As the “field-test” edition of the new version of the Explanation of the Small Catechism has been sent out to all Missouri Synod pastors and congregations, I expect (or at least hope) that pastors especially have taken (or will take) this opportunity to look at the work of the committee.
Two specific things that I am doing as I review the new version, and I would recommend to others as well, are:
1. Read the coordinate section of the Large Catechism before and after going through each section of the explanation.
2. Compare the proposed new version to the older versions. I would not only look at the most recent/current version, but also the 1943 and 1912 versions of the synodical explanation. The current version and 1943 versions are reasonably easy to get your hands on, but it is less likely for folks to have a physical copy of the 1912 version. Fortunately, you can find the 1912 German-English edition online here.
Here at BJS, we have invited some pastors around the Synod to review and comment on the different sections of the proposed revision. We hope that this series will encourage the whole Synod to not only give appropriate attention to the proposed revision of a core resource for the teaching of the faith in our Synod, but also provide an opportunity for us to think about the Catechism more deeply.
While this post is primarily for the purpose of introducing this series, I would like to offer some general observations and initial thoughts from a structural and historical angle, as opposed to considering the content of the proposed revision itself, in order to kick start the discussion:
A New Resource
This will be the fourth incarnation of the synodical catechism explanation in English: 1912, 1943, 1991, and the present proposed revision. The difference between the 1912 and 1943 versions in terms of content is slight, but the number of questions and biblical citations is expanded. Due to the 1943 revision’s frequent division of previously combined questions and the use of sub-points, it is difficult to compare “apples to apples” and arrive at a clear percentage of question growth, but the biblical citations grow by about 28%. Between the 1943 and 1991 versions, there are significant points of difference, and some of the sections are moved around. The the number of questions and biblical citations is again expanded. The biblical citations grow by 39%. However, despite the changes on certain points and another significant expansion, the 1991 revision is definitely a direct descendant of the previous versions that follows the same basic style, format, and wording.
In contrast, the new proposed revision is a radical departure from a structural and stylistic point of view. The size is greatly expanded. The number of questions and biblical citations (19%) is increased again. Comparing the proposed revision with the 1912 version gives us an increase of biblical citations by 112%. On top of this expansion, the citations themselves tend to be longer than previous version. The questions and answers are also consistently longer with further notes popping up as well. In addition, quotes from the Confessions are also included. Furthermore, there are some elements normally found in an actual curriculum such as a “central thought” at the beginning of each section, a closing prayer, and hymn suggestions. All of these changes and added features contribute to much longer resource.
Most different, however, is the language itself–both broadly and particularly. For example, the familiar pattern in the explanation to the Ten Commandments “What does God forbid in this commandment” and “What does God require in this commandment” is gone. There in a tendency in several sections to latch onto idiosyncratic vocabulary and phraseology that as far as I know has little to no precedence in the Synod’s history of catechism instruction. For instance, the word “flourish/flourishing” shows up an incredible number of times for a word that has never shown up before in any previous version. Comparing the proposed revision with the three previous versions side by side, it is obvious that while there is some influence and continuity (especially in regards to the choice of biblical citations) the structure of the explanation and the majority of the questions and answers themselves are totally new.
I believe it is fair to say and necessary to point out that this proposed revision is much less a revision than a whole new resource.
Let me be clear. I do not dislike curricula. I appreciate hymn suggestions. And I love our Lutheran Confessions. I do not dismiss new approaches to catechesis out of hand. However, for generations the synodical explanation of the Small Catechism has been a widely used and greatly beloved tool. Furthermore, it has been a very particular tool with a clear primary purpose. It was designed to be a further explanation of the Small Catechism with the most important biblical references given for each particular point. This resource, outlining the basic teachings of the faith, was to be especially used in the instruction of youth.
In the above critique I have stayed away from issues of content so that I might focus on structural and organizational concerns. In fact, I would like to commend the committee for their hard work and their insights that enriched the proposed revision. In many ways I wish that the proposed revision was a totally new and different resource precisely because much of the new content is helpful.
Thus, if I could sum up my overall concern into one phrase, it would be:
What is the purpose of this resource? Is it meant to be what it has always been, a resource primarily used in the instruction of confirmation students and a handy reference book with Bible verses coordinated to the Catechism? Or is it meant to be something else? Is it really for adults? Is it meant to double as a Bible study on current cultural issues? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
If it is meant to be the same type of resource that preceded it in 1912, 1943, and 1991, then I think it is inferior to what came before. It is way too big. It has little continuity to the preceding versions. It has some elements of a curriculum, but is not a full blown one. Frequently, it reads more like a study for adults than for children. (The phrase “genital sexual activity” certainly has no place in a child’s confirmation book…and probably not in an adult’s either for that matter.)
I worry that instead of judiciously improving a tried and true resource, a multi-tool is being produced. The letter that was sent with the proposed revision says:
Finally, it is rich in adaptability. Potential uses include:
-as a missionary tool to introduce individuals or groups to the Christian faith;
-as an instructional tool for youth confirmation;
-as a guide for thematic Bible classes;
-as a tool for individual or family devotional use and study;
-as a quick reference for sermon preparation
A multi-tool is handy in a pinch, but for everyday use, it is not the best tool for the job. This resource is far too cumbersome for its historic purpose. “Less is more” when it comes to a framework and a tool to teach the basics.
Again, much of the material is insightful, and I do not wish to diminish the the good work of the committee. Perhaps much of the brand new material and curricular elements could be used to produce a curriculum.
However, for the sake of preserving an excellent tool that is being used, and has been for generations by many in the Synod, I would encourage the committee to modify its work and produce a revision of the synodical explanation that has:
- an eye to much more continuity with previous versions, and
- a clear focus on this resource’s primary use–the teaching of children in confirmation class
Hopefully, this series on the new proposed revision of the synodical explanation of the Small Catechism will spark good discussions here at BJS!