The Small Catechism: The Christian’s Book for Life

 

What comes to mind when you hear the word “catechism?” You might think of a book of question and answers, a textbook for learning the Christian faith.  The word might make you think of a classroom setting and being quizzed over memorization.

Yet Luther’s Small Catechism is much more than that.  “The Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as they are included in Luther’s works [are] the Bible of the laity, wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Rule and Norm 5).

As “the laymen’s Bible,” the Small Catechism is the Christian’s book throughout life. Catechetical instruction does not begin with confirmation class, nor does it begin in the church.  Each of the six chief parts of the Small Catechism begins with the heading “as the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household.” Many resources are now available which take the text of Luther’s Small Catechism and apply them to the various stages and contexts of the Christian life, from infancy to adulthood.

One does not have to wait until their child knows how to read.  For infants and toddlers, a great place to start is the board books by Julie Stiegemeyer: “Things I See in Church,” “Things I Hear in Church,” “Colors I See in Church,” etc.  These books especially introduce the concepts of Word and Sacrament, Confession and Absolution, Baptism and Communion in a visually appealing way.  For preschoolers, the “Follow and Do” series contains the text of each part of the Small Catechism along with illustration and examples that bring the catechism into daily life situations.

The Small Catechism also provides an excellent outline for learning Bible stories in Sunday School or at home.  Ambassador Publications has arranged each level of their Sunday School series around one of the first three parts of the Catechism: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  For upper elementary students, the old Growing in Christ book by Concordia contained each of the six chief parts, questions from the explanation to the catechism, and a Bible story that illustrates each individual commandment, petition, etc.  This helps reinforce that the parts of the catechism do not exist in a vacuum and do not appear only in their proof texts but also are connected with Biblical narratives where Bible figures lived out the catechism. In recent years, this has been republished as Living in Christ. For junior high through adult students, Peter Bender’s Catechesis also uses Bible stories to teach each section of the Catechism.

Luther’s Small Catechism is an excellent devotional tool.  It has been called “the only catechism that can be prayed.”  Luther taught his barber, Peter, “A Simple Way to Pray,” using the catechism.  To assist with praying the Catechism, the ELS has produced I Pray the Catechism, a prayer book formulated from the six chief parts, prayed in the first person singular.  As Luther Taught the Word of Truth by Richard Lauersdorf  contains devotions based on the Small Catechism.  The Lord Will Answer is a daily prayer catechism, which has a question from the LCMS explanation of the catechism for each day, Bible verses for meditation, and a prayer based on the catechism portion.

Not only may the catechism be studied, memorized, and prayed, it may also be sung.  Luther himself led the way in composing a hymn based on each part of the catechism:

  1. The Ten Commandments: “That Man a Godly Life Might Live”
  2. The Creed: “We All Believe in One True God”
  3. The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, Thou in Heaven Above”
  4. Holy Baptism: “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord”
  5. The Office of the Keys and Confession :”From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee”
  6. The Sacrament of the Altar : “O Lord, We Praise Thee”

The brevity and simplicity of the Small Catechism translates into various media.  The catechism was originally printed as large posters featuring each of the six chief parts.  Concordia Theological Seminary- Fort Wayne and Ambassador Publications have revived this genre. For audio learners, the catechism is available in both read and chanted form.  CPH has produced a comic book version for visual learners. This week the ELS released its explanation of the Small Catechism in electronic format for iPad, Nook, Kindle, and other e-readers.  In this way the Small Catechism has truly become interactive and searchable at the push of a button.

The Small Catechism is the Christian’s book for life.  It is not something we outgrow or graduate from.  As Luther himself wrote, “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, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain” (Large Catechism, Preface 7-8).

 

Lord, help us ever to retain
The catechism’s doctrine plain
As Luther taught the word of truth
In simple style to tender youth.
(Ludwig Helmbold, 1594; tr. Matthias Loy, 1880, alt.)


Comments

The Small Catechism: The Christian’s Book for Life — 14 Comments

  1. Thank you, this was an excellent article.

    By the way, for some time I used to think that the Q/A added to Luther’s Catechism was more of a recent innovation until I researched it a bit more and discovered that “Explanations” appended to Martin Luther’s enchiridion can trace their roots right back into the 16th century, even, apparently, during Luther’s own lifetime.

    Here is an interesting incident. I recall a number of years ago when CPH was displaying resources at gathering for Lutherans who were not from a confessional Lutheran synod. The number one resource they could not get enough was: The Small Catechism with Explanation.

    Many pastors simply said, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before! This is fantastic.”

    Let us treasure the Small Catechism and the faithful resources we have to teach it.

    Again, thank you for the article.

