1929 Synod Convention Essay
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The Historical Origin and Occasion of Luther’s Small Catechism.
Four hundred years ago a most remarkable booklet appeared in Germany. This little book was not so remarkable on account of its size; it was very modest in volume, hardly more than three score and a half pages. Nor was it so remarkable because of its title; several books had been published having the same title. Lastly, this little book was not so remarkable on account of its author; Dr. Martin Luther, as we know, wrote several books that were more pretentious in size and name than this little volume. These things did not make this book so remarkable. We must look elsewhere to find the real cause for its unusual popularity; we must look beyond these external things; we must look into the heart and the soul of this little book to find its real value; there we find that which made this book so remarkable. Under its thin shell the kernel of truth is lodged which satisfies the wisest of the wise. We see a Christian personality that hardly finds its parallel save in the author of the Epistles of Paul. We see a moral force that speaks to us in a language that is as child- like as it is deep, as comprehensive as it is simple and sublime. We see a man that has reached the blessed assurance of peace with God through faith in His unlimited mercy; we see him directing the people to the same source assuring them: There is life everlasting and nowhere else! This remarkable book is Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
It is therefore a most happy arrangement that our Synodical Convention this year, The Four Hundredth Anniversary of Luther’s Catechism, has set aside some time for meditation on the significance and merits of this master-piece of religious instruction for the young. As I have been requested to introduce a part of this timely subject, I shall endeavor to point out:
The Historical Origin and Occasion of Luther’s Small Catechism.
1. The religious conditions in the Catholic Church at the time of Luther.
At the time when Luther appeared, the corruption of the Catholic Church was so appalling that many, even among the most devout and loyal members of the church, lifted up their voices in protest; but their testimonies fell upon deaf ears. The true piety and spiritual conception of the clergy and the laity were rare exceptions. The condition in the Church down from the Pope to the sexton was a reproach to its divine founder. The Church had degenerated into a vast external organization led by the. Pope and his subordinates and used by them for selfish purposes only. At the court of Rome there existed a spirit of unbelief and licentiousness. The remark that Pope Leo X. made to his secretary gives a true picture of the condition. The Pope said: “All the world knows how profitable this fable of Christ has been to us and ours.” The kingdom of Christ was supplanted by an outward kingdom ruled by a succession of ecclesiastical princes that taxed the people to the outmost. “A thousand ways,” says a writer, “are devised by which the Romish chair cunningly robs the poor people of their means.”
As the head, so the members. The bishops lived in luxury squandering the revenues of the Church in sensual pleasures. Luther, was, indeed, fully justified to lift up his voice against these wolves in sheep’s clothing. “O ye bishops,” he says, “what will you ever answer Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office? I invoke no evil upon your head; but you withhold the cup in the Lord’s Supper, insist upon the observance of your human laws, and yet, at the same time, do not take the least interest in teaching the people the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God. Woe unto you!” The priests were coarse and ignorant, spending their time in hunting and drinking, entirely neglecting their flocks. Neander, one of the greatest church historians, says: “The majority of the clergy possessed no other qualifications for their office than a certain skill and expertness in performing the mechanical ceremonies of the Church.” And a Catholic writers says: “In the fifteenth century the worldliness of the clergy reached a height not possible to surpass.”
The same sad condition existed also at the monasteries. John Schephower, a monk, writes: “The manner in which they live is shocking. They understand much better to draw liquor from goblets than to obtain useful information from books. With drinking companions they sit in taverns, carry on games and use the foulest language.”
