Friday, March 25, 2011

The Catechism: Introduction

A few disclaimers and provisos before I begin: This effort is primarily meant to be a personal Lenten discipline, I do not claim any ecclesiatical warrant, blessing, or other official endorsement for the exercise.  I can only claim the authority of a Baptized member of the Body of Christ - and therefore all of the pitfalls and distortions that may follow are solely of my own making.  If I inadvertently teach in a manner that is problematic or erroneous, I ask the pardon of those stronger members of the Body and seek their forbearance.

As this is a personal meditation, I will not be engaged in much criticism of the source material, historical investigations, or in issues regarding translation.  This is primarily due to my innocence of German and Latin, as well as to the additional burden that these concerns would place upon both the reader and author.  Any offerings along these lines will be appreciated, though I hope that there will be merit enough in the effort for the "general" Christian reader.  I will be utilizing the Tappert version as well as Concordia's (Second) Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord; Paul McCain, general editor.  Any direct quotations from these works will be italicized.  The bulk of the work will be my own meditation.   I will begin with the so-called Longer Preface and work through to end at Brief Exhortation to Confession.  This should supply ample material for the forty days of Lent.

I publish this for the sake of personal edification, discussion, witness, and hopefully for the "mutual consolation of the saints" (Third Article of the Creed), and, the likelihood that this latter goal may be reached can only be increased when the saints enter into this process by way of discussion.

I have chosen to base my meditations on the Large Catechism for a number of reasons, some of which are not entirely clear to me and definitely reflect my own initial formative experiences of the text.  I suppose I have always enjoyed Luther's use of rhetoric in this work and his palpable concern for the content he is dealing with as well as for the good of the intended audience; it just shines in through in the Large Catechism, which, to me, has more of a devotional and homiletic cast than does the Small Catechism with its concise and didactic formulas (meant, of course, for memorization and tacit and explicit recall).  The decidedly polemical posture, especially in regard to the papal church, may strike some as unnecessary and even harmful to the cause of Christian unity - but this is a reaction that may come too unreflectively as a prevailing prejudice of our post-denominational and doctrinally indifferent age.  We do well to listen to the harsher sentiments, at least as evidence of the consuming conviction of the author that the issues being contended over mattered!   That these issues had eternal ramifications, and not just abstractly, but for living people.  This was not armchair theology.  It was not a pastime for a comfortable priestly caste; it was Confession!  A declaration of what was the case, of what was the nature of reality itself and what our response to reality as given by the Gospel ought to be.  Luther may lack the theological precision of a scholastic disputant (although he can utilize this mode of articulation if he deems it necessary), but he is nearly unparalleled in his insistence upon the immediacy and involving reality of the matter that he seeks to present to his readers in an equally involving way.

Perhaps this is the main reason I have found for pursuing this discipline, to allow Luther's words to remind me that I had better care that the Christian faith describes things as they are, and that the Church (especially that church that, rightly or wrongly, bears his name) better care too.  Everything depends on the veracity of the claims being made - and equally too - the faith that acknowledges them to be true; a faith that receives the communicated truth of God in Christ and stakes its life and its all upon it.


The Longer Preface

It is not for trivial reasons that we constantly treat the Catechism and strongly urge others to do the same...

a shameful and insidious plague of security and boredom has overtaken us.

I love reading the longer preface because it immediately challenges me and attempts to inculcate a wholesome mood of receptivity and humility.  Don't be too smart for your own good, and don't neglect the rudiments of the faith.  If you don't know these, and you can't ever know them well enough, then you don't really know much about the faith.

The early lines of the Preface reveal that there were pressing problems among the Evangelical churches of Luther's day: laziness and presumption.  I confess that I have found the people who think there is little to be gleaned from reading the old teachers and sages and saints to be rather silly as a matter of course, but here the notion that Luther's concerns are somehow foreign to our age, that they are (to use the strongest modern disparagement possible) irrelevant, seems especially ludicrous.  We modern church people certainly know nothing of laziness and false security, heavens no.  Anyhow,  Luther never tires of chiding the lazy fat good for nothing preachers for this cast of character which he finds to be inimical to genuine Evangelical faith.  They become a sort of stock image, a negative character, a supreme counterexample for pious readers to understand and deliberately avoid imitating.  There are numerous colorful expressions of pique and varied unflattering epithets that make it into the Preface, nearly all of which are reserved for the lazy and overconfident priests and teachers of the church.

This seems to me to follow naturally from Luther's understanding of genuine Evangelical faith.  One could even take the virtues that oppose the aforementioned vices as primary descriptors of that faith; where presumption or false confidence would be opposed by true security and gratitude, and active works of love and thanksgiving oppose laziness and indifference.  If one is proud, unconcerned with and uninvolved in the things of Christian living and being, then there is a good chance that one is on the road to damnation.

Luther makes it clear in the Preface that the lazy, presumptuous Christian who takes his newly found Evangelical freedom as an excuse for whatever license and fancy he pleases, ignoring the Commandments, the Creed, etc., is not worthy of that freedom, nor truly inhabiting it!  So too, the pastor or preacher who either finds these rudiments to be "an easy thing" and fancies himself too learned for such childish matters, or is simply more concerned to pursue his own (natural) inclinations now that he no longer has to "babble the seven hours".  These two varieties of Christian bear the name in an illegitimate fashion, and both need to become like grateful children again and study the Catechism daily.  When they do this they will then truly return to proper comportment in the Gospel and truly inhabit genuine Evangelical freedom, whereby they will receive positive blessings and be able to withstand the daily assaults of the devil.  Without a strong and secure base founded upon the Word of God as it is expounded in the Catechism, one topples over at the slightest pressure.  To daily enter into the Catechism is to consciously recall and dwell in the Christian faith and to be held by the Living God.

If one will not enter into the discipline of learning the Catechism, and, indeed, know its contents, one should not "be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to the Sacrament", according to Luther.

When I think on all of the preceding, I come to two immediate conclusions:  I lapse into a form of false security and presumption that is not in keeping with the aims of the Catechism quite regularly, and, the church as I have known it does not typically hold to the requirements for reckoning one a Christian and admitting people to the Sacrament of the Altar.  What does this reality imply for my own spiritual health?  How can I gain ground in the struggle against spiritual presumption?   What does this imply for the health of the church, or, at the very least, for the identity status of those churches who hold the Catechism to be binding teaching for its communicants?

Further, what is the connection between having knowledge of the faith in terms of its content and assent to its assertions concerning reality and one's status as Communing member of the Body of Christ?  It is hard to read Luther's statements in the Preface and deny that there must be a necessary and close relationship between knowledge of and assent to the content of faith of the Catechism and Communicant status in the church...

These are things to consider as we begin to consider that necessary content, the first division of which is the Ten Commandments (which may come as a shock to some Lutherans).

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