Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Toward a Culture of Catechesis

"Christ Blessing the Children"
painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1540)




The catechisms of the blessed Dr. Martin Luther provide a brief but eternally rich confession of the true catholic and evangelical faith. It is a confession which “every Christian must needs know, so that he who does not know this could not be numbered with the Christians nor be admitted to any Sacrament” (preface). Luther’s admonition is not a legalistic admonition of rote learning but an invitation to be taken up and into Christ through a spoken confession. The catechism is a prayer book, never to be exhausted on this side of the grave. Besides ingratiating pastors and all Christians in the most rudimentary tenets of the faith, Luther also intended that is be used as a “manual of pastoral care” that could be read out loud. In this way the catechism not only teaches but preaches. Preaching the Creed, Prayers, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Lord’s Supper ‘actually do something.’ These treasures are given that Christ might build His church. The six chief parts in the catechism create, sustain, and enliven Christians, and finally ushers them into the glory of Heaven to see the face of God.

The fundamental theological truth Luther sets out in the catechism is the sinful human and the God who justifies. Already, from the get-go a sinful world would dismiss this premise as too simple or narrow as the central object of theology. Yet the brilliance and simplicity of the catechism can meet the self-justifying sinner with the word of God which does not return to him empty. Catechesis is not a mere impartation of knowledge to be digested as others facts. It rather involves a ‘handing over’ of Christ and his doctrine of salvation. The catechism speaks God’s law and Gospel and orients one into a living theology of the cross. It does crucify and resurrect. It does comfort and ‘give’ Christ.

Prior to Luther’s little handbook, catechisms had traditionally set forth the commandments after the Lord’s Prayer and Creed. Luther’s placement of the Ten Commandments highlights the absolute necessity of a confrontation with the Law prior to the advent of the Gospel in Christ. Yet the law-gospel paradigm for Luther in the catechism is not as simplistically set forth as to bop the catechumen over the head with the law and then pitch the gospel at them. For even the commands of God proceed via the Gospel in which the baptized Christian receives the law gladly, being wholly redeemed in Christ. In this way faith and reception of the Gospel fulfill the commandments. This fulfillment of the law and Holy Ten Commands does not eviscerate them from the Christian life but rather praises them as a treasure from God, “Thy statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (ps. 119:24). For Luther, the new life found in Christ did not push the Decalogue aside, as the antinomians would have it. The Ten Commandments would remain central as a mirror of sin, and guide for Christian living. The Small Catechism urges a confession to proceed by considering one’s place in life according to the Ten Commandments and asking for forgiveness for those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.

The Ten Commandments can take on a positivistic role in the life of the Christian only through objective justification in baptism and the forgiveness of sins. Christ’s fulfillment of the law and vicarious atonement for sin grants righteousness and purity to the church forever. The missiological imperative to baptize, making disciples of all nations does not hold a peripheral role in Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms but runs throughout and holds every element together. We confess that St. Paul writes in Romans, chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4). The historic teaching of the church and Luther is that baptism is not symbolic of an event – not a metaphor for some disciplined commitment on behalf of the baptized. Baptism is rather solely God’s act in which Christ stands in the living waters and invites a child of God into the forgiveness of sins and washing of rebirth in the Holy Spirit. The baptismal rite therefore brings about a completely new state of affairs through an apocalyptic death and birth into Christ’s body. Linguistically speaking, catechesis into baptism opens one up to God’s word as being a performative speech act – that God’s word accomplishes what it says. Only in this way can objective justification be understand – that a new man or woman arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Oswald Bayer articulates the church’s confession on baptism which provides the very foundation for catechesis. Bayer writes, “A Christian believer never develops beyond baptism, as long as he or she lives, no matter how much ones has grown, no matter how much one has learned, and no matter what changes on has experienced. For in baptism one already has everything that comes with the name of God. This ship is unsinkable…God made his promise once for all in baptism – no matter at what age it is carried out for the individual. God does not lie.”[1] For this reason, catechesis grows out of the baptismal identity in Christ. A life of catechesis – living in the catechetical culture of the church both begins and ends in Holy Baptism. The leading of the church catechetically into baptism is the source and summit of repentance, faith, and holy living.

Charles P. Arand notes in his research that confessional manuals for priests in the late Middle Ages did not provide comprehensive expositions of the nature and benefits of the sacraments – with baptism receiving the very least attention.[2] Luther’s Small Catechism reverses this trend and reclaims the church’s true teaching that baptism does what Christ says – working the forgiveness of sins, rescues from the devil – giving eternal salvation to all who believe this (baptism), as the words and promises of God declare.

