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§ 43. Luther's Catechisms. A.D. 1529.


I. Editions. See § 40. We only mention the critical editions.

C. Mönckeberg: Die erste Ausgabe v. Luthers Klein. Katechismus. Hamburg, 1851. (Reprint of the Low-German translation of the first edition, 1529.)

K. F. Th. Schneider: Dr. Martin Luthers Kleiner Katechismus. Nach den Originalausgaben kritisch bearbeitet. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Katechetik. Berlin, 1853. (Reprint of the standard edition of 1531; with a critical introduction, pp. lxx.)

Theodos. Harnack: Der Kleine Katechismus Dr. Martin Luthers in seiner Urgestalt. Kritisch untersucht und herausgegeben. Stuttgart, 1856, 4to. (Reprint of two editions of 1529, and one of 1539; with lxiv. pp. of introduction, and a table of the principal variations of the text till 1542.)

The popular editions of the Smaller Catechism, especially in German, with or without comments and supplements, are innumerable.

II. Works:

A. Fabricii: Axiomata Scripturæ Catechismo Lutheri accommodata, etc. Isleb. 1583.

C. Dieterici: Instit. catech. Ulm, 1613; often reprinted.

Ph. J. Spener: Tabulæ catech. Frf. 1683, 1687, 1713.

Greg. Langemack: Hist. catecheticæ oder Gesammelte Nachrichten zu einer Catech. Historie. Strals. 1729–1740, 3 vols. Part II., 1733, treats of Lutheri und anderer evang. Lehrer Catechismis.

J. C. Köcher: Einleitung in die catech. Theol. Jena, 1752. And Biblioth. theol. symb. catech. P. I. 1751; P. II. 1769.

J. C. W. Augusti: Versuch einer hist. kritischen Einleitung in die beiden Haupt-Katechismen der Evang. Kirche. Elberf. 1824.

G. Veesenmeyer: Liter. bibliograph. Nachrichten von einigen evang. katechet. Schriften und Katechismen vor und nach Luthers Kat., etc. Ulm, 1830.

G. Mohnike: Das sechste Hauptstück im Katechismus. Stralsund, 1830.

C. A. Gerh. von Zezschwitz: System der christlich kirchlichen Katechetik. Leipz. 1863–69, 2 vols. Vol. II. P. I. treats of Luther's Catechism very fully.

Comp. the Literature in Fabricius, Feuerlin, Walch, Baumgarten, Köllner, Symbolik, I. p. 473.


Religious instruction preparatory to admission to church membership is as old as Christianity itself, but it assumed very different shapes in different ages and countries. In the first three or four centuries (as also now on missionary ground) it always preceded baptism, and was mainly addressed to adult Jews and Gentiles. In length and method it freely adapted itself to various conditions and degrees of culture. The three thousand Jewish converts on the day of Pentecost, having already a knowledge of the Old Testament, were baptized simply on their profession of faith in Christ, after hearing the sermon of St. Peter. Men like Cornelius, the Eunuch, Apollos, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, needed but little theoretical preparation, and Cyprian and Ambrose were elected bishops even while yet catechumens. At Alexandria and elsewhere there were special catechetical schools of candidates for baptism. The basis of instruction was the traditional rule of faith or Apostles' Creed, but there were no catechisms in our sense of the term; and even the creed which the converts professed at baptism was not committed to writing, 246but orally communicated as a holy secret. Public worship was accordingly divided into a missa catechumenorum for half-Christians in process of preparation for baptism, and a missa fidelium for baptized communicants or the Church proper.

With the union of Church and State since Constantine, and the general introduction of infant baptism, catechetical instruction began to be imparted to baptized Christians, and served as a preparation for confirmation or the first communion. It consisted chiefly of the committal and explanation, (1) of the Ten Commandments, (2) of the Creed (the Apostles' Creed in the Latin, the Nicene Creed in the Greek Church), sometimes also of the Athanasian Creed and the Te Deum; (3) of the Lord's Prayer (Paternoster). To these were added sometimes special chapters on various sins and crimes, on the Sacraments, and prayers. Councils and faithful bishops enjoined upon parents, sponsors, and priests the duty of giving religious instruction, and catechetical manuals were prepared as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, by Kero, monk of St. Gall (about 720); Notker, of St. Gall (d. 912); Otfried, monk of Weissenbourg (d. after 870), and others.459459   Otfried's Catechism was newly edited by J. G. Eccard: 'Incerti Monachi Weissenburgensis Catechesis Theotisca Seculo IX. conscripta.' Hanov. 1713. It contains: 1. The Lord's Prayer, with an explanation; 2. The Deadly Sins; 3. The Apostles' Creed; 4. The Athanasian Creed; 5. The Gloria. But upon the whole this duty was sadly neglected in the Middle Ages, and the people were allowed to grow up in ignorance and superstition. The anti-papal sects, as the Albigenses, Waldenses, and the Bohemian Brethren, paid special attention to catechetical instruction.460460   Comp. J. C. Köcher: Catechet. Geschichte der Waldenser, Böhmischen Brüder, etc. Amst. 1768. And C. A. G. von Zezschwitz: Die Catechismen der Waldenser und Böhmischen Brüder als Documente ihres gegenseitigen Lehraustausches. Erlangen, 1863.

