Learning Luther: The Prefaces to the Large Catechism

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has asked that we make 2016 the “Year of the Catechism.” Accordingly, Virginia Synod Bishop James Mauney has asked that as we approach the anniversary year of 2017, our eight monthly Luther studies in 2015 and 2016 focus on Luther’s Large Catechism. This is a text which became foundational in the Lutheran theological tradition by its incorporation into the 1580 Book of Concord.1

The word “catechism” denotes the pedagogy of “learning by repetition.” We make fun nowadays of leaning by repetition; we call it learning “by rote” and dismiss it as mindless drudgery. For many of us older ones, it brings back unhappy, even painful memories of memorization: of multiplication tables, of the Table of Periodic Elements, of conjugations of verbs or declensions of nouns in foreign languages, and so on. How much more exciting to learn by experience, to experience new things and forget the old!

Yet, learning by repetition is the very process of habituation that the ancients called paideia. It was a holistic form of training mind, desire, and bodily behavior under a mentor, much as athletes still train today under coaches. If the scholars are right, this was also the form of learning in the rabbinic schools, where pupils were also disciples, as reflected in the memorization of Jesus’ sayings among of disciples at the earliest, oral stage of Christian tradition. It is no accident, then, that from the beginning, and building upon its Jewish antecedents (Luther explicitly quotes Deuteronomy 6:7–8), the church saw in catechesis the appropriate pedagogy for socializing the newcomer (and the young also as newcomers) into the faith “so that [God’s Word] may penetrate deeply into [pupils’] minds and remain fixed in their memories,” as Luther puts it.

By the same reasoning, Luther retained liturgical worship to sing Sunday after Sunday the words of God into hearts and minds until they would become second nature. Indeed, Luther’s Small Catechism is one that can be prayed—just as Luther meant it to be recited in the household devotions, which he regarded as a form of the church.2 Lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of faith and vice versa. Adapted for Christian purposes, catechesis, whether liturgical or pedagogical, is the process of in-forming faith with texts of Scripture, the matrix of faith, which work by the Spirit to re-form the mind’s ideas about God and self and so re-direct the desires of the heart.

This memorization is foundational. “It is not enough for them simply to learn and repeat these parts verbatim,” but this catechetical repetition should empower the learner to give a “good, correct answer when they are questioned.” For Luther, that testing is not just passing an oral exam in school or on confirmation day, but rather it is for testing in the school of life. Catechism enables one to know and confess Jesus Christ as one’s hope through thick and thin. This content, as we shall see, is literally central in Luther’s catechesis.

It is instructive to note in this connection how the Mercersburg Reformed theologian of the nineteenth century, John Nevin, in a trenchant critique of revivalism in his essay, The Anxious Bench,3 pointedly asked the Gettysburg Lutheran theologian Samuel Schmucker who had adopted revivalism, “Why are you still Lutheran?” Nevin went on to endorse and elaborate as the alternative to revivalism “the catechetical method.” Deep reflection, indeed self-examination on this question here in the Bible Belt (which is surely everywhere in the USA outside of New York and Boston) ought to accompany our study this year!

As surely, the Large Catechism, by contrast to the Small Catechism, has its doxological moments, but it can hardly be prayed. It is an argumentative treatise, warranting and explicating the claims to truth (which Luther variously called assertions, articles of faith, or confessional topics) embedded in those foundational texts memorized in the catechetical tradition: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and The Ten Commandments. In this sequence, Luther inherited the selection of these texts from the ecumenical tradition as a minimal summation of the knowledge necessary to the adult convert preparing for baptism.

Indeed, catechesis originated in the ancient church as instruction for neophytes preparing for baptism. Luther not only retrieves the content of catechism but also this “situation in life” as the motive for Christian learning in the Large Catechism, obscured in Christendom where the practice of infant baptism is universal. Rather than leave catechetical methodology behind in the Large Catechism, as indiscriminate baptism of infants often meant, Luther extended it into adulthood, arguing for what today we call “lifelong learning.” As baptism and being a Christian is a matter of life, lifelong learning and increasingly sophisticated theological reflection need to accompany it.

Indeed, Luther as much as insists that no one can master the catechism in a life time. In the fog and friction of spiritual struggle against our sinful selves, the world, and the devil, one is always learning anew the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

For Luther, we go forward in the Christian life always by returning to the beginning, where the beginning is baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. In this context, let us note, doctrine is not theory, doctrine for doctrine’s sake, neither dead dogma abstracted from life and preserved in a museum nor speculative theory that goes beyond the basics to soar to unknown worlds. As catechetical instruction for baptism, Christian doctrine is instruction for new life in Christ. As baptism inaugurates the life of God’s new creation into the midst of a still hostile and unredeemed world, the baptized learn what God requires of them, who God is and what God does for them, and how then they are to persevere in trial and testing: “we must have it every day in order to stand against the daily and incessant attacks and ambushes of the devil with his thousand arts.”

As Christian faith is never something that occurs naturally to us, it must be learned—again and again and again. “All the prophets and all the saints have had to learn it, but they have always remained pupils, and they must continue to be so.” This is so because the Word of God is always event for us, never something we master and leave behind, but rather the saving event that masters us—again and again—in life and in death.

At the very center of Luther’s Large Catechism is his account of how Jesus Christ has become “my Lord.” (In this light, one might well wonder what is happening doctrinally in ELW’s liturgical deletion of the salutation, “The Lord be with you”). Jesus becoming our Lord as the saving event that overtakes us, like Saul on the road to Damascus—this is the Word of God catechesis aims to teach us. “The advantage of Luther’s Catechism as a life book—and not so much a text book—will only show well in succeeding to pull Christian faith deeply into life and conversely to immerse life in the fountain of Christian Faith.”4

The stewardship of this event is entrusted “especially to us who want to be pastors and preachers.” Their auditors, that is, the rest of the Christian community, also have their responsibility, namely, to support this public ministry of Word and Sacrament, and further, critically to judge its fidelity by the same knowledge of the same catechism. The pastoral ministry is the community’s ministry toWord and Sacrament; it sees to it that this comprehensive and inexhaustible event of learning God centered in Christ is and remains central to this community’s way of life in the world.

