Luther’s Small & Large Catechisms: Very much overlapping magisteria

I won’t lie, this graphic is just clickbait.

A few thoughts were meandering round my mind as the second term of seminary wound down. I penned the following coalescent ratiocinations for your perusal the week of Jubilate, the last week of my first year of seminary studies. Enjoy/I’m sorry. — TDD

I’ve been thinking about the Catechism quite a bit lately, perhaps more so than normal owing to the fact that I have been taking Catechetics with Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson, our visiting SELK professor at CLTS – St Catharines. It’s been an eminently worthwhile course, and not just on account of Dr. Torgerson’s anecdotes (though they’re certainly worth the price of admission). Reading both of Dr. Luther’s catechisms out loud in class, with Torgy (as he is fondly known around campus) pausing us and interjecting long historical digressions, has brought them to life in a marked way. While we must always thank God for written documentation of our Confessions — and for the written Word of God in the Scriptures, most of all! — we do well to remember that faith comes by hearing the Word. If you know anything about me at all, you probably know that I’m not generally a fan of Gerhard O. Forde, but there really is some truth to the notion that “theology is for proclamation”…

Ugh. I feel dirty.

Rev'd Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson

Rev’d Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson

Another topic that I found myself dwelling on this term was the usefulness of the Catechism for prayer, devotion, and spiritual warfare, the last of which can either stand on its own, or (just as likely) get mixed in with the other two. Whatever the case may be, the Catechism is a weapon of such warfare. It’s not just a cute etymological coincidence that allows us to say this, though it’s worth a brief digression to make note of it: another name for “catechism” is enchiridion, a Greek word which literally means “in the hand.” Thus in the ancient world the term referred not only to small handbooks, but also to small, concealable daggers. St Augustine of Hippo cleverly spoke of his own Enchiridion as fulfilling both purposes, being not only a handbook on the basics of Christian doctrine, but also a weapon of spiritual defense.

So, too, it is with our Lutheran Catechism. I know from personal experience the benefit of having the Small Catechism memorized: in times of temptation and distress, reciting it — indeed, praying it — is a most comforting devotional practice, a way of preaching the Gospel to oneself in the midst of what Luther called Anfechtung, “grave spiritual attack” (cf. Latin: tentatio). Against the old and evil foe, the dagger of the Catechism is transfigured into the Sword of the Spirit.

A popular Lutheran pastor blogs: “I’ve learned not a lot of Lutherans actually think the Small Catechism is all that mind-blowing.” This is disappointing to hear. Still, I’m sure that there’s some truth to it. I imagine that many of these might be the same Lutherans who baptize with rose-petals and gender-neutral pronouns rather than water and the Triune Name; perhaps those who refer to Christ’s vicarious atonement — when He redeemed, purchased, and won us with His holy, precious blood — as “Divine child-abuse”; the ones who “ordain” women to the Office of the Ministry, degrading it and them. One imagines that the Small Catechism isn’t of much use to such Lutherans. To be fair, though, the Small Catechism has become passé even among some of the passably orthodox. I grew up in the sort of LCMS Church where the catechism made its debut during confirmation class in seventh grade, but was never seen, heard, or mentioned again after that.

Yet at the same time, one need not think that the Small Catechism is “mind-blowing” in order to regard and cherish it rightly. I also must confess a bit of personal distaste for superlatives like “mind-blowing”, as they smack of fakery and protesting-too-much, but I digress. Granting that there’s some real disaffectedness towards and neglect of the Small Catechism out there, I’d like to suggest that there’s another looming problem, one which is just as likely to catch us “Confessional” Lutherans unawares and off-guard.

In my study of Luther’s catechisms as a catechumen, as a catechist, and now as a seminarian, I have become convinced that the Small truly needs the Large, and vice-versa. The Large is not some neat extra plug-in for the Lutheran confessional browser. It is necessary.

I mentioned earlier that the Catechism is a dagger of spiritual defense, and indeed it is. But the thing about sharp blades, as any experienced chef or carpenter will tell you, is that you can inadvertently wield them against yourself. The correct use of the Small Catechism presupposes that it will be wielded as an enchiridion against sin, death, and devil — not against yourself. Also, not against the Large Catechism, or the rest of the Book of Concord, for that matter. Yet this is surprisingly easy for us Lutherans to do, not intentionally (one hopes), but rather tacitly and by default.

