Last month I highlighted the three chief books that every Christian should have and treasure: the Bible, the Small Catechism, and the hymnal. This month, I want to focus especially on the Small Catechism, and encourage you to take up and keep doing the practice of reading and memorizing the catechism for you and your household.
It’s important to make a distinction between the Small Catechism and the Catechism. The Catechism is the collection of basic Christian texts which simply state the Christian faith. These texts have been used by the Christian Church throughout her history. These are the basic texts that Martin Luther took and used in his Small Catechism:
- The Ten Commandments
- The Apostles’ Creed
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16 (Holy Baptism)
- John 20:22-23 (Holy Absolution)
- The Words of Institution – 1 Corinthian 11:23-26 (Lord’s Supper)
Martin Luther’s Small Catechism contains explanations written by Luther for each of these parts of the Christian faith. Luther wrote his Small Catechism to explain these in “a simple way,” to be taught by “the head of the family.” So the Small Catechism is intended for those who need to learn the faith in a simple way (usually children and youth, although in our modern day when many are basically uninstructed in the Christian Faith even into adulthood, this can include adults as well). And the Small Catechism is intended for adults who have already been instructed in the faith, to use as they instruct their households and families.
In fact, the Small Catechism is deceptively simple. Luther’s explanations actually contain a profound depth to them; such depth, in fact, that it’s safe to say that fully grasping the riches found in the Small Catechism is a lifelong pursuit. Luther himself said this much in the preface to his Large Catechism:
But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher… Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning–and whenever I have time–I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.
There’s an unfortunate trend in the Lutheran church that seems to hold that instruction in the faith is for those who have yet to be confirmed. Once confirmed, many Christians set aside any desire to study the Scriptures any longer apart from hearing them in the Divine Service. And even if bible study continues, the Catechism and the Small Catechism are done with. Do you find yourself thinking this?
We can learn from Luther, can’t we? If Martin Luther devoted himself to constant study and refreshment in the Catechism, surely so can we! Our ongoing use of the Small Catechism is important for two reasons. First, it equips us to speak to others about what we believe. Second, it keeps us grounded in the evangelical, universal faith as we are surrounded by a culture that wants to lead us into error.
When are the texts and explanations of the Small Catechism able to help in this way? When they’re in our heads and hearts. So we need to learn them by heart, planting them deep within. The first step in this is that we begin using them in such a way as to commit them to memory, as we’re able. The second step is that we continue to use them so that we move beyond memorization. When something is memorized it can just as quickly be forgotten as it was committed to memory. For example, many receiving instruction leading to confirmation will commit parts of the Small Catechism to memory as required. They’ll come and recite them to me flawlessly. Yet if I ask them to recite even a week later, it’s often that whatever was memorized the week before is now gone.
So the goal is to memorize and then use repeatedly, over and over, until these Chief Parts become a part of us. I can still recite from heart my childhood phone number. Why is this? In part it’s because I memorized it, and used it over and over, until it became a part of me. As we do this with the Small Catechism, it becomes part of us and will shape and form the way we think and speak.
This is the goal for every one of us, that we would memorize and move into our hearts and minds the Small Catechism so that it becomes part of us and shapes and forms our entire lives. So with this goal in mind, I want to challenge us for this next year. Just as all those receiving instruction leading to confirmation will be memorizing the Catechism and the Small Catechism, let’s all commit to doing this. Let’s commit and re-commit to memory the parts of the Small Catechism by making them part of our devotional life.
If we use the Small Catechism daily, the parts will soon begin to stick in our minds (admittedly, as we get older this takes a bit more time and sometimes a bit or a lot more effort than our younger brothers and sisters in Christ). By continuing to use them daily they will move beyond just memory into our hearts; they will become a part of us.
Beginning later this month, we’ll have a weekly Learn By Heart text from the Small Catechism. (We’ll also have a weekly Learn By Heart bible verse that fits the theme of each week’s scripture lessons!) These will be included inside the bulletin each week, along with a basic devotion outline to use at home. Most of the time we’ll take up one explanation each week (for some of the longer explanations, we’ll take two weeks). Use these in your personal and family devotions; Work on them as families and couples; Challenge one another to learn these by heart.
There are several resources available to learn the Small Catechism besides just reading it out loud to each other. Concordia Publishing House has set the entire Small Catechism to music for children (“Sing the Faith“). They also sell an audio version of the Small Catechism interspersed with Luther’s Catechism hymns (“Listening to Luther“). Both of these are available on CD from CPH, or digitally on iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store. CPH also sells a basic audio version called “Lessons from Luther” without the hymn recordings. We have copies of this CD here at church. A donation of $3 is requested if you’d like a copy.
As I mentioned last month, CPH has made the Small Catechism available for free as an app in the iOS App Store or the Google Play store. Search “Luther’s Small Catechism” and download the version from Concordia Publishing House.
Again, I want to challenge us all to take up the Small Catechism again and make it a centerpiece of our lives. Let’s begin committing it to memory and into our hearts, so that these basic texts and teachings of the Christian faith will shape and mold our lives.
Peace be with you,