This deplorable condition in the Church certainly put its stamp also on the public worship and the religious instruction of the young. The theology of the Church had degenerated into scholastic subtleties and idle speculations. Superstitious rites, image-worship, and saint-worship constituted the service of God. Myconius, a monk, who became a Lutheran, writes: “The sufferings and merits of Christ were of little account. Great stress, however, was put upon the necessity to do, not what God had commanded in His Word, but what the monks and priests had invented because these works brought money into the treasury.” The mass had become the central point in the worship; preaching had fallen into disuse. The religious instruction of the young no longer was considered a part of the priests’ work. The children were supposed to learn the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer from their parents or their sponsors, as no public schools existed. Some Latin schools were in operation, but they were few in comparison to the great mass of young people in need of them; furthermore, they were established only for those who intended to become priests. The people, and especially the young, sank deeper and deeper into superstition and rank ignorance. A booklet which contain the ABC, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of other prayers, served as a manual for the instruction of the children. This booklet was filled with idolatrous adorations of the saints. One prayer to Mary reads: “O Mary, thou mediator between God and man, make thyself the medium between the righteous God and me, a poor sinner! O Mary, thou helper in all anguish and need, come to my assistance in all sufferings! O Mary, thou restorer of lost grace to all men, restore unto me my lost time, my sinful and wasted life!” Another prayer calls Mary the “mighty queen of heaven,” the “holy empress of the angels.” The book also directs that a prayer in order to be effective must be spoken before the figure which had appeared to St. Gregory. Still another prayer assures 24,600 years and 24 days of indulgence when spoken before the form of St. Gregory. Everything, even the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, was made to serve Romish superstition and idolatry. Melanchthon justly states in the Apology to the Augsburg, Confession: “Among our adversaries there is no catechization of the children whatever — in many regions during the entire year no sermons are delivered, except in Lent.”
The church visitations held by Luther, Melanchthon, and Bugenhagen revealed the same deplorable conditions. Concerning these visitations Melanchthon writes: “What can be offered in justification, that these poor people have hitherto been left in such ignorance and stupidity? My heart bleeds when I regard this misery! Often when we have completed a visitation of a place, I go to one side and pour forth my distress in tears. And who would not mourn to see the faculties of man so utterly neglected, and that his soul, which is able to learn and grasp much, does not even know anything of its Creator and Lord.” Upon the same subject Luther wrote to Spalatin: “Conditions in the congregations everywhere are pitiable, inasmuch as the peasants learn nothing, know nothing, never pray, do nothing but abuse their liberty, make no confession, receive no communion, as if they had been altogether emancipated from religion.”
2. Luther’s Preparatory Work for his Small Catechism.
Fully realizing the deplorable condition in the Church, Luther started a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments during the summer of 1516. When he had finished this series, in February, 1517, he preached during Lent of the same year a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. He also wrote an exposition for publication on the Ten Commandments based upon his sermons preached during 1516 and 1517. Sebastian Muenster praised this work highly in the following words: “Luther explains the Ten Commandments in such a spiritual, Christian, and evangelical way, that its like can not be found, though many teachers have written on the subject.” The following year (1518) Agricola published Luther’s sermons on the Lords’ Prayer with some additions. These additions did not fully meet with Luther’s approval. Therefore he published himself the sermons in their original form the following year. The humanist, Beatus Rhenanus, wrote to Zwingli that he was much interested to see Luther’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer offered for sale throughout Switzerland. At Venice they were translated into Italian without Luther’s name. The Italian censor wrote the following regarding the sermons: “Blessed are the hands that wrote these sermons. Blessed are the eyes that see them. And blessed will be the hearts that believe these sermons, and cry to God in such a manner.”
In 1520 Luther collected the results of his labor on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He added a third part to this work and published the whole work under the name: Confessional Mirror for the Common People. The third part, which he added, is his explanation of the Creed. The Confessional Mirror for the Common People is an important forerunner of his Small Catechism, as it forms the basis for the treatment of the first three parts in his Small Catechism. This little book proves conclusively that Luther broke away from the traditional manner of the Middle Ages and took a firm stand on Scriptural ground. In this book he sweeps away the great mass of external material handed down from the Middle Ages. He says: “God so ordered it that the ordinary Christian, who is unable to read the whole Bible, should be taught the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, for these three parts contain the essentials of Christian knowledge.” Instead of following the old traditional division of the Creed into twelve parts, Luther divided it into three parts with special reference to the work of the Triune God in saving man. This little book was enthusiastically received, and was published in numerous reprints within a short time. So great was the demand that many, who could not obtain printed copies, copied the book themselves. Again in 1523 Luther preached a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. As a new feature in this series, he added Five Questions on the Lord’s Supper. This addition was taken from one of his sermons on the Holy Communion, and was directed to the expected communicants as a guide for their instruction and self-examination.
