Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529
Luther wrote his little catechism for parents to instruct their children in the faith just as he wrote his larger catechism as remedial instruction for pastors. Catechism in its Latin form means “book of instruction.” From its Greek roots, catechism means literally “sounding down in the ears” or, more pointedly, “indoctrination” in the Christian faith.
For Martin Luther, basic catechesis (doctrinal instruction) in the Christian faith refers to teaching children (and their parents!) the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the biblical basis for Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession. Luther also includes morning and evening prayers, table grace, and a table of duties.
As one reads, learns, and commits to memory Luther’s Small Catechism, it becomes a devotional discipline through which the Holy Spirit can work to kill the old Adam or Eve (daily drowning in baptismal waters) and to raise up daily the new child of God created in Holy Baptism.
Luther envisioned parents as the popes, bishops, and pastors of their homes teaching their children who and whose they are as children of God by grace through the washing of Holy Baptism. Reading the catechism, one begins to get a picture of the Christian home as a house of prayer from which the family goes into the world to fulfill their vocations in daily life (think here of the “in but not of” in Romans 12:1-2).
Luther’s hymns are didactic in nature, and Luther urged parents to teach their children both the catechism and hymns. Indeed the Lutheran chorales in both text and tune are strong meat in comparison to the spiritual pabulum of much contemporary Christian music. Father Martin or Doctor Martin, as he was called, was a creative genius whose interests included biblical translation and exegesis, theology and philosophy, worship and the arts, the practice of pastoral ministry, and the care of souls.
Over the next days and weeks, I intend to blog on the various parts and sections of Luther’s Small Catechism. As always, my hope is to encourage those who read these words to think, pray, and to practice, with the help of God, a self-consciously Lutheran Christianity. As the grandson of a Sicilian Roman Catholic paternal grandmother, a fundamentalist Baptist paternal grandfather, and of Muehlenberg Lutheran maternal grandparents, I am more than a little aware that there are many ways to be Christian. While I admire and respect C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a generic Christian in the actual practice of the faith.
The Christian life is lived out in particular faith communities shaped most of all by how they worship. Lex orandi, lex credendi – the way we worship says what we believe. Lutheran Christians are, whether we admit it or not, evangelical catholics. Our worship and theology, indeed the way we read Scripture, is evangelical – shaped by the Good News of the free gift of God’s Son Jesus crucified for the salvation of the world. Our worship and theology, indeed the way we read Scripture, is catholic – shaped by the ancient creeds and first seven ecumenical councils of the whole Church.
Typically, we lose from our worshiping communities those that have not been properly catechized in the great tradition of the Christian faith, which is not the same thing as having gone through Confirmation instruction. As Luther well knew, what does and does not happen in the home has everything to do with the people that go out into the world. Two or three hours a week hardly do more than lift up an alternative vision to the prevailing Zeitgeist (spirit of the age). The more narcissistic the home life (yes, even good parents can be both narcissistic and raise narcissists) the more that children and parents seek out communities that are built on highly successful marketing plans that appeal to peoples’ narcissism. As I have unkindly said before, there are thousands of people yelling “Jesus!” at a Cowboys’ or Rangers’ game, and it ain’t Christian worship.
Conversely, we tend to gain those that are hungering and thirsting for a deeply incarnational encounter with the Living God, the Triune God who acts through Word and Sacrament to save and redeem lost and condemned sinners and to shape the children of God into the likeness of the Servant King Jesus. In the words of a dear older pastor, our worship is about the life of the Triune God seeking to works its way into us and to overcome the narcissistic life of the old Adams and Eves, the old sinful selves, which have gathered for worship.
By way of illustration, Lutheran writer Marva Dawn tells the story of the person sitting next to her in worship who commented: “I didn’t like that last hymn.” Dawn replied: “Well, we weren’t singing to you!”
If this blog tweaks, bothers, and perhaps even angers the reader who insists she or he is a Lutheran despite all evidence to the contrary (I’m thinking here of those that worship elsewhere and yet insist that they are still Lutheran Christians!), then I’m succeeding in the pastoral task of a Lutheran pastor and faithful to the promises made on my ordination day. My goal is to challenge people to be Lutheran Christians and to keep the promises parents made at the baptism of their children and that they affirmed on the day of their Confirmation.
And, if I challenge a Lutheran parent or pastor to get back into Luther’s Small Catechism, then so much the better! Who knows? You, dear reader, may discover (as Garrison Keillor would say) that you’re on your way to becoming a Lutheran Christian and just didn’t know about it until now!