The Reformers soon felt the necessity of substituting evangelical Catechisms for the traditional Catholic Catechisms, that the rising generation might grow up in the knowledge of the Scriptures and the true faith. Of all the Protestant Catechisms, those of Luther follow most closely the traditional method, but they are baptized with a new spirit.



After several preparatory attempts,461461   They began in 1518 with a popular evangelical exposition of the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. See Schneider, l.c. pp. xvii. sqq., and Zezschwitz, l.c. II. I. pp. 316 sqq. Nor stood he alone in these labors. Urbanus Regius (author of three Catechisms), Lonicer (Strasburg, 1523), Melanchthon (1524), Brentius (1527 or 1528), Lachmann (Catechesis, 1528), Rürer, Althamer, Moiban, Corvin, Rhau, Willich, Chytræus (1555), and other Lutherans of the Reformation period, wrote books for the religious instruction of the young. Luther wrote two Catechisms, in 1529, both in the German language—first the larger, and then the smaller. The former is a continuous exposition rather than a Catechism, and is not divided into questions and answers; moreover, it grew so much under his hands that it became altogether unsuitable for the instruction of the young, which he had in view from the beginning. Hence he prepared soon afterwards a smaller one, or Enchiridion, as he called it.462462   First in the second edition, whose title (as given by Riederer, but now wanting in the copy rediscovered by Harnack, l.c. p. xxii.) is this: ' Enchiridion. Der kleine Catechismus für die gemeine Pfarher und Prediger, gemehret and gebessert durch Mart. Luther. Wittenberg, MDXXIX.' The title of the third edition, 1531, is: 'Enchiridion. | Der kleine Catechismus für die gemeine Pfarher und Prediger. | Mart. Lu. MDXXXI.' See Schneider, l.c. p. 1. This is the standard edition, from which the editions of 1539 and 1542 differ very slightly. It is the ripe flower and fruit of the larger work, and almost superseded it, or confined its use to pastors and teachers and a more advanced class of pupils.463463   See, on the relation of the two, Köllner, l.c. p. 490. He says, p. 520: 'The Large Catechism has entirely gone out of use.' Comp. also Zezschwitz, l.c. p. 324. The older view of the priority of the Small Catechism is wrong.

He was moved to this work by the lamentable state of religious ignorance and immorality among the German people, which he found out during his visitations of the churches in Saxony, 1527–29.464464   He says, in his characteristic style (Preface to the Small Catechism): 'Diesen Katechismum oder christliche Lehre in solche kleine, schlechte, einfältige Form zu stellen, hat mich gezwungen und gedrungen die klägliche elende Noth, so ich neulich erfahren habe, da ich auch ein Visitator war. Hilf, lieber Gott, wie manchen Jammer habe ich gesehen, dass der gemeine Mann doch so gar nichts weiss von der christlichen Lehre, sonderlich auf den Dörfern! Und leider viel Pfarrherren ganz ungeschickt und untüchtig sind zu lehren; und sollen doch alle Christen heissen, getauft sein und der heiligen Sacramente geniessen; können weder Vaterunser, noch den Glauben, oder Zehn Gebote; leben dahin, wie das liebe Vieh und unvernünftige Säue; und nun das Evangelium kommen ist, dennoch fein gelernt haben, aller Freiheit meisterlich zu missbrauchen. O ihr Bischöfe, was wollt ihr doch Christo immer mehr antworten, dass ihr das Volk so schändlich habt lassen hingehen, und euer Amt nicht einen Augenblick je bewiesen? Dass euch alles Unglück fliehe! Verbietet einerlei Gestalt und treibet auf eure Menchengesetze, fraget aber derweil nichts danach, ob sie das Vaterunser, Glauben, Zehn Gebote oder einiges Gotteswort können. Ach und wehe über euren Hals ewiglich! Darum bitte ich um Gottes willen euch alle meine lieben Herren und Brüder, so Pfarrherren oder Prediger sind, wollet euch eures Amtes von Herzen annehmen, euch erbarmen über euer Volk, das euch befohlen ist, und uns helfen den Katechismus in die Leute, sonderlich in das junge Volk bringen; und welche es nicht besser vermögen, diese Tafeln und Formen vor sich nehmen, und dem Volke von Wort zu Wort fürbilden'


