Beckett: Review – That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms

Author: Charles P. Arand
Publisher: St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review

Rev. Dr. Charles Arand’s That I May Be His Own is a historical and theological page turner on Luther’s Small Catechism (and other catechisms). Intended to “be used in a university or seminary as a stand-alone volume for an introductory course on the catechism” (p. 22), the book also suits the layperson intrigued in learning more about the Small Catechism and, I would argue, is a necessary resource to sit in the pastor’s personal arsenal of Lutheran repertoire.

Arand’s thesis explores the question, “What makes a catechism?” He aims to argue that a catechism is not so much its form or structure—though there is plenty of discussion on this in the ensuing chapters—but more of its material covered, in this case the chief parts (Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer), among other things. In other words, “the catechism is not something we grow out of but something we grow into” (p. 23).

Today, it is probably safe to say that most view the Small Catechism as a textbook the pastor brings our children through, as well as adult converts, in order to get to Confirmation and “graduate.” This is an entirely erroneous view on the purpose of Confirmation. No one “graduates” from Confirmation; that is to say, no one graduates from faith. In Arand’s view, which is in agreement with Luther’s that I also find agreeable, catechism is from the womb to the tomb—or for Arand, “from the Baptismal font (from which he or she received new birth) to the grave (from which he or she will rise to new life)” (p. 115).

Points of Agreement

This brings me to my first point of agreement in Arand’s survey: that the catechism functions as the building blocks of faith and, therefore, is a lifelong adventure. Simply put, a catechism gathers “the fundamental components of Scripture that go to the heart of defining what it means to be a Christian” (p. 27).

For Luther, these are—in the order he placed them—The Ten Commandments (“what should I do and not do in order to be saved and how do I relate to my fellow human creatures?”), the Creed (“now that I realise I have no power to be saved because I am so sinful and evil, who is this God who has chosen to save me?”), and the Lord’s Prayer (“how do I receive and appropriate my desire for God’s gracious gifts necessary for life?”). (Arand fully delineates Luther’s ordering in chapter four.)

For Luther, these are the lifelong fundamentals of the faith. Throughout the formal practice of catechism, the catechumen does not “graduate” from the faith, never to return to the catechism. Rather, Luther “intended [his catechisms] to be more of a daily companion for meditation and spiritual guidance than one time instructional textbooks for confirmation” (p. 110).

As a musician, this makes complete sense in musical terms. The major and minor scales are like the Small Catechism for musicians everywhere. As a former professional saxophonist, I never graduated from these scales; rather, I became a master of them. I returned to them daily both before a private or corporate rehearsal and especially before a performance. Thus, as a musician never abandons his scales, so the Christian never abandons her catechism.

The catechism is not interested in base knowledge of the Scriptures; it is interested in the daily life of the Christian. The catechism “shows how these texts [of Scripture] might address the needs of practical Christian living in different situations and at different times” (p. 114). For example, the First Commandment will apply differently to the married couple having their first baby (“how do I fear, love, and trust in God above all things as I care for my first child?”) than it does to the single person (“how do I fear, love, and trust in God above all things as I practise abstinence?”) and even to the elderly person (“how do I fear, love, and trust in God above all things as I near the end of my life?”).

Thus, from this one example, we can see how the catechumen never graduates from catechism but remains a catechumen throughout his or her entire life. In Arand’s words, “This means that the entire Christian life becomes a catechumenate” (p. 115).

A second point of agreement and of special import for us today is Luther’s emphasis on the catechism in the home. Today, our practice of catechism is placed entirely on the pastor, which is not what Luther originally intended. After all, each section begins with, “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household” (emphasis mine). Catechism ought to take place in the home, for this duty belongs to the parents, not their pastor.

At the same time, however, Luther recognised many parents were either unwilling or incapable of teaching their children the Scriptures and the tenets of faith. Instead of scolding them, Luther “provided them with assistance” (p. 96). In such situations, Luther advised pastors to catechise the children. Unfortunately, parents became so lazy throughout the centuries that, these days, the large majority either lack the ability or the desire to teach their children, and then they end up wondering why their children leave church and don’t believe. If your faith is not important enough to you to teach it to your kids, then it’s certainly not going to be important to them as they grow up. So, don’t be surprised when they want nothing to do with church and Jesus.

Thus, instead of the parents doing what they’re supposed to do, they leave it to their pastor to discipline and instruct their children in the Lord. If the pastor is wise, he will require that at least one of the parents attends catechism with their child not only to maintain discipline but also so that at least one of the parents will finally be well-suited to teach their children the faith at home.

The ideal situation is that the catechesis in the church is supplemental to catechesis already occurring in the home, excluding extenuating circumstances due to parents’ laziness or incapability, the latter of which is not their fault. Sometimes parents can be new converts and need to be catechised themselves.

Lastly, many have criticised Luther for not being systematic with his writing; this is why the reformed prefer Calvin’s Institutes to any of Luther’s works. Yet Luther’s purpose in writing was not to create a Lutheran systematic theology. Luther was “an ad hoc theologian than a systematic theologian with the result that the catechism does not present a systematic theology as commonly understood. That does not mean, however, that Luther’s thinking lacked coherence” (pp. 147-148).

