Question: "What is Luther's Small Catechism?"
Answer: Luther’s Small Catechism is a simple teaching manual of Christian doctrine written by Martin Luther (1483—1546), the theologian who led the Protestant Reformation in Germany and founded the Lutheran Church. Scholars have praised Luther’s Small Catechism as “one of the finest summaries of Christian doctrine,” “the gem of the Reformation,” “the layman’s Bible,” and “Luther’s Little Instruction Book.”
Catechisms are textbook-style summaries of the central beliefs of the Christian faith. They are written primarily for the instruction of children or the uneducated. Catechisms often include questions and answers as tutorial aids. Luther published both a Small Catechism and a Large Catechism—a longer, more detailed summary of the faith—to educate the pastors and villagers of Germany.
Protestant catechisms such as Luther’s Small Catechism help explain difficult theological concepts and doctrinal confessions in simpler terms so that the young and those without formal instruction can understand. Typically, a catechism opens with an introductory summary of the Christian faith and includes other statements of faith, creeds, and confessions. Often a longer catechism is written for adults and a shorter one for children.
Luther’s Small Catechism played a decisive role in the formative days of the Protestant Reformation. By 1527, the Evangelical movement had been underway for at least ten years, but everyday Christians remained in desperate need of discipleship. While conducting visitations to the Lutheran parishes of Saxony between 1527 and 1528, Martin Luther became concerned about the ignorance of churchgoers regarding the Bible and Christian doctrines. He also observed many Catholic worship rituals still being practiced. In his preface to the Small Catechism, Luther wrote, “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach.”
Consequently, Luther wrote and published his Large Catechism and Small Catechism in 1529 as uniform guides for teaching and living the Christian faith. Both were published in the German language and designed to teach the key doctrines of Christianity with straightforward clarity.
Titled Enchiridion in German, Luther’s Small Catechism is considered one of the great Reformer’s most influential works: “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. 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” (Schaff, P. The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The History of Creeds, vol. 1, p. 250).
Since the time of the Protestant Reformation, Luther’s Small Catechism has served as a basic instruction book for the Lutheran Church. Today it is used widely as part of youth education and confirmation in the Lutheran faith. Luther’s Small Catechism contains teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacrament of baptism, confession, the sacrament of the altar (communion), and daily prayers. Luther’s Small Catechism is part of the Book of Concord, an authoritative collection of ancient creeds and confessions that sets forth the essential doctrines of Lutheranism.