The following will appear in the August newsletter at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL.:
When I entered Concordia Seminary as a first year student, I was quite sure that I was done with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. As a pre-seminary student at Concordia College, Ann Arbor I had received an introduction into the study of theology. I was thrilled by the experience and was eager to learn more – to go deeper. The last thing I expected this to include was the Small Catechism. After all, what could a text I had studied in Confirmation class during seventh and eighth grade teach me?
I maintained this attitude during the first year of my seminary education. Yet during my second year at the seminary I received my introduction to a professor who would prove to be one of the greatest influences on me as a pastor and theologian: Dr. Norman Nagel. Dr. Nagel is a brilliant theologian and I did indeed learn much from him that is profound. Yet I also soon realized that that Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism. In fact he often quoted and made reference to it. And eventually I concluded that if Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism, then I wasn’t ready to be done either.
It is, of course, important to distinguish between the Catechism and the Small Catechism. The Catechism is the collection of basic Christian texts that state the Christian faith. Luther and the Lutherans did not invent these, but rather received them as part of the catholic heritage shared by all Christians. The Catechism consists of: 1) The Ten Commandments 2) The Apostles’ Creed 3) The Lord’s Prayer 4) Matthew 28:19 (Holy Baptism) 5) John 20:22-23 (Holy Absolution) 6) The Words of Institution (Lord’s Supper). These texts are the Christian faith “in a nutshell.” They are a summary of the essentials of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther wrote explanations for each of the parts of the Catechism in the Small Catechism. The intended purpose and audience is quite clear because almost every section is introduced by a statement that says, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” There are two things to note about this statement. First, we learn that the Small Catechism provides a simple and basic explanation of the faith for those who need it in this way (usually children and youth). Second, we find that the Small Catechism was written as an instrument for parents. It was written so that they can teach the faith to their children in the home.
In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the parts of the Catechism in a simple way. But that doesn’t mean that the explanations are simple. In fact, in their wording and organization they contain deep theology. The words Luther has chosen to use invite deeper reflection and express profound truths .
At the same time, the explanations also provide language that guides the way we think and talk about the faith as Lutherans. This is important for two reasons. First, it equips us to speak to others about what we believe. And second, it keeps us grounded in the evangelical catholic faith as we are surrounded by a culture that wants to draw us into error.
In order for the explanations of the Small Catechism to function in this way, they need to be in our head. This happens as we learn them by heart. The first step in this process is to begin using them as we seek to commit them to memory. The second step is that we continue to use them so that they go beyond memorization. Memorized items are learned and then forgotten. Items we have learned by heart are things that we use over and over until they become part of us. Once they are part of us, they begin to shape and form the way we think and speak.
With this goal in mind, I am challenging each member of Good Shepherd to commit to memory, (re-commit to memory?) the explanations of the Small Catechism during this school year and to begin to make them part of your devotional life. If we use them daily, they soon begin to stick in our mind (though as our mind gets older we may have to be a little more intentional about trying to commit them to memory). And by continuing to use them daily we move beyond memorization to learning them by heart and all of the benefits this brings.
Each Sunday our Learn by Heart text is printed on the back of the bulletin and we speak this during the opening announcements. We will begin the Small Catechism anew on Sunday, August 15. For the most part we take up one explanation a week (two weeks on some of the longer ones). Use this as the Small Catechism text in your personal and family devotions. Work on this as families and couples. Challenge one another to learn these by heart. Speak about what they mean with one another.
A flash card format supplied by Concordia Publishing House is available, as is the Small Catechism set to music for children. These are simple words and they are profound words that equip us to think and speak about the faith.