Review: Todd Hains, Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith: Reading God’s Word for God’s People

Not long ago, Reformed circles found it fashionable to criticize those on the other side of our intramural debates as being too Lutheran. If being too Lutheran means thinking anything like Todd Hains and reading Scripture with the care and purpose for God’s people as he draws from Martin Luther’s corpus, then I for one would be glad to be saddled with that critique today.

Hains’ Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith is simultaneously a work in historical theology, churchly hermeneutics, a doctrine of Scripture, and a reminder about what preaching and Bible reading is supposed to be. The main argument is that Luther interpreted Scripture according to the catechism. In accord with the best studies of early modern religion, Hains noted that this catechism was not Luther’s own writing but the combination of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. These three lenses formed Luther’s primary tools for bringing Scripture to bear on preaching.

The argument might be provocative to some because of Luther’s role in the Reformation—namely, calling the church back to the Scripture alone as the final authority in faith and conduct. Hains’ point might seem as though a theological construct is added to Scripture as an authority for doctrine and hermeneutics. This misguided notion, however, could not be further from the truth, at least as it corresponds to Luther’s own approach to God’s Word. As Hains highlights along the way, Luther made use of historical-grammatical tools for determining the baseline meaning of Scripture. This first step of interpretation, however, does not exhaust Scripture’s meaning and application but rather sets the limits for further interpretation (pg. 167–68).

For Luther, using the combination of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer to interpret and apply the Scripture was nothing other than to interpret Scripture by Scripture. The catechism then manifested the Bible’s own inner logic, showing the principles by which we can come to understand and use any passage to increase our faith and ability to walk with the Lord.

This book provides a sample of Luther’s preaching from each genre of Scripture, using the catechism as his interpretive guide. Chapters look at sermons on the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Psalms as representing the wisdom literature, the Prophetic corpus, and the New Testament. Hains’ research is thorough and impressive as he cites, in true scholarly fashion, the German edition of Luther’s works and provides good translations of quoted material. His comments critiquing the new annotated edition of Luther’s works are worth noting for those considering which versions of Luther’s works they might purchase. The technical depth of Hains’ book, however, is somewhat hidden by the strength of a very well-written, highly engaging, and one might even daresay heartwarming presentation of Luther’s preaching.

The real payoff of Hains’ work is that it shows how Luther always brought his congregation to Christ, no matter which Scripture he preached. By using the Apostles’ Creed as the sacred history that umbrellas over all history, Luther was able to see the whole Bible as a book about Christ. By using the Ten Commandments, he was able to direct us to see our faults and need for Christ, as well as how to love our neighbors. By using the Lord’s Prayer, he was able to show us our dependence on God for all things in the Christian life. In Luther’s hands, the Scripture is not a lifeless subject for critical analysis, as modern higher critics have treated it, but a white-hot iron for branding the gospel on our hearts.

Hains’ analysis of Luther teaches us several lessons that we as the contemporary church need to heed. First, Luther’s commitment to Scripture alone as our final authority never turned him into a radical individualist. Luther read the Bible with and for the church. He was not content to rest assured in his own self-produced interpretations, as if he could assume infallible insight into the whole message of Scripture on his own. Rather, he needed the guidance of ages past, and particularly needed to understand specific passages in light of the whole Scripture’s unified message.

Second, Luther’s opposition to reason was specific and also provides a profound reminder about how we ought to read the Bible. Hains demonstrated that Luther opposed the use of unregenerate reason in explaining spiritual truths. He affirmed that even unregenerate reason could fathom the truth needed for governing temporal affairs. He also affirmed that regenerate reason has a place in interpreting Scripture.

The real key to this issue, however, is that regenerate reason is subordinate to faith for understanding the Bible. Faith accepts that the truths of Scripture must accord with the principles of the catechism. Moreover, faith understands that the grammatical-historical level of biblical interpretation cannot exhaust what God has imbedded in his Word. To read the Scripture with faith means to be directed to Christ and to see the theological value of every portion of Scripture, especially for proclaiming it to build up God’s people.

In a day when wild biblicism seems to run increasingly amuck, Hains’ book on Luther’s interpretive methods for preaching Christ to the church is a breath of refreshing air. This book shows how the Reformation was never opposed to the ecumenical faith in returning to Scripture alone as the ultimate authority but saw Scripture and the ecumenical faith as bound together in mutually interpreting fashion. This truth is simply one way of believing Christ’s promise that he would never let the gates of hell prevail against his church. By providence, through the Holy Spirit’s work, Christ gave us from the Bible the biblical principles we need to keep interpreting the Bible biblically. Luther’s preaching will reignite your excitement to consider God’s Word afresh to see Christ and how to live for him. Todd Hains is the expert guide we should all want for exactly this task.


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One comment

  1. Loved reading this review. Luther’s prayer guide to his barber, based on the Lords Prayer, changed my prayer life in a good way. Brilliant. Now. from this review, it seems that this method was the basis of Luther’s genius overall. I lack the necessary $40 to buy the book, but I enjoyed the free review.

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