In summing up the work of Luther on catechetical topics, we find that he repeatedly preached on the Five Chief Parts of the Catechism from 1516 to 1529. From this we see that Luther’s Small Catechism grew forth from intense pastoral occupation with the catechetical material. His writing of the Catechism is, therefore, the result of thirteen years of strenuous labor.
3. The Writing of the Small Catechism.
More and more the necessity of writing a suitable book for the religious instruction of the young made its demand upon Luther. But as he was occupied with numerous duties, he did not at first dare to undertake the work. He therefore commissioned Justus Jonas and Agricola to undertake the work. The work, however, was not carried out as Jonas and Agricola soon moved away from Wittenberg. Luther, therefore, decided to undertake the work himself. But before he was able to do so, a booklet appeared in 1525, written by Bugenhagen. This publication presented mainly Luther’s explanation on the Chief Parts of the Catechism, and it adhered closely to the thoughts set forth by Luther in his catechism sermons. In this booklet Baptism and Communion appeared for the first time as separate parts.
In I528 Luther again preached three series of catechism sermons. Each series treated the Five Chief Parts of the Catechism. The last series was preached after Luther had taken part in the visitations in Saxony. The conditions he met there were so deplorable that he did not dare any longer to put aside the task of writing a suitable book for the religious instruction of the young. This we clearly see from his preface to the Small Catechism. “The deplorable condition,” he says, “in which I found religious affairs during a recent visitation of the congregations has impelled me to publish this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain and simple form.”
In the last part of 1528 or the first part of 1529, Luther entered upon the task of writing his Small Catechism. The rich material which he had gathered for his catechism sermons, his extensive knowledge of the wants of the young, and his deep insight into the spirit of the Gospel, made him preeminently fitted for the task. The first Three Parts, with the text and his explanation, were ready for publication in the middle of January, 1529. They were printed in the form of tablets to be hung on the wall. The last Two Parts, which were also printed in tablet form, were not ready until two months later because of Luther’s illness and pressing work. Luther called his work Catechism, that is, elementary Christian instruction in the form of questions and answers. Many believe that the Small Catechism did not appear in book form before May, 1529. Besides the Five Parts with the text and Luther’s explanation, the Catechism contained a preface, prayers for morning, evening, and mealtimes, a table of duties, and a marriage formula which was left out in later editions.
The appearance of Luther’s Small Catechism makes the year 1529 the most significant year in the history of religious instruction. It is therefore not more than just and right that we, as Lutherans, center our thoughts and hearts on this remarkable book which next to the Bible is the most important book.
Let me close this paper by quoting the testimony of sainted Bishop Bang of Norway regarding Luther’s Small Catechism. He says: “The Catechism is precious for the reason that Luther in his explanations strikes a personal subjective and confessional note. When at home I read the text of the Second Article in silence, and then read Luther’s explanation aloud. It seems to me as if a hymn rushing heavenward rises from the precious record of facts; it is no longer words only, but the sound of a living being. It is Christianity transformed into flesh and blood. It sounds like an oath of allegiance to the flag. In its victorious tone we see the marching tread of the myriads of believers of nineteen centuries, we see them moving onward to victory and to peace under the floating banner of the cross. And we, too, are drawn along in the march by a power we can not express in words.”
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Introduction to the Study of the Catechism.
“Therefore I entreat you all, for God’s sake, my dear brethren who are pastors and preachers, to give yourselves to your ministry with your whole hearts. Have pity upon the people committed to your charge, and help us teach them, especially the young, the Catechism.” So writes Luther in his preface to this little book. Is it too much to say that the Reformation movement of the r6th century has come down from generation to generation, because pastors and teachers, at least to some extent, were faithful to this advice of teaching the Catechism to the young? This year all the various Lutheran bodies are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Catechism which was more than twelve years in the preparation of being written and carefully rewritten. To be correct we must say that this book had been in preparation for more than twelve centuries, for not only did Luther make use of other catechisms written by his contemporaries, but he studied and adopted phrases from several catechisms of the early Christian Church. Thus we have the wisdom of many church fathers packed into one small text-book by the greatest of all the church fathers. For us Norwegians it is interesting to know that the first translation of the Catechism into our grandparents’ language was made in 1532 at the official command of Knud Gyldenstjerne, a Catholic bishop in Fyen, Denmark The translator, Jørgen Jensen Sadolin, to please the Roman bishop, omitted Luther’s name as the author, and wrote on the title page: “Een Catechismus eller then sande hellige Kirckes gamle Lærdom.”
