What Is That? The Genius of Luther’s Small Catechism
Most Lutherans who went through junior high confirmation class at one time in their lives are familiar with Luther’s famous question from his Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” Sadly, this is all many remember. But at the same time, this proves Luther’s genius. He devised a simple, childlike question which all people can relate to as they are learning the basics of the faith. Whatever failure the church has had in retaining its children after confirmation is its own fault, not that of the Small Catechism.
In the original German, Luther’s question was framed a bit differently than what we’ve come to know in English translation. “Was ist das?,” the Small Catechism reads. Literally we would translate this as “What is it?” or “What is that?” As you can see, this is an even more basic question than “What does this mean?” It is simpler. It is more childlike. We can picture a small child pointing to a colorful flower or a strange-looking insect and asking the same question: What is it? What is that?
I never knew the genius of Luther’s question until having my own child and teaching her the Small Catechism. We started teaching our daughter the Small Catechism even as she was starting to speak her first words. She started learning by repeating after us the last word which was said.
So if we said the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” she would say “gods” when we were done. It didn’t take long before she could say more and more, and even at two and a half years old now she can say the Lord’s Prayer, most of the creed, and most of the commandments.
And actually, her favorite thing to do is answer Luther’s question, “What is Baptism?” On the one hand, this is very special. We are glad such a small girl whom we love so much can pray and say the commandments. On the other hand, it’s not so special. I imagine this is within the capability of almost any child the same age.
What I find fascinating about this is how she grew into the routine. We always do a bit of Catechism work after reading a Bible story at bedtime. And our daughter came up with her own name for our little time of catechesis. She says it’s time to “say it!”
What is fascinating about “saying it” is that my daughter with her words hearkened me back to Luther’s question, “Was ist das?” or “What is it?” I learned in the most profound way, through the lips of a child, that our simple home catechesis with our children was truly the vision that Luther had when writing the Small Catechism. He didn’t have in mind 7th and 8th graders with the pastor on a late Wednesday afternoon. He envisioned parents “saying it” with their children.
And this is a much more joyous way to pass down the faith, one which does not require cumbersome worksheets, tedious homework, and scheduling hassles. Children love to please their parents, and so also our daughter loves to “say it.” I have a funny story to illustrate this, too. One evening we were visiting friends and came home much later than our children’s bedtime. It was our intention to say the Lord’s Prayer with them quickly and put them to bed. But what happened? Our daughter broke down in tears because she wanted to “say it.” She would not let it go. So as I tucked her in we did “say it,” however little time we had. The day wouldn’t be complete for her otherwise.
I mention this not because it’s cute, but because it demonstrates the joyous and powerful effect that the Small Catechism can have on our children. When people remember the question “What does this mean?,” it is often in a nostalgic manner. It’s a relic of their past when they went to confirmation class. Perhaps it is something remembered fondly, but it doesn’t serve much use in the present, nor does it make them more faithful Christians.
But when we “say it” with our kids, this is something that is a part of them every day, something at the very fiber of their being. When we “say it” with our kids, the Small Catechism becomes something which will actually form a worldview and serve us in our lives. Children who can “say it” will be bright lights in this world because the very Word of God is actually written on their hearts. And when they grow up, the Small Catechism will not be a relic of their past. It will be a treasured possession, something they have always known, loved, and will never let go.
And so take this as a word of encouragement. You can go to Lutherancatechism.com and find some easy schedules to use so you can “say it” together as a family. These are very helpful if you’ve had good intentions about this but never had the support or resources to follow through. It takes very little natural skill. It does not even require much time or effort, only consistency. And yet the rewards are enormous. We learn our faith better. We learn to love it more. We learn a beautiful pattern of sound words which will serve us well in this world. And we can raise up a new generation of children who love God and his Word, who love the Small Catechism and the Lutheran Church, and our lives will be better for it.
Reprinted, with permission of the author, from Steadfast Lutherans.
Rev. Ryan Loeslie is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Merna, Nebraska. He and his wife Valerie enjoy raising their two little girls in a Lutheran home.