Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Lord’s Prayer, by Albrecht Peters. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 221 pages.
The late Dr. Albrecht Peters was a longtime member of the theological faculty of the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg, Germany. This commentary is part of a larger work gathered and edited by his junior colleague, Gottfried Seebass. This volume was originally published in 1992 as part of the five-volume Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen. According to the preface, “most recent scholarship regarding Luther’s catechisms refers to this work in some fashion” (ix).
The catechisms of Martin Luther are, in a certain sense, didactic commentaries on the six chief parts of Christian doctrine. That would make this book a commentary on a commentary—but fear not! Peters clearly examines the Lord’s Prayer as confessed in Martin Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms with fresh insight. He laments the fact that many recent works on the Lutheran Confessions give scant attention to prayer. He strives to fill in what is lacking elsewhere (3).
Thus Peters lays out a threefold purpose: to show Luther’s interpretations in the context of the Western tradition; to investigate various changes within Luther’s explanations before reaching the present form in the catechisms; and finally, to examine the “exegetical soundness and dogmatic relevance of Luther’s insights” (4). By examining Luther’s works Peters wants to inculcate the reformer’s deep appreciation for and insight into the Lord’s Prayer. The book walks through Luther’s Catechisms in a straightforward manner.
Luther’s opening words of the Large Catechism are actually an admonition to pray as God’s dearly loved children. Peters connects this admonition with the explanation to the “Amen” and provides a starting point for the book. This section is replete with comments from Luther’s other writings on the importance of prayer in the life of the Christian and the singular place the Lord’s Prayer holds. Luther wanted to illustrate the believer’s freedom from the prattling of the work-righteous, who make the Lord’s Prayer “the greatest martyr on earth” (30). Peters reminds us, “Only in the confidence in the self revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth do we risk our existence in prayer and grasp God’s salvation-granting hand for mercy with every fiber of our being” (15).
The second portion of the book discusses Luther’s perspective on the Thy-petitions as a whole. Then each petition is examined by discussing a simple exegesis of each petition (sometimes the Greek and sometimes Luther’s German is examined), its historical context, and finally Luther’s comments.
At times, Peters’ opening exegesis for each petition seems too narrowly defined, especially with regard to verb tenses. He uses the aorist tense as proof for a one-time eschatological meaning of various petitions (40, 57, 72, 146). Luther’s explanations consistently expand beyond Peters’ literal, “true to fact interpretation” (72) and connect that great Last Day with our little present struggles against evil (163). One wonders if some other comments by Peters are not at times revealing a higher critical perspective. Thankfully, such comments are kept to a minimum and I recorded only a few, such as a late date for Deuteronomy (57), a cultic-priestly and ethical-prophetic tension (56), repeated reference to the “Christ event” (41, 78), and a gaffe which makes the three solas of the Reformation grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone (206).
Following an exegesis, Peters puts forth the major interpretation of each petition according to early and medieval Church teachers. He does not disappoint in contextualizing Luther’s catechisms with the writings of Western Church fathers. For instance, Luther’s classic listing of our enemies, “the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh,” finds expression first in Cyprian. It was picked up by Augustine, compiled concisely by Peter Chrysologus, and then connected to the Sixth Petition by Peter Abelard (105, 187). Yet Luther stands apart in his clarity of expression and understanding. Peters writes, “Luther distinguishes himself from all interpreters of the Second Petition before him, in that in the catechism he bases the kingdom of God in the Gospel of Christ” (83). And later he comments, “…no exegete before [Luther] had in this [Fifth] petition so penetratingly pointed to God’s continual forgiveness” (161).
Finally, under each petition Peters presents the structure and characteristics of Luther’s explanations in the catechisms. This encompasses one of his main purposes, and highlights the meat and potatoes of Luther’s catechisms. This is what confessional Lutheran pastors know and love. Nevertheless, it’s a fresh, organized look at Luther’s words. One powerful insight, with which Peters ends his book, is Luther’s testimony: “‘Our whole defense and offense’ stands ‘in prayer alone’” (207). There are a plethora of quotes from Luther in this section. Peters highlights certain themes by referencing other works in which Luther develops similar thoughts. For example, Luther’s comments on the Fourth Petition diverge from tradition by seeing ‘bread,’ not as spiritual bread, but as “everything that belongs to this life in the world” (129). Peters’ footnotes then reference sermons and other writings, which give ample evidence of the mature Luther’s theological position. The book ends rather abruptly with the Sixth and Seventh Petitions lumped together.
This book would be a beneficial addition to a Lutheran pastor’s study. The discussion of the two halves of the Fifth Petition (impotence and power), the examination of the disputed meaning of ‘bread’ in the Fourth Petition, Luther’s preference for Anfechtung in the Sixth Petition, and the listing of Luther’s statements about prayer as an offensive and defensive weapon against evil are just a few of the gems found peppered throughout this work. Peters focuses again and again on God’s love revealed through the Son in the Holy Spirit. This was Luther’s encouragement and it spurs us on to pray as well (28). The discussion of Luther’s German at times was also appreciated by this Lutheran pastor, too far removed from my German heritage to catch the subtle nuances of the language.
The references to Luther’s sermons throughout the book brought to mind a homiletical encouragement: preach through the Lord’s Prayer as Luther did. Each petition covers multiple commandments and portions of the Creed. Parishioners and preachers alike would benefit from such an endeavor. This volume could serve as an aid to that end. Peters’ book captures the exceeding depth of Luther’s theological insight and leaves the reader longing to meditate on the Lord’s Prayer. The saying goes quo propior Luthero, eo melior theologus – the closer to Luther, the better the theologian. Peters has certainly accomplished his goal of leading the reader closer to Luther’s two confessional standards, the Small and Large Catechism, on the Lord’s Prayer.