Martin Bucer (1491-1551)
This year marks the 450th anniversary of Bucer's death. While the name of Martin Luther is rightly given a place of honour within Protestantism, Martin Bucer's contribution to the Protestant Reformation deserves to be better known. He stands next to Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, but unlike these men, he left behind no followers who bore his name. For four centuries he was ignored and misunderstood. It has only been during the course of the 20th century that the scholarly world has begun to consider in more detail the work, theology and influence of this first generation Reformation leader.
Though regarded as a controversial figure in his own day, he was, nevertheless, esteemed as an honoured leader of the Protestant cause. John Calvin described him as 'that most excellent minister of Christ'. His great learning and godliness was much appreciated in England so that Hugh Latimer desired to embrace him 'as Simeon did Christ'.
Survey of his life
Bucer (or Butzer) was born on 11 November, 1491 in the small city of Sélestat which lay in the valley of Alsace. At that time it was a centre of learning and religion. His parents moved to Strasbourg when he was ten leaving their son behind in the care of his poor but pious grandfather. At the age of fifteen, in order to further his education, Bucer was urged, much against his will, to enter the Dominican monastery in the city. For ten years he endured the rigours and failings of this institutional life until he was transferred at the age of twenty-five to a monastery of the same Order in Heidelberg. The Dominicans strongly upheld the position of the medieval schoolmen but the university of Heidelberg contained many professors who were leaders of the learning associated with Renaissance humanism. The highly intelligent Bucer came to detest the teaching associated with Thomas Aquinas and was full of enthusiasm for the new learning that encouraged the reading of the ancient Greek and Latin texts. His desire was to become a second Erasmus – one of the leading Renaissance scholars of the time.
A year after moving to Heidelberg there came the most significant encounter of Bucer's life. The Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, the one who had caused such a stir with the publication of his Ninety-five Theses against the sale of indulgences, came before the Augustinian friars in Heidelberg at their triennial meetings in April 1518. Bucer was already sympathetic to Luther's cause, and made a point of going to listen to this dynamic Wittenberg professor expound his evangelical views in what has become known as the Heidelberg disputation. The following day Bucer dined with Luther and asked him many questions. One can understand the opposition that Bucer faced from his fellow monks for siding with Luther when it is remembered that John Tetzel, the infamous indulgence seller whom Luther opposed, was of their Dominican order. The German Dominicans, in fact, were the ones who first persuaded the pope that Luther was a dangerous heretic. Despite this, Martin Bucer embraced the gospel that Luther had rediscovered. As a dispatch bearer, Bucer was also present at the Diet of Worms (1521), when Luther refused to recant and declared that his conscience was held captive to the Word of God.
After receiving the degrees of Bachelor of Theology and Master of Students, Bucer was ordained a priest at Mainz in 1519. His degrees gave him the right to read the Bible for himself, something he was eager to pursue. It opened his eyes further to the false teaching propagated by the ministers of the pope and further convinced him that Luther was preaching the truth. Persecuted by his own Order for not merely siding with Luther but persuading others to follow the reformer's teachings, he fled the monastery the following year. Thanks to supporting friends he was able to obtain a legal release from his monastic vows in 1521 and allowed the right to hold any clerical position. Rome, however, had been alerted to the fact that Martin Bucer was 'more learned and no less dangerous' than Martin Luther.
After two brief postings, during which time he married a nun, Bucer had in mind to engage in a quiet life of study. An evangelical pastor in the city of Wissembourg refused to allow him such luxury and constrained him to help in the reformation of that city. It was not long before the bishop of the area excommunicated Bucer. His life was now in danger for he was seen as a heretic and rebel. He quietly left the city in the spring of 1523 and took refuge in Strasbourg where his elderly parents still lived. Here he stayed for the next twenty-five years and became the leader of reform. Besides his involvement in establishing Protestantism in Strasbourg, he was invited to help in reforming other areas of South Germany, such as Augsburg, Hesse, Constance and Cologne. He was actively involved in many of the theological and political debates of the period including the various conferences and concords that took place, taking copious notes on proceedings. Historians owe a great debt to Bucer for his notes and summaries of meetings. They provide one of the most important collections of source material for the history of his age. Eventually Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg when he rejected the peace terms imposed on the city by the emperor Charles V after his victory over the German Protestant alliance.
Bucer made his way to England with his companion Paul Fagius at the invitation of Archbishop Cranmer in April 1549. This was during the brief reign of Edward VI when England and Wales became officially Protestant. He was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge but, because of illness, did not take up his duties until the beginning of 1550. Cambridge treated this 'political refugee' with the greatest of respect and awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity which he accepted with some diffidence. He lectured on Ephesians and delivered a series of sermons in Latin.