Luther’s small catechism is not simply a book to be learned, as if it were one book among others. It contains the eternal confession of the church and the mysteries of Christ. It is absorbed through the eyes and ears and plants itself into the Christian heart. Catechesis in Christ’s forgiveness therefore gives new life and puts one into a new rhythm of the baptismal rite. The catechism as ‘prayerbook’ with its rubrics, making the sign of the cross, teachings, and prayers drives the church’s liturgy into the home of the family. In this way the catechism provides a liturgy of the Christian life which finds its locus in the Divine Service and private confession and absolution. Living in the catechism means simply to live in the gifts of the church – in Christ’s forgiveness of sins. This reordering of life in the gospel therefore wakes one with the eyes of faith in the morning, in daily prayer, and gives Christians the words of thanksgiving at meals. Before rest, the Christian thanks one for life granted that day, asks God for the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the evil one. The catechism in this way should be spoken of as creating a “culture” in the family home and life of the church. It is culture in the highest sense of the word coming from the Latin ‘cultura,’ meaning to till soil. As Adam had the perfect liturgy in the garden tilling the soil and giving thanks to God, the catechism reestablishes a liturgy in Christ’s cross that we might fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

This daily liturgy for the family rooted in Sunday’s Divine Service is what Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms ultimately points toward. The catechism is a ‘companion’ for the Christian - for a lifetime of meditation and consolation. Unfortunately, the popular understanding often times is that the Small Catechism is a one-time study so that one might be confirmed and piddled along to become an “adult” or “mature” member of the church. The point of the catechism however, is not to partition off the young from the older members of a congregation. Nor is the catechism for a particular age group – to be feverishly memorized for confirmation. The catechism, being rooted in God’s Word – the forgiveness of sins, and resurrection of the body is to unite both babes and the infirm into one heart and one voice in Christ Jesus. It ought to be understood that the Small Catechism contains the most high and holy mysteries of Christ’s church. We ought to take our cue from Luther himself who writes:“Yet I do as a child who being taught the Catechism. Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandment, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish, but remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I must do it gladly.” (LC Long Preface, 7-8).

Worship in the church proceeds by speaking back to God what he speaks to us. The catechism is set forth precisely in this way so that the apologetic task is one of confession that looks only to God’s work and His redemptive act in Christ. Catechesis therefore is a ‘giving’ of God’s word which in turn creates faith by and through Christ. This faith is born in holy baptism and sustained through a lifetime of Absolution. This new life does not turn inward for self-preservation but looks outward in fervent love and charity toward one’s neighbor and the rest of creation.

In the explanation to the first commandment and first article of the Creed Luther expands the liturgical meaning of creator and creation. Some of Luther’s most profound writing deals with articulating the Christians “creatureliness” and God’s exclusive governance in the creation, preservation, and act of redemption. That God does this out of fatherly and divine love “without any worthiness in me” confesses him always as the subject – the actor of all verbs. Luther grasps God as creator of “all things” in the life of the church. Justification by faith is seen through God’s act of creation in Genesis through word and sacrament. That God creates ex nihilo guides the catechism as how the church might understand her life -for ultimately it points to objective justification as a creational and declarative act of God. Upon reflection Martin Luther’s theology Oswald Bayer writes:

“The creative Word of God that justifies, which causes one to reflect not only on its existential depth but also on its cosmological and ontological breadth, contradicts in the sharpest way possible the universal human desire for creating oneself, for self-realization, which has comes into particular prominence in the present age. Fichte, Marx, and Sartre all maintain that a human being demonstrates what he is, in a much more radical sense that was the case for the human being of the Middle Ages with whom Luther had to deal, from first to last by being a doer and producer – according to Marx: in a ‘procreation of self’ through work.”[3]

Besides these modern philosophers, we should also consider a much more radical ontological interpretation of ‘reality’ common to post-modernism which considers ‘self hood’ to be an imaginative exercise. The “self” can be created, managed, and projected through the will. The power of positive thinking promises a new state of affairs through merely through thinking. I can construct my own reality. In this way one’s personal mental neurosis is the grand architect of life and creation itself. Therefore in the modern age where human will through work created and justified usually through and by a certain politic, has now been replaced by a single individual’s imagination. The subjectivity of truth is therefore no longer negotiated by a consensus of a human work or will but rather the mere preference of an individual.

While approaches to hermeneutics are always changing to deal with fleeting and bizarre philosophical trends, the catechism ought to remain the church’s answer to every erring human heart. This is not because the catechism attests to itself – but only because it points to God’s word which remains forever - though heavens and earth shall pass away. God’s final word is Christ and Christ only, which the catechism so simply teaches. Ontological curiosities can be eloquently met throughout the six chief parts and their explanations – and true wisdom will proceed from them. This wisdom is not in the spirit of long-winded apologetic discourse but is focused solely in the wisdom of confession.

[1] Bayer,Oswald. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. 3rd ed. Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, 268-269.
[2] Arand,Charles P. That I May Be His Own. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000, 40.
[3] Bayer, 97.

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