"As a Bee Gathers Honey": The Rule of Faith in Luther's Interpretation of the Old Testament
Giere, Samuel D., Currents in Theology and Mission
Beer and Theology--a weekly spirited theological conversation!
Over the past few decades, Duane Priebe has convened a weekly Wartburg Theological Seminary tradition: Beer and Theology. The back room of the Bier Stube in Dubuque, Iowa, flows with pints of Millstream and spirited conversation around the pressing biblical and theological questions raised by students, faculty, and guests. As his student and now as a faculty colleague and co-convener of Beer and Theology, I continue to learn and to take joy in Duane's delight in study and in teaching. Duane's questions and insights are as timely and valuable today as they have been in years past. (1) In the spirit of this delight and in honor of Duane's consistent interest in and contributions to the study of hermeneutics, I offer this essay in gratitude.
The conversation about how Christians should interpret the Old Testament has been on-going since there have been followers of Christ trying to understand who Jesus was and is in relation to the God of Israel. In recent years a number of scholars committed to this conversation have sought to reassess the role of the Rule of Faith (regula fidei) (2) in the interpretation of Christian Scripture. The modest goal of this essay is to draw Martin Luther (1483-1546), biblical theologian, (3) more fully into the conversation. (4)
For Luther, the Rule of Faith functioned as an interpretive assumption more than as an overt hermeneutical tool. While his language is at times inconsistent when speaking of the Rule of Faith, his reverence for the Rule within Christian biblical interpretation is clear and unwavering.
Consider the following excerpt from Luthers sermon on Trinity Sunday, 23 May 1535:
This confession of faith we did not make or invent, neither did the fathers of the church before us. But as the bee gathers the honey from many a beautiful and delicious flower, so this creed has been collected in commendable brevity from the books of the beloved prophets and apostles, that is, from the entire Holy Scriptures, for children and plain Christians. (5)
The relationship of Scripture and the Rule of Faith is organic and intimate. Clear that Scripture is its source, the Rule for Luther is the nectar that the bee has gleaned from Scripture's garden. It is the honeyed center of the whole of God's written word. This natural relationship between Scripture and the Rule of Faith plays itself out in Luther's biblical interpretation and practical theology, as we shall see.
Luther used the term regula fidei sparingly
Early in his teaching career in his lectures on the Psalms (1513-1515), he used the term in its technical sense: "I do not object [to differing interpretations], as long as the Rule of Faith does not object." (6) The Rule here is not a limit of the varied ways a text might be interpreted, for Luther's rather conventional medieval exegetical methods at this point in his life assumed Scripture's polyvalence. The measure of the Rule, rather, is of Scripture's unity in its witness to the Triune God. Interpretations may vary, but the divine Subject of the text does not. The Rule served to measure an interpretation in relation to Scripture's unified witness to the one divine Subject.
After the 1517 incident with the Wittenberg door, there is a marked semantic shift in Luther's use of the term regula fidei. An example comes from his lectures on Isaiah (1527-1530), here commenting on Isa 44:9-20, the prophet's scathing critique of Israel's idolatry:
Whatever is outside of faith, however attractive and toilsome it may be, is idolatry, because the opinion that we are justified by works apart from faith is the source of all idolatry. Therefore if you have one notion of idolatry, you must apply it to all idolatry. [By contrast] this is the rule of faith, that we are justified by the grace and mercy of God. …