Rev. Christopher Raffa
“On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” – Psalm 145:5
Many things coalesced and urged Martin Luther to write his catechetical material. As early as July 1516 Luther preached on the catechism, i.e., Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer. By 1522, the practice had been established in Wittenberg of preaching on the Catechism four times a year. In 1524, Pastor Nicholas Hausmann had requested catechetical material from Luther to be used with the common folk. Luther also sought to settle a dispute that had arisen between John Agricola and Phillip Melanchthon concerning the place of the law in the Christian life (see A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, p.521ff). Indeed, the greatest reason for Luther’s writing of the Small Catechism was to address the maladies diagnosed in the Saxon Visitation of 1528. In his preface to the Small Catechism, Luther writes, “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this 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. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or The Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.”
Thus, it is undeniable that Luther’s Small Catechism arose out of a specific historical context and it reflects that context in many ways. Yet, the pattern of sound words, the teaching of Christian doctrine, which is God’s Word alone, never grows old or outdated in its killing and making God’s people into a holy and forgiven people. Simply put, the Small Catechism in its explanation of the Christian faith and life remains a relevant text for all times and all places. It matters little whether you learned its language by heart from the 1943 or 1986 edition. It’s of little significance whether you learned its language of Law and Gospel in your early years, your middle years, or your sunset years. But what is of great significance is that in your journey as a catechumen of Christ in this life you continue to receive God’s Word of Law and Gospel to teach you over and over again, to remind you that the begging and receiving of Christ’s gifts is the rhythm of the Christian life-the seasick voyage of repentance and faith that will finally end in the harbor of God’s eternal salvation.
It is this reality of the Small Catechism and its importance for the Christian’s life that makes it such an important tool for teaching of God’s people. Yet, I fear that what Luther saw in 1528 in the Saxon Visitation is, at least in some way, what we now experience. In the dawn of the 21st century the Small Catechism is losing the vital role that it has played for many centuries. Often it is the case that adults who come to the church know very little, if anything about Christian doctrine, nor do they have a desire to be catechized, to sit at the feet of Jesus, to learn from the pastor as from Jesus who sent him into midst of His flock. The church has a mountain to climb as it surveys the dissonance that exists between child and parents. For how can the church expect, when parents have never really engaged the basics of Christian doctrine, that the children of these parents will be formed in the faith at home. At the same time, the breakdown of a biblically literate and catechized church falls on the pastors who downplay, supplant, and replace the Catechism as the primary text for catechetical instruction-especially for adults. James A. Nestingen sums up nicely the barren catechetical landscape, “It (Small Catechism) is no longer the working paradigm, encompassing the witness of the Scripture in the language of daily experience to serve preaching and reflection on the church’s faith and mission.”
At the same time, I must say that there are signs of catechetical life in the church. There are those in our church who resolutely continue to teach the basics of Christian doctrine; to form a Lutheran mind that it centered in the basics of confession of sin and the reception of Christ’s gifts through bible, hymnal and catechism. The church and its teaching are never contemporary, for it deals in that which has stood the test of time, fights against the gates of hell and draws its strength and resolve from Christ who is its body and life and who confesses, “This is most certainly true.” This certainty is given and sustained by Christ, whose sanctuary we inhabit so as to receive daily the comfort of sins forgiven and a blessed death granted by His death and resurrection. Catechesis is a lifelong endeavor. Martin Luther knew this and so he placed within the Small Catechism all that we must hear as unbeliever and believer, as sinner and saint. In recitation of the Ten Commandments we come face to face with the sinful nature that resides in our hearts and minds. In the recitation of the Creed we are given the Savior who has redeemed us, that is to say, bought us back from the devil’s grasp, “not with gold or sliver, but with his holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.” In the recitation and reception of His holy sacraments we are given the gifts of forgiveness life and salvation purchased and won by our Lord Jesus Christ so that we would one day rise from the dead, “just as He has risen from the dead lives and reigns to all eternity.” Nestingen summarizes it concisely, “The Small Catechism, in chart and pamphlet form, quickly became one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation. It moved the village altar into the family kitchen, literally bringing instruction in the faith home to the intimacies of family life.”
Rev. Christopher Raffa is the associate pastor of Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.