The fact that he could not speak English added to Bucer's loneliness and longing for home and family. He was already failing in health before he crossed the channel due to the many years of arduous labour in the cause of the gospel in Germany. The damp climate of East Anglia and the change of diet did not help his poor worn-out body and after severe pain and breathing problems he died either late on 28 February or in the early hours of 1 March 1551. An eyewitness reported that the whole university and town of Cambridge, numbering around three thousand, came to his funeral at the university church of St Mary's to pay their last respects. This indicated how greatly he was esteemed in the city of his exile.
His body did not rest in peace for long. Four years later, when England was again under the dominion of Rome, the enemies of the gospel at Cambridge were bent on revenge. A commission was appointed by Cardinal Pole, the pope's representative in England, to cleanse the university of all vestiges of Protestantism. On February 6th, 1555 Martin Bucer was posthumously condemned as a heretic at a formal trial and his body was exhumed and publicly burned on the market square.
Further religious and political change came with the death of Mary. One of the first acts of Queen Elizabeth was to appoint a commission to restore 'true religion' in Cambridge. As a result, the university arranged for a solemn assembly to publicly reinstate this exceptionally gifted and eminent reformer. This was held on 30 July 1560. Many of Bucer's former friends and colleagues attended, including Matthew Parker and Edmund Grindall, the first two archbishops of Canterbury under Elizabeth.
Assessment of his life
He stressed the importance of a humble walk with God and expressed it in his own life as a true disciple of Christ. Loving God meant keeping his commandments with inner devotion and this included remembering to hallow the Sabbath day. Before removing idols from home and public buildings he saw the need for them to be removed from the heart. Bucer taught by word and example the Christian duty of putting others before oneself. His first reforming tract published in 1523 is entitled, No One Should Live for Himself But for Others. The pastor's office he saw as the most holy calling on earth for it meant serving the community and its eternal salvation. It was easy for people to find fault with a person like Bucer for he did so much and was such a public figure. Certainly there were weaknesses in his character and life but all his activity was for the furtherance of the gospel and the good of others and not for selfish ends. Throughout his busy life of preaching, lecturing, writing letters, publishing books, making long journeys, listening to the problems of others and attending conferences, he made time for private study of the Bible and prayer. His friends knew that he worked too hard and long, but dogged, often stubborn, determination drove him on even when his body demanded rest. In this way he got results where most people would have given up in despair long before.
Calvin wrote of Bucer's ability at opening up the text of Scripture in these glowing terms: 'No one has to our knowledge exerted himself so precisely and diligently in biblical exegesis.' Second only to Erasmus in his knowledge of Greek, Bucer also acquired considerable ability in the Hebrew language. In preparing commentaries on the Old Testament, he broke new ground by consulting the works of Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. During the 1520s he produced commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels, Ephesians, John and Zephaniah. His most celebrated exegetical work was his massive commentary on the Psalms in 1529, which he revised and enlarged in 1532. When Calvin came to write his commentary on the Psalms, he recorded his debt to Bucer in these words: 'Before I proceed to the interpretation of the Psalms I must say at the request of the brethren what is true; if I had overlooked what the most faithful doctor of the church, Martin Bucer, accomplished with the highest erudition, diligence and faith, displayed in this work, there would not have been so much use for my own work.' After 1530 Bucer found himself too busy to write commentaries, but he did manage to publish an 'exhaustive' one on Romans in 1536. It was intended to be the first of a series on Paul's Letters but he was never able to put his thoughts on paper. A commentary on Judges was published after his death from notes made by one of his students.
Not only was Bucer a close friend and confidant to the rich and powerful like Philip of Hesse but also to many lesser lights. He was kind and ready to help anyone who came to him for advice or help. He was of immense encouragement to refugees and poor students. While he led the work of reform in Strasbourg he was no petty pope but worked well with the other pastors and reformers in the city. He bore no grudges and, though he lost friends, it was only after doing all he could to keep them.
Though often away for months at a time, Bucer loved his home and family. His wife Elizabeth was a model of what a pastor's wife should be. Bucer had little interest in money and was generous to a fault, sometimes incurring heavy debts. Were it not for his wife's good management, they would have been penniless and hungry. There were guests around the table most days, sometimes as many as eight to ten at a time, including refugees, diplomats, merchants, scholars and friends. Before and after each meal a passage of Scripture was read and apt comments were made. His wife and four of their children died in the plague that broke out in the autumn of 1541. It was Elizabeth's dying wish that Bucer marry the widow of Capito, a fellow Strasbourg reformer, who had also died in the plague. A few months after the marriage he wrote: 'Surely God has given me a suitable support in cares and labours; may he grant that I may be as serviceable and obliging to her, as I am convinced that she is to me.'
