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

Part 3
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 CatholicB. Luther’s Catechesis versus Catechesis Today1. Catechesis and the Christian Life in General2. Catechesis and Worship
Part 3 II. Causes of the Crisis
A. A Disrespectful Attitude
B. A Lack of Faith in the Means of GraceC. The Adoption of Legalistic Goals
D. A Search for ShortcutsE. A Confusion in Ecclesiology

II.  Causes of the Crisis

Neither space nor time allows opportunity to describe further the richness of Luther’s Catechism. We must ask ourselves how we have come to ignore, avoid, and neglect the Catechism today. It was not always so. There have been many who understood Luther’s genius in writing the Catechism. Wilhelm Loehe, in the middle of the nineteenth century wrote, “The Small Catechism of Luther is a confession of the church, and of all the confessions it is the one most congenial and familiar to the people. It is the only catechism in the world that one can pray. But it is less known than true that it can be called a veritable miracle in respect of the extraordinary fullness and great wealth of knowledge which is here expressed in so few words.”[10] Loehe wrote an explanation of the Catechism which was narrative in form and which focused on developing a life of prayer based on the text of the Catechism. The narrative explanations explained the Catechism word for word. Scriptural citations were also included in narrative rather than proof-texting form. This tradition was brought to America in the Franconian colonies of Michigan. Following the break with Missouri, the Iowa Synod theologian Johann Michael Reu carried this tradition forward.[11] Augsburg Publishing House still publishes an explanation of the Catechism by Reu which follows this pattern.[12] We in Missouri, at least in recent times, have lost this rich catechetical tradition. Our synodical explanation of the Catechism, in its dogmatically styled outline-form with scriptural proof-texts, can produce good systematicians who are then prepared to tackle Francis Pieper’s Dogmatics. Such a pattern is appropriate and, indeed, necessary to good dogmatics, but inappropriate to catechesis. A catechism with such a construction lacks the baptismal realism of Luther, Loehe, and Reu, who prepare those catechized to “take up the Large Catechism.”[13]

A.  A Disrespectful Attitude

One reason already mentioned for our neglect of the Catechism is our unwillingness to honor our fathers in the faith. We believe that we know more than all those who have gone before us. Consequently, pastors use whatever seems right to them at any moment in time. However, I believe there are also other reasons.

B.  A Lack of Faith in the Means of Grace

The second and perhaps the most important reason is that we simply fail in the struggle to believe that our Lord is going to do what He says He is going to do through the means which He has mandated. A quick overview of much of the adult catechetical material available reveals rich insights into this unbelief. For instance, most materials to greater or lesser degrees spend a good deal of time speaking about the word of God rather than from it. They do not speak law which reveals sin and gospel which forgives it, but they speak about God and His word in a variety of ways. Most materials begin in lesson one with the word of God. They spend the first lesson defining and defending the word rather than speaking from it. Some take great pains to convince the student that the Bible is inerrant without speaking a word of law or gospel from the Scripture. Hence, they begin with the article of the Scripture, in a fundamentalistic way, rather than the article of justification. It can legitimately be concluded that Luther recognized that conviction that the Bible is God’s word comes from speaking from the Scripture, not from speaking about it with rational arguments. Hence, he began with God’s alien work, asking the crushing question, “Who is your God?” This question is present for the sake of speaking of the work of Christ in the second article and its application in the absolution. Luther believed that Scripture is self-authenticating, because it is a two-edged sword which cuts to the heart. We struggle to believe this truth and therefore begin by defending the Bible. (A procedure, again, which is appropriate and, indeed, necessary to good dogmatics – beginning with prolegomena and bibliology – is inappropriate to catechesis.)

