Did you know Martin Luther…
- Popularized the use of the Catechism?
- Introduced a new method in handing on the faith?
- Shifted catechesis from the heart to the head?
Five Hundred years ago not only marks the disunity of Christendom but a significant change in the catechetical landscape that has effected the last 500 years. How did Luther have such a significant impact on catechesis? By the beginning of the sixteenth century the printing press was producing great amounts of materials. Luther took advantage of this by having numerous works published. Those included many of his theological ideas produced in the form of pamphlets, the translation of the Bible into German and the publication of a small and large catechism.
Although Luther did not invent the concept/idea of the Catechism, he popularized the use of it. It was in 1529 that he printed parts of what became known as his “small catechism” for the use of children and the less educated and the “large catechism” for clergy and those advanced in education. This mode of handing on the faith through the instrument of the catechism endured for the next 400 years by both Protestants and Catholics.
The method of catechesis by catechism had significant ramifications upon the transmission of the faith. Two examples will suffice: 1) Up until the Reformation, the primary means of transmitting the truths of the faith was an oral proclamation through preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Father’s complete revelation of Himself and His plan for humanity. This plan was realized through the proclamation of the glad tidings of Jesus Christ and through a variety of liturgical celebrations throughout the year. It was especially in the Eucharistic liturgy that the truths of the faith were encountered. 2) Art, architecture, private and public devotions, mostly disregarded by Luther, held a significant catechetical place in the lives of the medieval believer. It was the result of this method of instructing, primarily through the written text, of the catechism and its emphasis on doctrine that contributed so greatly to the decline of a united Christendom that lived and breathed a life of faith.
Shift from the Heart to the Mind
Luther used the question and answer format to transmit the truths of the Commandments, the Creed and the Our Father which summarized the basics of the faith. The reformers did not see the value of engaging the heart in the way that was common in the culture of the late medieval period – they believed it to be pomp and circumstance. They primarily focused on the doctrine being learned and memorized so children, parents and adults could know what was to be believed.
Each of these things have made an incredible impact for both Protestants and Catholics over the last 500 years. The emphasis on doctrine and catechisms became popular due to the impact of the printing press and Martin Luther utilizing it to rally his supporters (Catholics responded in kind). As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation may we continue to grow and learn from history. There have been many unintentional consequence as a result of the reformation and each of these points mentioned above briefly illustrates some of the enduring effects of Martin Luther on catechesis.