What the Catechism Lacks (and a Resource You Should Know About)


I love the Catechism. Next to the Bible, I have found Luther's Small Catechism to be the single most influential resource for my own formation, prayer, and teaching. We use the Six Chief Parts for our children's messages at church. My D.Min. project focused on how to use Luther's Small Catechism to teach apologetcs. Don't get me wrong—I treasure the Catechism.

Nevertheless, lately I've become convinced that the Catechism is missing something incredibly important. While its brief exposition of the Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Sacraments gives a bird's eye view of the Christian worldview, the story of Israel is not central. It may be implied, but the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants—the story that occupies a good portion of the Bible—is not explicitly present.

On the one hand, Luther couldn't include everything in the catechism. His intention was to address the basics that were lacking among the people of his day. And furthermore, Luther's intention in the Catechism was to push its students deeper and deeper into the biblical narrative. However, I would argue that the story of Israel is part of the basics of "what every Christian should know," and also that a basic grasp of this story and its relation to all of Scripture is one of the hermeneutical keys that will help us to delve deep into the Bible without moralizing the things that were written "for our instruction" (Rom. 15:4—by the way, Paul uses a catechetical word there with reference to the Hebrew Scriptures). In an age where some preachers want to "unhitch" the New Testament from the Old Testament, we must be all the more careful to offer sound instruction in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The siren call of Marcion is always looming, seducing the church into some kind of ahistorical gnosticism.

One of the maladies that pastors must address in congregational life is biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy doesn't necessarily mean that people don't know the content of the Bible. Lack of exposure to the texts is an issue, but I would say it's not the main issue. If it were, then the weekly lectionary readings at worship would have taken care of this. No, I would say the issue is that people often struggle to incorporate single portions of the Bible into the whole. If this is true for the New Testament, it is even more true for the Old Testament.

It's been said that the Catechism is "the layperson's Bible"—not a resource to replace the Bible, of course, but rather one that serves to offer Christians of all ages and education a simple understanding of what the Bible is all about. It's also common practice for Luther's Small Catechism to be the central teaching resource for children and new members. So, with that said, if we expect children and new members to eventually read the Old Testament, hear sermons on its texts, and incorporate both into a fully mature Christian life, when and how are we going to give instruction that prepares them for such things? As much as I love the Catechism, I don't find resources for such instruction within the Six Chief Parts or its later explanations.

One potential remedy is Sunday school. However, as beneficial as Sunday school can be (as long as it's supplementary to regular Bible reading at home), few teaching resources handle the Old Testament in such a way that the smaller stories are incorporated into the larger story. In other words, a robust biblical theology is often lacking. Also, what about adults? For someone who has never read the Bible, jumping into an adult Bible study on the Minor Prophets may not work out very well.

All of these difficulties came to a head recently as I was starting to plan for a new year of confirmation instruction. Like many churches, we recognize that Luther's Small Catechism itself is not sufficient for well-rounded Christian formation, and so, we require our confirmands to devote one year to the study of the Bible in addition to one year of formal study of the Small Catechism. Up until recently, I haven't been able to find a resource that communicates solid biblical theology—a curriculum that would show students the beauty of God's story from Genesis to Revelation. Thinking back to my own theological reading, I've been looking for a resource that would do what N.T. Wright does so well in his books. Now, regardless of your opinion about Wright and his book on justification, let's at least admit that he does something very well in his books. Whenever Wright approaches a topic—say, the kingdom of Godthe resurrection, or evil and suffering—he always starts by sketching out the whole story of Israel and her vocation, and uses that story as a framework for understanding the question at hand. That, I would say, is a great move. 

Teens and even adults are not prone to reading biblical theology books, so I was thankful to have recently encountered a resource that does all of this well in a very accessible way. Perhaps this resource is old news for some, but I deeply appreciate the work done by The Bible Project and its partner app, Read ScriptureThe creators have taken entire books of the Bible, as well as key words from the Bible, and translated what is so often unfamiliar into easy to follow narrated videos. The videos are not simply lectures—they are artistic narratives that visualize the story of the Scriptures and the themes therein. I'd encourage you to check them out. As we prepared to begin a summer preaching series on Isaiah 1-39, we shared thecorresponding Bible Project video with our congregation, and had lots of great feedback about how the video made foreign concepts clear and accessible. I'm hoping to use the videos in addition to the Bible curriculum I'm using for confirmation this coming school year. In the meantime, are you aware of any others resources that communicate the story of the Old Testament well? 

Pastor John Rasmussen—Our Savior Lutheran Church—South Windsor, CT