Martin Bucer (November 11, 1491 – February 28, 1551) was a Protestant Reformer, scholar and pastor who is best known for reconciling differing Reform groups and contributing to the development of various Protestant traditions.
While Bucer is not well known in comparison to other major Reformers, he is arguably one of the most influential of them. He played a large and positive role in the spreading Reformation across Europe despite the many compromises he made during his career in an attempt to unite Christians across Europe.
Bucer was born on November 11, 1491 in the town of Schlettstadt, near Strasbourg in the German-speaking area of modern-day France. Although from a very poor family (his father was a cobbler), Bucer was able to attend a prestigious Dominican-led Latin school in Schlettstadt, in which he took to join in 1506. In 1516, Bucer transferred to Heidelberg, in modern-day Germany, to another Dominican institution for the purpose of continuing his education. One of his professors there was Johannes Brenz, who would also become a Reformer, and Bucer became influenced by Erasmus during this time.
Becoming a Reformer
In April 1518, Bucer happened to attend to Heidelberg Disputation, where he heard Martin Luther criticize the unbiblical views held by the Roman Catholic Church. He quickly became convinced by Luther and received permission by the Pope to leave the Dominican Order in 1521. After working for the count palatine of the Rhine, and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Bucer became a pastor at Landstuhl, in modern-day far-western Germany.
While at Landstuhl, Bucer married Elizabeth Silbereisen, a former nun. After the leader of Landstuhl, Franz von Sickingen, unsuccessfully led the Knights’ War against the elector of Trier, Bucer was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1523 and went to Strasbourg. Along the way, Bucer stopped at Weissenburg to help the Reform movement there, and he preached several sermons and wrote his first theological treatise.
Arriving in Strasbourg in 1523, Bucer took part in the Reform movement there. He pastored the St. Aurelia’s church from 1524 to 1531 and the St. Thomas church from 1531 to 1540. He also wrote several texts including commentaries and catechisms. Among Bucer's many actions, in 1529 he persuaded the city to abolish the Mass. Although he opposed capital punishment against anabaptists, he worked to banish them from the city.
In addition, Bucer played a major role in spreading the Reformation to and heling it succeed in numerous German cities, including Augsburg, Baden, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Hanau-Lichtenberg, Hesse, Ulm, and Württemberg.
Role as mediator
Starting in 1529, Bucer became involved in the controversies of the Eucharist. His city, Strasbourg was located between the areas influenced by Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Although Bucer held both Luther's and Zwingli's view of the Eucharist at different times, eventually adopting a middle-ground view, and despite his friendship with Zwingli, he could help the two reach an agreement in the 1529 Marburg Colloquy. Bucer wrote a compromise statement on the issue, but it was affirmed by only four cities including his own.
After this, Bucer worked hard and frequently to create unity among Protestant Christians. Additionally, he "participated in nearly every meeting on religious questions held in Germany and Switzerland between 1524 and 1548." Bucer often supported using "obscure language and ambiguous formulas" when trying to reach a consensus on extremely divisive issues where any explicit agreement could not be achieved. He supported this because he thought that general theological reform among the people was more important than solving specific theological disagreements, which could be done at a later time. The agreements Bucer played a part in included the First Helvetic Confession and the Wittenberg Concord, both in 1536. Despite their limited success, both agreements could not create real or permanent unity among Protestants.
Bucer also attempted to reunited Roman Catholics and Protestants. He participated in colloquies between the two in Worms in 1540 and Regensburg in 1541. In the latter colloquy, Bucer co-wrote the Regensburg Book with Johannes Gropper, a Roman Catholic theologian. The book was a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christanity. After Holy Roman Emperor Charles V used the book in his attempt to unite the two, Bucer rejected claims that he was trying to do likewise. The book was rejected by both sides, and the attempt at unification failed.
Bucer unsuccessfully attempted to reform the diocese of Bonn in 1543, under invitation by the archbishop of Cologne. The efforts failed due to the opposition of Gropper, who co-wrote the Regensburg Book with him. In 1548, when Charles V tried to force Protestants to return to the Roman Catholic religion under the Augsburg Interim, with terms similar to the Regensburg compromise, Bucer helped lead the effort against the plan, as he thought it "would be a step backward" from Protestant theology. His efforts were unsuccessful, and after the attempt was approved by Bucer's former Protestant ally Johannes Sturm, Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg.
Bucer's attempts at agreement involved ambiguous wording and many large and unnecessary compromises, especially with the unbiblical theology of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he still must be commended for his role in spreading the Reformation; his attempts at creating unity among Christians, especially between the various Protestant factions; as well as opposing other unbiblical compromises such as the Augsburg Interim.
Exile in England
After being exiled from Strasbourg, Bucer and the other Protestant leaders were invited by Thomas Cranmer to England in 1549. Bucer played a large role in the English Reformation, supporting the more cautious Reformers like Cranmer as opposed to the more radial Reformers like John Knox. Despite this, Bucer continued to mediate between the two sides, playing a large role in the content of The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI, which was completed in 1552.
Soon after writing De Regno Christi, his most important work, which explained his plans for reforming the English church and government and was favorably received by King Edward VI, Bucer became ill and died on February 28, 1551.
- Greschat, Martin (2004). Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press). ISBN: 9780664226909.