Finding the Catholic Luther: A Review of Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith by Todd Hains

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Hains offers a novel yet simple contention: Luther is most catholic where he is boldest.

The search for a truly catholic Luther has been underway for some time. Working off the intuition that Luther’s reforms are conservative compared to the Reformed and the radical Reformation, many have sought Luther’s catholicity in his trinitarian doctrine, his view of Christ’s true divinity and humanity, or perhaps in his theology of the Lord’s Supper. Maybe Luther is catholic because of his understanding of the church as the communion of saints. All this is quite true but misses something that lies at the heart of Luther’s witness to the gospel.

But scholars haven’t so far looked at Luther’s theology of the word – or the way he reads the Bible – as the place to find Luther’s close connection to early and medieval Christianity. This is partly because of the legacy of twentieth-century Luther scholarship, which often extracted Luther’s doctrine of the word from ordinary life: the mother teaching her children the stories of Scripture, the pastor declaring the absolution in pastoral care, and the simple, public events of liturgy, sermon, and sacrament. Instead, Luther scholars emphasized psychological experience and the heroic individual taking a stand on conscience. This image of Luther is that of a modern person born too early.

In Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith, author Todd Hains points the way beyond such caricatures of Luther. He offers a novel yet simple contention: Luther is most catholic where he is boldest. Hains uncovers Luther’s catholicity in the way he reads the Bible as a preacher and pastor. His way is that of the ancient rule of faith (analogia fidei), which is the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) is an explanation of the ancient catechism held in common by the universal church. Scripture supplies its own guide for reading in these three elements of the catechism. (Luther holds that the Apostles’ Creed is a collection of scripture passages that unlock the Bible’s central message.)

Hains contends that Luther found himself on the wrong side of the papacy because he was too conventional, not because he was insufficiently catholic.

In addition to these three elements, Hains treats the sacraments as “ceremonies of ceremonies” that are visible words. In the sacraments, God applies the work of Christ to Christians. These aren’t human acts that merit God’s kindness but are divine acts that deliver the benefits of Christ in simple, tangible things. All these elements of the catechism embody a “childish doctrine” – not because the catechism is foolish, but because it teaches the faith to the smallest child and the most accomplished theologian. Hains rightly points out that the catechism never gets old, not even for Luther, who daily returned to the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Underneath the rule of faith is Luther’s conviction that God’s word does what it says. God’s word is creative – it makes reality. There are several advantages to how Hains reads Luther, but I’ll name two. First, he takes seriously Luther’s own contention that his Small Catechism is, alongside The Bondage of the Will, his most important work. Second, Hains shows how Luther’s most creative teachings – like the doctrine of justification and the distinction between law and gospel – aren’t fabricated whole cloth against the witness of the church. Instead, these teachings arise from the church’s ancient way of reading the Bible, the rule of faith. Hains contends that Luther found himself on the wrong side of the papacy because he was too conventional, not because he was insufficiently catholic.

This book primarily focuses on Luther’s preaching, lecturing, and commentary on Scripture. Hains traces Luther’s use of the rule of faith in his treatment of various books of the Old and New Testament. This approach selects sermons and other material topically rather than chronologically. Hains unearths examples of the rule in Luther’s preaching on the Pentateuch, the historical books, wisdom literature (represented chiefly by the Psalter), the prophets, and in the New Testament.

Christ throughout Scripture shines through in Hains’ reading of Luther’s scriptural exposition. This opens up the resources of Luther’s ancient way of reading the Bible. Scripture’s meaning isn’t exhausted by historical and grammatical study, important as those things are. Nor does Luther permit the speculative flights of fancy that some early church and medieval interpreters indulged in using allegory. Luther uses allegory as long as it is “ruled” by the faith (Rom. 12:3) outlined in the catechism. As the content of Scripture’s message, Christ shapes and limits how allegory is used in the application of Scripture in preaching.

Hains is to be thanked for this exploration of Luther’s preaching and biblical reading. His footnotes are worth the book’s price alone, and he excavates some truly wonderful quips and quotes from Luther that were unknown to me before reading the book. One example is Luther’s comparison of the Creed to honey gathered from Scripture’s various flowers by the bee, the Holy Spirit, who distills its content (52).

Martin Luther and The Rule of Faith left me with only one critical question, which is perhaps more of a point of departure for future research. It has been popular in recent scholarship on Luther to displace the centrality of justification by faith alone as the heart of Luther’s teaching. Hains argues that underneath justification and the law-gospel distinction is the rule of faith and the doctrine of the word. But are these in competition with justification by faith? Luther derives his understanding of the gospel from reading Scripture according to the ancient catechism of the church, and Hains makes the case skillfully. What the catechism indicates is that faith in the gospel is justifying faith in something objective: the word preached and given in proclamation and sacrament according to the public witness of the church’s teaching.

If Hains has excavated the objectivity of faith in a promise given and publicly set forth in the catechism, then the rule of faith complements, rather than displaces, justification. If I have read him correctly, Hains points the way towards convergence between a catholic image of Luther and the pastoral Luther who consoles anxious consciences with the promise that Christ alone is the righteousness of the Christian. This is a major contribution to our understanding of the reformer. Scholars should read this book. But Martin Luther and the Rule of Faith also uncovers Luther’s pastoral, devotional, and catechetical resources. Pastors and interested lay people will benefit from this book. It will deepen their life of prayer, their teaching and preaching of the faith, and their consolation of parishioners and fellow believers with the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).