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Luther’s Small Catechism: Essential to Foreign Missions

In this series, thoseinvolved with CLC foreign missions profile one aspect of our overseas endeavors.

I have a confession to make. I never held Luther’s Small Catechism in high regard. That is, not until I began serving as a missionary overseas. Since working overseas to help train existing and new pastors, my appreciation for the Small Catechism has grown tremendously.
The Small Catechisms we use today are usually made up of two parts. The first (shorter) part is the “Small Catechism” that Luther wrote. Following this is an explanation of Luther’s “Small Catechism”. This is the much longer section, with questions, Bible verses, and answers that expand upon the explanations Luther gave in his “Small Catechism”. These were added to Luther’s “Small Catechism” very early on with the work of Johann Konrad Dietrich (1575-1639) and others. These explanations, in turn, have been edited and expanded upon by modern pastors. That is why we refer to “the Sydow catechism,” “the Kuske,” “the Gausewitz,” and so on, as these men gave these explanations their final form in the respective catechisms they edited.
These more detailed explanations are useful, not only for the Bible references, but also because they deal with topics that Luther did not directly address. For example, when Luther explained the First Commandment, he did not talk about Who God is. The added explanations deal with this fundamental topic, as today we need to explain Who exactly the God is that we are to fear, love and trust above all else; especially in a country like India that is filled with many “gods.”
There are often very few doctrinal materials available in the native languages of the pastors we train overseas, but because of the high regard the Lutheran church has for the Small Catechism, it has been translated into many languages. We can then use the catechism as a text to ensure that the pastors know the basic doctrines of the Bible and can teach them to others.
The Small Catechism is designed to be simple and easy to understand. This also makes it easy to translate, and easy for the pastors themselves to understand and to teach to others. Many of the men who want to preach the Gospel have not had extensive schooling, but are “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13 ESV) as were Peter, John and many of Jesus’ other disciples.
While the catechism has been translated into many languages, that doesn’t mean it is readily available. We have not yet been able to get the more than five hundred Telugu catechisms we need for our pastors in India. And transporting a large number of copies in India can lead to problems. For example, the third printing of Tamil catechisms has the phrase “For church’s internal use only” printed on them to try to avoid having copies seized by government authorities who think they will be used to convert people. And the Small Catechism isn’t always available in the native language of the people. For example, Togo is a French-speaking country, but the native language of the pastors in this area is Éwé. They have the catechism in French, but it isn’t always easy for them to understand or memorize. A group in Ghana has just finished translating the Small Catechism into Éwé and they are working on translating the additional explanations this year. This will be a great aid to the pastors here who can then read and share it in the language they and the people they serve speak.
I pray that my account has given you a new appreciation for the catechism you have sitting on your shelf, and that you will open it and review the Biblical treasure it contains.
Peter Evensen is a full-time foreign missionary for the CLC who currently lives in Togo.