Great Stuff — In Defense of the Small Catechism Pt 2
The greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Have you considered what that means? If you were entrusted with teaching that to someone who was utterly unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, how would you explain “love the lord your God with all your heart?”
“Love” is very vague in English particularly and in American culture especially. Love is thought of as emotive, transitive, and uncontrollable–cheapened into a reckless force of nature and expanded to encompass so many things as to mean nothing at all. Combine that with an abstract concept of God and the greatest commandment becomes the most meaningless commandment. How would you explain what this means?
The first three of the ten commandments are an exposition of the greatest commandment and Luther’s Small Catechism offers a simple set of explanations. “You shall have no other gods before me. What Does this mean? We should fear, love and trust God above all things.” We do not trust our 401k to save us; we do not trust the federal government to save us; we do not trust our things or people to fulfill us save us or give us meaning. We fear, love and trust God–alone.
Sometimes old catechisms and confessions are dismissed because they are just that, old. But was that really out of date? Do I need to rewrite that explanation because cell phones and the internet did not exist when this catechism was written? I think that explanation still fits quite nicely in today’s age and written so that a child could grasp it and a grandfather could still learn from it.
What of the second commandment? “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but cal upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.” I used to read the second commandment and think; “Ok, don’t cuss. That’s simple enough.” But look at the depth there is to be mined from this commandment. I would get into more of the scriptural reasons why this is not only brilliant writing but also entirely in line with biblical exposition, but I am saving some space to do that on Commandment Three. But I present a challenge, how many other places have you read so simple, concise and yet deep an explanation of the second commandment?
The third commandment’s explanation used to trouble me. Luther writes “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” To my ears, the good Doctor was pulling a lot of hot air out of thin air. There is nothing about preaching or God’s word in that commandment! Yet, there is nothing quite like getting schooled by a person who has been dead a few hundred years. You see, Luther wrote these explanations with a broad view of scripture, letting the whole Bible interpret the meaning of each text. In studying the Sabbath he considered all the passages pertaining to the Sabbath, such as Leviticus 23:3 that says, “…but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” Convocation means gathering together. And what would they do? Deuteronomy 5:15 says on the Sabbath “You shall remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” The Israelites would gather to remember their common salvation. I could go on about the brilliant exegetical work done to get to this explanation of the Sabbath, but the point is that this explanation cuts to the heart of the commandment in a way that is so simple yet so profound.
I have done little here to explain the content of the Small Catechism, I will do some of that in the final article. What I am doing here is making the case that as a church we deprive ourselves of a wealth of wisdom and experience and genius level literature when we look with chronological snobbery at the creeds and confessions. For that reason alone, though I could give more, I would hesitate to replace the Small Catechism as a bedrock tool for discipling people in the faith.
*All LSC quotes are taken from Condordia Publishing House’s 2011 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation.
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