Here is the first guest article on the proposed revision to the Catechism:
Of all 6 chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, quite often it is the Lord’s Prayer which is given the most superficial treatment in church catechesis. This happens despite the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is probably the most prominent daily element of popular Christian piety, and the Lord’s Prayer also often raises difficult questions for God’s people as they live out their lives in faith towards God and love towards their neighbor. Therefore we can be thankful that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has revisited the Lord’s Prayer in its new revision of the Small Catechism explanation.
There is much to commend the new revision. By incorporating a structure consisting of a “Central Thought,” “A Closer Reading of the Small Catechism,” and “Connections and Applications” for each petition, this explanation revision makes itself a more engaging pedagogical tool than previous editions. While the Small Catechism relies on the sturdy, objective question “What does this mean?,” we remember that theology is finally practical. We should be able to draw applications from the Small Catechism, apply them to everyday life, and even answer the question, “What does this mean for me?” While I have found the previous Small Catechism explanation excellent as a reference tool, this new revision’s structure should be at least slightly more valuable in the classroom and for personal devotion.
That said, perhaps the greatest strength of the new revision is that much remains the same. For this third chief part at least, the questions, Bible verses, Large Catechism quotations, and Bible narratives are often a mirror of the 1991 explanation. Since the synodical explanation has been an overall helpful resource throughout our synod’s history, one would hope that its contents have not been radically altered. Thankfully, we find much the same pattern of sound words throughout the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer.
However, helpful material is added in many places. For example, in the explanation of the Third Petition, Thy will be done, attention is drawn to the 10 Commandments and Table of Duties. In a day of age where religious individuals tend to internalize their discernment of God’s will, as Lutherans we find clarity in God’s external commands and institutions.
There are also other helpful additions. We can consider the Fourth Petition. As in the 1991 edition, the new revision states that it is God who makes the earth prosper while giving man the command and ability to work. However, the new revision includes this and adds that God has given us certain earthly institutions and authorities by which we receive our daily bread. This is helpful, and it also explains how when these structures fail we find hunger and other unfortunate consequences of living in this sinful world. No discussion of this unfortunate reality is found in the 1991 edition.
Perhaps no petition of the Lord’s Prayer is as often misunderstood or misapplied than the Fifth Petition. In question 251 of the new revision, this misunderstanding is handled excellently, explaining how our forgiveness in Christ is always free, yet we realize that God’s forgiveness also covers those who have sinned against us. We learn that when we refuse to forgive our neighbor, we are also tacitly refusing our neighbor God’s forgiveness. This is an excellent treatment of the Fifth Petition for those pious Christians who may sometimes struggle with it.
One last improvement of the Lord’s Prayer explanation is worthy of note, this time regarding the Sixth Petition. In question 228 of the 1991 Small Catechism explanation, the words “tempt” and “temptation” are explained as heaving two different meanings: one, the testing of our faith which God uses to bring us closer to himself, and two, the attempts of our spiritual enemies to lure us from God. This is not helpful when Luther’s explanation is clear that “God tempts no one” (Gott versucht zwar niemand). In what is obviously a spirit of charity, the new revision takes what is good from this language and improves its clarity throughout the explanation.
To be expected, there are some places where there is room for improvement. Following the 1991 Small Catechism explanation, prayer is defined in part as a “conversation.” While that may be true, Christians also recognize prayer as an act of worship (Gottesdienst). This was the language of the 1912 Small Catechism explanation, and it would do us well to recognize it as such today. Since prayer has God’s command, it is more than mere conversation and essential to the Christian’s act of worship, no matter whether done privately or publicly.
Language could also be tightened in the explanation of the First Petition. The 1912 explanation boils down Luther’s explanation into two clear phrases: pure doctrine and holy life. On the flip side, we ask God to protect us from the antitheses: false doctrine and ungodly life. Every Christian should be convicted to pursue the former while marking and avoiding the latter. The new revision uses a rather awkward phrase, saying that God’s word is profaned “when anyone teaches something as His Word that is in fact not His Word.” While there is nothing false in this statement, it lacks a certain clarity. Christians should be vigilant and savvy to distinguish pure doctrine from false doctrine. Therefore reincorporating the concise phraseology of the 1912 explanation would be a step in the right direction in this case.
As with all previous editions of the Small Catechism explanation, this revision also runs the risk of burying what is the original content of Luther’s Small Catechism under a new sea of explanations. Therefore pastors need to take care in teaching this book, distinguishing for their catechumens what is in fact Luther’s Small Catechism and what is not.
As a common parish pastor, I am not sure yet whether this new catechism revision will offer me any new profound insights into catechesis. There will never be any improvement over a head of the household teaching the simple primary texts of the Small Catechism to his family, along with Luther’s own explanation. However, we can be thankful than an update is being offered at this time, especially in light of contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in our culture. Hopefully small improvements will be made before the final product is put on the market.
Rev. Ryan L. Loeslie
Immanuel Lutheran Church