The German edition of Albrecht Peters’ Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms has long been the gold standard of research on the catechetical texts of the great reformer. Now English-speaking researchers and catechists can read the fifth and final volume of the series, Confession and Christian Life. This volume, translated by Dr. Thomas H. Trapp, explores Martin Luther's catechetical writings on Confession and Absolution, Household Responsibilities, Marriage, and Baptism, as well as his Household Prayers, within a biblical, historical, and systematic context.
CPH would like to extend a special note of thanks to Dr. Trapp as well as to the other two translators who worked on these volumes, Dr. Holger Sonntag and Dr. Daniel Thies, for their excellent work on the series.
Dr. Trapp answered the following questions so that readers can find out more about the series and this last volume in particular:
In what ways is Peters’ commentary on Luther’s catechism useful to researchers, pastors, and all Christians?
Peters’ five-volume commentary stands alone today in terms of its breadth and depth. Each volume starts with a history of the development and use of the topic in Church history. So, for example, Peters looks at the history of the development of the Creed and each of the parts. He notes what is particularly accented in terms of its teaching. He develops a thesis about how each part was interpreted at the time of Luther. Luther’s unique contribution in this regard is that he accentuates the pro me, the pro nobis, that Jesus died for me personally, for us. Peters shows how alternate viewpoints skew the understanding of the Gospel and salvation, leading away from the complete peace that is ours in Christ. It was not enough to be “just” a member of the Church at large. Salvation was personal for Luther.
Someone might think, “Luther’s catechism is pretty simple. How much more can really be said about it?” Now that you have translated several volumes of Peters’ great commentary, how would you respond?
Luther remarked that he himself could never comprehend everything taught in the catechism. I have been captivated by how much is there and how my own understanding and perception has grown. The reasoning provided in the commentaries provides a backdrop for Luther’s insights. I personally recommend these volumes for pastors and teachers who want deeper background for teaching young people, but also to enrich the teaching of adults, whether in instruction classes or for ongoing growth in the faith. It may be that such an observer is unaware of how the “simple” is a distillation of revelation that may be anything but simple. Luther has been accused of being simplistic, maybe even advocating a tritheism (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). Peters addresses the issue by pointing out that the catechism was fashioned as a starting point for teaching the faith. He notes that in his other sermons and writings, Luther fleshes out the complexities of the relationships among the persons of the Trinity and what that means for salvation.
Volume 5 of Peters’ commentary deals with several different topics. What are the strengths of this volume?
The original edition of Luther’s Small Catechism did not deal with confession and absolution under a separate heading. The List of Household Responsibilities was also a later addendum. Luther’s prayers for the beginning and end of the day and for mealtime are provided. All confirmands are used to seeing these elements. But it is a surprise to many to find liturgical pieces for marriage and baptism included in the Book of Concord. These do not appear in our “Small Catechism.”
I was intrigued throughout. I was struck by the emphasis on absolution in “Confession and Absolution.” Christians are deeply puzzled about what to confess and how, even though Luther limits confession before a pastor to those sins that trouble the believer. A greater emphasis on absolution and the declaration of grace in public and private confession and absolution leads away from wondering “if we are confessing correctly.” It is obviously important to consider sin in all its seriousness. But to worry about whether we have confessed “enough” leads away from the comfort of the Gospel. Sins confessed before the pastor will deal with issues from the Second Table of the Law, as can be seen in how Luther constructs the List of Household Responsibilities. The Little Baptismal Booklet was composed earlier, coming from two editions of that liturgical piece (1523, 1526), as Luther distanced himself from medieval practices that obscured the focus on the gracious action of God. The Little Marriage Booklet delves into the aspects of marriage that involve both the world and the church. Discussion of various medieval views of marriage and Luther’s own marriage are delightful additions to the study of the liturgical elements, though it took much research for me to discover the terminology for different concepts of marriage for “love” or for “money.”
Does this volume challenge contemporary views on these topics?
It is most important that the issue of absolution, as a means of grace, is accentuated as central throughout. In each of the topics discussed, peace with God that results in peace with the brother links the two together. For those who would see worship as time for praise and fellowship, this grounds both in the gracious action of the triune God to reconcile us to Himself, which leads to a relationship with others that is based on grace and not just on common interests. The Church provides the place where the Christian faith can be lived out in the specifically Christian life. It will certainly challenge anyone who believes that absolution comes as a result of acts on the part of the believer to satisfy God’s expectations. I found myself less “challenged” and more “deepened” in my appreciation of what is discussed by our Lord in the Book of John already in His first interaction with the disciples on the evening of the first Easter. Of course, for those who seek to relate to God apart from Christ, the entire topic will seem foreign. For Christians who seek peace with God and the neighbor, the sense of release from sin and guidance in the new life comes front and center.