A Different Kind of Catechism
The scope of catechesis from the Reformation was broad and included not only instruction at church but in the home and in schools.
Melancthon’s Catechesis Puerilis, or Catechism for Children, is significantly different from Martin Luther’s well known and broadly memorized Small Catechism. However, they share the same aim to teach the knowledge of the Christian faith. The difference is not about what these close friends and co-reformers confessed, but how they taught and who they were aiming to teach. Where Luther’s catechism opens with the explicit and concise aim of anchoring faith in the home by teaching families the truth of the Christian faith, Melanchthon begins with a lesson in grammar meant for school-aged children by defining and explaining the root of catechesis, the Greek word, catecheo.
The differences continue to grow the further you read. Luther’s catechism takes a few sentences to explain each of the Ten Commandments whileMelanchthon’s explanations can span pages. And while the Small Catechism sticks strictly to each doctrine’s most essential elements, Melanchthon leaves no stone unturned. Inside the Catechesis Puerilis, we see aspects of all Melanchthon’s writings, from the inclusion of obscure classical references to the orderly breakdown of each doctrine and its subpoint. Shortly after explaining the commandments, the catechism begins to look like a mini Loci Communes, Melanchthon’s well-regarded systematic theology where he outlines, defines, and exposits the common topics of theology.
The scope of catechesis from the Reformation was broad and included not only instruction at church, but in the home and in schools.
These stylistic and categorical differences personify the titles of the teacher and the preacher given to Melanchthon and Luther, respectively. At this point in his career, Melanchthon is renowned for his assistance in opening schools and contributing toward their curriculum. This work earned Melanchthon the title, “Preceptor of Germany,” and made him one of the most important figures in the development of Western education. The Catechesis Puerilis fits nicely inside his repertoire of educational projects as a means of further teaching students who were versed in Latin and had likely already put Luther’s Small Catechism to memory.
Today, the Catechesis Puerilis of Melanchthon is largely forgotten, while Luther’s Small Catechism is still read and memorized by Christians of various backgrounds. This demonstrates a couple of things. First, there is always a need to pass down the truth of the Christian faith in a simple way that can always be in our hearts, and minds will never fade away. Luther’s Small Catechism masterfully fills this need. Second, that the scope of catechesis from the Reformation was broad and included not only instruction at church, but in the home and in schools.
I advocate for the retrieval of Melanchton’s catechetical concerns to orient us to recapturing theological catechesis in matters of formal education. The Small Catechism clarifies the need to establish the head of the household, namely fathers, as priests in the home. In a related way, Melanchthon calls us to realize that every student - due to the nature of education - is imparted with and forms some sort of theology. Formal education always has a theological impact. The take away from Melanchthon is that such an effect is not always positive, and just as we cultivate faith in the home through catechesis, we should also strive to do so in matters of formal education.
I am not advocating that parents pull their children out of schools that do not provide theological education. Instead, an educational catechesis starts with the simple awareness that the subjects taught in schools like history, literature, science, and mathematics are related to theology because they help us understand and explore the world and our place in it. Theology has important and exclusive things to say about our place in the world, particularly our place before the Creator of the world. While the humanities and sciences have much to teach us and even help us explore and uncover theological topics, they lack one specific promise: “Christ crucified for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
As our children grow in knowledge and understanding, we can begin to expand like Melanchthon does, asking questions that intersect with other areas of learning.
Today, theology is often separated from other kinds of learning and can appear individualistic and subjective. Children are taught to believe the same things about math, science, and history, and their relation to the notion of truth. These same children then go off to practice and have faith in various and competing religions. This makes the question, “Is my faith true?” a natural and honest one. This is why Christians do not need to isolate theology into the realm of personal and subjective faith. Instead, we can embrace a God who broke into recorded human history and uses physical means and human speech to create faith. This means that the Christian faith can be investigated and enriched by other educational precepts not hidden away from them.
Unfortunately, this may sound like just one more thing for parents to add to their to-do list, and, in part, that’s because it is. Knowledge isn’t acquired purely through osmosis, which drives back to the introduction of Luther’s Small Catechism: “In a simple way for the head of the household to teach the family.” But as our children grow in knowledge and understanding, we can begin to expand like Melanchthon does, asking questions that intersect with other areas of learning. Some helpful resources might include apologetic works like Mere Christianity or History, Law and Christianity, or creative literature like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Even something as simple as listening to a theological podcast on the way to school can be a step in forming the habit of continued catechesis.
Melancthon emphasizes that the Christian faith is passed down from one person’s lips to another person’s ears. Catechesis, in its various forms, helps frame the role of passing down the faith within the realm of vocation. That is, parents are called to be preachers and teachers of the faith. Luther and Melanchthon worked diligently to make sure that parents were not alone in this effort and had resources at hand that made such education attainable.