The old advertisement for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (“taste them again for the first time”) helps introduce Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, in part because many Lutheran adults—having been subjected to it as eighth-graders—have developed a resistance allergy to it. Only while preparing to teach a seminary course on Luther’s catechisms did I hold a facsimile of the 1536 edition in my hands and realize what a remarkable gift Luther gave to the church when he wrote it in 1529.

For one thing, the originals had pictures: A woodcut of biblical stories for every commandment, article of the Apostle’s Creed, petition of the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments. It was meant for everyone in the household—even those who couldn’t read. More than that: the Small Catechism started its life on posters, not as a booklet, with individual sheets for the Ten Commandments, creed, Lord’s Prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayers at table, and morning and evening prayers. At the top of each sheet was a caption addressed to the heads of households (e.g.: “The Lord’s Prayer in a very simple way in which the head of a house is to present it to the household”). Luther intended the Small Catechism to serve as a teacher’s guide for beleaguered parents.

Similarly, when the booklet form came out, besides pictures, Luther added things for the family: “The Household Chart of Some Bible Passages for All Kinds of Holy Orders and Walks of Life” (sometimes called “The Table of Duties”) and versions of German marriage and baptismal services. His preface, addressed to parish pastors and preachers, reminded them: “Our office has become … serious and salutary.” The catechism was serious indoctrination, to be sure, but the word “salutary” reveals that it also strengthens faith, provides comfort in the face of spiritual attacks and bears the saving gospel of Christ. In short, Luther intended the catechism for the entire Christian community—children, parents and guardians, pastors and teachers—for their whole lives.

And thus it continues to provide insight into the Christian life of faith. For one thing, Luther moves from explaining the law (commandments that reveal our sin) to the gospel (promises of what God does in creating, redeeming and making holy). This progression reflects the movement of baptism from drowning to rising, as Luther said: “[Baptism] signifies that the old creature in us … is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

For another, the movement from God’s word (commandments, creed, prayer) to the sacraments (baptism, the Lord’s Supper and absolution [our daily baptism]) creates church—both the “house church” and the congregation. These are places where the catechism’s parts are not only taught but also enacted in worship by confessing sin and receiving forgiveness, reciting the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer and celebrating the sacraments.

Finally, the Small Catechism clearly proclaims the center of our Christian life. On the one hand, it’s the daily dying and rising of baptism. On the other, it’s our confession that God alone is in charge of our lives and of this world, as creator (“I believe God created me and all that exists”), as redeemer (“I believe that Jesus Christ … is my Lord who has redeemed me”), and as the one who makes us holy through faith alone (“I believe that … I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”). Truly we have no other God but this one.

Timothy J. Wengert
Wengert, an ELCA pastor, is professor emeritus of Reformation history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Author and editor of more than 20 books, including Martin Luther's Catechisms: Forming the Faith (Fortress, 2009), his translation of the Small Catechism is used extensively throughout the ELCA.

Read more about: