A Laymen’s Commentary on the Introduction to the Large Catechism

Note: This is the first in a series of posts providing commentary on the Book of Concord adapted from my Lutheran Essentials Class Notes.  I pray they are edifying and aid in the reading of the Book of Concord.  Scriptural citations are inspired by the Reader’s Edition to the Book of Concord.  The quotes from the Book of Concord are from the Book of Concord website.

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)

Martin Luther’s Large Catechism was published in April of AD 1529. The Large Catechism was actually published a month prior to the Small Catechism which was published in May. Luther adapted several sermon series on the different parts of the catechism to form the Large Catechism. It is intended for those who are Pastors but also laymen who would like to take a deeper look at the Small Catechism.  It is especially for fathers, as it is basically the teacher’s manual for the Small Catechism.

 

A Christian, Profitable, and Necessary Preface, and Faithful, Earnest Exhortation of Dr. Martin Luther to All Christians, but Especially to All Pastors and Preachers, that They Should Daily Exercise Themselves in the Catechism, which is a Short Summary and, Epitome of the Entire Holy Scriptures, and that They May Always Teach the Same.

1] We have no slight reasons for treating the Catechism so constantly [in sermons] and for both desiring and beseeching others to teach it, since we see to our sorrow that many pastors and preachers are very negligent in this, and slight both their office and this teaching; some from great and high art (giving their mind, as they imagine, to much higher matters], but others from sheer laziness and care for their paunches, assuming no other relation to this business than if they were pastors and preachers, for their bellies’ sake, and had nothing to do but, to [spend and] consume their emoluments as long as they live, as they have been accustomed to do under the Papacy.

2] And although they have now everything that they are to preach and teach placed before them so abundantly, clearly, and easily, in so many [excellent and] helpful books, and the true Sermones per se loquentes, Dormi secure, Paratos et Thesauros, (translation: “Sermons that Preach Themselves”, “Sleep Soundly”, “Be Prepared”, and “Thesaurus”) as they were called in former times; yet they are not so godly and honest as to buy these books, or even when they have them, to look at them or read them. Alas! they are altogether shameful gluttons and servants of their own bellies who ought to be more properly swineherds and dog-tenders than care-takers of souls and pastors.

3] And now that they are delivered from the unprofitable and burdensome babbling of the Seven Canonical Hours, oh, that, instead thereof, they would only, morning, noon, and evening, read a page or two in the Catechism, the Prayer-book, the New Testament, or elsewhere in the Bible, and pray the Lord’s Prayer for themselves and their parishioners, so that they might render, in return, honor and thanks to the Gospel, by which they have been delivered from burdens and troubles so manifold, and might feel a little shame because like pigs and dogs they retain no more of the Gospel than such a lazy, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty! 4] For, alas! as it is, the common people regard the Gospel altogether too lightly, and we accomplish nothing extraordinary even though we use all diligence. What, then, will be achieved if we shall be negligent and lazy as we were under the Papacy?

Luther condemns pastors who do not teach the catechism as being too concerned with high level theology or just lazy.  They treat the freedom they have received from the papacy with contempt and eschew all study or discipline.  Laziness in doctrine and study of the catechism leads to error and allows for all sorts of heresy.  This is especially evident today with the non-denominational evangelicals believing ancient heresies as they despise doctrine and the historic teachings of the church.

5] To this there is added the shameful vice and secret infection of security and satiety, that is, that many regard the Catechism as a poor, mean teaching, which they can read through at one time, and then immediately know it, throw the book into a corner, and be ashamed, as it were, to read in it again.

6] Yea, even among the nobility there may be found some louts and scrimps, who declare that there is no longer any need either of pastors or preachers; that we have everything in books, and every one can easily learn it by himself; and so they are content to let the parishes decay and become desolate, and pastors and preachers to suffer distress and hunger a plenty, just as it becomes crazy Germans to do. For we Germans have such disgraceful people, and must endure them.

7] But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and ever morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, 8] but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain. And yet these delicate, fastidious fellows would with one reading promptly be doctors above all doctors, know everything and be in need of nothing. Well, this, too, is indeed a sure sign that they despise both their office and the souls of the people, yea, even God and His Word. They do not have to fall, they are already fallen all too horribly; they would need to become children, and begin to learn their alphabet, which they imagine that they have long since outgrown.

