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Born of Necessity

The Lutheran Small Catechism’s Origin and Purpose

The reason for the formation of Luther’s Small Catechism can be found in his Preface. However, other contemporaries of Luther give us access to even more details of the deplorable condition of the Christian Church in Medieval times. His preface states:

The deplorable, miserable condition that I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine…[1]

History of Catechisms

The Church has a rich history of catechesis from its earliest days when Paul in Galatians 6:6 when it reads, Let the one who is taught the word share all his good things with the teacher. In the earliest years of the Church is stood for instructing but eventually was formalized into instructions on how to catechize.

Philip Schaff states, in his Introduction to Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, that the earliest of catechetical documents is The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles[2], now often just called the Didache, or teachings. The main teachings were geared towards the pagans converting to Christianity and which would ground them in the doctrines of Scripture and the Church: baptism, Prayer and Fasting, Service of the Lord’s Day and the Agape meal as well as the Lord’s Supper. It was elementary teaching to aid educate and equip them for life as a Christian in a hostile world.

Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures dove deeper into the Christian life for the initiate and baptism; its meaning and effect for all believers. In the second section of the lectures Cyril would then explain what he termed the “mystagogical” aspects of Christianity: the Sacraments. Many of the lectures were writings on specific passages of the Scriptures which differentiated Christianity from all other religions, such as Lecture 14:22 which deal with the Resurrection. Then Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa, composed a catechism that was not a systematic theological treatise but rather he is exposing arguments, or apologetics, for his catechumens to use to defend the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By the fifth century, Augustine’s basic instructions included even more of the Church’s teachings about Christ, His life, death and resurrection. He would speak of the faith and not only what is to be believed by Christians but how they should live after their conversion. In the Middle Ages the basics then expanded to include the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and often, the Ave Maria. Pastors were to instruct in the catechism at least four time a year especially during the “ember Weeks” (Advent, Lent, Pentecost and Holy Cross Day)[3].

What happened to Catechizing?

As the Church grew, and adult converts were fewer and fewer, households being baptized from the beginning of the Church, catechism of adult new believers became less often. Instead, the children, baptized into Christ and their sins washed away and the mark of God placed upon them, catechetical instruction focused upon young men and women at their Confirmation. Since children baptized were already looked upon as believers, faith coming through the Word and Sacraments, it became necessary to teach these young people the faith to which they belonged.[4]

Why was it necessary to restore Catechesis?

What began to happen is the adults forgot what they believed. Preachers, Monks and Pastors no longer taught the basics of the faith to adult or child alike and the knowledge of the faith fell away. However, the waning of catechetical instruction was even worse for the common man and woman during the Reformation because of the political upheavel. Roman was no longer supporting churches and monasteries and something had to change. Luther spoke with the Christian rulers to support Christian education throughout the lands. Luther wanted the “Principle members of the congregation–the secular rulers-to be obedient to the dictates of the Gospel[5]”. They were to care for the biblical education of the people by supporting the churches and their pastors.

Since it was the duty of pastors to visit their congregations and parishioners, Martin Luther sent out several preachers to “determine if the true Gospel” was being proclaimed. One notable preacher and theologian was Philip Melanchthon who published a small textbook on the theology taught by the Church of the Reformation. However, eventually the other pastors wanted something to aid them in the interpretation of Biblical teachings.[6] When Luther, who himself had visited many parishes, returned he was appauled with the spiritual condition of the Christians under his care and doubly so their lack of knowing the basics of the Christian Faith.

In his preface to the Small Catechism Luther writes,

The deplorable, miserable condition that I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine…[7]

Dr. Luther was quite upset with the Bishops and writes further, “What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office? He strongly held that chief among the duties of a pastor was to teach their flock about their Shepherd and he set out to do just that.

Luther’s Thoughts About Catechesis

Luther, trained in the Augustinian school, would have been knowledgeable of Augustin’s own work in catechesis. He knew Church history and began to develop his own catechism to be used, not by the pastors primarily, but by fathers with their families. Utilizing sermons (1520-1522) he had preached on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, he first asked the men who aided him best to create a new catechism. Dissatisfied with their work, he took it upon himself for its structure and contents.

In 1525 the first forerunner to the Small Catechism was published. However, it was not anything like the form we have now. It was not in a book. Instead, the printers made posters and charts to use at home and in church. Since this Small Catechism was “uniquely succinct”[8] Luther’s work quickly became used throughout Saxony. In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism’s writers, utilized this simple form to create their own version, distinctly Calvinistic.

Luther broke down the Christian Faith into Six Chief Parts: The Ten Commandments (which review the Law of God, teaching us what we should do and yet cannot and will not), The Apostles’ Creed (which review Who God is and What He has done for us). These sections he calls the “arguments” that is, the fundaments necessary for an understanding of the Scriptures[9]. Prayer, then, as the expression of the new man is the response of one who has had a new heart and mind and wants to now address God. The Lord’s Prayer (how we talk to God and what He promises His people). In the Lord’s Prayer we now recognize with the first two words this new relationship for we call God now “Our Father”. This new response is because of the new relationship through Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Law and brings us the Gospel. Luther, in his letter to his barber, Peter, teaches how one can use the catechism in prayer (A Simple Way to Pray).

The second half is on the Means of Grace, or the medicine for the soul. Through the Means of Grace, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper and Confession/Absolution, the Christian is founded in the faith and then strengthened in the same. Luther’s explanation move from what they are (relating the two that Christ instituted) to what benefit they provide believers (forgiveness, life and salvation). As to Baptism, it is a daily drowning of the old man who rises in new life followed by a life of repentance. To Luther, repentance wasn’t a one and done scenario but a lifetime practice. Luther also included Daily Prayers and a Table of Duties so that those in different stations in life would know how they should live before God.

Is it still necessary?

To this day, editions of Luther’s Small Catechism (often coming with the Explanations Section) begin with this: How the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household. Many young people, after they have left their homes, no longer attend church. In interviewing both those who have stayed faithful and those who no longer attend any church, the difference I found, across the board was this: Fathers did not instruct their children at home. They left it to the Pastors.

That says we have come full circle with pastors only catechizing and no training being backed up at home. Many Christians have no clue what is to be believed in order to be considered a Christian. Too many, as Luther wrote, “…live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs.[10]” It is time, once again, that every generation take upon themselves the task of teaching and training their own household in the essentials (Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer), or arguments as Luther puts it) for the faith. It is imperative that they also be taught that God works extra nos first, from outside of us through the Means of Grace and then intra nos in changing our very life by creating a new man through those Sacraments. They should be encouraged not to forsake attending the Divine Service to receive that strengthening of their faith and putting the catechism to memory so that they have what they need in times of trouble.


Bergendoff, Conrad. The Church of the Lutheran Reformation; a Historical Survey of Lutheranism. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1967.

Luther, Martin. Luther's small Catechism, with Explanation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017.

Packer, J.I., and Gary A. Parrett. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-fashioned Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010.

Pless, John T. Praying Luther's Small Catechism: The Pattern of Sound Words. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.

Wengert, Timothy J. The Small Catechism, 1529 Annotated Luther Study Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

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