Thursday, February 21, 2019

The function of the catechism. . .

Some have suggested that there comes a time for a new catechism or at least a revision.  It is at one and the same time a curious statement.  I wonder if it just might forget the real purpose and value of a catechism.  The catechism is not a tool to be used to reflect change but rather one that promotes consistency and continuity, thus preserving the faith by passing on the sacred deposit faithfully.

A catechism is not, and has never been in history, seen as, an instrument for introducing new doctrine.  In Roman terms this would mean that a catechism is not a tool for the “development of doctrine” but is, in effect, just the opposite.  When a catechism is used to advance change, even rather deliberate change, the catechism betrays its purpose and history.  Although some would describe the catechism’s function as humble, that is, to pass on, simply and accurately, the pre-existing teaching of the Church, this is in reality not a humble task at all. To pass on the faith is the most basic and essential function of the faithful and the catechism is a tool of this noble purpose.

For Lutherans, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther has been the glue that binds the generations together and the common identity that spans geography as well.  Given that we live at a time when confirmation instruction is more varied and diverse than ever before and the very purpose and goal of this instruction is often up for debate, the Small Catechism has been a very effective agent in slowing the progress of change and transcending the diversity of method and content of confirmation instruction.  That is why the role of the Small Catechism at the center of the curriculum is so important and the abandonment of the Small Catechism in favor of other curricular material is so profound.

In the same way, periods of confessional and liturgical renewal have always come as the fruit of a time of catechetical renewal.  The catechism actually does function just as it is intended.  It preserves the faith and in this work of preservation sparks a renewal of that faith as the people of God are confronted with what was believed, confessed, and taught as a living voice and even a corrective one.  But increasingly the Church has grown restless with the past and impatient with the work of God and has determined to use the catechism for an alien work of introducing change and a disconnect with the past.

While this is certainly obviously truth with Rome as it struggles with the CCC and what to do with its words on homosexuality and the death penalty at a time when the public mood has moved away from the old positions (born of Scripture and tradition).  Not incidental is the role of Pope Francis to bring question if not disdain for those positions.  At the very least, this has introduced confusion -- something the catechism was designed to confront and resolve.  In this Lutherans should be paying attention.  Changing the catechism IS changing the faith.  It is one thing to make linguistic changes that reflect the change in vocabulary but it is quite another to change words because the intent is to change the meaning.

Some words to consider as we survey the chaos that appears to be the catechetical tradition of a church once united as much by that catechism as by the Lutheran symbols.


Sean said...

I like this article, but that being said, revision of a catechism is not normally done to introduce new doctrine, but to refute new heresies. So for example, the Nicene Creed was built from an existing creed offered up by Eusebius of Caesarea, and was added to at the Council of Nicaea to refute the errors of Arius, and again at Constantinople to refute the pneumatic heresies that had cropped up since the Council of Nicaea. I am not necessarily saying we NEED to update the Catechism; however, given the radical secular doctrine of the day that even overturns the biology of God's creation, it wouldn't necessarily be bad to address some of these heretical views by updating the catechism.

PTMcCain said...

The great thing about about the history of Luther's Small Catechism is that even within his own lifetime there were created addenda which provided further Q/A based on and supporting the six chief parts written by Luther.

For the past 450+ years the Explanation portions have changed and have been written to address current issues, topics and needs, for example, the latest Explanation produced by The LCMS (which is truly superbly done, in my opinion, the best ever produce in English).

But the core text, the actual "Catechism" itself does not change (except to be translated, etc.).

St. Louis

Anonymous said...

I think you can make a case that the 2017 catechism is the best done in English...for clergy and accomplished lifelong theologians. The major valid criticism of the 2017 catechism is that it is so bloated with information that its intended primary audience, 12 year old confirmands, will not begin to make it through it. I still have and love my old blue catechism. It is readable, memorizable, short, and to the point. It has created and creates a shared unity of doctrine and faith, and manner of speaking about that faith among the laity that is of inestimable value. The 2017 catechism in contrast lurches toward the 1000 plus page territory of the catechism of the Catholic Church, which becomes a lengthy handbook of doctrine that few delve into.

William Weedon said...

Just as long as we do not replace learning the primary texts and the SC explanations with teaching the doctrinal schemata laid out in the Explanation. I agree that the Explanation can and has been variously shaped across time (but not always without shifting the doctrine confessed - study the explanation of Confession and Absolution from Detriech through today); there’s room for theological emphases to rise and fall given current false teachings and idolatries. But nothing should ever be allowed to dethrone the work on the actual text of the Catechism itself. There’s where we ought be focused; and too often we’re not.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

"The major valid criticism of the 2017 catechism is that it is so bloated with information that its intended primary audience, 12 year old confirmands..."

And that is the problematic assumption that continues to handicap ongoing catechesis in the Lutheran congregation; namely that the Catechism with Explanation is "primarily" for 12 year olds and largely accounts for the horrible notion that views "confirmation" as some kind of quasi-sacrament by which we "graduate" people into "full membership" in the congregation. This sentiment is wrong in so many ways.

First, Holy Baptism incorporates all people of all ages, into "full membership" into the body of Christ; hence the congregation.

Second, that catechesis is somehow "for children."


As for the new Catechism...comparing it t the Catechism of the RCC is kind of laughable, just hold the two books up next to one another.

And, I do think the RCC is on to something with a definitive comprehensive catechism that IS viewed as a core/basic text to which people can say, "Here is what we teach and believe."

In fact the Synod did call for the creation of such a text, much more expansive than what we have now.

Saint Louis

PTMcCain said...

Oh, and thoroughly agree with Father Weedon, re. the Small Catechism proper. In fact, ideally, parents will be teaching it to their children so that by the time they reach confirmation they have it all memorized!! You know, like Luther said it should be.

And as for that partnership with CPH, Lutheran Heritage Foundation is distributing 500,000 copies of the Small Catechism, this edition:

It's a great, handy, beautifully printed version of the Catechism.

Anonymous said...

Ongoing catechesis is not a concern if you have 12 year olds memorize the actual Small Catechism during confirmation classes. What else are you doing for two years? Lutherans should then be able to recite the catechism for the rest of their lives. That the Small Catechism is primarily for 12 year olds is not a problematic assumption. It is reality. That's when the Lutheran church actually, as in the real world, catechizes children. I'm not aware of any Lutheran that thinks confirmation is a sacrament. It is a godly rite, preserved from the Roman Catholic Church, which means you of all people should approve of it, where a Lutheran publicly is examined and confesses the faith received at baptism. No one should be admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar without being examined (St. Paul), and Luther states that this examination may only be necessary once in a person's life. So, yes, Lutherans justly emphasize and prize confirmation.

As to the 2017 being bloated, this is simply a fact, compared to the size of every other Small Catechism and Explanation published in the history of the LCMS.
The Roman Catholic Church may point to their catechism as everything they believe, teach, and confess. The Lutheran church has no need to mimic the Roman Catholic Church in this, since we already have a book that states what we believe, teach, and confess. It's called the Book of Concord.

PT Mc Cain said...

The notion that the book titled "The Small Catechism with Explanation" is "primarily" for 12 year olds is the notion I'm taking issue with. It's a book for all ages at all stages.

But as for using it with twelve year olds, we've got you covered:


PT Mc Cain
St. Louis

Sean said...

PT McCain, thanks for your comments. I enjoyed reading them.

Anonymous said...

The catechism must apply to new situations from time to time so speak clearly the unchanging faith and this is the function of the extended explanations but the most accessible and well known part of our Symbols remains the Small Catechism and this is not a text which should be tinkered with very often and then only reluctantly.