Martin Luther’s Little Book for the World

With his Handbook or Enchiridion, as the Small Catechism was initially called, Martin Luther confessed his faith before the children of German-speaking lands and their parents. But this little book became a confession of what it means to be a Christian for newborn Christians around the world. Publication of its translation into some languages, such as Estonian, brought these languages for the first time to the printed page. Parents, pastors, and teachers began using Luther’s Catechism in the Nordic lands, in eastern Europe, as well as in the German empire, in the sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century a Swedish missionary, Johann Campanius, had brought it into the Lenape tribe of Native Americans in the colony of New Sweden on the Atlantic coast. Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg provided Tamil-speakers in south-east India with its text in the early eighteenth century. In the twenty-first century it is giving new Christians of all ages instruction in the Biblical message in an roughly one hundred languages, according to reliable estimates.

We often refer to Luther’s Small Catechism as a “handbook for Christian doctrine”, but he intended it to be even more, a handbook and basic guide for Christian daily life. Indeed, it begins by laying the foundation for understanding the teaching of Holy Scripture as God’s plan for the way human beings were designed to live, his law, and his plan for rescuing and restoring human beings who have doubted God’s Word and failed to fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Medieval catechisms, the basic instruction in the Christian faith of Luther’s childhood, arranged the core of the Biblical message in the categories of “faith” (the Creed), “hope” (the Lord’s Prayer), and “love” (the Ten Commandments or lists of virtues and vices). Luther changed the order, arguing that first the person who is ill must receive a diagnosis, then be told how healing can come, and then learn how to live a healthy life. So he placed the Ten Commandments first, in order to remind the baptised of their sinfulness; then comes the Creed, the summary of the Biblical story of salvation that climaxed in God’s coming as the human being Jesus of Nazareth to die in order to get rid of our sins and to rise from the grave in order to restore us to righteousness (Romans 4:25). Luther believed that the person whose faith agrees with God’s view of himself or herself. God’s judgement is that in Christ this sinner has become fully righteous because our sins are buried in Christ’s tomb and he has raised us to a new and righteous life as God’s child. Thus, Luther presumed that the forgiven sinner, knowing that he or she is righteous in God’s sight, will act righteously in daily life and represent the family well.

Thus, the book provides a handbook for the entire Christian life. Charles Arand speaks of it as a tool for cultivating “the art of living by faith”.[1] Therefore, Arand’s treatment of the catechism has taken its title from Luther’s explanation of the second article of the Apostles Creed, “That I May Be His Own.” As God’s re-created newborn, I am living in Christ, under his rule, and serving him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Luther’s Handbook sketches this life beginning with prayer, the first exercise of faith in response to God. It continues with instruction on the sacraments, one of God’s media for getting his message of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus in our behalf. Following his treatment of baptism, its extension into daily life in the form of confession of sins and absolution, and the Lord’s Supper Luther went on to offer a model for the practice of meditating on God’s Word and praying to him morning, evening, and at mealtime. His Small Catechism concludes with a “table of Bible passages” relating to the callings that structure the Christian life. Luther believed that God places his in specific situations in our homes, in our economic activities on the job, in our nations and societies at the local level, and in our congregations and church bodies. He has given us specific responsibilities for one another as part of the whole of his humanity, for we were created to be in community, not to be alone (Genesis 2:18).

A good part of the Small Catechism simply repeats words from Scripture—the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, Bible passages explaining the sacraments, the entire “table of Christian callings”. The other parts of this handbook summarise and convey what God tells us about himself, about ourselves, and about his plans for us as his children. This little book flows out of Scripture and intends to lead us back into Scripture. It functions well as an overview and summary of God’s Word and thus as guide and aid to our learning and teaching, praying and giving witnessing to what he has said to us.

Timothy Wengert tells of a Tanzanian teacher who walked five hours to be able to buy a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism in his own language and of his own grandmother, who, as she suffered the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, could not recognise her own son but could correct him when he recited passages from the Small Catechism at her bedside.[2] For experiences with this little book like these, probably millions after five hundred years, we give thanks to the Lord of the church, and pray that our use of the Handbook will so enrich our faith and life as well.

Robert Kolb
Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis USA
Luther’s 533rd Birthday, November 10, 2016

[1] Charles P. Arand, That I May Be His Own. An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 147–188.
[2] Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechisms. Forming the Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 2.