Tuesday, August 20, 2019

No Creed but the Catechism

I went to mail a package the other day and wound up getting into a strange little theological conversation. It was brief. To tell the truth, I was a little surprised, and didn’t quite know how to respond to the statement that offended me. The fellow saw that I was mailing some religious books. He asked me what denomination I was. I told him I was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. He seemed to know what that was, but then told me this: “I had dinner with two Lutheran friends from out of town the other night. The one I’m not worried about. The other one… too catholic! He talked too much about the catechism.” I thought to myself that the man he was worried about and I would probably get along better than the other “Lutheran” and I would. I knew I only had a few moments to respond in some way. Rather than being confrontational, or saying something sarcastic (which is my modus operandi), I replied, “God works through His Word when and where He wills.” I got a smile of approval, finished my transaction, and left. 

This attitude among Evangelicals really does kind of bother me. It falls under the umbrella of No Creed but Christ, No Book but the Bible. This is supposed to express that the person who professes this mini man-made creed doesn’t profess man-made creeds, and that they get their doctrines from the Bible, and not man-made theology. It’s not so much because of their smug sense of superiority when expressing it, but rather that they are so certain about something that just is not so. Not only are they professing a creed that is not “Christ”, one that is far inferior to the ecumenical creeds, they often subscribe to many books other than the Bible for their theology; books that take the words of Scripture out of context and teach things foreign to it, like dispensationalism (I’m looking at you, Cyrus Scofield).
Cyrus I. Scofield, creator of the Scofield Reference Bible

Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (hereinafter referred to as The Catechism) falls into the second half of the mini-creed; it is a book other than the Bible. It must, therefore, contain the doctrines of men. After all, if it were Jesus’ catechism, it would have His name on it. There are, however, several problems: No Creed but Christ, No Book but the Bible ignores the reality of how men are converted, and how doctrine is preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next; also, my fundagelical friends have a misconception about what a catechism is. 

They don’t know what a catechism is, so they don’t know what they are missing by rejecting such a resource out-of-hand because it was “written by men”. The desire to obey God rather than men is good. We Christians should follow the example of our fathers in the faith who came before us and preached, taught, baptized, and worshiped in the face of persecution. But that is just the point: Christianity isn’t just me and my Bible, and you and yours, having personal experiences with God. Christianity is the death of Jesus as ransom for the sin of the world, and His resurrection for our justification.[1] And when a man is made a Christian by the working of the Holy Spirit through the means of the Word, he becomes a part of something bigger than himself – the body of Christ, the Church, the Communion of Saints, spread out through time and space, preserved by Him until the Last Day when Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, and establish the new creation. I don’t mean to wax metaphysical, but Christianity, rather than being a religion of “do these things in this prescribed way according to this rulebook,” is instead a religion of being. You once were dead in trespass and sin, and now you are made alive by Christ.[2] You once were dirty with the filth of your sin, and now you have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God;[3] You have been saved in the waters of Holy Baptism,[4] where you were connected to Christ, His death and resurrection, clothed with His righteousness,[5] washed clean of your sin.[6] You used to be a fallen, sinful creature; now Christ has made you a new creation, by the grace of God through faith in Him.[7] Now, be forgiven. This is a concept that the unregenerate human mind, hostile to God, cannot understand.[8] We Christians can only begin to grasp it, and struggle with sin while we live here in the flesh because of sin living in us.[9]

What does that have to do with The Catechism? Good question. I doubt that most people even understand what the word catechism means, let alone what the book actually is. Catechism means to instruct by question and answer.[10] Consequently, a book containing a summary of religious doctrine in question and answer format is called a catechism. So, is The Catechism not a summary of Luther’s teachings? If it is, then my friend is right, I follow Luther rather than Christ, and I am a filthy pagan. But is he correct? Not hardly. Dr. Luther’s catechism is an instruction in the teachings of the Christian faith, as it had been believed, taught, and confessed since ancient times, using Holy Scripture as it’s foundation. In the preface to his catechism, Luther wrote: 

The deplorable, miserable conditions which I have recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.[11] 

The Catechism, according to Luther, is a teaching tool, designed to help instruct people in the doctrines of the Christian faith, all of which are exposed in Holy Scripture. 