  2. @Pastor Joshua Scheer #2
    While I didn’t write the ELS booklet, “I Pray the Catechism,” I added dates and verses from Luther’s catechetical hymns so that it could be used as a Lenten devotional.
    The booklet is available online from ELS Pastor Tony Pittenger of Bethany Lutheran Church, Port Orchard, WA at the following address:
    http://web.me.com/tonypittenger/Bethany_Lutheran_-_Port_Orchard/Catechism_Resources_files/I%20Pray%20the%20Catechism%20for%20WEB.pdf

    The Lenten version, edited by me, is available at:
    http://gnesiolutheran.com/praying-the-catechism/

  3. @Rev. Paul T. McCain #1
    Re: the bit about folks from a non-confessional Lutheran church body–How sad! And yet, how exciting to see folks getting at teh SC with “fresh” eyes–how encouraging to us who are perhaps more prone to getting “bored” with the SC.

    Pastor Stafford–thanks. Good stuff.

  4. “The Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as they are included in Luther’s works [are] the Bible of the laity ….”

    I don’t follow. The Bible for this Lutheran layman is the Bible.

    “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105

  5. @Carl H #5
    The key to this quote from the Formula of Concord is the context, “wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation.” Written at a time when most laity did not have access to a full copy of the Bible, the Small and Large Catechisms summarized in a simple form the six main teachings of Scripture: the Law (the Ten Commandments), the Creed (the doctrine of God, the Gospel), the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar (the Lord’s Supper); in other words Law and Gospel, how salvation is won and how salvation is delivered, and our response to God’s gifts in prayer. The Catechism is the laymen’s Bible also in the sense that it serves as users guide for the Bible and also a “reader’s digest” form of the Bible. The explanations included in most editions of the Catechism also show us various Scriptural teachings are found, citing chapter and verse.

    Your point about the Bible being the Bible for the laity is also correct. The Formula of Concord, Epitome, Summary Rule and Norm makes these points about the distinction between the Bible and all other books:

    “1] 1. We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as it is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. And St. Paul: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1:8.

    2] Other writings, however, of ancient or modern teachers, whatever name they bear, must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them, and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses, [which are to show] in what manner after the time of the apostles, and at what places, this [pure] doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved.

    7] In this way the distinction between the Holy Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament and all other writings is preserved, and the Holy Scriptures alone remain the only judge, rule, and standard, according to which, as the only test-stone, all dogmas shall and must be discerned and judged, as to whether they are good or evil, right or wrong.

    8] But the other symbols and writings cited are not judges, as are the Holy Scriptures, but only a testimony and declaration of the faith, as to how at any time the Holy Scriptures have been understood and explained in the articles in controversy in the Church of God by those then living, and how the opposite dogma was rejected and condemned [by what arguments the dogmas conflicting with the Holy Scripture were rejected and condemned].

  6. The Small Catechism with Explanation has certainly served as a useful reference here. But having gotten personally acquainted with people who are extremely destitute, and having been sensitized to the consequences of war, the explanation of the First Article of the Apostles Creed has become problematic. How does one conclude, “This is most certainly true,” when one has lost (or perhaps never had) an eye, or ear, or limb or shoes or livestock or house or property or wife or child?

  7. I have likewise encountered the view that the explanation is not necessarily speaking of real eyes, ears, clothing, shoes, house, children, etc. And perhaps people similarly have no difficulty saying, “God still preserves them” even when tragedy has actually removed them.

    When I speak of what “He has given me,” and conclude, “This is most certainly true,” that compels a literal interpretation. In other words, I find it difficult to say, “This is most certainly true,” when it is not literally true.

    ——————-

    I have also looked at what the Bible says. There are plenty of Bible verses acknowledging material blessing from the Lord with gratitude. But there are other verses acknowledging that, in his divine wisdom, the Lord may allow material suffering, even to the point of death. The following comparisons may be of interest:

    “I believe that God created me and all that exists, that he gave me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my mind and all my abilities.”

    Compare: Exodus 4:11, Luke 1:20, John 9:2-3

    “God still preserves me by richly and daily…”

    Compare: Job 1, Psalm 22:1, Jeremiah14:1-6, Deuteronomy 8:3

    “…providing clothing and shoes, food and drink…”

    Compare: 2 Corinthians 11:17, Luke 6:21, Rev 7:16, Phil 4:22, 1 Cor 4:11

    “…property and home…”

    Compare: Matthew 4:21, Heb 10:34, Job 1:18-19, 1 Cor 4:11, Matt 8:20

    “…spouse and children…”

    Compare: Job 1:18-19, 1 Cor 7:8-9,28, Matt 2:18

    “…land, cattle, and all I own, and all I need to keep my body and life.”

    Compare: John 6:49, Hab 3:17, Jonah 4:7, Jer 4:27

    “all I own”

    Compare: Acts 2:44-45

    “God also preserves me by defending me against all danger, guarding and protecting me from all evil.”

    Compare: Job 1, Exodus 1:11-14, 1 Peter 4:12, John 16:33, Acts 7:57-58, 2 Cor 12:7, Matt 14:6-12, 1 Thess 3:4, John 19:32, Psalm 13:1, Heb 12:5-7

    ———

    So doesn’t believing in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, mean something a little different than simply my having material abundance and security?