We are told of a picture, a scene in a school-room, where Luther sits in the midst of the children teaching them the first article of the creed. Jonas is distributing catechisms, and in the back of the room stand a number of teachers, that they may learn from Luther how to teach the children. I like to think that one of these teachers listening to Luther is the old Norwegian Synod in our endeavor to maintain Christian Day-Schools. What would these nurseries be without the little Catechism? For the contents of this book are the pure milk of the Scriptures, easy to digest, giving the child all the necessary ingredients for spiritual growth. Nor is it only that Luther’s explanations are well adapted for memorizing, but they appeal to the hearts of the little ones. Consider the explanation of the 5th Commandment: “We should fear and love God, that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” There is power there to persuade the child of God not only to hear, but to do the Word. Well may we thank God for the Catechism, for it is a manual of Christian discipline.
There seems to be some question amongst some church bodies as to how they should celebrate this anniversary. We of the Synodical Conference need not ask the question, for our program of Christian Day School gives us the opportunity of doing as Luther advises in the preface: “Help us teach them, especially the young, the Catechism.”
The little book has been compared to many beautiful things, but perhaps Johan Arndt spoke most eloquently when he said: “That as occasionally we find a comb of honey which the bees have gathered from the sap of the choicest flowers in the fields, so the little Catechism is the choicest honey which Luther gathered from the Word of God.”
Allow me to add a composition written in my school by Edbert Amble, 6A, June 5, 1929, on, “Why I love my Catechism.”
“I love my Catechism, because it has taught me many things. It first of all has taught me to obey my mother and father and other persons who are above me. It has given me the commandments and articles. It has given me the petitions and the sacraments. It is teaching me everything I should know about the Lord. I have also been taught how and why the Lord died for me. That is more than any other book can tell, as the Catechism does. Although it is a small book, it tells more about the Savior than any other book except the Bible. The Catechism is a true book also.”
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The Contents of the Catechism.
The value of the 400th anniversary of the Catechism must lie in our humble restudy of its text. To think to do more is like setting a lamp by the garden when the full spring sun is already warming every clod of dirt.
Our paper would study the contents of the Catechism on the basis of Dr. Walther’s theses on “Law and Gospel,” that lighthouse on the shores of American Lutheranism. We dare to do this, of course with acknowledgement, because we know that the Catechism, just as does the Bible, leads the sinner to the blessed truth that “Jesus Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”
For the first, then, the contents of our Catechism consist of two altogether different doctrines, law and gospel. The Bible teaches indeed, at one time, “do this and live,” and at another time, “You have a righteousness given unto you.” Millions have blessed God for the Catechism in that it has made plain the inner harmony between these two doctrines.
Luther indeed let stand the fact that, 1. “both doctrines are God’s word; 2. both are equally necessary; 3. both are for all mankind; 4. both indeed have as their final purpose the salvation of men.”
But he did mark the differences. First, that one, the law, is known by man who takes it altogether in the wrong way; and second, the gospel, is altogether strange to our minds that run in a rut grooved by inherited work-righteousness. Therefore he put the ten commandments first, passing from the known to the unknown, a good rule a teacher will follow.
He also marked this difference, the law says, “You do this” (Luther’s, “we should”), while the gospel says, “God has done it.” Then he points out that the law promises life to him who keeps its statutes, while the gospel promises life to one who has not kept the law.
With its demands the law joins a fearful threat. So Luther: “Good threatens to punish all those who transgress these commandments.” But with the promises of the gospel comes no threat. So with the second article. Luther does not embitter the sweet drink of its forgiving contents by one word of threat.
