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A Review of Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times

This hard-working, intellectually gifted reformer was called to serve the Lord in the midst of ecclesiastical and political conflict, suffering much personally.

  • Byron Snapp,
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He came to Strasbourg as a penniless refugee who had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Twenty-five years later Martin Bucer, once again as a refugee, fled the city, leaving behind his family and years of ministry to Strasbourg citizens. This hard-working, intellectually gifted reformer was called to serve the Lord in the midst of ecclesiastical and political conflict, suffering much personally.

Bucer was born in l49l into a poor family. He was forced into a Benedictine monastery and ordained as a priest in l5l6. In his studies he was greatly influenced by the writings of Aquinas and Erasmus. He met Luther and appreciated his emphasis on faith in Christ alone for salvation. In l52l he was successful in legally getting his monastic vows annulled, barely ahead of his opponents’ attempts to block the annulment.

This step allowed Bucer to pursue the pastorate and influence reform by preaching, teaching, consulting, and prolific writing. He believed that the individual’s ethical conduct must be determined by scriptural principles. It was the basis for any orderly society. A desire to live and promote a moral life was to flow out of one’s faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. In proclaiming this message, he had to repeatedly teach and preach that God was displeased with the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue.

Although his Reformed ideas fell on deaf ears in his first pastorate, Bucer fled to Strasbourg where his abilities were appreciated and where his writings disseminated throughout Western Europe for two and one-half decades. He arrived in the city with a pregnant wife and soon was provided a church in which to preach. The town was anti-clergy, due to failure to minister, but not anti-church. There, by God’s grace, Bucer found a hearing. The city council faced much opposition from the Catholic hierarchy. This opposition was not decreased by the council granting permission for this former priest, now married, to regularly preach.

Once settled into his new responsibilities, Bucer sought to bring God’s Word to bear on critical cultural issues. The Catholic Church needed to be reformed in many areas. Yet, the reformers disagreed among themselves on the Lord’s Supper and other important practices. The rise of Charles V and his political directives brought additional concerns.

Tirelessly, Bucer preached and promoted basic Biblical doctrines attempting to unite the Reformed community, to educate the next generation, and to protect the spiritual gains already made. God raised him up as a leader among the Reformed communities in southern Germany and influential beyond those borders.

Bucer’s desire for unity caused problems at times. He unwisely yielded too much to Catholics when he was seeking to get their assent to Biblical truth on other points. Some of his writings on the Lord’s Supper alienated the individuals he was trying to reach. Occasionally, he failed to adequately comprehend the cultural issues and thus pushed for reforms that were doomed to failure. These cost him some former supporters.

Bucer had a deep love for the Lord and an abiding desire to see God’s Word applied correctly. He believed Christians who committed themselves to the study and application of Scripture in daily life would function in a God-honoring manner. Critics of his desire to apply Old Testament law to society were met with the response: “What could be better than God’s law?”

With the political victory of Charles V and the revival of Catholicism in Strasbourg, Bucer was forced to flee. He spent his last years in England seeking to build on the Reformation there and addressing ongoing Anglican controversies. Bucer died and was buried in England. He was faithful unto death even through personal grief, ecclesiastical battles, and political conflict.

Greschat has arduously researched and written a very readable book. Buckwalter’s English translation is quite adequate in its style. The book is more than a biography, however. The reader will learn about the cultural and intellectual backdrop of the time. A couple of pages are devoted to such mundane things as road conditions and the dangers travelers like Bucer faced while traversing lonely German highways. The reader will also be reminded of the many personalities and diverse views among the reformers. They were committed to Scripture but could not always unite on what a particular Scripture taught. Bucer’s life reminds us that every issue is not a major issue. The challenge in his day and ours is how to discern the major and the minor issues and how to deal with each.

This volume turns our attention to the Reformation and to a reformer who played a major role in that era. Reading this work can provoke much thought as to how one can Biblically approach issues that divide the Reformed community today. Increasingly, our society will be benefited by our efforts to practice a Reformed world and life view.

  • Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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