Luther: Child of the Catechism

Keeping with the 500th-year anniversary of the Reformation, here is one of several installments on catechesis themes from the Reformers.  

In his preface to the Small Catechism, published in 1529, Martin Luther wrote of the "deplorable" ignorance of the villagers and pastors in the hinterland of German, which led him to write the simpler catechism that could be learned by children and the unlearned. 

The same year, he also published his Large Catechism, which is not a catechism per se but his Lectures on the Small Catechism. He wrote this one for slightly a different reason and a slightly different audience.

If the "common folk" for whom he wrote the Small Catechism were too unlearned, there was an equally problematic "vice" among the more educated: the "secret infection of security and satiety." Some people, Luther says, "regard the Catechism as a poor, mean teaching, which they can read through at one time, and then immediately know it, throw the book into a corner, and be ashamed, as it were, to read in it again" (Preface to the Large Catechism 5).

We can all too easily be lulled into thinking that we no longer need the catechism. We've learned the basics. Now let's move on. But while it's true we don't want to remain immature in the faith, that's different than believing we can ever get beyond the basics.

Luther thought about his hearers envisioninga day when they would no longer need teachers and pastors—"we have everything in books," they will say, "and every one can easily learn it by himself." Such arrogance, Luther surmised, would lead to the dissolution of the parishes (Preface, 6).

What we need instead, Luther counsels, is to resist this pride and become again like children: 

"But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, 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, yea, 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." (Preface, 7)

Even if they could know the catechism perfectly in this life (which they probably can't), nonetheless "there are manifold benefits and fruits still to be obtained, if it be daily read and practised in thought and speech; namely, that the Holy Ghost is present in such reading and repetition and meditation, and bestows ever new and more light and devoutness, so that it is daily relished and appreciated better...." (Preface, 8).

He concludes the Preface with another resounding plea to daily be in the catechism: 

"Therefore I again implore all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to be doctors too soon, and imagine that they know everything ... but that they daily exercise themselves well in these studies and constantly treat them; moreover, that they guard with all care and diligence against the poisonous infection of such security and vain imagination, but steadily keep on reading, teaching, learning, pondering, and meditating, and do not cease until they have made a test and are sure that they have taught the devil to death, and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints." (Preface, 19)