A second observation corroborating the fact that we fail to believe that our Lord works through the means He has appointed is that the sacraments and the forgiveness delivered through them are rarely at the center of attention in modern catechetical materials but instead receive chapters embedded among others. The table of contents might read: “Scripture,” “God,” “Man,” “Baptism,” “The Lord’s Supper,” “Stewardship,” “Evangelism,” and so forth. The centrality of God’s forgiving action as seen in the Catechism is missing. We simply fail in the struggle to believe that God does what He says He does through His means.

This unbelief in the efficacy of the means of grace has resulted in the aforementioned divorce of doctrine and practice which are inextricably bound together in the Catechism as well as in the rest of the confessions. In recent decades the delusion that one can confess a body of doctrine without practicing it has resulted in a proliferation of heterodox practices in the church such as the use of worship and music forms of the Reformed tradition, open communion, abandonment of individual confession and absolution, unionistic services, lay ministry, and women serving in areas given only to men. In his recent book, Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance, David Luecke writes, “Congregations or church bodies have as their substance the part of their identity that has to remain unchanged. Style can be identified as how a church expresses that substance. Style can and does change over the years.”[14] In making this statement Luecke does not mean as style true adiaphora as described in the confessions (especially Article X of the Formula of Concord) but distinctively Lutheran church practices such as the practice of the Lord’s Supper, the practice of the ministry within the congregation, the practice of worship, and the practice of evangelism. Thus, the distinction which he makes between “substance” and “style” is really a distinction between doctrine in the abstract and practice. This distinction is condemned in the Lutheran Confessions.[15] The point is simply to state that doctrine, practice, and worship are a unity. There is no such thing as baptism, confession and absolution, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the life of good works, or any article of faith extra usum. These articles are not and cannot be abstractions. When their practice is changed, so also is that article of faith and the doctrine of the gospel. It is the gospel which is at stake.

C.  The Adoption of Legalistic Goals

A third reason that we are in a catechetical crisis is that the goals of catechesis are different in current materials than in Luther. The title of one popular adult course, Living Discipleship, would not necessarily imply a different goal. However, upon closer observation of the material we find that there has been a significant shift in the shape of this life of discipleship away from Luther’s. Like many other adult materials, the law of God is taken up after a discussion of the sacraments. The implication and practical result is that the primary use of the law is not to accuse the sinner, but to direct his life. A disciple is “living,” not so much by confessing sin and believing the absolution, but rather by accomplishing God’s will through the commandments. The commandments are present in this schema to chide us to do the program outlined. Unlike Luther and Scripture, the gospel is now present for the sake of the law, rather than the law for the sake of the gospel. There is thus a shift away from christological sanctification to anthropological sanctification (which is no sanctification at all). The goal of this catechetical pattern is to produce certain verifiable results in the life of the individual, rather than to train the baptized to live in their baptism with the promises of God at the center of their lives. The works of man become the center of the Christian life rather than the gifts of God. Once again, the attack is on the article of justification and the entire doctrine of the gospel.

D.  A Search for Shortcuts

A fourth reason that we are in catechetical crisis is that we look for easy formulae for instruction rather than patiently instructing in the meaning of simple words. A case in point is catechetical material dealing with the Lord’s Supper. In the Catechism Luther goes to great pains to make clear the meaning of the simple words of Christ and the gifts which they deliver. This procedure gives opportunity to evaluate the Reformed and Roman views on the basis of the words and the understanding of these words. The heterodox teaching in each is the emphasis on human participation and action in the Supper which attacks the merits of Christ and the righteousness of faith. Modern catechetical material typically takes neither the words nor the gifts of Christ seriously. For instance, most of these materials describe the differences between the Reformed, Roman, and Lutheran churches on the Supper in a chart describing which elements are present. This description is done on the basis of 1 Corinthians 10:16 and is intended to teach the Lutheran position of the real presence over against Roman transubstantiation and Reformed “real absence.” Totally ignored, however, is the central thing at issue with Rome, the sacrifice of the mass and, with the Reformed, the purely spiritual eating which makes the Supper dependent on the one receiving rather than the one giving. These are the central issues between Lutherans, Romanists, and Reformed, and they center on the merits of Christ and the gifts which He gives. Once again, the issue is the article of justification. Faith which trusts the word of God is born and nurtured through patient exposition of that word, not through easy formulae and categories which explain peripheral distinctions.