When we say that Luther in his Catechism had made plain the deep inner harmony of law and gospel we do not mean, he made a little lighter the crushing weight of the law. No, he arrays the ten commandments in one solid line, and, they, held together by the chain, “thou shalt fear and love God,” mow down all but those who are created anew unto good works. That is at the bottom of the statement of Dr. Reu, “The great significance of the small Catechism is the deep evangelical understanding.” (Catechetics, page 100.)
Nor does it lie in the Catechism’s harmonization of law and gospel that the gospel is made into a great “do.” No, the second article’s “What is meant by this” is the lullaby of heaven to quiet the fears of terror-stricken sinners.
So the harmony of law and gospel lies not in subtracting from either the peculiar strength of each. Thus the commandments, as explained by Luther, do not pardon or leave room for sins of weakness. To hate is damming as well as killing, to lust is as evil as committing adultery in deed, to give fifteen ounces where sixteen are promised is sin against the seventh commandment as well as highway robbery.
Yes the Catechism’s proclaiming of the law has the ring of the awful majesty that put the fear of the Lord into the hearts of the Israelites. Its terrible holiness makes us feel as if we too stand at the nether part of the mount. Exodus 19,17.
This Luther himself expresses in his writings, “We must speak the law as if there was absolutely no promises or grace, this for the sake of the stiff-necked and wild, to whom not a word of the gospel should be preached, before they have become frightened and made little in their own eyes.”
But he adds, “The law must be preached to the Christians too. The law keeps down the old Adam. For although the law does not concern a Christian as far as he is a Christian, it is necessary as far as he is flesh and blood. And, oh how willingly do not the Christians hear the threats of the law thunder over them; how do they not rejoice when a preacher understands how to proclaim the law in its sharpness and seriousness. For they rejoice when their evil old Adam gets the whip.”
But, as it was for Christ a strange task to preach the law, so it was in fact for Luther. For, as he says, “The law having accomplished that for which it is sent, the working of a knowledge of sin and its consequent fear of wrath,” Luther turns the Christians to the gospel articles and gospel sacraments. Not, as do the sects, to prayer and feelings of grace. Luther’s explanation of the third article fulfill the requirement of 2 Cor. 5,18, where the ministry is called the ministry of reconciliation. Paul does not say, “the minstry that preaches of reconciliation,” but that reconciliation itself preaches. So the gospel is not the preaching of or about forgiveness; it is a preaching unto forgiveness. It is forgiveness. “In the Christian Church He (the Holy Ghost) daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.” The voice from heaven has thus been caught up by Luther’s heart and given expression in words which millions have recited. God be praised for Luther’s explanation of the articles!
The Lord’s Prayer is the third part of the Catechism. Not the first. For prayer is a good work, and the order divinely established and faithfully copied by Luther is, first repentance (worked by the law), then faith (worked by the gospel articles), and holiness of life (worked by faith in the gospel).
As a hand is created perfect with five fingers so our Catechism has five parts, each part fitly joined together by the thought that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness. When we study the fourth part, Baptism, we know Luther is right when he says, “Baptism works forgiveness of sins,” and we know the Reformed churches are wrong, when they say that Baptism is a mere work of confession which we do. Jesus says, “Be baptized,” yet that is no law, though the words are in the imperative. When a penniless man is told, “take these five dollars,” he will not say, “I don’t take orders from anyone.” “Be baptized” is the biblical “law of faith,” and faith will not have anything to do with our works (when salvation is considered) but jealously guards and praises Jesus’ works.
Thus with the fifth part. It is pure gospel, the eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood, preceded by Confession and Absolution. Just as the angel of Christmas eve first said to the humble shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” and then was followed by a multitude of the heavenly host, so God has wished to richly comfort his humble children, first with absolution unto an assurance that “our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven,” and then with the visible giving of Christ’s glorified body and blood.