Bucer's influence as a reformer spread far and wide. A modern biographer notes that he 'wrote books for "brethren" in other lands, helped to send them preachers, and even showed a glimmering of the missionary zeal which so many of the reformers lacked.'
We have already mentioned Calvin's debt to Bucer. In fact, the friendship between the two was deep. They esteemed each other greatly and in many ways influenced one another. When Calvin was forced to leave Geneva in 1538, Bucer was eager to do all he could to have him reinstated. When this proved impossible Bucer persuaded him to spend his exile in Strasbourg. He was first given employment at the university and then put in charge of the small French refugee congregation. Here Calvin put into practice many of Bucer's ideas concerning church discipline and Holy Communion. Bucer's influence on Calvin in the matter of the church's visibility and order is also clear in the 1539 edition of Calvin's Institutes. It was also the forms of worship established by Bucer that Calvin used, not only in Strasbourg but later, when he returned to Geneva.
During Bucer's own exile in England he was well respected and played a significant though brief part in the advance of English Protestantism. He recommended a tutor to the young princess Elizabeth and corresponded with other dignitaries on the progress of reform in England. His last work, The Kingdom of Christ, expressing many of his earlier ideas on the church's relationship to the social order, was presented to King Edward as a new year gift. Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer all admired him, and John Bradford was one of his most loyal English followers. Parker, Grindal, and even John Hooper, came to respect his advice. In the Vestments Controversy, although he sided with Cranmer against Hooper, he wrote to Cranmer stressing the need for the abolition of vestments. He contributed to the 1552 revision of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. The changes he suggested were all for the purpose of eliminating ceremonies of a superstitious and Romish nature. Professor David Wright is of the opinion that Bucer also 'contributed to the shaping of the English exegetical tradition.'
Basil Hall has written that 'Bucer believed in the significance of preaching.' Like most of the early Reformers, he was first a proclaimer of the biblical gospel that had been rediscovered by Luther. Bucer saw the importance of taking the message as much to the illiterate and uneducated as to scholars and craftsmen. In the winter of 1522 at Wissembourg, he began preaching evangelical truth from 1 Peter and Matthew. When he moved to Strasbourg he was given permission to preach for one hour each day on the Gospel of John. So many people gathered to hear him that the magistrates regretted their decision for fear of attack from outside and demanded that he cease preaching in German. He therefore resorted to teaching the Pastoral Epistles of Paul, in Latin, to small groups of students.
August Zell, who had himself become a popular evangelical preacher in the city, invited Bucer to preach in the cathedral every other day from a wooden pulpit that had been erected for Zell, when the ecclesiastical authorities denied him entry into the church's own ornate stone structure. In the face of much opposition from the church officials, Martin Bucer was chosen by popular consent and installed as the first evangelical pastor in Strasbourg at the church of St. Aurelia. It was in this newly appointed position that he preached in the cathedral on 21 February 1524. The enemies of the gospel used what means they could to prevent him speaking. In the middle of his sermon, some of the monks in the choir stalls began singing at the top of their voices and a riot commenced. Very soon changes came and ecclesiastical opposition in the city subsided.
Bucer became an encouragement to other pastors in the city to become evangelical preachers. In his conversations and letters to influential people, as well as in his lectures, he constantly urged the need for more preachers who would effectively proclaim the gospel to needy sinners and build the people up in their most holy faith.
When Bucer happened to be in Wittenberg in 1538 he preached from Luther's pulpit with the great reformer in the congregation. Later, Matthew Parker summed up this aspect of Bucer's ministry by stating that he was 'diligent in preaching the Word for the work of regeneration and sanctification in the hearers.'
Like many humanists of his day, Bucer was at first merely concerned to see the reform of certain abuses within the church system. Embracing the evangelical faith helped him to see how unbiblical were the teachings of the pope that led to the abuses. From his initial admiration for Erasmus, he became a supporter of Luther. When Erasmus published his work on Free Will in 1524 Bucer urged Luther to respond, speaking of his former hero as that 'unhappy slave of glory, who pushes forward to prefer the spit of his own opinion to Scripture'. He declared, 'let the gracefulness of the Latin language perish, let that miracle of erudition perish, if the glory of Christ is obscured by it.'
