Martin Bucer: Ecumenist of the Reformation

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

One of the charges which Rome leveled against the Reformers was the serious accusation that the Reformation tore the fabric of the church and destroyed the unity of the body of Christ. Very shortly after the Reformation began, it split into various branches, chiefly the Lutheran, Calvinistic, and Anabaptistic groups.

While there were good reasons for this, and while God in His inscrutable wisdom had His own purpose in this, it remained a serious problem with which the Reformers had to deal. While all fervently sought the unity of the churches of the Reformation, no one pursued this goal with as much vigor and effort as Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strassburg. His entire ministry can be characterized as a pursuit of unity.

Yet, in his zeal to bring unity to the church of Christ, he often sought unacceptable compromises which made true unity impossible. Not only did he wish to bring Lutherans and Calvinists together; he did not even rest in his efforts to unite Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In his burning zeal for unity, he forgot that unity is essentially a unity of the truth as it is in Christ and revealed in the Holy Gospel.

Yet, in spite of this, he was a Reformer of no little importance whose work had its own value for the church of Christ.

Bucer’s Early Life and Conversion

Martin Bucer was born in 1491 in Selestat, South Germany, not far from Strassburg where he was to spend 25 years in the pastoral ministry. He was, therefore, eight years younger than Luther and 18 years older than Calvin. Although his father was a poor cobbler, Bucer received a good education from his youth, and, at the age of 15, entered the Dominican monastery. He did this not so much because he was enamored with a monastic life, but rather because he desired a thorough education, for which the Dominican Order was famous. For further studies he was sent to Heidelberg, where perhaps the most important event of his life took place. Martin Luther had come there, very shortly after the Reformation began, to discuss theological matters with members of the Augustinian Order to which Luther belonged. Bucer heard Luther speak and was fully persuaded of the truth of Luther’s reformation doctrines. In private, over supper, he discussed these questions with Luther and became fully committed to the Reformation.

Bucer’s Pastorate in Strassburg

An interesting story has come out of this period. When Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms for trial by the Emperor, Charles V, he knew at the time of his going that he might never leave that city alive. Many tried to dissuade him from going, for the memories of the burning of John Huss by the Council of Constance lingered in the minds of Luther’s associates. Among those who attempted to dissuade Luther was Martin Bucer, who warned him of the terrible dangers that awaited him. But when Luther insisted on going even “if all the tiles on the houses in Worms were devils,” Bucer accompanied him and heard Luther’s stirring appeal to Scripture: “Here I stand. I can do naught else. So help me God.”

In 1522, at the age of 31, Bucer began his work in earnest. He labored in the city of Wissembourg and tried to make it a Protestant city. But the Roman Catholics were successful in keeping the city faithful to Rome, and Bucer was forced to flee for his life. He went to the nearby city of Strassburg, where his parents were citizens.

While in Wissembourg Bucer married Elizabeth Silbereisen, sometimes known as Elizabeth Palast. She was a former nun and bore 13 children. Bucer was one of the first Reformers to marry; and he prompted Erasmus to remark that the Reformation was not so much a tragedy as a comedy because it always ended in a wedding.

The busy household of Bucer was a godly one, an example to all of what a covenant home is, although the spiritual character of the home was in large measure due to Elizabeth, for, Martin traveled extensively in the cause of the Reformation.

We may note here that Elizabeth died before Martin, who married again, this time to a woman by the name of Wilibrandis Rosenblatt. She had previously been married to no fewer than three other Reformers: Ludwig Cellarius, Oecolampadius, and Wolfgang Capito. She went with Bucer to England and outlived him. A woman married to four such great men must have had a singular attraction to Reformers.

Strassburg was blessed with great preachers. Although Bucer himself labored there for 25 years, Zell, Capito, Hedio, Johann Sturm, and even Calvin during the years of his banishment from Geneva were preachers in that same city. Seldom has one city been blessed with such a gallery of gifted and able preachers.

In Strassburg Bucer gave himself over to the work of the ministry. He preached faithfully, labored mightily in pastoral work, established Christian schools and a seminary, lodged refugees from persecution, wrote extensively (including correspondence with all Europe’s Reformers), traveled throughout Germany and Switzerland, and attended conferences.

When Calvin, after his brief stay in Strassburg, was called back to Geneva, Bucer, though loathe to see Calvin go, wrote a letter to the Syndic and Council of Geneva in which he said: “Now he comes at last, Calvin, that elect and incomparable instrument of God, to whom no other in our age may be compared, if at all there can be the question of another alongside of him.” This letter is a fine illustration of the relationships which existed between the Reformers. They were never hesitant to recognize the good gifts God had given to others, to praise their colleagues for the work, to encourage one another in their calling. Would to God that this were also true in the difficult days in which the church today is called to live.

