Luther’s Small Catechism: A Christmas gift for the whole Church

by Matthew C. Harrison

As I write this month, I’ve got a day off after returning from the last of many events and preaching engagements during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. The events with which I was involved were very well attended, and I heard the same about services and events all over the LCMS and beyond. We are definitely challenged domestically in the LCMS (and in the coming months I’ll be laying out the specifics of those challenges very clearly, along with what we will do well to concentrate on as we move into the future), but the joyous reality is that we orthodox Lutherans are still here, 500 years after Luther, proclaiming the same message of free forgiveness in Christ through faith.

As I was preparing to travel to my final Reformation preaching engagement last week, Bruce Kintz (president of our wonderful Concordia Publishing House) texted me. He wanted to meet me ASAP, but he wouldn’t tell me why. As he soon approached me in person, he handed me something very special: copy number one of the new 2017 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. My jaw dropped. Wow. I took a deep breath and just held it and looked at it. It’s beautiful. It has the same color scheme as the readers edition of the Book of Concord, a deep maroon and blue, with gold embossing. The binding is sturdy. But the real gold is inside.

The 2013 convention approved the process for a freshening of the 1991 Catechism. Nothing of the “Enchiridion” or “Handbook” (that’s the part Luther wrote, and which is still memorized) would be changed. Thanks be to God! I’m still reeling from the changes to the 1943 Catechism I was taught.

The President of the Synod was given the duty to appoint a committee to draft the new explanation. They in turn called upon two members, John Pless and Charles Arand (each a catechism expert), to produce the initial draft. Joel Lehenbauer and Larry Vogel, who head up the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR), were part of the committee and pored over every word. Folks throughout the church had an opportunity to critique the draft at one point, and boy, did they! And helpfully so! Many, many changes and improvements were made. In the end, the full text had to meet the approval of the entire CTCR and the leadership team in the Office of the President (including myself, First Vice President Herbert Mueller and Senior Assistant to the President Jon Vieker).

The result is stunning.

A “Central Thought” begins every section by engaging the learner. Then comes “A Closer Reading of the Small Catechism,” which explicates the very words of Luther’s explanation, followed by “Connections and Applications.” Each section ends with a hymn verse from Lutheran Service Book and a prayer. There are a lot of great practical helps throughout, answering pressing questions for Christians today: What should a husband and wife do when they experience marriage difficulty? What should a person do who’s had an abortion or knows someone who’s contemplating abortion? What should someone do who’s struggling with same-sex attraction? The new edition is longer than the previous catechism by 150 pages, but it has some real pedagogical advantages. It contains approximately 30 percent more Bible passages. There are abundant quotations from the Book of Concord on various topics. There are also a number of apologetic arguments to help learners answer their own profound questions about the truth of Christianity, and to equip them to answer others.

The appendices are brimming with more great stuff: “Who Is Jesus? How Creeds and Confessions Help Us to Answer This Question.” There is a section on how to read God’s Word; a section titled, “What is Worship?”; another which teaches the way Luther prayed using catechism or Bible texts; a helpful “Salvation Outline”; a very nice “Time between the Testaments (432-5 BC)” overview; and more. Luther’s own preface to the Small Catechism is also included, which is golden.

The layout by CPH pops with the same clarity as the Law and Gospel theology, which glistens in understandable words on every single page. For you curmudgeons out there (I’m smiling as I write) who say, “Wir bleiben beim alten” (“We are going to stick by the old”), know that the older catechism will continue in print. Use it to your heart’s content! It’s great! The Church has been blessed by every officially produced catechism we’ve enjoyed in the history of the LCMS (from Dietrich’s to Schwan’s to the ’43 and the ’91). For those eager to check out this beautiful new edition, however: You will not be disappointed. Here is a book for whole-life discipleship, giving guidance to Christians on how they are to believe and live mercifully for others, telling them about Christ, and offering wisdom for their various vocations.

Thanks to all who were involved. This little book will make a great Christmas gift for anyone. Thanks to Bruce Kintz for bringing Christmas early to me! And thanks be to God.

– Pastor Harrison

The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

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