He was in many ways more radical than Luther. On the other hand, Bucer did not join the radical wing of the Reformation. He saw the need for balance and moderation as the effects of his preaching and those of others caused people to question so many of the practices that had grown up in the Middle Ages. His attitude to images and statues is similar to his position in the English Vestments Controversy. At first, he could state that images are indifferent if they are not worshipped; but if there is a danger of them being worshipped then they must be destroyed. Later, he urged that even those who did not abuse them should renounce them so that weaker brothers might not be tempted. He also advised that people should remove them in an orderly fashion, after first gaining permission from the local authorities.
In addition to the religious changes that were made in Strasbourg, social and educational improvements followed. Bucer saw to it that the city authorities provided for the poor and at the same time put a stop to begging in the streets. This concern for the poor remained with him throughout his life as can be seen in his interest in the poor of Cambridge. Another policy adopted at Strasbourg was the toleration and protection of religious refugees from various countries. A better educational system was established. The present university of Strasbourg arose from the setting up of an official salaried faculty. Due to Bucer's efforts an enlightened system for educating children was also instituted.
Bucer was well respected, and all kinds of people turned to him for advice. He was not only the Strasbourg reformer but 'the reformer of Central Europe'.
Bucer's fame as a statesman was legendary. The Chancellor of Electoral Saxony remarked: 'I must confess that among all the theologians now living, Bucer is truly an excellent man for negotiating in theological affairs after the manner of the world.' When the emperor, Charles V, broke off his alliance with Henry VIII in 1544 and negotiated a separate peace with France, England sought an alliance with the German Protestants. Such was Bucer's influence among the princes of the Smalkald League that an envoy was first sent to Bucer, who made strenuous efforts to obtain the approval of the German Protestants. Again, it was to Bucer along with Melanchthon that the League looked when the French king sought an alliance with the Protestant states of Germany. Bucer was also involved in negotiations with the emperor at the Colloquy of Ratisbon (or Regensburg) in 1546. This was a last desperate effort to avert war. Bucer clearly perceived the meaning of the emperor's actions and knew he had no intentions of making peace. He alerted the Protestant states to prepare for war and indicated how they should act, but the princes were so divided among themselves that they were ill-prepared when Charles declared war. The imperial army routed the Protestant League and Charles imposed a provisional settlement, known as the Augsburg Interim.
Martin Bucer was a theological heavyweight who could quickly silence opponents in open debate or by the written word. Ideas flowed fast and furious from his fertile mind. Bucer's theology arose out of his deep study of the Scriptures and his exegetical skills. Central to Bucer's theology is his doctrine of election. For Bucer it emphasised not only that the source of human salvation is God (his grace and Christ's merits) but that ultimate salvation is certain for the elect. God has an appointed time when he will call the elect and lead them to faith. Through the Word and the Spirit he calls them.
In Bucer's mature work, justification has two meanings. Firstly, it has a forensic sense and is used as the opposite of condemnation. It 'consists in God's graciously forgiving us our sins and granting to us and reckoning to us the righteousness of his Son, which we receive when we rightly believe'. It has a further meaning almost equivalent to praise. God justifies or praises the godly in the sense that James gives. 'The justification of works, which means praising them and promising a reward to them, depends entirely on justification by faith.' Like some of the later Puritans he could also speak of three justifications: first, predestination to life in eternity past through the merits of Christ; secondly, through God's gift of faith and by the Spirit, the enjoyment of eternal life here and now; finally, the full enjoyment of that life in the world to come.
His main contribution to theology lies in his teaching on the Holy Spirit and the Church. He refers to the church as the elect and regenerate, who are known only to God. It is 'by virtue of their common faith' that particular churches 'constitute the one universal church.' The descriptions of the universal church apply equally to each particular church. He rejects an abstract view of the church. A church is made up of individual people. He sets out five marks of a true church: obedience to the shepherd's voice, the ministry of teaching, suitable ministers of the Word, the lawful ministration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and righteousness and holiness of life.
The preaching of the gospel was seen as central to the life of the church. Discipline in the church must be firm but not over-oppressive. It must bear a pastoral character and serve to remind people of the church's holy position. Christ's kingdom becomes visible in such a church. His views on the Supper represent a mediating position between that of Luther and that of Zwingli, which resembled the position of Calvin. Bucer has been called the 'father of evangelical confirmation'. This development arose out of his fight with the Anabaptists. He recognised the force of some of their arguments and, though he had won the debate with them in open contest, he saw the need for reformed and biblical thinking with regard to children. In 1537 he also published a children's catechism that proved extremely popular.
