Lesson 1: The First Commandment in Luther’s Small Catechism

The Small Catchism AppBeing that this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the 95 Theses Against Indulgences, I plan to offer two series on the reformer this fall. The second will expand on a lecture I am giving at La Roche College on November 1, 2017. It suggests that the Lutheran and Roman Catholic narratives these two churches have used to understand and identify themselves since the Reformation are obsolete after Vatican II. In the previous two months, I am going to look at Luther’s Small Catechism. You can find a good translation offered in a new app prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or you can reference the document online. 

The Small Catechism is undoubtedly Luther’s best known and probably his best-written work. Anyone who grew up in a Lutheran congregation studied it during her extensive preparation for confirmation. Others find it a concise statement of his theology. He meant it to be a short basic summary of the Christian faith.

When the monkish professor unexpectedly found himself the leader of a new church, he not only felt unprepared himself, he also found his people far from ready to act as a priesthood of all believers. In order to rectify the situation, he prepared a short manual in question form that fathers could use to teach their families. It included explanations of the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and Holy Communion.

For example, the first commandment begins with memorizing the commandment itself and then a short explanation: “You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

When the Berlin Wall fell, Lutherans realized just how practical the work is. We had always taken pride in our Russian congregations known for the outstanding German tradesmen Catherine the Great had welcomed when she endeavored to modernize the nation. Knowing Stalin had executed every pastor, we expected the church was long gone. To our surprise, we found flourishing groups of Christians whose survival was credited to grandmothers teaching children the catechism. This grandmothers’ church corroborates Luther’s belief that baptism ordains everyone into God’s priesthood.

The first commandment is a good place to start our study. Luther believed it was the basis of everything else. If you obey the first commandment, you will naturally obey all the rest. If you are in a proper relationship with God, you will be in a proper relationship with other people. Luther believed faith characterizes this proper relationship and defines it as fearing, loving, and trusting God above everything else.

In his “Explanation to the First Commandment” in The Large Catechism, Luther interchanges “faith” and “trust” constantly. A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

Luther carries this perspective throughout the catechism as we see when he begins many of his explanations with “we should so fear and love God that we…” Be sure to read fear in this case as being in awe, rather than being terrified.

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