Review of Luther’s Catechism Comes to America, by Arthur C. Repp

James Arne Nestingen, Review of Luther’s Catechism Comes to America: Theological Effects on the Issues of the Small Catechism Prepared in and for America prior to 1850, by Arthur C. Repp, Sr. ALTA Monograph Series, No. 18. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., and The American Theological Library Association, 1982, in Word & World 4/3 (St. Paul: Luther Seminary, 1984), pp. 329-30.

LUTHER’S CATECHISM COMES TO AMERICA: THEOLOGICAL EFFECTS ON THE ISSUES OF THE SMALL CATECHISM PREPARED IN AND FOR AMERICA PRIOR TO 1850, by Arthur C. Repp, Sr. ALTA Monograph Series, No. 18. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., and The American Theological Library Association, 1982.

If the delight of the exegete is the nuance, as Ernst Käsemann once said, then by parallel the delight of the church historian must be the detail—the stubborn stuff of daily life that refuses to give way to grand designs and comprehensive analysis.

Some of Arthur Repp, Sr.’s students have gone on to the more ambitious undertakings, coming to rival Zane Grey or Adolph von Harnack in the process—they have become more widely known, while Repp has kept his nose buried in the particular. Teaching at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and then Seminex, he devoted years of careful research to the use of Luther’s little catechism among Lutherans in America. The result is a masterful study, succulent in detail and wonderfully helpful.

Repp begins his analysis with a survey of catechetical instruction among the earliest Lutheran immigrants to the U.S., and then provides a catechism-by-catechism analysis, moving through the 18th century to the middle of the 19th. Over sixty translations, interpretations, expansions of and commentaries on Luther’s catechism are considered. A few which attempted to set aside Luther’s work, as well as the confessional base of the church, are also examined. Repp’s study is significant for several reasons. First, as Martin Marty notes in his preface to the book, Repp has dealt with the down-to-earth matter of religious practice. Oftentimes church historical studies appear to be premised on the notion that virtually everything else but that which the church claims to be influential is controlling its life. It is clear that political, social and financial concerns are formative forces in the church’s corporate affairs. But the use of the Scripture and the catechism—along with a hymnal, generally the only books carried by immigrants—may also be regarded as important factors. Repp has recognized and documented this with regards to the catechism.

Secondly, moving from document to document, Repp is able to provide a detailed picture of how 18th and early 19th century Lutherans attempted to pass along their tradition. There is clear evidence of problems. But the commonly held stereotype of Lutheranism as an isolated and self-preoccupied church guarding a frozen orthodoxy can’t survive such detailed analysis. There is a lot of evidence of a concern to reach beyond the immigrant groups, for example, an early translation of Luther’s catechism into Delaware Indian language. And there were various attempts—pietist, rationalist, as well as more orthodox—to come to grips with the theological issues of the day.

There may be a place for “bird’s-eye-views,” those flying historical tours that sweep over centuries, movements and theological developments in fast guided tours. But that kind of work depends on something far deeper, the nose-to-the-ground analysis that covers in depth. Repp’s work is like that. It is closely worked historical study from a man who has served his church by paying attention to the details of the way it has transmitted its witness at the most basic levels. Such a gift, like fine handcraft, is to be received with thanks.

James Arne Nestingen
Luther Northwestern Seminary
St. Paul, Minnesota

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