Many readers of the Voice of Zion will know that Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism; however, it is likely that relatively few know the context and history of it. Many may wonder why Luther wrote the Small Catechism, under what circumstances did he write it, or how did he intend it to be used? The answers to these questions, as well as the main content of the Small Catechism, will be presented in the articles of this spread, which is part of the LLC’s commemoration of the 500th year since the start of the Reformation.
catechism /ˈkatɪkɪz(ə)m/ Noun.
Summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for religious instruction. Origin: Early 16th century
catechize /ˈkatɪkʌɪz/ Verb.
Instruct (someone) in the principles of Christian religion by means of question and answer, typically by using a catechism. (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com)
The Context and History of the Small Catechism
Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, 12 years after the start of the Reformation and the writing of his Ninety-five Thesis. In 1529, Luther had already written many books and sermons and had translated the New Testament into the language of his people (German). Luther wanted the common people to be able to study and learn God’s Word. Therefore when Luther visited the parishes in 1527–29 (a decade after the start of the Reformation), he was disappointed to find ignorant congregation members and incompetent pastors. In his preface to the Small Catechism, Luther wrote the following:
“The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian Doctrine into brief, plain and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach.”
Purpose and Intended Audience
Luther wrote the Small Catechism as a tool to help pastors and parents teach basic Christian doctrine, including the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the sacraments and confession. He wanted pastors and parents to teach the young and common people in a simple and consistent way. He felt that the pastors were responsible for the lack of knowledge of the people.
“Oh, you bishops! How will you ever answer to Christ for letting the people carry on so disgracefully and not attending to the duties of your office for a moment? … Therefore dear brothers, for God’s sake I beg all of you who are pastors and preachers to devote yourselves sincerely to the duties of your office … to inculcate [teach by repetition] this catechism in the people, especially the young.”
Use of the Small Catechism—Then
Luther wanted that the Small Catechism be taught through repetition and memorization. He proposed three steps to teaching the catechism: (1) memorizing the text, (2) explaining the meaning, and (3) enhancing the understanding with the Large Catechism.
“Young and inexperienced persons must be taught a single fixed form or they will easily become confused, and the result will be that all previous effort and labor will be lost. There should be no change, even though one may wish to improve the text. … without altering a single syllable and by never varying their wording when presenting or quoting them year after year. … word for word, so that they can repeat it after you and commit it to memory.”
“Second, after they have well memorized the text (of the catechism), then explain the meaning so that they understand what they are saying. … taking your time with it … After they understand well the meaning of the First Commandment, proceed to the Second, and so on, otherwise they will be too overwhelmed to the point of remembering nothing.”
It is interesting that Luther tells the preachers:
“If, however, you happen to be preaching to some sophisticated, learned audience, then you certainly may demonstrate your skill with words by turning phrases as colorfully and masterfully as you can. But with young personskeep to a single, fixed, and permanent form and wording.”
Use of the Small Catechism—Now
It is comforting that today, nearly 500 years after the Small Catechism was written, Luther’s Small Catechism is still used in God’s kingdom for the same purpose and in the same way that Luther intended it to be used. Sunday school teachers still emphasize word-for-word memorization of the text and patiently teach “What is meant by this?” to our young year after year using a “permanent form and wording”. By the time our children leave Sunday school and attend Confirmation School, they have memorized most of the teachings in Luther’s Small Catechism. These teachings will serve our children their entire life time. Through this 500-year-old tool, God continues bless His kingdom and firmly root our children in Christian Doctrine. The words of Solomon come to mind:
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them” (Eccl. 12:1).
Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer
Most of us learned the Lord’s Prayer as children from our parents and memorized the Ten Commandments and the Creed in Sunday school. We also learned that the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets in Moses’ time and that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer during His Sermon on the Mount. We used Luther’s Small Catechism as our Sunday School text book.
