The Small Catechism set free

Luther's Small Catechism - click to readLuther’s Small Catechism is a vitally important document for Lutheranism, one that is at the heart of Lutheran catechesis.

It’s also (as I can testify from personal experience) a document that can be a great blessing to Christians from other traditions. Indeed, no less a figure than Joseph Ratzinger made a distinction between “the Luther of the Catechisms” (and of the hymns and liturgical reforms) and Luther the polemicist.

For many Lutherans, the most familiar version of the Small Catechism is the 1986 edition published by Concordia Publishing House (CPH) and widely used by confirmands in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and its partner churches around the English-speaking world – including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England.

Unfortunately, however, CPH asserts its copyright on the 1986 edition very firmly (as I’ve discussed before). Even the LCMS website now appears to lack a copy, and the PDF version that used to be available on CPH’s site has also (as far as I can tell) disappeared.

Whatever the merits of CPH’s approach – CPH executives will argue very strongly in its defence, and it’s not an argument I wish to reopen here – the result is that it is not easy to find a modern English edition of the Small Catechism online.

(Update: turns out CPH has recently launched a rather elegant online version of the Catechism here. A PDF of the Catechism with Explanation is here. Glad to be corrected, but if anything this makes it even stranger that CPH takes such a hard line on churches and other groups making the Catechism available on their websites – since making it available in this way clearly doesn’t undermine commercial sales of the printed editions. It also doesn’t remove my disagreement with CPH on “the principle of the thing”.)

Our church website included, until recently, a copy of the 1986 edition. However, having been made aware that CPH considers this an infringement of its copyright, we took the page down a few weeks ago.

This has spurred me to undertake an exercise I’ve been meaning to get round since at least 2010. I have now gone back to the 1921, public domain version of the Catechism, and have lightly modernised it. I’ve retained the NIV – which I know won’t be a universally popular decision – as this is the version used in the familiar, 1986 version.

The result can be found on our website, and is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence (other than the excerpts from the NIV, which are made available under licence from the NIV’s publisher).

I’m not going to claim that this is perfect, and would welcome any suggestions for changes. However, it does provide a modern English version of the Catechism within the same “tradition” as the 1921 edition (on which the 1986 edition is also heavily based) – and provides it in a form that is freely available for others to use, modify and distribute.

9 thoughts on “The Small Catechism set free

  1. Good for you! I do have a few suggestions for alterations, which I will ping to you directly. It may also be worth keeping an eye on the Open Catechism project in the US, which will hopefully be done this spring. All the while, we should keep in mind Luther’s own pedagogical insight, with which it is hard to disagree:

    In the first place, let the preacher above all be careful to avoid many kinds of or various texts and forms of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc., but choose one form to which he adheres, and which he inculcates all the time, year after year. For [I give this advice, however, because I know that] young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher to-day teaches them thus, and in a year some other way, as if he wished to make improvements, and thus all effort and labor [which has been expended in teaching] is lost. (Preface, Small Catechism).

    I would make the argument for using ESV rather than NIV, not as a matter of taste, but because in the ELCE, and to a lesser degree in the LC-MS, the ESV has been adopted as the nearest-to-official translation, in (much of) the liturgy, etc. For the sake of uniformity, we should stick to one set of words…

    All the same, well done.

  2. Thanks, Tapani. I look forward to receiving your suggestions.

    Ironically, one reason for sticking with the NIV was precisely that text from Luther. While the ESV is used in the liturgy, the NIV is used in the 1986 catechism. So sticking with the NIV helped to minimise the differences between the 1986 catechism and this (since both versions thus share the same roots in both the Triglotta text and their choice of Bible translation).

    The other reason was switching to ESV texts would have doubled the amount of time I spent on this! My workflow was simply to paste the Triglotta text into the web page and edit into modernised English…

    I will keep an eye out for developments on the Open Catechism, and wouldn’t at all rule out swapping over to that if it starts to get some traction. This was just a case of knocking something together quickly (I started it at 11 pm last night!) to plug the hole that had been left on our website by the removal of the 1986 version.

    1. Hi Mark, the NIV allows quotation of up to 500 verses provided (a) credit is given and (b) the total NIV content is less than 25% of the overall work.

    1. Thank you! Looks like a very nicely produced site: don’t know how I managed to miss it before, and I will edit the post accordingly. It still doesn’t alter the fundamental point that it’s unfortunate that CPH applies restrictive licencing terms to the 1986 Catechism.

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