Part 2 of 3 — Catechesis: The Quiet Crisis, by William E. Thompson

Part 2
Catechesis: The Quiet Crisis
William E. Thompson

Outline: Serialization Note:
Part 1 Introduction Brothers of John the
Steadfast gratefully acknowledge the kind permission gladly given by the editor of Concordia Theological Quarterly to serialize these installments of William E. Thompson, “Catechesis: The Quiet CrisisConcordia Theological Quarterly 56
(1992) No. 2-3: 99-121.
Part 2 I. Nature of the Crisis
A. The Church Today versus the Church Catholic
B. Luther’s Catechesis versus Catechesis Today
1. Catechesis and the Christian Life in General
2. Catechesis and Worship
Part 3 II. Causes of the Crisis
A. A Disrespectful Attitude
B. A Lack of Faith in the Means of Grace
C. The Adoption of Legalistic Goals
D. A Search for ShortcutsE. A Confusion in Ecclesiology

I.  The Nature of the Crisis

 A.  The Church Today versus the Church Catholic

Luther’s Small Catechism is no longer the basis of catechesis in our church. Where it is in use, it is usually in either a manner which was never intended or in a form which makes it unrecognizable. Thus, not only is the Christian understanding of the church lost to the priests of God but so also is the Christian world-view. We have a vocational crisis.

It is a characteristic of our age to believe that we can constantly create something which is new and improved. Eugene Peterson has noted that one of the prominent ways in which our generation displays its sinfulness is that it is adolescent and a-historical.[2] The two are complementary. Adolescence is characterized by unrealistic and misdirected expectations, impatience, a high degree of self-centeredness, a fragile ego, and the firm conviction that anything historical could not possibly be of any use today. When this thinking comes into the church, there are disastrous consequences. The church is by definition and essence historical, that is, catholic and apostolic. Wilhelm Loehe, writing in the middle of the last century, comments: “Perhaps you say, `That is nothing new.’ But I have not said that it is something new. Great thoughts are not born in the last hour of the world; the Lord grants them to His Church from the beginning. Novelty and falsehood are synonymous when they apply to things which one cannot really comprehend. Every novelty in religious matters deserves suspicion . . . One may know things all one’s life without understanding them.”[3] Yet, the church today is highly influenced by our adolescent, a-historical culture. We are not good at heeding the admonition of the writer to the Hebrews to “honor our fathers in the faith.” We do not take the care of St. Paul, who handed over only that which he received from the Lord. Each pastor does what he wishes. The adolescence of our culture has filled the church. If the current program is not working, we latch on to the next one. Each one promises success, which, of course, is measured by the twentieth-century marks of the church-numbers, money, emotion, and the social satisfaction of the customers. We have arrived when we can begin to create our own fads to attract and keep the “crowds.”

Addressing catechesis in a churchly way involves honoring our fathers in the faith. Significant portions of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are catechetical in nature. Catechesis is the subject of some of the earliest extent documents that we have of the life of the early church. Most believe that The Didache, one of the earliest such documents (usually dated between 80 and 120 A.D.), is a catechetical document perhaps used in the churches planted by Paul. In addition, there is a rich body of catechetical work to be studied in the church fathers, both of the East and West, perhaps the most thorough being Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures. A study of this literature is beyond the scope of this essay. However, for evangelical Lutherans, the author of our Catechism must have the main voice in the discussion here.

B.  Luther’s Catechesis versus Catechesis Today

One of the first questions which I asked myself when I taught catechism for the first time (both adult and junior) was why Luther did not write a catechism like the ones which are produced ad infinitum today. The approach today is to have a set number of lessons in a book with each lesson covering a different topic or doctrine. In this way we can be sure we will cover all that needs to be covered and at the same time know how long the classes will take from start to finish. Some curricula include worksheets and tests for use in the class for evaluation of progress and reinforcement of the lesson. Examples on the junior level from Concordia Publishing House are The Concordia Catechism Series, The Living Word, and Growing. For adults there are Abdon’s Living Discipleship, Ginkel’s I Have Good News for You!, Riess’ What Does the Bible Say?, Thiess’ Life with God, and others. Luther certainly was capable of producing such a thing, yet he did not. At first I thought it was due to the primitive printing conditions. Yet research has led me to conclude that Luther could have produced charts and books of the twentieth-century form with the technology available to him if he had wanted to do so. The answer, interestingly, comes from Luther himself in the Prefaces to the Large and Small Catechisms.