In my experience and that of numerous others — laymen, seminarists, and pastors alike — the Small Catechism has often been presented in a vacuum, while the Large Catechism just plain isn’t taught. Perhaps it’s our short attention spans. Perhaps the epideictic, almost literary style of the Large Catechism is inaccessible to our Twitterized culture. Who knows? Whatever it is, it goes without saying that this isolation of the Small Catechism from the Large is contrary to Luther’s intention. He wrote the latter not simply as an expansion of the former, but also as a heuristic or rule for catechists. Thus it is not simply “a good idea” to consult the Large Catechism when looking for elaboration on the topics that are covered in the Small; rather, it is fairly well imperative. (Honestly, the entire Book of Concord ought to serve this purpose, but the Large is the first concentric circle of explanatory “intra-Confessional” commentary. Remember that the Catechism — that is, both catechisms together — was published the year before the Diet of Augsburg.) By teaching the Small in accordance with the Large, a catechist guards himself and his students from a truncated, shallow, or incorrect gloss of the faith — barring pernicious, willful distortion, of course.

Right? No one wants this.

Right? No one wants this.

Pernicious, willful distortion is easier to fall into than we think. No catechist wants his pet heresies indicted (how’s that for a mixed metaphor, eh?); thus we are, each one of us, prone to selective elaboration. Orthodoxy doesn’t just happen on its own. Moreover, maintaining it is a discipline — not just on the student, but on the teacher, even more so. This is why we Lutherans are so big on tradition in the proper sense, i.e., the “sound patterns of words” which enshrine and indeed are the Word of God. Fundamentally, this means the Scriptures. Secondarily, it means those witnesses to the Scriptures: Creeds, Catechisms, Confessions, the liturgy, hymns, etc. On the other hand, we have historically eschewed the notion that “basic points”, “main ideas”, or “the gist” are sufficient for traditioning the faith from one generation to the next. The particular words and phrases mattered to the men who staked their lives on their subscription to the Confessions: “We also have determined not to depart even a finger’s breadth either from the subjects themselves, or from the phrases which are found in them,” we read in the Preface to the Christian Book of Concord (para. 23). Do we share this zeal for the sound pattern of words?

If scholasticism (broadly conceived) has at times bedeviled the Church in ages when men were especially titillated by philosophy and system-building, facile reductionism is the devil lurking in the weeds in others. It’s not too difficult to figure out which of these two Zeitgeisten haunts our era of illiberal education, blinkered pop-cultural discourse, and intellectual habits that grow ever more adequated to ideology and faddish thinking by the day. And that’s only half the bad news for us Lutherans. The hard truth is that we are only just now starting to relocate our feet in this sordid milieu; we are only just now turning back to our patrimony of classical education after several decades of aping the “progressive” model of schooling, a lá John Dewey — whose biggest problem wasn’t the fact that he wasn’t Lutheran, that’s for sure.

Described in the terms of informal logic, reductionism is the fallacy “A is nothing but B.” It appeals to our very natural desire for certitude and simplicity — not bad things to desire, to be sure. The tradeoff, however, is that it also attenuates our ability to contemplate, make critical distinctions, and think carefully. Reductionism proffers breadth at the expense of depth or perhaps (though seemingly less frequently) depth at the expense of breadth. It’s akin to wanting to dispense with an entire dimension because it doesn’t present any apparent immediate utility. “This tennis ball is spherical,” you might observe. “No, it’s not,” the reductionist responds, “it’s green.”

And here’s where some of you will likely begin to demur, even if you haven’t already…

Reductionism seems especially to bedevil us Lutherans when it comes to Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Creed from in the Small Catechism. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true Faith.” This is one of the most beautiful confessions of Christian faith ever written. It is dear to all Lutherans. Thus the fact that it is so easily perverted into a sort of reductionists’ credo is all the more grievous.

There are three general ways in which Luther’s explanation gets misinterpreted. Perhaps there are more, but these are broadly illustrative of the problem I perceive:

  1. 61674239Because we do not believe by our own reason or strength, the line goes, we don’t believe — period. Rather, the Holy Spirit believes for us. Better yet, we are “faithed” — after we’ve been “repented,” of course. All of these things happen “for me” (pro me) and “outside of us” (extra nos). (NB: It’s essential that these Latin phrases be used as mantras, incessantly, and in any context, even if no other Latin is known.)
  2. Because we do not believe by our reason or strength, we have no reason or strength. Or, maybe we have them, but they’re bad things. Because our reason cannot grasp the Gospel, reason is a whore. Because if we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, we should not strive to subdue the flesh. Real good works will happen automatically, and we won’t be aware of them; if we’re aware of them, they’re not genuine good works, just Pharisaical acts born from our sinful desire to justify ourselves.
  3. We can’t/don’t do anything in our relationship to God in Christ. Even after our conversion, we can’t and we don’t come to Jesus. We can’t choose to imitate Him — and we shouldn’t want to! — and we don’t cooperate with Him in anything. We are only ever the direct objects of Divine actions.