Luther included the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism because, as a sinful man himself, Luther understood the trials and difficulties that the people faced in the war against the world, Satan, and their own flesh. Luther also wanted the people to understand and embrace Christ’s teachings so they could continue to fight against sin, have their sins forgiven, and continue to live with the hope of eternal life.
The Ten Commandments
Jesus taught that the Ten Commandments can be summarized by two commandments: (1) love God and (2) love your neighbor as thyself (Matt. 22:37–40). In the Small Catechism, Luther explains what each commandment means and begins most explanations with “We should so fear and love God as not to….” In these explanations of the commandments and his other writing, Luther shows his respect for the law and his love for his neighbor’s undying soul.
The Creed that is in the Small Catechism comes from the Apostle’s Creed that had been written long before Luther’s time. The Creed is a succinct summary of what we believe; the doctrine of our faith. Luther’s explanation of the Second Article is a single sentence and has been called the greatest sentence ever written.
The Lord’s Prayer
Luther wrote that the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught, is the perfect prayer and contains everything that we ought to pray for. During his teaching, Luther saw that the people would memorize and recite the Lord’s Prayer quickly by rote without really thinking about what they were praying. Luther wrote that he needed to pray slowly and think about each word.
Baptism and Sacrament of the Altar
Luther’s writings emphasize how God has ordained the sacraments to especially draw His children close to Him—through His Word connected both to the water in baptism and the spiritual eating and drinking of His Son in communion.
Many of us have attended a baptism and perhaps wondered about the significance of the occasion. Baptism is God-given and His recorded Word instructs us to baptize. “Go ye and teach all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The Sacrament is performed for this reason that the one who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). In baptism there is a deliverance of the promise that God will never forsake His own. The water in baptism isn’t just any water. It is the water “comprehended in God’s command, and connected with God’s word” that extends to the believing recipient God’s promise. Baptism signifies that our carnal portion, also called our Old Adam, should by daily sorrow and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and that the new man should daily come forth and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Luther was very emphatic of the need that the water be united or mixed with the Word. He taught in the Large Catechism, that the water and the Word, would by no means be separated from one another. Likewise that if the Word is separated from it, the water is the same as that with which the servant cooks, and may indeed be called a bath-keeper’s baptism. But when it is added, as God has ordained, it is a Sacrament, and is called Christ’s Baptism. Baptism is a covenant of faith and a good conscience. We continue in that covenant through God’s grace, the gift of faith, the power of the forgiveness of sins and by keeping a good conscience. God has also given us the grace priviledge to confess our sins and receive absolution, that is, the forgiveness of our sins. This is what Luther meant by the words: “It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe what the Word and promise of God declare.”
Sacrament of the Altar
The sacrament of the altar, also known as communion, was established by Jesus. At the Last Supper Jesus “took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:26–28). Luther calls this sacrament the “food of souls,” as it is a meal that gives nourishment and strength for the endeavor of faith (or “walking in the new man” according to Luther). In the covenant of baptism, we are granted access to walk under God’s grace, but Luther knew so well there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in man (our inherited corruption), and so many hindrances and temptations from the three-fold enemy that try and steal faith. In the Large Catechism Luther affirms, “Now to this end [end being our inherited sinfulness] the consolation is here given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heavy, that it may here obtain new power and refreshment” in communion. Communion is a meal of unity with Christ and His kingdom in an humanly incomprehensible way and through which our weak faith is strengthened.
Communion is meant only for the believer. The believer goes to communion in faith, partakes in faith and returns in faith. One does not enter God’s kingdom through communion nor care for matters of conscience by partaking of the elements. One is however reminded of the salvation work of Christ as Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me” and of how one can be encouraged to continue in faith and to keep a good conscience. This is what Luther meant by, “And because He offers and promises forgiveness of sin, it [communion] cannot be received otherwise than by faith!”
So, God ordained this meal of remembrance for one who in faith has been battle wearied, to experience and be reminded of God’s promise for sinful man and in eating of His body and blood one can be strengthened in the belief that only through Christ’s redemption can we attain salvation.