  8. It is interesting that the words of the Creed “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” would immediately bring us back to creation. God created the heavens and earth and all that is in them in six days. After each day, He declared them “good.” After creating man, He said it was “very good.” The reason why there is pain, disease, struggle, unemployment, war, atrocity, etc. is because sin was brought into the world by the Fall of mankind and consequently by mankind’s greed and desire for power. God continues to send His rain on the righteous and the wicked, so there would be plenty for everyone if some did not use God’s gifts sinfully for their own gain and ignoring the needs of their neighbor.
    Also, by beginning his explanation by the words, “I believe that God made me and all creatures,” Luther is bringing the doctrine of creation to a very personal level. God not only made all things at the beginning, He is the one who knit us together in our mother’s womb. That is what is meant by Luther listing eyes, ears, members, reason, senses. The other blessings are listed as examples of what is meant by “still preserves them.” God’s providential care is provided through “good weather, good government, good neighbors, pious spouses, food and drink, house and home,” etc. If we are lacking these things it is due to mankind’s ruin of creation through the Fall.
    The explanation of the first article is based around these two ideas: God is our creator. God is our preserver. Then it goes on to list the individual aspects of each idea.

  9. FWIW, here is an alternative, unpublished, explanation that avoids an inventory of items that many of us do not have, and still encourages gratitude toward our Creator:

    I believe that God has made me and everything that exists. He has given me my body and soul and all my abilities.

    Because he has power over all that he has made, I look to him to provide food and clothing, a place to call home, people who care about me, and anything else that I need to be healthy, happy and safe. As God lives in heaven, which is a place that I cannot see, he continually works for my own good in ways that I cannot see, because He loves me.

    Everything that God allows me to enjoy in this life he has provided out of his own divine mercy and goodness, and not because I somehow deserve them. So my best response is to live with gratitude for all that I have — whether that amounts to a little or a lot — praising God, obeying Him, and using His gifts to help other people.

    This is most certainly true.

  10. @Shawn Stafford #10

    When I evaluate the statement “He has given me,” I first consider what people either do not have — or perhaps had and then lost — quite apart from the “reason”.

    Is it not a simple truth to say, “That which I have never had, I have never been given”?
    And is it not likewise a simple truth to say, “That which I have never been given, I have never been given by God”?

  11. @Carl H #12
    When I evaluate the statement “He has given me,” I first consider what people either do not have — or perhaps had and then lost — quite apart from the “reason”.

    Born into a depression far worse overall than this present one, (partly because the “safety nets” hadn’t been invented yet) there were many “things I never had”. It has never occurred to me to consider that ‘explanation’ in terms of what I have not had. What I seemed to have for awhile and lost, I find myself living without. The point is that anything I do have is from God. And it has been enough, even to share.

  12. @helen #13

    Helen,

    Thanks for your comments. I see I could have written more clearly. What I was trying to convey was that as I examine the truthfulness of the statement, “He has given me…” I do so in terms of what people do or do not really have, quite apart from the matter of who is responsible for the human condition — the matter which Shawn Stafford raised at #10 above.

    You emphasize, “The point is that anything I do have is from God. ”

    That everything we have is from our infinitely good and gracious God is quite true. But the explanation goes beyond affirming that general truth and presents a list of some very specific items. Then it says, “This is most certainly true.”

    When I say, “My friend brought me some gifts,” I expect that statement to convey that those are all real gifts. I do not know how to say that something “is most certainly true” when it is not literally true.

    My misgivings about the explanation of the First Article came to a head, at least in part, when I was at a church where, for a while at least, it was an annual custom for the congregation to recite the explanation. When I found myself saying that God has given me some things that I do not really have, I balked. And next to me were people saying God had given them things that they did not really have, either. None of us were saying what we meant. And this was an explanation — language intended to make meaning clear.

    It seems to me that Luther offered the explanation as a suggested script for the head of what was perhaps a typical, fairly prosperous household of his day, to teach the children there. I image in that as an aid to teaching about God’s creation and provision on a personal level, a father could point out very concrete examples of the material blessings enjoyed by the household. “This is most certainly true” would make sense then.

    Perhaps the church has since taken Luther’s teaching suggestion and turned it into something else — a creedal statement to be confirmed in the abstract — a statement that is said to be true but not necessarily literally true?

    As the Bible verses listed above (post #9) show, God Almighty himself has declared that he provides what he choses as much as he choses for whom he choses. He is rich in grace and desires that we trust him, but he does not promise material abundance and security. My hangup, at least in part, is that Luther’s explanation seems to raise a different set of expectations. (Indeed, many people have a faith crisis when God does not provide or protect as they expect him to.)

    I have posted an alternative explanation (post #11 above). I would be interested to know which explanation you think you would prefer, and why, if you knew nothing about their history.

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