With his conservative instinct, he retained the three parts on the Decalogue (after the Latin division), the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. To these he added, after the example of the Bohemian Brethren, an instruction on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper.465465   The Bohemian Brethren, or Hussites, had Catechisms long before Luther, divided into five parts: 1. The Decalogue; 2. The Creed; 3. The Lord's Prayer; 4. The Sacraments; 5. The House Table. They sent a Latin copy to Luther, 1523. See Köllner, l.c. pp. 485, 469.

Luther's Catechism proper, therefore, has five parts: 1. Decalogus; 2. Symbolum Apostolicum; 3. Oratio Dominica; 4. De Baptismo; 5. De Sacramento Altaris. So the Large Catechism, as printed in the Book of Concord (without any additions466466   Luther says, in the Prolegomena to the Large Catechism, 'Also hätte man überall Fünf Stücke der Ganzen Christlichen Lehre, die man immerdar treiben kann.'), and the Small Catechism in the first two editions (with devotional additions).


In the later editions of the Small Catechism (since 1564) there is a sixth part on Confession and Absolution, or the Power of the Keys,467467   'Vom Amt der Schlüssel. De potestate clavium.' It is usually called 'Das sechste Hauptstück,' although it should properly be an appendix. which is inserted either as Part V., between Baptism and the Lord's Supper, or added as Part VI., or as an Appendix. The precise authorship of the enlarged form or forms (for they vary) of this Part, with the questions 'What is the Power of the Keys,' etc., is uncertain,468468   It is variously traced to Luther, Brentius (who has in his Catechism a sixth part 'On the Keys'), Bugenhagen, Knipstrov, but with greater probability to the popular Catechetical Sermons prepared for public use in Nuremburg and Brandenburg, 1533 (probably by Brentius), and translated into Latin by Justus Jonas, 1539 (and re-edited by Gerlach, Berlin, 1839). See Francke: Libri symbolici, etc. P. II. Proleg. p. xxiv.; Müller: Die Symbolischen Bücher, etc. p. xcvii.; Köllner, l.c. pp. 502 sqq.; Zezschwitz, l.c. pp. 327 sqq. but the substance of it, viz., the questions on private or auricular confession of sin to the minister and absolution by the minister, as given in the 'Book of Concord,' date from Luther himself, and appear first substantially in the third edition of 1531, as introductory to the fifth part on the Lord's Supper.469469   See the third edition, as republished by Schneider, l.c. pp. lii. and 45 sqq. Those questions appear under the title 'Wie man die Einfeltigen soll leren beichten.' An admonition to 249confession ('Vermahnung zu der Beicht') was added also to later editions of the Larger Catechism since 1531, but omitted in the 'Book of Concord,' against the remonstrance of Chemnitz. He made much account of private confession 249and absolution, while the Calvinists abolished the same as a mischievous popish invention. 'True absolution,' says Luther, 'or the power of the keys, instituted in the Gospel by Christ, affords comfort and support against sin and an evil conscience. Confession or absolution shall by no means be abolished in the Church, but be retained, especially on account of weak and timid consciences, and also on account of untutored youth, in order that they may be examined and instructed in the Christian doctrine. But the enumeration of sins should be free to every one, to enumerate or not to enumerate such as he wishes.'470470   Art. Smalc. III. p. 8. The Church of England holds a similar position in regard to the confessional, and hence the recent revival of it by the Ritualists, though under the strong protest of the evangelical party. The 'Book of Common Prayer' of the Church of England contains, besides two different forms of public confession and absolution (one for Morning and Evening Prayer, another for the Communion Service), a form of private confession and absolution in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick. The first two are retained, the third is omitted in the Prayer Book of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. The third form, in the Visitation Office, retains the traditional form of the Latin Church—'Absolvo te in Nomine Patris,' etc.—'I absolve thee in the Name,' etc. Blunt, in his Annotated Book of Common Prayer, Part II. p. 283, comments largely on this formula, and quotes also a passage from the first exhortation in the Communion Office, which reads as follows: 'Therefore, if there be any one who . . . requireth further comfort and counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's Holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the guiding of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.' And after some other quotations, he says: 'Numberless practical writers speak of private confession as a recognized habit in the Church of England since the Reformation as well as before. Nearly all such writers, however, protest against its compulsory injunction, and it does not seem to be proved that frequent and habitual confession has ever been very common in the Church of England since the Reformation.'

