As a new pastor, an older and more experienced pastor has encouraged me and my fellow new pastors in the Michigan District to read the whole Bible every year not only for our own personal benefit but also that it may benefit our ministry. I have diligently undertaken this task, which is what prompted my new Pastoral Thoughts series. If you’re a pastor reading this, I would strongly encourage you to do the same. If you’re a layperson, you can adopt this practice too, of course.
In the same way, I strongly encourage all pastors to daily read the the catechism along with your daily reading of Scripture. I’ll get to practicalities in a moment. This exhortation is not mine alone; it comes from Luther himself in the Longer Preface to his Large Catechism, that pastors and preachers “should daily exercise themselves in the catechism” (LC, Longer Preface, Preface).
Luther’s reasoning for this first comes from the context of his day, in which “many pastors and preachers are very negligent” in the matter of preaching and knowing the catechism, and by extension of this, the Word of God (LC, Longer Preface, 1). These pastors’ knowledge of the Scriptures was seriously lacking, and Luther remarks “they are more fit to be swineherds and dog tenders than caretakers of souls and pastors” (para. 2).
Practically speaking, Luther advised that pastors “read each morning, noon, and evening only a page or two in the catechism, the prayer book, the New Testament, or something else in the Bible. They should pray the Lord’s Prayer for themselves and their parishioners. Then they might respond with honour and thanks to the Gospel, by which they have been delivered from obvious burdens and troubles, and might feel a little shame” (para. 3). The scheduling of this is flexible, of course. This is not law; this is merely Luther’s suggestion. I’ll share what I’m currently doing.
At the moment, I’m using the Mehren’s Method of reading through the Bible in a year where you take the number of pages in your Bible, divide it by 365 (the number of days of the year, which will need to be adjusted for a leap year), and it equals to the number of pages you’ll need to read every day. For example, I’m using a compact Bible that’s easy to travel with (and will thus make this task easier to accomplish). It’s 1,042 pages, which divided by 365 equals about 2.85, which I round up to 3 to have 3 pages each day to read. That’s not a whole lot, but 3 pages a day adds up. I’ve only been doing this since last Monday and I’m already at Genesis 36 (as of Tuesday, July 20, 2021). Sometimes, though, I’ll read more than 3 pages because I’ll still have a whole chapter to finish after the third page and I’ll end up reading 4 or 4.5 pages. Adjustments can be made.
I’ve only recently begun reading the (large) catechism daily, beginning with Luther’s preface, which is what prompted this article. (After all, the Large Catechism was written for pastors.) Luther himself suggests “a page or two” each morning, noon, and evening. That’s not a lot of reading either. Again, this is also flexible. I’ll be sticking to 1-2 pages a day in the catechism since I have other pastoral duties I need to attend to; but if I find that I have more time, then I’ll read another page or two in the evening. Before every meal, I pray the Lord’s Prayer (sometimes I forget); and every morning or evening, at the altar rail, I pray for the flock under my care.
Luther accuses pastors who don’t study the catechism of arrogance, because they “see the catechism as a poor, common teaching, which they can read through once and immediately understand” (para. 5). This is still true of many pastors today. Some of us think, “I’ve read through the entire catechism—both Small and Large—once already. I understand it. I don’t need to read through it again.” But Luther sees this as foolish and arrogant.
Luther himself read the catechism every day. As he writes of himself, “I am also a doctor and preacher… Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism” (para. 7). He reports that he read verbatim the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Psalms every day. “Yet,” he continues, “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” (para. 8).
Perhaps some pastors think they’re too wise and intelligent to read the Small Catechism every day (I know I have), because it’s for children. Yet Luther was humble enough to become a child. Consider Jesus’ own words concerning children, “Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). If the kingdom of God belongs to children and we are to receive it as children, and the catechism is meant to instruct children about God’s kingdom, who are we to think we are too wise and intelligent to receive the instruction of children? We are never “doctors” of catechism or the Scriptures, but always children.
“Therefore,” writes Luther, “for God’s sake I beg such lazy bellies or arrogant saints to be persuaded and believe that they are truly, truly not so learned or such great doctors as they imagine! They should never assume that they have finished learning the parts of the catechism or know it well enough in all points, even though they think that they know it ever so well. For even if they know and understand the catechism perfectly (which, however, is impossible in this life), there are still many benefits and fruits to be gained, if it is daily read and practiced in thought and speech” (para. 9).
To use an analogy, I’ll speak as a former professional saxophonist. The catechism is essentially the basics of faith. Luther calls it “a short and brief summary of all the Holy Scriptures” (para. 18) and “teaches what every Christian must know” (LC, Shorter Preface, 1). For musicians, the major and minor scales are the basics of music. Every musician, no matter how skilled they are, returns to their skills on a daily basis, even professionals. The scales teach us everything we need to know about music—things like theory, intonation, embouchure, and so on. We never move beyond the scales but always return to them. In the same way, the Christian—pastors especially—ought to return to the catechism on a daily basis. We never move beyond it but always return to it because it teaches us everything we need to know about Christ and His kingdom.
I love how Luther continues: “Besides, catechism study is a most effective help against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts. It helps to be occupied with God’s Word, to speak it, and meditate on it, just as the first Psalm declares people blessed who meditate on God’s Law day and night (Psalm 1:2). Certainly you will not release a stronger incense or other repellant against the devil than to be engaged by God’s commandments and words, and speak, sing, or think them [Colossians 3:16]. For this is indeed the true ‘holy water’ and ‘holy sign’ from which the devil runs and by which he may be driven away [James 4:7]… For he cannot hear or endure God’s Word. God’s Word is not like some other silly babbling… But as St. Paul says in Romans 1:16, it is ‘the power of God.’ Yes indeed, it is the power of God that gives the devil burning pain and strengthens, comforts, and helps us beyond measure” (paras. 10-11).
Therefore, I conclude with Luther that “all Christians—especially pastors and preachers—not to think of themselves as doctors too soon and imagine that they know everything… Instead, they should daily exercise themselves well in these studies and constantly use them. Furthermore, they should guard with all care and diligence against the poisonous infection of contentment and vain imagination, but steadily keep on reading, teaching, learning, pondering, and meditating on the catechism. And they should not stop until they have tested and are sure that they have taught the devil to death, and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints” (para. 19).
This is Luther’s hyperbolic way of saying: Never stop learning the catechism and the Scriptures. Even with all the wisdom you acquire from it and God’s Word, you can never be too wise. Therefore, keep reading, pondering, and teaching for your own benefit as well as the benefit of the flock in your care.