1.  Catechesis and the Christian Life in General

For Luther, the Catechism is a prayer-book, not merely a book of doctrine. The Catechism is an enchiridion, a handbook, for living the baptismal life. Catechesis is a training in living as a baptized child of God, not just an accumulation of facts. The central error that we have made in catechesis is to treat it as an academic process rather than as a patterning of living in our baptism. We have treated the Catechism as a textbook rather than a prayer-book. Consequently, many adults, including pastors, view the Catechism as a book for children and not for us, as if it were a book like other school-books – something to be tolerated until graduation and then discarded. This problem is further compounded when pastors who do seek to use the Catechism concentrate on explanations of the Catechism rather than on the Catechism itself. If we speak of the “catechism” to parishioners who have actually studied the Catechism, most have in mind the synodical explanation, not the Catechism itself (i.e., the last 180 pages of the “Blue Catechism,” not the first 35). Neglect of the Catechism was a problem already at Luther’s time. He writes in the Preface to the Large Catechism:

To our regret we see that even many pastors are neglectful of the Catechism, despising both their office and the Catechism itself . . . As for myself, let me say this: I, too, am a doctor and pastor. In fact, I am as educated and experienced as any of those who have all that nerve and brazen self-confidence. Yet I continue to do as a child does that is being taught the Catechism. Mornings and whenever I have time I recite word for word and pray the ten commandments, the creed, etc. I must still study and pray the catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I would like, but must remain a child and student of the catechism. This I do gladly. But those who think they have mastered it in one reading need not anticipate failing; they have already failed. What they do need is to become children again and start learning their abc’s, which they falsely imagine they long ago had under their belts.[4]

Luther stresses three aspects of catechesis: doctrinal content, specificity of words, and the shape of the baptismal life, that is, the practice of the faith. Modern catechetical material sometimes retains the emphasis on doctrinal content while all but ignoring Luther’s choice of words and displacing the baptismal life to a mere chapter among many. This approach results in a confusion of the Christian vocation. It disjoints the doctrine confessed from the life lived.

The genius of Luther in writing the Catechism is the integration of the three aspects of catechesis around the hub of justification by grace through faith (the Hauptartikel). This approach is seen in the overall structure as well as the structure within each part of the Catechism. The six chief parts form the shape of living the baptismal life – all centered in the promises of Christ. Part One, the Ten Commandments, diagnoses the disease – our sin (law). Part Two, the Creed, proclaims the cure – the work of Christ (gospel). Part Three, the Lord’s Prayer, is the response of the faithful heart to this salvation. These three parts Luther considered the absolute minimum for the training of a Christian. These three parts teach the shape of the baptismal life of repentance. The final three parts, dealing with absolution and the sacraments, teach how this life is created and nurtured by God. The baptized live by daily contrition and repentance as shaped by Parts I-III, always making use of the gifts described in Parts IV-VI. This connection is tied together in Part V and in the Christian Questions and Answers, where we are directed to examine ourselves according to the Ten Commandments and so confess our sins before we receive the absolution and the blessed body and blood of Christ. The connection is made explicit in Part IV where we answer that baptizing with water signifies a life of daily contrition and repentance. This life of the baptized is a life which is actually practiced and lived. It forms, not only our understanding of the church, but also our world-view. This shape of the life of the baptized is what Luther says in the Preface to the Large Catechism that he never learns as he ought.

The true shape of the baptismal life is a distinctively Lutheran and scriptural one. In the structure of the Catechism we see law and gospel rightly ordered and distinguished, the response of faith (prayer) rightly taught (that is, based in God’s word), and the sacraments in their central actuality in the life of the baptized. The doctrine of the gospel is presented in its completeness with the chief  article, justification, at the center. The life of the baptized shaped by the Catechism is one which extols the gifts of the Lord rather than the works of man.

The structure of the Catechism also serves to pronounce the damnamus on false confessions. Both the Roman and the Reformed confusions of law and gospel can be addressed on the basis of their action in the life of the believer. Attaching the role of the sacraments to the law, rather than the gospel, causes the obscuring of the gospel in the life of the church. Finally, these changes strip the merits of Christ and the righteousness of faith from the center of the life of the church and substitute works of the law in various forms. The specific details of each heterodox teaching is addressed within each part.

The life of the baptized is also seen within each part of the Catechism. The basic structure is simple. God speaks and we speak back to Him what He has spoken to us. This pattern is not present merely because it provides a good didactic structure. It is present to shape our lives of prayer. Prayer is always an answer. God has the first word and we speak back to Him in the words which He has given us. Luther and others before and after him in the evangelical tradition never divorced the baptismal life of repentance and prayer from the word of God and the article of justifications.[5] God must always have the first say in our relationship with Him and we respond in the words which He has given us.

