Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Ten Commandments, by Albrecht Peters. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009, 333 pages.
Perhaps the hardest thing in the world to see, really open one’s eyes and see, is what’s most familiar. Whenever the overly familiar, the old standbys, the tried-and-true present themselves, we might resist the urge to yawn and go looking for something more exciting or more “relevant.” In 21st century America, to paraphrase our Lord’s words, “No one after drinking the new wine wants the old, for he says, ‘The new is better.’” …But what if the old is better? Are we in danger of discarding something useful? The trick is to know and appreciate just how precious our heritage is—and how familiarity can dull our eyes to the gifts our forefathers left us.
For that reason, works such as Albrecht Peters’ are useful for us. While Peters speaks about the familiar catechetical heritage we use constantly in Luther’s Catechisms – and overall he does a worthwhile job – he does so with a vocabulary and accents that may sound a little strange to our ears. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s bracing and invigorating to hear someone with as talented and formidable a mind as Peters grapple with the same truths we grew up on, yet approach them from angles that can surprise us. Reading this book felt similar to taking a different seat at the dinner table than the one you normally occupy: the fare on the table’s the same, the company’s the same, the setting is the same, and yet it all looks new.
For that reason alone, Peters’ commentaries on the Catechisms are worth reading. This reviewer had initially feared a Talmudic approach to the Catechisms, at the expense of Scripture, but this proved not to be the case. Peters still balances Catechism, Word, and scholarly research in a perspective that’s different for us. This yields fresh insights, especially for those who are accustomed to thinking that they’ve already gotten everything out of the Catechisms (perhaps most of all, the Small Catechism) that there is to be had. Peters’ exegesis on the arrangement of the Small Catechism, for instance, will have the catechist nodding his head in agreement. Peters draws out the structure that we always knew was there, but had never elaborated so clearly. For we who preach and teach the truths of the Catechism week in and week out, such fresh insights are positively priceless.
Part of this effect comes from the style of language in which this volume was written. Immediately upon picking it up, one senses that this was not a book composed in English. In many places the language style is dense and scholarly with a distinctly Germanic way of joining clauses and phrases. It can verge on impenetrable at times. However, this matter of style should not dissuade anyone from picking up the book. One gets used to it as the book goes on. There are even times when what was written and translated strikes the reader almost as poetry. Perhaps my favorite instance of this in the entire book comes when Peters describes the ways in which the First Commandment was recorded in Scripture: “We lead our lives ‘facing’ the zealous holy God whose eyes penetrate the abysses of our heart that are hidden to us” (p.111).
Part of the foreign tone that Peters’ style has in this volume comes from his embracing of historical-critical methodologies and vocabulary. The publisher’s preface, which alerts the reader to this facet of Peters’ work, had this reviewer bracing for the worst right from the start. However, forewarned is forearmed, and such historical-critical comments are easy to discard when the reader encounters them. They actually do not impair the reading of the book all that much. In fact, this reviewer discovered that historical-critical jargon, when encountered, could actually serve a positive purpose. The strange nature of historical-critical language afforded another opportunity to view Luther’s work from a different angle. It was amazing how often Peters would note the same things we value about Luther’s work, while showing Peters’ other preoccupations, only some of which were drawn from historical criticism. It was a reminder that not everybody approaches Luther’s catechisms (or Lutheranism in general, for that matter) from the same viewpoint that we do.
Peters also places Luther more accurately than we sometimes do in the stream of Christian tradition. His research allowed him to identify where Luther stood with his predecessors in certain interpretations and approaches to teaching, and where Luther diverged or contributed new insights. Many of Luther’s most memorable formulations are of his own coining (e.g. “we should not despise preaching and His Word” in the explanation of the Third Commandment).
Perhaps most revealing was how often Luther remained conventional in his interpretation. He actually changed little that was handed down in the traditional catechesis of the church, while at the same time putting his own indelible stamp on it. We see this in the way Luther would often use the Gospels heard in worship as proof texts in the catechisms. For example, Luther used Matthew 5:20-26, the Gospel for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, to drive home the true meaning of the Fifth Commandment – something that Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure (to name a few) had done in the past (97). Luther was able to do this because of the rich pastoral and practical content of the historic pericopes. The historic readings line up well with the church’s program of catechesis by selecting texts and regularly repeating them. Many in modern Lutheranism are rediscovering the same synergistic benefits between lectionary, catechisms, and what the people learn in our own day.
One side benefit of reading this book is imbibing large sections of Luther’s writing. The reader encounters Luther again and again, not just Peters. The church fathers, ancient and medieval, also have many gems scattered throughout the book as Peters draws on their catechetical work extensively. Peters, Luther, and the fathers provide much to tuck away for future use in preaching or teaching. Of special interest to this reviewer was Luther’s illustration of two pouches with four pockets. The first pouch, faith, has two pockets, one for original sin, the other for Christ as Redeemer; the second pouch, love, has two pockets, one for good works to serve our neighbor and one for suffering under the cross (35).
We’ve all heard Luther’s urging never to be done with the Small Catechism, and Peters has done us a service by showing us how. By bringing the Catechism, and thus the Word, into our pupils’ homes and lives, we shape and mold young souls for God. Peters can help provide variety and encouragement in this vital task.