That absolution and the sacrament of the altar is the last part of the Catechism is not meant to make less valuable its content. If the thumb of the Catechism hand is the law — pressing us down to despair of ourselves — then absolution and the Lord’s Supper is the little finger, inconspicuous indeed, yet God ordained and useful. Here we have the sum of the gospel; the pure odor of the fields of forgiveness; yea, if Christians are pilgrims, well it is that the sacrament of our Brother of Golgatha abides to the end of the road.
As long as Lutherans believe that the word and sacraments are means of grace, they will delight in the Catechism, and in that they will “meditate day and night.” Thus will Lutherans and the Lutheran Church “be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wilter; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Ps. 1,3.) Amen.
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The Right Use of the Catechism.
Luther wrote his Catechism, that it should be rightly used by the old and the young. It was to be an Enchiridion, a Handbook, a constant guide for both old and young on the path of life. This book has also enjoyed an enormous circulation and has for four centuries been in universal use in home, school and church. Thirty-seven years after the publication of Luther’s Catechism, Mathesius wrote: “Praise God, it is said that in our times over one hundred thousand copies have been printed and used in great numbers in all kinds of languages in foreign lands and in all Latin and German schools.” And since then, down to the present day, millions and millions of hands have been stretched forth to receive Luther’s Catechetical classic. While during the last four centuries hundreds of Catechisms have gone under, Luther’s Enchiridion is still used in many countries as the best text-book of religious doctrine. It is the acknowledged pearl of childhood instruction, its merits being recognized not only by Lutherans, but by all men of all denominations. In the Catechism we have simple affirmations of that which constitutes Christian belief and life. And this is its chief merit, which lifts it above the age which saw its birth and gives it a timeless quality. It is, as one has remarked (G. v. Zezchwitz), “a booklet which a theologian never finishes learning, and a Christian never finishes living.” It is as up to date in 1929 as it was in 1529. Luther wrote his Catechism chiefly for the Christian home, in order that the Christian homes should again become home-churches, where the house-fathers were both house-priests and house-teachers. It was intended especially for the home, to be a home book to be used by parents for their own profit and as a text-book for the instruction of the young. At the head of each of the five chief parts of the Catechism stand these words: “As the head of the family should teach it in all simplicity to his household.” And even today there is room for the use of the Catechism in the homes; indeed great need of it, for the benefit and blessing of all, both old and young. It is true, we are living in a busy age; we have deviated quite far from the quiet, still mode of life of our fathers. But this has not served to make our homes better; on the contrary, we find homes even among the Christians, which do not distinguish themselves from those of unbelievers. The day is begun and ended without prayer, never a prayer is said before or after meals. The members of the home come and go as they please, and it is difficult, yea, well nigh impossible to gather all together for the meditation of God’s word and for prayers. In many homes the Word of God and prayer are wholly neglected, and the children as well as the parents starve and die spiritually. What is the real cause for the alarming situation which President Hoover pointed out, when he told our country recently that “Life and property are relatively more unsafe in this land of ours than in any other civilized country in the world. No part of the country, rural or urban, is immune”? Is it not Godlessness, lack of faith and neglect of using the Word of God through which natural, corrupt man can be changed into a God-fearing lover of truth and righteousness? Speaking about the same matter Ex-President Coolidge said: “The greatest need of America is religion, religion that centers in the home.” President Wilson shortly before his death testified: “The one remedy for our evils is a widespread revival of the faith of our fathers, the faith which overcometh the world.” It is still true what Luther said: If anything worth while is to be clone against the devil, against crime and wickedness, we must begin with the children. We should strive more earnestly than ever to build Godly homes, where God’s word is heard. We must have home-instruction, family prayers, family worship. Not a clay should pass by when the parents do not pray together with their children, together meditate upon a word of God, together seek counsel, strength and comfort from God. For such family devotion our Catechism is very suitable, often being called the “Little Bible” and the “Bible of the Laity,” because it is a brief summary of the Christian doctrine. A brief scripture portion, a short lesson from the Catechism, a prayer, how little time such a family devotion requires! But what great blessings are involved in them! We must return to the practice of Luther, namely that we together with our children daily meditate upon and pray the Catechism. According to Luther it is the duty of every Christian to learn constantly, and he included himself in such study. In his preface to the large Catechism we read: “But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time I read and say word for word the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain.”