2.  Catechesis and Worship

Luther connected this relationship to the pattern of the Divine Service in his writings on it and on the Lord’s Supper. That is, the service is Gottesdienst understood as a subjective, genitive, God’s service to us. Delivery of His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are primary in worship. Luther wrote hymns for each part of the Catechism to reinforce this connection to the Divine Service.[6] In addition, the music which he chose and wrote for the Divine Service, as well as for the Offices of Matins and Vespers, was intended to continue the catechetical process. This unified approach was carried forward in the period of orthodoxy. Gunther Stiller has shown this fact in his penetrating work on the rich liturgical life in Bach’s Leipzig. Part of catechism for the young boys was to sing in one of the four Kantoreien on Sundays and festivals in the four city churches. The choirs all functioned liturgically, that is, they led the congregation in the singing of the liturgy and chorales as well as singing the cantata for the day. All participation was to proclaim Cod’s word according to the confessional pattern of the Catechism.[7]

Luther himself in his treatise The German Mass and Order of Service clearly demonstrates the necessity of catechesis being one with worship. The integration of the two in a unified whole around the hub of justification by grace through faith is apparent. Also apparent is Luther’s agreement with the ancient dictum, “lex orandi, lex credendi” – in effect, as one prays, so he believes, and as one believes, so he prays. After introducing the topic of the German Service, Luther writes:

First, the German service needs a plain and simple, fair and square catechism. Catechism means the instruction in which the heathen who want to be Christians are taught and what they should believe, know, do, and leave undone, according to the Christian faith. This is why the candidates who had been admitted for such instruction and learned the Creed before Baptism used to be called catechumens. This instruction or catechization I cannot put better or more plainly than has been done from the beginning of Christendom and retained till now, i.e., in these three parts, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Our Father. These three plainly and briefly contain exactly everything that a Christian needs to know . . . And let no one think himself too wise for such child’s play. Christ, to train men, had to become man himself . . . Otherwise, people can go to church daily and come away the same as they went. For they think they need only listen at the time, without any thought of learning or remembering anything.[8]

Note that Luther writes these words in a treatise on the Divine Service. He sees catechesis centered in and looking forward to the Divine Service. He also includes instruction to the parents on catechizing their children at home to be ready for the Divine Service. Luther sees here the life of the baptized in a totality. We  daily live lives of contrition and repentance in our baptism, always looking forward to the Divine Service.

Thus, the baptismal life has its center in the Divine Service, and its daily pattern is centered in the word of God as patterned in the Catechism. Each part of the Catechism is grounded in the word of God in this living pattern. The meaning and application of these words of God are never static but apply to us differently every day. It is the shape of the baptismal life lived daily. It breathes in us with God’s words of law and gospel. Thus, Luther could say that we have no need to demand that the baptized receive Christ’s body and blood or go to confession, since they will demand it by reason of their need.[9] The baptismal life shaped by the Catechism is centered in the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation given in the sacraments. Thus, our lives are grounded in the article of justification, lived through the external means mandated by Christ, and protected from every form of enthusiasm.

This baptismal shape describes our Christian life. It describes our Christian world-view. It gives vocational certainty. Luther was deeply concerned with this vocational grounding. He expounds its shape in the Table of Duties, in his explanation of how one examines himself according to the Ten Commandments, as well as in the explanations in the Large Catechism, especially of the Fourth Commandment. It provides the scriptural directives for living our lives as the priests of God in the place and office where God has placed us. In today’s confused world – where children are parents and parents children, where women are men and men women, where husbands are wives and wives husbands, and where everyone is a minister and ministers are organizers, entertainers, cheerleaders, and fundraisers – this vocational grounding is sorely needed.



2.  Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Dallas: Word Publishing House, 1989), pp. 128ff.

3.  Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books about the Church, trans. James Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), pp. 52-53.

4. The Book of Concord, trans. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 358-361.

5.  See Martin Luther, “A Simple Way to Pray” (LW 43); Wilhelm Loehe, Seed-Grains of Prayer; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, et alii.

6.  For a further discussion see John Pless, How Does Catechesis Relate to Worship?, an unpublished paper presented at the Liturgy and Outreach Consultation, St. Peter, Missouri, May 1989.

7.  Gunther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, ed. Robin Leaver and trans. H. J. A. Bouman, D. F. Poellot, and H. C. Oswald (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), pp. 75-80.

8.  Martin Luther, “The German Mass and Order of Service,” Luther’s Works, 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), pp. 64-67.

9.  Tappert, p. 341, pp. 459-460.

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