While there is a great deal of interest in current theological and pedagogical trends there is less interest in the text itself and its meaning, beyond the formal instruction given for between one and four-years during adolescence. Many pastors and parishes do not use Luther’s Small Catechism at all in catechizing. It is simultaneously an all-time best seller for church publishing houses, and in many ways the least read book among Lutherans.
If Luther’s Small Catechism is neglected by adults, they are likely only following the path set for them by their shepherds. A seminary professor once required every member of his class on creation to recite the First Article and its explanation. This was necessary because many of them did not know it by heart. Not surprising, when you consider how many pastors in the field would fail such a test. How well the author remembers having to memorize the catechism as a child in a Lutheran School. The teacher would sit and grade us from the open copy of the catechism laid out before her. It seemed patently unfair that these words, so important for children to commit to memory, were unknown to the teacher. In retrospect, this was unfair not to the student, who was taught those precious words, but the teacher. The words of Luther, which should have been so familiar, were as unknown to her as they are to most of our members today…
This indifference to the catechism is not necessary. If pastors were to focus their efforts on teaching the catechism (and not just in formal class settings), the people would find the catechism is the driving force behind all they do as a Christian. When pastors teach adult catechumens, and other long-time members attend, the comment is often heard, “I didn’t know any of this when I took this as a child.” The problem is not the catechism itself, but our approach and attitude towards it.
While some of the reasons for this neglect have been discussed, the consequence of this attitude is a severe weakness in the spiritual training of the members of the church. Pastors must once again rediscover the value of Luther’s Small Catechism. It is not only a handbook to understand the Scriptures, but also a prayer book for speaking to God, and for meditating on his Word.
Luther’s catechisms are unique in this. For example, compare the prayerful tone and practical content of Luther’s catechism to the dry academic tone of either the Heidelberg Catechism or the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Fine textbooks and compendia of doctrine they may be, but no one has ever suggested pulling out either of them for a few minutes of prayerful meditation on the great teachings of the church. They function as brief encyclopedia of their group’s respective teaching, explained at a lay level. Members who bother to purchase them are generally content to possess the books in the event a question should arise; they sit safely on the bookshelf. Luther’s catechisms are abused when treated this way. They are meant to be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested. They are the Word of God itself, with brief devotional commentary.
The Small Catechism has been labeled a handbook to the Holy Scriptures. But what does such an epithet mean? The Small Catechism is the lens through which all of Scripture is to be understood. It is the key to understanding the text, and through it the Holy Scriptures are unlocked. While it is possible to correctly understand God’s Word without Luther’s Small Catechism (after all, the church survived for 1500 years without it), no one can properly understand God’s Word without understanding the contents of Luther’s catechism.