The Small Catechism: A Great Tradition
Kudos to John Pawlitz for this excellent brief reflection on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Check out his blog site and the other Higher Things blog sites, always much food for thought there.
The Small Catechism lends a focus and credibility to
Lutheranism that other denominations do not possess and opens doors for
a far greater intellectual tradition.
The greatest thing about the Small Catechism is . . . it’s small.
If brevity is the soul of wit, brevity also prevents misunderstanding.
That is the poise and focus that Luther bestowed to the church. We
need more of this approach to theology. An approach that acknowledges
the power of God requires us to avoid attempts at comprehensive
explanations of everything (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:2 "God is in heaven and
you are on earth, therefore let your words be few.") without taking the
relativistic response of nihilism and nothing-can-be-known-for-sure.
One of the things that is great about the small catechism is that, in
its succinctness, it only says what is necessary and it says it
clearly. In other words, it doesn’t try to do too much, but what is
done is done well.
Many times people will complain about having to memorize it or
something, but it is much better to have something that is small enough
that you can memorize it. In fact, because it is so small, it leaves a
lot of room for discussion of anything theological. Once you have been
confirmed in the catechism, there is not anything more that you have
to know. It is amazing that in some churches, people think it is too
laborious and restrictive to force new members to become acquainted
with something so antiquated as the small catechism. What do you have
to learn if the Small Catechism is too noxious for newbies? Absolutely
In reality, though we may have continued the tradition, we have not
preserved the clarity and focus inherent in the documents. The great
thing about the Catechism is that, together with the other
Lutheran Confessions, it prevents the church from become too
institutionalized. It was very opprobious then, to the Lutherans, to
think about a Roman pontiff playing on the consciences of Germans and
swindling away money in indulgences under the of fogiveness and
Christ. And it could be opprobious now to think that someone in St.
Louis could be demanding or expecting money for the execution of some
centralized efforts. The great institution of the Lutheran church is
the Word of God.
It’s amazing how much was written by Luther and other theologians,
and yet, we have the essential materials all contained in the
Catechism. No one is naive enough to suppose that a small book like
that would address all the issues that could come up in the church.
The great thing about about it is the humility and focus that comes
from realizing that we cannot contain the Word of God, but as Solomon’s
temple could not contain God, we are filled with the awe and majesty of
God’s presence. Once the doctrines in the Catechism have been heard
and the practices established, the church is really free to do a lot.
So we mandated that all preachers should preach according to the
doctrines therein, which meant that they really had the leisure to
address any topics that they needed to, so long as they remained under
the parameters of the Word’s mysterious assertions. Instead of an
agenda or principle, Lutheranism really leaves individual preachers and
individual congregations the essential autonomy to decide what issues
and programs to promote, so long as they retain the convictions and
practices explained in the catechism. Thus, there is no limit to what
a Lutheran congregation can accomplish, by God’s grace, because it is
not built on a plethora of human inventions.
So it’s always so counter-intuitive, but less is more. We really
must prioritize the Catechism, not as a set of platitudes we should
majestically triumph around with, but as our universal standard for
what a congregation may not deviate from in its practices and
assertions. It’s very simple; if a congregation doesn’t prioritize the
catechism and it’s brevity, then it’s prioritizing a bunch of programs
and ideas that probably are ways of gaining sway over members towards
an un-Lutheran, indiscernibly Protestant non-denominationalist
approach. The Small Catechism is a unique document that doesn’t waste
words trying to persuade readers to its readers to join some club.
Ultimately, churches should have programs that reach out, but they
should be arranged by individual congregations and by their ministers.
That is what the Small Catechism protects: the freedom of individual
congregations to preach the Word, but if they should be done,
nevertheless they should not be done as ways of gaining merit. The
Small Catechism is a great document that says: hey this is all there is
to church practice, and anything else is less important and voluntary.
The really important things in the church we cannot do by our own
reasons or strength, for us we must have God tell us of the really
important things. We can want to reach out and tell others about God,
but we cannot by our will save them; that comes from God’s Word and the
regeneration of the Holy Ghost.
What happens, when we add to the Small Catechism or replace it, is
that we squash the will to do extra-essential things. For example, if
we codify certain activities, we are really like the Pharisees putting
heavier and heavier burdens on the people. Maybe the Pharisees want to
ensure that no one works on the Sabbath, so they say: no one can walk
more than fifty feet or something. If in some place we say that:
everyone should dedicate himself to promoting evangelism or something,
where that errs is in that it falls under this category of
propositions: those that suggest everyone should do something outside
the Small Catechism. The Small Catechism is something that every
church should be able to say: this is what everyone should do. If, for
example, we added that everyone should support this or that program, we
would be suggesting something outside the catechism applies to
everyone. It is an aberration of the universality of the church to do
so. Moses’ Law may have had burdens on everyone in Israel, but there
were still clauses permitting free will offerings; the Pharisees,
however, made it so burdensome that they practically squeezed out any
desire to voluntarily do things. The danger of increasing expectations
and adding elements is that it takes away from churchgoers and makes
them less able to commit to deeds voluntarily.
It seems like our theology is overly scrupulous and burdensome at
times. I’m not one to suggest that we should lower our standards, but
they are probably being lowered despite our scrupulousness. Now we
have all these theological ways of analyzing ideas, and some of them
are important, but at a certain point they become the dominant element
in theology. They deprive us of a much-beloved enlightenment in God’s
gifts, rather than the darkness of our own reasoning processes. In
other words, theology has a tendency to become a little
methodologically hyperactive. The Small Catechism is a great cap to
that nonsense and can keep the most learned doctors occupied in
The average preacher must preach about things outside of the text of
the Small Catechism, but he should never develop a system for
theologizing that is not based on it (at least, not if he is part of
the LCMS). We should never have the pulpit develop its own assertions
and the source of truth nor as the basis for its operation. The Small
Catechism is the operations manual for a church. Yes, we need preacher
to preach (for a random example) about the moral hazards of gambling
too much, but we should not then destabilize the doctrine of grace by
focusing on gambling as a focal point for authority. The authority for
preaching comes from the establishment of the Word of God, not from
the fact that gambling irresponsibly is wrong. The Catechism explains
the importance of preaching, but it leaves it to the preacher actually
to warn, to admonish, and to protect his flock with the Word of God.
The focal point for the Lutheran church has always been the Small
Catechism, and the intellectual capacity to understand Scriptural
interpretations and the social power to achieve acts of service can wax
and wane based on its focus. So we should pray that God would more and
more enlighten us as to the meaning of his will for the church, that
is, keep us mindful of the catechism. I think in the Lutheran church
we need to regain the sense that the Small Catechism is not a
capricious or optional device. It is the backbone of the Lutheran
church, and it hold together our nerves. If people are excited about
their programs and activities are great, but only regard the importance
of focus and do not become deceived about what is at stake. Without
focus it doesn’t matter how much energy of good will you have. There
is only so much that we can do, and ultimately we depend on God, who is
able to provide all the things that we cannot accomplish ourselves by
any means. And by providing freely the things that we can’t do, he
eases our troubles and allows of the freedom to do things that we can
do. If don’t acknowledge that and retain that, then we are bound to
commit ourselves to meaningless deeds and frivolous doctrines. In
fact, if we throw out the Small Catechism, it is safe to say there is
really nothing left to theology except warring over the meaning of some
word in some text; whether it must be in Scripture or not we can’t
tell, and would probably regard the words of some universal bishop
other than Christ with equal scrupulosity.