Writer: Erkki Koskenniemi
Translator: Olli Huhtinen
Small Catechism – what it is and how was it formed?
Few books have had as much of an impact on the lives of Northern European people as Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. The book has its own genesis, its predecessors, and a history of its influence. At the same time it is an example of a radical decision in an attempt to solve a serious problem within the church, during a very critical period. The problem and its solution are still relevant, both within older Christian countries as well as within new and growing churches.
Context of its formation
Luther’s Small Catechism was written in the Lutheran region of Northern Germany because there was a huge need for it. Historically, the bishops had been doing visitations in their regions. As the Reformation spread in the area, they withdrew to safer areas. When the visitations were not performed anymore, the elector Johann, by the request of Luther, commissioned the reformers to visit parishes under the supervision of Melanchthon. The inspections began in 1526. Their results appalled Luther. He describes his experiences in the introduction to the Small Catechism as follows:
The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! What manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! Many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.
Oh you bishops! [to whom this charge has been committed by God,] what will you ever answer to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office? [You are the persons to whom alone this ruin of the Christian religion is due. You have permitted men to err so shamefully; yours is the guilt; for you have ever done anything rather than what your office required you to do.] May all misfortune flee you! [I do not wish at this place to invoke evil on your heads.] You command the Sacrament in one form [but is not this the highest ungodliness coupled with the greatest impudence that you are insisting on the administration of the Sacrament in one form only, and on your traditions] and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care in the least [while you are utterly without scruple and concern] whether the people know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God. Woe, woe, unto you forever!
The bishops of Luther’s time were known for attending to matters other than guiding the Christians under their responsibility. Luther did not simply bemoan the situation, but he gathered the core of Christian faith within a small booklet. It consisted of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, introductions to baptism, confession and the Communion, a few prayers and a Table of Duties formed from selected biblical passages. The recently developed printing press allowed its widespread distribution. Luther passed the responsibilities of education to homes, to the fathers. The book was indeed used diligently and it revolutionized ordinary people's education. The Catechism plays a significant part in making Luther a reformer.
The Predecessors to the Small Catechism
The Small Catechism was a great reform, but not so radical that it wouldn’t have had its predecessors, both, close-by and significantly earlier. In Jesus’ time the Jews lived not only in Palestine, but spread out amongst different peoples. Even if raising children is difficult on its own, it is not made easier by the fact that the children of the neighbourhood, and in certain cases the fellow pupils, live lives completely different from what your own people taught. This applied not only to service – for Jews did not partake in pagan ceremonies – but particularly to family and sexual morals. The only way to resist assimilation was to teach regularly, and many instructional books were written for this cause. Some of these books have survived, especially from amongst the Jews in Egypt.
The first Christians embraced surprisingly quickly the Jewish way of educating their own. The earliest works written after the New Testament are, the so called, Apostolic Fathers and the Epistle of Barnabas. The comparison of these two works indicates that parts of them have used a lost Jewish catechism, word-for-word. Thus, the first Christians also understood that the best way to evade assimilation was to teach constantly. A catechism was needed.
The medieval Catholic Church also knew various handbooks of Christian doctrine known by their Greek name Enkheiridion, a manual. Even the full name of Luther’s Small Cathecism (Enchiridion. Der kleine Catechismus) indicates that he partook in this tradition. Catholic manuals commonly included the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps additionally the Ave Maria. Between the year 1522 and Luther’s Small Catechism, about 30 different catechisms had been published and of which many were re-printed. Luther himself had held Catechism sermons already in 1516. Thus, he followed a long tradition, but also revised it. According to Luther particularly the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were the core of the core which, at the least, had to be mastered by every Christian. He added the Sacramental teachings having noticed that the common German had had no education on the subject. Above all, a burning concern for the people under responsibility coupled with the possibilities offered by the new art of printing made the small catechism a highly influential book.
The Book of every Home
The Small Catechism gave rise to a wholly new devotional ideal, which surely had its roots in the medieval Catholic Church. The practice of faith was set in home and everyday life.
The biblical passages chosen from the New Testament were meant to guide the lives of people living different roles. “The Table of Duties” were intended for parents and children, servants and masters, husbands and wives. In fact, the Small Catechism first appeared in the form of a board hung up on the wall and only later as a book. Before, Luther, woken into the reality of God, followed the mainstream tradition and left to enter a monastery. Now, he guided Christians to live their vocation within their work and their homes. Everyday life became sacred, worship.