Unable to see all his ideas on the church put into practice in Strasbourg, he created during his final years in the city the most original of all his innovative measures. Within the place where the majority of the population worshipped Bucer set up small communities of confessing Christians. They were called `Christian fellowships', a sort of church within a church. They were not unlike the early Methodist experience- or society-meetings within the Church of England. Bucer was concerned for the holiness of believers and the faithfulness of the church to the apostolic model.
His statesmanlike ability to see through issues clearly, to bring people with opposing views to talk through problems, and then to produce a formula to which all sides could agree is particularly apparent in his endeavours to bring together men of differing theological views. It was these endeavours that took up so much of his time and energy as he dashed from one crisis situation to another. There are two areas where his talents are to be seen:
Bucer is known as the person who struggled more than others to obtain peace on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. During his early days at Strasbourg he was far from being a peacemaker. His views seemed to support those of Zwingli and he soon found himself in deep trouble with Luther. After reading Luther's polemic on the Supper published in 1528 Bucer realised that he had not fully understood the position of the great Reformer. He concluded that their differences were minor. At the conference called by Philip of Hesse in his castle at Marburg to unite the German and Swiss Protestants, known as the Marburg Colloquy, Luther was extremely rude to Bucer, who in the end sided with Zwingli against Luther over the Supper. Bucer was also present at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 when the Augsburg Confession was submitted for approval and signed by the Lutheran princes. Bucer drafted a separate statement of faith on behalf of four south German cities, known as the Tetrapolitana, or 'Four Cities' Confession. Talking with other Lutherans at Augsburg led to Bucer meeting Luther face to face and to the possibility of concord over the Supper. This time it was Zwingli who would have nothing to do with ambiguous formulas. Later, Bucer achieved a notable peace which included Luther and many Zwinglians. It was known as the Wittenberg Concord. Bucer, however, was not satisfied with reconciliation. He wanted union between the Lutherans and Zwinglians and continued to work for it. The Second Swiss Confession was a high point in his efforts for union. He also made a favourable impression on the Lutheran theologians and took part in the composition of the Smalkald Articles. In the end, through all his efforts to bring concord, he did gain the respect of the Lutherans but at the expense of losing the Zwinglians.
Protestants and Rome
It would be wrong to think of Bucer as a sixteenth-century equivalent of a modern day 'ecumaniac'. No ecumenist today would speak of the pope as the Antichrist and the teachings of the pope as the doctrine of demons and the ceremonies of the church as the work of Satan.
Before the Council of Trent put an end to any meaningful dialogue between Protestants and Rome, there was the hope in some circles that doctrinal statements could be agreed between the emerging Protestant states and Rome to enable peace to exist in Europe. Martin Bucer was one of the leading negotiators who worked hard to achieve better understanding between the opposing forces so that the Reformation movement might continue undisturbed by pope and emperor.
Both Luther and the pope were sceptical from the beginning, and in the end refused to compromise on any of the fundamental issues. Bucer was a born optimist and was always willing to try almost anything to unite opposites. There were times when his compromises turned into surrender. Luther saw this only too well when Bucer and Melanchthon brokered an agreement on justification at Regensburg in 1541, and we can be thankful that he did. Evangelicals who wish for closer ties with Roman Catholics, should learn from Bucer's own frustrations in this area. Rome, as we see very well today, will not budge on what it considers fundamentals. In the various ecumenical dialogues and agreed statements recently published, Protestants have surrendered essential gospel truths including justification by faith alone and the supreme authority of the Bible.
We can thank God for Martin Bucer. He is an inspiration to us all of a life dedicated to the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom. Bucer was one of the ablest scholars of his day and at the same time an approachable pastor – a rare combination. In many ways he provides an early example of what was later to be seen in English Puritan piety.
- Lorna Jane Abray, The People's Reformation. Magistrates, Clergy, and Commons in Strasbourg 1500-1598, Blackwell, 1985.
- N. Scott Amos, '"It is fallow ground here": Martin Bucer as Critic of the English Reformation', Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 61, no. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 41-52. Basil Hall, Humanists and Protestants 1500-1900, T. and T. Clark, 1990.
- Hastings Eells, Martin Bucer, Russell and Russell, 1971.
- C. Hopf, Martin Bucer and the English Reformation, Oxford, 1946.
- Wilhelm Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation, Oxford, 1968.
- Wilhelm Pauck (ed.) Melanchthon and Bucer, The Library of Christian Classics, Westminster Press, 1969.
- W. P. Stephens, The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Martin Bucer, Cambridge, 1970.
- F. Wright (ed.), Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community, Cambridge, 1994. D. F. Wright, 'Martin Bucer (1491-1551) in England', Anvil, 9, pp. 249-59.