In 1549 the Interim of the Diet of Augsburg was imposed on Germany, and the Protestants were given almost no rights, only that the cup of the Lord’s Supper could be given to the laity and ministers were allowed to marry. The seeming victory of the Romish Church threatened Strassburg; and Bucer, refusing to his everlasting credit to accept the Interim, was forced to flee his beloved city and congregation.

Although he had an invitation from Calvin to come to Geneva, he decided instead to accept the invitation of Thomas Cranmer and go to England. In England his enormous gifts were recognized. He was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, met personally King Edward VI, received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, and made a lasting impact on the English Reformation.

Martin Bucer died in England on March 1, 1551, not even attaining his threescore and ten years. His body was followed by 3,000 people on the way to the grave, and he was buried with honors. But Rome would not let him rest in peace. When Queen Mary Tudor, better known as Bloody Mary, came to the throne, she not only burned Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer at the stake, but would not rest until Bucer’s body had been exhumed, tied with chains to a post, and burned. God in grace towards England made Mary’s reign brief. When Elizabeth (Good Queen Bess) came to the throne, she took what was left of his ashes and gave them a decent burial.

Bucer’s Work

Bucer fought long and hard for the cause of the Reformation. When that miserable humanist Erasmus came out with his defense of free will, Bucer broke with Erasmus, even though Erasmus was a close friend, and asked Luther to answer that “pestiferous pamphlet” of an “unhappy slave of glory, who pushes forward to prefer the spit of his own opinion to Scripture.” When Anabaptists streamed into Strassburg, Bucer condemned them as opponents of the pure gospel. While Calvin labored in Strassburg as a colleague of Bucer, Bucer had considerable influence on Calvin and the development of his views.

Bucer wrote extensively. His works number about 150 volumes. But, as is the case with many theologians, he was extremely long-winded. Luther called him a chatterbox; Charles V said he was a windbag; and Calvin, more charitably, said: “Bucer is too verbose to be read quickly by those who have other matters to deal with…. He does not know how to stop writing.” His writing was so illegible that the English Bishop Edmund Grindal said that a conjurer was needed to decipher it.

Yet in all his striving for the cause of the Reformation, Bucer was moved by too great a zeal for union, not only between the various branches of Protestantism, but also between Protestantism and Rome if possible. He labored long and hard to these ends. And, while indeed such labor is commendable, his desire for union made him make unacceptable compromises of the truth.

Although Bucer attended many conferences in his pursuit of ecclesiastical unity, two illustrations will suffice to demonstrate his tendency to compromise.

Bucer was the chief author of The Tetrapolitan Confession, a document drawn up to achieve unity on the burning issue of the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Without spelling out in detail the contents of this confession (it is worth reading), we may note that Bucer made major concessions to the truth of Scripture in the hopes that especially Lutheranism and Calvinism would be brought together on this one issue which divided them.

This willingness to compromise on the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the sacraments became especially evident in the Colloquy of Marburg. This was a conference called by Philip of Hesse to discuss union between the Lutherans and the Reformed. It was attended by the leading theologians of Germany and Switzerland – although Calvin was not present.

Bucer was also there. As we noticed earlier, Bucer was an ardent follower of Luther. However, in his lifetime, he gradually drifted into the Calvinistic camp, most probably under the influence of Calvin while the two were in Strassburg. It was for this reason that when Luther and Bucer met at Marburg, Luther said to Bucer, though with a smile on his face: “You are a good-for-nothing knave.”

The conference was opened by a beautiful prayer by Zwingli: “Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech Thee, with Thy gentle Spirit, and dispel on both sides all the clouds of misunderstanding and passion. Make an end to the strife of blind fury. Arise, O Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness, and shine upon us. Alas! while we contend, we only too often forget to strive after holiness which Thou requirest from us all. Guard us against abusing our powers, and enable us to employ them with all earnestness for the promotion of holiness.”

It soon became evident at the Conference that the Reformers could reach agreement on all matters of the faith, with the exception of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Though the Swiss pleaded with Luther for understanding and compassion, Luther remained adamant. He would not even shake hands with the Swiss at the end of the Conference when agreement proved impossible, saying to the Swiss: “You are of a different spirit.”

Here too Bucer was willing to compromise for the sake of unity. We may be thankful that his pleas for compromise went unheard and that the Reformed position was maintained within the Calvinistic churches.

Unity of the church is an eminently desirable thing. To compromise for the sake of unity leads not to unity, but to further trouble. Bucer made important contributions to the Reformation; but his zeal for unity remains an abiding warning against compromise of the truth of the gospel for purposes of attaining mere outward unity.