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Greschat, Martin; Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times.


Greschat, Martin; Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times.  Louisville : Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Pp. xii + 340. paper, can$34.50. ISBN 0-664-22690-6. Translated by Stephen E. Buckwalter.


The ligature of Greschat’s fine book is Bucer’s career-long preoccupation: the transmutation – individual, social, institutional, even economic – that Jesus Christ effects in God’s people.   Bucer’s formal theology, occasional writing, and day-to-day activity alike orbited around this epicentre.  Church discipline was a means to the transmutation of ethic and ethos, and for this reason Bucer insisted that church discipline was a nota or “mark” of the church in addition to Word and sacraments (i.e., discipline pertains to the being of the church, not merely to its wellbeing.) He remained aware, however, that any discipline that was merely imposed could only coerce and antagonize simultaneously; the law of God had to be written on the heart. This could be fostered only through smaller fellowships within a congregation, issuing in greater spiritual intimacy and accountability.  Bucer never surrendered his conviction here.

Becoming acquainted with Bucer’s spirit and genius, however, is less straightforward than with other Reformers in that Bucer wrote less.  In fact he appeared to his disadvantage when he had to write; he was at his best when face-to-face with those whose hostility his transparency could defuse and for whom his gift of public speaking (vastly more telling than his written articulation) could birth nuances that evaporated standoffs and advanced understanding, even as his non-acerbic wit melted defensiveness.   In other words, while he was no less talented than other Reformers, Bucer’s gifts were notably different.  He was a conciliator, working indefatigably for Protestant accord amidst intra-Protestant disputes no less jagged than those with Rome . He was the acknowledged father-figure among a constellation of dazzling theological stars in Strasbourg : Matthew Zell, preacher; Wolfgang Capito, theologian; Caspar Hedio, translator from Latin to German. When Calvin sought refuge in Strasbourg (1538-1541) Bucer schooled Calvin in the liturgical order, the singing of psalms, the function of ecclesiastical offices, and the weekly meeting of pastors – all of which Calvin would implement upon his return to Geneva.  From 1534 to 1539 he travelled 12,000 kilometres on difficult and dangerous roads on behalf of Protestant unity.  Between 1538 and 1541 he addressed colloquies at Leipzig , Hagenau, Worms and Regensburg .

Bucer’s major work, De Regno Christi, together with his commentaries on Psalms and Ephesians, remain landmarks in Reformation theology. Still, they seem lonely alongside the prodigious written output of Luther, Calvin and Bullinger (the lattermost having written more than the former two combined.) Plainly Bucer’s formal theological contribution was eclipsed by his possession of gifts and graces beyond theology that the leader of any era needs if the Kingdom of Christ is to gain visibility.

Bucer insisted on identifying the non-negotiable core of the substance of the faith. One aspect of it, he maintained consistently, was justification by grace through faith.  No less crucial was godliness, both individual and social, shaped not by the letter of the Old testament but rather by the justice, equity and mood that the Old Testament aspires to inculcate – with all of this infused by an incursion of the Holy Spirit (in everything he wrote Bucer elevated the Old Testament and magnified the Holy Spirit, grounding both in the Christological concern characteristic of Reformation theology) that alone spared the church deadly, gospel-less legalism. Having identified the core, Bucer then moved outward, in concentric circles as it were, to what was arguable, concluding with the optional, the adiaphora, all the while forging a credibility with Anabaptists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics that would adorn ecumenism today.  While Bucer never denied major problems in the Catholic Church of his day (not least of which for him was the sacrifice of the mass), he insisted unrelentingly that the Church of Rome was church, the Body of Christ. For this reason he could write “I do hope, however, that there are many dear children on both sides, improperly named after men, and thus kept divided.   We should …use all ways and means in order that all God-fearing persons in all camps become united in Christ, our Lord.” (p.104)  Unlike most giants of the Reformation whose written legacy the church will never be without, Bucer’s achievement as conciliator and mentor consisted almost entirely of his influence.

No “Buceran” church or denomination has been named after the man who towered over Strasbourg as surely as Luther did over Wittenberg and Calvin over Geneva . The reason is plain: following Charles V’s defeat of the Schmalkaldic League in 1547, the future of the church lay with territories whose prince-protector could guarantee institutional survival. As a free Imperial city, Strasbourg had no such protector, with the result that the Reformation couldn’t remain fixed there. City authorities made their peace (Bucer would say they compromised) with those bent on overturning the Reformation.  Bucer had to move to England .

Feted at Cambridge University , Bucer was awarded its first honorary doctorate in theology.  Yet the adjustment to England was difficult. In a letter to William Farel he indicated what grated on him: weather, language, food, customs, housing, wine, inefficient fireplaces, “and just about everything else.” (p.245). Centuries later the scope of his theological contribution to the English church was celebrated; better scholarship, however, has soberly concluded that his noteworthy work in his new home appeared in the theological shift from the Catholicism of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer to the Protestantism of the 1552 revision – even though Bucer died one year before it appeared.         When “Bloody” Mary ascended and set about undoing the Reformation in England , she had his remains exhumed and burnt.  Her successor, Elizabeth I, rehabilitated him.

And yet there recrudesces in the characteristically conciliatory, irenic Bucer the horrific anti-Semitism that disfigures Humanists, Magisterial and Anabaptist Reformers alike.   In this regard Bucer, master-Hebraist notwithstanding, exhibited the Church’s age-long inability to understand God’s covenant as indefeasible (despite the Reformers’ preoccupation with covenant.)   Bucer, lamentably, recommended to political authorities that Jews not be allowed to build synagogues; Jews were to be barred from the trades; Jews were to refrain from “blaspheming Christ.” They were to be engaged “in the humblest, most arduous and most trying tasks” (p.157) – namely, sweeping chimneys, cleaning sewers, and disposing of deadstock. Such means, Bucer wrote, would prove to be a “deterrent and a corrective.” (p.157)  Subsequently Jews were permitted to engage in commerce even as they were consigned to the accursed role of moneylender, albeit only under the strictest supervision. The Talmud was banned; Jewish attendance at Christian services designed to convert them was mandated; if Jew and Christian were found living together both were executed. While none of this is extraordinary in light of the anti-Jewish miasma of the era, something better could have been expected from Bucer in light of his massive emphasis on the Old Testament in his programmatic Christianizing of Strasbourg’s social order, and in view of his recognition of Torah as God’s loving, salvation-bringing Word and Way – an understanding that Luther never attained.

Greschat’s book is essential reading for all who investigate the Reformation and who know that the wheels of history are turned as much by who people are unselfconsciously as by what they contrive to write.



Victor Shepherd
Tyndale University College & Seminary