David A. Booth
Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living, by Robert Kolb. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012, xx + 188 pages, $24.00.
When two couples want to get to know each other, they don’t fill out questionnaires; they tell each other the story and the stories of their lives. Because the Lord has chosen to reveal himself both through story (the main redemptive-historical plot of Scripture) and through stories (where we encounter the concrete realities of life, sin, faith, and grace), a great deal of recent scholarly attention has been focused on narrative theology. A critical insight from this research for pastors and other Bible teachers is how the stories we tell not only explain but also shape our identities. Modern scholars have come to recognize that internalizing a community’s stories so that they become our own is a large part of how we become assimilated and identified with any particular group.
The retelling became a key tool in what contemporary communication theorist Charlotte Linde calls ‘narrative induction’: “a process of being encouraged or required to hear, understand, and use someone else’s story as one’s own.” She defines this as “the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story.” (xv)
Martin Luther grasped the importance of this truth five centuries ago. Luther was not only a brilliant theologian, he was also a master of communication. Luther sought, through God’s grace, to teach and proclaim God’s Word in such a way that it would reform the totality of his hearers’ lives. To use the expression made famous by Richard Hays, through the skillful retelling of biblical stories, Luther pressed for “the conversion of the imagination.” With this thin scholarly volume, Robert Kolb reminds us that we still have a great deal to learn from Luther about how to engage Christ’s people with Scripture.
Lest we romanticize the congregation that Luther preached to, we should take Kolb’s words to heart:
The medieval age is often called an age of faith, but a closer glimpse at records of all kinds indicates that that was not the case. The population of medieval Europe may seem gullible and superstitious to modern eyes, as we also may appear to a later generation. But most people were hardheaded survivors, forced by the exigencies of disease, weather, and other human personalities to calculate carefully how the family and the village might survive the near future. In that day as well as in the twenty-first century, heaven could wait. (xvii)
Luther captivated congregations with his preaching. Yet, Luther wasn’t interested in cultivating a personal following but in leading people into a right relationship with Jesus Christ. The stories of God from Luther’s mouth and pen “cultivated the Christian way of living, providing instruction and direction for his hearers’ and readers’ participation in the unfolding drama of God’s governance of human history” (x).
The book begins with a discussion of Luther’s metanarrative, which Professor Kolb identifies as the whole life of the Christian being one of repentance. Yet, instead of focusing on this idea alone, the chapter ranges broadly over key Lutheran emphases such as the relationship of Law and Gospel, the nature of the two kingdoms, justification by faith, and Luther’s understanding of the inspired Word as the power of God. The second chapter focuses on Luther’s use of individual stories, including the techniques he used as a storyteller, in light of modern narrative criticism. The remaining five chapters detail Luther’s use of stories to shape the Christian life from baptism until death. The chapters on “Affliction as Part of Daily Life” and “The Completion of the Christian Life” are particularly strong and will aid modern pastors in rightly preparing our congregations for these challenging realities. Professor Kolb writes:
Luther did not indulge in romantic pictures of death as a sweet escape. Death had invaded God’s good creation as part of the curse upon sin. Luther frequently added death to his list of the enemies of the sinner and the believer, alongside the devil, the world, the sinful inclinations of the sinner, guilt, and other evils. Luther’s refusal to mitigate death’s threat may, in part at least, have been a reaction against the monastic ascetic contempt for the body he had experienced earlier in life. It was also part of Luther’s affirmation of the goodness of the natural order that God has created and called good, an attitude engendered by his deepening engagement with the Old Testament, his increasing distance from Platonic ideas, and his Ockhamist tendency to see reality in earthly, created things. (170–71)
Luther’s use of stories was, in part, a response to his sense of what the church of his youth had lost. “The concreteness of much of the biblical record had been placed into abstract forms shaped by Aristotle and others, who had not learned to define reality with the person of the speaking Creator God at its center. Luther strove to change that” (181). In our own age, which is torn between amusements and abstractions, Luther has a great deal to teach us about embracing and proclaiming the whole counsel of God.
Robert Kolb is one of our foremost living experts on Luther. His scholarship is impeccable. We could hardly hope for a better guide to Luther’s thought. Nevertheless, the book is disappointing in a rather surprising way. Professor Kolb chose to write about Luther and the Stories of God in an abstract and academic manner which drains much of the life and joy out of the subject. Pastors, homiletics professors, and scholars on Luther have much to gain from this erudite work. Regretfully, those who are seeking a book that is not only “good for you” but also a pleasure to read will need to look elsewhere.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, November 2013.