Catechism FAQs

Rev. William M. Cwirla

We’ve finished our series on the Our Father in reverse, and before I start something new and completely different, I thought I’d write a few things about the catechism in general. FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about the catechism—or not so frequently asked, depending on who’s asking.

What is a “catechism” anyway? A catechism is a little instruction book in the form of questions and answers. The word catechism comes from a Greek word that means “to instruct by word of mouth” or literally to “echo back” what you have heard. Listen...now repeat. That’s still a good way to learn.

Where did the catechism come from? It came from the pen of Martin Luther. That shouldn’t surprise you. What might surprise you is that Luther didn’t write the small catechism for kids to memorize but for their parents. You see, a lot of parents in Luther’s day could barely read and write. So Luther wrote a brief and memorable summary of the Christian faith for Christian parents, particularly the fathers, so that they could memorize it and teach their children phrase by phrase. Luther even had wall charts of the catechism printed up on the newly-invented printing press so that fathers and mothers could decorate the walls of their homes with it. And he wrote hymns for each part of the catechism so that the family could sing their lessons together. This was before television and the internet, of course.

Did Luther invent the idea of a catechism? No. Catechisms were around for a long time before Luther came on the scene. They consisted mostly of lists—ten commandments, seven sacraments, seven virtues, etc. Luther took the basic catechism of his day, cleared out the clutter, and reshuffled the deck. He put the Ten Commandments first to show us our sin. He put the Creed second to show us who God is and what He does for us. And He put the Our Father third to show us how to pray out of faith. Repentance, faith, prayer. With that order, Christ is nicely in the middle of the catechism where He belongs.

Luther also wrote brief explanations for each part expanding on “what does this mean?” He included questions and answers on Baptism, Confession, and the Lord’s Supper along with forms for daily prayer at morning, meal time, and in the evening, and a collection of Christian duties under the 4th commandment in the three orders of home, church, and state.

What’s the difference between the small and the large catechisms? Well, the large catechism is larger than the small catechism. Yeah, you saw that one coming, didn’t you?

One misconception is that the small catechism is for kids and the large catechism is for adults. Another one that I learned, is that the small catechism is for lay people while the large catechism is for pastors. Neither of those is true. The small and large catechisms actually go together. The large catechism is a summary of sermons that Luther preached on the topics of the small catechism in 1528. In other words, the large catechism is Luther’s own explanation of the small catechism in his own words as he preached it to his congregation in Wittenberg.

Why do we have to memorize the small catechism? Easy answer: So you don’t forget it. Better answer: So you know what you believe. Best answer: So you learn it deeply. Most musicians will tell you that you don’t know a piece until you commit it to memory. That’s also a good example of how to memorize the catechism--—the way a musician learns a piece of music—by playing it daily and thoroughly. Learning “by heart” rather than by rote. The times tables in arithmetic you learned by rote; the catechism you learn by prayer and devotion, much the way one learns to play a piece of music. By heart.

Are the catechisms a substitute for the Bible? Absolutely not! The Bible is God’s Word through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles. It’s the sole source and judge of what we believe. Scripture alone! The catechism is a handy summary and explanation of what the Bible teaches. Our Lutheran Confessions call the small and large catechisms “the layman’s bible,” not because they are a substitute for the Bible, but because they summarize from the Bible everything a Christian needs to know concerning his or her salvation in Christ. The catechism is a road map, not the road.

What should we do with the catechism? Luther said that even as a doctor of theology, he returned to the small catechism daily like a little child learning his ABCs. And Luther was a pretty smart guy. The thing about your ABCs is that you never outgrow them; you build on them and use them. The small catechism is the crown jewel of the Lutheran Reformation. It is arguably the clearest, most concise, most elegant and beautiful summary of the Christian faith ever written. It is the only catechism that can be prayed through and meditated on devotionally. The best thing you can do with it is use it. Take a portion each day and recite it out loud. Ponder deeply what it says and how it says it. Pray about what you’ve learned. Teach it to others.

The bottom line? A lot of books you grow out of. The catechism you grow into.

Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and President of Higher Things. He can be reached at wcwirla@gmail.com.