April 18, 1530, Luther repeated this in a sermon as follows: “Whoever is able to read, let him, in the morning, take a psalm or some other chapter in the Bible and study it for a while. For that is what I do. When I rise in the morning, I pray the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and also a Psalm with the children. I do so because I wish to remain familiar with it, and not have it overgrown with mildew, so that I know it.” In another sermon of the same year, Luther warns: “Beware lest you become presumptuous, as though, because you have heard it often, you knew enough of the Catechism. For this knowledge ever desires us to be its students. We shall never finish learning it, since it does not consist in speech, but in life. … For I also, D. Martinus, doctor and preacher, am compelled day by day to pray and to recite the words of the Decalog, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer as children are want to do. Be not ashamed to do likewise. You will experience excellent results.”
Elsewhere he says: “This Catechism is truly a Bible of the laity, wherein is contained the entire doctrine necessary to be known by every Christian for salvation.” How important to study it, to meditate on its contents!
Let us not forget that we and our children are and will remain poor sinners as long as we are here on earth. We will never attain perfect sanctification in this present life. Therefore we must also be reminded of the Ten Commandments, in which God makes known his will and shows us what we lack and that we are all sinners. Nor let us forget that on account of the sins which still cling to us, the comfort of the gospel will not remain in our hearts. Therefore, we daily need to meditate upon the Creed which holds before our eyes and shows us the grace and mercy of God as revealed in Christ Jesus and offered us through the gospel. How slow we are to learn the great art of praying aright, that in the name of Jesus we may approach God and ask him with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their clear father for something. Therefore we must daily pray the Lord’s Prayer, ever anew learn it. Likewise we daily need to be reminded of our baptism and the precious Covenant of grace which God there established with us, and to diligently consider the blessed Sacrament of the Altar, instituted for the nourishing of our spiritual life and in which Christ offers and seals unto us the gifts of grace procured by his suffering and death.
Attention must also be called to the “Table of Duties,” better known as “Hustavlen,” concerning which Daniel Kauzmann in his Handbook of 1569 says: “It is called ‘Haustafel’ of the Christians because every Christian should daily view it and call to mind therefrom his calling, as from a table which portrays and presents to every one what pertains to him. It teaches all the people who may be in a house what each one ought to do or leave undone in his calling.” Truly, the Catechism is a precious gift of God to us, and how important that we diligently pray it and meditate upon it in our homes! This clear “Bible of the Laity” is indeed a main support for a happy and blessed Christian home and belongs in the home where it may be profitably used for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. The Holy Scriptures, the Bible itself should be read and studied daily, but when we go to the Catechism we are not leaving the Bible; for it contains nothing but God’s Word, presenting, in a way easily understood, the fundamental truths of the way of salvation. Its use will help us to learn to know the Bible itself and to apply its lessons of instruction and comfort to our own lives.
Especially should parents whose children are attending school or are reading for confirmation occupy themselves with the Catechism, and see to it that their dear ones are learning the Catechism well and not only learn it by heart, but also understand it; above all, that they may love it. The children are often timid and do not dare to direct a question to the teacher or pastor, and it happens that they pass lightly over a lesson without understanding it. Here the parents can and should co-operate. They are the natural teachers of the children, ordained by God himself. Incessantly, therefore, Luther urges the fathers and mothers not only to bring their children to church, where the Catechism was explained on Sunday afternoons, but themselves to teach the children. He was convinced that without their vigorous cooperation he could achieve but little. “The Christian home,” he insisted, “must become church and school.” Every housefather is a priest in his own house, every housemother is a priestess; therefore see that you help us to perform the office of the ministry in your homes as we do in church. If you do, we shall have a propitious God, who will defend us from all evil. In the Psalm (78,5) it is written: “He appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children.”