Confession and Absolution
Martin Luther explains the grace privilege of confession in his Small Catechism. In this explanation he tells what confession is, what sins we should confess, and gives examples of what could be said by someone confessing his sins to a confessor. This part of the Small Catechism ends with the office of the keys.
In explaining what confession is, he says that there are two parts. One is that we confess our sins. The other is that we receive absolution from the confessor, as of God himself. This means that although the confessor says the words of absolution to us, we believe that this absolution comes from God. We are not to doubt, but firmly believe that our sins then are truly forgiven by God. In his writings, Luther explains that this happens through the power Jesus gave to believers through the office of the keys. (Matt. 16:19; John 20:22–23) He says that it is the peculiar power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent. When the confessor absolves those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.
In explaining what sins we should confess, Luther teaches that before God we should acknowledge our guilt over all sins, even those of which we aren’t aware ourselves. However, before the confessor, we should only confess those sins which we know about and which we feel in our hearts and which trouble our conscience. In his writings, Luther emphasizes that confession must not be a compulsion or command. It is not a requirement or a law, but rather a gift which we cannot do without. He states that it should not be despised, but it is a comfort.
Luther also gives examples of what could be said by someone when confessing his sins to a confessor. I’m sure these were not intended as some type of prototype of a confession, but as an example only. The words we use in our confession are surely not the important thing, as our salvation does not depend on how well we make our confession. What is important in our confession, as Luther also stressed, is that we believe the words of absolution from the confessor. This brings peace to our troubled conscience.
In the Smalcald Articles, Luther states,
“I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me …”
In my life of faith, I have experienced exactly what Luther states here. When I have been tempted and fallen into sin and my conscience has been troubled, I have felt so happy and comforted when God has given me the strength to approach another believer about my matters and he has preached and I have believed the words of absolution.
Prayer and Table of Duties
What is prayer? Prayer is a direct conversation with God. Where and how can we pray? The Bible instructs us: “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father in secret” (Matt. 6:6). Martin Luther encouraged people to pray, indeed, much of the Small Catechism can be used to pray. In a letter titled “A Simple Way to Pray” that Luther sent to his barber, he explained how he prayed using the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed. Luther did not want prayers to be only in a set form with predetermined wording. He wanted to allow any person to pray whenever and wherever. Praying in a moment of need for God’s help and guidance is an example of a prayer free of outward formality. This is very familiar to us, as the children of God are children of prayer. The rite of Holy Communion contains examples of formalized prayers.
The Small Catechism has prayers for both our temporal and spiritual needs. Prayers for morning and evening, and prayers for before and after eating. It also explains what is meant by the perfect prayer—The Lord’s Prayer that Jesus gave us. These prayers and everything else in the Small Catechism were meant to be memorized.
Prayer is also comforting. Every night as we put our two-year-old daughter to sleep, my wife or I will say a prayer and sing a song with her. She isn’t always willing to go to sleep, and sometimes the prayers are said with some sobs and tears, but by the end they have calmed her. The prayer and song bring her comfort, and it also bring us comfort, to know that our Heavenly Father is hearing her prayer.
Table of Duties
The Table of Duties section of the Small Catechism is an index of instruction for use in our daily lives. It instructs in the different duties or positions that we may have in life, examples include: ministers, teachers, hearers (of the Word), husbands, wives, parents, children, youth, widows, and everyone. All of the instruction is taken from the Bible. Some examples from the Table of Duties area are:
“Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:5,6).
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1).
To All in Common
“Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Rom. 12:9,10).
September 2017 Voice of Zion
- Commentary: Work is a Gift, or Is It?
- Put Sin Away
- Introduction to The Small Catechism
- Times of Visitation
- Mikael Agricola, Finnish Reformer
- Editorial: Man, in the Place of God
- Faith Is God’s Gift
- Luther on Marriage
- The Internet—Good and Evil
- Reformation: The Bible-Christian Faith's Highest Authority and Guide