The painful deficit in regard to pastoral ministry that was unveiled during the Saxon Visitation of 1528 propelled Luther into the composition of the Large Catechism for the remedial instruction of pastors. The Large Catechism is accordingly addressed especially to preachers responsible for the ministration of Word and Sacrament.  Luther does not mince words judging lazy and negligent preachers who have not cracked a theological book or striven to grow theologically since graduation from seminary. He says such preachers in fact exploit their parishioners, “living off the fat of the land,” acting more as “swineherds and keepers of dogs than guardians of souls and pastors.” As Nevin asked the revivalist Schmucker why he was still a Lutheran, I would ask today: Why pay for a learned ministry if minsters themselves despise theological learning and neglect theological teaching in ministry?

Of course, this sharp judgment also falls on lazy and negligent auditors, who demand that pastors be cheerleaders and hand-holders and CEOs and glad-handers—anything but ministers of Word and Sacrament. This turn away from catechesis creates a vacuum in the congregation; this vacuum is filled with a bundle of contradictory expectations from the culture that rip poor pastors to pieces. If congregations do not expect their pastors to be learned in Scripture and Christian doctrine, apt teachers who are encouraged and given time to study so that parishioners can in turn be taught Jesus as their saving Lord, why are they surprised when pastors act like feckless politicians, if not Luther’s lazy bellies, rather than guardians of souls and pastors of flocks? Perhaps they don’t want to be one flock under one shepherd engaged in battle with sin, death, and the power of the devil.

As mentioned, Luther inherited from the ecumenical past the three parts of the catechism: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, in that order, “the three parts that have been in Christendom from ancient days,” a “brief summary and digest of the entire Holy Scriptures.” These three texts “contain what every Christian should know.” Indeed, he continues, “anyone who does not know [the catechism] should not be numbered among Christians or admitted to any sacrament.”

For the radical hospitality of the God of the gospel consists in holy baptism, the bath that washes the newcomer in preparation for the meal on the way to the messianic feast to come. And this radical hospitality is at work by the Spirit in the catechetical transformation of the mind’s ideas about God and self and world and the reform of the heart’s desires that attends the gospel knowledge of God.

That is the sense, by the way, of the old custom of catechetical instruction prior to admission to the Lord’s Table. In a church that baptizes infants, the catechesis that adults would have received is postponed until the child can understand and answer for itself. Then it can be admitted to the sacrament, when it knowingly and publicly can confirm its baptism. While we do not follow this custom legalistically, we should appreciate its rationale: catechesis is preparation for baptism, as baptism is preparation for the Lord’s Supper, as the Lord’s Supper is preparation for the messianic feast to come. These preparations are matters today of lifelong learning.

Within this ecumenical tradition and consensus concerning the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, Luther innovates in one simple but profound stroke. As Luther grasps that as catechesis is instruction for the life of the baptized, he sees that the new and Christian life proceeds in the sequence from death to sin to resurrection to newness of life, from cross to new creation. He accordingly reorganizes the sequence of teaching the traditional texts to reflect this law-gospel theo-logic.5 The traditional sequence of Creed–Lord’s Prayer–Ten Commandments suggested that the Christian dogma led to a new law and a superior piety in which believers made themselves worthy of grace. Luther’s new sequence of Ten Commandments–Creed–Lord’s Prayer (and the sacraments, which he also added here), suggest, as we shall see, that Christian life is the effect of God’s new creative command, in which God makes believers become in power what they already are in principle.

Thus the Commandments detailing what the Creator expects of His creatures precede in order to show the lost human state of impotence and need. Working despair of the existing self by the demands of the law is God’s holy work, as the Judge already now anticipating the Last Day. It brings about a “terrifying” realization, yet one that is effected for the sake of an infinitely more consoling realization, namely, of what God gives in creation, its redemption and fulfillment, as summarized in the Creed. Now the Creed is no longer an unintelligible revealed dogma to be accepted on ecclesiastical authority, but the gospel telling God at work in re-creating the lost world. Thus gifted with new life, “sanctification” is not a new legalism or pietism or a renewed attempt to make oneself worthy of grace. Such an endeavor would in fact be a fall from grace, turning a gift into a merited reward. Rather, grace ever remains an utterly free gift and event through the twists and turns of life from baptism day to resurrection day. Sanctification in this light is itself grace at work, understood and explicated as holy secularity: daily life in the world lived consciously and conscientiously before God, the Father in heaven, in unity with His Son at whose invitation believers pray, in the power of their Spirit, as we shall see in detail in coming installments.

So much by way of preface.

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.


1. We will be following the contemporary translation edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000). Wengert, by the way, has published a helpful analysis: Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), which might be consulted for further study.

2. Ronald W. Roschke, “A Catechism of Luther’s Catechisms,” Currents in Theology and Mission 4/2 (1977): 70; Dennis Ngien, “Theology and Practice of Prayer in Luther’s Devotional and Catechetical Writings,” Lutherjahrbuch 14 (2005): 45.

3. Catholic And Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin, ed. C. Yrigoyen Jr. and G. H. Bricker (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1978).

4. Klaas Zwanepol, “The Structure and Dynamics of Luther’s Catechism,” Acta Theologica 31/2 (2011): 408.

5. Roschke, 70–71.

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