Reviewed by Seth D. Osborne
In his new book, respected Luther scholar Robert Kolb explores the famous reformer’s use of biblical narrative and in the process sheds new light on both Luther studies and modern narrative theology. Kolb focuses on Luther’s practice of using biblical stories as models for Christian living in both his sermons to layman and lectures to students. But, as Kolb argues, Luther did not view these individual stories as unconnected moral lessons; rather Luther’s use of them reveals that he possessed what contemporary terminology calls a “metanarrative” of Scripture that decisively shaped his preaching and teaching.
Luther believed this master narrative, comprised of God’s covenantal actions towards humanity, reveals fundamental truths concerning who God is and what it means to be human. Luther called upon these stories to illustrate the faith and piety that defined the people of God in biblical history so that he could instill that same spirituality in his students and parishioners. But at the same time as he explores Luther’s use of biblical narrative, Kolb relates his analysis to the current scholarly interest in that area. Kolb justifies his exploration by noting the astonishing lack of research into Luther’s use of biblical narrative and its similarities to contemporary narrative theology, even though scholars have often explored Luther’s rhetoric, preaching and lecturing.
Finally, throughout his analysis, Kolb demonstrates how a better understanding of Luther’s use of biblical stories to unfold the Bible’s metanarrative sheds fresh light on the reformer’s theology, hermeneutics, and spirituality.
The first chapter sketches Luther’s belief that Scripture summed up the whole Christian life as a life of repentance and trust in the promises of God. This finding is significant, Kolb points out, because it shows Luther saw the Bible’s metanarrative as preaching nothing less than the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was the spirituality Luther sought to foster in his hearers and readers in place of the medieval, ritualistic understanding of the Christian life.
By about 1520, this perception of Christian living had come to maturation in Luther and subsequently framed and guided his preaching and teaching till the end of his life. In particular, Kolb sheds light on how Luther’s famous hermeneutical distinctions – law and gospel, two kinds of righteousness, and the two kingdoms – were central to his metanarrative interpretation of the Bible. Thus, while some truth resides in the oft repeated charge that “Luther was not a systematic theologian,” Kolb qualifies this conclusion by pointing out that the reformer nevertheless possessed an intelligible, interlinking biblical worldview (metanarrative) that guided his theological work.
The following chapter explores Luther’s characteristics as a storyteller and how the reformer’s thinking fits with the leading exponents of narrative theology over the last thirty years. At the heart of Luther’s metanarrative, Kolb asserts, lay his belief that the biblical narrative mirrored the narrative of sixteenth century Germany, and as a result he saw Israel’s history as an ideal model to fashion a biblical worldview and identity for Germans. Luther viewed the sermon as the primary medium for accomplishing this spiritual formation by sacramentally cultivating repentance and faith. Though some of Luther’s convictions about biblical storytelling differed from modern narrative theologians, Kolb reveals that the Wittenberg reformer surprisingly served as a forerunner to many of their conclusions concerning the nature, practical usefulness, and pitfalls of preaching and teaching biblical narrative in the church.
The last five chapters focus on the spirituality Luther sought to instill in his audience through retelling biblical stories. In chapter three, Kolb demonstrates that, for Luther, the core of being human lay in a trusting relationship with the incarnate person of God, Jesus Christ. While Luther refrained from defining this trust, he believed biblical characters, such as Noah, Jacob, Abraham, Lazarus, Mary and others, provided the concrete examples necessary to enable this faith to come alive in its hearers. Indeed, Luther saw the Godward trust exemplified in these stories as essential for combatting false faith and disobedience as well as trusting God’ s providence in the face of evil, afflictions, and doubt. Consequently, Kolb observes that Luther’s handling of these stories adds explanatory insight into Luther’s conviction to uphold both divine sovereignty and human responsibility: Luther was content to hold these polar opposites in tension, because biblical narrative did the same.
Chapter four examines how Luther taught his students and parishioners to suffer as God’s people. His approach stemmed from a threefold source of suffering: human sinfulness, Satan and God testing and calling his people to repentance. In light of God’s ability to overrule evil for his people’s good, Luther exposited biblical stories of human suffering to foster trust in God’s purposes, so that his audience would praise God and love others, even in the midst of affliction.
The following two chapters examine Luther’s emphasis on active obedience in the Christian life. Luther rejected the medieval insistence on works as the foundation of one’s identity as a child of God, because he believed the metanarrative of Scripture taught that good works were the natural outflow of repentance and justification by faith alone. Furthermore, Luther insisted that loving one’s neighbor encompassed every aspect of daily life including the vocational callings of family, economics, and rulers or subjects. To find vivid illustrations of this vocational faithfulness, Luther turned to the biblical narratives of the patriarchs, judges, David and other kings.
Finally, Kolb examines Luther’s use of biblical narrative to present his students and parishioners with paradigms for dying well. Luther stressed that the Bible’s entire metanarrative centered on Christ’s death, resurrection and corresponding hope of eternal life to all who believed. Therefore, every sinner that trusted in the one true God, both before and after Christ’s incarnation, was justified by this messianic hope. Consequently, Luther felt just as confident preaching on the Patriarch’s faith in Christ as he did examples from the gospels.
In conclusion, scholars frequently point to Luther’s dependence on the letters of Romans and Galatians, for his breakthrough to the righteousness of God and justification by faith alone. However, Kolb sheds fresh light on the sources of Luther’s spirituality by showing that he found biblical narratives resounding with the exact same themes. Moreover, Kolb richly demonstrates how Luther enthusiastically used these biblical stories as an ideal means of imprinting the life of faith in the hearts and minds of his audience. In addition to Luther’s spirituality, Kolb sheds fresh light on Luther’s biblical theology and hermeneutics which add significant insight to oft debated topics such as Luther’s views on the law and gospel as well as the two kinds of righteousness.
But while having one eye on Luther, Kolb skillfully weaves the thought of modern narrative theologians into his discussion as well. Though readers may not agree with all of Luther’s hermeneutical methods, the book is an engaging and valuable study of Luther’s thought and historical context. It should appeal to historians, theologians, hermeneutical scholars, and preachers seeking to use biblical narrative as a means to cultivate spirituality in their hearers.
Seth D. Osborne is a Garrett Fellow and PhD Student in Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living