Luther on learning the Catechism

CatechismMany regard the catechism as a simple, trifling teaching, which they can absorb and master at one reading and then toss the book into a corner as if they are ashamed to read it again. Indeed, among the nobility there are also some louts and skinflints who declare that they can do without pastors and preachers now because we now have everything in books and can learn it all by ourselves. So they blithely let parishes fall into decay and brazenly allow both pastors and preachers to suffer distress and hunger.8 This is what one can expect of crazy Germans. We Germans have such disgraceful people among us and have to put up with them.
But this I say for myself: I am also a doctor and a preacher, just as learned and experienced as all of them who are so high and mighty. Nevertheless, each morning, and whenever else I have time, I do as a child who is being taught the catechism and I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and study the catechism daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the catechism—and I also do so gladly.9 These fussy, fastidious fellows would like quickly, with one reading, to be doctors above all doctors, to know it all and to need nothing more. Well this, too, is a sure sign that they despise both their office and the people’s souls, yes, even God and his Word. They do not need to fall, for they have already fallen all too horribly. What they need, however, is to become children and begin to learn the ABCs, which they think they have long since outgrown.10
Therefore, I beg such lazy bellies and presumptuous saints, for God’s sake, to let themselves be convinced and believe that they are not really and truly such learned and exalted doctors as they think. I implore them not ever to imagine that they have learned these parts of the catechism perfectly, or that they know them sufficiently, even though they think they know them ever so well. Even if their knowledge of the catechism were perfect (although that is impossible in this life), yet it is highly profitable and fruitful to read it daily and to make it the subject of meditation and conversation. In such reading, conversation, and meditation the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever new and greater light and devotion, so that it tastes better and better and is digested, as Christ also promises in Matthew 18[:20*], “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Nothing is so powerfully effective against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts as to occupy one’s self with God’s Word, to speak about it and meditate upon it, in the way that Psalm 1[:2*] calls those blessed who “meditate on God’s law day and night.” Without doubt, you will offer up no more powerful incense or savor against the devil than to occupy yourself with God’s commandments and words and to speak, sing, or think about them. Indeed, this is the true holy water and sign that drives away the devil and puts him to flight.11
For this reason alone you should gladly read, recite, ponder, and practice the catechism, even if the only advantage and benefit you obtain from it is to drive away the devil and evil thoughts. For he cannot bear to hear God’s Word. And God’s Word is not like some idle tale, such as about Dietrich of Bern,12 but, as St. Paul says in Romans 1[:16*], it is “the power of God,” indeed, the power of God that burns the devil’s house down13 and gives us immeasurable strength, comfort, and help.

8 Luther wrote in Against Hanswurst (1541) (WA 51:486, 27–33; LW 41:198–99): “Indeed, we do not just fast, but (with St. Paul [1 Cor. 4:11*]) we suffer hunger. We see it daily in our poor ministers, their wives and children, and in many other poor people, whose hunger stares at you out of their eyes. They scarcely have bread and water, they go about naked as a jaybird, and they have nothing of their own. The farmer and the burgher give them nothing, and the nobility take, so that there are only a few of us who have something, and we cannot help everyone.”
9 This longer preface to the Large Catechism was presumably written by Luther at the Coburg in 1530 while his associates were attending the Diet of Augsburg. He wrote in his commentary on Psalm 117 (WA 31/1: 227, 13–22; LW 14:8), which was also composed there: “I confess this freely as an example to anyone; for here am I, an old doctor of theology and a preacher. . . . Yet even I must become a child; and early each day I recite aloud to myself the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and whatever lovely psalms and verses I may choose, just as we teach and train children to do. . . . I study them daily and remain a pupil of the Catechism.”
10 Literally, “they have split their shoes,” a proverbial expression. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20 (NRSV)  but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. Psalm 1:2 (NRSV)
11 Holy water was believed to drive away evil spirits and was used in the rite of exorcism.
12 Luther frequently cited the legend of Dietrich of Bern as an example of lies and fables. Dietrich of Bern is the name popularly applied in medieval Teutonic legends to Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Romans 1:16 (NRSV)
13 An expression often used by Luther. The original meaning is “to cause damage to someone by means of arson.”
Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord : The confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (380). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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