Catechesis (cat-uh-key-sis) is a systematic course of instruction in the Christian faith, often with an emphasis on memorizing the basic elements. There have been many catechisms written over the centuries, but the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther stands out on its own for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it’s small, just as the name suggests. Six chief parts make up most of it, with the first three providing the core, and the second three following close behind. The remaining parts include a Table of Duties, which categorizes a variety of Scripture passages as guidance for people in various parts of life (preachers, hearers, parents, children, employers, employees, etc.) There is a short list of prayers for daily use, and a list of questions and answers as an aid for those preparing to receive the Lord’s Supper.
The six chief parts are the essential focus of youth catechism classes. Unlike many other catechisms, each part is brief and concise. Even all together, it is small enough for most people to memorize the whole thing with a little effort and training. For those who would like greater elaboration on the same points, Luther also wrote a Large Catechism at the same time. While it’s not meant to be memorized, the Large Catechism is still not very long.
The first chief part is the Ten Commandments. Some may think that’s cheating, since Luther didn’t have to write them. He borrowed them from Moses, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. They are arranged in the order used by the African bishop, Augustine. That means “You shall have no other gods” includes the prohibition against “graven images,” and the last two commandments forbid different kinds of coveting. Luther separated some of the biblical text under the first commandment and uses it as a conclusion for all ten commandments, summarizing God’s attitude toward them. Attached to each is the question, “What does this mean?” A very concise answer provides application and explanation. For example, the meaning of the first commandment is: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
For the second chief part, Luther does the same thing with the Apostles’ Creed. Again, he didn’t have to write it himself, because it comes universally accepted from the very early centuries of the Christian Church. Luther divides it into three articles of different lengths, based upon the persons of the holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Again, explanations are attached to each article.
The third chief part is the Lord’s Prayer, where Luther borrowed from Jesus Himself. As expected, he provides brief explanations for each petition in the prayer, as well as the introduction “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and the conclusion.
The fourth and sixth chief parts cover the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They each have four parts, which describe the essence, origin, meaning, and use of these two gifts from Jesus to His Church. Between them is the fifth chief part. Essentially, it’s the forgiveness of sins, which originally appeared as a suggested procedure for private confession and absolution. Only a few years after the Catechism was first published, this was revised into a series of questions and answers about “The Office of the Keys,” which we still use today.
The chief parts of the Small Catechism may each be separated into a primary text and a secondary text. The primary text contains the words from Scripture, or the early Church (in the case of the Apostles’ Creed). The secondary text contains Luther’s questions and explanations. In the earliest years, the emphasis in memorization is often on the primary text. Once that has been mastered, students have a framework for contextualizing the secondary text as they memorize it. In the fourth through sixth chief parts, the primary text may be considered certain answers that are direct quotations from Scripture, such as the answer to “What is this word and command of God concerning Baptism?”
By covering God’s Law and Gospel, with Creation, Providence, Justification, Sanctification, the Church, Eschatology, Prayer, the means of grace, and the office of the ministry, the Small Catechism is a complete summary of the essential teachings of the whole Bible. Just as its primary text provides a framework for understanding the secondary text, so the Small Catechism itself provides a framework and context for the proper understanding of the Bible itself.