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The Large Catechism

Imagine for a moment—people are looking to you to establish order in all the churches of your entire state and those in three or four nearby states also! Where would you even start? How would
you begin?

Luther found himself in that very situation as the Reformation started to take hold. It is almost impossible to understand the tremendous amount of work that confronted Martin Luther. He started by addressing the worst abuses first: abuses surrounding the sacraments and public worship. Then he translated the Bible, so people could more easily learn and grow in faith.

Soon he conducted a visitation program to determine more exactly what needed to be improved in the parishes. Luther was shocked to find wide-spread ignorance of even the most basic elements of Christian knowledge. The teachers themselves were largely ignorant; what hope was there for the illiterate masses?

The answer, Luther knew, was basic instruction in the fundamentals of the faith. Of course, he had been doing this all along. Even before posting the Ninety-Five Theses, he had preached a sermon series on the Ten Commandments, and shortly afterwards he published “A Brief Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer” which was widely praised. From far-away Venice, a literary critic had these glowing words of praise: “Blessed are the hands which wrote this; blessed the eyes that shall see it; blessed the hearts that believe the book and cry to God accordingly.”

Later, when he published his “German Mass and Order of Service,” Luther urged that Monday and Tuesday mornings be devoted to catechetical sermons. In 1528 he picked up the pace and preached no fewer than three series on the catechism. He was clearly “field testing” the language and approach he would use in his planned catechism. It was becoming clear that in this project, too, he would have to take the lead. For although about thirty attempts at a catechism had been published, none were impressive enough to convince Luther that he should abandon plans to publish his own.

At last preparations were completed, and—having himself recently taken part in the visitation mentioned earlier—Luther decided he could delay no longer. Putting quill to paper, and building upon those earlier sermons, he wrote the German Catechism. There was as yet no need to call it the Large Catechism because the Small Catechism had not been printed in booklet form. But it was a large catechism, too large to easily be used for children in the home. It was meant rather for adult Christians, for the often poorly-trained village pastor, for those who were trying to teach others, and even to be used in place of sermons in the public worship.

Luther warned against thinking lightly of this catechism, as though it could be read once and tossed aside. “I entreat all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to become doctors too soon and to fancy they know all. . . . Let them continue to read and to teach, to learn and to meditate and to ponder.”

But in our day this Large Catechism is, I think, rarely used. This is a shame. True, it covers the same ground as the Small Catechism, which we have memorized; but it is also true that it covers this ground more thoroughly, while still remaining easy to read, and as profitable for study. And finally, it is a confession of our churches. What use is a confession that is not read?

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.