FROM THE PASTOR
The Book of Concord: What is it? Part 8
The Lutherís Large Catechism
Many Lutherans have come to believe that Lutherís Large Catechism was written for pastors; but this is not at all true. Luther begins his short preface to the Large Catechism by saying,"This sermon is designed and undertaken to be an instruction for children and the simple folk." As mentioned briefly in last monthís article (on The Small Catechism) the Large Catechism is a result of Luther condensing the sermons (on the Ten Commandments, Creed, The Lordís Prayer, and The Sacraments) that he had delivered over the course of a few years and collecting them together into one concise work. His goal in the catechisms was the same as his goal with those sermons: to instruct and encourage clergy and laity, and young and old, alike in the basics of the Christian faith. But the printing and distribution of both catechisms allowed these important teachings to spread to a far wider audience.
Luther wrote neither the Small nor the Large Catechism with the assumption that they would be "church books." He intended for both to be "house books" and used regularly in the household for the benefit of all in their growth and knowledge of the fundamental teachings of Scripture.
While the Evangelical Lutheran Church (meaning those churches whose confession of faith is The Book of Concord, which can include the LCMS and other Lutheran denominations) has never required (and should never require) a grasp of the Large Catechism for admission to communicant membership (but only the much easier to learn and memorize Small Catechism as Luther himself advises), the Large Catechism is still an important resource which every Christian would do well to study and take to heart. It covers the very same aspects of the Christian faith as The Small Catechism, but it does so in far greater depth. While house-holds can successfully memorize the Small Catechism (which is, by the way, only the first 44 pages of the book called "Lutherís Small Catechism" that most of us own; the remaining pages being an explanation, much of which is drawn from the Large Catechism), they can also make use of The Large Catechism for more in depth teaching as they grow together in the faith. In our formal catechesis program here for those youth who are seeking to be confirmed, we use the Large Catechism as a guide and outline to teach the Small Catechism, and I will even read sentences or paragraphs from the Large Catechism at times because Luther said things so well.
As mentioned in the previous article, both catechisms were written by Luther in reaction to the dreadful state of Biblical knowledge in which he and other reformers found the people of God in Germany; both clergy and laity. To appreciate the gravity of the situation:
Imagine if your pastor couldnít even recite the Ten Commandments!
Imagine if your church service did not include any sermon, except perhaps on special occasions!
Imagine if, even when a sermon was to be given, your pastor did not know or understand how or what to preach!
Imagine the truths of Scripture being taught neither in the Church, nor at home (since even fathers and mothers were not instructed in the faith)!
This was the state of things in the 1520ís in Germany. With the dawn of the Reformation and the churches in Saxony and other German nations turningevangelical (back to the Gospel), one would have expected an immediate surge in growth in the knowledge of Scripture, but the problem was twofold. One problem was that Bibles printed in the local language were still not widely distributed; but another, more vexing problem, was that clergy and laity alike were failing to see the study of the teachings of Scripture, and the reception of Christís mercy in the liturgy and sacraments, as important and beneficial gifts of God.
Here is the reason: under papal rule, the rites and ceremonies of the Church slowly lost their significance in the eyes of the people (and even the clergy). This is because the actual meanings undergirding the rites and ceremonies became obscured by a lack of teaching. The emphasis became the performance of the rites instead of the truths of Scripture and Christ, which they were meant to teach and/or bestow. Instead of conveying the grace of God in Christ to the people, centuries of "do this" (with no regard for the accompanying teaching) reduced the faith to a formula one would follow in order to get right and stay right with God of their own volition. As if the unbiblical innovations werenít bad enough ("pray to the saints," "buy your indulgences," "do your acts of contrition and satisfaction"), even the things that Christiansought to do according to Scripture (such as attending mass, going to confession, and receiving the sacrament) had been formulized into stuff one did, rather than means through which the works and benefits of Christ were bestowed upon them.
The performance of these rites and ceremonies had become so intertwined with papal authority, that when the Reformation freed the people from the tyranny of Rome, the people thought themselves likewise free from the ceremonies as well. Cut loose from both the papacy and the ceremonies of the Church, there was nothing to anchor them to anything. It was good that they were set adrift from the tyranny of Romeís false and deadly teachings. But there remained a critical need to be anchored to the true teachings of Christ and His Word.
A series of visitations to parishes all over Germany was the first step in the effort to restore proper Christian teaching, as well as proper Christian rites and ceremonies, which had been either twisted or lost, so that people could both receive and appreciate the gifts of Christ. Not just Luther, but many clergy, princes, city officials, and theologians participated in these visitations as they sought to assess the extent of the theological damage.
It was as a direct result of these visits that Luther ultimately wrote the Large (and then the Small) Catechism. As churches were made aware of their spiritual emptiness and the divine nourishment available to them in the Scriptures, and the ceremonies of the Church drawn from them, a great hunger developed among the people. So hungry for these truths were both the clergy and the laity that the Large Catechism went into its third edition less than a year after the first edition was printed and distributed.
Both the Large and Small Catechisms quickly became standards of Lutheran orthodoxy. In the 1530s al-ready, church orders (rules handed down by the local leaders) required that instruction be according to Lutherís Catechisms. In some parishes it was not unusual for portions of the Large Catechism to be read as the sermon for the day.
Earlier in this series, it was noted that none of the theology of the Reformation was new or innovative, but a restoration of what had come before; what had come from the teachings of Christ and His Apostles and passed down through the early Church Fathers. So also it is important to note that the concept of a catechism was not born of Luther, nor of the Reformation. It was not at all a new or innovative concept, as catechisms of varying forms had been around for 800 years. But many of the catechisms that preceded Lutherís did not emphasize Law, Gospel, and the gifts of Christ, which were paramount teachings of the Church in its first few hundred years. Even previous catechisms that were truly evangelical and Scriptural in their foundation were not nearly so successful as Lutherís, because they predated the widespread use of the printing press.
While the concept of a catechism wasnít unique, Lutherís approach to writing his was a pioneering achievement. He arranged the Chief Parts differently than any had done in the past. He began with the Ten Commandments, followed by the Apostlesí Creed, Lordís Prayer, the Sacraments, and Confession. Thus, one can see what God requires (the Commandments) and just how high and out of reach His requirements are. Next, we find how God meets our needs through a meditation upon His Triune nature (the Creed). Then, we learn in the Lordís Prayer how we can approach God now that He has brought us near to Him. Finally we learn how God comes to us as we struggle in our saint-sinner lives Ė the means of grace proclaimed in the Gospel and given in the sacraments.
In both of Lutherís Catechisms we have powerful tools. They were written in wartime (a fight for the Gospel against the legalistic and human-centered tyranny of the papacy). And today we are still at "war," as we are theChurch Militant (a spiritual fight against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh). The catechisms arm us for the battle as they give us both the Law and the Gospel, proclaiming Christís promises to and for us. Conveying the Word of God as they do, they are relevant to strengthen our faith in weakness as they point us to the mighty work our Savior has done and is doing now through His Holy Spirit, in overcoming all that stands against us. We are at war, but Christ is the one fighting the good fight for us, and already He is victorious. Come soon, Lord Jesus; and deliver us all into the fullness of Your victory! In the meantime, thank God for His teaching and truth which comfort, guide, and strengthen us to endure with certain hope. Amen.