Memorizing the Catechism
NIS Bishop Jeffrey Clements
Friends in Christ,
One of the requirements of my Lutheran Confessions class in seminary was to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism. I am not particularly good at memorization. It takes a lot of repetition and practice on my part. As a seventh-grade confirmation student, I learned the catechism in small sections. My class would memorize one or two commandments at a time, along with their meanings. But, whatever I had memorized then was long gone by seminary. This time, the assignment was to memorize the whole Small Catechism, so anticipating the quiz was nerve wracking. There was no way to predict which section I would be asked to recite. I also had no idea if there would be any grace. A bit ironic, isn’t it?
“Mr. Clements, please recite the third article of the Apostles’ Creed and its meaning.” What a relief! I knew it fairly well, pretty much word for word. It was and still is my favorite section. I passed the quiz and promptly forgot most of what I had crammed the night before. But, I do love the Small Catechism. I always keep a copy close at hand. I have taught it to confirmation classes. I quote it in sermons. I use it devotionally. I refer to it often.
Luther wrote the Small Catechism because so many people in the churches he visited lacked knowledge of the basics of the Christian faith. In his preface Luther said, “The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.” (Book of Concord, Augsburg Fortress, 2000, p. 347)
Perhaps I have stumbled upon the reason for my professor’s memorization assignment. He was hoping to make us competent pastors!
Last summer, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop, invited the church to read and study the Small Catechism in these months that lead up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I hope you will accept her invitation and rediscover the treasure that we have.
What are my favorite lines from my favorite section, you ask? Let’s see if I can recall. “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way, he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Walking with you,
Bishop Jeff Clements