Luther The Storyteller
Martin Luther was a man of many titles: pastor, professor, hymn-writer, theologian, and reformer, just to name a few. There is, however, another title that often goes unnoticed: Martin Luther was a storyteller.
Historians and biographers inform us about the “who, what, where, and when” of the Lutheran Reformation. Theologians teach us why the Lutheran Reformation was, and is, so vital for the confession of the Gospel; they help us answer Luther’s famous question: “What does this mean?” And in many ways, storytellers piece the whole picture together, as when we put together a large puzzle, revealing how Luther proclaimed the Gospel in the Reformation.
After all, in every one of Luther’s vocations he used stories to convey the truth of God’s Word in all its richness and vitality. For Luther, God’s Word was the foundation upon which he stood, and the substance of what he preached, taught, and wrote. Luther pointed to Jesus’ living and active Word, that, unlike our word, can do what He promises. Jesus’ Word declares us righteous, justifies the ungodly, and forgives sinners freely in the cross. Storytelling, therefore, was at the center of Luther’s proclamation of the Gospel. He understood the power of narrative to communicate the Good News, pointing his hearers, even 500 years later, to Christ Crucified.
Just as Luther’s imagination influenced his life and work, so too, Luther’s use of storytelling pervades his teaching and preaching throughout the Reformation. Luther’s use of storytelling, like his imagination was bound to, fed by, and filled with God’s Word, particularly, the central story of Scripture: that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ apart from works of the Law. In his letters, lectures, hymns, and sermons, Luther was a storyteller, proclaiming the greatest story of all: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Thanks to the work of Carl P. E. Springer, we know more about one of Luther’s favorite sources of narrative input, Aesop’s fables. Luther pointed to these short stories in lectures, letters, and sermons as positive examples of morality, wisdom, and truth. In 1530, while staying at Coburg Castle, Luther had planned to write, though failed to complete, a German edition of Aesop’s fables. In his 1535 lectures on Galatians, he compares anyone who chases the Law for assurance of salvation to “the dog in Aesop, which snapped at the shadow and lost the meat.” And later, in 1536, Luther remarked that, “Next to the Bible the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best, better than the mangled utterances of all the philosophers and jurists.”
Luther also understood the importance of storytelling in Christian hymns. In his famous Christmas hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, Luther recounts the Christmas story from Luke 2. This Gospel ballad begins from the perspective of the angel’s proclaiming words of peace and promise to the shepherds. He quickly shifts perspective to the shepherd’s hastening to the manger where Luther’s narrative brilliance is revealed. The culmination of this hymn invites the singer into the action of the Christmas story, and places us alongside the shepherds with peace, joy, and wonder at Christ’s birth.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled
A quiet chamber set apart
For You to dwell within my heart.
Above all, Luther understood the importance of the Biblical narrative as the story of God’s love and man’s salvation revealed in Christ Crucified. All the good stories point us to this one great, true story. For there is no greater story that men can tell than this: In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).
Biblical Narrative as Story
This is where Luther the storyteller was at his best, in his preaching. Throughout his sermons, Luther used illustrative language—calling sinners maggot sacks and telling us to fart at the devil when he waves our sin in his face; Luther quoted philosophers, poets, and theologians; and like a master craftsman, Luther carefully arranged Old and New Testament stories into a rich mosaic, pointing to their fulfillment in Christ Crucified.
All the narratives of the Old Testament point so nicely and beautifully to Christ and confess him; all of them, indeed, stand around him, just as Anna physically stood in his presence. It affords great pleasure to read and hear how they all look and point toward Christ.
For Luther, all the stories in the Scriptures found their fulfillment in the central story of Scripture and history, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Whether he was teaching, preaching, or singing, Luther used storytelling in service to the Gospel. This Good News—Jesus Crucified and risen for you—was a joyous, never-ending story for Luther. The same is true for us today as well.
Thus, this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil.
1 Luther’s Aesop. Carl P.E. Springer. Truman State University Press, 2011.2 Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume 26, p. 405. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963.3 Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume 54, p. 211. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967