I know about these wrong impressions because they were my impressions. Raise your hand if at any point they have also been yours. Each one of them merits a longer discussion, to be sure, but that is for another time.

A great deal of such catechetical malpractice could be prevented if we were simply to follow the user’s manual. The user’s manual? Yes, the user’s manual. Dr Luther wrote thorough and illuminating introductions to both his catechisms. Not only are these prefaces full of history and practical advice, but in them he spells out the intended relationship between the two handbooks. In his preface to the Small Catechism, he writes the following:

[A]fter 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 large every commandment, article, 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. And particularly, urge that commandment or part most which suffers the greatest neglect among your people. (Small Catechism, Preface of Dr. Martin Luther, 17-18a)

Turning to his preface to the Large Catechism, one finds similar instructions:

This sermon [i.e., the Large Catechism] is designed and undertaken that it might be an instruction for children and the simple-minded. Hence of old it was called in Greek “catechism,” i.e., instruction for children, what every Christian must needs know, so that he who does not know this could not be numbered with the Christians nor be admitted to any Sacrament, just as a mechanic who does not understand the rules and customs of his trade is expelled and considered incapable. Therefore we must have the young learn the parts which belong to the Catechism or instruction for children well and fluently and diligently exercise themselves in them and keep them occupied with them.

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. For I well remember the time, indeed, even now it is a daily occurrence that one finds rude, old persons who knew nothing and still know nothing of these things, and who, nevertheless, go to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and use everything belonging to Christians, notwithstanding that those who come to the Lord’s Supper ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and new scholars. However, for the common people we are satisfied with the three parts, which have remained in Christendom from of old, though little of it has been taught and treated correctly until both young and old, who are called and wish to be Christians, are well trained in them and familiar with them. (Large Catechism, Short Preface of Dr. Martin Luther, 1-6)

He then lists the primary texts of the Catechism: Ten Commandments, Creed, Our Father, Baptism, and Sacrament of the Altar (these are the original five parts of Luther’s Catechism), and then sums up with this emendation:

Thus would have, in all, five parts of the entire Christian doctrine which should be constantly treated and required of children, and heard recited word for word. For you must not rely upon it that the young people will learn and retain these things from the sermon alone. When these parts have been well learned, you may, as a supplement and to fortify them, lay before them also some psalms or hymns, which have been composed on these parts, and thus lead the young into the Scriptures, and make daily progress therein. (op. cit., 24-25)

His final statement, though, I find most intriguing:

However, it is not enough for them to comprehend and recite these parts according to the words only, but the young people should also be made to attend the preaching, especially during the time which is devoted to the Catechism, that they may hear it explained, and may learn to understand what every part contains, so as to be able to recite it as they have heard it, and, when asked, may give a correct answer, so that the preaching may not be without profit and fruit. For the reason why we exercise such diligence in preaching the Catechism so often is that it may be inculcated on our youth, not in a high and subtle manner, but briefly and with the greatest simplicity, so as to enter the mind readily and be fixed in the memory. (op. cit., 26-27)

Here Dr. Luther takes it for granted that the young not only go to “catechism class”, but that they hear catechetical sermons—which were often and diligently preached! And then, what does he do? He preaches a series of catechetical sermons, which we now call the Large Catechism. (Actually, he calls it “a sermon” — “This sermon is designed and undertaken that it might be an instruction for children and the simple-minded” — but it was likely broken-up over several weekday services.) The Large Catechism is thus a primer for pastors and preachers (not always the same in Luther’s day) whose task it was to catechize the youth. It is not only a catechism, it is a catechetical manual: “Catechize like this…” If I might venture the analogy, it’s similar to how the Lord’s Prayer is not only a prayer, but a model prayer: “Pray like this…”

A greater reliance upon the Large Catechism yields a much richer, much less extreme, and much more genuine version of Lutheranism than any of us would choose if it was up to us, which I’m pretty sure is the point. The Large Catechism provides hermeneutical fetters, as it were, which help keep in check whatever idiosyncratic, radicalized readings we as individuals might impose upon the beautiful, simple phrasings of the Small. In the long run, this is much more satisfying of the true needs of weary souls, much more comforting to consciences, and much more faithful to our heritage of confessing the Word of God in its truth and purity.