9] Therefore I beg such lazy paunches or presumptuous saints to be persuaded and believe for God’s sake that they are verily, verily! not so learned or such great doctors as they imagine; and never to presume that they have finished learning this [the parts of the Catechism], or know it well enough in all points, even though they think that they know it ever so well. For though they should know and understand it perfectly (which, however, is impossible in this life), yet there are manifold benefits and fruits still to be obtained, if it be daily read and practised in thought and speech; namely, that the Holy Ghost is present in such reading and repetition and meditation, and bestows ever new and more light and devoutness, so that it is daily relished and appreciated better, as Christ promises, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.

People, both pastors and laymen, view the catechism as too easy or beneath them.  Laymen think they do not need instruction and can learn all things on their own.  Therefore they eschew church and organized study.

Luther points out that even he needs to still continually be in the catechism.  Note that to Luther the catechism is not the explanations to the articles but the articles themselves.  Thus the actual words of the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  As such it is an even more ridiculous statement than we normally take it.  Luther is driving home the point that to truly learn Scripture one needs to learn as a little child and never leave or ignore the basics (Mark 10:13-16).  So everyone should learn the catechism.  The Holy Spirit is present and bestows blessings over those who gather around the Word.

10] Besides, it is an exceedingly effectual help against the devil, the world, and the flesh and all evil thoughts to be occupied with the Word of God, and to speak of it, and meditate upon it, so that the First Psalm declares those blessed who meditate upon the Law of God day and night. Undoubtedly, you will not start a stronger incense or other fumigation against the devil than by being engaged upon God’s commandments and words, and speaking, singing, or thinking of them. For this is indeed the true holy water and holy sign from which he flees, and by which he may be driven away.

11] Now, for this reason alone you ought gladly to read, speak, think and treat of these things, if you had no other profit and fruit from them than that by doing so you can drive away the devil and evil thoughts. For he cannot hear or endure God’s Word; and God’s Word is not like some other silly prattle, as that about Dietrich of Berne, etc., but as St. Paul says, Rom. 1:16, the power of God. Yea, indeed, the power of God which gives the devil burning pain, and strengthens, comforts, and helps us beyond measure.

12] And what need is there of many words? If I were to recount all the profit and fruit which God’s Word produces, whence would I get enough paper and time? The devil is called the master of a thousand arts. But what shall we call God’s Word, which drives away and brings to naught this master of a thousand arts with all his arts and power? It must indeed be the master of more than a hundred thousand arts. 13] And shall we frivolously despise such power, profit, strength, and fruit-we, especially, who claim to be pastors and preachers? If so, we should not only have nothing given us to eat, but be driven out, being baited with dogs, and pelted with dung, because we not only need all this every day as we need our daily bread, but must also daily use it against the daily and unabated attacks and lurking of the devil, the master of a thousand arts.

The catechism is a ward against the devil, the world, and the flesh (James 4:1-12). Unlike Dietrich of Berne, who is a mythological German hero based on the Gothic King Theoderic the Great, Holy Scripture is no myth.  It has real power.  It is the very Word of God.

Why despise the Word of God which has such power? This is our defense against all the evils of the world.  One little Word of Scripture can bring down all the devil’s vaunted powers and prowess (1 Peter 5:1-11).

14] And if this were not sufficient to admonish us to read the Catechism daily, yet we should feel sufficiently constrained by the command of God alone, who solemnly enjoins in Deut. 6:6ff that we should always meditate upon His precepts, sitting, walking, standing, lying down, and rising, and have them before our eyes and in our hands as a constant mark and sign. Doubtless He did not so solemnly require and enjoin this without a purpose; but because He knows our danger and need, as well as the constant and furious assaults and temptations of devils, He wishes to warn, equip, and preserve us against them, as with a good armor against their fiery darts and with good medicine against their evil infection and suggestion.

15] Oh, what mad, senseless fools are we that, while we must ever live and dwell among such mighty enemies as the devils are, we nevertheless despise our weapons and defense, and are too lazy to look at or think of them!

16] And what else are such supercilious, presumptuous saints, who are unwilling to read and study the Catechism daily, doing than esteeming themselves much more learned than God Himself with all His saints, angels, [patriarchs], prophets, apostles, and all Christians? For inasmuch as God Himself is not ashamed to teach these things daily, as knowing nothing better to teach, and always keeps teaching the same thing, and does not take up anything new or different, and all the saints know nothing better or different to learn, and cannot finish learning this, are we not the finest of all fellows to imagine, if we have once read or heard it, that we know it all, and have no further need to read and learn, but can finish learning in one hour what God Himself cannot finish teaching, although He is engaged in teaching it from the beginning to the end of the world, and all prophets, together with all saints, have been occupied with learning it, and have ever remained pupils, and must continue to be such?

