Luther’s Small Catechism first appeared in a chart form in January and March of 1529, the headwaters of a new emphasis on education in the Christian Church. There had, of course, been Christian education before—Luther’s work flows from that long tradition. But Luther’s efforts brought renewed focus on teaching the faith in a specific and intentional way.
The core texts of Christian education had long been: (1) The Ten Commandments, (2) The Creed, and (3) The Lord’s Prayer. Luther retained these basic texts and provided brief explanations for them in a question and answer format. He placed the Ten Commandments first since God’s Law comes first to show us the difference between good and evil. The Creed came second to show us our Savior from sin and evil. The Lord’s Prayer came third to show us how a believer, delivered from evil, may daily address the Lord in prayer and worship. The first three parts of the catechism work together and lay out the Christian faith before us.
The next parts of the catechism had not always been part of the earlier catechism tradition. These parts helped people identify and understand the means of grace Jesus Christ provided for believers: (4) Holy Baptism is the point at which Christian life begins, (5) Confession and Absolution are a return to the blessings of Baptism since Christians continually need the new life God gives, and (6) The Lord’s Supper nurtures Christian faith and life as we commune with our Lord and one another. These last three parts were also called “Sacraments,” sacred words and actions by which the Lord delivers us from evil and declares us holy.
So, the six chief parts of the catechism present the Christian faith and Christian life in a simple way. Luther also provided Daily Prayers and a Table of Duties in 1529 to help believers better understand their relationship to the Lord and to one another in the three basic orders of life: (1) Home, (2) Church, and (3) Society/Government. Luther viewed these orders of life as blessings provided by God for the peace and benefit of all.
Here’s how parts of the Catechism rolled out in different editions.
January, 1529 Chart Edition included:
Lord’s Prayer (minus explanations of the introduction and conclusion to the prayer)
May 16, 1529 Edition added:
June, 1529 Edition added:
A Short Form of Confession
Explanations for the introduction and conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer
Confession and Absolution (questions and answers)
Office of the Keys (three questions/answers in the Confession section)
1549 Erfurt Edition added:
Christian Questions with Their Answers (Luther may not have written these)