Who's Your Teacher? by Marcus Johnson

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Who's Your Teacher?

Marcus Johnson on Our Sacred Duty to Teach the Devil to Death

Martin Luther's prescription for pastors and preachers (including himself) who neglect the catechetical training of their congregation was characteristically colorful and coarse: "we deserve not only to be given no food to eat, but also to have the dogs set upon us and to be pelted with horse manure." Pelted with equine feces after the hounds have been released? Even if his prescription is not to be taken literally—although all bets are off with the cantankerous Reformer—Luther's zeal for the catechetical instruction of the Church is unmistakable. Those (especially pastors) who are ignorant of the basics of the catechism, or who despise it through negligence, thought Luther, "should not be numbered among Christians." They are "lazy bellies and presumptuous spirits," "completely unskilled and incompetent teachers" who "live like simple cattle and irrational pigs." Conclusion: "Shame on you forever!"

If we resist the temptation to dismiss Luther's polemical zeal on account of his notorious temperament, we may wonder why he is so impassioned for something about which contemporary Christians are often passionless. There is one obvious reason, which even the apathetic can understand: A catechism is a textbook in the school of God's Word, the Church, serving as a summary of the teachings of Holy Scripture. Typically framed around the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostles' Creed, a catechism draws out the riches of the gospel of Christ Jesus for the benefit of the Church's life and worship. It seeks, in other words, to orient the Church to Reality. In this regard, Luther's passion for catechesis simply represents a pastoral concern characteristic of the historic Christian Church.

The Parasitic Peddler

There is another reason for Luther's catechetical zeal that was obvious enough to him, but about which the contemporary Church appears increasingly oblivious. When the Church shirks its catechetical responsibility, the result is notthat it goes un-catechized. Far from it. The result, rather, is that, by default, the Church comes under the tutelage of that unholy adjunct, the devil, whom Luther calls "a master of a thousand arts." No slacker himself, he is eager to teach where the Church is silent, with his own commandments, his own prayer, his own creed, and his own "good news." He is, in other words, a master catechizer. We labor under a false dichotomy when we ask whether or not the Church will be catechized. The answer is always yes. The question is not whether, but by whom?

Broaching the topic of the devil brings to mind the words of C. S. Lewis's imaginary interlocutor in Mere Christianity: "Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?" That many in the Church continue, in our day, to entertain a comically naive notion of Satan, that pointy-tailed, trident-toting lord of the fiery underworld, is no laughing matter. A devil rendered comical is only minimally dangerous, because he lacks subtlety. But it is precisely his subtlety that is dangerous.

Part of what makes the devil a master in the catechetical arts, and what makes the Church frequently oblivious to his stratagem, is the deft employment of subterfuge, the concealment of what is demonic under false pretenses. Unlike the Church's Lord, the devil is never forthright. The design of his unholy catechesis is to seduce Christ's Bride, and like all seducers, he prefers anonymity.

The devil is a peddler in sin, and like sin, he is a parasite. Reality is his host, but because he is an enemy of Christ, he pontificates only in abstractions. A flamboyant instructor in morality, he despises holiness; he rhapsodizes about freedom, knowing nothing of bondage to Christ; he is eloquent on beauty, but finds the Beautiful One loathsome; he is verbose when it comes to tolerance and acceptance, struck dumb when it comes to repentance; a champion of human rights, so long as he gets to determine what's right and who's human. He speaks liberally about truth but, like Pilate, does not know Him; loquacious on love, yet mute on its Triune shape. Morality, freedom, beauty, tolerance, acceptance, human rights, truth, and love may indeed be universally celebrated virtues. Pulled away from the reality of Christ, however, they are merely topics in the curriculum of negation.

Reality in the Dock

Abstractions have an appeal east of Eden, but it is an appeal that is common to parasites. To borrow Cornelius Plantinga's memorable and haunting phrase, "We see only the vitality of the parasite, glowing with stolen life." Morality, to cite just one example, is a concept aglow with the appearance of life, but absent Jesus Christ, how is it to be distinguished from immorality? Despite the numerous appeals to universal arbiters like logic, conscience, and common sense, there is no obvious cultural consensus regarding the concept, nor does one appear forthcoming—after all, our lawmakers (read: moralists) legislate the protection of children, just as they do the right to dismember them. The irony is laughable, and the laugh we hear the clearest belongs to Satan. Catechized by him, the saeculum cannot help but be enamored with stolen goods (and gods), the parasitic pretenders to Reality. What are we to do, though, when Christ's Church comes under this secular spell, when his Bride is tempted by borrowed life? Simple, thought Luther: "Teach the devil to death."


Marcus Johnson (Ph.D., St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto) is associate rector at St. Mark’s Church, Geneva, Illinois, and professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. His books include One with Christ; The Incarnation of God; and, with John C. Clark, A Call to Christian Formation.

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