Part of a Christian home were the new roles of the parents and especially the new role of the father. The Catechism teaches for example the Ten Commandments “[a]s the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.” Luther’s instruction was that the father was to teach his children and servants to read the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer every morning, and to make sure on a weekly basis that everyone knew what a Christian had to know at the minimum. The revision of the matters of faith became a daily duty in homes and the father took the role which the pastors and bishops of parishes had ruthlessly neglected.
What has been the impact of the Small Catechism?
The Catechism marked a huge turning point in popular education. The responsibility transferred to families and homes meant that the common people had to learn to read, in order to tend to their vocation. In Germany especially, Catechism became the core of the education of the youth. Its influence spread quickly to Northern Europe. Also within the Swedish kingdom, which had of prior embraced the Lutheran faith, Catechism became the book of every household.
In Finland, which was part of Sweden at the time, the little book took its final position in the 1600s. The vigorous bishops of this period of orthodoxy, made sure through church discipline, that the Catechism was also learnt. Literacy skills and homework were examined yearly at catechetical meetings. Up until the mid-20th century, many Finns still knew large parts of the catechism by heart. The tradition is still kept alive in some places within confirmation classes.
In one discussion the Finnish catechism was characterized as a book coming from above and as a book that knew the truth. The Catechism is by its character just like this – the Greek word literally means that something is echoed from top to bottom, and especially the Small Catechism. God’s truth is in his Commandments, in our Creed and in the Lord’s Prayer. Teaching the Catechism is based on the fact that it contains the clear truth, God’s truth.
The Real Catechism?
Lutherans have at times been accused of brining Luther’s texts to the centre of faith. In reality, the Small Catechism contains precisely this, the core of the Bible, for example the Commandments, the Creed formed from the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments.
At this point, it is good to ask ourselves a few questions and reflect on them. If the contents of the Small Catechism are not the core of the faith we teach, then what is? Amongst every denomination some matters are central, others are not, and it is based either on discretion or simple chance. So what actually is the centre of the faith being taught amongst us? If someone listened to our sermons and talks for a year, what would prove to be most important? And if we made a survey amongst the members of our own Church, what would they say to be the most important part of Christian faith? Here we have at hand the real catechism, that is, what is actually taught and learned.
These questions are all worthy of consideration. Most likely at least Finns would put the centre of faith somewhere else other than in the contents of the Small Catechism. Apparently this true Creed has little to do with the Small Catechism or the Bible. This catechism also exists, whether we wanted it or not, or recognised it or not.
The Small Catechism is an attempt at defining the core of faith and attempt to teach it to all members of the Church. Just like this, it is a challenge to all shepherds and preachers. If this is not that which is central to our faith, then what is? And how do we think we can teach this core to everyone?
Regular use of the Catechism does not merely mean to mechanically learn its contents by heart. Memorization is a tool, not the final aim. Within the spiritual lives of a child and of an older Christian the way runs from memorization into understanding. In the introduction to the Large Catechism Luther warns strictly against leaving the catechism aside too quickly.
But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yes, 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 ever 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.
And yet these delicate, fastidious fellows would with one reading promptly be doctors above all doctors, know everything and be in need of nothing. Well, this, too, is indeed a sure sign that they despise both their office and the souls of the people, yes, even God and His Word. They do not have to fall, they are already fallen all too horribly; they would need to become children, and begin to learn their alphabet, which they imagine that they have long since outgrown.
The core of faith is not possessed well enough by any Christian. Constant training and focus on the most important is required. This little book, the Small Catechism, and its constant use lead us to enter into the treasures of faith, through Christ.
The Catechism and us
At the moment, the church lives in various parts of the world under very different conditions. In Northern Europe the old churches of the state are withering and losing their former standing. On the missionary fields, on the other hand, it is possible to reach out to large groups who are still without a strong foundation for their faith. In both circumstances, it is very important to remember the events by which the Catechism was born. The book was a powerfully radical attempt in order to answer an enormous challenge.
The future is in children, youth and families. Especially with the arising new generation it is important to define the core of faith and start teaching it determinedly.