Great Stuff — Reviewing the “Field Test”: Part 2, Needs Improvement

Found over on Pastor Lincoln Winter’s blog,


20161006_143222_resizedIn part 1, I examined the changes that I thought were good in the catechism revision. In part 2, I take a look at some of the more challenging parts of the revision…

First, the length of the revision is untenable. Of course, much will depend on the specific formatting, but if the new catechism is printed in a book with the same dimensions and typeface as the old book, it will be roughly 450-500 pages long. That is 50%-60% longer. The options are then for it to be absurdly think, to have thinner pages (which makes it less durable) or larger format size (which makes it less portable). No matter which option is chosen (Thicker, less durable, less portable) it becomes less useful for teaching children.

And the extended length is by no means necessary. Repeatedly we are told that more than 100 additional scripture references are included. But that is not the only thing lengthened. The answers in the introduction alone have ballooned from 35 words per answer to 76. The grade level of the answers for this section is now 10.4, according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Exactly who is this catechism for? Many parishes have moved catechesis to younger grade levels. Fourth through sixth grade is now ordinary, though not the majority. How are fifth-eighth grade students expected to read prose written for high school juniors or seniors?

The answers are often so detailed, and with such subtlety, that the basic meaning is lost. Yes, we must be clear when we speak and teach. And we want to avoid misunderstandings that can arise from unnecessary brevity. But the catechism has always been a simple instruction, not a complete one. As an example, Luther explains the creed according to the three persons of the Holy Trinity, in three articles as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.” And yet, this does not mean that the Son and Holy Spirit were in no way involved in the creation, and so forth for the other articles. Luther uses a basic teaching tool to explain the contours of the creed, and the outline of the work of the three persons of the Trinity. We leave it to Pieper to explain to seminarians the difference between the opera ad extra and the opera ad intra. And yet, the committee has removed this time-honored and helpful teaching tool from their proposal. Admittedly, the committee has not recommended the Pieperian definition. But this does need to be a simple book, more than it needs to be a complete one.

Similarly, on page 170, the new explanation says,

Note: In preparing to come to the Sacrament, Christians may also take advantage of the opportunity for individual confession and absolution with the pastor. For personal reflection prior to coming to the Sacrament, you may use “Christian Questions with Their Answers.” (Emphasis added.)

The old catechism explanation on p. 243 states:

As a preparation for the Sacrament, use “Christian Questions with They Answers.”

The axiom applies: fewer adjectives.

Here are sample scans of the introduction to see how the wordiness can be reduced. My penmanship not withstanding, the committee needs to take a serious look at its choice of words.

I would actually recommend that their work be handed off at this point parish pastors who actually conduct the instruction of children themselves. A real field test is needed before the committee makes final decisions.

But the problem is not merely the length itself. The structure of the revisions have muddied the clear outline of previous catechisms. Each section of the revision is divided according to “The Central Thought”, “A Closer Reading of the Small Catechism” and “Connections and Applications.”.

The previous pattern was to ask questions according to the chronological order of the specific catechism selection. So, the first question for the First Article was about God as Father. But that question has been moved into “Connections and Applications” (section 3) in the revision. There is no reason that this question “connects and applies” instead of simply presenting “a closer reading”, or even is a summary of the central thought. But it insures that those who are attempting to use the catechism as a reference will be unable to easily find what they are looking for.

It also means that the questions are asked in a way that makes no sense logically. For the first commandment, we ask why God does not want us to have other gods two pages before we ask who the only true God is.

By diving each section into three parts, the flow is broken. Questions that follow one another logically and chronologically are separated, and no longer as easy to locate. Previously, they were organized according to where they naturally arose in a discussion of the text of the catechism. Yes, there may be slight differences of opinion regarding the best placement for this or that question. But the revision intentionally disorders the questions. This will be confusing not only for pastors, who must re-arrange their pattern of instruction, but also for catechumens, who will likely be asking questions, only to be told repeatedly, “We’ll get to that on the next page.” Much better to answer those questions when they arise from the text itself.

This out-of-order instruction does a great disservice to the explanation, which is supposed to help pastors by giving them a logical sequence for instruction. Instead it is likely to push them to alternative materials. (I have a suggestion along those lines…) Imposing this external structure to attempt relevance has made instruction confusing. This will actually increase the amount of time pastors spend trying to explain the relevance of the catechism.

And the first section, “Central Thought”, is presented not in question and answer format, but as a modern “bible study”: Ask a question. Have a student read a bible verse which gives the obvious answer, but do not print the answer in the text. This is not a sound catechetical method in the first place. If the answers are so obvious that the answer is omitted, then the question need not be asked in the first place. Many pastors eschew pre-written bible studies for this exact reason. It would be a mistake to impose this on the structure of the Catechism.

Worse, the central thoughts are often not central to the thought of the catechism itself. For example, the “Central Thought” of The Second Article part 2 (“who has redeemed me a lost and condemned creature…”) begins with “Human history has been constantly characterized by hatred and violence.” That is not the first thought we should teach regarding the redemption. It is not even a part of that teaching. It is the teaching of the Law. And its place is in the teaching of the Law. Worse, it is untrue. Has there never been a point in human history that has been characterized by love and compassion? What about the account of Oded in 2 Chronicles 28? In the One-Year series, this scripture is paired with the Good Samaritan. Liturgically then, it teaches that the children of Israel were loving and compassionate toward their defeated brethren. Certainly there have been great atrocities in human history. But there have also been moments of significant compassion on the part of God’s people toward the world.

And this sentence is not the actual central thought of the central thought section. There is a bold-print sentence that is really the “Central Thought.” And it comes much closer to the central thought of this section. “we confess that Jesus became our Lord by dying on the cross in order to rescue us from our captivity to sin, death, and the devil.” But the bold-print is placed between other thoughts. Study after study has shown that people remember the first or last thing they see. The middle is usually disregarded. And yet the “Central Thought” has ignored this basic pedagogical rule, placing the “Central Thought” in a context where it will be harder to discern and remember. The “Central Thought” section could be done away with entirely throughout the revision with no loss.

Not only can it be done away with, but the purpose of Luther’s Catechism is to summarize the teaching into a central thought. The church does not need to have two of those. Instead, students should just be directed to learn the catechism by heart, and tell them that is the central thought.

The review concludes in part 3 with some specific content concerns. Stay tuned!

20161018_091045 20161018_091103 20161018_091108 20161018_09120420161018_091135 20161018_091214 20161018_09122920161018_091236


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.