The New Edition of Luther’s Small Catechism

The New Edition of Luther’s Small Catechism October 18, 2017


Concordia Publishing House has just released Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, 2017 Edition.  This updates the blue book familiar to confirmands, published in 1991 with 296 pages, with even more Biblical prooftexts, more educational and devotional resources, and applications to contemporary issues.  The new edition comes in at 432 pages.

Technically, I am told, the word “catechism” refers to the texts that have been fundamental to Christian instruction since the days of the early church:  the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, supplemented with the Bible passages on the Sacraments.

Then there is the supplemental material that comments upon, explains, and applies those Biblical and creedal texts.  Using the pedagogy of classical education, which teaches understanding on the logic level by means of “dialectic”–that is, leading questions designed to elicit insightful answers–the catechisms offered a series of questions designed to answer the question, “What does this mean?”  These educational questions and answers became part of the various “catechisms” that have been used by various churches.

The Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer can still be found in the various Roman Catholic and Reformed catechisms, but those texts are somewhat buried in the plethora of questions.  These are organized in various ways, in accord with each tradition’s systematic theology.  (Note the structures described in these entries for the Catholic Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism.)  Luther’s version, in keeping with his focus on the Word, presents the Biblical and creedal texts, each part of which the questions and answers elucidate. Thus the authoritative texts provide the structure for the catechism.

Both the Catholic and the Reformed catechisms treat first the Creed, then the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, both of which come under the rubric of the Christian life.  Luther, on the other hand, changed the order, beginning with the Law (the Ten Commandments), followed by the Gospel (the Creed), followed by the Christian life (the Lord’s Prayer, along with the Sacraments and, in the Table of Duties, Vocation).

But Luther’s questions and answers, as profound as they are, are still quite brief.  CPH has also published those in a 32-page-pamphlet.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has long supplemented Luther’s words with additional material for confirmands and adult members to chew on.  This is the “Catechism with Explanation.”  The first version was prepared by Heinrich Schwan, the third president of the LCMS, in 1896, translated from the German into English in 1905.  Revisions and additions, which still keeping much of Schwan’s material, were featured in a new edition in 1943.  This, in turn, was updated in 1991.

So now, 26 years later, we have a new update.  The revision process included making the new material available throughout the LCMS for review, critique, and suggestions.  I myself offered a few regarding the explanations of the doctrine of vocation, among others.  I don’t know if my suggestions were incorporated or not.  I haven’t read the new edition yet, so I can’t speak to the specifics.  But I’m sure this new edition will be of service to the church for at least another quarter century.

A big development in catechesis is realizing that the Catechism is not just for children, and it’s not just a doctrinal textbook.  Rather, it is a rich devotional text for all Christians.  As Luther said,

 I am also a doctor and preacher; yes, as learned and experienced as all the people who have such assumptions and contentment. Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning—and whenever I have time—I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.   (Preface to the Large Catechism)


Illustration from CPH.

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