Last month, I started a short series on some of the thoughts and history of teaching the Christian Faith. I left off with this question: Which is more important: confirmation as a rite-of-passage or instruction in God’s Word and Holy Living?
Believe it or not, this has been a question that people have struggled with for a long time. In the Lutheran Reformation, significant changes were made in how catechesis was approached. When Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism, the Golden Age of Catechesis was a forgotten memory. What Luther experienced in the 16th century was a desperate need for catechetical material to help teach the faith. When Luther conducted a visitation of parishes in Saxony in 1528, he found that, due to their incompetence, about 25% of all pastors needed to be simply removed from office. In Luther’s words, the situation was “deplorable.” You should check out the preface to the small catechism to get a taste of Luther’s colorful language about the situation.
Luther (and many others in the Reformation) developed a number of materials, books and sermons to help catechists teach the faith. In Luther’s model, individuals should be taught The Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer at the very least. These are recited during daily prayers (morning, noon and night), mealtime prayers, and more. At the same time, Luther organized plans for formal instruction of children in the faith. To be clear, the responsibility of teaching the children falls on the parents. The job of the pastors was to make sure the parents are doing their job, and Luther was not shy to remind pastors when they failed. “O bishops! What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office.” In short, Luther’s method focused on continuous instruction, centered around worship, and frequent prayer. Just like in the early church, he was more concerned with Christian living than a ritual of confirmation.
Unfortunately, when Luther died in 1546, a long series of wars began. When the Peace of Westphalia was signed in in 1648, a third of Germany had been killed. Any advances in Christian living earned by the Reformation were long lost memories. Out-of-marriage birth rates skyrocketed. People were concerned about their next meal, not about theology. What followed in the church was a dry period of rationalism. Rather than emphasizing living Christian lives, catechesis hammered home the finer points of dogmatic theology. Luther’s lively practical instruction was forgotten.
Such dry, boring churches were ripe for the movement of Pietism. The “Father of Pietism” was a man named Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705). Spener tried to liven the church by personalizing and internalizing the faith. Rather than cold, objective facts, pietism wanted Christianity to be full of warm, emotional experiences. This turned attention away from the dusty words on a page to the seemingly rich grounds of one’s own feelings and emotions. Rather than catechesis as a way of teaching “The way of life,” Spener thought of catechesis as preparing catechumens to give witness to their own personal faith. This meant that catechumens must be confirmed at later ages – where it was common to be admitted to the sacrament at 12, now confirmation (which pietists insisted come before admission to the Sacrament of the Altar) came at 14 or even later.
The Rationalists adapted to the pietistic methods. Rationalism reimagined catechesis as a way of filling the heads of the catechumens with facts, and then insisting on a binding vow. Together, Pietists and Rationalists cemented confirmation as a rite-of-passage, and replaced catechesis’ objective of instructing the young in God’s Word and Godly living. And as a rite-of-passage, the whole affair was much more civic than religious, especially in the many state-run churches.
As believing and living-out Christian doctrines became less important, it wasn’t surprising that in 1817, Emperor Frederick Willhelm III attempted to bring the Lutheran and Reformed churches together into one Union Church. After all, if doctrine is less important, why can’t we all just get along? This served to shake many Lutheran pastors out of their rationalistic and pietistic slumber. Many thousands of Lutherans realized that what was needed to preserve the faith was to leave Germany altogether. This is what brought our Confessional Lutheran forefathers to the New World of America, and also to many other parts of the world.
What do you think? Has the Lutheran church continued on the way our Lutheran forefathers prepared for us? Or have we been thrown off-course by our own culture and time?
In Part 3, we’ll continue the story up to the present day.