Ad hoc means “when necessary/needed.” Luther wrote according to the need, especially due to his pastoral concerns for the laity and the clergy. As Arand notes, this does not mean Luther’s theology lacked coherence; his objective simply was not to write a systematic explication of the Scriptures. Therefore, any who say Luther lacks systematic cohesion in his writings is not an honest or intellectual reader of Luther, as Luther was primarily an ad hoc theologian rather than a systematician.

The systematising was left to Melanchthon and company, all of whom did a phenomenal job in the Book of Concord and their own writings, especially Chemnitz, Luther’s protégé.

What I Learnt

I learnt many of the things in this book from Rev. Dr. Arand himself in several systematics courses where he was my professor at Concordia Seminary, but two things stand out to me in this book. The first is that I did not know Luther originally utilised woodcuts in his catechisms. Luther explains his reasoning himself, “‘Children and simple people are more apt to retain the divine stories when taught by picture and parable than merely by words or instruction’ (LW 43:43)” (p. 107).

In Luther’s day, the culture was still primarily an oral culture. Thus, people learnt by hearing and when images were used in conjunction with instruction, this further increased their learning. The Small Catechism apparently used to hold more than 20 woodcuts. “In this connection, however, one should note that the Small Catechism’s use of woodcuts was not to be considered in isolation from the written word. Conversely, the printed word should not be read in isolation from the woodcut, but should be considered in relation to the visual form of communication” (p. 108).

Why don’t we have images in our printed Small Catechisms any longer? It doesn’t make any sense to me especially considering we still use the SC to teach children and simpleminded adults. In the back of the book (pp. 200-211), Arand provides some examples of the woodcuts Luther used.

Having had Arand as a professor, I can tell he highly favours Luther’s use of images with instruction in his own lectures. During class, Dr. Arand hardly uses any texts to teach. While teaching orally, he uses a lot of images via PowerPoint. Most of the time, they’re quite helpful.

Lastly, I found Arand’s coverage on Luther’s “Creedal Framework of the Catechism” to be highly edifying (p. 136). Here, Arand notes how the Small Catechism has a Trinitarian framework: (1) the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and the First Article of the Creed relate to one another, (2) in the centre stands the Second Article (Jesus Christ is Lord), and (3) the Third Article relates to the Lord’s Prayer (p. 136).

I’ll save all the details for your own reading, but these brief quotes from Arand should suffice:

The First Article lays the foundation for the Ten Commandments by setting forth the distinction between the Creator and his creation, as well as the relationship between them, namely the dependence of the latter upon the former…

The Second Article stands at the center and apex of not only the Creed, but the first three chief parts of the catechism… Several years later, in his Smalcald Articles, Luther would call this article the chief article of the Christian faith…

The Lord’s prayer picks up the central theme of the Third Article itself, namely, faith. It does so, however, in the context of the struggle for faith… Put succinctly, the Christian lives in this world between the cross and eternity. In this life, he lives under constant threat and constant attack, even as he prays, “Deliver us from evil.”

pp. 138-141

Critiques

I don’t have any noteworthy critiques as this is a solid book, other than a minor complaint: Arand fails to mention the third point to an explanatory review at some points. For example, on pages 133-135 he describes, “Three events in particular proved significant for broadening the catechism’s purpose.” On that same page, he says, “First, the visitations of the churches begun in 1527 made a profound and lasting impact on Luther in two areas” and, “Second, the first Antinomian controversy, precipitated by Agricola’s rejection of the Law for the Christian life, required a response from Luther” (p. 133).

Yet he neglects to mention what the third event is; thus, the reader is left to guess what this third event is. My best guess is where he says, “Luther proceeds to show how each article of the Creed contributes to the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments” (p. 138). He does this a couple other times.

This doesn’t affect the quality of the book, so it is not reflected in my rating, but it is a minor nuisance for pedantic annotators like myself.

TL;DR

Arand himself writes well what he set out to prove in this book, which he did quite expertly. Thus, I conclude with a quote from Arand’s final chapter on the beneficence of Luther’s Small Catechism:

Although Luther gladly received and made use of the rich catechetical tradition that he inherited, he appropriated and transformed that heritage so as to make it capable of carrying the evangelical message of the Reformation to the laity. As a result, the classic texts of catechesis within the Small Catechism became the bridge by which the message of the Reformation moved out from the university and castle church and into the parishes and homes of average people…

The genius of the Small Catechism lies in the way that it pulls together the chief parts of the catechism so as to concentrate their focus on a singular biblical theme woven through the entire Scriptures [faith, “That I may be His own,” see p. 148]… That is to say, the catechism provides the access code or password that unlocks the various dimensions of Christian existence. It simplifies the complex without being simplistic and makes sense of the whole without overwhelming with quantity.

p. 147

Therefore, whether young or old catechumen, Luther’s Small Catechism does for the learner what Christ says to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

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