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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 89. Luther’s Catechisms. 1529.


I. Critical editions of Luther’s Catechisms in his Works, Erl. ed., vol. XXI. (contains the two catechisms and some other catechetical writings); by Mönckeberg (Hamburg, 1851, second ed. 1868); Schneider (Berlin, 1853, a reprint of the standard ed. of 1531 with a critical introduction); Theodos. Harnack (Stuttgart, 1856; a reprint of two editions of 1529 and 1539, and a table of the chief textual variations till 1842);  Zezschwitz  (Leipz. 1881); Calinich (Leipz. 1882). See titles in Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, I. 245. The Catechisms are also printed in the editions of the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church, and the Little (or Small) Catechism, with English translation, in Schaff’s Creeds, etc., vol. III. 74–92. The text in the Book of Concord is unreliable, and should be compared with the works mentioned.

II. Discussions on the history and merits of Luther’s Catech., by Köcher, Augusti, Veesenmeyer, Zezschwitz , and others, quoted by Schaff, l.c. 245. Add Köstlin: M. L., bk. VI. ch. IV. (II. 50–65).


The Catechisms of Luther are the richest fruit of the Saxon church visitations. Intended as a remedy for the evils of ignorance and irreligion, they have become symbolical standards of doctrine and duty, and permanent institutions in the Lutheran Church. The Little Catechism, which is his best, bears the stamp of his religious genius, and is, next to his translation of the Bible, his most useful and enduring work by which he continues a living teacher in catechetical classes and Sunday schools as far as the Lutheran confession extends. He here adapts the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to the capacity of children, and becomes himself a child with children, a learner with the teacher, as he said, "I am a doctor and a preacher, yet I am like a child who is taught the Catechism, and I read and recite word by word in the morning the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and cheerfully remain a child and pupil of the Catechism." A great little book, with as many thoughts as words, and every word sticking to the heart as well as the memory. It is strong food for men, and milk for babes. It appeals directly to the heart, and can be turned into prayer. In the language of the great historian Leopold von Ranke, "it is as childlike as it is profound, as comprehensible as it is unfathomable, simple and sublime. Happy he whose soul was fed by it, who clings to it! He possesses an imperishable comfort in every moment; under a thin shell, a kernel of truth sufficient for the wisest of the wise."729729    To this and other testimonies, may be added that of Köstlin, II. 63: "Der Kleine Katechismus steht in erster Reihe unter den Schriften des Reformators."

Catechetical instruction was (after the model of the Jewish synagogue) a regular institution of the Christian church from the beginning, as a preparation for membership. In the case of adult converts, it preceded baptism; in the case of baptized infants, it followed baptism, and culminated in the confirmation and the first communion. The oldest theological school, where Clement and the great Origen taught, grew out of the practical necessity of catechetical teaching. The chief things taught were the Creed (the Nicene in the Greek, the Apostles’ in the Latin Church) or what to believe, the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) or how to pray, and the Ten Commandments or how to live. To these were added sometimes special chapters on the sacraments, the Athanasian Creed, the Te Deum, the Gloria in excelsis, the Ave Maria, Scripture verses, and lists of sins and virtues. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures were a standard work in the Greek Church. Augustin wrote, at the request of a deacon, a famous book on catechising (De catechizandis rudibus), and a brief exposition of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer (Enchiridion), which were intended for teachers, and show what was deemed necessary in the fifth century for the instruction of Christians. In the middle ages the monks Kero (720) and Notker (912), both of St. Gall, Otfrid of Weissenburg (870), and others prepared catechetical manuals or primers of the simplest kind. Otfrid’s Catechism contains (1) the Lord’s Prayer with an explanation; (2) the deadly sins; (3) the Apostles’ Creed; (4) the Athanasian Creed; (5) the Gloria. The anti-papal sects of the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Bohemian Brethren, paid special attention to catechetical instruction.

The first Protestant catechisms were prepared by Lonicer (1523), Melanchthon (1524), Brentius (1527), Althamer, Lachmann (1528), and later by Urbanus Rhegius (Rieger).730730    Hartmann, Aelteste Katechetische Denkmale, Stuttgart, 1844. Luther urged his friends and colleagues, Justus Jonas and Agricola, to write one for Saxony (1525);731731    Jonas is probably the author of the Laienbiblia, 1525 (republished by Schneider in 1853), and this was probably the basis of "Cranmer’s Catechism." 1548. See Schaff, Creeds, I. 655, note 2. but after the doleful experience of popular ignorance during the church visitation, he took the task in hand himself, and completed it in 1529. He had previously published popular expositions of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (1520).732732    Erl. ed., vol. XXII. 1-32. Comp. also his Taufbüchlein verdeutscht, 1523, and reproduced 1526 (?), ibid. XXII. 157 sqq. and 290 sqq.

