By: Rick Serina
This is the latest in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
We’ve heard it said more than once that Luther did not set out to start a new church, but to reform the one he had. That is true—to a degree. It must also be said that Luther never set out with the intent to reform the church, either. If we want to call the controversy over the Ninety-Five Theses the start of the Protestant Reformation, then it was little more than at attempt to address one very limited, specific teaching on the basis of his authority as a university professor of theology. But things didn’t stop there. They continued to evolve. It wasn’t just indulgences, but soon penance, the sacraments, justification, church authority, among other doctrines, and that in turn meant Luther had an obligation to spell out how those teachings should be understood and what they should mean for the believer. At this point, university theology quickly turned into parish catechesis, into instruction for the faithful, so that the people might bring the debates of the Wittenberg curriculum into their churches and homes. This transition is what elicits a writing like January 1520’s A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer.
For the modern Lutheran reader, this treatise appears to be an intermediate version of what becomes the first three chief parts of his later Catechism. In a sense, it is an important signpost pointing in that direction. That Luther would write a short summary of the Decalogue, Apostles Creed, and Our Father is not terribly surprising. Beginning in the fourteenth century, concerted efforts were made to instruct the laity in church teaching, including these three significant elements of the biblical faith. There were vernacular catechetical sermons, short catechisms, confessional manuals for confessors that included instruction in the faith, as well as resources for prayer, examination of communicants, art and architecture, even dramatic creedal plays. Yet the combination of illiteracy among the people and the increasingly academic orientation of scholastic theology meant a broadening gap between what the people knew and what the church taught. That is at least part of the reason why Luther writes not only treatises about more complex theological topics like the sacraments or penance, but also others on biblical and devotional topics like the ones in this treatise.
The first of these three that Luther addressed was the Ten Commandments in 1518, then the Lord’s Prayer in 1519. A year later, he added to those a freshly drafted commentary on the Apostles Creed, and then in 1522, and all three were incorporated into Luther’s Prayer Book, or Betbüchlein. His instruction is more detailed and robust than the later Small Catechism, but more concise and less polemical than the Large Catechism. He specifically breaks the Ten Commandments down into the first and second tables, then lists a series of transgressions (Ubertretung) against them and a series of ways to fulfill (erfullunge) them. In the section on the Creed, he frames it largely in personal, almost devotional terms according to the persons of the Trinity, not the articles of the Creed. There is no theoretical discussion of the essence and persons of the Holy Trinity, but a series of personal confessions, normally beginning “I believe” (Ich glaube) in the pattern of the Creed itself. He also includes specific renunciation of all demonic and black magic in the First Commandment. Finally, he expands even more upon the Lord’s Prayer, providing numerous templates of prayers based upon each petition. You can see in each of these three parts a preliminary form of what will become the later catechisms, from the format to the topics addressed, even the language used.
While this treatise is hardly revolutionary, and mostly provides a source history of Luther’s important catechisms, its composition should give us pause. The Brief Explanation is part devotional treatise, part doctrinal explanation, and part catechetical resource for pastoral and family use. It is theological without being abstract, biblical without being exegetical, devotional without being contrived or overly sentimental, practical without lacking serious doctrinal content. Simply put, Luther’s form of devotional, theological catechesis does not fit easily within what has become an increasingly fragmented approach to the Christian faith in America. We routinely argue over distinctions between doctrine and practice, theology and relevance, head and heart. We cite St. Paul’s contrast in 1 Corinthians 8 between a “knowledge that puffs up” and a “love that builds up” as if it were an opposition rather than a contrast. We often treat the theology learned in seminary or debated at synodical conventions as if it had nothing to do with the ministry in our congregations or the needs of our people. Yet Luther could not have envisioned such a dilemma. For him, the simple fact that Scripture teaches something or that this or that theological argument is sound doctrinally implies that it must be useful for the faithful. Sound doctrine makes for good catechesis and will inform a healthy Christian piety. If it doesn’t lead to a healthy piety, then by definition it isn’t good catechesis or sound doctrine. One may be able to find an exception to the rule here or there, but the Luther of 1520, let alone 1529, has no place for a fragmented Christian worldview that sidelines theology in favor of devotion, or devotion in favor of theology, and faithful, responsible catechesis for him is the essential link between these two.
Of course, we don’t live in sixteenth-century Germany, we aren’t heirs to a medieval world saturated in the supernatural, and we don’t have entire parishes, towns, and countries sharing the same fundamental beliefs about God and Christianity as Luther largely had. We fight uphill battles in shrinking congregations situated in secular communities with little patience for Christianity, and sometimes downright hostile opposition to it. Our parishes are struggling for their fiscal lives, our confirmation classes are shadows of what they used to be, and our opportunities to instruct in the faith are more infrequent they used to be. How are we supposed to create a healthy environment for catechesis given these conditions? There are several pressing obstacles complicating our attempts. First, the lack of instruction in the home. This was a problem Luther himself faced and saw fit to address by drafting his own catechisms. If we can’t impress upon our congregations the absolute necessity of instruction in the home, in the form of Scripture reading, prayer, even catechetical formation, then our opportunities for catechesis are stillborn by the time children arrive in our classes. Relatedly, biblical literacy remains a massive absence in the lives of American Christians. Recent Barna surveys show that less than a quarter of Americans read the bible once a week or more. Irregular attendance in worship services has exacerbated the problem—if the heads of the household aren’t attending worship or reading the Scriptures themselves, how can they possibly be expected to implement catechesis in the home?
So, what are we to do? There is no magic formula, no catechetical program, no new 40-day project of Scripture reading to reverse this tide easily. It will require patient, painstaking, relatively “unsuccessful” (at least if judged by current ministry metrics) long-term efforts at changing these inherited practices and attitudes. It will require pastors that insure what Christians believe theologically is front and center in the worship and administration of the church, in their pastoral care and counseling and interactions. It will require pastors that address theology not as a form of intellectual violence against those with whom we disagree, but thoughtfully and attentively for the purpose of persuading the faithful of what is biblical and Lutheran and most beneficial for their faith and their piety. It will require pastors that continue immersing themselves and their families in the Scriptures and confessions and piety of the church, not as an occupation, but as a lifestyle we seek to model for the people entrusted to our care. It will above all require us to dispense with these problematic disjunctions between a theology we study, a catechesis we teach, and a faith we practice. For Lutherans, as for Luther, they are one and the same.