Every generation of Christian believers wants to hand down to the next generation “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) But how do you do that? In previous generations, a large section of the church has answered, “with catechisms.” But the study of catechisms, creeds, and confessions of faith has fallen out of favor in modern evangelical Christianity. The whole idea of a bound set of doctrinal truths to be committed to memory seems constrictive to many, or at the very least boring or difficult.
For many years, I too didn’t give much thought to catechisms except as something that I needed to know for a test on my way to ordination in a denomination that didn’t really care much about catechisms and confessions of faith. However, as if became clear that I could not in good conscience stay in that denomination, I moved over to a more conservative Presbyterian denomination and had to spend a LOT of time with the Westminster Shorter Catechism as I began the ordination track all over again. And do you know what I found? This brief series of questions and answers was actually a great little summary of the Christian faith. The language was a bit old, but it really cut to the chase, and gave me the language and vocabulary to express the faith in a compact package. Who knew that a catechism could actually be interesting and useful?
As I came to learn, generations of Christians have thought catechisms to be a great tool for passing on the faith. I thought to myself that I should really study some of the other catechisms out there so see what I can glean from them, but time was short. As I finished my ordination exams and moved with my family to the mission field, I didn’t have a lot of time to dig deep into other catechisms outside of Westminster.
But on our first home assignment in 2011, I took a class on Martin Luther’s theology as part of my Master of Theology (Th.M) studies and decided to do some research on Luther’s catechisms. Why did he write them? What did he include? Why did he include it? Who was his intended audience? Was he building off of someone else’s work or did he start fresh? It was fascinating to dig into both Luther’s writings and the articles of other scholars who provided insight on the setting, background, and use of the catechisms. I want to learn something that I could use on the mission field. What could Luther teach me about passing on the faith today?
As I got to know Luther and his catechisms, one of the most interesting discoveries was that Luther wrote for ignorant peasants. Unlike the impression that some modern people may have, catechisms were never intended to be read only by a few heady Reformed doctrinal gurus. Luther wrote for ignorant peasants, not too different than many of the oral learners that missionaries meet in many places in the majority world today. That’s who Luther was writing for. But Luther’s description of his intended audience is much more colorful:
“The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.”
There you have it. Luther was writing for dumb brutes and irrational hogs. So what do you teach to dumb brutes? How do you educate irrational hogs in the Christian faith?
As I dug into his catechism, I found the answer to those questions, and I have written up the results of my research in a short eBook called, “What Manifold Misery I Beheld! The Origin of Luther’s Catechisms,” now available on Kindle for $0.99. There is lots to learn from Luther that can be applied for the church today as we pass on the faith to new generations. We may not do it like Luther did, but just as Luther built on and modified what he received, we too can learn from the past to inform the present.
Why not head over to Amazon and grab yourself a copy? And if you enjoy it, don't forget to write a review and recommend it to your friends.