Was Ist Das? A Rediscovery of Luther’s Catechisms

By Luke T Zimmerman

Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. By Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009. (196 pages)

“The Small Catechism is not just the Lutheran equivalent of a political slogan: sounds nice but means nothing. It actually reveals the heart of the Christian life: revealing one’s sickness through the commandments, the Great Physician in the Creed, the desperate call to the pharmacy for medicine in the Lord’s Prayer, and some of the medicine itself in Baptism, Confession, and the Lord’s Supper. There is nothing more to the Christian life! So why is it that so many Lutherans think they have graduated from the catechism given how little they use it?” (p. viii)

The author’s question is a challenge to Lutheran ministers who are omitting use of Luther’s catechisms in their parishes and to all adherents to the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith. Timothy Wengert’s book is an attempt to bring readers to their own rediscovery of Luther’s catechisms as the treasury of the Christian faith. Wengert tells of his own rediscovery of that treasury in his life:

“What led me to get so interested in the Small Catechism was discovering what a revolutionary thing it was in Martin Luther’s own day. In 1990, when for the first time in my life I held a sixteenth-century copy of the catechism in my own hands, I began to rediscover what that little book could be in our own day. . . . It was, instead, a book so different in content, presentation, form, and intent that even today I am not sure I fully comprehend its import.” (p. 3)

Wengert may not fully comprehend the import of Luther’s catechisms, but he is able to present its treasure to the spiritual heirs of Luther, both old and new. Beginning with a chapter on Luther’s contribution to catechesis (Christian instruction), Wengert takes the reader through the major divisions of Luther’s catechisms: each of the Six Chief Parts (Luther’s commentary on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, Confession, the Lord’s Supper) receives its own chapter; a final chapter discusses the Table of Duties, Daily Prayers, and the Baptismal and Wedding Booklets. Throughout these chapters, the author emphasizes the pastoral nature of Luther’s writing: the catechisms are meant to form the faith.

The formative nature of the catechisms is seen in Wengert’s discussion of Luther’s texts. Wengert observes that the catechisms are not a short answer quiz for students with a standard answer key; rather, they are how Luther answered the questions which came from his students, those whose faith he was forming:

“When the students ask the questions, the teacher or pastor is forced to confess his or her faith. Pat answers and deft dimissals of serious questions will not wash. And that is what Luther’s Small Catechism was. It was not simply an instruction book; it was Luther’s personal, direct confession to the Hanses and Magdalenas of his congregation and to today’s readers. . . . The catechism contains Luther’s true confessions—because here Luther himself is caught in the act of confessing his faith to his own children and fellow believers in Wittenberg.” (p. 12-13)

Luther’s catechisms are a personal confession of his own faith; those who hear its content are led to make their own confession of the same faith.

Throughout his book, Wengert presents the historical context of the catechisms’ writing in an accessible way. Students of the Reformation Era will be familiar with the theological and historical conflicts that shaped the development of Lutheran theology. The author summarizes these respective conflicts which affected the way that Luther presented his confession of faith, especially in his Large Catechism. Wengert’s summaries provide enough information to those who are not well-versed in these conflicts, so that they can understand the significance of Luther’s catechetical language, especially his writing on the three sacraments: Holy Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. This is particularly helpful for lay leaders who are given instructional duties within Lutheran parishes.

Parish ministers who read this book will note how Wengert draws out Luther’s own practical theology and pastoral practice from the catechisms’ texts. Much of the content found in Luther’s catechisms was derived from his own instructional sermons of 1528 and 1529 in his Wittenberg parish, a response to the dreadful spiritual condition of the people discovered in the 1527 Visitation of Saxon parishes. Luther’s concern for people’s souls is seen in his presentation of the Christian faith and the reforms he made to the popular theology of the day. Wengert notes this in Luther’s critiques found in the Six Chief Parts: self-chosen spirituality, Enthusiasm, the cult of the saints, rote prayer, rejection of infant baptism, auricular confession, penance, denial of the Real Presence, and the sacrifice of the Mass fall under Luther’s pen in his Large Catechism. The Saxon people’s faith would be formed and reformed by Luther’s preaching and teaching.

While presenting Luther’s sixteenth-century pastoral theology found in the catechisms, Wengert also discusses its application to twenty-first century Lutheran congregations. Wengert’s goal is to form the faith of Christians today, not simply to discuss the way that late medieval Christians had their faith formed. Where possible, Wengert attempts to illustrate how Luther’s texts could shape the way that parish ministers perform their duties today. To conclude his discussion of Luther’s comments about the Sacrament of Absolution, Wengert writes:

“The challenge for Lutherans today is not to reintroduce a medieval private confession, which would invariably start slaughtering souls again, but to bring the absolution front and center for all kinds of pastoral conversations: at the beginning of each worship service as a true return to one’s baptism and its unconditional promises, in crisis counseling (where not just good psychology but good theology ought to reign), and in the ‘mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and sisters,’ which would include not only pastors but the entire people of God in sharing the best news beggars can hear: ‘Food and money; cooling drink and medicine—all free—and you do not have to run a hundred miles to get it.’” (p. 129)

Frequent experience with Christ’s forgiveness distributed through the confession and absolution would continually form the faith of parishioners. In another chapter, Luther’s comments about Christians who are negligent in receiving the Lord’s Supper generates discussion of how to address the troublesome problem of “inactive members” in a Lutheran parish. The author’s suggestions are a contemporary application of the timeless truths that can be found in Luther’s confession of the Christian faith.

Wengert’s book is meant to reclaim Luther’s catechisms for the Lutheran Church in the Twenty-first Century. They are truthful statements of the Christian faith, even though they are nearly five centuries old. Rather than seeing them as a relic of the past, Lutherans in this millennium can use them as a guide for their own lives of faith, making Luther’s confession of faith their own:

“Everything in this book has been said about us, too: the order, from law to gospel; the scope, uniting Word and Sacrament; the question, forcing Luther to confess his faith to us; the context and function, as a handbook of the Christian household. This is not just medicine for eighth graders; it is a simple paraphrase of the basics of the Christian faith.” (p. 22)

The basics of the Christian faith found in Luther’s catechisms can be allowed to form the beliefs of Christ’s disciples today, if the scriptural truths presented in them reach their modern (or post-modern) ears. Such is Wengert’s hope; perhaps that desire will be fulfilled among English-speaking Lutherans, as both major Lutheran publishing houses in America are releasing books on Luther’s catechisms.[1] The author’s book will be a helpful tool for both Lutheran ministers and laity to bring that hope to reality as they take up the challenge to rediscover these treasuries of the Christian faith.

[1] Wengert mentions That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms by Charles P. Arand (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2000) in his preface as a valuable resource in studying Luther’s catechisms. Additionally, Concordia Publishing House is in the process of producing an English translation of Albrecht Peters’ five-volume Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen, also mentioned in Wengert’s preface. These should lead to more appreciation of Luther’s work in his catechisms and its application to 21st Century Lutheranism.


One thought on “Was Ist Das? A Rediscovery of Luther’s Catechisms

  1. Gregory Davidson

    Thank you for your review of Wengert’s commentary on Luther’s Catechism! And for the tip on Arand’s. I’ve come to see Luther’s catechism as the heart of Christian formation and am using it as the guide for reshaping the congregation’s program of formation. These two supplementary resources will help move things along while keeping us true.

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