By his own estimation, one of Martin Luther’s most important writings was his Small Catechism. He took the role of teaching his children very seriously, and so he taught his children the catechism. In fact, at one point he said, “Though I am a profound doctor and advanced in my study, I have not yet advanced beyond the catechism, beyond the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I say them every day with my Hans and Magdalena.” That was in 1531; Magdalena at the time was only two years old.
Luther was a very busy man. He was preaching, on average, five times a week; he was administering a large church; he was at the center of the Reformation; and he was writing furiously. Historians estimate that on average during his adult life, Luther produced a substantive piece of writing every three weeks. And yet, Luther took the time amid all of that business to teach his children the catechism. In fact, it was customary for Luther to throw open the doors of the monastery where he lived and invite the children of the town of Wittenberg in to study the catechism with him.
Luther never intended to write the Small Catechism. He had originally tasked his lieutenants with writing a catechism, but he wasn’t happy with what they brought back to him. It was either too moralistic or it was too complex. So, Luther sat down and wrote his own. It was published in 1527. At the end of his life, he said, “You can burn all of my books except for two, The Bondage of the Will and the Small Catechism.” So, we can see how much Luther valued this book.
Luther’s Small Catechism was structured around three texts. It starts off with a discussion of the Ten Commandments—this is Christian ethics. Then it moves to the Apostles’ Creed—this is doctrine. And then it moves to the Lord’s Prayer—this is the Christian life. In later editions, Luther added morning and evening prayers and the Table of Duties, which arranged various biblical texts in terms of what we need to do as obedient sons and daughters of God. When the catechism gets to the Ten Commandments, it presents one of the commandments and then asks, “Was ist das?” or “What does this mean?” Then the answer comes as to what the commandment means and how we are to live it out, and then the catechism goes on to the next commandment.
As we think about Martin Luther the great Reformer, we need to think of him also as Luther the father and as the author of the Small Catechism. At one point, Luther said, “If we don’t train the next generation, then all of our efforts at reform will be for naught. We have all just simply wasted our time and wasted our energy.” Training the next generation was very important to Luther, and he saw that as an important task for him to take up. He met that task with the writing of the Small Catechism.