If someone claims that they only need the Bible, they probably mean to express that they are faithful Christians who hold Holy Scripture in high regard, and believe what it says. But how did they hear the Gospel? Did a Bible fall from heaven, open, in front of them? Was it a Scofield Reference Bible?[12] If so, are the notes inspired Scripture as well? Did they begin reading it without human interaction, with only the odd quiver of the liver to direct them? No. They were brought to hear preaching and teaching at church, Sunday school, Bible study, and by other Christians as they encountered them in their various vocations, etc. Did these other Christians simply read to them the Gospel of John? Did they answer each question directed to them with a bare quotation of Scripture? No. They summarized and taught, and pointed to the Word as recorded in Holy Scripture, preserved and handed down through the church by the working of the Holy Spirit, to show that what they were teaching was true. 

Some do this faithfully; others do not. But we know that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church in unity, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.[13] This Church, made up of all the faithful of all time, we cannot see, and call the “invisible” church. We seek to remain a part of this “invisible” church, and be faithful to that “visible” church (that gathering of people around the means of grace which is made up of believers and hypocrites[14]) which teaches all of the Bible’s doctrines purely, and administers the Sacraments according to their institution.[15] Moreover, we are called to avoid false teachers, churches, cults, and all organizations that teach contrary to God’s Word.[16]

What about all those people, probably the vast majority in human history, who were too poor to own a printed book of any kind? They had no Bible. How about those people who could not read? How did God make them Christians? Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.[17] Anyone who became a Christian was baptized and taught, and their teacher didn’t just read Bible quotes at them. If he was a faithful teacher and preacher, all that he preached and taught had God’s Word, understood in it’s proper context, as a foundation, just as The Catechism does. I wonder how my fundagelical friend talks to people about Jesus. Does he share his testimony? Does he explain how to walk down the Roman Road? Does he follow the method of Dr. D. James Kennedy? These things are attempting to do what The Catechism does: summarize Christian doctrine and deliver the Word of Christ (Though, I would argue, these other methods are far inferior to The Catechism, and distort God’s Word by teaching it out of it’s proper context).

The human heart is, as I once heard a faithful preacher say, an idol factory. We can make anything into an idol – including Luther – as Rome did with the Pope, as cults do with their leaders, and as some do even with the Bible (KJV Only movement, anyone?).

But creeds and confessional statements, like The Catechism and the Book of Concord of which it is a part, are wonderful things. They distill the teachings of Holy Scripture into concentrated bits that the Church can learn and confess together. They serve as a check for the layman on the preaching of the pastor. If he deviates from the doctrine of Scripture as they have learned it, it is the duty of the people to call their pastor to account. Confessional statements and creeds serve as clear examples of what men are teaching as the Word of God from Holy Scripture. Those documents are the best starting point for Christians to begin talking to each other in a serious and meaningful way about what they believe, teach, and confess, and working toward true Christian unity, so that we teach all things that Christ has commanded.[18]

God works through preachers, and teachers, and the liturgy, and the catechism, and books written by Christians intended to teach, and people talking to one another, and all kinds of ways, provided that God’s Word, the Word of Christ, is being delivered. God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself.[19]


Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Got Questions. "What is the Scofield Reference Bible?" Got Questions: Your Questions, Biblical Answers. July 26, 2019. https://www.gotquestions.org/Scofield-Reference-Bible.html (accessed August 20, 2019).

McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht. Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. 1st. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1924.

Wikipedia. Dispensationalism. "Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism (accessed August 20, 2019).

[1] Mark 10:45; John 3:3-5, 10-17; Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; Romans 4:23-25
[2] Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:11
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
[4] 1 Peter 3:18-22
[5] Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 3:27
[6] Acts 22:16
[7] 2 Corinthians 5:16-19
[8] Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14
[9] Romans 7:13-25
[10] Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1924
[11] Concordia Publishing House, 1991
[12]  The Scofield Reference Bible promoted Dispensationalism, the belief that between creation and the final judgment there would be seven distinct eras of God's dealing with man and that these eras are a framework for synthesizing the message of the Bible (Got Questions 2019). It was largely through the influence of Scofield's notes that Dispensationalism grew in influence among fundamentalist Christians in the United States. (Wikipedia n.d.)
[13] Matthew 16:18
[14] Matthew 13:47-48; 22:11-12; Acts 5:1-11
[15] John 8:31-32; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 1:10
[16] Matthew 7:15-16; Romans 16:17-18; Galatians 1:8; 2 Timothy 4:3; 1 John 4:1
[17] Romans 10:17
[18] Matthew 28:16-20
[19] Concordia Publishing House, 1991. SA III VII 10