Besides these doctrinal sections, the Smaller Catechism, as edited by Luther in 1531 (partly, also, in the first edition of 1529), has three appendices of a devotional or liturgical character, viz.: 1. A series of short family prayers ('wie ein Hausvater sein Gesinde soll lehren Morgens und Abends sich segnen); 2. A table of duties ('Haustafel') for the members of a Christian household, consisting of Scripture passages 1 Tim. iii. 2 sqq.; Rom. xiii. 1 sqq.; Col. iii. 19 sqq.; Eph. vi. 1 sqq., etc.); 3. A marriage manual ('Traubüchlin'); and 4. A baptismal manual ('Taufbüchlin').

The first two appendices, which are devotional, were retained in the 'Book of Concord;' but the third and fourth, which are liturgical and 250ceremonial, were omitted because of the great diversity in different churches as to exorcism in baptism, and the rite of marriage.


The Smaller Catechism was translated from the German original into the Latin (by Sauermann) and many other languages; even into the Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. It is asserted by Lutheran writers that no book, except the Bible, has had a wider circulation. Thirty-seven years after its appearance Matthesius spoke of a circulation of over a hundred thousand copies.

It was soon introduced into public schools, churches, and families. It became by common consent a symbolical book, and a sort of 'Lay Bible' for the German people. It is still very extensively used in Lutheran churches, though mostly with supplements or in connection with fuller Catechisms. In Southern Germany the Catechism of Brentius obtained a wide currency.


Luther's Small Catechism is truly a great little book, with as many thoughts as words, and every word telling and sticking to the heart as well as the memory. It bears the stamp of the religious genius of Luther, who was both its father and its pupil.471471   'I am also a doctor and a preacher,' he says in the Preface to his Larger Catechism, 'endowed with no less learning and experience than those who presume so much on their abilities . . . yet I am like a child who is taught the Catechism, and I read and recite word by word, in the morning and when I have leisure, the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, etc. . . . and must remain, and do cheerfully remain, a child and pupil of the Catechism.' It exhibits his almost apostolic gift of expressing the deepest things in the plainest language for the common people. It is strong food for a man, and yet as simple as a child. It marks an epoch in the history of religious instruction: it purged it from popish superstitions, and brought it back to Scriptural purity and simplicity. As it left far behind all former catechetical manuals, it has, in its own order of excellence and usefulness, never been surpassed. To the age of the Reformation it was an incalculable blessing. Luther himself wrote no better book, excepting, of course, his translation of the Bible, and it alone would have immortalized him as one of the great benefactors of the human race. 251Few books have elicited such enthusiastic praise, and have even to this day such grateful admirers.472472   I quote some Lutheran testimonies which show the impressions of early childhood, and seem extravagant to members of other denominations. Matthesius: 'The world can never sufficiently thank and repay Luther for his little Catechism.' Justus Jonas: 'It may be bought for sixpence, but six thousand worlds would not pay for it.' Andr. Fabricius: 'A better book, next to the Bible, the sun never saw; it is the juice and the blood, the aim and the substance of the Bible.' Seckendorf: 'I have received more consolation and a firmer foundation for my salvation from Luther's little Catechism than from the huge volumes of all the Latin and Greek fathers together.' Löhe: 'It is, of all Confessions, that which is most suitable and best adapted to the people. It is a fact, which no one denies, that no other Catechism in the world can be made a prayer of but this. But it is less known that it may be called a real marvel in respect of the extraordinary fullness and great abundance of knowledge expressed in it in so few words.' Leopold Ranke: 'The Catechism published by Luther in 1529, of which he himself says that, old a doctor as he was, he used it himself as a prayer, is as childlike as it is profound, as comprehensible as it is unfathomable, simple, and sublime. Happy he whose soul was fed by it, who clings to it. He possesses at all times an imperishable consolation: under a thin shell, a kernel of truth sufficient for the wisest of the wise.' ('Der Katechismus, den Luther im Jahr 1529, herausgab, von dem er sagt, er bete ihn selbst, so ein alter Doctor er auch sei, ist ebenso kindlich wie tiefsinnig, so fasslich wie unergründlich, einfach and erhaben. Glückselig wer seine Seele damit nährte, wer daran festhält! Er besitzt einen unvergänglichen Trost in jedem Momente: nur hinter einer leichten Hülle den Kern der Wahrheit, der dem Weisesten der Weisen genug that.' Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation, Vol. II. 3d edition, Berlin, 1852, p. 357.) To add an American testimony, I quote from Dr. Ch. P. Krauth: 'So truly did the Shorter Catechism embody the simple Christian faith, as to become, by the spontaneous acclamation of millions, a Confession. It was a private writing, and yet, beyond all the Confessions, the direct pulsation of the Church's whole heart is felt in it. It was written in the rapture of the purest catholicity, and nothing from Luther's pen presents him more perfectly, simply as a Christian; not as the prince of theologians, but as a lowly believer among believers' (The Conservative Reformation, Philadelphia, 1872, p. 285).

