In the early church the word chatecheo, meaning to inform or instruct, was the Greek term used to denote Christian instruction for anyone. By the second century this word was used for the pre-baptismal instruction of the catechumens, those who desired baptism and to become part of the Body of Christ. Augustine (354-430 CE) was the first to use the Latin word catechismus to denote basic Christian instruction in the faith. By the Middle Ages, this instruction would always include: the 10 Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.
While he had preached catechetical sermons and encouraged others to produce materials for basic Christian instruction, Luther himself did not begin formal work on a Catechism until late 1528. The first 3 parts were published on broadsheets in January of 1529 and were addressed to the heads of the household (fathers at that time). The project was completed by the spring of 1529.
The small catechism is built around one simple question “Was ist das?”/ “What is this?” Only occasionally are there further clarifying questions. Luther changed the traditional order of the texts so that it moves from Law (Ten Commandments) to Gospel (Creed) to prayer for help (the Lord’s Prayer) and then into the means of Grace (Baptism and Communion).
In this re-ordering we see Luther’s basic understanding of Law and Gospel. The Law (as epitomized but not solely contained in the Ten Commandments) is God’s way of ordering our lives and restraining evil. It is also God’s way of revealing to us our sin and driving us to Christ. The Law shows us we cannot live the way God orders and sends us to the Gospel (as embodied but not solely contained in the Creed) where we learn of Christ’s victory over sin and death. This leads us to our prayer for mercy (signified by the Lord’s Prayer) where we acknowledge that we cannot live as God desires (Law) and cling to the mercy of God shown in Jesus Christ (Gospel) through whom we have life. This is most certainly true!
Another way Luther talked about this ordering was by using the metaphor of sickness and healing. The diagnosis of the illness (sin) happens in the Ten Commandments (Law). The declaration of the cure or treatment (God’s grace and mercy) is in the Creed (Gospel). The medicine is received through the Lord’s Prayer (prayer). Thus, the order of the Catechism follows this movement from the realization we are sick, to hearing the prescription and receiving the medicine.
Luther’s reason for writing the catechism, as stated in the preface to the document, was because of the “deplorable, wretched deprivation” he encountered while serving as an official visitor to Saxony’s rural churches. While on these visits he found that the villagers knew nothing about the Christian faith and the pastors were not much better. He was appalled to find these baptized Christians did not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments (the basics of the medieval catechism). He encouraged pastors and preachers to preach the catechism to their flock, even using his version if they had none better. His understanding is that this text is for all Christians, not just the young.
Luther held the catechism in high regard. He called it, “an epitome (brief summary) and brief transcript of the entire Holy Scripture”. He believed that once you have gone through the short catechism, you should move on to a longer one to deepen and expand your understanding. That longer catechism was his Large Catechism, written in late 1529. The catechism helped to provide the lens through which we read scripture, seeing there the Law and Gospel by which God saves.
While he applauded and encouraged the public and corporate use of the catechism, Luther also saw the benefit of smaller, private teaching. “Doctrinal sermons in the church do not edify young people. But quizzes at home, definitions of the Catechism, and questions concerning the confession of the faith are of much greater benefit. They are, of course, troublesome; but they are very necessary.” The Small Catechism was meant to be used in the home daily. Its first form was as posters that could be hung in the home and referred to regularly.
Luther himself studied the catechism as his daily devotions for the rest of his life. He said he was a “child and pupil of the Catechism and am glad to remain one.”
Questions for thought and conversation:
- Do you see any parallels between Luther’s description of the church and today? What might be similar? What might be different?
- What is your experience with the Small Catechism? What is your understanding of its function in the Lutheran church? Was it ever used in your home?
- What basics of the faith do you wish you and other Christians were more familiar with?
- What are your hopes and expectations for this Lenten study?