If the above reasons were not enough, we have the clear command from God that we read His Word.  Thus we should do it even if we see no benefit or need. However, this is no vacuous command.  God tells us why He gives us His Word.  God gives us His Word to defend us (Ephesians 6:10-20)

We should not neglect our God-given weapons (2 Corinthians 10).  To do so is just as bad as a soldier neglecting his armaments.  In fact, it is worse as the enemies we fight are far more dangerous than any earthly power.

Thus we should not be arrogant and think we know it all.  We do not.  We must always be students of God’s Word.  The Lord has been teaching this since the Garden and continues to teach it to us.  We should not be exhausted or bored hearing His Word.  There is an infinite depth in Scripture, if we think we have learned it all we are fools.

17] For it needs must be that whoever knows the Ten Commandments perfectly must know all the Scriptures, so that, in all affairs and cases, he can advise, help, comfort, judge, and decide both spiritual and temporal matters, and is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, spirits, laws, and whatever else is in the world. And what, indeed, is the entire Psalter but thoughts and exercises upon the First Commandment? 18] Now I know of a truth that such lazy paunches and presumptuous spirits do not understand a single psalm, much less the entire Holy Scriptures; and yet they pretend to know and despise the Catechism, which is a compend and brief summary of all the Holy Scriptures.

19] Therefore I again implore all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to be doctors too soon, and imagine that they know everything (for imagination and cloth unshrunk [and false weights] fall far short of the measure), but that they daily exercise themselves well in these studies and constantly treat them; moreover, that they guard with all care and diligence against the poisonous infection of such security and vain imagination, but steadily keep on reading, teaching, learning, pondering, and meditating, and do not cease until they have made a test and are sure that they have taught the devil to death, and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints.

20] If they manifest such diligence, then I will promise them, and they shall also perceive, what fruit they will obtain, and what excellent men God will make of them, so that in due time they themselves will acknowledge that the longer and the more they study the Catechism, the less they know of it, and the more they find yet to learn; and then only, as hungry and thirsty ones, will they truly relish that which now they cannot endure, because of great abundance and satiety. To this end may God grant His grace! Amen.

To know the Ten Commandments perfectly is to know all the Scriptures.  We can clearly see though that no one does know all of the Scriptures rightly (Matthew 7:12-14). In addition, the Ten Commandments allow one to judge properly.  Since we are to judge each other we should know the Commandments of God (1 Corinthians 6:1-11).  Thus we should know His Word.

Truly all the Psalms are meditations on the First Commandment.  In fact all of the Christian life is.  It all flows from the same source, fear, love, and trust in God.

The catechism is our first step in this study of God’s Word.  It is the core of all Christian doctrine.  In fact, if we remain in the catechism we have more than we could learn in this life.  Such is the depth of the Word of God.  Thus no matter how young or old, ignorant or knowledgeable, foolish or wise we are we should and must study the catechism.  It must be our daily concern to remain steadfast in the basics of the faith.  After all, if you don’t have the basics right, how can you expect to understand any of Scripture or defend yourself against assaults on your faith.

Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from your Son
And bring to nought all he has done.

Lord Jesus Christ, your power make known,
For you are Loud of lords alone;
Defend your holy Church that we
May sing your praise triumphantly.

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death of life. (LSB 655)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

Comments

A Laymen’s Commentary on the Introduction to the Large Catechism — 6 Comments

  1. For anyone who would like to cultivate the habit of studying the catechism daily, as Luther did himself and recommended to others, I am developing a devotional that pairs each item in the Small Catechism with corresponding passages in the Large Catechism (or Smalcald Articles for Confession). Each reading is accompanied by meditation questions and a brief prayer, and it will take six months to go through the whole thing. Follow @LutherCatechism on Twitter to preview, and please give me feedback if you have any.

  2. The Small Catechism has saved me in mind, body and soul. Thanks so much for your steadfast defense and confession of it!

  3. And what does the small catechism teach? Christ crucified for you. I’m sure that’s what Jenna meant.

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