But with all its excellences it has some serious defects. It gives the text of the Ten Commandments in an abridged form (the Larger Catechism likewise), and follows the wrong division of the Romish Church, which omits the second commandment altogether, and cuts the tenth commandment into two, to make up the number.473473   The Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Catechisms, following the lead of Augustine, regard the second commandment only as an explanation of the first; the Reformed and the Greek Catechisms, following the division of the Jews (Josephus and Philo) and the early Christians (e. g. Origen), treat it as a separate commandment, which prohibits image worship and enjoins the true worship of God, while the first prohibits idolatry and enjoins monotheism. Hence the different modes of counting from the second to the ninth commandment. The division of the tenth commandment follows as a necessity from the omission of the second, but is decidedly refuted by the intrinsic unity of the tenth commandment, and by a comparison of Exod. xx. 17 with Deut. v. 21; for in the latter passage (as also in the Septuagint version of Exod. xx. 17) the order is transposed, and the neighbor's wife put before the neighbor's house, so that what is the ninth commandment in Exodus, according to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran view, would be the tenth according to Deuteronomy. St. Paul, moreover, in enumerating the commandments of the second table, Rom. xiii. 9 (comp. also vii. 7), alludes to the tenth with the words, 'Thou shalt not covet,' without intimating any such division. Comp. also Mark x. 19. The Decalogue consists of two tables, of five commandments each. The first contains the duties to God (præcepta pietatis), the second the duties to men (præcepta probitatis); the first is strictly religious, the second moral. The fifth commandment belongs to the first table, since it enjoins reverence to parents as representing God's authority on earth. This view is now taken not only by Reformed, but also by many of the ablest Lutheran divines, e.g., Oehler, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Tübingen, 1873), I. pp. 287 sqq.; H. Schultz, Alttestamentliche Theologie (Frankf. a. M. 1869), I. p. 429. On the other hand, Kurtz, Kahnis, and Zezschwitz defend the Lutheran division. The main thing, of course, is not the dividing, but the keeping of the commandments. It allows 252only three questions and answers to the exposition of the Creed. It gives undue importance to the Sacraments by making them co-ordinate parts with the three great divisions, and elevates even private confession and absolution, as a sort of third sacrament, to equal dignity. It omits many important articles, and contains no express instruction on the Bible, as the inspired record of divine revelation and the infallible rule of faith and practice. Hence it is found necessary, where it is used, to supplement it by a number of preliminary and additional questions and answers.


The critical restoration of the best text of Luther's Small Catechism has only recently been accomplished by Mönckeberg, Schneider, and Harnack. The text of the 'Book of Concord' is unreliable.

The editio princeps of 1529 had entirely disappeared until Mönckeberg, 1851, published a Low-German translation from a copy in the Hamburg city library; and five years later (1856) Professor Harnack found an Erfurt reprint of the original (without date), and a Marburg reprint dated 1529.

The second recension, of 1529, which contains several improvements and addenda, was described by Riederer, in 1765, from a copy then in the university library at Altdorf. This copy was supposed to have been transferred to Erlangen, but was discovered by Harnack in the German Museum at Nuremburg, and republished by him, 1856, together with a reprint of the editio princeps, and a Wittenberg edition of 1539, a valuable critical introduction, and a table of the principal variations of the text till 1542.

The third recension, of 1531, was brought to light by Dr. Schneider, and accurately republished (but without the woodcuts and the Traubüchlin and Taufbüchlin), 1853, with a learned introduction and critical 253apparatus.474474   See his description, l.c. pp. l.–liv. It is reprinted in the second volume of this work. It gives the text of the five parts substantially as it has remained since, also the section on confession ('Wie man die Einfältigen soll lehren beichten'), the morning and evening prayers, the Benedicite and Gratias, the Haustafel, the Traubüchlin and the Taufbüchlin.

In 1535 (and 1536) Luther prepared a new edition, to conform the Scripture texts to his translation of the Bible, which was completed in 1534.

The edition of 1542 ('aufs neu übersehen und zugericht') adds the promise to the fourth (fifth) commandment, and enlarges the 'House Table.'


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