I believe that this quest for easy formulae for catechesis is in part the result of a vocational crisis among pastors. Catechesis, preaching, the liturgy, the sacraments, and personal confession and absolution are no longer believed to be the primary means of pastoral care. The life of the church outlined in the Catechism has been supplanted by marketing schemes, programs, methods of persuasion, and “leadership” which all promise success. The church and the ministry are being viewed increasingly as social or, even more disturbingly, as political phenomena which change as society changes.[16] The result is that, when the “felt needs” of the congregation are slick marketing, positive reinforcement, non-directive counselling, fundraising, or whatever, the world and the old man impose a shape of pastoral care which conforms to these “needs.” The result is that pastors run from meeting to meeting, always trying to keep up with the latest fads, and are left without sufficient time to pray, study, hear confession (or confess themselves), or prepare sermons. This vocational confusion is nothing new. Wilhelm Loehe wrote of it in the middle of the last century:

The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord imparts His Holy Spirit only through His Word and Sacraments, and therefore she acknowledges no other means of operation. She knows that in the work of salvation man is able to do nothing more than lend his ear to the divine truth just as he would lend it to any other word; therefore before anything else, she tries to move men and admonish them to hear and to heed the Word . . . She does not consider it an insult if it is said: This pastor thinks it enough to preach, catechize, administer the Sacraments, hear the confessions of penitents, and comfort the sick. She knows that even the most faithful pastors do not enough of this. She does not care for a multiplication of pastoral offices, but she does care for a right use of those enjoined in the Scriptures and handed down from old time. To many it is a new discovery that one ought not be a master of many trades but a master of the few and noble means; but the Church never knew any other wisdom – in one word, she does much with few means . . . The poverty of our fathers is richer than the riches of their critics . . . Therefore it does not have any sympathy with the new highly-praised means of furthering good works. She desires to carry on good works, but not in the manner of an association or a stock company . . . The preacher of the Church is therefore no friend of “new measures,” as the Methodists call them, but he stands by the old measures of patient, faithful loyalty to the Word and true doctrine.[17]

Loehe points out that the primary means of pastoral care and practice can be quickly forced to the periphery in order to address changing and urgent demands of the changing winds. The result of this process is a breakdown in catechesis where it becomes programmatized and segmented away from its unity with the Divine Service and the daily baptismal life. To avoid this vocational confusion it would be wise for each pastor to read and study his ordination vows on a consistent basis. The vocational clarity of the Catechism and the rest of the confessions is affirmed in them.



10.  Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books about the Church, trans. E. T. Horn (Reading, Pennsylvania: Pilger Publishing House, 1908), p. 186.

11.  Kenneth Korby in a course, “The Loehe Tradition,” taught at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the summer of 1989.

12.  Michael Reu, An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1947).

13.  Tappert, p. 340.

14.  David Luecke, Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1988), p. 21.

15.  For instance, the Anabaptists are condemned for the practice of seeking the Holy Spirit through our own preparations rather than through the means of grace (AC V). They are also condemned for rejecting the practice of infant baptism (AC IX). The Papists are condemned for their practices of penance (AC XI, XII, XXV), the medieval mass (AC XIII, XXII, XXIV), and others. For a thorough confessional discussion of this point see Robert Preus, “Confessional Lutheranism in Today’s World,” CTQ, 54 (1990), pp. 99-116. The same distinction is made in the essay by Kurt Marquart, “Article X of the Formula of Concord, Confession and Ceremonies,” A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978).

16.  For an interesting discussion of the politicizing of institutions in America which formerly stood on objective foundations see Robert Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law.

17.  Loehe, pp. 177-183.

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