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date: 04 December 2020

Martin Luther’s Catechismslocked

  • Ninna JørgensenNinna JørgensenKøbenhavns Universitet


The word “catechism” denotes instruction in the basic knowledge of Christianity. It is a Latin version of the term that the Greek Church Fathers employed when teaching converts before allowing them to be baptized and thus become full members of the church. The verb meaning “catechize” is known already in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 18:25; Gal. 6:6). The application of the noun to a specific textbook, however, originates in Martin Luther’s edition of such a book in 1529, Enchiridion: Catechism for simple vicars and preachers.

Luther composed two catechisms in the wake of the Peasants’ War (1524–1525), which also instigated systematic Roman Catholic Church visitations in Saxony, and Luther’s catechisms can be regarded as an integral part in the building up of a new magisterial (“state”) church. At that time, the Reformer had a comprehensive background in catechetical authorship, which had evolved during his more than twenty years as a preacher. His catechisms were the outcome of a preaching campaign on catechetical matters which he undertook in 1528 as a substitute for the vicar in Wittenberg, John Bugenhagen. For a few years he had demanded that a “catechism” (a sermon on the knowledge necessary for children and simple folk) be printed. Not satisfied with the efforts of his fellow reformers, Luther began to publish the basics on tablets intended to be hung on the wall. These tablets became literally worn out from use and are no longer extant, but they formed the basis of the booklet afterwards called “D. Martin Luther's Small Catechism.” Overnight the term “catechismus” became a universal word for a genre of books intended to convey the elements of doctrine to every member of Christian society. When Luther edited his sermons from the same campaign, he named the publication his “German (later ‘Large’) Catechism.”

The outstanding characteristic of Luther’s Enchiridion, or “Small Catechism,” was its verybrevity, which probably reflects the fact that it was conceived as an oral recitation of questions and answers. In using this form, Luther was preceded by a pastor in Schwäbisch Hall, John Brenz, who also produced his “Questions on Christian Faith for the Youth” in 1527, closely related to his preaching. Brenz included, as Luther would later do, the demand that applicants for the Lord’s Supper should first prove their knowledge of the basics of that belief. In a revised edition, Brenz’s catechism became extremely popular and coexisted with Luther’s in the southern parts of the German Reich, even after the latter was formally adopted as part of normative Lutheran doctrine with the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580.

The notion of a catechism as a short collection of formulas was, however, almost immediately superseded by a wider concept covering a wide range of instructions in faith. The short explanations were felt to be unsatisfactory and gave way to large “exposed catechisms.” Moreover, the catechisms soon became vehicles of confessional or even national identity. Both Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians closed in on essential doctrine in elaborate catechisms, most notably in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Catechismus Romanus of 1566.

Both rehearsing the catechism and enlarging the text by adding new glosses existed until well into the 19th century, when a combination of new pedagogical ideals and the full and final secularization of the schools gave way to more obvious methods of instruction in both church and school. By the middle of the 20th century, the catechisms were ousted by Bible history. Today the classical catechism is mainly seen as a challenge and a possible inspiration for combining a short text with substantial religious teaching.

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