCs. If you want to hear God’s word, learn the catechism” (174).