The Lutheran Difference: What’s the Source?

So last week, we finished talking about Martin Luther. Hopefully it gave you a little window into who the man was. So now, we’re going to transition into what Lutherans actually teach.

“But John,” you may be asking. “Is there a place where we can find all of what Luther taught in one place?”

Thank you for asking. The answer is, yes, there is. It’s called Luther’s Works, and there are 54 volumes of it. I’m fortunate enough to have a complete set that’s been passed down from my grandfather to my father and now to me.

luthers works

Just a little bit of light reading

Okay, that’s a bit much, isn’t it? Maybe we should narrow it down a bit. Is there a collection of the essential teachings that Lutherans hold to?

BookofConcordImageAgain, the answer is “Yes,” and there’s really only one book. It’s called The Book of Concord. It’s a collection of the most important documents that help explain what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.

So what’s in this book? Well, for starters, the Augsburg Confession and its Apology. There are confessions that were written by Luther and his followers at various points in the Reformation. In my little corner of Lutheranism, when a pastor is ordained, we’re asked if we subscribe to the confessions contained within this book, because we believe them to be the correct explanation of the Bible.

In other words, this is a pretty important book.

But say you’re not quite ready to read the whole thing. That’s understandable. It is a thick book and it takes a while to get through it all. Is there a more concise summary of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess?

My, you’re awfully demanding, aren’t you? But luckily for you, there is.

Back during the heady days of the Reformation, Martin Luther decided to take a tour of the area around Wittenberg and see how everyone was doing now that they were free of Roman Catholicism. He hoped that he would find people who were living out their Christian faith, people who understood exactly what it meant to be a Jesus follower.

That’s not what he found. He discovered that most of the laity and the priests were clueless. They didn’t know what it meant to be a Christian at all. Their ignorance was deeply troubling to Luther, and so he decided he would do something to correct it. And, since it’s Luther we’re talking about, his solution was to write two different books, The Small Catechism for the lay people and The Large Catechism for the priests.

So what did Martin put in these books? Well, Luther figured that Christianity could be boiled down to Six Chief Parts, namely the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confession and Absolution. In The Small Catechism, Luther would present each part and then ask the question “Was ist das?”, which is usually translated as “What does this mean?” (although a more literal translation would be “What is that?”) Luther would then answer the question by explaining what each part meant.

How about I give you an example? Here’s what Luther wrote about the First Commandment in The Small Catechism:

You shall have no other gods.

What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

That’s it, the entire thing.

If that seems pretty basic, that’s by design. Luther’s intention was not for the Catechism to be something you could carry in your pocket or store on your phone (although you can technically do both; I have the Catechism on my iPhone). Instead, it was meant to be memorized. That’s why, in so many Lutheran confirmation programs, pastors still require memory work, especially of The Small Catechism. The idea is for the students to commit this to memory so they can recall it later if they don’t have their books (or their phones) handy.

Most of The Small Catechism is like that, presenting the Six Chief Parts a piece at a time, offering short(ish) explanations for what each one means.

So what about The Large Catechism? Well, if the Small was for lay-people, then the Large was for the clergy. Once again, Luther presents the Six Chief Parts a bit at a time, but instead of short, easy-to-memorize statements, Luther instead goes into great detail about what each little bit meant. It was meant to help the pastors to explain what the laity found in the Small.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what Lutherans believe and what makes us different from other Christians. A lot of what I’ll be sharing can be found in the books we just talked about.

But maybe you don’t want to wait. Maybe you want to check it out for yourself. If so, you can get one from Amazon or you can get it for your iPhone. And it really doesn’t take that long to read. Maybe an hour at the most.

Come back next week, when we’ll start diving in by talking about the three solas.

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  1. That’s cool, I’ll try reading those some time.

    Do you use the Small Catechism in worship? At this church I’m going to they used the Belgic Confession like a catechism, as a question-and-response section in worship.

    • I suspect it differs from congregation to congregation. I’ll say that in my experience, we don’t, although there are exceptions. For example, my current congregation just wrapped up a series on the Ten Commandments, so we integrated the explanations from the Small Catechism into our worship. And I’ve done the same thing in the past when doing series on the Lord’s Prayer and so on.

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