Martin Luther was one of the Giants of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. In what follows, a few of Luther’s thoughts on preaching are explored.
“[Luther] wanted his sermons to be understandable by the simple people and the young. He loathed his colleagues who sought to impress the intellectuals. One had to speak to the people as simply as a mother speaks to her child while nursing it.” M. Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church 1532-1546 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 249.
Looking at some of the comments in Table Talk, a series of recorded conversations purported to have been noted by various dinner guests at the Luther’s table, we find some insight into the aforementioned question.
It would seem Luther was not afraid of variety in preaching; he understood his audience has differing needs and stands at various stages of life. Therefore he says: “A preacher is like a carpenter. His tool is the Word of God. Because the materials on which he works vary, he ought not always pursue the same course when he preaches. For the sake of the variety of his auditors he should sometimes console, sometimes frighten, sometimes scold, sometimes soothe, etc.” (LW 54: 31) Context also is important: “One should preach about things that are suited to a given place and given persons.” (LW 54: 138)
In Table Talk Luther is presented as a type of ‘champion of the poor’ when he preaches. He understood that the majority of his congregants were unlearned and that there were only a handful of academics:
Cursed be every preacher who aims at lofty topics in the church, looking for his own glory and selfishly desiring to please one individual or another. When I preach here [in Wittenberg] I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and children. It’s to them that I preach, to them that I devote myself, for they, too, need to understand. If the others don’t want to listen they can leave. Therefore…take pains to be simple and direct; don’t consider those who claim to be learned but be a preacher to unschooled youth and sucklings. (LW 54: 235-36)
In showing such concern to ‘unschooled youth and sucklings’, Luther takes none less than Christ, himself, as his example:
Christ could have taught in a profound way but he wished to deliver his message with the utmost simplicity in order that the common people might understand. Good God, there are sixteen-year-old girls, women, old men, and farmers in the church, and they don’t understand lofty matters!…Accordingly he’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way. I prefer to preach in an easy and comprehensible fashion, but when it comes to academic disputations watch me in the university; there I’ll make it sharp enough for anybody and will reply, no matter how complicated he wants to be. Someday I’ll have to write a book against artful preachers. (LW 54: 383-4)
From statements such as these we see a disdain for intellectualising from the pulpit; such high and lofty matters belong in the university – and Luther is comfortable and at home in such a setting. When one speaks in the pulpit, however, one must take pains to instruct and consider carefully how to connect with common people. Again, Luther takes Christ the preacher as his inspiration:
In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.’ When Christ preached he proceeded quickly to a parable and spoke about sheep, shepherds, wolves, vineyards, fig trees, seeds, fields, plowing. The poor lay people were able to comprehend these things. (LW 54: 160)
Luther will not let even the common people off the hook, however, when it comes to teaching their own children. In fact preaching is of no use if not combined with learning at home, a point Luther makes in his 1528 Sermons on the Catechism: “For if you parents and masters do not help [in instructing children], we shall accomplish little with our preaching, and if I preach all` year long and the crowd only comes in and looks at the walls and windows of the church, it is of no use.” (LW 51: 137)
The preacher has a responsibility to have the message understood by the people. On the other hand, so do the listeners, be they learned or not, have a responsibility for what they hear: “…the ministry of the Word”, states Luther, “was instituted in order that people might learn the Word of God. For God will surely require that you give an account of what you have learned from the preaching.” (LW 51: 145)