Luther blames the parents for the prevailing ignorance. “They are altogether careless.” “Let the head of the household teach the servants, let the mother teach the maids, let both teach the children! Beware lest you neglect your office!” And he sums it up in his Introduction to the large Catechism: “Therefore it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it, or are learning, and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”
Blessed are the parents who in their homes together with their children diligently occupy themselves with the Catechism, in the fear of God. They will experience the blessing of the Lord upon their own hearts, they will learn to understand the Holy Scriptures better, become more firmly grounded in the truth to salvation, increase in holiness and become more rich in good works. And where the truths of the Catechism are inculcated upon the minds and the hearts of the children, these will increase in faith, be fortified against all false doctrines, which Satan scatters about to ensnare people, strengthened in their fight against sin and evil, and enabled to give a reason for the hope they entertain. Truly the Catechism belongs in the home as a book of instruction, comfort, edification as well as admonition and warning. “Let each his lesson learn with care, And all the household well shall fare.”
The training and education of the child belongs primarily in the home, to the parents. The God-ordained home is expected to care not only for the body, but also for the soul, for the whole education of the child. On judgment day, God will demand the children of their parents, and they will have to give account.
The other God-ordained educational agency is the church, whose commission is to save souls. “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Matt. 28,19.20. An essential part of the church’s work is to take care of its children, not only by baptism, but also by instructing and training them in the Word of God. In order to carry out its duties most economically and efficiently, the church establishes schools, parochial or Christian schools, which are maintained by it and conducted under its supervision. Because the church has the duty to teach those who are baptized to observe all things which Christ commanded, that is, the whole word of God, therefore it becomes so necessary to establish Christian schools. Luther saw this need of Christian schools and he devoted himself to the solution of the problems of establishing schools. In 1524 he sent forth, in the form of a booklet, a ringing appeal to the councilmen of all cities in Germany that they should establish and maintain Christian schools.
When planning and writing his small Catechism, Luther did not overlook the schools and the school-teachers. His Catechism very soon became a text-book in the schools, and down to the present day no other book has become and remained a school-book for religious instruction to such an extent as Luther’s small Catechism. And rightly so; for even Bible History must be regarded as subordinate to it. The assertion of modern educators that instruction in Bible History must precede instruction in Luther’s Catechism rests on the false assumption that Luther’s Catechism teaches doctrines only. But the truth is that it contains all the essential facts of salvation as well, though in briefest form, as appears particularly from the second Article, which enumerates historical facts only. Luther’s Enchiridion presents both the facts of salvation and their divine interpretation. The picture for which the small Catechism furnishes the frame is Christ, the historical Christ, as glorified by the Holy Spirit, particularly in the writings of the Apostle Paul. In the Lutheran Church the small Catechism, therefore, deserves to be and always to remain what it became from the first moment of its publication: the book of religious instruction for home, school, and church; for parents, children, teachers and preachers, just as Luther had planned and desired.
Contrary to the views of some modern pedagogues, Luther stressed the need of memorizing the Catechism. He was satisfied with a minimum — the first three Chief Parts and the words of Institution, in the sections of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He has by no means overlooked the need of explanation and application. But as a foundation of thorough instruction he demanded that the teachers drill the Catechism text. As he says in his Introduction to the small Catechism: “Young and simple persons must be taught a definite text; otherwise, if you teach a certain form this year and another next, you will simply confuse them, and your labor will be lost. Settle on a certain form and stick to it forever, then drill it word for word until they are able to know and recite it.”
Self-evidently, it was not Luther’s opinion that instruction or memorizing should end here. In the Preface to the Small Catechism, he says: “After you have thus taught them this Short Catechism, then take up the Large Catechism, and give them also a richer and fuller knowledge. Here explain at length every commandment, petition and part with its various works, uses, benefits, dangers, and injuries as you find these abundantly stated in many books written about these matters.” Then, as Luther often repeats, Bible verses, hymn and Psalms were also to be memorized and explained.
Luther also laid great stress on the correct understanding. To him instruction did not mean mere mechanical memorizing, but conscious, personal, enduring, and applicable spiritual appropriation. He says: “After they (the children) have well learned the text, then teach them the sense also, so that they know what it means.” Correct understanding was everything to Luther. Sermons in the churches and catechizations at home were all to serve this purpose.