Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith: Reading God’s Word for God’s People

Martin Luther is a giant among the church’s theologians. He is especially known for advocating views such as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers, which challenged the late-medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Yet the reading of God’s Word was what Luther considered his primary task as a theologian—and as a Christian. Though he is often portrayed as reading the Bible with a bare approach of sola Scriptura, without any reference to or concern for previous generations’ interpretation, the truth is much more complicated.

In this volume in IVP Academic’s New Explorations in Theology (NET) series, Reformation scholar Todd R. Hains considers how Luther read the Bible according to the rule of faith, which guided his interpretation of the text by the church’s established practice of hermeneutics as reflected in the Apostles’ Creed and the church’s catechism.

This study will helpfully complicate your view of Luther and bring clarity to your own reading of God’s Word.

Martin Luther was a wonderfully gifted polemicist, a good theologian (sometimes) but he was an awful exegete.  Especially when he attempted to interpret the Old Testament.  He was incapable of allowing the text to speak for itself and rather than simply listen to it, he told it what he wanted to find in it.  And all he wanted to find in it was Christ.  Everywhere.  Not just in places like Isaiah 7 (which even Matthew saw as filled with messianic meaning) but literally everywhere.  For instance, in the story of God granting Abraham the Promised Land, Luther finds Christ-

Thus the church is the pupil of Christ. It sits at His feet and listens to His Word, that it may know how to judge everything—how to serve in one’s vocation and to fill civil offices, yes, how to eat, drink, and sleep—so that there is no doubt about any area of life, but that we, surrounded on all sides by the rays of the Word, may continually walk in joy and in the most beautiful light.

Does that have anything to do with Genesis 13?  Of course it doesn’t, but for Luther, Christ must be there, lurking behind every tree and under every rock.

Is Christ in Ecclesiastes?  No.  Except for Luther.

For one should not quit simply because so few are changed for the better to hear the preaching of the Gospel. But do what Christ did: He rescued the elect and left the rest behind. This is what the apostles did also. It will not be better for you. You are foolish if you either presume that you alone can accomplish everything or despair of everything when it does not go your way.

In short, Luther has to include Christ because for Luther the Old Testament has no meaning apart from him.

In the book at hand Todd Hains does a masterful job of trying to convince us that Luther’s reading of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is guided not simply by eisegetical concerns but by what he calls ‘the rule of faith’ (or what we old timers call ‘the analogy of faith’).  Alas, try though he may, Hains is unable to deliver Luther from the abundantly clear fact that Luther is an eisegete, regardless of how that methodology is labelled.  Like Sisyphus, Hains pushes the boulder up the hill but like Sisyphus the boulder rolls all the way to the bottom in spite of every herculean effort.  Luther won’t be pushed into being an actual biblical exegete no matter how many labels his methodology is given nor how much effort is expended in trying to convince ourselves and others that Luther’s purpose was higher or greater or better than we imagine.

Whether we call it the analogy of faith, or the rule of faith, or eisegesis; what Luther does to the Old Testament especially (he is marginally better when he treats the New Testament because there, naturally, Christ is actually to be found) is pure misinterpretation.

Still, again, Hains gives it his all.  He introduces his subject and his methodology and then defines the ‘analogy of faith’.  This, I confess, is my favorite chapter of the book.  Hains clearly knows the theological underpinnings of the analogy and he also clearly understands how Luther wants to use the analogy.  The entire book’s price is justified by the inclusion of this one chapter alone.

Hains then helps readers understand the place the Catechism played in Luther’s thought and life and here too he is not wrong.

Then the real fun starts (and by fun, I mean misery- not because Hains does a poor job at what follows, but because Luther is so annoying as an interpreter of Scripture).  Thus, in chapter five we learn how Luther read Torah through the lens of the ‘analogia fidei’.  And how did he?  Badly.

Chapter six is devoted to Luther’s reading of the Historical Books (which he had little time for because though he found Christ there a lot, he simply couldn’t be bothered with the history of the Jews.  Anyway, for Luther, their history only mattered till Jesus arrived and then he was done with it).  Chapter seven is another tour of Luther’s eisegesis but this time the focus is the Wisdom material (i.e., Psalm 72) and what it can contribute to our understanding of…. wait for it… Jesus.  Luther writes of Ps 72:7

Behold a miracle. In all the prophets, when the nations which are converted to Christ are specifically enumerated, only southern ones are mentioned, like Ethiopians, Arabians, and Egyptians. On the contrary, when evils are prophesied, almost always northern nations are mentioned, such as Gog, Magog, Tubal, Meshech, and Dedan. This demonstrates the difference between both groups of nations. The southerners are the ones to whom the sun draws near through faith, while the northerners are the ones from whom the sun withdraws because of unbelief.

It’s a miracle alright.  A miracle of eisegesis.  At some point one feels like yelling at Luther ‘just stop it dude’.  But he refuses.

When Hains arrives at chapter seven he’s ready to tell us how Luther reads the Prophets via the analogy of faith.  Nothing unexpected appears.  By now we are used to seeing Luther do what he wishes to the words of the ancients and we are also used to our good guide Dr Hains trying his dead level best to convince us that it’s ok.

Chapter eight is the final bit of biblical examination and here the whole of the New Testament is brought into view.  One can’t be too mad at Luther now.  At least he sees Christ where he actually is instead of where he definitely isn’t.

Chapter nine is the conclusion of the matter.  Here Hains gives his readers a lot of help when he presents his Five Theses on the Bible and the Analogy of Faith.  Linking catechism to biblical texts and both to the analogy of faith, Hains asserts (I have simplified, see the book for the full contents) that

  1. the analogy of faith is biblical
  2. the bible should be read according to it
  3. this is the way reading the bible makes the bible the bible
  4. faith is the key to reading the bible and master of all interpretive tools
  5. and the catechism’s summary of faith is the beginning and end of the Christian life

Whether or not he’s right I’ll leave to each of you to decide once you’ve read the book.  Hains is a good guide even if you find his argument unconvincing.

If you read this book as a biblical scholar, you’ll be annoyed with Luther but pleased with Hains (for who can be angry at a well-intentioned skillful guide?).

Luther was as poor at exegesis as Karl Barth was; for as was true of Barth, when you read either scholar’s biblical exegeses you get 99% them and 1% biblical author.  But I still love them both, even though their eisegeses make me sick.  Analogy of faith or not.

For, at the end of the day, no analogy can rescue bad exegesis.  It’s just bad.