He wrote two Catechisms, both in the German language. The "Great Catechism" is a continuous exposition, and not divided into questions and answers; moreover, it grew so much under his hands, that it became unsuitable for the instruction of the young, which he had in view from the beginning. Hence he prepared soon afterwards (in July, 1529) a short or little Catechism under the name Enchiridion. It is the ripe fruit of the larger work, and superseded it for practical use. The same relation exists between the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly.

With his conservative instinct, Luther retained the three essential parts of a catechism,—the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. He called the first the doctrine of all doctrines; the second, the history of all histories; the third, the highest of all prayers. To these three chief divisions he added, after the Catholic tradition and the example of the Bohemian Catechism, an instruction on the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in two separate parts, making five in all. He retained in the address of the Lord’s Prayer the old German Vater unser (Pater Noster), and the translation "Deliver us from evil" (a malo); but in his Bible he changed the former into Unser Vater (Matt. 6:9), and in his Large Catechism he refers the Greek to the evil one, i.e., the Devil (oJ ponhrov"), as our arch-enemy. Yet in practice these two differences have become distinctive marks of the Lutheran and German Reformed use of the Lord’s Prayer.733733    If German farmers in Pennsylvania are asked, "What is the difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed?" the reply is, "The one pray Vater unser, the other Unser Vater."

The later editions of the Little Catechism (since 1564) contain a sixth part on "Confession and Absolution," or, "The Power of the Keys," which is inserted either as Part V., between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or added as Part VI., or as an appendix. The precise authorship of the enlarged form or forms (for they vary) of this part, with the questions, "What is the power of the keys?" etc., is uncertain; but the substance of it—viz. the questions on private or auricular confession of sin to the minister, and absolution by the minister, as given in the "Book of Concord"—date from Luther himself, and appear first substantially in the third edition of 1531, as introductory to the fifth part on the Lord’s Supper. He made much account of private confession and absolution; while the Calvinists abolished the same as a mischievous popish invention, and retained only the public act. "True absolution," says Luther, "or the power of the keys, instituted in the gospel by Christ, affords comfort and support against sin and an evil conscience. Confession or absolution shall by no means be abolished in the church, but be retained, especially on account of weak and timid consciences, and also on account of untutored youth, in order that they may be examined and instructed in the Christian doctrine. But the enumeration of sins should be free to every one, to enumerate, or not to enumerate such as he wishes."734734    Articuli Smalcald. P. III., cap. 8. The practice of private confession is still retained in some sections, but has entirely disappeared in other sections, of the Lutheran Church.

The Church of England holds a similar view on this subject. The Book of Common Prayer contains, besides two forms of public confession and absolution, a form of private confession and absolution. But the last is omitted in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Besides these doctrinal sections, the Little Catechism, as edited by Luther in 1531 (partly, also, in the first edition of 1529) has three appendices of a devotional or liturgical character: viz., (1) A series of short family prayers; (2) a table of duties (Haustafel) for the members of a Christian house hold, consisting of Scripture passages; (3) a marriage manual (Traubüchlin), and (4) a baptismal manual (Taufbüchlin).

The first two appendices were retained in the "Book of Concord;" but the third and fourth, which are liturgical and ceremonial, were omitted because of the great diversity in different churches as to exorcism in baptism and the rite of marriage.

The Little Catechism was translated from the German original into the Latin (by Sauermann) and many other languages, even into the Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. It is asserted by Lutheran writers that no book, except the Bible, has had a wider circulation. Thirty-seven years after its appearance, Mathesius spoke of a circulation of over a hundred thousand copies. It was soon introduced into public schools, churches, and families. It became by common consent a symbolical book, and a sort of "layman’s Bible" for the German people.

Judged from the standpoint of the Reformed churches, the catechism of Luther, with all its excellences, has some serious defects. It gives the text of the Ten Commandments in an abridged form, and follows the wrong division of the Latin Church, which omits the Second Commandment altogether, and cuts the Tenth Commandment into two to make up the number. It allows only three questions and answers to the exposition of the creed,—on creation, redemption, and sanctification. It gives undue importance to the sacraments by making them co-ordinate parts with the three great divisions; and elevates private confession and absolution almost to the dignity of a third sacrament. It contains no instruction on the Bible, as the inspired record of Divine revelation and the rule of faith and practice. These defects are usually supplied in catechetical instruction by a number of preliminary or additional questions and answers.



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