The Genius of Luther’s Small Catechism

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

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The year 1529 represents a landmark moment in the history of religious instruction. In that year, Luther’s Small Catechism was first released, inspired by Martin Luther’s assessment and concern of doctrinal knowledge at the time. As he, Melanchthon, and others surveyed the state of churches and schools, they found pastors largely uninformed and entire congregations steeped in superstition and ignorance about even the most basic aspects of Christian doctrine. Perhaps Luther’s assessment is best represented in his own words:

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. (Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism)

Something had to be done about this. Luther sought to tackle this problem in his sermons and other writings over the years, but the Small Catechism represented a rich, deep, substantive foundation for teaching Christian doctrine in homes, churches, and schools. Among the smallest of Luther’s written works, it is also among the most influential in the history of religious instruction. While there is much that we can learn from this classic text that remains incredibly relevant in our religious instruction today, I offer five insights for your consideration.

  1. This was a text for parents, teachers, and pastors; but it starts in the home. Luther understood that the beginning point of religious instruction is in the home. As such, the catechism quickly became a resource for families, early versions including the Six Chief Parts, but also prayers. Christian education begins in the home, and this text is one created to help parents nurture their children in the faith through these simple but substantive teachings.
  2. Superstition dominated churches, homes, and schools; drawing people into idolatry and unfounded fears, often void of any biblical lens through which to make sense of God, life, human nature, the world, and salvation. We could easily argue that we live with similar challenges today. The Small Catechism served (and serves) as a means of pointing people back to the norm and source of Christian doctrine, the Bible. It simply but substantively teaches the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar.
  3. Luther intended the Small Catechism to serve as a common source for learning. The Small Catechism itself is drawn from the Scriptures, organized around essential Christian doctrines. Luther advised that one start with memorizing and then nurturing a deeper understanding of the doctrines in the catechism, but he also warned against confusing people with too many different texts or resources. It becomes a common resource across home, church, and school, and provides a shared vocabulary for learning, thinking, and speaking about the Christian faith. We live in a modern age of competing messages and information overload, so much so that it is difficult to discern any consistent and coherent message. Yet, that is not entirely new. Sixteenth-century Germany represented a time of competing messages as well, and the Small Catechism, informed by the Scriptures, served as a stable and shared introductory handbook for Christian doctrine. It offers the same benefits today. This does not mean that we cannot teach from a variety of quality resources, but Luther advised that we start with this common handbook before expanding to other sources.
  4. Luther intended the catechism as a form of what modern educators might call chunking and scaffolding. He advised systematically teaching one part at a time. Start with one commandment, and once it is learned well, move on to the next. This avoids fragmented knowledge and builds an important foundation. From there, he advised moving on to the Large Catechism, what I consider a less used resource today, but one that offers wonderfully rich and deeper teaching, building upon the basics provided in the Small Catechism.
  5. Once the foundations were provided, Luther also suggested what we might refer to as personalized (or at least individualized) instruction in the Christian faith. Still focused upon the common teaching in the small and large catechisms, he suggested emphasizing some parts more than others based upon a person’s vocations. From the Preface to the Small Catechism, Luther wrote: “For example, among craftsmen and merchants, farmers and employees, you must powerfully stress the Seventh Commandment, which forbids stealing, because among such people many kinds of dishonesty and thievery occur. Also, for young persons and the common man you must stress the Fourth Commandment, urging them to be orderly, faithful, obedient, and peaceable, always bringing in many Bible examples of how God punished or blessed such people.”

Whether one is a parent, classroom teacher in a Christian school, pastor, or a combination of these; the Small Catechism remains a seminal work for nurturing young people and adults in the Christian faith. While some might expect that an educational text written almost five hundred years ago might lack relevance today, I suggest that we think twice before jumping to such a conclusion. The five insights that I shared above, for example, are just as important today as they were when the catechism was first written. As Simone Weil is quoted as saying, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal,” and the Small Catechism points us to such eternal things. It offers a shared source of teaching. It points us to the Scriptures. It helps build a foundation of Christian doctrine that grounds us amid a world of superstition, false teaching, and man-made rules. It gives us a simple and useful structure for teaching Christian doctrine. At the same time, there is ample room for teaching it in a way that is personalized to the distinct callings of people.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, it is an opportune time to renew our study and use of this classic in religious education, something that can serve as a shared foundation across home, church, and school; as well as from one congregation and school to the next.

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About the Author

Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has 20+ years of experience in Lutheran education ranging from middle school to graduate school and parish education. He is also the editor of the forthcoming CPH book, Pedagogy of Faith. Bernard’s work focuses upon futures in education, educational innovation, and the intersection of education & digital culture. You can read his latest posts here.

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